What We're Learning From Horse Racing Research

POSTED ON  |  20-07-2019

Researchers worldwide are examining ways to prevent injuries in racehorses; their findings could help prevent issues in sport horses, as well
When a racehorse suffers a catastrophic injury in a high-profile race, the industry makes headlines … for all the wrong reasons. In recent decades mainstream media has shone a spotlight on racing injuries, and industry organizations have poured thousands of dollars into investigating why they occur. As a result, we know a lot about the forces placed on these elite athletes’ bodies.

Much of the research has revolved around identifying risk factors for and ways to prevent catastrophic injuries and fatalities. Here, several university researchers from North America and abroad share recently published and ongoing studies on this topic, along with their potential impact on racehorse and sport horse health down the road.

Identifying Early Warning Signs
Preventing injuries is important not only for racehorse health but also jockey safety and public perception, says David Horohov, PhD, chair of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Department of Veterinary Science and director of the Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington. He and his colleagues have been working on a series of studies investigating injury prevention.

An assembled group including James MacLeod, VMD, PhD, and Jennifer Janes, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP, of the Gluck Center; Laura Kennedy, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, of the UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory; and Mary Scollay, DVM, of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, are evaluating injury risks and possible precursors.

Horohov says their research thus far suggests that orthopedic injuries in racehorses are related to long-term effects rather than acute events. “It’s a chronic injury pattern that eventually leads to an acute failure,” he says. In addition, Horohov and colleagues, including UK’s Allen Page, DVM, PhD, are looking at whether inflammatory changes that occur in racehorses and sport horses indicate a pathologic (causing disease or damage) condition is brewing.

As bones and muscles experience stress during exercise, they undergo microdamage as part of their normal adaptive process. Ideally, this process helps strengthen both bone and muscle. However, if the horse is overtrained or does not adapt well to training, the result is inflammation and potential injury. Horohov and Page have hypothesized that bloodwork should reveal certain inflammatory marker patterns that indicate systemic inflammation caused by early microlesions.

“Some microlesion formation is likely part of the normal remodeling effort,” Horohov says. “It is when the destructive aspect of lesion formation gets ahead of the repair process that the inflammatory response becomes exaggerated, leading to systemic inflammation … thus, the tipping point where inflammation does more harm than good.”

The team has already examined bloodwork of 2-year-old racehorses and older racehorses in training, along with racehorses working on treadmills. They’re now gathering data from endurance horses, jumpers, and dressage horses to look for similar patterns in those ­populations.

Horohov says the underlying goal is to identify horses with abnormal expressions of inflammatory responses so trainers can back down a horse’s training as needed to prevent him from becoming predisposed to or developing an injury.

Another important population this team has studied is racehorses rehabilitating from injury. Their goal is to identify inflammatory markers to help trainers determine the rate at which they can safely bring horses back into training and how much training a horse can tolerate.

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