Horses are athletes, and the ultimate goal is optimal athletic performance. There has already been much scientific study on performance, but there’s still much more to discover. New scientific discoveries are being made in equine health and exercise physiology, providing new insights in improving equine health and performance.
The oft-overlooked lymphatic system
When it comes to performance, we mainly focus on the cardiovascular system and locomotor system, while often overlooking others such as the lymphatic system. However, the lymphatic system is just as important as the well-known circulatory system. In fact, these two systems work very closely in circulating fluids and nutrients to ensure optimal bodily function. The lymphatic system also plays a central role in the immune system, fat absorption, fluid balance and detoxification in the equine body. A horse with a well-functioning lymphatic system has more efficient metabolic waste elimination, a better metabolism and a stronger immune system, resulting in improved performance and faster recovery.
How the lymphatic system works
The lymphatic system is a network of very thin vessels (as thin as a hair) under the skin and in various tissues and lymph nodes containing a fluid called lymph. The lymphatic system consists of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes and lymphoid organs. It begins with small lymphatic vessels that penetrate tissues and absorb excess interstitial fluids, proteins and waste products. These lymphatic vessels transport lymph to the lymph nodes, where pathogens and waste products are filtered and rendered harmless.
The lymph nodes also contain white blood cells, including lymphocytes, which fight infections and regulate the immune response. For example, lymph nodes swell in response to infections.
Lymph eventually returns to the bloodstream via the major lymphatic vessels, where it mixes with the blood and supports circulation. The lymphatic system is essential for defence against pathogens (including viruses and bacteria) and also helps maintain the balance of fluids in the body. It functions as a cleansing and transport system and helps keep the immune system strong. The lymphatic system also plays a role in the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins.
How this ingenious system works
The lymphatic system has 3 main functions: removing waste products, maintaining fluid balance, and supporting the immune system.
1. Fat absorption
Unlike other nutrients, fats and fat-soluble vitamins are not absorbed in the intestines by the blood vessels, but by the lymphatic vessels. These important nutrients are then transported into the lymphatic system, then mix with the circulatory system and enter the bloodstream. Fats and fat-soluble vitamins are then distributed throughout the body where they are absorbed into tissue. A properly functioning lymphatic system is essential for the absorption of important energy sources and vitamins.
2. Moisture balance and processing of waste products.
During the competition season, a horse is subject to high physiological demands and the body is working hard to process it all. Intense work and performance cause the body to produce a lot of waste products. These are released from muscle and then end up between tissue. Fluids and nutrients are also continuously released from the blood vessels to hydrate and nourish the tissue. The fluid between the tissue is called interstitial fluid. It is important that this fluid is reabsorbed, otherwise the horse’s body can develop oedema and lose litres of fluid daily. Much of it is reabsorbed by blood vessels but the thin-walled lymphatic vessels are also able to absorb interstitial fluid to regulate hydration and to remove waste products of cell metabolism (such as cell debris, bacteria, dead blood cells, pathogens, toxins, lactic acid and protein molecules) from the tissue. This process is just as important as the delivery of necessary nutrients to the tissue to provide energy. Waste products are carried in the lymph and transported away from the cells for detoxification. Detoxification is the term used for the processes that take place continuously in the horse’s body to remove waste products or metabolites that are naturally produced during normal bodily processes. Detoxification occurs mainly in the liver, kidneys and intestines, so it is very important to ensure that the horse’s liver and kidneys are healthy and functioning properly. Supporting the liver and kidneys helps this breakdown process and keeps the horse in optimum health.
3. Support for the immune system
Along with lymph and lymph vessels, a horse has about 8,000 lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are bundles of lymphoid tissues and proteins. Lymph nodes filter out foreign substances travelling through the lymph. They contain lymphocytes (white blood cells) that help the body fight infections and diseases, so the lymphatic system is also essential for immune system function. As lymph approaches a lymph node, it slows down and collects in that area. Horses have very many lymph nodes, so they are extremely susceptible to lymphatic obstruction. Lymph nodes can actually be felt or sometimes seen in various areas of the horse’s body, especially around the head and neck, or when they are swollen.
- Filtration and removal of pathogens: The lymph nodes act as filter stations where lymph is purified of pathogens like bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances. The white blood cells in the lymph nodes, particularly the lymphocytes, detect and fight these pathogens, helping to prevent or clear up infections.
- Antigen performance: Specific cells in the lymph nodes and other lymphoid organs can present pieces of detected pathogens to other immune cells, such as T cells. This activates a targeted immune response and helps the immune system efficiently fight off the specific invader.
