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Equine MRI Opens a New Frontier in Lameness Diagnosis and Treatment

American Association of Equine Practitioners

The first "standing" Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine for horses in the United States arrived at Equest Imaging in San Diego County's San Marcos early this year. In use at four clinics in the U.K. and Germany, the state-of-the-art, digital machine is spurring a "revolution" in the diagnosis and treatment of lameness in the performance horse, says Richard B. Markell, D.V.M., one of the clinic's founders. The MRI's significance as a diagnostic tool is its ability to produce a "living gauge" of all tissue--bone, soft tissue, and cartilage. Different physiological states produce different degrees of magnetic resonance and the MRI reveals these simultaneous with the actual structure of the bones, joints and cartilage in question. As a treatment tool, MRI facilitates detailed monitoring of the rehab process. MRI also has the advantage of being a non-invasive procedure during which, in the case of Equest's machine, the horse can stand, while mildly sedated, throughout the procedure.

Equest's founding veterinarians emphasize that no technology will ever replace the thorough lameness exam. To that end, Equest Imaging has a riding arena, a lunging area, and sloped pathways for walking or jogging horses on an incline. The 10-stall facility also has a special stall and pen for treating severe laminitis cases.

"We are learning things about injuries that we've never been able to see before in the living horse," says Markell, who specializes in international dressage and jumping horses and serves in an official veterinary capacity at many FEI events. "A little ligament pull or cartilage damage in the foot are some of the things that, in the past, could only have been seen in a necropsy." Markell offers one example of the difference Equest Imaging's equipment and collective veterinary know-how can provide. "There are a lot of tiny structures in the foot and leg. A horse that has primary degenerative changes in the navicular bone is very different from the horse with a small ligament tear or tiny lesion in his digital flexor tendon. In the 'old days,' both horses might 'block' the same in a lameness exam, even though their diagnosis, treatment and prognosis are very different. One might get better with rest, therapy, maybe orthopedic shoeing changes; the other might need to be nerved." For more information contact (760) 591-9968 or e-mail

Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Equine Practitioners