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The Competitive Horse and Stress

The equine athlete is no different from us, as a human species, whether we are an athlete or not in our daily lives.  As individuals and living beings, we are in-tuned, in most instances, as to how different stressers, diets and activities impact our health and general well being.  For instance, we may know that spicy food may upset our stomachs or create a sense of heat in our bodies.  Or we may understand that over-exertion, whether physically or mentally, drains us of vital energy.  Given these apparent observations, why is it that we can listen to our own bodies and heed warnings, but when it comes to our equine companions, often we do not?

Being a veterinarian I see things from a different perspective.  We are presented horses for a variety of conditions, often with the complaint that the horse is just “off” or not himself, not performing up to par.  Given the number of horses that I have evaluated over the years, certain lamenesses or other health conditions become readily apparent, often to the point where I wonder why others do not see it themselves as the owner or the rider.  In many instances, as an observer at an equine event, I have to look away, wondering why a certain horse is even in the arena competing.

At a recent event, I had the pleasure to speak with a multitude of riders of a various discipline regarding our Cur-OST® line of products.  What I observe is that a high percentage of the riders tend to “see” what I see and follow my line of logic when approaching various health conditions, but for some reason they fail to take action and follow their gut instincts.  When looking at different disciplines, we have different responses to horse care and horse health.  Some are interested in the long  term, preventing problems and maintaining optimal health, while others are more concerned with that particular moment and that particular competition, not seeing the big picture.  The biggest factor that I see in all of the horses, both as a veterinarian and observer, is the impact of stress on the health of that animal.  It is no different from us, but as mentioned, sometimes it is just overlooked.  The other interesting thing is that stress impacts horses to different levels, dependent on the particular discipline with some inflicting higher levels of focus and therefore more stress than others.

What is the impact or the consequence of stress?  Well, let’s look at us for instance.  If we are under a high degree of stress, it is not uncommon to see this manifested as difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, stomach ulcers, allergies, hypertension, digestive issues and cardiovascular problems such as stroke and heart attack.  Stress increases our heart rate, causes a massive release of various pro-inflammatory proteins and increases the levels of cortisol in our bloodstream.  We have talked many times about the impact of the heightened level of inflammatory proteins and the impact on health, but let’s not forget about cortisol.  This hormone is released by the adrenal glands as a response to stress.  Cortisol is a steroid hormone, not of the anabolic type but more what is termed ‘catabolic’.  Instead of building up tissue, it actually contributes to tissue deterioration.  High cortisol levels also negatively impact the immune response.  So, in the end, with high stress levels we contribute heavily to ongoing inflammation, but we also release cortisol into the bloodstream which impacts tissue health and lowers the immune response. 

What are the consequences?  In the equine athlete, we can see this manifest in any part of the body from stomach ulcers to joint maladies to weakened tendons/ligaments.  We can also see it revealed in a weakened immune response with subsequent development of clinical disease such as EPM, Lyme’s and allergies.  Aside from the clinical diseases produced as a consequence, you can see it in the horse’s behavior and general attitude.  Some horses are so high strung due to stress that they have a hard time entering the arena or pen.  Some are rearing more than others and are viewed physically as balls of dynamite waiting to explode, but instead focus those emotions on fine movements or tasks at hand without full release. 

I realize that in many instances, this stress cannot be avoided and the high level of excitement can make or break a good athlete.  This energy creates power, creativity and results.  This is all good and I do understand, but in the end, we have to also understand the impact on health whether if that is a chronic lameness or recurrent pain issue, stomach ulcer, personality issue or internal health condition.  If it were you or I, hopefully we would have the proper level of understanding to see the changes in us physically, then take a step back, breathe deep and make changes in our life to preserve our health.  Making these changes in an equine athlete is a little more difficult, but it can be done.  One thing for sure is that if we can’t remove those stressers, then at least we need to figure out a way to protect the body from the consequences.  In humans, we often learn to meditate, go for a run or take up Yoga to relieve the stress.  So, what can we do for our horses?

One of the most obvious things we can do is to let the horse be a horse, which includes adequate turn out and socialization with others of their kind.  Let them run, let them play and buck, rolling in the grass.  This minor change can make all the difference in the world, but many horses are restricted in their extracurricular activities due to fear of them hurting themselves or losing focus.  Many horses are at best hand grazed or turned out in a small indoor arena for a short period of time, which is a good start and may be the best that can safely be provided.  What else can be done?

Most riders that I speak with and encounter know in their gut that the stress is playing a huge factor in their horse’s well being.  Many also know that most of the injuries and health issues that they are contending with in their horses are likely stress related.  To go further, many even know that a high percentage of the therapies they are using from stomach ulcer prevention to pain medications are just essentially band-aids covering up the aftermath.  Knowing all of this, let’s go further into how we can alter the impact.

As we mentioned already, the two biggest consequences of stress are the heightened and continuous release of inflammatory proteins into the body and the rise in levels of cortisol.  Inflammation contributes to almost every health condition that I have encountered as a veterinarian and our main area of research with our Cur-OST® formulas.  Inflammation can be controlled and must be controlled in order to improve overall soundness and health.  We provide this level of protection with our Curcumin based formulas in different levels, dependent on the level of protection or management needed.  Inflammation is an ongoing process and is correlated often with the level of stress.  As the stress goes up, inflammation goes up.  Often, we encounter riders that have used our formulas to manage a particular condition, achieve recovery and then discontinue use of the formulas.  This is a big mistake and many realize this after a period of time as often the condition recurs or manifests in a different light. Our Cur-OST® formulas are protecting against the effects of stress and inflammation, which, as mentioned, is an ongoing process, thus necessitating continuous protection. Unless that stress goes away, the body is going to be at a continuous risk of health implications.  Don’t just think of stress as an emotional entity, but it is also in localized regions such as the joints.  If you take a metal bar and continue to bend it back and forth, you create heat at the site, which eventually leads to breakage.  This is stress and is no different in a joint.  Look at the Dressage or Reining athlete, watch the joints and see the stress that each joint endures. 

We have to also take into consideration that a lot of the stress is manifested emotionally as well as physically.  In those individuals, we need to not only reduce the systemic inflammatory consequences but also alter the emotional component.  Many horse owners and trainers look to ‘sedative’ type agents whether they are pharmaceutical or natural.  Here we are not fixing a problem, but essentially putting a blanket over it temporarily.  The more logical approach is to use herbs that might improve the body’s response to cortisol, helping to focus that particular animal, reducing the anxiety without sedation.  This is something we are working on at Nouvelle Research, Inc. with good results.  The positive changes can be dramatic with improved focus, temperament and overall attitude, often in a very short period of time. 

Stress is stress.  The question comes as to how you want to manage the impact?  Do you manage it, trying to reduce the implications or do you wait for damage to be done, which may be too late and possibly career ending?  Same thing holds true for you or us, as humans.  Do we wait for the heart attack or do we take preventative actions to minimize the damage? As a horse owner, rider or trainer, we can realize and understand what is truly going on with these animals or we can continue down the path we are going, battling one health issue after another.  We may not be able to reduce all of the stress in our lives or that of our equine companions, but we do have a choice to have a happy, well adjusted and healthy athlete.

As I always say, whether it is regarding our health of that of our horse or even our pet, we do have a choice.  You know the answer in your own gut, but often we fail to take action for a variety of reasons.  You have an opportunity for change and it doesn’t have to be drastic.  Sometimes the slightest changes can yield the greatest results.  At Nouvelle Research, Inc., we are here to help you and you equine athlete.

All our best,

Tom Schell, D.V.M.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Nouvelle Research, Inc.

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