With only anecdotal reports from veterinarians in private practice expounding upon the common physical ailments in barrel horses, Dr. Robin Dabareiner, DVM, Ph.D., Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, conducted a retrospective study to categorize the most common musculoskeletal injuries in barrel horses.
After statistically analyzing the medical records of 118 barrel horses that visited the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Dabareiner found forelimb, not hind limb, injuries were more likely the cause of lameness and poor performance.
“We wanted to try to relate what the horse was doing performance-wise with where they were hurting,” Debareiner says.
Her study “Musculoskeletal problems associated with lameness and poor performance among horses used for barrel racing: 118 cases (2000-2003)” appeared in the Nov. 15, 2005, issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Here, Barrel Horse News gives you a snapshot of Dabareiner’s study and results.
On a Mission
Unlike those in racehorses and English disciplines, studies relating performance to specific injuries in Western performance disciplines are virtually nonexistent. Previous information describing musculoskeletal problems in horses used for Western performance events has originated from the clinical impressions of veterinarians that had experience working on these types of horses, but there were no scientific studies that analyzed the situation. Dabareiner is breaking new ground.
For more than 20 years, equine lameness and surgery have been at the center of Dabareiner’s clinical practice at Texas A&M and previously at a private practice in northern Texas. The overwhelming majority of horses she works on are team roping and barrel horses, making up about 90 percent of the horses she sees.
An avid team roper, Dabareiner noticed in her personal string of five head of horses that three of the five horses came up lame on the right front limb at one time or another. The researcher in her wanted to know why.
The first step in answering that question was to determine if the right front limb was at risk of injury for team roping horses used as heading horses, so she set up a retrospective study, one that analyzed a select number of medical records for a specific period of time.
After finishing the study on team roping horses, she wanted to do the same for barrel horses. She had already noticed that many barrel horse owners suspected a hock problem when their horse’s performance decreased.
“Very often, a barrel racer would come in and say my horse isn’t performing, he isn’t running or he’s running down the fence at the first barrel,” she says. “The owner would want the hocks injected. When I would perform a lameness exam on the horse, more often than not, the horse would actually have a forelimb problem. The owners were very insistent that we inject the hocks.
“So what I started doing was injecting the hocks and telling the owners that if that didn’t work, comeback in three weeks, and we’ll fix the problem. Invariably, over half came back in three weeks. If it was a first barrel problem, it was usually a problem with the right front limb. I’d fix that problem and call them in two weeks, and the horse would be fine.”
From Jan. 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2003, either Dabareiner or Dr. G. Kent Carter, DVM, MS, Diplomate of American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, examined 118 horses used exclusively for barrel racing. Meticulous medical records were kept.
This data included the owner’s complaint of decreased performance, i.e. lameness, first barrel problems, not running as hard as previously, refusing to enter the arena, etc.; duration of the problem and previous medical treatments. During the physical examination, conformation problems, the type of horseshoes used, swelling, responses to hoof testers and flexion tests, the type of diagnostic tools used, the diagnosis and treatment recommendations were all noted.
This information was entered into a computer database that sorted the information by types of injuries and their frequency.
Dabareiner’s retrospective study concluded that navicular area pain in the front feet was the most prevalent injury in barrel horses with arthritis of the lower hock joints (bone spavin) the second most common problem.
Of the 118 barrel horses brought into the clinic, most horses had been having decreased performance or lameness for about a month before they were brought to the clinic. While 60 percent came in because the owner complained that the horse was lame, 40 percent came in with the owner complaining of a performance problem.
When comparing her barrel horse and rope horses studies, Dabareiner says the percentage of owners complaining of performance issues was much higher in barrel horses compared to team roping horses.
“Only 20 percent of the rope horses came in with an owner complaint of poor performance such as lunging when pulling the steer for heading horses or rearing up in the box or not stopping correctly for heel horses,” she says. “Most came in with the complaint that the horse was lame. With the barrel horses, 40 percent came in because the horse wasn’t performing right. I think that’s because more barrel racers know what to expect of their horses in a given arena.”
In other words, the barrel pattern never changes except for variations in ground and arena size, while each team roping run is different because conditions vary from run to run.
She also notes that many barrel racers train their own horses as opposed to ropers, who tend to buy finished horses.
In the 40 percent of horses that were labeled by their owners as poor performers, 90 percent were found lame.
“Some of these horses you couldn’t see lameness unless you trotted the horse in a very small circle,” she says. “You wouldn’t see it until you put the horse in a barrel-sized circle, and a lot of people make the mistake of not doing that.”
Of the horses admitted for poor performance, first barrel problems were the most common issue, with 41 percent of those owners complaining their horses either refused the barrel by running up the fence or took the barrel too wide.
“Surprising to me, the most common problem was an injury to the right front limb especially the foot,” she says. An incredible 90 percent of horses with first barrel problems had right front limb lameness.
A decrease in speed was the next common complaint with 30 percent, and approximately 75 percent of those horses ended up with a diagnosis of sore front feet.
“When a horse was presented that wasn’t running as hard as he used to, it was usually [that] both front feet were sore, and that stayed true for team roping and calf horses,” she says. “When a horse isn’t running as hard as they previously did, it’s often because the horse is suffering from front feet pain.”
Other performance problems, in descending order, were wide second or third barrels, not wanting to enter the arena, refusal to turn left, horses ran with their tails in the air and also failed to take the correct leads.
