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The High Speed Treadmill

at New Bolton Center

This is the same type of treadmill in use at New Bolton. Our horses are not galloping like this one, obviously, but pacing. (This was taken of the Kentucky Equine Research treadmill. I could not find a decent photo of New Bolton's, but check the links at the end for some more stuff on this amazing thing.)

It was raining steadily all day, so it was a good day to take off and bring the horses up to New Bolton Center for our appointments. We had two candidates for the high speed treadmill; two horses that were underperforming and not racing or training up to par, but with no overt symptoms of sickness.

Our first stop as we pulled in was the small parking lot for clients. We were the second truck and trailer there, but as the day went on, the lot would fill to overflowing onto the rain-soaked grass near the lot. There are plastic wheeled and lidded garbage cans with signs in the lot asking you to remove manure from the macadam and place in the cans. Although everything is not spic and span, it's used too frequently, still it is organized. Even the tiny crowded rooms are well organized out of necessity; they have storage in the stables for some vet supplies, etc.

First the horses are checked into the Receiving Barn, either A or B, across the alley from the large animal treatment facility, the older building that has seen many sick and injured animals over the years. The barns are spotless and bedded deeply with straw. They all contain a hay rack, two water buckets half filled with clean water and an automatic waterer in the corner. The racks have timothy hay in them to eat and they were not shy about stuffing the racks. Each stall also has three extra bales of straw just outside it in case a deep bedding is needed for a surgical recovery case.

A great young tech named Wendy who has a lead shank surgically attached to her arm came out and checked the horses in. We had appointments for both horses. They get a sort of credit card with their names and the owner or trainer's name on them, for identification. They start charts and the credit cards go along, and they run them through "Addressograph" machines in each station to record the horse's name and person ID on the workup for each procedure, so they not only have a billing record but don't get the horses and procedures mixed up.

They took both into the tiny "Cardiac" cubicle, which is lined on its dingy painted cement walls with win pictures of horses like Witty's Norman, (one of only a few Standardbreds pictures there) and posters of steeplechase horses and thoroughbreds. There are three or four fancy ultrasound machines in there with a host of Drs. and techs to operate them. The horses, techs and docs are crammed in, altho every measure is taken for safety, including a cabinet full of tranquilizer, since the horses cannot jump around too much or someone could get hurt, or an expensive machine will be broken. There is only room for two horses in there at a time, one in a corner behind a gate and another in the stocks.

They thoroughly examine the horses first with stethoscope, listening carefully in many spots to the heart and lungs. They check pulse rate several times and respiration often during the check.

Then the horses heart's are ultrasounded, to check for defects and for proper construction.

After that, if nothing untoward is detected, the horse goes on to a lameness exam out on the pavement, abbreviated today because of the rain, and the fact that the one horse that did the lameness check was barefoot as per instructions. (More on that later.)

Actually, the heart exam provides a baseline for the treadmill work later, so they have a resting set of data to compare to when the horse goes into work.

One horse they detected problems before the initial treadmill work, so he was considered a candidate for some other procedures and was "scratched" from the treadmill evaluation.

The other horse was led into the Treadmill building, a lovely big open ceiling tent-like construction with knotty pine paneling. The treadmill is an equine high speed treadmill, placed flush with the floor, all rubber matted, and a clear plexiglass sheet on either side of huge metal bars, like the biggest stocks you ever saw, padded on the sides.

The horse is first acclimated to the treadmill with just a halter. They let him learn to walk on it, which is actually the scariest part at first, since they do not realize the floor is moving under them and start to scramble.

This is the reason for no shoes. Especially shoes with grabs, which damage the belts on the treadmill. There are some dings in the large garage door behind the back of the treadmill and the vets say the shoes are pulled off the feet like suction and hit the door like bullets! They caution you not to stand behind the treadmill. (Art coutesy of Equine Art)

After the first session, the harness complete with hobbles and bridle, also with knee boots if the horse wears them, is added. But not lines, they get in the way. And the horse is checked up as he gets moving faster.

