CORVALLIS, Ore. – Diagnosing muscle diseases or respiratory ailments in horses is not always a simple task for even the most skilled veterinarians, and measuring the animals’ responses to drug therapy or a new diet regime can add to the difficulty.
But a new high-speed equine treadmill at Oregon State University will allow clinicians and researchers to examine, treat and conduct research on horses – and other large animals – in ways rarely if ever seen in Oregon.
OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine has installed a Sato-1 treadmill that will allow a 1,200-pound horse to gallop at speeds of 25 miles-an-hour or greater, while being monitored with instrumentation that can measure heart rate, blood flow, respiration and other responses to exercise.
“The installation of this high-speed treadmill significantly enhances the ability of our large animal clinicians to diagnose diseases in performance horses and conduct research applicable to exercising athletes – both equine and human,” said Cyril Clarke, dean of OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “This investment demonstrates our commitment to the care of equine patients and training of students in skills relevant to large animal practice.”
The $170,000 treadmill project was supported with a gift from the Valley Foundation. It was installed in late fall and the first horses have begun to trot, canter and gallop on the apparatus under the direction of Erica McKenzie, an assistant professor in the college who specializes in large animal exercise physiology and nutrition.
“It takes two or three days for a horse to get up to full speed on the treadmill, but after some initial hesitation, they love it,” McKenzie said. “When you bring them out of the barn, they start prancing and head right for the facility where the treadmill is located.”
OSU officials say this is the only treadmill of its kind in Oregon and its mission will be three-fold: to diagnose and rehabilitate performance animals, to conduct research, and to provide a training ground for students in the state’s only veterinary college.
Performance animals include not only thoroughbred horses, but equestrian and work animals that must maintain speed and agility, McKenzie said.
“Horses don’t have the ability to describe the nature of their injuries and some of them aren’t apparent until the animal is at full speed,” she said. “Then you might notice, for example, abnormal noises coming from the horse’s airway. Additionally, you can evaluate lameness at a controlled gait that the treadmill can provide, which is particularly useful for trotting or pacing horses that can work on the treadmill wearing their racing harness to emulate racing conditions.
“It also will allow us to better gauge how horses respond to certain treatments, diets and drug therapies,” she added.
Monitoring performance horses can be difficult, but the new treadmill will allow researchers and clinicians to evaluate upper airway problems by inserting a camera into the horse’s nose and monitoring the airway as the horse runs at full speed.
"From a research perspective, the treadmill is an incredibly vital piece of equipment that can facilitate a variety of studies, from the impact of diets and drugs on muscular function, to behavior and exercise responses,” McKenzie said. “Treadmill training and exercise has been the foundation of most studies of muscular disease in horses.”
The treadmill may have other functions, McKenzie pointed out.
“It will be used primarily for horses, but it can be adapted to other species including dogs, pigs, emus and camels,” she said. “In Saudi Arabia, for example, they use treadmills to train racing camels.”
The treadmill can reach a maximum speed of 35 miles an hour and be inclined to a slope of 10 percent. Horses wear protective boots and wraps when exercising on the machine, located in Magruder Hall, which houses the College of Veterinary Medicine.
The treadmill adds to the growing reputation of OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and its use of sophisticated instrumentation to treat animals large and small. Last year the college added a “64-slice” CT scanner, valued at more than $1 million, that can take head-to-toe body scans of horses, cows and other large animals in just 15 seconds.
“This underscores the importance of private support in helping the college to meet the needs of Oregon’s animal industries and private owners,” Clarke said.