Warmer temperatures, sunshine and the appearance of new Spring grass reminds us that it is time to start thinking about plans for the coming season with our horses. In addition to planning shows or trail rides, replacing worn out tack and riding clothes and trimming bridle paths, it’s time to make an appointment with the veterinarian. The doctor will work with you to make sure your horses are up to date on preventative care and maintenance such as vaccinations, deworming/fecal egg counts, Coggins tests and dentistry. But perhaps you are missing out on another important aspect of preventative care—sports medicine. Everyone knows to call the veterinarian when a horse comes up severely lame or wanders in from the pasture with a swollen joint or leg. Have you ever wondered if you could do more to prevent or manage problems before they become that serious?

In recent years, preventative sports medicine has become an important part of human orthopedic practices. If you have visited the new YMCA facility on the west side of Springfield, you may have noticed that nearly a quarter of that building is occupied by Memorial Medical Center’s Sportscare—a facility devoted to providing sports medicine and rehabilitation services right alongside pools, gyms and basketball courts. But why the new emphasis on PRO-active, preventative care rather than RE-active care?

Consider two scenarios involving a patient with early stages of osteoarthritis in the knee. In one case, a moderately active woman who enjoys hiking and playing tennis begins to notice that when she exercises her knee hurts. Suspecting that she has strained something she takes an OTC anti-inflammatory (such as ibuprofen) and rests. Her knee stops hurting but only until she discontinues the medications or resumes activity. Eventually, she becomes frustrated and decides to just avoid the activities that seem to make her pain worse—perhaps she is just “too old” to keep playing tennis. As her lifestyle becomes more sedentary she notices overall body stiffness in addition to the nagging, chronic pain in her knee and she begins to gain weight and lose muscle tone. Finally, she visits an orthopedic surgeon who diagnoses end-stage arthritis and recommends knee replacement surgery followed by months of rehabilitation and an intensive weight loss program to decrease the strain placed on her knee (and other joints) and lower her elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. After she follows all of his recommendations will she find relief and be able to resume some of the activities she used to enjoy? Maybe.

In the second case, the same woman immediately visits her doctor when her knee begins to hurt. He performs a thorough physical exam and testing and diagnoses her with early osteoarthritis in the knee. He injects the knee joint with synthetic hyaluronic acid and a corticosteroid to quickly decrease inflammation in the joint, protect the cartilage and relieve her pain. He prescribes oral anti-inflammatories as needed, as well as counseling her on how to condition her body and safely participate in athletic activities so that she can remain active and healthy while slowing the progression of the arthritis in her knee. The doctor also discusses dietary modifications she can make to increase anti-oxidants in her diet, maximize her energy level, and keep her musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems healthy. With her doctor’s ongoing care and advice, the woman maintains her healthy, active lifestyle and continues to enjoy her favorite activities.

Which scenario would you choose for yourself? How about for your horse? While humans are certainly different than horses, even the weekend warrior trail horse is an athlete. The harder your horse works, the more likely it is that he is living with minor injuries, low grade chronic conditions, or accumulated wear-and-tear from years of athletic endeavors. Do you try to ignore the “Monday morning” stiffness you see as he walks out to the pasture after a trail ride or show? Are you comfortable just administering “bute” every once in a while and buying an expensive oral joint supplement that the feed store clerk recommends in an attempt to keep your horse comfortable and competing? When it comes to the care of your horse would you rather be PRO-active or RE-active?

Your veterinarians at HEHC have the tools, training and experience to help you be PRO-active:

  • In addition to performing “lameness exams”, we can also perform “soundness exams” –watching your horse go in hand, on the longe line or under saddle to look for subtle gait abnormalities, changes in attitude or diminished performance that may indicate something isn’t quite right BEFORE it becomes an overt lameness.
  • That slight stiffness or sluggishness you notice could be due to joint pain, but it could also be due to anemia, a low-grade infection, respiratory tract disease or muscle issues such as PSSM or tying-up. Bloodwork, endoscopy and even surgical biopsies may be indicated in order to make the correct diagnosis so that we can provide the correct treatment.
  • Whether your horse is just slightly “off” or very lame, we can help you decide on the appropriate course of action. He may just need a few days of rest and a couple of doses of bute or a more intensive, targeted therapy may be indicated, such as intra-articular injections. We can even help you decide whether you need to see a specialist for diagnostics or therapies. However, while some injuries and conditions require modalities like MRI or nuclear scintigraphy to correctly diagnose and surgical or other advanced procedures to treat them, we can manage most situations on the farm or in our clinic, saving you valuable time and money.
  • We can help you sort through the hundreds of prescription and OTC products and diets designed to improve athletic performance and overall health to advise you on what will best help maintain your equine athlete. Does your horse need ulcer medication? Would he benefit from an oral supplement like MSM, Chondroitin sulfate or extra Vitamin E? Which product would work best for YOUR horse in YOUR discipline—Adequan or Legend—and at what interval? What feed is appropriate for your horse given his age, body condition, and activity level? We are asked these types of questions (and many more!) every day and we can help you make the right choices.
  • Management of chronic conditions requires correct work and conditioning. We can advise you of what types of exercises to include or avoid with your horse in order to strengthen and/or protect problem areas.

With advances in medicine, nutrition and management, modern horses are living longer, healthier lives. Their usefulness as athletes can easily extend into their twenties or beyond. In addition, many disciplines such as roping, dressage and endurance require many years of conditioning, training, and wear-and-tear in order to achieve the horse’s peak performance. You have only to read the story of the Half-Arabian endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, who competed to the ripe old age of 37 years and amassed nearly 21,000 competitive miles, to realize what amazing athletes our horses can be! When Elmer died at the age of 38, his owner reported that she had taken a dressage lesson on him the week before and her instructor commented he had better transitions at 38 than he had at 15. While Elmer was clearly an exceptional horse, his owner, veterinarian and farrier worked very hard to keep him competing all those years. Let us help you keep your equine athlete going down the trail, winning ribbons and putting smiles on the faces of the people who love him!