Scientists work towards “mathematical model” for preventing leg fractures in racehorses

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Researchers who have identified how bone microdamage accumulates and is repaired during the training cycle of racehorses are now focusing on how to prevent life-threatening leg injuries.

Bone injuries are the most common cause of horse fatalities, but are also a common factor in lameness and premature retirement.

“Understanding the bone’s response to exercise and over-stress is critical to preventing injuries and fatalities and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the industry,” says Professor Chris Whitton, who heads the University of Melbourne’s Equine Centre in Werribee.

It was Whitton’s research which identified how bone microdamage built up and was repaired during racehorse training.

Whitton says much more knowledge is needed on how to manage racehorses in order to work with the natural bone adaptation and damage-repair processes.

“At the moment, bone injuries are regarded as an inevitable consequence of training, but this needn’t be the case,” he says.

“If we can unravel the intricacies of the bone’s response to stress and exercise; and detect bone damage early, it will go a long way to preventing long-term injury and fatalities.”

University of Melbourne researchers are working with $A5.5 million in backing from the Victorian Government and Racing Victoria, with the most recent round of funding in August enabling the Equine Limb Injury Prevention Research Program to continue for a further three years.

The program, run by the Equine Centre, is focused on developing best-practice strategies to prevent bone and joint injuries in racehorses. It involves a collaboration between veterinarians, biomechanical engineers, epidemiologists and bone biology researchers.

The ultimate aim of the research is to create a “mathematic model” of bone injury that trainers, owners and racing authorities can then use as a tool to guide their training and racing regimes.

The research project will continue to:

  • Examine pressure and loads in the lower limbs;
  • Investigate the processes surrounding bone fatigue;
  • Seek to understand bone modelling and re-modelling in horses both in training and at rest;
  • Analyse how distances and speeds affect bone fatigue;
  • Collect data on horse injuries.

Whitton, an equine veterinarian and world leading researcher investigating bone injury and fractures in horses, said the funds would go towards equipment and post-doctoral research projects.

The program was initially set up in 2014 and represents a long-standing partnership between Racing Victoria, the State Government and the university.

Racing Victoria’s head of equine welfare and veterinary services, Dr Brian Stewart, said more than $A300 million a year was spent on the training, care and welfare of racehorses in Victoria alone.

Its investment in the research represented a continued commitment to improve the welfare of thoroughbreds, he said.

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