The thoroughbred racehorse sets the world standard for speed and agility, competing primarily in flat and jump racing. Performance at this level requires soundness and an ability to work and maintain fitness, factors that can be hard to maintain. Thoroughbreds mature early, and can be prone to behavioral and digestive problems, which are exacerbating by early feed and training regimes. Any weakness may be further manifested as susceptible to disease or injury.
Sources of physical stress
Immature racehorses, which are being prepared for the track, have large nutrient requirements, for continued growth as well as for body maintenance. They are typically fed high grain diets, which, unless balanced by suitable amounts of fibre, can lead to digestive disorders and imbalances. High levels of physical activity increase the circulating free-radicals, which are oxidative compounds that can damage membranes, tissues and immune responses.
Issues for young racing horses
Young horses have an immature immune system, which, if under high levels of exercise stress, can become further retarded. This can lead to increased susceptibility to infections, especially where large grain diets have been used, which can imbalance the digestive bacteria, allowing the development of pathogenic populations.. this is a particular problem in animals that are being transport to many different areas and are being exposed to a large number of individuals from other regions, all carrying their own cocktail of viruses and bacteria.
Making sure that each horse has a well developed immune response to a wide variety of pathogens, and can readily adapt to new environments without succumbing to infection is important for competition success as well as its future health and soundness. A good, strong, consistently healthy and performing young race horse will not only be worth more in fiscal terms, but will require fewer veterinary interventions and less cost associated with solving heath issues.
Issues for mature racehorses
In older horses, who may have suffered injury, inflammation and tissue damage, certain approaches can help their ongoing racing success. In addition getting the most out of their diet is crucial to ensure optimum performance.
Thoroughbred, as a breed, tend to be rather highly strung, and often suffer from digestive disorders, manifested as gastric pain (leading to behavioral problems), colic or diarrhea. This may be related to insufficient fibre in the diet (which has been shown to increase overall digestive function (including high cereal diets), gastric ulceration, and imbalances in the bacteria that reside in the caeca and are responsible for fermentation of feed and release nutrients, including vitamins. Lack of vitamin B and certain amino acids are known to contribute to certain behavioral problems, and the availability of these components can be affected by poor digestion.
Racehorses are trained and raced on a variety of different surfaces. Good trainers recognize that individual horses have their own preference for ground hardness. Those that run faster on hard surfaces risk concussion injuries and wear to the delicate surface of the joints. Those run on soft going are more likely to risk sprains, pulls and twisting injuries. Irrespective of how the injury is caused, its manifestation in the horse will have pain and repair elements in common.
Horses that experience inflammation due to damage to their joints have more problems training and competing due to pain and stiffness.
Oxygen, energy and performance
Racehorses need to have efficient oxygen transfer around the body in order to liberate large amounts off energy in cells. The young racehorse needs to be able to develop its red blood cells populations in order to ensure adequate oxygen delivery. If a horse is exposed to infections which it cannot deal with quickly and efficiently, its ability to run as well as maintain its fitness comes into question. Any advances the trainer had made in muscle mass or respiration rate may well be lost until the animal has made a full recovery, and training has resumed once more.
Oligosaccharide equine research
As reflection of the commercial importance of the racing industry, the thoroughbred has enjoyed significantly more research into its needs than any other horse breed or discipline of equestrian. Elements studied include exercise methods, growth and development, physiological changes as well as nutrition. More recently, specialised feed materials have been studied for their effects and benefits in race horses.
It has been well documented on other species that certain oligosaccharides can be included in animal feed to assist in maintaining gastric stability. They are known to promote the correct microbial fermentation of the diet, reducing pathogen loads in the gut lumen and ensuring efficient nutrient release and uptake. These activities can assist in reducing the gastric problems experienced by young horses receiving grain rich diets, such as the thoroughbred.
Mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS) have provided a particular focus for equine research conducted in both Europe and America. Commercial MOS products are already associated with improved immunity development and responsiveness, though interaction with signaling systems associated with the mammalian gut (Kelly, 2004).
Research with mares and foals have shown that feeding MOS improved immunity (immunuglobin proteins) detected from blood samples taken from the mare. This is passed to the foal via the colostrums, resulting in higher protection through innate immunity during the first few weeks of life (Ott, 2005:Czech and Grela, 2006).
For older performing animals, such as racehorses, it has been shown that vaccinations is more effective in horses fed MOS-supplemented diets. Trials with thoroughbred fed 10g per head per day MOS showed consistently higher titres (the effectiveness of protection) four weeks after vaccination for Anti – need vaccine/disease details ( Figure10).
Health status can be gauged by blood analysis. The levels of white blood cells within a sample can be used to determine how well the horse immune system, and related repair mechanism, are operating. Levels of neurophil cells indicate inflammation responses, and lymphocyte numbers can show the maturity of the immune system.
Trails conducted in the USA using thoroughbreds showed that horses fed MOS had lower levels of neutrophil and higher levels of lymphocyte. This relates to a lower inflammatory response, and better immune system maturity in these young animals (Figure 2).
Furthermore, similar research has shown that horses receiving MOS have higher levels of red blood cell counts than those maintained on a supplement diet. Researchers have linked this to an increase in physical condition and the potential for better oxygen delivered to muscle, which would assist in both training and racing performance.
The use of specialist oligosaccharides, such as MOS, can be beneficial in promoting certain immune functions, including circulating cells not associated directly with immunity. Although the full reason for these effects have yet to be fully elucidated, this trial data provide evidence for the potential importance of the application of specialist feed ingredients in promoting health and performance on young, active horses. Elevated immune function leads to fewer lost days due to recovery from infection, more willingness to perform due to less inflammation, and hence, more easily maintained fitness and training. In addition, there is now evidence to suggest there may be oxygen delivery benefits, and that veterinary costs may be reduced in the more robust horses receiving MOS in their daily feed.