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Racehorses & Bone Stress

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Gay3 View Drop Down
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    Posted: 11 Nov 2013 at 9:41am

The race to save our horses


Bone research could prevent another tragedy like that of French mare Verema in last Tuesday's Melbourne Cup.

Catching horse injuries before the track

Equine health experts say it's common for horses to accumulate micro-fractures during training and racing that can eventuate into a major injury, such as Verema's break down in last week's Melbourne Cup.

Chris Whitton is scanning an image on a screen in a small room, which is adjacent to a scintigraphy machine, when something catches his eye about the patient's pelvis.

''I'll have to get another view of that, but I'll be a little bit suspicious of that,'' says Whitton, pointing to a small mark on a bone scan being conducted on a sedated horse.

The stallion was brought to the University of Melbourne Veterinary Hospital at Werribee because he had been underperforming in races.

His owners had considered giving him a spell but had been prompted by the unusual running style he had developed to investigate if there was an underlying issue, such as an injury caused by fatigue or stress.


Such micro-fractures can lead to what Whitton believes was the most likely cause of French mare Verema snapping a cannon bone in last Tuesday's Melbourne Cup. She was put down on the course.

Whitton, an associate professor and head of the university's equine centre, and his staff have already noticed that the horse they are examining has a suspect gait, and is confident the scan, where the horse is injected with a radioisotope that shows up any problem areas, will reveal the issue.

Whitton believes there is no need for a horse to break a leg during a race, and has been leading research into the development of fatigue injuries and their prevention.

''One of my minor frustrations with the recent injury [to Verema] was with some of the comments in the press that [said] 'it's inevitable', 'we can't avoid it', 'in the industry it's always going to happen','' Whitton says.

''To a degree it's understandable because we are pushing these horses to the limit of what they can cope with … [but] I don't think it's something where we throw our hands in the air and say 'we can't solve this problem'.''

But for that to happen in the near future, Whitton's research needs ''five to 10 times'' the funding it is receiving. He says that at present levels it could take another two decades to develop the guidelines for how far trainers can push their horses before it becomes dangerous.

On this occasion, Whitton cleared the horse of a problem in its pelvis. But further investigations showed the horse was suffering a common racing injury - a stress fracture in the back. He will now be given three months' rest, in which time, Whitton says, the injury will fully repair.

''I don't foresee this horse having ongoing problems with it,'' he says.

Whitton says fatigue injuries are an accumulative problem caused mainly by how fast the horse travels. They usually begin with micro-fractures at a joint such as the fetlock, or ankle, which can carry as much as four tonnes of load when the horse is galloping.

Some leg injuries can be treated with rest and the horse can continue racing, but severe breaks such as that suffered by Verema and the Singapore-trained Three Crowns in the 1998 Melbourne Cup leave no alternative but to immediately euthanase.

Whitton says it is difficult to detect the symptoms before a fracture occurs. MRI and in particular, bone scans, which are expensive and cannot be conveniently conducted on a regular basis, are the best way of detecting early signs.

His team's research was therefore investigating how much ''load'' horse bones can sustain before micro-fractures occur.

''The problem is we don't understand what the limits of the equine skeleton is,'' he says.

''We don't know how much training and racing you give a horse before its skeleton begins to deteriorate. That's what we're trying to determine so we can say to trainers, 'don't go this fast for this long because that's what's going to injure a horse'.

''I suspect we'll never completely remove the risk of racing. You've got a 500-kilogram animal going at 70 kilometres an hour. Things are going to go wrong, but the majority of injuries we see are fatigue injuries which we believe should be preventable.''

Whitton says they have been able to get basic information out of trainers, who appear willing to listen to suggestions, although he has sometimes come up against views that were entrenched through generations of experience.

''We are already at the stage where we can make some very basic recommendations to trainers, but there's a long, long way to go,'' he says.

Trainer Robert Smerdon says those in the racing industry are mindful of the risk of leg injuries and feel the loss of a horse more than anyone else. ''It's not something that's a common occurrence, but people are mindful of the prospect of that and that's why horses are conditioned and managed the way they are to prevent that sort of thing,'' says Smerdon, who has 60 flat and jumps horses.

''The figures show that it's a very, very small - minute - per cent really, and it's going to happen. Whether it's a pony club or people growing up on farms around animals, you're going to have the loss of life in some way through accidents from time to time.''

Smerdon says trainers use experience, regular veterinary inspections and advice and, most importantly, the assessments of trackwork riders to identify problems.

He says if the injury is minor the horse might be able to ''cope with it like an athlete, but if it's obvious you've just got to react to it''.

''The first [person to notice] is probably the rider who rides them in their daily exercise regime,'' he says.

