It was a regular regimen. Following their morning workouts, young Bruce Jackson would lead a mix of sport horses and racehorses down a shady lane past cows in fields onto the expansive West Wittering Beach and to the water's edge in West Sussex, England. The daily excursions into the sea helped reduce inflammation of the horses' joints and tendons, thanks to the therapeutic benefits of natural seawater, rich in the mineral of sodium chloride. The frigid sea also assisted good circulation through the legs and sped up good quality hoof growth.
Flash forward four decades. Today, Jackson is providing those magical healing capabilities of natural seawater at his Equine Therapy Center on the grounds of the Fair Hill Training Center that sits on the border of northern Maryland and southern Chester County, Pa. The facility installed a cold saltwater spa last June and is using it daily for treating a variety of equine injuries, including tendon sprains, ligament issues, bruised shins, foot growth in the early stages of laminitis, and for healing nasty cuts and abrasions.
"Immersing the horses' legs in sea water was extremely effective in both healing and preventing injury," said Jackson who grew up on his parents' sport horse farm. "It's something that English horsemen have done forever. I can tell you it really kept our horses remarkably fit."
Under a brilliant sky in late October morning riders, perched on top of their mounts, are making their way from the stables to Fair Hill's training tracks. Over at the Equine Therapy Center a rangy, stakes winning son of Dynaformer is rinsed off outside the barn, then led into the equine spa unit and the doors are closed all around. Constructed of the same fiberglass material utilized for building yachts, the equine spa has a non-slip bottom for good footing and rounded edges and recessed handles with several sized cutout doorways so the horse won't snag a hip going in and out.
Constantly circulating, the saltwater travels through a chilling system that maintains a temperature of 35-degrees Fahrenheit. It is roughly 15 degrees colder than ice and water in a bucket that tends to get warmer as the horse stands in it. The water rises to a level above the knee and hooks, and is not allowed to come in contact with the horse's belly. The temperature of the foot does not impact the horse's body temperature.
When the spa unit is filled it contains 520 gallons of water, 150 pounds of Epsom salts and 100 pounds of sea-salt. "The saltwater acts like a poultice on the leg, drawing any heat, inflammation and edema out of the tissues," Jackson explained. "It's terrific for soothing, cleansing and healing any open wounds or sores on the horse. Water aeration also has a massaging effect on the legs. It utilizes a double filtering system and chlorine so that the risk for transferring any infection from one horse to another is eliminated."
The horse stands in the spa for ten minutes then walks through the exit door. The leg stays cold for another three to four hours triggering another impressive benefit.
"Afterwards the temperature of the leg gradually warms and you gets a dilation effect that causes a rush of blood and oxygen to travel through the bloodstream to the lower limb that traditionally has very poor circulation and helps heal," Jackson said. "That is the biggest benefit of this unit."
According to Patrick Lawley-Wakelin, racing manager for Robert S. Evans, their racing operation has sent a couple dozen horses to Jackson's facility over the past few years. In late November four of its runners were undergoing various treatments. "After ankle surgery we've sent them to use the salt water therapy," noted Lawley-Wakelin. "Same with tendon issues, it brings the tendon down and gets the swelling out. It's a big improvement over ice boots or ice buckets. The treatment really speeds up the recovery process and been an invaluable to tool for us.
"Another big plus is after the treatments are finished, they are able to go out to Fair Hill's Tapeta track or just a jog through the countryside. These days so much money is spent on training. Time is of the essence. The Fair Hill experience enables them to get back to full training much faster."
Beyond the cold-water spa ($50 a session), The Equine Therapy Center offers the Aqua Pacer (an underwater treadmill), solarium therapy, a European freestyle automatic walker, shock wave therapy, magnetic therapies, acupuncture, a therapeutic farrier and an oval jogging track that surrounds an outdoor courtyard. All of the equipment, modalities, and services are at the disposal of the horse's veterinarian, who designs the rehabilitation protocol with Jackson and his staff that oversee its administration.
On the wall in the center's medicine room-a sort of nurses' station-hangs a medical chart for each horse. On that chart, the veterinarian prescribes the horse's daily rehabilitation activities, medication, and specific care. Charts are imprinted with notes by treating veterinarian and caregivers as to the horse's progress, areas of concern, and other pertinent medical information.
The facility has become a valuable adjunct to the racing program of some of the East Coast's top owners and trainers. Over the past few years when one of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott's prized runners has been recovering from surgery, a significant injury or needs to freshen up, Mott has often turned to Equine Therapy Center.
"They look good when they come back," related Mott. "Most of them have injuries like bucked shins or are recovering from chips (arthoscopic surgery on leg joints). The horses have been able to maintain a certain level of fitness so we can get started up at the track a little sooner. But the main goal is to get back the best horse you can."
Growing up along the south coast of England, Jackson rode dressage and show-horses and competed in three-day eventing. His parents also owned a string of racehorses. His first job in the thoroughbred world was with English trainer Fred Winters in the early 1980s. At age 19 he accepted an invitation to work at Ashwell Stable in the rolling hills of Chester County, Pa, the training farm of Jonathan Sheppard.
"I came over to work for Jonathan for six months and wound up staying four-and-a-half years," Jackson recalled. "Then I spent six months rubbing horses in Baden-Baden, Germany and moved on to Australia where I worked with trainers Brian Mayfield Smith and Rose Hill and Neville Beg in Sydney."
