Off the track thoroughbreds are the ‘in’ sport horses lately, and rightfully so! These horses are bred to be athletes of speed, stamina, and agility. The breed is proving to excel all over the board in eventing, hunters, jumpers, dressage, western gaming, working ranch, and other sports. It is safe to say that this generation loves some thoroughbreds! This is great, because most horses that the thoroughbred breeding and racing industry produces need homes away from the track after a few years.
As we pull these horses off the track to point them towards new careers, we need to address a few health aspects that affect the vast majority of OTTBs. Having been fortunate enough to play with many a thoroughbred, I am excited to share
3 Essential Soundness Checkpoints when Starting Up an OTTB!
Due to the rather intense environment of track life, most thoroughbreds retiring from racing have some degree of gastric ulceration and GI inflammation. Living in a stall with 20 minutes to an hour of intense exercise a day can put a strain on the digestive system in itself, and these horses typically eat fairly large, concentrated, starchy diets. With this, the horses are at risk for not only gastric ulcers, but also discomfort all the way through the tract due to compromised microbial function. Lasix, a diuretic commonly used on the track, dehydrates the digestive tract. This creates friction on the intestinal walls, putting the hind-gut at risk for rawness, leading to inflammation, and causing pain.
Even if a fresh OTTB doesn’t immediately show drastic GI discomfort symptoms, he more than likely has some belly aching! These horses have to deal with whatever pain level they are dealt on the track, so it’s not uncommon for a horse to bottle it. Struggling to hold weight is one of the most basic indications of GI discomfort & inefficiency!
If the horse scopes positive: Treat with Gastrogard. It will nip the ulcers in the bud. Gastrogard & Ulcergard are suitable treatments for ulcers, as they act as proton pumps that dim/stop acid production in the stomach during treatment. This creates an environment in which the ulcers can heal.
Many well intending horse owners will miss this piece of GI treatment and continued maintenance. Remember that a horse has 100 or so feet of tract, and when the microbial population in the hind-gut is compromised, it causes pain (via inflammation), and inefficient digestion (horse can’t gain weight). Moreover, the microbial population doesn’t evidently correct itself in time with an environmental enhancement. IE- the horse’s gut may need to be actively treated/supplemented for years after leaving the track.
To improve the health of a hind-gut, we can do a couple things. For OTTBs particularly, offering a coating for the alimentary tract (mouth-anus) can relieve pain by covering raw spots throughout the tract like a band-aid while they heal. We can also supplement the damaged microbial species in the hind-gut via feeding probiotics. Keeping horses on these products as they retrain can keep them healthy, round, and comfortable.
The second thing we can address with a fresh OTTB is his feet! Go to any barn and it’s common to hear “oh he’s just got crappy thoroughbred feet”. While there is truth to this beautifully technically phrase, we need not underestimate what it means for the horse, and what we can do fix the problems at hand. Generally, the standard crappy thoroughbred hoof has a couple major issues.
Thin Soles. Thin Walls. Where the horse’s weight rests on the hoof walls, functionally speaking, the walls must be thick enough to support this weight. What we see so often are thin, crumbly walls that subsequently shift more weight to the soles. Because the soles are also quite thin (can’t grow & thicken with consistently overbearing pressure) the sensitive tissue underneath is at risk for bruising.
We also see thoroughbreds walking around with the “flipper feet” where the hoof grows significantly more toe than heel. This conformation points to a structural abnormality involving the coffin bone (P3, Distal Phalanx). When the wings of the coffin bone (back) are lower than the front of the bone, the bottom of the bone sits at a climbing angle known as a negative palmer angle (plantar for hind feet). This negative angle causes strain on the joints that have to overwork to make up for the structural inefficiency. Negative angles are linked to hock & sacroiliac pain. Generally, they cause a shorter, up down gait tendency.
To rectify the short comings in the crappy thoroughbred feet, we simply need to rebalance the hoof. For horse’s with negative palmers, get the angles up! Back off the flipper toe as much as possible and roll the heel just a hair to help move pressure off the back of the foot so it can grow more efficiently. If a horse has thin, crumbly walls that won’t hold a nail, think about investing in casts or glue-ons to allow the hoof time to strengthen and grow. For the ouchy sole horses, consider padding the sole with a pore-in or leather pad to keep excessive pressure from the sole and distribute it back to the wall.
Most thoroughbreds living on the track have a fairly limited range when it comes to way of going. They power walk, jog, and gallop on command. When they come off the track, the bulky, tight muscle that allowed them to power on in their specific gaits actually limits their range of motion. So how do we break this tension down and treat subsequent misalignment? BODY WORK!
Circulation is key. Getting nutrients, immune response, and chemical signals to muscle tissue will release tension. Regular massages are essential for many OTTBs to get back to baseline concerning soft tissue function. BEMER therapy, PEMF, Back On Track products, and acupuncture are also wonderfully helpful to break up this tension and to bring down subsequent low grade inflammation. Make sure to be regular in efforts to soften muscle tension, as consistency with body work and circulation therapy is vital. Depending on the horse, daily maintenance efforts and a weekly or bimonthly massage should be sufficient when putting him into a new program.
Where heavy, taught muscles will pull a horse out of chiropractic alignment, it’s important to address the issue in accordance with his soft tissue progression. Some horses may need only be adjusted a few times a year, where as others, typically those who need quite a bit of soft tissue and foot work, may need chiropractic adjustments every month until the caustic issues are resolved.