How's the weather where you are? If you answered “wet,” you're in the same boat as much of the rest of the country…and that boat may come in handy with all of this rain! Rain can wreak havoc in a number of ways; it can also do a number on your horse, and if that horse is a Thoroughbred recently or even semi-recently retired from racing, they might be even more susceptible to moisture-related issues.
“Dermatological issues, such as rain rot and cellulitis, and foot issues, such as soft feet, white line disease and sole abscesses are the most common issues associated with the persistently wet weather we've been experiencing,” said Dr. Kyle Clark, a veterinarian with Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center in Ringoes, N.J.
Based in an equestrian-heavy region of the country, Clark and his colleagues see many Thoroughbreds that are transitioning or have successfully transitioned from racing to a second career.
“Thoroughbreds are a lighter breed of horse and typically have thinner skin and soles,” said Clark.
It's the thin skin and soles combined with the typical changes a Thoroughbred goes through when switching from racing to retirement that make them especially vulnerable to the most common wet weather issues.
“In general, excess stress or nutritional deficiencies will inhibit the immune system and potentially expose any horse to disease,” he said. “In particular, the skin and hoof walls are a critical first line of defense to pathogens and are very reliant on vitamins and minerals to develop in a healthy fashion.”
Thoroughbreds in transition from racing to a less rigorous career often experience significant lifestyle changes. Their caloric needs decrease substantially, so they are not only eating less concentrate but likely a different product all together from what they were fed while in training. Working with a nutritionist, veterinarian or someone well-versed in the nutritional needs of Thoroughbreds in transition is key to ensuring they are getting the proper vitamins, minerals and calories they need.
Compounding the issue, most racehorses at the track are kept out of inclement weather and rough or sloppy footing. Racehorses will typically go out into the rain for their morning exercise or to race, but the rest of the time is usually spent in the dry conditions of their stall and shed row or barn area. This is much different from their off-track life, where they are outside in a pasture for part of the day, if not all day, and often with pasture-mates whose social hierarchy they will have to learn and incorporate into.
“There is little we can do about their genetics at this stage, but we can certainly manage their nutrition and stress levels to help better protect them,” said Clark. “Unfortunately, recently retired racehorses often undergo significant changes to their diet, exercise routine and environment, all likely increasing stress levels and weakening their immune system. Combined with time spent outside during the summer, particularly while it is warm and wet, the ideal environment for growth of bacteria/fungi, it's no wonder we have issues.”
Good grooming and proper hoof care are the best ways to prevent horses from falling victim to hoof and skin issues during prolonged wet conditions. Regular currying not only gets the dirt and mud – often laden with bacteria or fungus that could cause a skin reaction – off their coat, it helps to increase blood flow and encourages the production of oils, which can serve as added protection from skin irritants. Picking their feet out daily and regular bathing will also help to protect against rain-related maladies.
“In general, good grooming and hoof care are critical,” he said. “Good nutrition and patience on your part, especially in the transitioning period, is important to help limit their stress.”
When a horse does present with an issue, proper and timely treatment can be the difference between it being something minor and easily treated or something more significant.
“Foot abscesses are usually treated with NSAIDs, such as bute or banamine. Protocol is usually to soak the foot to encourage rupturing of the fluid pocket (infection) externally, a poultice-type material to help draw moisture out of the foot, and in some cases the use of a hoof knife to open up the abscess and provide drainage. Skin diseases are typically treated with NSAIDs/steroids, antimicrobial shampoos/creams and possibly systemic antibiotics or anti-fungals, depending on the severity.”
Left untreated, hoof abscesses can develop into an infection of the coffin bone, the coffin joint, frog or skin. If the horse remains painful for long enough, it also runs the risk of developing contra-lateral limb laminitis (founder on the opposite limb). Skin disease, when not treated properly, can also spread to other areas and cause skin lesions/infections of deeper structures, which can be very painful.
For Thoroughbreds especially, offering a horse respite from the rain can help protect them from or minimize moisture-related health concerns, whether it be in a stall for a portion of the day, offering a run-in shed for them to use or putting a rain sheet on them to protect their skin.
“Patience on the horse owner's part and having a team of equine professionals they can trust and who work well together is critical to success in managing any horse, particularly those coming off of the track,” said Clark. “The big things here are to work closely with your vet and farrier to establish a plan for the horse, and to be ready for the journey, because that plan will likely look very optimistic in hindsight.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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