Our horse today was completely dressed in Professional Choice sports medicine boots on all four legs plus bell boots, provided by them, which I think was a little too much for him as he crossfires a tad and got into the bell boots once or twice. They take them up to about a 2:30 or so the first time with the harness on and dressed. This is all done without taking measurements, as yet, because they need to teach the horse to do the job first, and the learning process can unfairly elevate some of the readings, plus if the horse acts up or jerks around while learning and they have the hookups they could pull them out and cause a mess.

Throughout the day, quiet handling is the order. There are no fights with horses there. A chain goes over the nose if the horse doesn't stand with just the halter. If the nose chain isn't working, it's a twitch. A twitch fight? Tranquilize. "Do no harm" is not taken lightly at New Bolton. Every person that handled our horses did so with care and patience.

After that, the horse is taken right into a nice wash bay with rubber floor and cross ties just adjacent to the back of the treadmill. We remove the harness and they let him drink water and just stand around for a little while. As it was about lunch time they informed us to go to the New Bolton Cafeteria and they would be ready to go in 45 min. to an hour again. The cafeteria is just a short walk down the hill behind the treadmill building, so off we waded to eat, they serve hot meals and have a good variety, you can get it to eat there or to go.

When we came back they were already setting the catheters in. They measure blood gases while on the treadmill every 30 seconds so they place a catheter, hooked up, on the horse to take the blood automatically. They also attempt to set a catheter in the small artery near the horses' eye, on the side of the head, to get non-veinous blood, but no go with this horse, they attempted to twitch (he hates a twitch) and it was really bad so they don't push it. They had another alternative, and used what Dr. Martin called "Plan B." "We actually have a Plan C but we've never used it yet," he said. Wendy, the tech, said he was OK at the training sessions in the morning but that they usually get much better in the afternoon after they let them sit a while and try again.

Wendy is an old hand at treadmill training. She handles the urging and knows how to get the horse going, how to hold it properly, coaches the students and techs on helping. The catheters take nearly an hour. While they were working on it, we dressed him again, full battle gear including hobbles and bridle.

He is led into the treadmill and started, and they don't waste too much time in getting him going up to speed. They check him up once he is above jogging speed, and go from there right to a 2:30 clip. The machine hums and is not too loud to speak over but you can tell it's powerful. All the engine parts, etc. are under the floor. When the horse gets moving, they are a little reluctant I think because they are barefoot and are afraid to slip; they really slap their feet down hard, it's amazing how loud it is and how much pressure is borne on the hoof; the pastern angle too is unbelieveable at speed, you can stand right next to the horse as he accelerates and watch him closely, it's really astonishing.

Dr. Martin said the 12 mps (meters per second) rate is about a 1:56 mile. This horse they were able to get him up to about 11 1/2.

This was a big horse and you can stand right beside them while they are going. The sides of the treadmill are the clear plexiglas and you can easily see the gait. The top bars are about even with the quick hitch attachments on the harness but this is a 16.2 hand horse, but as he got going faster, he became lower to the ground and longer; it's a big treadmill but he filled the majority of it. Wendy has a whip and slaps the big padded side with it and yells to keep him at it. True to this horses nature he cheated quite a bit but they were doing the best they could.

He is held by two one inch cotton ropes with huge snaps on the ends onto the leather halter which is tightly fitted, as the scope is attached to it and can't bounce off his face. The girls one on each side hold the ropes around a big ring and anchored around another ring, just like a sailboat, and they must pull a bit to keep him up on the treadmill. Also the horses do lean on the bars some, just like getting into a shaft on the bike, I suppose.

The scope shows exactly what happens to the horse's airway while he is moving. It is fascinating. You can see the epiglottis and airway clearly on the tv monitor. In addition, blood gases are being taken as well, so all in all it's quite a technical set up but it's incredibly interesting to see go on right in front of you!

