The world’s best racehorses are pushed to the brink when pitted against one another in a competitive environment. In total, approximately four tonnes or 8,000 thousand pounds of aggregate force is placed on the animal’s joints at the lower limbs with every single stride. This repetitive pressure can lead to joint, bone and tendon problems. Racehorse injures tend to occur in the areas where the most loads are applied. This means the animal’s flexor tendon, ankle joints and knee joints are especially vulnerable.
How Trainers Prevent Horse Injuries
The pressure applied to the horse’s joints increases that much more as the animal picks up speed. Horses that run at an especially high rate of speed with regularity are that much more vulnerable to injury. This is precisely why so many horse trainers like Richard D Schibell lament the fact that their fastest horses tend to endure injuries at a higher clip than the comparably slow animals.
Bone and Tendon Fatigue Failure
The majority of racehorse injuries do not result from a misstep or physical contact with another animal. The leading cause of racehorse injury is fatigue failure of tendon or bone. Everything from a catastrophic fracture to a chip fracture, joint problem or ligament injury can derail a horse. Such injuries occur in a completely spontaneous and unpredictable manner following instances of high loading. Though the word “fatigue” is used to describe such injuries, the animal does not actually get tired. Rather, the horse endures a slow deterioration of tendon or bone that results in a break, rupture or strain. Fatigue failure can be compared to the fatigue in a string or wire that is bent over rand over again and eventually breaks.
Plenty of racehorses endure micro-damage that is challenging to identify without extensive analysis. The majority of horses do not display indications of discomfort before injury. However, once the tendons and bones are studied following the injury, there is usually considerable damage that has accumulated since the animal’s early days of training.
The Best Approach to Treating Horse Limb Injuries
Bone has the potential to heal itself in horses and other sizable animals. However, horses are massive animals that must distribute their weight across all four legs. Therefore, only certain fractures can be repaired. The animal’s joint cartilage rarely heals properly, resulting in consistent arthritis for the remainder of its life. While some ligaments and tendons seem to heal with rehabilitation, there is always a chance for re-injury. The moral of this story is there are limited means to treat horse limb injuries so prevention is essential.
How to Prevent Horse Injuries
Horse trainers should develop a complete understanding of how adaption to the stresses of races occurs as well as the manner in which damage is repaired. Bone has the most potential for improvement, especially in young racehorses. Ideally, bone will be adapted, meaning quickly laid along the long bone shafts and the areas below the joint surfaces when the young animal is in the early stages of training. However, it is possible for fatigue failure to occur before the adaption. As an example, consider a cannon bone that fractures. This type of fracture typically occurs a couple months into the preparation process for the race. Older horses tend to suffer similar fractures with properly adapted bone after four or five months of training.
The world’s top doctors and surgeons still lack a full understanding of bone’s inherent ability to repair itself. Certain portions of bone are resorbed and replaced throughout life. This is an essential process to prevent injury as it permits fatigued bone to be supplanted with new bone. The data shows the application of high loads to areas of bones that endure repeated stress causes the repair process to gradually slow. These portions of the bone are that much more likely to be injured. Alternatively, when horses are allowed to rest between training sessions, their bone replacement rate is significantly higher. In other words, ample rest is necessary to adequately replace bone.
Injury-free Training is Possible
It is clear the industry’s best and brightest are still unsure as to the optimal frequency for horse training sessions. There is a question as to how fast and far horses can be taken in training before there is an elevated risk for injury. In general, the best means of preventing an injury is to reach a specific number of training miles at the requisite speed. Achieve a balance to ensure adaption occurs yet tissues do not fatigue. Once the animal is at the proper fitness level, rely on sudden bursts of speed several times per week along with strategic rest periods for highly effective interval training.
In the end, your horse will do what you ask. Richard Schibell has learned this over a 30 year career in breeding and racing horses. Guide your horse throughout the duration of training, proceed with caution and you will have done your part to prevent an injury while preparing the animal for a high level of competition.