AWF: Pushing Horses to the Limit



The themes explored in this presentation are as follows: –

  • Variety of equestrian disciplines
  • Considers all horses used in competition (racing, show jumping, eventing, dressage, endurance, polo and driving)
  • Injuries to performance horses
  • Breeding for competition
  • Improvements in performance
  • Improvements in track design, in surfaces, and in construction of obstacles
  • Improvements in veterinary medicine
  • Consequences for equine welfare

There are variable factors for physical requirements in horses depending on the discipline and these can be very different, which will impact on any injuries that might occur.

The physical characteristics to be considered include: –

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Speed
  • Jumping ability
  • Stamina
  • Gait
  • Robustness
  • Courage

Horses are bred for performance and this along with inbreeding of thoroughbreds can lead to developmental disorders such as osteochondritis. There are also risk factors in the competition such as exercising skeletally immature horses, pushing them when they are fatigued, making them compete on poor surfaces, masking signs of injury and competing too frequently because of financial constraints.

Some of the recognised consequences of competition are tendon injuries, other soft tissue damage, osteoarthritis and other causes of lameness, exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage, exhaustion and collapse and even sudden death.

The need for a good relationship between owner/rider/trainer and the veterinary surgeon should mitigate against harmful practices such as using medication and continuing exercise when rest was required.

The concepts of welfare compromising equipment, controversial farriery procedures and controversial medication are all outlined. The speaker does make a (controversial?) statement that equine sport is ‘cleaner’ than its human equivalent. There are also controversial airway surgical procedures that have historically been performed. The modern use of better diagnostic tools such as dynamic endoscopy has diminished the problem.

Neurectomy and fasciotomy have both been banned by BHA but is still used on sports horses and one organisation representing horses turns a ‘blind eye’ to the procedure. It seems, however, to be effective in reducing or alleviating lameness in some horses without compromising welfare.

Taking a broad view the speaker reminds the audience that ‘never forget that if there were no equestrian competition there would be no competition horses with all the pleasure that they bring’.

Improvements both in competition design, the height of fences for example, and whip design have been made. There have also been major improvements in veterinary care with scintigraphy being a major driver in this. Professor Greet states that gamma scintigraphy has been without a doubt the most important orthopaedic advance in the past 30 years.

There is a very interesting comparison made between the Epsom Derby and Olympic 1500 metres. In 170 years the time for the derby winner has improved by 15 seconds. Meanwhile, in 120 years the time for 1500 metres has improved by just under a minute. (This suggests to the reviewer that not a lot has changed in training methods in horses whereas with human middle distance runners training methods are now far more intense and the modern athlete is a full- time professional).

More interesting statistics relating to the financial value of the equestrian industry-the 3rd largest industry in the rural sector after farming and tourism, with an annual spend of £4.3 billion. Of which £3.45 billion is for racing.

The presentation ends with the BVA statement: ‘The veterinary profession must play a part in ensuring that the very best welfare standards are consistently employed in all equestrian activities and that communication to the general public and management of accidents during public competition are dealt with in a most sensitive and efficient manner.

Some of the questions and points for discussion included: –

  • Human athletes choose to compete but horses don’t. Of what benefit to horses is there in forcing them to compete?
  • Does the horse benefit if it needs preventative surgery or suffers from, for example, exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage?
  • Do some horses enjoy competing?
  • Does the fact that it is a sport mean that injuries and accidents will always happen?
  • Discussion on hyper flexion in dressage horses
  • Discussion on whip design and use
  • Fences have been made safer is a reminder that public pressure can have a positive effect.


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