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Betsy Carter’s Horse Scene: Arrhythmia can be fatal to some horses

HICKSTEAD, a 15-year-old Grand Prix champion warmblood, ridden by Canadian Eric Lamaze died suddenly on Nov. 6 following a very successful ride at the FEI Grand Prix World Cup in Verona, Italy. Autopsy results have determined that he died of a ruptured aorta.

Horses at this level of competition are extremely fit and well cared-for; therefore, any heart problems would have been known to his caretakers.

However, horse athletes of this caliber also dump tons of red blood cells into the bloodstream during intense exercise, which is what makes them great athletes. But the blood is thicker, and if there is an already weakened heart or related condition, it could cause sudden death.

Dr. Peter Physick–Sheard has done research on sudden death in race horses, both standardbred and thoroughbred. The condition is brought on by intense exercise, similar to a show jumper’s efforts during a jump-off. He found that a flurry of irregular heartbeats occur after horses finish the race.

In most cases, the arrhythmia produces no long-term ill effects, as the heart rate finally returns to normal. But sometimes the arrhythmia deteriorates into a fatal condition or to sudden death.

Hickstead was not considered old, as many horses today perform well into their 20s because of the care they receive. For example, Idle Dice, ridden by Rodney Jenkins, won the Grand Prix at 21 years old and retired at 24.

Betsy Carter can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401; or by fax at 540/373-8455.

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