The commonest reason for retiring racehorses is that they are too slow to race, rather than injury or illness. Generally speaking retired racehorses can and do provide many years of enjoyment to their new owner.
A vetting is recommended prior to purchase but all too often the cost of a vetting is not deemed worth it. However it is money well spent as even if an issue does come to light at least you know what you are dealing with and can properly evaluate the best way forward as well as being aware of possible physical limitations that may temporarily be present or which may have a subtle impact throughout the horse’s life.
Try and ascertain as much of the horse’s history as possible. Prior to viewing check out the racing history, looking for lengthy periods between runs as this could signify a rest period following a racecourse or gallops injury.
A full MOT should be undertaken comprising consultations with the farrier, equine dentist technician and a practitioner trained in osteopathy, physiotherapy or chiropractic. If possible use someone who has experience in treating ex-racehorses as they will be familiar with the sorts of injuries these horses can carry.
A worm count should also be done. The horse will need to put on condition and if this does not start happening within a few weeks, worm again and if there is still no improvement then ulcers should be ruled out.
For horses fresh out of training, vaccinations should be up to date but do check these have not lapsed. It is important that you keep your horse protected from equine influenza even if you elect not to have a tetanus jab. Do also insure your horse, for at least third party insurance.
Injuries – what injuries may have occurred and the implications?
Whilst your horse may not have actually retired from racing due to injury it is possible that during his racing career he will have incurred an injury at some time.
The common sites of injury are forelegs, back and pelvis. Although these may well seem fully healed there could be some on-going compensatory issues that require attention hence why an MOT is a good idea so that these can be identified before you embark on your retraining programme. It is common to find that back pain albeit low grade presents during early training but with treatment and sound schooling to build strong muscle and connective tissue any niggles soon dissolve.
The primary injuries affecting racehorses are sprains to the tendons and ligaments of the front limbs. In the majority of cases, rest followed by a rehabilitation period is all that is required after which they can happily pursue a wide range of activities which are a bit less strenuous compared to racing.
Horses which have suffered from a limb fracture (typically to the knee) will be prone to arthritis. Your veterinary surgeon will probably take x-rays to determine the extent of deterioration and will be able to recommend the best course of action. Arthritis in the main is readily treatable and horses can continue to lead a very active life.
Due to the rigours of national hunt racing, hurdlers and chasers may have tipped up at some point. Although most will jump up and re-join the race, such falls will have caused bruising and jarring with the possibility that some of the vertebrae get knocked out of alignment, as can also happen to the pelvis. Tilts and rotations to the pelvis are common and are generally straightforward to correct. Unfortunately some horses do fracture the pelvis. Depending on the exact location and severity horses can recover from such injury and go on to lead an active life. However if the pelvis should heal asymmetrically this can affect a horse’s ability to perform circles and lateral movements.
Wind operations are quite common in racing but apart from an odd sounding whinny there is no reason for this to affect future performance in your chosen discipline.
The typical indications for the presence of ulcers are a dull coat, loss of condition, grumpiness and sensitivity around the girth area. Ulcers can also lie behind poor performance, changes in the gait and poor behaviour. The change you will implement to a diet that is higher in forage and fibre will help manage the ulcers but may not completely eliminate them and you should consult with your veterinary surgeon for specific treatment.
Epistaxis (nose bleeds) are quite common in racing and can signify the end of a racing career. Once a horse takes up a quieter way of life no further problems should manifest. Similarly diseases of the respiratory tract do not cause further issue once a horse has left the racing environment as typically the longer periods of turnout are good for the airways.
Not every horse enjoys racing so this can lead to difficulties in a horse maintaining his condition and him being described as a poor doer. However, once in a new environment with a less exacting way of life coupled with more individual attention and a change in diet, most thrive without veterinary intervention.
(Written by Fred and Rowena Cook, www.equinetraining.co.uk)
Not every horse coming out of training will have ulcers but it is commonly accepted that over 90% of horses leaving the training environment will have ulcers to some degree, so it is something that should be considered particularly if your horse does not seem to be carrying the weight he should, is a bit tetchy when being brushed between the front legs and around the girth area and/or when being girthed up or just doesn’t seem to be quite so blooming in his coat as he should be. The presence of gastric and/or hindgut ulcers can also be the reasoning behind poor performance such as refusals, napping, resistance to the leg, difficulty with extended strides and canter issues.
