What Causes Poor Exercise Performance?

by Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM

A huge amount of time, effort, and money often are invested in the preparation of horses for various athletic events, including Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, three-day eventing, steeplechasing, dressage, hunter-jumper events, reining, cutting, and endurance racing, to mention but a few. Regardless of discipline, we expect that a well-trained and properly schooled horse will be competitive. It is therefore not surprising that failure of a horse to perform up to expectations can result in a very high degree of frustration and cause us to ask why. Very often, this situation presents a particularly difficult diagnostic challenge for the veterinarian. In this article, we'll look at some of the reasons for so-called poor exercise performance. Our focus this month is to understand why some of these conditions can limit exercise ability. Next month, we will delve further into this topic by considering the approach your veterinarian will take in trying to sort out the reason for apparent loss in (or lack of) performance ability. What Is Poor Performance? Simply stated, poor performance is the inability to exercise or perform at a level previously observed or at a level that can be reasonably expected based on the horse's physical characteristics and state of training. The veterinarian usually is presented with two main scenarios when dealing with exercise performance problems. The first is a horse which clearly has suffered a loss of proven performance. The second scenario involves an unproven horse which is not performing up to the expectations of the owner and/or trainer--in many cases, these expectations are overly lofty and in reality there is nothing medically amiss with the horse. Let's use a racing Standardbred or Thoroughbred horse as an example. In the first scenario, the horse has been racing well, and has perhaps even won a race or two. During this same campaign, however, the horse might experience a sudden or more gradual loss of form, the end result being the same--racing performance falls off and he finishes down the track. Contrast that situation with a two- or three-year-old horse which is yet to break its maiden--is this really a case of poor exercise performance or simply a lack of ability? Unfortunately, it very often is the latter. This same problem can arise when a racehorse is stepped up in class. Even though the horse is running against better company, the owner often expects continued success. If the horse does not perform up to those expectations, the owner and/or trainer will seek an

this is the genetic potential for athletic performance. Just like a well-oiled and fine-tuned motor vehicle. some of us are born to run. trainers. Similarly. and the horse tires very quickly. For the most part. For superior athletic performance. the horse cannot generate the power for running. optimal function of a number of systems within the body. Another term that sometimes is used to describe performance problems is exercise intolerance. an early sign of a fall-off in performance can be a higher than normal heart rate during exercise or a delayed heart rate recovery. In a sense. Nonetheless. the horse appears to be quite healthy. efficient movement. As well. A good example would be a horse with an obstruction of its upper airway that severely restricts his breathing during exercise. but during exercise the obstruction causes an abnormal respiratory noise (termed a stridor) and labored breathing. owners. Normally. For the endurance horse. The most important body systems for athletic performance are: Skeletal (including bone. and is in good body condition. in effect. there will be a sudden or more gradual slowing of work and race times. the horse requires good structural conformation. and ligaments) The horse must be sound and pain free. tendons. Muscle The horse's musculature provides the power for movement. When muscles fatigue prematurely or become painful (as with tying-up). an increase in running times clearly indicates a loss of performance. the horse is exercise intolerant. Are All Systems On Go? A large number of factors contribute to athletic performance. while others are not as well suited to that activity. the engine of the horse must be firing on all cylinders for peak performance. this term is used when a horse experiences obvious difficulty or distress during exercise--he is intolerant to the level of work required. Another example is a horse with recurrent tying-up problems--these repeated episodes of muscle soreness can occur with only light exercise and.explanation for the apparent "decline" in exercise performance. At rest the horse appears normal. and perhaps call in a veterinarian to diagnose and treat the problem. such as shortdistance racing. and the will to compete. and riders might notice a decline in "zip" during training and a fall-off in performance during competition. It is not as easy to document poor performance in some of the other disciplines. . muscle problems will cause the dressage horse to lose the fine control required for top-level performance. Failure of one or more of the cylinders will slow the horse or result in exercise intolerance. For Western horses engaged in barrel racing or other timed speed events. As we all know. has a good appetite.

