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Making the Sport of Kings Safer & Faster

A research project at the University of Melbourne is trying to understand what a horse skeleton can handle in order to help prevent injuries and improve training. 

Australia’s Melbourne Cup is the horse race that stops a nation. Every November, well over 110,000 racegoers descend upon Melbourne, Australia’s Flemington race track to see one of the world’s most famous sporting events. Millions of dollars are on the line, and the horses that compete are regarded with the same wonder and attention as a high-performance sports car.

Since 1861, the Melbourne Cup has seen top horses from around the globe compete for the largest prize purse in the southern hemisphere. With horses and riders lined up at the gate, they are 3,200 meters away from claiming the nearly $6 million payout and earning a place in history. But while the eyes of the racing world are affixed to the finish line, Professor Chris Whitton and his team from the University of Melbourne are focusing on each individual step along the way.

Although professional horse racing is a multi-million dollar industry, the act of taking care of horses and training them for the big races remains reliant on tradition as much as science. Breeding patterns can be traced back generations, but the long-term health of each animal remains mostly enigmatic. Catastrophic injuries can strike without warning, costing the horse’s owners and team millions of dollars in potential winnings — and often ending the horse’s racing career.

To help understand the nature of injuries to race horses, Whitton — Head of the University’s U-Vet Werribee Animal Hospital’s Equine Centre and a specialist in equine surgery — is leading a new research project to study and better understand a horse’s skeletal loading. The hope is that with more information on how a horse moves and the stresses their bodies undergo while racing, new methods of training and possibly rehabilitation can lead to better results on the racetrack, as well as better lives for the horses.

“We need to get much better at understanding catastrophic injuries because we currently can’t repair these types of issues,” said Whitton. “It’s a real problem that needs to be solved.”

Whitton and his team have been researching skeletal load for the past two years, but a recent partnership with Racing Victoria, along with additional funding from the Australian government, have created new possibilities. That led Whitton and his team to the Pakenham racetrack in Melbourne, where they were able to record horses at a full gallop on both sand and synthetic surfaces using several high-speed Vicon motion capture cameras recording at 300 Hz.

On the surface, it’s similar to a practice some professional athletes are using to track their own movements for analysis, but it goes a step further. Horses have been recorded inside arenas and on treadmills, but this marks the first time that motion capture cameras have been used under actual race conditions. Whitton and his team outfitted a 30-meter section of the Pakenham racetrack with cameras, then captured footage of three horses running at full gallop, each completing 5-6 full cycles. The team also used a track tester to measure the mechanical properties of the track.

The motion capture was then analyzed by biomechanical experts, who looked at the movement of the muscles, tendons and bones to help to understand the load on a horse’s skeleton. Whitton and his team also examined horse bones in a laboratory setting, stress testing them to understand their limits. That data is being used to create mathematical models designed to help create a better understanding of how much stress can safely be put on a race horse, and how long they need to heal. That will, in turn, lead to better training regimens for horses, which could lead to better performances and longer careers.

One of the more common injuries to a race horse occurs in a horse’s fetlock joint, also known as the metacarpophalangeal (MCPJ) and metatarsophalangeal (MTPJ) joints. These joints are sometimes incorrectly considered a horse’s ankle due to their location between the cannon leg bone that is equivalent to a human’s tibia in location, and the smaller pastern bones that connect the hoof. A more accurate comparison would be a knuckle, akin to the ball of a foot.

During a gallop, a horse – which can weigh between 1,200 and 1,600 lbs – can reach speeds of up to 70 kph (roughly 43 mph). During movement at speed, its fetlock joint can reach a loading force of up to 4,000 kg, or roughly 40,000 N. To put this in context, that is the same force generated by four Volkswagen Golfs. These joints take damage over time, like all joints, but racing exacerbates it. They can heal and regenerate with rest, but avoiding the injury altogether can be the difference between a million dollar purse and the end of a racing career.

Bone is also capable of efficiently repairing itself and adapting to different load demands. However, it needs time to repair itself. Adequate rest periods between stressing the bone enhance bone replacement, but there has never been a consensus on how much rest is necessary, and it differs by horse. Part of the goal of Whitton’s research is to help create a baseline that can be applied to each horse to find the ideal balance between training and rest.

The research is still ongoing, but Whitton and his team are in constant contact with race teams to create more scientifically proven training schedules. Whitton also released the initial results of the study at the International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology (ICEEP) in Melbourne, but the project is far from complete.

The next step for the researchers is to record horses at full gallop on more complex surfaces, including turf. That will further inform the algorithms and improve the predictive model.

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