English horse owners are bringing their animals to Ireland to have them 'fired' for leg injuries -- a procedure that is now banned in many countries but not in the Republic.
For centuries, horse owners and trainers have been using the treatment for torn ligaments, caused by overexertion on the race course or competition field.
But now, veterinary surgeons question whether the treatment really works -- and some believe it is a barbaric practice that should be discontinued.
'Firing' involves putting what is like a hot branding iron to the horse's legs which increases the blood flow to the damaged tendon, after which scar tissue develops and the horse can be put back on the track fairly speedily, instead of having an 18-month lay-off or complete retirement.
Some owners regard it as a "quick fix" that is inexpensive to have done. But others, who have seen horses' legs 'baloon' for several days following 'firing', say the practice is barbaric and archaic.
This practice is banned in Britain and most of Europe but is still used in Ireland to the extent that English horse owners are sending their animals here to get the procedure done legally.
Well-known veterinary surgeon and horse trainer, Andrew McNamara, from Croom, Co Limerick, said that the best treatment for horses with leg injuries was 12 months of complete rest out in the field and "let nature take its course".
A new, revolutionary alternative treatment for tendon injury in horses is stem cell treatment. The cells are taken from the bone marrow of the horse and injected back into the tendon. This encourages new cartilage tissue to grow. The horse is given a 12-month period of rest and is monitored to see how the new tissue growth is progressing.
Veterinary surgeon Liam Kearns, from the largest veterinary practice in the UK, said: "Stem cell treatment is the way forward for the treatment of tendon injuries in competition horses."
He added: "I would not want my name associated with the firing of horses legs."
Professor Roger Smith, from the Royal Veterinary College, Hertfordshire, said: "Stem cells I was using in the laboratory were forgotten about in a culture dish. When I returned, I saw this tissue develop and decided to inject it into a horse's tendons.
"Medical scientists are now monitoring the progress of this technology for use with footballers and athletes with torn ligaments and tendons."