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Soundness; A Broad Concept

Soundness.  It is a word that all horse owners are familiar with, but really, what does it mean?  By definition, soundness infers free from defect, injury, disease and in good condition, healthy and robust.  Is it a reality?  Is it really possible?  I think that in order to understand this concept further, we have to look at the horse, like ourselves, from multiple different perspectives.

When a pre-purchase examination (PPE) is perfomed, for the most part horse owners are just focusing on the concept of joint or riding soundness, looking for evidence of lameness, which is just one degree of soundness.  Much focus is placed on the limbs, movement, conformation and the results of flexion tests, sometimes forgetting that the whole animal should reflect soundness.  Sure, as part of the exam, we as veterinarians do evaluate other organ systems such as the eyes and skin, but for the most part the focus is on lameness for obvious reasons.

Rehabiliation work has helped to reinforce in me that there is more to the horse than lameness. This concept may sound strange for some and obvious, but as a veterinarian, we are often limited in our scope of evaluation due to time and limited exposure to that animal.  Given this, we often are missing many pieces to the entire picture.  We don’t get to see how that horse is handled, what he or she is fed, what the conditions are and how that horse reacts when competing.

Many of the horses that come into our program have been rejected due to soundness conditions relating to lameness.  In many instances, they have been pushed too hard, over medicated and mentally abused.  This has resulted in other soundness concerns such as poor bodyweight, gastric ulcers, anxiety, spookiness and overall decreased dependability.  As we evaluate them, the list of problems sometimes go on and on, with lameness being the biggest but not the only problem.  The sad reality is that many of these guys are very young with their lives still ahead of them, but yet they have been cast aside due to lack of performance.

We need to realize that lameness soundness is just one area of concern and that the whole animal often needs to be addressed.  Many of these horses come to us with a history of ongoing or unresolved lameness, often with multiple joint injections or more invasive procedures such as IRAP, PRP or stem cell therapy.  In some instances, the lameness hasn’t even been pinpointed but these therapies are done more as a buckshot approach, hoping to keep the animal competing.  By the time that many of them are evaluated on our end, their condition is markedly advanced and often hard to pinpoint as multiple regions are involved at that stage.  

One of the biggest things that I have realized is that we need to address the entire animal upon recovery, from the mind to the body, skin to the hooves and muscles to tendons.  The first thing that is addressed is the diet, as I feel this impacts many problems and fuels them. We then carefully choose and implement various herbs to reduce anxiety, support and nourish muscles, tendons and hooves while also utlizing herbs to combat ongoing inflammation.  If we don’t address the entire horse, but focus instead just on the source of lameness, we will lose almost every time.  

I believe in the ability to recover, but often find that some are forgetting about the other areas of soundness, infering the body and the mind.  The reality is that in many instances, injuries or other sources of lameness are so chronic that the damage often cannot be reversed, but more so managed and improved.  Many of these horses can become athletes once again, but due to chronicity, their level of competition will be restricted.  When the mind and body are in sync, the horse is more than willing to go and learn, but again, we have to understand what goes into achieving that level.  

The bottom line to me is that soundness is reflected on many levels, not just in terms of lameness.  All too often I hear of or see horses that are indeed lame, but that same horse has other issues from anxiety to ulcers to poor hoof and body condition.  We can address the lameness, but often problems persist for that rider because things are not in sync, they are not balanced and the horse is ‘unsound’ in other areas, which are not prime ones of focus unfortunately.  Is it possible to have a Grand Prix jumper or dressage athlete or Derby winner that is not requiring medications to control all sorts of health problems?  I believe the answer is yes, but it takes time, patience and understanding.  

The concept of soundness applies to people as well, but from a different perspective.  If we have a bad knee, we may not be sound as a tennis champion, but we may be sound for something else such as teaching or being a mechanic.  If we see a person with a mental disability, they are considered unsound often in many respects, which is sadly untrue.  We may encounter someone that is experiencing joint pain that is debiliating or even another health problem that is creating a crisis, but just as in the horse industry, that person just focuses on the problem at hand, failing to see the bigger picture and how their work environment, stress or diet is impacting them from a mental perspective to a lameness one.

I don’t have all of the answers.  What I can say is that with each day, I learn more, discover more and see the connections between the problems.  In many instances, something as simple as a stomach ulcer can be resolved with a change in diet or herbal implementation, which then has a much broader reach not only on behavior but also willingness to work under saddle.

Soundness is a broad topic and one in which we need to take into consideration the entire animal, just as we would hopefully step back and do the same for us as people.  Medications are becoming a major problem for many equine disciplines, just the same as in human athletics.  I think if we take the whole body into consideration and have reasonable expectations, then the sky is the limit when it comes to performance.

Just my thoughts.

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.

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