In the past 40+ years we have learned an awful lot about horses’ health. Colic surgery, which was all but unheard of, has pretty high success rate numbers. Wounds have better potions, lotions, and dressings. There are many newer and more effective vaccines and we have made Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA, what the Coggins test is for) a side issue instead of the dominant state it held in the ‘40s.
But we still don’t know a lot, and what’s amazing, when you listen to us talk, is that we don’t know we don’t know! The snake oil is still out there and out there with endorsements, official looking labels and massive amounts of shelf space.
I was reminded of all this recently at a Rutgers Equine Science Center meeting. Rutgers is not a veterinary college, but is involved in a large number of equine studies. Their aim is prevention rather than cure and they have done a lot of research on performance enhancing drugs and nutrition.
What don’t we know about what we do? Lasix is a good example. The race industry sought a cure for bleeding out the nose during a race. Blood dripping out the nose or wandering around the lungs gets in the way of air-flow and you need every hemoglobin molecule to deliver oxygen during a race. Lasix became the miracle cure. But there was still evidence of bleeding.
Enter Dr. Kenneth McKeever, who is massively tall, you know when he has entered a room. He and the Rutgers Equine Science Center started doing treadmill studies on how Lasix works. Turns out it doesn’t harm the horse –– doesn’t stop the bleeding either. But it does act as a diuretic, dropping pounds of water before a race so the horse runs lighter and faster. Voila! Now everyone uses lasix to make a faster running horse, or you could just watch the animal’s water consumption pre-race.But people still think Lasix stops bleeding.
The evidence for clenbuterol and albuterol was different. The medication was found (being used off label) to build a horse faster, so a yearling would look like a 2-year-old and fetch a better asking price. McKeever again researched the evidence. He found that indeed it does build a bigger horse, with a faulty heart. So while that horse looks like a prime athlete its performance will suffer and the very real possibility of a heart attack looms.
Now let’s look at those shelves of nutraceuticles and advertisements from feed producers. Let’s step into the world of the National Research Council. They are the defining body of nutrition requirements for humans and animals in the U.S. and many other countries. All the information on the foods in your refrigerator is based on the NRC requirements. The equine folks over there (all with extensive initials after their names) review the world-wide base of scientific research. They look at the quality of the research, size of study and consistency among results. They’re good at what they do. So it was a wake-up call in March of 2008 when I attended a conference addressing the most recent revisions to the equine recommendations. Dr. Laurie Lawrence, chair of the project, started by saying how little they actually know about the equine’s metabolism and use of nutrients compared to other livestock.
The reason is simple; we don’t feed and euthanize horses to study nutritional effects. It is a moral taboo. Despite the outcry of horses used for human consumption in other parts of the world, it would appear it is not a significant dietary mainstay, because worldwide there is a dearth of information on nutritional effects on a horse.
Progress is being made. Clever scientists and better imaging equipment are allowing peaks into blood markers and invisible organs. But it is still expensive to run trials on horses because it is expensive to keep horses. So progress is slow. When engaged in “What do you feed” talks, it always makes me stop and ask “how do we know this.” The answer is usually because the trainer, who is on the Olympic list, or the feed supplier said so. Alas, thhey have no initials behind their name. And vet schools are just now catching up on the nutrition angle, but they can’t teach what isn’t known.
If we really want the scoopy on that new feed or additive it is worth a call to an equine nutritionist associated with a university or the government. Ask them if research has been done on the component in question. If the answer is no, you may still decide to use the product, no doesn’t always mean bad, just that we have no idea how the component affects the animal. Sometimes, though, no can mean danger – you get to decide.
But at least you will be able to smile and listen to others talk and know what we don’t know.