A Dutch study that followed the preparation of 20 horses and nine ponies selected for the eventing discipline at the European Championships found that 45 percent ended up unavailable because of locomotor injuries.
They noted that the animals that ultimately proved unavailable for competition tended to record higher peak heart rates during training.
Carolien Munsters, from Utrech University, and her colleagues followed the entire national selection of eventing horses and ponies for The Netherlands in 2010 and 2011 as they were prepared for their respective European Championships.
The championship for ponies – a CCI** event – was held in Bishop Burton, Britain, in August 2010. The championship for horses – a CCI*** level event – was held in Luhmühlen, Germany, in August 2011.
They noted the causes of withdrawal and monitored the animals’ fitness using standardized exercise tests, with heart rate, speed and plasma lactate concentrations as measured parameters.
The researchers, whose findings were published in the journal, BMC Veterinary Research, noted that eventing was generally recognized as a challenging discipline and wastage figures were relatively high.
There was a need, they said, for information that provided insight into the causes of wastage and withdrawal from competition, for both animal welfare and economic reasons.
The standardized exercise test was performed on the selected horses at the beginning of the season and, again, six weeks before the respective European championships.
In all, 16 of the 20 horses and six of the nine ponies – all of whom were selected by the Dutch National Equestrian Federation – were ultimately withdrawn.
The most common reason for withdrawal was locomotor injury, affecting nine of the 16 horses and four of the six ponies.
Other reasons included an animal not meeting the competition criteria – four of the 16 horses and two of the six ponies – and being sold (three of the 16 horses).
The researchers found that average performers in the standardized exercise test were significantly more likely to be injured (50 percent), whereas none of the good performers in the tests were eliminated due to such injuries.
In a subgroup of 10 horses, in which all condition training sessions were evaluated for heart rate and speed, the peak heart rate was significantly lower in horses that stayed sound compared with horses withdrawn from training and competition because of injury.
The researchers concluded that field tests were were useful in assessing the potential injury risk, as horses with better fitness results were less likely to become injured than average performers.
“Furthermore, monitoring of training sessions showed predictive value for future injuries, as horses withdrawn because of injury later on showed already higher peak heart rates during condition training than horses that stayed sound.
“The increase in peak heart rate seemed to precede visible lameness in a horse.”
All injuries that resulted in withdrawal were assessed and determined by the Dutch team veterinarian.
The researchers acknowledged that the small number of horses and ponies involved was a weakness in the study, but it nevertheless provided useful insights.
The authors noted that the results of a training study in Britain showed that 21 percent of horses intended to compete in a CCI [event] did not start because of an injury.
In another study, also performed in Britain, evaluation of wastage in event horses showed that 35.1 percent of the 2138 horses followed were not re-registered the next year because of veterinary problems.
“These published values are somewhat lower than results in the present study but still in the same order of magnitude.
“There is urgent need, with the goal of reducing injury incidence, for similar information concerning event animals in other countries to establish whether such high wastage percentages are universal and to better understand the effects of training methods.”
Munsters and her colleagues described the wastage percentage revealed in the study as high.
“To prevent injuries, it is important that event horses and ponies are sufficiently fit to accommodate the physiological demands necessary for high-level competition.
“This study provides preliminary evidence – requiring confirmation in larger populations – that careful monitoring of the horses might assist in realizing this goal.”
The research was partly supported by a grant from the Dutch National Equestrian Federation.
A prospective study on a cohort of horses and ponies selected for participation in the European Eventing Championship: reasons for withdrawal and predictive value of fitness tests.
Carolien C B M Munsters*, Jan van den Broek, Emile Welling, René van Weeren and Marianne M Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan
BMC Veterinary Research 2013, 9:182 doi:10.1186/1746-6148-9-182
The full study can be read here.