Too Much, Too Soon? Just Right?

I think we have seen over and over again that it is beneficial to stress the bones of a horse when they are most adaptive. This optimal adaptive period would seem to be when the horse is still in an active growth stage. We have all seen many cases where a certain type of injury (e.g., apical sesamoid fractures in foals, coffin bone fractures in foals, etc.) can be tolerated at an early age and not so well as a horse gets older.

Do we prevent shin problems by waiting for a horse to turn three years old before strenuous training? I have seen many horsemen become perplexed when their horses started into training at a more mature age and came up with sore shins. None of us expect these horses to buck shins, yet they are still required to build up the thick cortex of bone in the dorsal cannon bone. Therefore, if these horses aren't handled as any horse in early training would be, the potential for bucked shins exists.

The problem with bucked shins is they almost always come at a time when expectations are highest. You commonly see them after the last work before a horse is ready for his first race, after the horse was purchased in a 2-year-old sale, or right after the horse's maiden victory. This is extremely frustrating to trainers and owners, as proper therapy always requires a period of time, no matter the approach to treatment. This frustration leads to a willingness to try new and innovative training methods to prevent this problem.

During the 15 years that I have been practicing in South Florida (on racing Thoroughbreds), I have seen a significant decrease in the number of horses treated for bucked shins. I'm not exactly sure whether this can be attributed to better training methods for prevention of shin problems or improvement in the track surfaces. I do, however, see some trainers implementing a version of a program developed by David Nunamaker, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, within their training regimens (see "Competing Juveniles" on page 32). I believe the programs would look more like the one developed by John Fisher, DVM, a veterinarian and racehorse trainer, that was outlined on page 36, as it would be accepted as a more practical approach. Trainers I deal with will accept a program that consists of speed work every four to five days, as is explained by Dr. Fisher, before they will use speed work up to three times per week.

That being said, we still see quite a few cases of bucked shins in this practice. There are several approaches of handling these cases even within our own practice. Counter-irritation, pin-firing, and periosteal scraping are still commonly performed. Shockwave therapy has also shown promising results as long as the recuperative period is sufficient. I have tried simply giving the horse a period of rest after his shins have become sensitive. I can only speak from my own experience, but a rest period as the sole treatment for sore shins has been frustrating for me in healing bucked shins. I commonly see recurrence of shin soreness after giving only rest for treatment. I would also say that I hardly ever have a case of sore shins that can just "train through it." Once I see a horse with sore shins, a treatment is usually required that costs the horse time. This makes prevention of the problem that much more important.

Possibly the biggest obstacle to having more horsemen embrace this type of training regimen is concern for the horse's behavior. I have heard much discussion among horsemen who feel that a strict adherence to Nunamaker's program (short speed works up to three days per week) would be a difficult thing for a 2-year-old to handle mentally. Horsemen worry about being able to control a horse that is allowed to do speed work frequently. Trainers are concerned with having a horse relax in his training and not become speed crazy. This reason alone has kept many trainers from experimenting with new adaptive training techniques.

I would reiterate the comment by Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, FRCVS, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, Dipl. ECVS, director of the Equine Sciences Program at Colorado State University, that one should use caution when extrapolating this work to other parts of the horse's body. The research reported in this article is limited to the dorsal cannon bone and doesn't consider the joints and soft tissues that are so important for soundness. We might find similar results for these structures, but there is still work to be done in these areas.

About the Author

Scott A. Hay, DVM

Scott A. Hay, DVM, has been a partner with Teigland, Franklin and Brokken veterinary firm for 20 years, dealing primarily with racing Thoroughbreds at tracks in South Florida, Maryland, New York and Delaware. He also does lameness and Thoroughbred sales consulting throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Hay has been at Teigland, Franklin and Brokken for 22 years and has been president and managing partner of the firm since 1996. Currently, he is the District III representative on the AAEP Board of Directors and is active in the Racing Committee and the Public Auction Task Force for that organization.

Dr. Hay's assocation affiliations are AAEP, AVMA, FAEP (Florida Association of Equine Practitioners) and FVMA (Florida Veterinary Medical Association). He is also an active member of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). Dr. Hay and his wife, Darlene, have three daughters: Baylee, 14; Lindsay, 13; and Kylee, 10. His personal interests include golf and racing quarter horses.

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