VET’S DIARY: Getting to the heart of the matter with veterans

Throughout November and December, and in conjunction with XLVets, our practice has been running specialist health checks and clinics, in a campaign to raise awareness about the older horse, writes Lesley Barwise-Munro.

It is vital that a horse’s heart is listened to regularly by a vet. We check the heart rate and rhythm and listen carefully for any murmurs, as abnormalities can indicate cardiac pathology and can affect both performance and safety.

Recent evidence from the University of Liverpool shows that 20 per cent of all horses over the age of 15 are found to have a heart murmur. Age-related left-sided heart murmurs can progress to jeopardise rider safety and therefore regular vet checks and scanning as required should be carried out.

Murmurs can signify turbulent blood flow or leaky heart valves. In some cases this can cause enlargement of the heart or great vessels and can result in abnormal heart rhythms or even sudden death.

It is not always possible to determine the severity of a problem simply by listening to the heart. If a loud murmur is detected we advise that this is investigated further by echocardiography (ultrasound scan of the heart) – a non-invasive technique that is normally something that doesn’t require sedation.

Low grade murmurs often just need to be monitored by listening to the heart every six-12 months, for any increase in sound intensity or duration.

Echocardiography allows us to locate the source of the murmur and visualise any turbulent blood flow using colour Doppler imaging.

The structure of the heart valves can be evaluated, measurements of the heart chambers can be obtained and calculations can be made to evaluate heart function.

It is crucial to get this information from the scan. In the worst case scenario it might show us that the heart is at risk of sudden failure and the horse is unsafe to continue ridden work, but often the scan is most important for monitoring progression of the heart problem in the future.

If there are abnormalities on the heart scan, then we may also advise that the heart is evaluated by ECG at exercise – this looks at the electrical function of the heart and can identify rhythm abnormalities which can influence rider safety.

As winter approaches, it is important to consider the health of your older horses and ponies so they start next spring in optimum condition. Adverse weather, sparse grazing and limited turnout can all put significant demands on the veteran.

On Friday, December 6, we are running a heart scanning clinic day – for more information or if youwish a vet to examine your horse’s heart please contact the Fairmoor Equine clinic on 01670 897597.

Visit our website www.alnorthumbriavets.co.uk to find out about all the events and clinics on offer, including how to register for our free talk which is the jewel in the crown of the programme, taking place tonight at Burgham Golf Club. It is entitled Keeping the Older Horse on Track, and is a must for all horse owners.