''If they're used to the horse and ride the horse regularly, they'll detect any changes. That's the first warning sign that people react to and stop training and rest them.

''Quite often you can't visually appreciate it, but the riders can sense it from their experience.''

While Smerdon believes modern training practices are of a high standard, Whitton says his research can only help improve safety.

The research lost its federal funding when a research levy proposal, introduced by many primary industries, was rejected by the broader horse riding industry, which includes pleasure riders, equestrian and pony clubs.

Whitton says it still receives about $200,000 annually from its main benefactor, Racing Victoria, and $15,000 from the university, but the shortfall is leading to a brain drain of experts to better-resourced areas.

''To make an impact, we need one-to-two million dollars a year. This sort of research is expensive. We've got the expertise in Melbourne to do it, we've got the world leaders in bone research in Melbourne, but they need funding.''

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Shammy Davis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Nov 2013 at 12:49pm
Well written and well said. It is apparent that equine researchers in both OZ and NZ are taking the international lead in this area.
Here's a very good 2004 article by Amy Gill that you might find interesting.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gay3 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08 Nov 2014 at 11:55am

Melbourne Cup carnival: two-year-old racing is not a contentious issue


Glenn Robertson-Smith

Racing Victoria vet Brian Stewart and chief steward Terry Bailey before addressing a media conference on the deaths of Admire Rakti and Araldo.

Racing Victoria vet Brian Stewart and chief steward Terry Bailey before addressing a media conference on the deaths of Admire Rakti and Araldo. Photo: Justin McManus

The freakish accidents and deaths of two horses in the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday saddened everyone in racing, but these events were followed by hysterical calls for a ban on the whip and a ban on two-year-old racing.

The use of the whip on racehorses is certainly a topic that evokes emotion. However, it is worth noting that the racing industry itself funded research into the use of the whip by an animal ethicist in Sydney. On the basis of the research results, the whip padding was changed and the use of the whip became regulated by the stewards, with the jockeys being fined for excessive whip use. The whip is a contentious issue and one in which there will be future discussion but the administrators have already shown their capacity to listen, investigate and change.

However two-year-old racing is not a contentious issue and people calling for it to be banned do not understand skeletal or bone development and adaptation in young thoroughbreds. Bone is like every other tissue in the body in that it responds to exercise and adapts. When bone adapts, this results in bone getting deposited in areas where it needs to be thicker and stronger. Furthermore, it is important that this bone change mirrors development in the rest of the body. Horses grow quickly between the ages of a yearling and a three-year-old, therefore the skeleton (bone) needs to be stressed to adapt with a light body frame or muscle mass so that both the muscles and bone develop together. If we were to wait until horses were three-year-olds, the bones would not cope with the excessive stress of a heavier body, and this would lead to a multitude of bone, tendon and joint problems. It is imperative that horses race and train as youngsters to get proper skeletal development. Anyone calling for a ban on two-year-old racing is either ignorant or ill-informed about this skeletal adaptation.


As we approach the end of another excellent spring racing carnival, racing enthusiasts can take stock and reflect that racing in this state is in good shape and is being run exceptionally well. We have seen the best in the world - horses, jockeys and trainers - come to Melbourne to compete, with plenty of success.

With the sad loss of the two horses after the Melbourne Cup, Racing Victoria's chief vet Dr Brian Stewart and chief steward Terry Bailey responded by keeping the media and the public fully informed as soon as information was available. Indeed, Dr Stewart spent much of Tuesday night and all of Wednesday doing media interviews with the post-mortem results of Admire Rakti and explaining what happened to both horses.

In contrast, animal activists attempted to exploit the sad loss of both horses to push their agenda on the public. Unbelievably, these so-called animal lovers released the footage of Admire Rakti dying in the horse stalls to media outlets. This was then accompanied by hysterical calls for racing to be better regulated, and for bans on the whip and two-year-old racing. Why? At this stage the post-mortem results of Admire Rakti were not known; he was not hit with the whip during the race and was a seven-year-old stallion.

The post-mortem on Admire Rakti found that the horse had died of a heart attack, which is rare for horses. While it is terribly sad to lose such a great horse in such circumstances, this was neither predictable nor preventable. Subsequently it was revealed that the horse had passed a veterinary inspection on the morning of the race.

The animal activists and their behaviour were the only blight on the carnival. They began the carnival by placing a huge billboard on CityLink with a photo of a dead horse and the accompanying slogan, "Is the party really worth it?" and the link, "".

The billboardgenerated local and international condemnation, and was very quickly removed. However, it's worth asking the question - if these so-called animal lovers genuinely cared about animal welfare, surely the vast amount spent on the billboard might have been put to better use, perhaps contributing to an animal refuge or caring for genuinely neglected animals.

