Veterinary care of carriage horses
You are on a well-deserved vacation with your family. You thought you were taking a break from horses, but you look around anyway. There it is - a draft horse slowly pulling a loaded wagon full of tourists.
You are on a well-deserved vacation with your family — East Coast, West Coast, it doesn't matter. You're walking down the street enjoying an art fair or browsing a line of quaint shops when all of a sudden you hear that all-too-familiar clip-clop, clip-clop.
Uphill climb: A carriage horse works on an incline in Helen, Ga. Uniform national carriage-horse rules are difficult because of widely varying conditions.
You thought you were taking a break from horses, but you look around anyway and there it is — a draft horse slowly pulling a loaded wagon full of tourists through a busy downtown area.
Because summer is the prime time for tourism, it often is hot and humid, and maybe you've wondered about the health and well-being of these horses or had to answer a companion's questions about the horse's workload and how the weather might affect it.
While you may be on vacation, there is no doubt that these special equine laborers are working. And their care, handling and management constitute a unique and often emotionally charged sector of equine veterinary practice.
Cushioning the blows: This carriage horse wears boots that protect its hooves from repeated pounding on hard street surfaces.
Carriage tours and carriage rides are a common sight in many locations, from the large urban centers of New York, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco or Denver to smaller cities like Charleston, Savannah and Sun Valley. These rides are big business and often represent a multimillion-dollar stake in the revenue for each location.
Charleston, S.C., alone has numerous carriage firms that will hitch up to 30,000 carriages a year. "Tourism councils love horse-drawn carriages," says Dr. Jay Merriam of the Massachusetts Equine Clinic, "because they bring in tourists and add considerably to the ambiance of a downtown."
Merriam has served as an expert consultant to carriage groups, city councils and humane societies from New York to Boston to Charleston.
Animal-welfare groups and other coalitions work with intensity to ban horse-drawn carriages. They try either to ban them outright because of concerns for horses working in weather extremes, poor air quality and traffic congestion or to devise codes to prevent animal abuse.
Almost everyone agrees those are worthy goals, but debate arises about one group's right to affect another's livelihood.
Veterinarians are put somewhere in the middle, in that vets must care for these animals.
"We are not the police; we are protectors," explains Merriam. "It is within our purview to help make their (carriage horses') lives better and assure humane standards are developed and applied."
It is also the duty of veterinarians to educate the public about the ability of these horses to perform their jobs and to separate the science of electrolyte physiology, heat stress, pulling capacity and rest/recovery from the often emotional arguments and appeals.
To that end, a look at the major problems and concerns of carriage horses seems warranted, including a review of some information on the physiology of performing or working horses. This should help equip veterinarians to aid these animals and inform them about both sides of the debate.
Most problems seen in carriage horses occur in these main health-care areas: bone and muscle injuries, tack-related problems, shoes and feet and heat/cold stress, along with some management/husbandry concerns.
Dr. John Malark owns Edisto Equine Clinic, a general and referral practice whose clients include all five carriage companies (about 90 percent of the equine population) in Charleston, S. C., as well those in neighboring Savannah, Ga. He's seen his share of orthopedic disease, reporting that foot abscesses, laminitis and ringbone are the problems most often seen, though the percentages in carriage horses are not very different from what occur in his general practice.
Back-sore or muscle-sore carriage horses occasionally are seen. Causes of these conditions may be improper shoeing or handling. Some of the staging areas, where horses wait their turn to take the next trip, may be inadequate for a level start. When a carriage horse steps into a load, it must get enough leverage and momentum to move the carriage. If the horse and carriage are not on the same plane when the pull begins, the forces on the horse's back are unevenly applied and muscle problems can result.
It is important to note that concerns and issues about staging areas come up frequently in carriage-horse debates. Carriage horses often do not fit easily into cities, and their very existence draws more people, further contributing to street crowding and ultimately making it harder on the horses.
Animal advocates argue that staging areas should be large enough for horses and carts to be on level ground and that optimum locations also should provide shade and water access. The realities of city congestion do not often allow for these locations, but every effort should be made to pay attention to such simple details.
Shoes and foot problems
Because carriage horses work on streets and hard pavement, shoes and foot concerns are important. Many different types of foot support, boots and rubber shoes, pour-in sole materials and other devices are used in the carriage industry to reduce the constant pressure on the hooves of these animals.
Some cities, such as Charleston, have specific ordinances requiring a particular shoe type. Rubber shoe inserts required there are believed to reduce the transferred heat and bone vibrations from the baking pavement. Carriage companies are encouraged to retain the services of a good farrier, and veterinarians servicing these animals need to be ever vigilant for long toes, under-supported heels and imbalanced feet.
Tack concerns are another important area in the carriage-horse debate. While improvements in materials and designs have greatly reduced many tack-related conditions seen at the turn of the century, problems still occur.
In the Southeast, heat and humidity, along with tack-related pressure points and rubs, contribute to cases of pressure sores and skin ulcers.
