Getting Equine Athletes Back to Work

Inside a cutting-edge treatment center.
Examining a horse's movements

Examining a horse's movements in Cummings School's new Equine Sports Medicine Complex. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The chestnut horse being examined for a suspected back injury at Cummings School’s new Equine Sports Medicine Complex had the long, elegant lines of a true Westphalian. The naturally athletic eight-year-old gelding's owner and trainer bought him with hopes of competing at the highest levels of dressage, a sport requiring the grace and power of ballet. But they recently noticed he seemed reluctant to work under saddle, swishing his tail, grinding his teeth, and trotting sidewise instead of boldly forward. “He’s the classic horse we see here,” said veterinarian José M. García-López, director of the Issam M. Fares Equine Sports Medicine Program at Cummings School and an orthopedist board-certified in equine surgery, sports medicine, and rehabilitation. “Something’s not right, but no one can figure out what’s wrong.”

Veterinarians at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center are called on to solve these kinds of complex problems every day, and the new 4,400-square-foot Equine Sports Medicine Complex was built to better serve their growing caseload. “Evaluating a horse’s progress for soundness, strength, and stamina requires generous space,” said Virginia Rentko, medical director of the Hospital for Large Animals. “Horses simply need room to move.” Over the years, Cummings veterinarians made best use of what was available—inside the hospital, a grassy area outside, the parking lot—but as of September 2017 they finally have an indoor and outdoor facility built specifically for diagnosing, treating, and caring for horses from first examination through discharge.

García-López huddled with his team to discuss the diagnostic plan for the Westphalian. First, senior veterinary technician Kelly McMahon led the horse to a new paved area outdoors, where García-López studied how he moved for signs of bone pain. Inside, they put the horse through his paces around a new regulation-size arena that lets the veterinarians observe horses in real-world performance conditions. As the Westphalian trotted, he avoided putting his full weight on his right rear leg, and his spine didn't move up and down as it should. The horse, guarding his back, “doesn’t want to bring that leg fully forward,” García-López said. The problem could have been a leg abnormality that caused him to change his gait and hurt his back or a back injury.

Over the next two days, the veterinary team conducted an extensive evaluation, including a bone scan of the horse’s neck, back, and hind end, ultrasounds of the back and stifles (the equine equivalent of human knees), and repeated lameness exams. After García-López reviewed the results with the clients, the group headed to one of three new exam spaces. The veterinary team numbed the sites of the suspected pain, then brought the horse back to the ring to confirm they had identified the problem (they had). The soft tissues in the back and stifles—affected by some osteoarthritis— were indeed the sources of the discomfort. Although there was no need for surgery, the horse would need focused therapies together with a strict rehabilitation plan.

“You were right: he’s a nice horse,” García-López told the trainer. “He has some soreness in those legs and back, but he was trying to work through it. You might not yet know his true potential.”

An anonymous donor has already stepped forward to help get the Equine Sports Medicine Complex off to a running start.  You can help us meet the full cost of the arena and strengthen its comprehensive Issam M. Fares Equine Sports Medicine Program by joining the campaign to raise $2 million by December 30, 2018. Find naming opportunities and details at