Horse racing has come under increasing scrutiny because of animal welfare concerns related to severe injuries. It is gut-wrenching to witness a devastating breakdown injury during a race. These are those horrific injuries that occur on track that often result in euthanasia of the horse, typically from an untreatable broken bone, tendon or ligament injury.
As well, a horse going down at high speed can also injure the jockey and other horse-rider pairs in a race.
A number of initiatives are underway to reduce instances of racetrack injuries. One of these is to better understand the factors that lead to catastrophic breakdowns.
For instance, in many racing jurisdictions such as Ontario, New York and California, all horses that die during races must undergo a standard autopsy examination. The California Horse Racing Board initiated a racehorse autopsy program in 1990 and has examined more than 7,000 horses as of 2018. The systematic examination of these racehorses includes careful dissection and documentation of the legs, examination of major organs and particular focus on the area of injury.
Fractures, soft tissue injuries, arthritis in joints and any pre-existing bone changes are carefully sought out and documented.
Systematic data collected from programs such as this are important to understanding the root cause of racetrack injuries and death. Studying the underlying bone, joint and soft tissue injuries in racehorses can give insight into why the injuries occur.
If we know what the underlying issues are, then we can more readily identify how to test for them before racing. It can also be used to help with prevention activities.
Studies published in the last decade have analyzed data from these systematic autopsies of racehorses. A key take-away is that about 90 percent of horses that experience a catastrophic injury had a related underlying condition. And these underlying conditions occur from repetitive, high-impact stress from racing and training that weakens bones and other critical musculoskeletal tissues.
Another important take-away is that certain locations of bones are commonly affected by similar injuries. Specifically, most life-threatening breakdown injuries occur in the fetlock joints of the front limbs.
The knowledge gained from these studies has also refined how racehorses are autopsied.
Areas of the body that frequently experience injury or chronic damage can be thoroughly checked in every examination.
We now know that breakdowns occur when there is underlying disease and not just because of a bad step.
We need to get better at pulling these animals from races and healing their injuries. Horses with early detection of injuries can then be treated, retired or moved from racing to other careers. There are a few limitations to these studies, including that most occur in North America and most horses studied are Thoroughbreds.
Not all horses that die at racetracks suffer from musculoskeletal injury.
For example, a study of Ontario racehorses found that 16 percent of horses died in association with training or racing from other causes such as hemorrhage in the lungs and rupture of a major blood vessel.
Nearly 40 percent of horses in this study died of common horse-related conditions that were not associated with racing or training. These included inflammation of the intestines, colic and adverse reactions to injections.
While these studies are targeted to improving racetrack safety, the results may be useful to other high-performance horse sports where life-threatening injuries are less commonly or systematically reported. For instance, how many western performance horses suffer similar injuries but don’t have the same high-profile coverage as breakdowns on tracks?
Ultimately, high quality studies that shed light on the musculoskeletal system of horses and how horses can be injured and more importantly, help develop strategies for prevention and healing, will benefit the larger horse population and their owners.
We all want what is best for the horses at tracks and other performance sports. These types of studies show that more can be done.