CALGARY, AB -- When equine photographer Orianna Scheck snapped an image of cold winter mist rising in the aisle of a barn full of Standardbred racehorses, she captured in a nutshell some of the respiratory challenges they face during an Alberta winter.
Alberta has two harness racing tracks: Century Downs, in Calgary, and Century Mile, in Edmonton. It’s the Edmonton track which hosts winter racing, from September to February. To put it in perspective, the average temperature in Edmonton during the months of December, January, and February is somewhere between -3 C (25 F) and -17 C (3 degrees F). Nights plunging to -30 are not unusual, and -40 is far from unheard of; Edmonton (population 1,000,000) is the farthest north of any major city in North America and is also the coldest.
Standardbred racehorses have amazingly efficient and powerful lungs which fuel them to pace at speeds upwards of 55 kilometres per hour. But when temperatures plunge, as they do every winter in Edmonton, those respiratory passages – and the hearts they’re connected to – have to work all the harder. This is particularly true in the dry cold of the Canadian west, where drawing in large amounts of cold and moisture-poor air into the lungs while training or racing, can result in exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
A study from Oklahoma State University in the mid- 2000s, which evaluated the impact of inhaling cold air on the lung function of Thoroughbreds, found that at 5 degrees Celsius, equine lungs began to show signs of injury to the lining of the airways, which results in an increase of tracheal mucous production and coughing. At -15 Celsius, the researchers also found that respiratory immunity can be compromised when horses exercise – potentially increasing their susceptibility to disease, and to the development of chronic airway inflammation and asthma.
Horses racing in cold temperatures reportedly have twice the risk of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or EIPH, then those racing in more temperate climates, according to another study completed in 2010. The classic sign of EIPH is post-exercise bleeding from one or both nostrils – but for every horse who visibly bleeds, there are likely two or three who are experiencing some degree of hemorrhage deeper in the respiratory passages.
Scheck, an owner of Standardbreds since 2003 and a fan of everything harness racing, has developed an extensive photography portfolio of horses living, training, and racing during Alberta winters (as well as summers). Her dramatic images of frost-encrusted manes and nostrils, steaming flanks, and bundled-up humans huddled on jog-bikes speak to the hardiness and ambition of both the racehorses and their handlers.
“I come from a background as a competitive figure-skater,” she says, “and when I was introduced to harness racing, it really satisfied that competitive aspect for me. I started by claiming a horse called Swing Pass, in 2003, with a couple of friends. She won her first race with us by seven lengths, and I thought, ‘oh, this is easy!’,” she laughs. “Of course, it isn’t really that easy, but I was totally hooked.
“Later I owned a horse appropriately named Star of Winter, a mare who absolutely loved the cold. She just thrived when she was racing in the winter. Now that she is retired from racing, she has become one of two broodmares I own, and I’m looking forward to raising her foal next year.”
Scheck says she got interested in photography as an extension of her love for racing. “Pre-pandemic, I used to bring all my friends to the track whenever a horse of mine was racing,” she explains. “It was a social thing for us. And I found I wanted to capture all the moments, so I started bringing my camera every time I went to see my horses train or race.
“I’m largely self-taught, but I do have an artistic background, so it was kind of a natural thing for me.”
Scheck’s images have appeared in multiple racing publications and websites, as well as several editions of the Standardbred Canada annual calendar. “I have my camera with me all the time these days. It’s my happy place.
“I’ve also gotten into video – I did some yearling sales videos for a top trainer here in Alberta, and have also put together promotional videos for Faith Valley Ranch’s three pacing stallions, Santana Blue Chip, Up The Credit, and Secrets Nephew, and for Century Downs.
“When I used to skate, I would choreograph and do the music editing and costumes for my routines, so conceiving, filming, and editing videos feels like second nature to me.”
To Scheck’s eyes, there is nothing more beautiful than a racehorse – and winter conditions highlight that beauty she frames in her viewfinder. You can view more of her photography on her Facebook page, Orianna Scheck Photos on Facebook .
TIPS FOR MANAGING RESPIRATORY HEALTH IN WINTER
Here are some management strategies to keep in mind when exercising or training horses in cold weather:
- Keep your horse hydrated. Horses ‘condition’ the air they inhale in order to protect the delicate tissues of the lungs, and in winter when the air is drier, they can lose significant amounts of water from their airways.
Since dehydration is a major cause of fatigue and poor performance, it is important to provide your horse with lukewarm water to drink, and to add more water to his diet by soaking hay and grain and offering soaked feeds like beet pulp. Adding a little salt to the feed will also encourage him to drink.
- Take your horse’s temperature daily – an increase in temperature can be an early sign of respiratory infection.
- Make sure your horse is up to date with vaccination for equine respiratory diseases such as influenza and equine herpes virus (EHV).
- On days when the temperature plunges past -15 C, lighten your horse’s workload. Choose to jog lightly instead of doing a fast training mile, for example.
- The best way to treat bronchoconstriction is with the therapeutic use of a nebulizer mask such as Flexineb, and inhaled medication, such as a beta-2-agonist, or just saline. Use these medications under veterinary supervision and observe the racing medication rules.