Equine welfare: Is it a priority?

by Lindsay Nakonechny

The awe-striking athletic ability of the performance horse has captured the hearts and attention of equestrian fans for years-from the jumpers at Spruce Meadows, to the racehorses at Northlands, and everything in between. We dedicate endless hours of practice, dime-after-dime on vet bills, coaching, training and other various necessities that assist our horses to the path of success. However, when we take a step back, there seems to be a consistent and concerning trend among equine athletes. Despite efforts to ensure the success and longevity of equine-show careers, a recurring theme of lameness seems to plague equine competition. More alarmingly, career-ending injuries seem to be increasingly prevalent among young performance horses-a red flag? .

Canadian-owned Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another, brought this issue to my attention Mowing his publicized injury and subsequent retirement from racing. The controversy surrounding the Thoroughbred's injury and welfare sparked my curiosity-tendonitis and osteoarthritis were common words that circulated around I'll Have Another's retirement. I found it odd that a horse would experience such injur at a very young age. This drove me to complete an undergraduate study focusing on young racehorse musculoskeletal injury and welfare. This four-month study opened my eyes to a breadth of issues intertwined within the race industry, also extending to the general performance horse world. After sifting through countless research articles, books and speaking with some industry experts, it became clear that equine welfare may be finishing second to other industry focuses-intentionally or not. Two standout issues that were brought to my attention included: 1) the emphasis on bloodlines versus functional conformation, and 2) the overexertion of the immature equine structure.


Judy Wardrope, an equine functional conformation analyst (jwequine.com) who has spent nearly 30 years amassing research on the pedigrees of top performance horses in both sport and racing as well as analyzing the functional aspects of equine conformation, explained to me the overlooked importance of equine conformation and its relationship to performance and soundness. Within all performance-horse sports, the extent of marketing the "popular sire" is clearly evident-successful sires breed successful progeny. Not always, according to Wardrnpe. Success and soundness in most disciplines require lightness of the forehand; the ability to lift the forehand is required in equine movement, and any physical limitation that impedes or reduces the ability to do so will decrease athletic potential in most disciplines. Several conformational characteristics identified by Wardrope that contribute to forehand heaviness or lightness includes the length and angulation of humerus, placement of the pillar of support and positioning of the base of the neck (Figure 1). Sires that possess conformational features unforgiving to forehand lightness and succumb to injur)' are retired from competition. . .but wait.. .then bred? Sires with short, successful careers (due to injury) maintain their contribution to the genetic pool via the marketing of sire stud fees. This seems entirely contradictive - why continue the short cycle of temporarily successful horses? If we breed sires and mares that are representative of their bloodlines, and their bloodlines exhibit conformational traits conducive to both athleticism and soundness, would we not produce horses with longer, healthy, and profitable careers? Another conformational trait emphasized by Wardrope is the placement of the lumbosacral (LS) joint in relation to the point of the hip.


Direct vertical alignment of the LS joint -with the point of hip is key in facilitating lifting of the forehand and transmission of hind-end power; both characteristics of athletic ability she explains. The LS joint enables upward and downward movement of the spine; similar to the fulcrum of a teeter-totter, she adds. Therefore, this motion aids in lifting of the forehand and transmission of hind-end power. Wardrope compares the LS joint to the transmission of a truck - a powerful engine will not be useful unless you are able to transmit the power forward. Thus, a poor LS joint alignment will hinder a horse's ability to lift the forehand. She warns that physical compensation will result if a horse displays dramatic deviation from this alignment-a small imbalance can be compensated for, but large imbalances cannot. Horses lacking this alignment and performing activities requiring hind-end strength and lightness of the forehand may be potentially exposed to increased risk of injury. Attempting an activity that your physical structure does not easily facilitate will strain surrounding tissues - and tissues strained over time will increase susceptibility to injur.

 So this brought me to my next question, "should we be selecting horses to breed based upon success or conformation? I am not sure if the answer is simply black and white. However, after exarnining some of Wardrope's concepts, I think perhaps the focus of breeding should shift; select horses that genetically represent bloodlines exhibiting conformation that supports sound, athletic ability. In addition, careers chosen for individual horses should possibly be to a greater extent, based upon their functional conformation.