He returned to the States working in southern California for Richard Mullhall before heading back to England where he assisted Merrick Francis, the son of legendary mystery author Dick Francis.
"It was an offer I couldn't resist," Jackson admitted. "But I kept feeling this pull back to America so in 1989 an I started training here at Fair Hill, running my horses on the east coast, primarily the Mid-Atlantic region."
Jackson-trained stakes winners include Miasposa, Windquest, Crafty Toast, Polish Miss, Starvinsky, Libby's Halo and Clifton Park that traveled wire-to-wire to score in the Maryland Million Nursery for 2-year-old colts in 2006 and was named champion juvenile. "These days I still train a few horses for longtime clients, " Jackson said, "but my focus has been on the therapy facility the last several years."
In November 2005 Jackson experienced a horseman's worst nightmare. Just after dark a raging fire burnt his Fair Hill racing barn to the ground. The next morning charred posts and jagged pieces of tin were the blackened remains of what was a 40-stall horse barn. Only four of the 28 horses stabled there survived. His budding equine therapy center, due to open within three weeks, was also destroyed.
"It wiped us out with our older race horses," said Jackson, who lives in nearby Oxford, Pa. "It was devastating for the horses and our people who worked with them. But, horses are all we know. We got busy planning our new barn and an even better therapy center."
Ten months after the fire Jackson and co-owner Buddy Jones of Ocala, Fla. opened the doors to an impressive new barn and the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center. Constructed by Amish builders, the barn is nice and bright with substantial airflow. Each part of the facility plays a specific role in the horse's recovery or fitness training. You will find equine post-operative patients as well as those receiving physical therapy for injuries.
Fair Hill's Mike Trombetta says as a trainer he tries to leave no stone unturned.
"There is a whole lot that goes into getting horses to the racetrack and having them do well," said Trombetta, who has earned in excess of $3.5 million through mid-November.
"Bruce's facility gives me give me plenty of options. It might be for horses coming off a tough race that need a little help or those rehabbing off surgeries. All of their therapies enable them to get back to work in a timely manner."
A four-year old colt is recuperating from knee surgery to remove bone chips. He is led into a two-inch thick steel chamber and the door closes. There is a constant hissing sound-- air being pumped into the unit. Off to the side, technician Julia Winters sits at a control panel adjusting several dials while monitoring a video screen that shows the dark bay colt standing quietly inside.
The chamber is a spacious, stall-like area with padded walls and rubber mats on the floor where the animal is free to roam around or lie down. The colt ambles over to the chamber's porthole window and peers out intently at a couple of visitors during the painless procedure.
Inside the chamber, pressure slowly builds, forcing 100 percent pure oxygen (regular air has 21 percent) into the room where it is absorbed by the animal through both the skin and lungs. Used successfully to treat humans for decades, oxygen therapy has been a life-saving remedy for ocean divers suffering from the bends and victims of smoke inhalation.
Oxygen is delivered to the equine patient under increased pressure. The procedure concentrates the oxygen available in the air breathed by the horse that allows more oxygen to be dissolved into the blood plasma. As this oxygen rich or super saturated plasma travels through the body via the blood-steam and flows across the cell membranes, it delivers oxygen to those cells to help heal and repair the diseased or injured tissues.
The treatment speeds healing for tendon and ligament injuries, circulatory problems, internal bleeding, difficult wounds and areas of bone infection and post race recovery.
Robert S. Evans' Elysium Fields, runner-up in the 2008 Fountain of Youth Stakes, collided with Big Brown in the first turn of the Florida Derby and was sent eventually sent to Fair Hill with tendon injury and a cracked shin.
"We had to stop and start from scratch," noted Lawley-Wakelin. "The oxygen therapy definitely sped up his recovery, then we moved on to the Aquatred. It's not inexpensive, but it's gotten our horses back to full training much more quickly. Elysium Fields is back racing on the west coast with Neil Drysdale."
Fair Hill veterinarians Kathy Anderson and Charles Arensberg are partners along with Jackson and Buddy Jones in the hyperbaric oxygen therapy business. The cost of the machine and installation was about $500,000. Three technicians operate the chamber and attend to 10 to 12 horses a day, and it is open seven days a week. Since the chamber was installed in June 2008 they've treated more than 3,000 horses- roughly 80 percent racehorses with a growing clientele of top-level dressage and event horses. Thoroughbreds range from maiden winners to a half-dozen multiple stakes winners.
Treatments last roughly 45 minutes with ten minutes on either side to prepare the horse and to decompress from the machine. The cost per session is $300. Many veterinarians believe oxygen therapy is the biggest breakthrough in equine treatment since the use of ultrasound back in the 1980s.
"Equine medical therapy is often a composite of multiple medical treatments used to promote healing and recovery," added Jackson. "This therapy enhances the horse's recovery, but doesn't make it run any faster."
Anderson has been the chief veterinarian at Training Center since 1992 and tended to Barbaro during his stay at Fair Hill. She says the oxygen therapy helps with muscle metabolism and revitalizing the lung tissue after an intense racing program.
"We've had Grade-1 winners come in after a tough race for five treatments over five days. It helps them recover more quickly and they're better prepared to move forward with their racing schedule. Some trainers use it on a regular, on-going basis. Once the trainers and owners see positive performance results, there is no quibbling about it."