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Feeding the 21st Century Horse: How can breakdowns be prevented through nutrition?

With all eyes on the upcoming Preakness Stakes, the racing industry is holding its breath in hopes another Eight Belles tragedy won't happen then-or ever again.

The horse health industry, meanwhile, is doing more than hoping. It has stepped up ongoing efforts in a nutritional approach to preventing breakdowns, a problem that plagues virtually all equestrian sports, from racing to show jumping.

The goal: to build the ultimate equine athlete from the inside out.

Improper nutrition has not been among the charges leveled at the racing industry for the filly's death after her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Many blame breeding practices, training methods and plain old greed, any of which may have played a role. While the cause of the fractures in Eight Belles' legs may never be known, the treating veterinarian, Larry Bramlage of Lexington, Ky., cited the possibility of weak or compromised bones.

Just as in humans, proper nutrition is a key component for strong bones in horses. Therefore, say equine scientists, nutritional intervention may be the key to making catastrophic breakdowns such as that of Eight Belles a thing of the past. For them, the order of the day is: How can nutrition be used to "create" equine athletes with stronger bones?

That question has long captivated Douglas Beebe, an equine veterinarian in Lexington., Ky., who witnessed first-hand the tragedy at Churchill Downs. For him it underscored an issue he had observed in hundreds of x-rays during his more than two decades as a racetrack vet.

"I kept seeing the demise of the skeletal system of the horse," he said. Every year, the number of fractures, chips, bone lesions and related injuries increased. "I kept asking myself, 'Why?' The skeletal system is the toughest part of the horse. It should be the last thing to break down. I thought, 'I have to do something.'"

Beebe and his team undertook research that indicated a nutritional nexus with bone health. That prompted the formulation of Optimal Cartilage Development (marketed as "OCD Pellets"), a nutritional supplement for bone and joint health that has found favor in racing and other high-performance horse sports.

Broader strides may be a few years down the road, said Richard Murphy, a research scientist at the European Biosciences Centre in Ireland. He is performing equine nutrition research for Alltech, a global animal feed company headquartered in Nicholasville, Ky., that is sponsoring the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

At the forefront of the company's efforts is "nutrigenomics"-the study of how bioactive food components affect gene expression. Well documented studies have shown the effects of various nutrients on gene expression and cellular health, said Murphy. In theory, mares and stallions raised on carefully managed diets are more likely to produce offspring able to withstand the demands of high-intensity competition. Effectively, he said, nutrition can have far-reaching consequences, even beyond of the health of the offspring. If nutrition can be used to selectively influence gene transcription in a breeding pair, the result could be a horse that is healthy and a winner.

"It's great that Alltech is thinking in those lines," said James MacLeod, a University of Kentucky professor of veterinary science who is conducting ground-breaking cartilage repair studies at the Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington. "How does nutrition change bone and cartilage? What role does nutrition play in genetics? Now that the horse genome has been mapped, those questions can and should be asked."

The answers could be a particular boon to racing, which places extreme demands on a horse's skeletal system. "These horses are being trained to run as elite athletes," said MacLeod. "Asking a horse to run at 35 or 40 miles per hour is a huge variable. A lot of changes in bone strength need to occur for a horse to withstand that force."

Del Johnson, president of Equine Nutrition, a West Coast company that makes feed supplements for horses, concurs. The problem of horses breaking down, he said, "can be partially addressed through nutrition." But even though he is in the business of "selling" nutrition, he feels there is more to the equation, particularly with regard to the toll racing took on Eight Belles.

"Can we design nutrition to improve and strengthen horse development? Yes. Can we keep those horses healthy when they are asked for more than they can give? No."

Anecdotally, at least, the link between nutrition and bones has been demonstrated. The CEO of a Midwest-based manufacturer of super-premium equine feeds offered an example: "A few years ago, a 40-broodmare farm switched to one of our feeds. The next year, their average foal weight went up 18 percent. I believe that [increase] is fairly significant." While he allowed that some of the increase may be attributed to fat and muscle, he said, "I must believe that [denser] bones were part of it."

Horse owners are looking to the day when science can resolve that and related questions. During the equine portion of an international animal health and nutrition symposium held by Alltech in Lexington last month, the question was raised whether feeds may need to be developed to meet the demands of particular horse breeds or equestrian disciplines. Many attendees nodded affirmatively. Johnson, who was among them, said, "There is no way you can walk into a horse barn, point at a horse and say, 'I have what that horse needs [nutritionally].' I believe we need to get to that point."

Darlene Ricker is a freelance equine writer in Lexington, Ky. An author of several books on horse training, she covered Olympic equestrian sports as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. A former equine law attorney, she has written widely for national horse publications.


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