Health Care

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Building Blood Counts

Did you know regular fast exercise increases a horse’s red blood cell count? Here's how to sustain a healthy red blood cell count in your horse.

It is very rare for a performance horse to be clinically anaemic – but many may be borderline or in the low normal range. Low normal readings may be normal for individual horses. Others may have a low normal reading because they do not have sufficient building blocks for red blood cells or because they have not been exposed to the right training stimuli to generate extra red blood cell production.

The following factors may contribute to low red cell measurements in performance horses:

  1. Blood loss
  2. Inadequate building blocks for red blood cell and haemoglobin production
  3. Inadequate fast work to stimulate red blood cell formation

Blood Loss

Horses may lose significant amounts of blood if they have a heavy internal or external parasite burden (worms or lice). When young horses first come into work or older horses return from the spelling paddocks, it is a good idea to initially worm them out twice three weeks apart. This double worming helps to clean out “encysted” small strongyles (redworms) that will be hibernating in the walls of the large intestine. It is also good practice to give a course of a “blood boosting” supplement such as FBC BLOODFOOD®, to provide the horse with the building blocks for red blood cell and haemoglobin production.

Blood loss can also result from haemorrhages due to an injury or a surgical procedure such as castration. Many trainers and vets still like to “bleed” horses to freshen them up, which once again depletes red blood cells and iron stores from the body. A course of FBC BLOODFOOD will provide the nutritional building blocks to replace the red blood cells and iron lost when the horse is bled.

Two other forms of blood loss may be less obvious to the observer, but can also deplete red blood cell numbers.

  • Many horses in training have stomach ulcers, which may cause poor appetite, loss of bodyweight, and sour behaviour. If severe, the ulcers may bleed and blood can be lost on an ongoing basis through the digestive tract.
  • Other horses may lose significant amounts of blood due to internal lung bleeding during exercise. Theoretically the iron from the red cells destroyed during lung bleeding should be able to be recycled by the body and reused in the production of new red cells. Anecdotally however, it appears that it is not uncommon for an internal bleeder to have a lowered red cell count.

Inadequate building blocks for red blood cell and haemoglobin formation

Iron, copper, cobalt and zinc are the important trace minerals required for red blood cell formation and metabolism. Vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid are essential vitamins in the process. Many trainers think that iron is the only nutrient required for blood cell production, however a deficiency of any of the other minerals and vitamins mentioned above can reduce red blood cell and haemoglobin formation regardless of how much iron is available to the horse.

It is general practice to supply horses with supplementation of some, or all of the nutrients mentioned above. Iron is often given by injection, as is vitamin B12 and folic acid. The use of iron injections is not recommended as it is not uncommon for a horse to suffer a fatal allergic reaction to the injections. Horses also do not have the ability to get rid of excess iron once it has been injected and there is a risk of iron overload that may affect liver function. It is preferable to administer iron in the form of feed supplements – as the horse’s digestive tract can then regulate the iron uptake from the gut.

A short course of FBC BLOODFOOD is an excellent way to supplement blood-building nutrients. In addition to containing a highly concentrated form of iron (known as iron carbonyl which is 98% iron), the supplement also contains copper and cobalt and a range of B-Complex vitamins including vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid, eliminating the need to give any of these nutrients by injection. It is recommended that a 3-week course of FBC BLOODFOOD be given at key times during training to help boost red cell and haemoglobin production.

Suggested times when a horse may require extra nutrients is:

  • At the start of a preparation, after the horse has been wormed out
  • At the start of fast work when the body is stimulated to produce extra red cells to carry the oxygen needed for sprint exercise
  • Prior to a first race or trial
  • At times when the horse may be training off
  • After blood loss whether it be a planned “bleed”, an injury or a surgical procedure

FBC BLOODFOOD is supplied in individual sachets for addition to feed. It is also commonly added to pre-race saline drenches. Although it is unlikely to generate new red blood cells that quickly, administration of iron and B-Vitamins 48 hours pre-racing seems to improve performance in many horses.

Inadequate fast work to stimulate red blood cell formation

Full speed exercise is needed to stimulate the bone marrow to produce optimum amounts of red blood cells. Horses doing a lot of long, slow work will only produce sufficient red blood cells to fuel long slow work. It is recommended that both pacers and gallopers have short sprint workouts over at least 500-600 metres as least twice weekly to stimulate optimum red blood cell counts.

The stress of training and hard exercise can shorten the life of red cells due to damage from “free radicals” produced by working muscles during exercise. A daily supplement of antioxidant nutrients, particularly vitamin E (e.g. WHITE-E® powder or liquid) will help to protect and maintain the lifespan of red blood cells in performance horses.

So, in summary, low normal range red blood cell readings may be normal for individual horses. One should be more concerned about a decrease in red blood cell readings for an individual horse, rather than a horse that has always had low normal readings. Many horses may benefit from supplementation with a complete blood building supplement (not just iron!), and changes in training routines to stimulate greater red blood cell production.

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