Dr. Martin video taped the horse, as he feels he has plenty of thoroughbred data, with galloping horses, but not enough with pacers and trotters. He said the runners take a breath with each stride, but not the pacers. He feels they breathe on one side or another, depending upon the horse's individual preference, and that they do not breathe on every stride but some every fourth stride. He wants to do more pacers; he said there were plenty of 2:00 horses he can do but they are the last 5 percent finishers in the races at places like the Meadowlands and Dover, and to get better data he'd like to have more 56 horses on the treadmill. He feels it would help horsemen who have these horses if they had better data about how they breathed, but it's hard to get, because if you have a 56 horse you want to race it, not treadmill it. So they are grappling with the idea of moving a treadmill setup to a track, or finding a way to encourage horsemen to provide faster, better horses for studies in some way.

Very interesting and we could have talked with him for a long time but things move along.

They gradually slow the treadmill down and back the horse off. All the while the readings are taken, numerous, it's beyond my knowledge but they do the samples which are taken immediately into the lab right next to the treadmill. A tech runs the tests in a spotless lab while we wait.

The blood gases in particular give a good measurement of the amount of waste product his muscles not only produce but get rid of. In Dr. Martin's experience, most racing jurisdictions don't sample long enough after racing; he feels more accurate readings can be made at 3 hours than 1 1/2 hours, as is the case in Delaware and Maryland, and is trying to convince the powers that be that a fairer testing time is further out, something he said they seem resistant to. We are both ways on this. Certainly it's inconvenient if you are at a ship-in track like Dover to stay for 3 hours as they are not set up in any way to hold numerous horses for such a time. But if it's a fairer set up and catches the bad guys, but not the honest guys, it's ok with us as it should be with any honest trainer who is tired of trying to keep up with cheaters.

Dr. Martin also said that under a POUND of baking soda has NO AFFECT on the physiology of any racehorse. A POUND. 16 ounces, folks. So these high blood gas things that set off the bells on 4 ounces or more -- in his opinion, they are just probably physiological changes that occur as the body goes thru the cool down process. He strongly feels that they should retest horses and retest to see if the levels slow down.

They strip the horse, then wash the horse down, leaving in the catheters, because they take another couple of samples in time increments as he cools down. Again, he's allowed to drink water and relax, then they did one more scope with a tracheal wash to sample some mucous that was detected.

Now with other horses with different problems they may then do other diagnostic procedures, but our other non-treadmill horse was then having a deep lung wash / sample taken so we headed over the the treatment building to see him. They sedated him because the scope they use is very long and goes down into the branches of the lungs. We were able to see way past the epiglottis and down in, it was very interesting. They flush it with some fluid then suck it back up and hope it contains pathogens such as bacteria or fungus that can be cultured. In that case, medicine can be prescribed to fight the problem which is deep in the lungs.

His lungs work too hard to get him air so they felt this procedure would lend us some answers more quickly. Altho he is a big horse, he is a "lightweight" said Wendy, as only 2 cc's and he was nearly out cold and tried to almost fall in the stocks! There were a pack of students around him and a different vet doing the scoping with the usual half dozen helpers. There doesn't seem to be a shortage of hands around there.

While we were there, a large Dutch Warmblood jumper came in to have both hind suspensories ultrasounded, a pregnant mare was there for a problem, and several other emergencies and examinations. We didn't see all the horses of course, it was said it was a light day. Altho it was a dreary, rainy day, and we didn't get immediate answers to our questions about our two horses, we did learn a tremendous amount and get treated to a very in-depth educational look at the workings of a high speed equine treadmill in action at a reknowned veterinary research hospital. Thank you to New Bolton. Can we get a discount on our bill for the plug?


For more information: New Bolton Center | Horses and High Speed Treadmills | A Picture of the type of treadmill used for these studies | About Treadmills -- Scroll Down on the page, article is about exercise equipment for horses | Airflow in Racehorses