Reasons for Sudden Death in Horses
 By Winniefield Park   •   16th Aug 2014   •   5,179 views   •   4 comments

Del Mar Racetrack has had a run of bad luck this summer. Some are looking to the new track footing as a reason for several of the breakdowns, but it appears two of the unusually high number of deaths so far could have nothing to do with the footing. One horse died before racing began, the other collapsed without cause as it approached the finish line.

Few of us can forget the heart-rending images of Eric Lamaze’s horse Hickstead, collapsing just as he finished an almost perfect thirteen fence World Cup stadium jumping course in Italy. Lamaze was just circling the ring when the 15-year-old stallion crumpled to the ground. In news headlines, the explanation for deaths like these is ‘heart attack’.

A heart attack is something most people will understand, but might not be a realistic explanation of what actually happened. Horses don’t really have heart attacks for the same reason humans do. Humans have heart attacks because something is blocking the blood from flowing into the heart, and a portion of the heart muscle dies. The most common cause for this is a buildup of fatty plaque on the artery walls. Often, human victims of heart attacks are older, possibly out of shape and have other issues like being overweight or high blood pressure. In horses, heart failure is more likely to be caused by a birth defect, infection, electric shock, drug reaction, tumor or even heat stroke. As in humans, heart failure can be treated, and it really isn’t as common in horses as it is in people.

A more likely reason these, and other horses die suddenly is aortic rupture or aneurysm. This happens when there is a weak area in the aorta, the main vessel transporting newly oxygenated blood to the heart. The weak spot suddenly bursts through like a popped water balloon. It usually holds out until the horse’s pulse and blood pressure rise due to exertion. The resulting hemorrhage floods the area surrounding the heart. The pressure from the buildup of blood around the heart prevents it from beating and the horse dies very quickly. I know of one horse that died playing with a pasture mate. I’ve heard of a woman who was riding her stallion on a trail, when it reared up and crashed to the ground. Sometimes, horses are simply found dead in their pasture or stall, with perhaps a trickle of blood in the nostrils. There is usually no warning that the crisis will happen, and it can happen to horses of any age, type or fitness level. There’s no treatment and there is not yet a definitive way to predict which horses it may happen to.

Another less common reason for a sudden death is a brain aneurysm. Again, this isn’t as common in horses as humans. It’s similar to an aortic rupture, except that it of course, happens in the brain, causing hemorrhaging. There’s no way of predicting if it will happen, and there’s no treatment for it.

Another thing that can cause very sudden death is a drug reaction. If the owner notices something is awry early enough, there may be options for treatment. However, a very severe reaction may take a horse down too quickly for veterinary treatment to begin. Toxins, such as eating poisonous weeds, additives in cattle feed or botulism bacteria can cause very sudden death as well.

Losing a horse is always hard. Losing one to an unknown cause can make it even harder. Even though we take good care of our horses, things just sometimes happen. It’s scary to think that things like this can happen to our horses. But, it is relatively rare. Making sure your horse has good feed, adequate exercise and a regular de-worming program is the best way to ensure it’s health and longevity. That’s really all we can do.
Horse News More In This Category:  General      Horse News More From This Author:  Winniefield Park
Juddmonte farms  
This is so interesting i get really interested in stuff like this
  40 days ago  •  5,441 views
Winniefield Park  
That photo...ROFL!
  39 days ago  •  5,254 views
HaJ Sporthorses   
Great article, very interesting stuff! thanks for explaining!
  18 days ago  •  5,079 views
Three Day Eventer
Very interesting! Thank you for the interesting information.
  May 23, 2015  •  4,132 views
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