in part by altering the horse's attitude toward exercise. Instead. Indeed. horses . First. the same seemingly minor ailment could pose a problem during harder exercise when all cylinders must be firing! Causes of Poor Performance Let's now look more closely at a few of the conditions that limit exercise performance." Nervous system The loss of coordination and fine control that accompanies even minor problems of the central nervous system can seriously limit exercise performance. Problems involving one or more body systems can result in impaired performance ability. Conversely. the severity of the problem. the level of exercise required by the horse. persistent lameness often limits the amount of training that can be undertaken. For example. for example. Light exercise activities such as pleasure trail riding clearly are much less taxing than. In my experience.. However. can reduce the effectiveness of the heart as a "blood pump. First. a large number of horses examined because of performance problems are. As shown in the table on page 84. an endurance race or a threeday event. which are by far the most important cause of an apparent loss of performance and an interruption of a horse's training program. and second. There are several other reasons why lameness can limit athletic capacity. it is important to understand that whether a particular problem impairs the horse's exercise ability depends on two factors. a large array of problems can adversely affect horses during exercise. While it is true that some horses compete successfully while carrying low-grade lameness problems. the owner or trainer has not noticed the lameness or has disregarded the lameness as a potential cause of the horse's performance problem.e. It is not possible to discuss all potential causes of poor performance. the pain associated with more severe lameness will contribute to poor performance. and muscle) is important for athletic performance. Minor ailments might not impact upon exercise ability during light exercise tasks. tendon. for a variety of reasons. I think most owners will agree that a sound horse (i. one which is free from major problems involving bone. we will focus on conditions of the musculoskeletal and respiratory systems. ligament.Respiratory (the upper airway--nasal passages and throat--and the lungs) Any problem that prevents the normal flow of air into or out of the lung or impairs the transfer of oxygen into the body will prevent the horse from generating the energy needed to exercise. lame. Problems with heart rhythm. On occasion. for example. Cardiovascular (the heart and blood vessels together with the volume of blood and number of red blood cells) The heart must move oxygen-laden blood from the lungs to the working muscle. treatment of the lameness often results in a rapid return to the former level of performance.

In a recent study. Quarter Horses with hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) can suffer dynamic collapse of the airway when exercising. many affected horses have a primary leg lameness that contributes to development of the back problem. This form of muscle damage has been termed subclinical myopathy because signs of muscle pain and soreness are not evident. experience an episode of generalized tying-up. and dynamic collapse of the pharynx (when the airway just in front of the throat collapses during exercise). Recent studies have suggested that a more subtle form of muscle injury or tying-up might be a common cause of performance problems. in many cases. on rare occasion. epiglottic entrapment. To recap. particularly tying-up (termed exertional rhabdomyolysis). Problems of the respiratory system are the next most common cause of a loss of performance (see table on page 84). it is likely that the presence of lameness increases the likelihood for development of tying-up episodes. displacement of the soft palate. with the first episode usually occurring at a young age. Again. a muscle protein that "leaks" into the blood when muscle damage occurs during exercise. Recent studies also have demonstrated that some racehorses with chronic tying-up have concurrent lameness. Suffice it to say that muscle disorders. Although there are numerous reasons for a sore back. the horse might not be able to achieve the level of fitness required to compete successfully. yet affected horses have increased blood activities of creatine kinase (CK). Back pain is an important cause of poor performance in the equine athlete. A recent article provided an in-depth discussion of the various causes of muscle problems. and he tires easily. These problems can be divided into those involving the upper airways (nasal passages and throat region) or lower airways (lungs). A large number of upper airway conditions cause performance problems. the horse's body becomes starved for oxygen during exercise. episodes of tyingup can be placed in one of two broad categories: 1) Sporadic exertional rhabdomyolysis-this classification applies to horses which. less air reaches the lung and the normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is impaired. are important causes of poor performance. and a lighter schedule is necessary to prevent further deterioration of the tendon or ligament. 53 of 348 horses (15%) examined for poor performance had this form of muscle injury in response to a standardized exercise test. Affected horses are prone to repeated episodes of tying-up. As a result. limits their athletic careers. . a circumstance that severely hampers preparation of the horse for competition and. As a result. These include laryngeal hemiplegia (paralysis usually of the left side of the larynx). In short. It is this latter category that is of greatest concern. it is imperative that the horse's musculoskeletal system is in sound working order. In short. 2) Chronic exertional rhabdomyolysis--when a horse experiences repeated episodes of tying-up.with chronic tendon or suspensory ligament problems often cannot withstand the rigors of hard training. We also know that even low-grade lameness can contribute to development of other performance-limiting problems. These upper airway problems have a single common denominator--they result in a restriction to airflow.

