Using Infrared Thermal Imaging for the Preventive Care of Sport Horses
Horses serve multiple purposes in our lives. They are family members, competition partners, companions, and investments. In comparing an equine athlete to a human one, there is a glaring difference between the two – our horses can’t tell us if they’re not feeling well today or if something hurts.
A professional basketball player can tell his coach that his knee hurts so that a treatment plan can be developed to prevent an injury that would sideline that valuable and expensive player. Unfortunately, horses don’t have that same ability to communicate and our indication that something is wrong is when performance declines and/or an injury becomes clinically visible through lameness.
We do a lot for our horses. They are fed high quality feeds and supplements and most are regularly evaluated by a vet. Those evaluations usually entail some flexion tests and a general physical, followed by some sort of preventive maintenance recommendation such as joint injections. These evaluations are important, but they often lack a comprehensive approach. Why? Because the flexion tests in these evaluations are usually the only test to check for lameness and it is focused on the leg joints. Some owners, trainers, and vets will do annual x-rays to track arthritic changes and joint health, but again, these are usually focused only on the legs. There are vast other parts of the equine anatomy that can be a source of pain for your horse.
One of our goals in horse care should be to provide as much support as possible to our equine partners to prevent injury, rather than reacting once the injury occurs. Until the last several years, there has not been a good way to evaluate the overall physical health of the horse that wasn’t invasive and expensive.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, thermal imaging became a legally accepted method to document evidence of pain and since then, the technology behind infrared thermal imaging cameras has improved exponentially. Thermal imaging is now used for sport horses as a tool for preventive maintenance. It is the least expensive and least invasive method to provide a snapshot of a horse’s physical health from head to toe. The only comparable took is a bone scan, which his several drawbacks, including:
- Requirement to transport to veterinary clinic and stay for 2+ days
- Invasive in that radioactive isotopes are injected into the horse
- Horse needs to be sedated
- Cost ranges from $1500-$2500
Alternatively, thermal imaging provides greater gradients of information using the same metabolic processes in the horse, it can be done at the horse’s home location, is completely non-invasive and does not require sedation, and costs between $250-$450 on average. Given the benefits of thermography, many sport horse trainers and owners are choosing to have a thermal study done of their horses quarterly or semi-annually, with each report compared to those previous in order to track changes in the horses physical state over time. In doing so, determinations can be made about the need for joint injections, changes in shoeing, and bodywork such as acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic work.
Likely the greatest benefit of thermography to the horse is the ability to detect very slight changes in inflammatory patterns, thereby identifying areas of pain or impending injury before it actually occurs. Thermal imaging has been proven to identify these areas up to 3 weeks before they are clinically evident, meaning that injury can actually be prevented if managed appropriately. It’s akin to the basketball player saying his knee hurts and doing physical therapy to avoid an ACL tear, which could require surgery and significant time on the bench. Being that our horses can’t verbally tell us that there is discomfort in the knee, the thermal imaging does the talking instead.