"These are seen at the poll or along the collar area typically," Malark says, "and increasingly in Belgians for some reason."
On any given summer day, 50 to 60 horses will be working the streets of Charleston. Of these, Malark estimates five or six will have some type of skin irritation. His uncomplicated method of treatment is clipping and cleaning the affected area and applying a good drying powder.
It is interesting that skin irritation and rashes are common among southeastern college football players exercising in protective pads during the late summer. It may be that environmental conditions and the use of any type of pad or collar, no matter how correctly fitted, will produce skin irritation in sensitive individuals.
"Exertional myositis and other muscle problems are always a concern with carriage horses, but attention to hydration, electrolyte intake and diet can minimize these conditions," Malark says.
Most carriage horses are fed a 10 percent protein, low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet to provide enough energy while reducing typical draft-horse myo-pathies. While most are given electrolyte supplementation in their diets, there is no specific product or mix that has been shown to be optimum for them. Electrolytes are seldom if ever given orally.
Endurance horses, in contrast, receive specific electrolyte combinations of sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and calcium orally via paste syringe almost hourly during a 50- or 100-mile ride. The combinations for each competitor are individualized through blood testing often done at rides. It is believed that this aggressive use of electrolyte replacement partly explains why these athletes can compete at remarkable speeds and distances, often in hot, muggy conditions, with a minimum of problems.
Most extreme-weather exercise physiology data come from endurance or three-day eventing horses. These thinner, less-muscled breeds do not face exactly the same challenges as draft-breed carriage horses, but many of the same principles apply.
Misting fans and the application and quick removal of very cold water has been shown to cool a heated horse rapidly. In Charleston (considered a model for carriage operations), horses are required to have their temperatures taken each morning and after each trip. They are supposed to make no more than four to six trips daily and to work only five to six consecutive days and then rest. After each trip the horse usually is cooled down, sprayed off and given a chance to eat. Many drivers and veterinarians feel that these parameters are fine and that the vast number of carriage horses tolerate them well.
The truth is that, despite what most veterinarians feel and believe, we really do not know.
Lack of information
There is a distinct lack of specific information on how carriage horses handle heat, humidity and other issues.
How much weight (fluid and feces) is lost by a working carriage horse in a typical hot summer day? What is the working heart-rate range for a carriage horse pulling four to six people in a wagon along an inclined street? What changes if there are 10 to 12 people in the carriage? How long does it take for body parameters to return to normal (clinically) after a six- to eight-hour day pulling carriages or buggies?
Most endurance competitors train and compete with heart-rate monitors, measure their horse's weight before, during and after competitions and amass a wealth of information that allows them to push the limits of performance and still protect their horse's health.
In order to answer the concerns of animal advocates, to keep carriage companies in business and to ensure that the health of working carriage horses is protected, research is needed.
"Studies need to be focused on these horses," says Malark, adding, "If you want answers, then you have to fund the research."
Effects of heat, humidity
A particular area that needs research is the degree of heat and humidity that can safely be tolerated by working carriage horses. No other issue generates as much debate.
In 2006 Merriam appeared before a Charleston committee charged with shaping an ordinance for carriage horses. While certain committee members wanted very specific heat/humidity guidelines, Merriam explained that temperature, heat and humidity thresholds could not always be defined appropriately, so some allowance for common sense should be made.
Conditions vary in different cities, adding to the difficulty. Merriam told the committee that carriage horses in Kansas have worked successfully in temperatures of 100 degrees, but with low humidity. Horses in the Southeast rarely experience that much sustained heat but the humidity can be exceptionally high. Horses in Boston generally pull up steeper hills than horses in Atlanta and therefore work harder in similar heat and humidity.
A Temperature Humidity Index (THI) is calculated by adding the temperature to the relative humidity, and some level of this index is commonly used as the cut-off point for carriage-horse activity.
Setting this level means that variations on the route that horses are taking (shady, sunny, congested or breezy), differences in wind movement, terrain and road surface all must be considered.
"There is debate even as to where the official thermometer should be placed and at what height it should be kept," Malark says.
"I don't know that an ordinance is ever going to be good enough to take care of any animals," says Dr. Allison Barca, a veterinarian caring for carriage horses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. "It is up to the owner, trainer and driver to make these decisions. These people are trained to watch the animals, see if they are suffering and bring them in," she says.
Almost all veterinarians working with carriage horses agree that horses that have become accustomed to the heat tolerate it better than one might imagine. "They feel exactly what we feel, but just like some people ... are capable of working in this heat and humidity, some animals are, also," Barca says.
Many animal advocates question whether carriage-horse owners can be trusted to regulate themselves.
While there are certainly some less-than-ethical individuals, these are present in every sport and business endeavor. The majority of owners and drivers genuinely care about their horses.
"These animals are our bread and butter, and we do the very best we can to take care of them," says Tamara Neal, a carriage driver in New Orleans.
Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.