- Lymphocyte production and activation: The lymphatic system is involved in the production and activation of different types of white blood cells (lymphocytes). These cells are responsible for producing antibodies and leading cellular immune responses.
- Support of tissue regeneration: Lymphatic vessels help to drain excess fluids and waste products from damaged tissue. This in turn helps reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair.
In short, the lymphatic system acts as an important communication network for the immune system, transporting immune cells, signalling molecules and antigens throughout the body, and allowing the immune system to respond quickly and effectively to pathogens and other health threats.
Horses need to keep moving
Physical activity is essential for the proper flow of lymph in the lymphatic system. Unlike blood, which is propelled by the pumping of the heart, there is no central driving force in the lymphatic system. Lymphatic vessels do have valves that prevent fluid from flowing back and some vessels have smooth muscle tissue. These valves pulse to send lymph from one segment between two valves to the next. However, optimum lymphatic transport largely depends on the contraction of surrounding muscles – not only in the large skeletal muscles, but also the massaging movements of the respiratory muscles. Research shows that exercise can increase lymph flow fivefold. So exercise improves the flow of lymph through the horse’s body for improved overall health and performance.
It’s important for a horse to be in almost constant motion (up to 16 hours a day). Movement is simply necessary to circulate the lymph. Prolonged inactivity has a significant negative impact on lymphatic system function.
Oedema is the accumulation of fluid in places where it does not belong. Lymphoedema is a special form where the fluid remains mainly in the legs. This is almost always due to lack of exercise. As a result, the lymph does not flow properly and the interstitial fluid does not sufficiently drain, causing it to accumulate. This is a direct result of prolonged inactivity; once the horse starts moving, the lymph starts to move again and symptoms often disappear. This temporary swelling does not usually cause the horse any pain. Pressure bandages may help to reduce swelling when physical activity is not possible, but this just moves the swelling to the top of the leg. Massaging may also help. But it is important that this problem be addressed!
The function of the lymphatic system during recovery
Exercise, no matter how light, releases waste products. The (swift) removal of waste products is important for proper recovery. Intense exercise causes metabolic wastes such as lactic acid to accumulate in the body, which leads to inflammation in the muscles. The lymphatic system helps to remove these waste products and promotes the recovery process in several ways:
Waste elimination: During exercise, waste products are produced and accumulate in the interstitial tissue surrounding the muscles. These wastes are then absorbed by the lymphatic system and carried to the lymph nodes and eventually into the bloodstream, where they can be eliminated from the body. This helps to relieve the muscles of harmful substances and promotes recovery.
Reduction of swelling: After exercise, small inflammatory reactions may occur in the muscles which can lead to swelling. The lymphatic system helps to reduce this swelling by removing excess fluid and inflammatory mediators from the tissue.
Improved circulation: Blood and lymph circulation are closely connected. Without the moisture-regulating action of the lymphatic system, blood volume cannot be maintained, causing circulation to fail. Stimulating and activating the lymphatic system therefore enhances blood circulation. This ensures a more efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and speeds up the recovery process.
Practical tips for a healthy lymphatic system
Gotta keep moving – turn your horse out as much as possible
Horses that don’t move about for long periods of time are at risk of lymphatic system disruption, which can affect the immune system, recovery time and ultimately performance.
After work, let the horse cool down for at least 15 minutes
The period immediately after work is important for the removal of metabolic wastes – keeping the horse moving after heavy work stimulates the lymphatic system to continue removing wastes, including lactic acid, from the cells. Allowing the horse to cool down properly after each session can significantly improve recovery. Massaging also helps waste products to drain properly. Even on the day after heavy work, it is advisable to give the horse a few hours of turnout or a session in the horse walker.
Supplements that directly benefit the lymphatic system
Functional herbal ingredients in innovative supplements can support lymphatic system function. Cleavers (Gallium aparine) are known to bring benefits to the lymphatic system. Couch grass (Elymus repens), nettle (Urtica dioica) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are all known for their purifying effects that help metabolism and detoxification.
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A horse with a well-functioning lymphatic system will benefit from increased energy and improved performance, without feeling too excited or pressured. Cavalor Peak Performance is an innovative supplement to improve fitness and performance by focusing on the horse’s lymphatic system. It enables the horse to work longer without fatigue – and recover more quickly. It also supports the horse’s health, as the lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system. Want to know more about this product? Click here to go to the product page.