Examining Horse Deaths Related to Endurance Rides

Examining Horse Deaths Related to Endurance Rides

The best ways a rider can reduce the risk of fatality is to be in tune with their horse, manage him properly through the ride, and voluntarily withdraw when their horse is not performing as expected, Schott said.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Endurance” is an aptly named riding discipline. The sport requires horse and rider to complete more than 50 to 100 miles of trail in a single day. Depending on the competition type, terrain, and climatic conditions, horses might be actively working anywhere from six to 24 hours. Because of the nature of the sport, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and heat stress can arise, sometimes leading to fatalities.

To investigate causes of fatality in endurance horses, Olin Balch, DVM, MS, PhD, of North Fork Veterinary Service, in Cascade, Idaho, and Hal Schott II, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of large animal medicine at Michigan State University, reviewed 13 years of endurance ride veterinary reports. Schott presented their findings at the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas.

For their study, Balch and Schott compiled results from American Endurance Ride Conference post-ride surveys and veterinary reports from 2002-2014. During this time there were 96 fatalities out of 270,070 horses entered in endurance competitions—that’s 0.32 fatalities per 1,000 starts. Of the fatalities, 69 were euthanized and 27 died. Eighty-seven had participated in the ride, while nine others died or were euthanized due to injuries sustained by escape from an enclosure, kick injury, or colic unassociated with the demands of endurance exercise. There were no differences among sex or age and the number of fatalities did not differ over the years studied. Although there were no statistically significant regional differences, the Southwest had more fatalities than the West, which had more than the Mountain region, which had more than the Northeast.

“Despite veterinary oversight, which is arguably the highest of any equestrian sport during competition, fatalities do occur,” remarked Schott, who presented their findings. During endurance rides, horses must stop at mandatory rest points for examination by a ride veterinarian to determine that they are “fit to continue.” At the finish line exam, horses must again be examined and deemed fit to continue in order to receive a completion and placing.

Balch and Schott’s study included all fatalities that occurred over the four-day period from check-in the day before the race to two days following the competition. If a problem developed at the ride, then they investigated that horse’s outcome beyond those four days. “An increase in ride distance often leads to gastrointestinal problems and metabolic compromise,” Schott explained.

They determined that 26 deaths (30%) in competing horses were not fatigue-related. These resulted from falls, catastrophic injury, gastrointestinal disorders, or sudden death, and one horse was lost and later found dead. There were 61 fatalities (70%) attributed to the demands of endurance exercise, including consequences of severe muscle cramping and exhaustion.

“Exhaustion was commonly associated with decreased intestinal function due to a long period of decreased blood flow to the intestinal tract, as blood was diverted to the exercising muscles during exercise,” Schott explained. “Affected horses showed a poor appetite and colic signs, attributable to ileus (poor intestinal motility). A disastrous consequence was stomach rupture in several horses, with no apparent relation to stomach ulcers, while others developed renal failure and/or laminitis.”

Another important finding, he said, was that 20 of these 61 horses actually finished the ride and received completion awards, yet developed signs of exhaustion after the ride with fatalities developing over the next couple of days.

“This finding emphasizes that riders must monitor their horses closely after the ride and seek veterinary attention when any concern over recovery arises,” he said.

“Finally, it warrants mention that owners of 19 horses that ultimately died or were euthanized declined fluid therapy and/or referral to a hospital for further care when recommended by veterinarians at the ride site,” Schott added.

Preventing Fatalities

Armed with this information, Schott said there are several steps owners and riders can take to help prevent endurance-related fatalities.

“The best way a rider can reduce the risk of fatality, or for that matter elimination from competition, is to be in tune with their horse and voluntarily withdraw when their horse is not performing as expected,” he relayed. “Owners usually recognize a problem before it becomes apparent to ride veterinarians.

“Although the excitement of competition may make riders reluctant to voice concerns, they need to remember that their horses cannot talk with ride veterinarians at checkpoints,” he continued. “Despite close examination, ride veterinarians cannot identify all at risk horses and, ultimately, riders are their horses’ voices and are responsible for their health. This includes following veterinarians’ recommendations for treatment and/or referral for more intensive care.”

Take-Home Message

“Unfortunately, fatalities are a consequence of athletic events and are an inherent risk of all types of equine competition,” said Schott. “When compared to data for horse mortality rates from all causes compiled by the USDA, horses competing in limited distance rides had no greater risk of fatality than horses at home in a stall or pasture.

“However, horses that compete in 50-mile competitions are twice as likely to suffer a fatality and horses competing in 100-mile rides have a tenfold greater risk of fatality,” he said. “Although this risk seems quite high, it is comparable to fatality rates documented for Thoroughbred racehorses,” adding that fatalities, although uncommon, can occur with all types of equine competition.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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