Quit Horsin’ Around: New club at UW Veterinary School to focus on athletic animal therapy 

This is the first post by new student science writer Rachael Lee. Welcome, Rachael!

The Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (VSMR) Club provides new opportunities for students to gain insight into this growing field.

All over the world, athletes spend countless hours training to perfect their technique. To mend the physical toll it takes, there are teams of physical therapists, nutritionists, and researchers taking care of these athletes. 

The recently founded Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (VSMR) Club at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine is seeking to teach students how to bring this same level of care — to animals. Whether it’s providing a full body massage to a shepherding dog or a physical therapy regimen specifically designed for a racehorse, veterinary sports medicine addresses the unique needs of working and competing animals.  

Veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation refers to a branch of veterinary medicine that studies and treats athletic animals. It particularly focuses on problems of the neuromusculoskeletal system that often accompany competitive sports. Club president Maggie Coakley and vice president Sabina Dayal say the purpose VSMR club is “educating students, graduates and faculty members who are interested in learning more about this field.” 

By joining the VSMR club, students are offered immersive opportunities within both large- and small-animal sports medicine. Their meetings comprise many different activities: lectures with certified guest speakers; American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation representatives speaking on paths to residency; and hands-on experiences in the form of wet labs, including lameness exams, nerve blocking, and joint injections.

Coakley and Dayal were inspired to join this field due to their previous experiences with athletic animals, and being athletes themselves. Coakley says education is what you make of it: “If you have interests that lie outside of the core curriculum, it’s important to seek out opportunities to be exposed to those topics.” 

The field of veterinary sports medicine is surprisingly interdisciplinary, involving not only kinesthesiology (a medical field that studies therapy for the movement of muscles and joints), but aspects of internal medicine and even biomechanics. Fernando Marqués is a clinical associate professor of large animal internal medicine at UW–Madison, with special board certification in veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation. He works with horses that compete in a variety of sports, such as show jumping or racing.

As a specialist in internal medicine, his clinical work takes into consideration not only the musculoskeletal system, but all internal systems as a whole. He emphasized that an athlete’s performance also depends on the health of the entire body, not just muscles and joints.  

Unlike human athletes, animals are unable to verbally communicate their complaints and symptoms. This requires clinicians to examine and consider multiple factors before making a diagnosis. “The difference is that, for us, as human athletes, you go for a run and you feel maybe that that’s not a good day for you to push more,” says Marqués. “Whereas if you’re riding a horse, you need to sense your horse, the horse will not tell you in words.” 

Take, for example, a horse that comes in with an uneven gait. “You have to think where it’s a truly musculoskeletal problem or is a neurological problem,” Marqués says. “Those are challenging cases or interesting cases to work with to understand.”

Add the element of a rider, their weight load and stresses they put on an animal, and it becomes much more complex. Especially in cases where a rider is inexperienced, a horse may experience an uneven weight while running: “It’s like, if you were walking, you know, leaning on one leg… in a while you get sore on that leg, right?” says Marqués.

Ultimately, veterinary sports medicine is important for the same reason human sports medicine is. Animals also require very specific treatments depending on what sport they compete in. “Think of humans, right? So for example, a marathon runner would not have the same lesions or problems like a volleyball player would or a tennis player would,”  says Marqués. 

The field has a dual purpose, Coakley says: “Veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation is important because it helps athletic and working animals be able to perform to their full potential.” Dayal adds, “It helps animals by improving their quality of life and helping with managing chronic pain/diseases.” 

The area of veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation is an ever evolving field. “[There are] so many things that we can do and many questions to be answered,” says Marqués.