U opens 'the Mayo Clinic' for horses

High-tech sports medicine? Underwater therapy? MRIs? They're not just for humans anymore.

Dr. Stephanie Valberg walked briskly to her appointment last week at the new equine center at the University of Minnesota, which she calls "the Mayo Clinic of horse medicine."

The professor passed a treadmill room where horses gallop 30 miles an hour -- in place -- while fitted with a device that videotapes their vocal cords. She stopped briefly at the surgery recovery room, where the entire floor can be transformed into an inflatable cushion within seconds.

She pointed out the therapy rooms where injured horses get acupuncture or exercise on an underwater treadmill. Nearby is the stallion breeding station, complete with a sultry mare named Belle "who likes the boys."This is the nicest sports medicine facility for horses in the country right now," said Valberg, director of the new $14 million Leatherdale Equine Center in Falcon Heights. "We hope it will be the home of Minnesota's equine community."

Minnesota is the grazing ground to the ninth largest number of horses in the nation, according to university statistics.

More than 150,000 horses live everywhere from suburban hobby farms to large outstate ranches. The care and feeding of these horses contributes nearly $1 billion a year to the state's economy, said university President Robert Bruininks, one of many Twin Cities leaders who spoke at the center's grand opening last month.

The center is already generating a buzz both in Minnesota and nationally. Dr. John Madigan, director of the large-animal hospital at the University of California, Davis, said the Minnesota facility "has taken all the latest technologies and put them into one place."For anyone who has a top horse that's not performing well, it's the place to sort it out," said Madigan, whose own center is one of a handful of nationally recognized equine medical centers. "I can see it getting referrals from around the country."

Local horse lovers say they're eager to try out its services. The center specializes in sports medicine, but it also offers routine care.

Mary Miller, a retiree from Minneapolis, said she was so excited that she brought her horse Wylie to the center the first week it opened. Wylie has a problem with lameness, one of the most common injuries treated at the facility.

"Just about everyone who owns a horse has heard about this facility," said Miller, standing in an enormous gated arena where her horse's gait was being eyed by a veterinarian. "It's huge. It's spacious. And you don't run into each other in the hallway."

Solving mysteries

For the center's staff and researchers, the state-of-the-art technology gives them new clues to medical mysteries. Owners used to bring in their race horses, complaining of wheezing or throat problems when the horse hit high speeds, said Valberg. But there was no place to replicate the high-speed racing that triggered the problem before the new treadmill and monitor camera were linked up at the center.

Likewise, X-rays typically were used to examine horse's hoofs, but X-rays didn't show torn tendons and ligaments, she said. The new MRI machine that is expected later this year will present clear images of muscular damage.

Before, horse owners would talk about certain problems that happened while they rode their horses -- problems that didn't happen when the horse was standing calmly in a stall. The new arena allows owners to ride their horses under the watchful eye of veterinarians.

"I've always liked mysteries, and that's what we try to do here -- solve mysteries," Valberg said.

Penny Westerlund of Somerset, Wis., was among the horse owners at the center last week. She bought Corazon two years ago for riding, but brought him in because he was limping and lethargic and her own veterinarian couldn't get a good diagnosis, she said.

Valberg, a national expert in equine sports medicine, first examined Corazon as he stood in a stall. Running her hands slowly over the horse's legs and back, she noticed the horse flinch as she touched an area of his back.

Next it was time for a gait analysis. The center soon will have computerized flooring in one of its diagnostic areas, which will be able to monitor the distribution of weight on horses' legs. Last week, however, Corazon's gait was eyeballed by Valberg and Dr. Nicholas Ernst, another professor of veterinary medicine.

Corazon proceeded to get five hour's worth of diagnostic testing. His hock joints were injected with anesthesia to see how his gait was affected. Muscle tissue was removed for testing. He was X-rayed. And Westerlund was impressed.

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    The University of Minnesota recently opened a $14 million Equine Center in Falcon Heights specializing in sports medicine.

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