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Equine Athletic Performance Laboratory Evaluates Structural and Physiological Issues During Exercise

"Analysis with newer quantitative techniques allows fine discrimination in the study and diagnosis of how an animal runs and provides a tool for evaluating the effectiveness of therapy over time," says James Jones, director of the Claire Giannini Hoffman Equine Athletic Performance Laboratory (EAPL).

The EAPL, completed in 2005, includes an equine exercise clinic with a treadmill for Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) patient examinations and an equine exercise laboratory with a specialized research treadmill.

Equine"While a horse is running on the treadmill, structural and physiological systems can be precisely monitored and measured with diagnostic equipment," says Dr. Jones. "We can take direct measurements in the blood vessels and chest while the animal is working."

The laboratory is dedicated to developing new tools and techniques for answering physiological questions and diagnosing performance problems that may include orthopedic, cardiologic, respiratory, airway disease, pharmacological, or other issues.

The EAPL fosters a collaborative "task force" approach. When a horse with a performance problem such as lameness is brought to the VMTH clinic, the client meets with the clinician in charge of the case, while behind the scenes, the diagnostic expertise is magnified through collaboration—veterinarians from several disciplines such as biomechanics, orthopedics, imaging and surgery might convene to evaluate the animal and develop a treatment strategy.

"We also collaborate with the pharmacological program of the Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory next door to measure the effects of drugs on performance, or to detect drugs or drug abuse," says Dr. Jones.

The EAPL is set up primarily for horses, but the treadmills can be slowed for small animals, which use custom restraints to accommodate their small size. The treadmills also have built-in cutouts for force plates to measure the weight distribution on an animal’s feet as it is running. Video cameras at different angles are used to construct 3-D images of the animal in motion.

Many surgically correctable problems are diagnosed using the treadmill in conjunction with advanced imaging, and treadmill studies can also reveal how the animal obtains or uses energy, or how diseases develop.

"Imaging provides a huge window into exercise physiology," says Dr. Jones. "Imaging technologies provide not only a measurable physical perspective on any given problem, but also a resource for seeing the problem from different angles. The school has a large faculty with a range of overlapping interests and expertise, and its imaging capabilities are the envy of most other veterinary schools."

As a comparative respiratory and exercise physiologist, Dr. Jones has studied physiological questions pertaining to a diverse group of animals including emus, ostriches, capybaras, pronghorn antelope and chimpanzees. He is interested in the role of physiological factors in constraining animals or predisposing them to various diseases, and in gaining new insights by comparison.

At the moment EAPL investigators are experimenting with radically different methods of training horses to determine the effects on function and performance. Different training techniques that take into account inherent size differences may result in better performance and prevent some injuries if applied. "We want to see the physiological effect—for instance if muscles develop or act in a different way—of unusual modifications that may be useful in ancillary regimens," says Dr. Jones.

"What we can do with the EAPL facility is essentially limitless," he says. "We’re pushing the envelope in developing new clinical and research tools and understanding—and often, when you answer one question, you generate far more."


This article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of California Veterinarian magazine.