Postmortem exams crucial to learning more about catastrophic injuries in horses – pathologist

Racehorses emerge from the starting gates at Suffolk Downs, East Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Anthony92931 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Racehorses emerge from the starting gates at Suffolk Downs, East Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Anthony92931 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A veterinary pathologist has explained the importance of postmortem examinations when racehorses sustain catastrophic injuries, saying while it may be too late for the horse in question, it can be invaluable to the wider horse population.

Breakdowns are not inevitable events, said Laura Kennedy, writing in the latest issue of Equine Disease Quarterly, adding that the risk to horses can be reduced through careful study.

Kennedy, who is with the University of Kentucky’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Lexington, said she was often asked, “Why would someone want a postmortem exam on an animal?”

“As a veterinary pathologist involved in a necropsy program for racehorses that have experienced racetrack injuries, I get much the same question from both lay people and professionals in the horse industry.”

Kennedy said people understood why they were warranted in a case of sudden death, but were less clear around the need for a necropsy on a horse that sustained a catastrophic musculoskeletal injury.

“Like all athletes, Thoroughbred racehorses experience a consistent pattern of repetitive use wear associated with their musculoskeletal systems.

“The association between pre-existing lesions and catastrophic injuries has been documented for many years, beginning with the flagship postmortem program instituted in California.”

She said more than 80% of horses who suffer a fatal musculoskeletal injury have pre-existing underlying pathology related to the fracture, indicating that the final catastrophic event is the culmination of repetitive wear and not an isolated incident caused by a “bad step” or a “hole in the track”.

“By careful examination of the horse, the acute, catastrophic injury can be documented, as well as the underlying pathology. Additionally, non-musculoskeletal health issues can be addressed.”

Kennedy said mortality reviews are conducted with the trainers, the equine medical director, and the stewards following catastrophic breakdowns.

“The goal of these reviews is not to place blame, but to educate and implement strategies to prevent similar injuries going forward. The overall health and condition of the horse, its training and racing records, and the outcome of the postmortem examination are reviewed in the hope of identifying risk factors for that particular horse and opportunities for future intervention.

“Additionally,” she said, “it is hoped that the trainer will disseminate the knowledge gained by sharing their experience with others, including those who work in their barn, friends, and colleagues.”

Health issues that may not have been clinically apparent but are identified on postmortem examination can be addressed, with informative conversations regarding such things as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage and gastric ulcers.

“In a very complicated set of circumstances, the postmortem examination brings objectivity to these observations.

“The ultimate goal of any postmortem program is to mitigate the risk of injury to the horse, and in turn, the exercise riders and jockeys that are involved.

“Catastrophic breakdowns are the leading cause of serious injury to riders, and in some tragic cases, death.

“While postmortem examinations may be ‘too late’ for the horse in question, the value to the entire population of horses and to the connections of a particular horse are invaluable.

“We owe it to the horses, riders, trainers, and the racing community as a whole to address this issue. Breakdowns are not inevitable events. We can mitigate the risk of their occurrence in horses through careful and determined study.”

Equine Disease Quarterly is funded by underwriters at Lloyd’s, London.

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