Tying-Up Syndrome

I just bought a filly who had recurrent bouts of ‘tying-up.’ What can you tell me about this disease?
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Q: I just bought a Thoroughbred filly which was in race training, but retired without running because of recurrent bouts of ‘tying-up.’ She had been turned out for six months before I got her, and never showed any problems while on the farm. What can you tell me about this disease?

A: Tying-up is a syndrome or description of a horse with muscle damage that has many different causes. It probably is one of the most misunderstood and controversial syndromes in the athletic horse. Since there are several causes, some of which appear to be inherited, there is no single cure. Typical signs of tying-up include a horse which becomes stiff, sweats, and is reluctant to move. Researchers have learned a great deal about tying-up—or exertional rhabdomyolysis—in recent years. Unfortunately, the information has shown that some of the most common beliefs about tying-up have been proven wrong by scientific study. Thus, what was considered by some early researchers to be a problem that had one basic cause, e.g. lactic acid, is actually a broad-scale syndrome that will require continued research on a variety of fronts before every aspect is understood.

In other words, tying-up is not one disease, but several different diseases that have similar signs and different causes. Therefore, the management of a Thoroughbred that suffers from tying-up would differ from the management of a Quarter Horse that is tying-up, would differ from the management of a backyard pleasure horse that has the same symptoms.

Some horses are healthy athletes that tie-up sporadically likely due to exercise in excess of their training level, electrolyte depletion, or dietary imbalances. They respond well to rest, a gradual return to a graduated training regime, and balancing the diet. Other horses will suffer from chronic episodes of tying-up that can be debilitating. Our research suggests that there might be several inherited reasons for chronic tying-up

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Written by:

Stephanie Valberg, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVSMR, is the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine and a Professor of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University. She is a leading researcher on the subject of tying-up and the genetic basis for equine neuromuscular disorders.

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