‘What We Do Now Matters’: Missives from Dr. Mark Revenaugh’s Keynote at USEA Annual Meeting

The consequence of opting not to bring your camera…bad back-of-house photos! You’re welcome.

Attendees at this weekend’s USEA Annual Meeting and Convention were treated to a special keynote address from Dr. Mark Revenaugh DVM during Saturday’s member meeting and luncheon. An expert on the subject of lameness diagnostics and performance issues, Dr. Revenaugh’s career as equine vet which has taken him around the world as an official USET Team Veterinarian and attracts clients from all over the country to his Oregon practice, Northwest Equine Performance.

You can read more about Dr. Revenaugh and his philosophy here.

Through an engaging hour-long presentation, Dr. Revenaugh reflected on the most important lessons he’s learned, the progression of the equine sports medicine and veterinary field, and what the future holds. Underneath his message was one common theme: what we do now matters, and the big picture is often more useful than looking at everything through a microscope. The following are some key takeaways from a presentation that I know I really took to heart and found to be insightful, impactful, and incredibly important.

1. A strong and healthy spine is key to overall health and wellness.

I’m going to put my personal hat on for just a moment and talk about my recent experience with a chiropractor (a GOOD chiropractor, mind you — there are plenty of poor experiences out there, so do your research). I have suffered from small but recurring soft tissue injuries on my legs due to running. I’m not sure I would have thought to look at my spine during my rehab process; instead I primarily have focused on “why does my Achilles still hurt?”. But then I began working with an incredible chiropractor, who has not only helped rid me of back pain (I’ve had scoliosis since I was very young), but has also helped expand my perspective to appreciate that literally every part of my body connects, in some way, to my spine. Why wouldn’t I think to take proper care of it, then?

This concept applies to our horses, Dr. Revenaugh says. He illustrated his point by listing off several issues that could be traced back to neck issues in horses, from landing and having legs buckle due to spinal compression to bucking, rearing and other “behavioral” problems. He also pointed out the fact that the horse’s lumbar spine is particularly instrumental in creating power and push for jumping, meaning that it often comes up as a point of discomfort if left unmanaged. He pointed out examples where treating a horse’s lumbar spine had helped resolve other hind end issues — hock problems, suspensory issues.

This led into Dr. Revenaugh’s discussion of how we need to be looking at the whole horse — “backing up to look at the picture from a telescope rather than a microscope” — in order to create a better, sounder athlete instead of chasing injury after injury.

2. Medicine doesn’t fix everything.

Dr. Revenaugh also observed the progression of veterinary medicine as it pertained to sporthorses. The 1990s, he joked, were solved by diagnosing everything with EPM and ulcers. The 2000s introduced advances in imaging and regenerative therapies such as stem cells. The 2010s brought about additional options for rehab and injury treatment aside from only stall rest.

“But despite all this progress,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves: are our horses healthier? Stronger? Are they having longer careers? And this question, for me anyway, really makes me question what kind of progress we’re doing and whether I am effective at my job.”

Noting the results of a study done at Los Alamitos racetrack that eliminated the use of corticosteroid injections for 30 days and resulted in a reduction/elimination of injuries and breakdowns, Dr. Revenaugh took a “less is more” bottom line: “We’ve got to start reeling in what we’re doing and try to be more effective.”

This brought him to talk about recovery and proper maintenance of athletes. Using the example of if an NFL team were to try to play for 11 months out of the year — similar to how the eventing competition season has expanded to where the offseason is negligible if you want it to be — he explained that recovery wasn’t being emphasized enough. He referenced the priority that human sports medicine has placed on recovery and preventative treatment as a way to gain a competitive advantage. “This presents a new way of thinking in managing our horses,” he said.

3. Training affects soundness in a very complex and profound way.

“The future of this whole thing is going to be more about building better athletes than fixing injuries,” Dr. Revenaugh continued. “Progress is about getting the right things done, and I think as an industry we need to think about what the right things are.” He encouraged riders to think about building recovery into their training plans and to take some lessons from those outside the horse industry. On that note, he also mentioned a new Sport Horse Series he’s working on with several other industry subject matter experts as well as leading health and wellness professionals from other sports and industries.

4. Give your horse the benefit of the doubt, and listen.

Dr. Revenaugh showed the audience a series of photos depicting a horse and rider jumping a jump. In the series, which was taken from behind, you could clearly see the crookedness with which the horse was jumping and landing, as well as the crookedness of the rider. He described the importance of understanding how our own balance affects our horses way of going, noting that the horse in the photo had presented with some front end issues that could be traced back to this crookedness.

Horses generally don’t want to do something wrong. They aim to please, making it our job to clearly communicate the ask to them and to ensure that our riding isn’t confusing them or causing overcompensation. “People are often looking for veterinary solutions for non-veterinary problems,” he explained. “Evaluate the weaknesses of the riders as they pertain to the horse.”

5. Why does it matter?

“The future is closer than we think and we need to be thinking about how our future should look,” Dr. Revenaugh said in closing. “And we need to be thinking about it today.”

Noting the evolution of veterinary medicine as well as the sport horse industry, Dr. Revenaugh encouraged the audience to think about the future of the sport. “What is the vision? What is the big picture?” he asked. “Are we willing to innovate? Or are we going to keep doing the same thing?”

He told a story of a colleague who had felt somewhat disheartened at some of the clientele he was treating, saying he felt that the owners viewed the horses as disposable commodities.

“The notion of connection to the horse is becoming increasingly important,” he said. “Horses teach us genuine trust, to not be distracted. It’s about that interaction and trust and the ability to work through things. So if we really believe in it, we really need to focus back on that.”

The USEA Annual Meeting and Convention continues this evening with an awards dinner and will wrap up tomorrow with a few more sessions. I’m heading home this evening, but will have some additional notes from the other sessions I attended this weekend, and Erin Tomson (who was just nominated onto the USEA Board of Governors representing Area VII!) will be along tomorrow with a wrap-up of awards from tonight’s dinner. You can follow along with all things Convention on the USEA website here.