By Denise Steffanus
Fatigue causes breakdowns. It's a scientific fact. If a horse's ability to repair its body cannot keep up with the accumulation of damage from training and racing, the risk of catastrophic breakdown greatly increases.
Human athletes allow their bodies to rest and recuperate during the off season, but horse racing continues year round. The British Horseracing Authority wrote two breaks into its 2019 fixture schedule just so jockeys could have a break. But a horse only gets time off when it has an injury or when its trainer decides it needs freshening. Thoroughbreds are stoic. The tougher the horse, the more likely it will shrug off pain when adrenaline fuels its competitive spirit. That's when disaster strikes.
Dr. Ebrahim Bani Hassan and his team at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, used an electron microscope to examine the legs of 83 Thoroughbred racehorses after they died or were euthanized, some for reasons other than catastrophic breakdown. The powerful microscope was able to reveal microfractures in the forelegs of 97.4% of the horses and Swiss-cheese-like cavities in the subchondral bone of the hind legs in 97.7% of them. (Subchondral bone, the layer of bone just beneath the cartilage, forms the critical support base for joints.)
Trainers don't knowingly send a horse to the track if it is at risk of breaking down. How many times have we heard trainers and owners say after a catastrophic breakdown, "The horse was sound. How could this happen?"
Apparent soundness is no guarantee that a horse does not have serious underlying problems. Bani Hassan wrote in the Australian Veterinary Journal, "Based on the information obtained from the race records and trainer and veterinarian interviews, many of the horses in this study were performing well and were not reported to be showing signs of lameness in the weeks prior to presentation."
Dr. Chris Whitton, a member of Bani Hassan's team, is the person charged to necropsy every horse that dies at racetracks in Victoria. In an interview with ABC News, Whitton said, "We think that racehorse deaths should be avoidable. The limb injuries that we investigate are predominantly due to accumulation of damage over time."
Bani Hassan suggested longer and better-managed breaks for racehorses during their careers.
“Rest may allow some reduction in the microscopic damage load, and the burden of damage in this population suggests that, in general, a greater proportion of time out of intense race training than is currently practiced is required for Thoroughbred racehorses in order to minimize the risk of subchondral bone injury," he concluded.
Mandatory layoff of 30-60 days for horses in active training and racing for 12 consecutive months without a break could be one solution. Everyone interviewed about this topic agreed that horses need time off, but most were opposed to making it mandatory. Their argument: Good trainers already give their horses time off as part of their training regimen and racing strategy.
What about those trainers who don't? Some trainers press on with horses because their owners insist on results. Sadly, some trainers' priority is not the welfare of the horse. Some trainers don't know better. Racing commissions must adopt new rules when individuals fail to do what is proper.
The duration of 30-60 days seems to be the optimum to achieve healing without losing significant condition. During the first 30 days, a horse loses little cardiovascular condition, and it is ample time for microfractures to repair. Bone bruising at the bottom of the cannon bone, a common condition in active racehorses, typically takes 60 days to repair. Horses laid up longer than 60 days quickly begin to lose overall condition.
The type and quality of layoff is crucial to healing. Horses must be active during turnout to increase blood flow to areas that are damaged. Keeping the horse in a stall except for daily handwalking can allow bones to weaken further because bone remodeling—replacement of damaged bone with new, stronger bone—depends on physical demand. For trainers in areas with a predominance of farmland, finding suitable turnout is not a problem. But those at racetracks in metropolitan areas or the desert southwest may have nowhere to lay up their horses.
Is mandatory layoff a good thing?
"I’m not sure that a mandatory layoff is ideal because you have to tailor the horse’s schedule to what kind of training the horse can stand," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, renowned surgeon at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington and a member of the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee. "There are some horses that can handle anything you can throw at them. Then there are horses that can only take a few races, two or three, before they need to back down because they start getting behind. So I’m not generally for forcing a mandated layoff."
Instead, Bramlage advocates educating owners, trainers, and veterinarians that horses periodically need a break from heavy training to allow the horse's body to rest and repair.
Bramlage mentioned Wise Dan, trained by Charlie Lopresti, as a horse whose campaign is an example of good management. The gelding earned six Eclipse Awards in 2012-13, including two Horse of the Year titles, winning the Breeders' Cup Mile in both years.
Lopresti described Wise Dan's program, which he said is based on traditional training methods:
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