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Are today’s researchers looking in the wrong place?

Updated: Jan 1, 2022

Dr.Richard McCormick shares some thoughts on the nutrition requirements of the modern horse and their impact on performance & general soundness as they progress through their careers

The authors of a brilliant book ‘RACE HORSES AT RISK – OVERNUTRITION, DRUGS, BREAKDOWNS’, Professors Lennart Krook & George A. Maylin of Cornell University (1989) present the following statistics:

If the 1978 recommendations were correct, the 1961 levels would have caused hyperparathyroidism (“big head”). But there is no evidence that they ever did.

On the contrary, if the 1961 recommendations were right, then the 1978 standards are high enough to cause hypercalcitonism with this manifestation of osteochondrosis (OCD) or failure of cartilage to mature to bone & osteopetrosis resulting in too much bone tissue per unit volume of bone causing the bone to become weaker, not stronger. Indeed, in modern veterinary practice we see plenty of these diseases in today’s horses & ponies.

Interestingly, Professors Krook & Maylin also state:

  1. Track condition has no influence on breakdown, including fracture.

  2. Fractures are pathologic not traumatic.

  3. The disease leading to fractures in thoroughbred racehorses is man made. They are not curable, but they are preventable.

So what do we make of these bold statements? Are today’s researchers looking in the wrong place? Is it the horse’s skeletal system that is the issue and not the track surfaces?

Interestingly Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has approved funding for Research which aims to establish science-based guidelines for the nature and amount of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids that will prevent or delay osteoarthritis in horses.

Osteoarthritis is a very common cause of lameness in horses. Traditionally thought of as a disease of articular cartilage, it has been shown that the soft tissue lining of the joint, the synovial membrane, is an important contributor to the protracted inflammation that accompanies the disease. The cells of the synovial membrane produce a wide variety of substances which contribute to the progression or resolution of the characteristic imbalanced and destructive environment in a joint with incipient or established osteoarthritis. Among these substances are products of fatty acids that reside in the cell membranes of the synovial tissue called oxylipids. These metabolic products of cell membrane metabolism can enhance or diminish inflammation, depending on the specific blend of oxylipids released. It has been shown that for a number of diseases, the makeup of the membrane of cells involved in an inflammatory process materially influences the overall profile of oxylipids in the tissue environment.

It is increasingly evident that the specific composition of dietary fatty acids can lead to changes in the makeup of cell membranes, thereby favorably or unfavorably influencing the array of oxylipids produced by the cells. Specifically, omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha linolenic acid, can be preferentially incorporated into cell membranes leading to an oxylipid profile that favors resolution of inflammation, compared to the omega-6 fatty acids, such as arachidonic acid, that are generally associated with inflammation. Thus, appropriate modification the omega-6: omega-3 ratio in tissues can result in considerable health benefits.

The long-term goal of this research is to reduce the need for conventional symptomatic therapies for osteoarthritis in horses by generating information that will be useful in establishing ideal levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the ration that would serve as a means to treat and, perhaps more importantly, prevent or significantly delay the onset of the disease in the equine athlete.

We will be watching this research closely .....

Author: Dr. Richard. J. McCormick, M.V.B, Dip.Eq.St, M.R.C.V.S. Licensed Veterinarian (Kentucky, USA, Ireland & United Kingdom). Contact @ or

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