I am yet to find out what credentials give these activists the ability to talk knowledgeably about racehorses and horse racing.But if they want us to listen, we should know the background and credibility of who is talking.

I was incensed by the billboard, but the behaviour of the activists  to release the footage of Admire Rakti's deathis so appalling that it beggars belief. No genuine animal lover would behave in this way. Rather, they have an extremist agenda to damage racing, and thought that by releasing the footage they would further their cause. However the behaviour was criticised by many in the media.

On Wednesday morning, a spokesman for the activists, Ward Young, for the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses was on radio attempting to justify  the release of the footage and making calls for bans that had nothing to do with the events of Melbourne Cup day.

As we leave the spring and look forward to the autumn, Racing Victoria should be applauded for its carnival and, in particular, its handling of a difficult Cup day. Also, let us question the activists - what is their real agenda and who are they?

Glenn Robertson-Smith is one of Australia's leading equine veterinarians.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Oritah Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09 Nov 2014 at 5:15pm
We were sitting down watching ABC news when the footage came on - my distressed horse loving 11yo said to me why did they have to show that horse dying on the telly? We were watching ABC because I thought they had higher standards... 

These people are dangerous - do not underestimate them. They suck in the do gooder's who know nothing about horses and believe the rubbish this very small group of people are generating.

Being in a farming area I know their agenda! It is to remove animals from our lives in anyway they can... Especially on our dinner plates! 

These people will stop at nothing - as we know they will lie and cheat in order to win support from a naive public.... 
We need to make it so hard for them that they look for another battle....      
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gay3 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2015 at 11:41am

When conditioning, it isn’t just about cardio and muscle; consider bone density too.

Bone remodeling occurs constantly throughout a horse’s lifetime and is essential to the maintenance of proper growth, soundness and longevity. Remodeling is most active in young, growing horses, but horses of all ages experience it to some degree. There are two reasons for remodeling: firstly, it allows bones to adjust to the physical stress new activities put on the skeleton. Secondly, it replaces bone that has been damaged by injuries, and it repairs microscopic bone damage caused by recurring microtraumas.
Research has revealed that one of the keys to healthy bone formation is exercise. Exercise stresses the bone and stimulates bone remodeling. When horses are kept in stalls due to injury, relocation, or a demanding training and competition schedule, stress on the bones is insufficient to maintain optimal bone turnover and bone density is quickly lost.
Many riders forget that a horse’s skeleton is constantly changing in response to his environment and job. As workloads increase or type of work changes, bone density increases to support the additional stress on the skeleton. When exercise is decreased, bone density decreases. Horses confined to a stall may have significant losses in bone density, which leaves them at greater risk for injury or fracture when they return to work.
Consider these familiar-sounding scenarios: a young Thoroughbred is put into training for the first time, a middle-aged event horse is coming back after an injury, a pleasure horse gets a new job as a hunter. In each case it takes months for a horse’s bones to adapt to a new job or level of work. Typically cardiac and muscle conditioning occurs faster than bone adaptation, especially in horses that have been fit in the past. When conditioning, training or rehab programs are rushed, injuries occur. Establishing a slow, steady conditioning program and providing adequate levels of minerals are imperative to reduce the risk of buck shins, splints, fractures and other bone-related injuries.
Nutrients are critical to bone development.
Proper nutrition is important to optimal bone health. For example, calcium makes up 35% of bone, and microminerals such as zinc and copper play an important role as cofactors in bone development. When choosing a bone supplement look for one that includes a well-balanced blend of nutrients. Chelated minerals are digested more efficiently than plain minerals. Chelation, the bonding of minerals to amino acids, protects minerals as they travel through the digestive tract and enhances absorption. Some marine sources of calcium and trace minerals have a unique cellular structure, which makes them more digestible than commonly used ground limestone.
Ingredients to look for in bone supplement:
*The ratio of calcium (Ca) to phosphorus (P) is critical. The total diet should contain a Ca:P ratio of 2:1 to ensure optimal calcium absorption and utilization. Ratios of less than 1:1 can cause serious bone abnormalities.
Vitamin D
A well-balanced bone supplement is beneficial when:
Mature horses are starting a new job
Young horses first go into training
Horses return to training after a layoff
Horses are recovering from a skeletal injury
Horses are on restricted diets for other medical reasons
Older horses have a demanding competition schedule
Horses are laid up due to illness or injury (supplement during the layoff period to protect bone density)
Overfeeding minerals or feeding them in the incorrect ratios can cause as much harm as underfeeding. Feed all supplements according to recommendations. Do not offer multiple mineral supplements unless directed by your veterinarian. If you are feeding the recommended amount of a fortified concentrate (grain or pellet), check with your veterinarian before offering additional mineral supplements.

Article written by KPP staff /kentucky-performance-products

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