Please note the following is written in simplified terms for ease of understanding as it is a long and complex subject:
Nature designed the horse as a trickle feeder i.e eating forages and fibres for up to 18 hours a day with acid constantly being secreted in the stomach to cope with the steady influx of food. Thus if there is no food in the stomach to neutralise the acid, this can lead to ulceration of the stomach lining. A horse denied free access to forage can develop ulcers very rapidly (within days) and it is also now known that concentrated feeds (such a cereals) can actually add to the ulcer risk because not only is less time spent eating and digestion is quicker, but grains actually stimulate the production of the hormone gastrin, which serves to trigger further acid secretion in the stomach. Given that the adult horse produces approximately 1.5 litres of gastric acid per hours, pH levels in the stomach can soon become a very acidic if there is no food intake to keep pH levels higher.
The horse’s stomach is divided into 2 sections or chambers; the bottom one, where the acid is secreted, has a mucous coating to protect it but the upper section does not have the benefit of such coating, its only protection being saliva which is produced when a horse begins to feed. Thus gastric ulcers are usually found in this area because the lining becomes damaged by too much exposure to the acid.
It is currently believed that one of the main reasons behind racehorses having a higher incidence of ulcers is due to “acid-splash” – where the acids responsible for starting the digestive process in the stomach are moved up into the upper stomach chamber where they are not meant to go, causing ulceration to the delicate lining which does not have the protective mucus of the lower chamber. This is thought to occur because a racehorse only has a small feed, usually cereal-based, prior to exercise because he can’t be expected to have his work out on a full stomach. Thus there is not enough content in the stomach for the ever-produced acid to work on, hence when the horse starts moving around more energetically the acidic contents are washed up where they should not go.
Also blood flow to the stomach, which plays its part in helping remove the acid, decreases with exercise. Plus when a horse does anything other than walk, the muscles of the abdomen tense which serves to force stomach acid into the upper non-protected area. And when cantering at speed (galloping) further pressure from the abdomen actually causes the stomach to contract exacerbating the situation further. .
The racehorse, in general terms, does not tend to be fed the much larger volumes of forages and fibres that its non-racing counterparts do, the ingestion of which produces large volumes of saliva which is a natural acid buffer.
It is also known that stress from travel, competition, environment, etc. can contribute to ulcer formation as can illness, and certain drug therapies.
The common veterinary prescribed treatment for gastric ulcers is pharmacologic suppression of gastric acid secretion i.e. a drug is given to restrict the acid production, usually on a daily basis for up to a month. Suppressing acid production allows the ulcer(s) to heal as does neutralising the acid (by use of an antacid in mild cases).
However using an acid suppressant can actually cause ulceration further along the digestive tract and it certainly doesn’t treat any that may already be present; indeed it can actually make them worse. By suppressing the stomach acid, undigested food can pass into the hindgut creating acidity (acidosis) which can cause or worsen any ulcers present. Too much acid in the hindgut has a detrimental effect on the “friendly bacteria (gut flora) that digest fibre. Hindgut ulceration can be the cause behind colic and indeed laminitis (due to changes in toxicity levels). Thus hindgut buffers and digestive tract conditioners are usually given at the same time as the initial gastric ulcer suppressant in order to reduce the risk of hindgut ulceration, followed by a course of pre and pro-biotics to restore the friendly bacteria.
Unfortunately once a horse has had ulcers he is more likely to suffer again. You can help reduce the risk by adopting a management system that allows regular feeding throughout the day to mimic trickle feeding (turn-out in the day being the ultimate), feeding more fibre to prolong eating time so that more saliva is produced (the best natural antacid) and feeding less cereals. The addition of alfalfa to the diet is recommended as alfalfa is a proven acid-buffer and contains high levels of calcium, calcium proving to be an important element in gastric ulcer prevention. Providing your horse with a fibre-based feed prior to exercise takes away the acid-splash risk. If your horse is ulcer-prone then the feeding of a buffering agent is recommended.
You should consult with your Veterinary Surgeon if you have any concerns regarding your horse’s health.