Thermography and Hypersensitization in Competition Sport Horses: Background Information

by Fran Jurga | 19 April 2010 | The Jurga Report at

Sapphire and McLain Ward of the USA soared through the first two rounds of show jumping at the 2010 FEI World Cup Finals in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday and Friday. Photo from fOTOGLIF

What’s all this about thermography? The weekend’s news from Switzerland revealed that many US readers are not familiar with thermography or why it would be used by the FEI at a jumping event.For some insight, The Jurga Report turned to one of the leading veterinary researchers using thermography, Minnesota veterinarian Tracy Turner DVM, MS, Dipl.ACVS of Anoka Equine Hospital in Anoka, Minnesota. Dr. Turner, whose specialty is equine lameness, has a keen interest in sport horses, and is one of three veterinarians to be board-certified by the American Board of Thermology. He has served as consultant to the US Department of Agriculture on thermography and imaging to detect soring in Tennessee Walking Horses and has been using thermography in his practice for over 30 years.Dr. Turner offered these insights (following text by Dr. Turner):”The FEI has a strict protocol using thermography to test for hypersensitivity. There are two things to consider in this subject:”(1) Thermography is a screening tool to detect suspicious horses. The camera detects infrared radiation emitted from the skin and this can be directly correlated to the circulation. They are trying to detect if there is evidence that the legs were tampered with to make them more sensitive so the horse jumps better. If anything is put under the boots that irritates the skin this will cause an alteration in the skin temperature and normal temperature pattens. If the FEI thermographer detects a two-degree difference between the front legs or an extremely hot or cold patterns on the legs, the thermographer is to report it. “(2) However, the “hypersensitive” label is ONLY made after veterinary examination is made by two FEI veterinarians. So, the thermography only identifies horses for further scrutiny; the two other veterinarians examine the horse and make the determination of hypersensitivity.” 

A thermography image capture shows relative heat of different areas. The color scale at right shows the surface temperatures of the horse’s skin, as described by Dr. Turner. (FEI educational image; this is not Sapphire’s leg!)

Dr. Turner continued: “I obviously have not seen any of the images but based on the criteria in the FEI rules there has to be a big red flag on thermography to have the horse inspected by the veterinarians. To give you some idea, FEI criteria is two degrees (Celsius) difference, but research has shown that a one degree (Celsius) difference over 25 percent of symmetrical areas is clinically significant (pathological). During an examination I look for subtle difference of 1/3 degree (Celsius) as an index of suspicion to inspect for potential problems. So these criteria are very liberal in favor of the rider (Responsible Party).”

FEI Clarification of Hypersensitivity and Testing Protocol:

The following text was provided by the Federation Equestre Internation (FEI):“All horses show normal nerve sensation or sensitivity. Where that sensation is increased beyond normal limits it is called hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivity can be produced by a range of normal occurrences, such as an insect sting or accidental self-inflicted injury.”Hypersensitisation is the term used to define the artificial production of hypersensitivity and is contrary to horse welfare and fair play.”At FEI competitions, the determination of hypersensitivity in the horse is made by a combination of thermographic and clinical examinations, carried out by at least two experienced equine veterinarians.”Thermography is a means of detecting abnormal heat patterns of the skin through the use of an imaging camera. The clinical examination is carried out by observation and palpation (applying manual pressure).”Both examinations are made on the front of all four limbs of the horse, particularly from the fetlock to the hoof.”In the event that hypersensitivity is found, a further examination will be made at a later time to confirm the persistence of the hypersensitivity.”Video evidence is taken of both clinical examinations for presentation to the Ground Jury, who will make a decision on disqualification on horse welfare grounds. There is no appeal against the decision of the Ground Jury.”All such cases are subject to follow-up Medication Control Programme (MCP) testing for the detection of any Prohibited Substances.”

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