Horses that are built to perform the activity asked of them should technically suffer less from musculoskeletal-related injur. Consequently, we should expect less time away from competition due to lameness, a lower incidence of career-ending injuries, and fewer costs associated with veterinary intervention -saving the equestrian's pocketbook. But most importantly, we could see improvement in the welfare of performance horses through less injury and unwanted behavioral manifestations resulting from the horses' functional inability to perform the task at-hand. If you want a competitive mount with a long-lived career, it may be worth standing back and really exarnining the horses' conformation. Is this horse built to do the job I am going to ask him/her to do? Wardrope's conformational analysis may be worth investigating prior to selecting a competitive partner, as it may save future headaches and yes, even horses.


Another complicated but recurring issue was the intensity and frequency of exercise that young horses undergo. It is important to introduce young horses to exercise that will stimulate appropriate bone remodeling; building stronger bones able to withstand the mechanical demands of competition and training. However, throughout my studies, it seems that some young horses may be undergoing exercise that exceeds the physical limitations of their musculoskeletal structure. Dr. Alicia Bertone explains that "the bones in young horses, especially in two-year-olds are more porous than mature adult bones." She continues, "the bone remodeling process, consisting of bone resorption (the breaking down of bone) and bone formation (building of bone material) occurs in a relatively equal dynamic in mature horses." In young horses, bone resorption occurs at a faster rate than bone formation, causing an increase in porosity, describes Dr. Bertone-fhis is the natural process of bone remodeling. However, "when bones are subjected to high impact exercise, the remodeling process is expedited," she explains. "If bone formation cannot adapt to the rate of resorption, which can be induced by exercise in young horses, this leaves the bone susceptible to fractures caused by structural fatigue," add Dr. Chris Kawcak and Dr. Gary Baxter. In addition, young horses, specifically two-year-olds, have limited supportive collagen fibres surrounding their bones, contributing to their vulnerability to fatigue-related injur)' according to Dr. larry Lawrence.


Therefore, young horses undergoing exercise exceeding the bone's ability to adapt and causing both muscle and bone fatigue will potentially experience a higher risk of injur. This raised another next question:"what amount and intensity of exercise exceeds the bone's ability to adapt?" The answer to this, unfortunately, is not clear-cut. The amount of exercise that young horses can handle will vary on an individual-horse basis due to many factors. However, there is some evidence suggesting that short intervals of intense exercise may stimulate the same bone remodeling effect as long intervals, according to Dr. Parkin. Less exposure to concussive impact has been shown to reduce the incidence of bone failure and simultaneously achieve the same structural bone response, explains Dr. Parkin. To put this into perspective, Dr. Nielsen has reported that tissue strains measured at a trot are twice those experienced at a walk; strains measured at a gallop are eight times greater than at the walk. The amount of force exerted at higher speeds is significant and I think, underestimated by many. However, more research within equine exercise physiology is needed to establish a larger base of support for Dr. Parkin's finding.

Nevertheless, it only seems logical that exceeding the physical limitations of a horse's physical structure will result in injury. Why push young horses past their physical limits when the same strengthening effects can be achieved at a lower extreme with less injury? Starting young horses too hard, too fast in hopes of preparing them for the demands of competition may be inadvertently creating horses prone to injury. Modifying training regimens for the young horse, by keeping in mind the physical limitations of the immature skeleton and strains applied at higher speeds may reduce the incidence of young horse injury. Exercise plans should allow for sufficient rest between workouts and should minimize prolonged fatigue, as according to research, cumulative fatigue is a pre-disposer to injury.

These two issues, in combination with many other factors, may be a recipe for injury in young equine athletes.


More emphasis on preventative measures such as assessing the horse's physical limitations prior to training and moderating the exposure of immature horses to long intervals of intense exercise may reduce the occurrence of injury. More attention given to these factors could increase the longevity of performance careers, reduce unwanted behaviours and improve the welfare of our equine athletes/friends. Animal welfare is becoming an increasingly important and monitored issue in our current world.

Because of this, and our genuine love for horses and the equine-sport, I think we should begin to make greater steps towards improving the well being of these animals. After completing this study, my eyes were opened to the many complicated and overlooked forces at play within the young performance world.

I encourage readers to step-back and reassess their decisions for a young performance horse. Consider identifying and consulting professional specialists to assist you in exploring potential issues that may arise prior to beginning an intensive training regimen. You may come across valuable information just as I did, and save both yourself and your horse future pains and struggles.

Lindsay Nakonechny is a current student at the University of Alberta. She is completing the last year of her BSc degree in Animal Health. Lindsay is a long-time Pony Clubber and three-day eventer with her horse, Herbie. Her passion and career lies in equine welfare and behavior.




Keith Hunt