For a long time now, the biggest selling point for a horse coming off the track (or just about any horse) looking for a new home is, “Retired sound!” Unfortunately, many off-track Thoroughbreds come away with some physical issues, whether or not they were serious enough to necessitate the end of their racing careers.
A panel at the recent Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park addressed several of the most common injuries in OTTBs – what they are, how they play out in retirement. The bottom line: you might be surprised how much a horse can do even if he has an injury in his history.
A few takeaways:
- As with anything else involving horses, there are no hard-and-fast rules. For just about any type of injury, veterinarians and training experts agreed: it depends on your horse's particular version of the injury, and its location. Bone chips are a good example. Dr. Larkspur Carroll of CORE Therapies said she doesn't worry much about a chip in the upper knee joint, but one in the lower knee would be a bigger cause for concern long-term. Trainer Vicki Oliver said even for active racehorses, she doesn't mind chips in ankles, and pointed out Skip Away ran his entire multi-million dollar career with a chip in an ankle.
In the case of bone chips, whether or not the chip even needs to be surgically removed depends a lot on where and how big it is. Some are better off staying put, as long as the horse doesn't seem bothered. The bigger issue is whether there is any damage to the cartilage, which could impact joint health down the road.
- Rehabilitation after a tendon injury takes patience, but it's possible. Again, it depends on the size and location of the lesion (bows in the superficial digital flexor tendon and deep digital flexor tendon tend to behave differently). Carroll said many people are eager to get the horse back to light work (which often begins with tack-walking) but they may forget one important element: the feet.
“One thing that puts undue strain on a tendon, whether it's bowed or not, is having long toes and underrun heels,” said Carroll, who also pointed out it's important to avoid deep footing such as arena sand during the initial recovery period.
Many riders are impatient to get the horse going again and turn to regenerative therapies as a fast-track to healing. Dr. Laura Werner, surgeon at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute said she doesn't recommend this in all cases, though some may benefit from it. She has also seen horses heal just as thoroughly without these often-pricey therapies – as long as they take plenty of time to rehabilitate properly.
- Don't fear a little hardware. Many people back off a potential adoption or purchase if they learn the horse had a screw inserted at one point. That's a mistake, according to Danielle Montgomery of Pennsylvania's Turning For Home.
“That means a surgeon felt good enough about the horse and his prognosis to do the surgery, generally,” she said. “If he raced for two years after it got the screw, then apparently it wasn't a big thing. Don't be afraid of hardware.”
- You might think of ‘condylar fracture' as a synonym for ‘disaster' but you'd be wrong. Actually, Oliver said in many cases, it's not even the end of a horse's racing career, let alone a limit on second career – again, depending on severity and location.
“They're very manageable. Usually, you put screws in and you give the horse 90 days and they come back with no problems,” she said. “Every single condylar I've done surgery on, they've never had any problems. Some of them have gone on and raced another two, three years.”
- Sometimes pulling the shoes and kicking the horse out to pasture isn't the best way to let them down. Carroll sees people do this often, believing it's restful for the horse, a good way to rehabilitate from an injury, or that it will encourage foot growth. In reality, the sudden change in way of going and traction caused by the removal of shoes, combined with the switch in surfaces can make a horse less comfortable.
“I kind of cringe there, because I do chiropractic work and I'll be looking at a horse who's body sore,” she said. “I think it's very important not to cut off our nose to spite our face because you're trying to make the judicial decision to let them thicken their soles. There needs to be a stepwise program for encouraging sole growth.”
Carroll pointed out that some owners are quick to spend four figures on a custom-fitted saddle but not therapeutic shoeing for situations like these, when poorly-balanced or sore feet can cause lameness issues throughout the body.
- Perhaps surprisingly, arthritis can remove some horses' chance at a second career. Montgomery said severe arthritis has actually been the leading cause of euthanasia for newly-retired horses sent to her program.
“It's probably the number one cause of euthanasia, degenerative joint disease,” she said. “Because if the cartilage is worn out, it doesn't bring itself back.”
She said new regulations on repeated corticosteroid injections close to race time have made a difference. (Learn more about the use of corticosteroids in joints here.)
“It really is extending horses' careers and allowing them to come do this,” she said, referring to events like the Makeover. “We're seeing less and less of those horses that are put down just because the ankles are gone. We're seeing horses think ‘I could tap this horse and run two more times, but why would I do that?'”
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