Left barrel issues resulted in left front or left rear lames. No lameness was found in 10 percent of the horses that refused the arena.
Dabareiner notes in her study that there were other causes for poor performance that weren’t attributed to lameness such as exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding), poor or improper dental care and general anxiety.
Sore front feet were the most common problems found in barrel horses with 39 (33 percent) of the 118 horses having a lameness localized to the back portion of the hoof—the dreaded navicular region.
It should be noted that the precise source of the problem, i.e. the navicular bone, bursa, impar ligaments, etc., was not determined. However, identifiable foot pain such as bruised feet, an abscess or white line disease were given their own labels and kept separate from the number of horses with navicular area pain.
Arthritis of the lower hock joints was the second most common injury found in 17 (14 percent) of the horses. Suspensory ligament desmitis (strain) occurred in 15 (13 percent) of the horses with hind limb injuries being more common than forelimb. Eleven horses (9 percent) had a combination of navicular region pain and hock arthritis. Bruised feet were diagnosed in 10 horses (8 percent) with the majority occurring in the front as opposed to hind feet. Arthritis occurring on the inside of the stifle joint was found in six horses (5 percent).
Other problems, in order of descending frequency, included OA (osteoarthritis) of the knee, OA of the fetlock (ankle), deep digital flexor tendonitis, fractures at the point of the hip, check ligament desmitis, back pain, a sole abscess and white line disease. Several horses had more than one limb affected by lameness.
Dabareiner’s study made several conclusions. Her foremost conclusion was forelimbs are more likely to be affected than hind limbs. She found more horses with navicular area pain alone (39 percent) than horses with OA of the hock or stifle (17 percent hocks, 6 percent stifles for a total of 23 percent).
The right front was the most commonly injured leg (48 percent), followed by the left front (38 percent) and either left or right hind (25 percent). In 30 percent of the horses, both fronts were affected, while 10 percent had both hinds affected.
Other Interesting Data
Of the 118 horses, all were either full (93 percent) or appendix (7 percent) Quarter horses. They ranged in ages from 3 to 19, with a median of 9 years, and in weight from 900 to 1,340 pounds, with a median of 1,120 pounds. The geldings outnumbered the mares, 86 to 32.
“It’s not surprising that wear-and-tear type injuries such as osteoarthritis and tendon and ligament strains are common in these types of performance horses, regardless of their specific activity,” Dabareiner says given the median age.
She also notes that most of the horses coming in for poor performance were over the age of 10.
“One would expect younger horses to be immature and to have more behavioral problems than older, more experienced horses,” she says.
The types of horseshoes worn on the front feet were noted on 97 horses. A steel rim was the most popular, followed by flat steel keg shoes, wedged heel shoes, rocker-toed shoes, egg bars and half-rounds. Seven horses were barefoot.
On 32 horses, they noted the hoof conformation. More than three-quarters of those had mismatched angles or foot sizes. The remaining seven had contracted heels, under run heels or were pigeon-toed.
Dabareiner found that abnormal physical findings such as swelling around the joints did not always indicate a problem. For example, swelling (effusion) in the fetlocks was found in 30 percent of the horses and swelling in the digital flexor tendon sheath was found in 25 percent of the horses; however, injuries to these areas weren’t common in this group of horses.
For all the answers that Dabareiner’s study found, it yielded many more questions.
“Now that we’ve identified the problem limb, specifically that the right front limb is at risk of injury in barrel horses,” she says, “we have to determine why, by identifying which risk factors are contributing to the problem. What is it about that first barrel? Is it because the horse is running at full speed then must rate to turn? Is it the angle of the first barrel? The horses that have foot pain—how often are they shod? What type of shoes are they wearing? Are these horses wearing protective tendon boots? Those are the questions that are still out there.”
Dabareiner is hopeful that future funding will help her answer those questions.
“The No. 1 goal for doing this study was to identify what type of injuries and which limb is at risk,” she says. “Our second goal is to find out why. Once we know why than we can figure out how to decrease or eliminate these injuries.”
Common injuries in barrel horses: 118 cases
Diagnosis # of horses (%) Affected Limb (# of horses)
Navicular area (NA) pain 39 (33) Forelimb (39)
Hock arthritis 17 (14) Hind Limb (17)
Suspensory ligament desmitis 15 (13) Hind Limb (9), forelimb (6)
NA & hock arthritis 11 (9) Forelimb and hind limb (11)
Bruised Feet 10 (8.5) Forelimb (9), hind limb (1)
Arthritis of the stifle 6 (5) Hind limb (6)
Arthritis of the knee 3 (2.5) Forelimb (3)
Arthritis of the fetlock 3 (2.5) Forelimb (2), hind limb (1)
Deep Digital Flexor tendonitis 2 (1.7) Forelimb (2)
Fractured point of hip 2 (1.7) Hind limb (2)
Check ligament desmitis 2 (1.7) Forelimb (2)
NA & suspensory ligament desmitis 2 (1.7) Forelimb and hind limb (2)
NA and stifle arthritis 2 (1.7) Forelimb and hind limb (2)
Back pain 2 (1.7) Not applicable
Sole abscess 1 (0.8) Hind limb (1)
White line disease 1 (0.8) Forelimb (1)
Tanya Randall is an avid barrel racer who resides in Texas with her husband, Matt, and young son, Colton. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].