not all affected horses produce these characteristic noises during breathing. although providing the horse is allowed an adequate rest period during recuperation from this type of illness. On the other hand. The clinical signs of COPD can vary greatly--severely affected horses have labored breathing at rest and are clearly exercise intolerant. there usually will be complete recovery of athletic ability. horses with mild COPD or IAD might have a normal breathing pattern at rest. such as barrel racing and the cross-country phase of a three-day event. Of much greater concern for all types of sport horses is COPD. Both conditions can be an important cause of poor performance and exercise intolerance. but often cough repeatedly. However. Heart function disturbances can cause poor performance and exercise intolerance in equine athletes. However. However. Although it is widely held that EIPH causes poor performance. Affected horses are thought to be allergic to these molds and remain susceptible for the rest of their lives. Most affected horses will produce an abnormal respiratory noise or stridor during exercise and. EIPH is a condition most often associated with racing Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. As with upper airway obstructions. However. upon hearing this noisy breathing.Just how common are these upper airway problems? Well. also commonly known as heaves. Disease episodes recur after they are re-exposed to the offending dusts and molds. in two reports of studies that evaluated poor performance problems. Exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) and chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD) are the conditions of the lower respiratory tract (the lung) that have been most commonly associated with performance problems.to yellowcolored nasal discharge might be seen after exercise. a cream. experienced riders and trainers often will be suspicious of an airway obstruction. particularly during exercise. more than 40% of the horses examined had some type of upper airway obstruction during exercise. Ben Martin and his colleagues at the University of . In a study by Dr. or IAD) that is exacerbated by poor housing conditions and exposure to molds and dusts in hay. and direct examination of the horse's throat region during exercise often is necessary to make the diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment. performance problems probably arise because of impairment to the normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lung. True COPD is uncommon in young horses. In addition. there actually is little evidence to support this belief. young performance horses can be afflicted by a less-severe inflammatory airway condition (termed inflammatory airway disease. Viral infections of the lung also are thought to trigger COPD in some horses. some believe that repeated episodes of bleeding can cause permanent damage to the lung--this scarring eventually could limit exercise capacity. COPD is a disease of the lung that is very similar to asthma in a person--a severe inflammation develops when susceptible horses are exposed to certain molds and dusts that are present in hay and straw bedding. it can occur in horses performing other types of strenuous exercise. Acute viral and bacterial infections of the lung also can impair performance.

B. In addition. H. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice 12: 457-472. Moore. Mitten. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice 12: 495-515. E.. Twenty-two horses in the study had a combination of cardiac arrhythmia and upper airway obstruction during exercise. and second..Pennsylvania. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice 12: 473-494. Muscular causes of exercise intolerance in horses.B. 1996. Clinical evaluation of poor performance in the racehorse: the results of 275 evaluations. Morris.J. 1996. V. those findings suggest that heart problems are a much more important cause of poor performance than previously recognized.... Causes of poor performance of horses during training. FURTHER READING Martin. or showing: 348 cases (1992-1996). Seeherman. Reef. Lower respiratory tract disease. L. S. the strength of heart contraction was below normal). 2000. racing. a thorough and comprehensive work-up that examines the musculoskeletal. 1996. Valberg. Equine Veterinary Journal 23: 169-174. on the basis of ultrasound examination immediately after the completion of exercise.J.R. and cardiovascular systems is required.e. 55 of 348 horses which undertook a treadmill exercise test had evidence of disturbance to heart rhythm (a cardiac arrhythmia).B. E. respiratory. This emphasizes two points regarding diagnosis of poor performance problems: First. B. Cardiovascular causes of exercise intolerance.J.A. Parente. Together.H. Sage. veterinary examination of the horse during exercise often is necessary. .D. 1991. A. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 216: 554-558. 19 horses had poor cardiac contractility (i.