Even the most ardent lovers of horse racing as a sport would admit that it puts the horses that take part in it through a lot of physical exertion. Critics would go one step further of course, but there has to be a sense of balance to the conversation. It is a sport that asks a lot of its participants, which is something that becomes even more true when you’re talking about jump racing rather than just flat racing.
From constant training through to being run at the fastest speeds possible, horses are put through the wringer during their racing careers. There are a wealth of injuries that they can pick up during this time, with some of them being more serious than others. There’s even a difference between the types of injury that younger horses will pick up compared to older ones, so we’ll have a look at the various types here. For information about the most common jockey injuries see our dedicated page.
A horse’s bones, ligaments, tendons and joints are all put under immense pressure during their racing career, with a younger horse more prone to injury in these areas because they haven’t necessarily developed properly. When horses get injured, the period of time that they’re unable to train or race is referred to as ‘wastage’ and virtually every horse is likely to suffer a ‘wastage’ thanks to a musculoskeletal injury at one time or another.
A study of 314 thoroughbreds at Newmarket showed that that lameness was the biggest cause of wastage in young horses. Racing was prevented in about 20% of the cases that suffered from lameness. Most of the developmental issues for thoroughbreds occur through racing them as young as two years old, with training often starting between 18 and 20 months into their lives, before the skeleton has properly developed.
As the body trains, it begins to adapt to the questions being asked of it and the performances that it needs to produce. Even the likes of increased CO2 to the cardiovascular system can have a profound effect on a horse, whilst the pressure put on bones and the associated structures can make all the difference. Even so, the jury remains out on the best training methods to reduce injury risks.
Common Race Horse Injuries
In the world of horse racing, some injuries will always prove to be more common than others. It’s no different to footballers regularly pulling their hamstring, say, or cricketers suffering from wrist injuries. There are signs to look out for as well as things that can be done to mitigate the risk, but ultimately horses are asked to do a lot of work on the course and in training so some injuries will be virtually unavoidable.
Anyone who has ever been to the gym and attempted to do an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger will know that working your muscles with strengthen them. The problem is that overworking the muscles will end up straining them, which will make them sore and painful. The larger muscles at the rear of a horse are the ones that give them drive, so they’re the first ones that will feel the strain if overworked.
Whilst this sort of injury is most common in dressage horses, it is one that can affect any horse that does a lot of running. Sore muscles is one of the mildest injury types on the list, but that doesn’t mean that it can be ignored. It is likely that a horse with particularly sore muscles will fail to perform at its best, so a few days of rest should allow the horse to return to its peak after walking stiffly initially.
As with any regular exercise, racing can cause the inflammation of joints for competing horses. Acute synovitis is the sudden inflammation of a joint, often occurring in the likes of the hock, the ankle or the coffin bone. It’s an important injury to look out for because repeated stress on the joints can eventually lead to osteoarthritis. There is no one type of horse racing that is more at risk of inflamed joints than any other.
Horses with inflamed joints will be stiff and will show signs of being sore, with this being most notable at the start of working with them. This can come across as them being less fluid in their work, with heat in the inflamed area likely. A week to ten days without any running should see the inflammation reduce, with some horses requiring as long as a month to allow them to get back to running ways.
Suspensory Ligament Damage
The suspensory ligament is one that runs down the canon one from just below the knee area. It splits into two different branches that pass around the rear of the ankle, ending on the front of the pastern bone that lies beneath it. The job of this ligament is to support the ankle joint, sinking when weight is put upon it and then returning to normal when the weight is then relieved.
The suspensory ligament is in danger of giving way if it is overloaded, with the possible injury anything from mild to severe. It can be mild if only a few of the fibres tear, but can get worse with repeated strain. It can get to the point that the ligament ruptures or even causes the bone to fracture, which is extremely serious. Jump racing horses are particularly at risk of this sort of injury.
Deep Digital Flexor Tendon Injuries
The deep digital flexor tendon, often referred to simply as the DDFT for the sake of ease, is one that runs down the rear of the leg and behind the heel. It attaches to the one that lies under the hoof wall, known as the coffin bone, and bears the responsibility of flexing the leg. The tendon also supports the heel, with injuries of this part of the foot being common in race horses.
Jumping is an activity that can cause damage to the DDFT, as is overly running at speed. This is because the tendon has to stretch to the max both for the take off and the landing. Poor mechanics and a bad job of shoeing the horse can also contribute to this injury. It is often a difficult one to spot, largely because tendon injuries in general are difficult to identify, with healing of the area being a slow process.
Racehorses are at risk of bone bruises to the likes of their foot and ankle joints, with all of the coffin bone, the long pastern bones and the cannon bones being common areas that pick up this type of injury. It’s an injury that is nowhere near as serious as a fracture, but still involves a microscopic amount of damage to the bone. It also involves internal bleeding and some swelling.
Event horses and jump racing horses are those most at risk of suffering bone bruises, thanks to the fact that it tends to occur courtesy of the landing after a jump or when a horse is worked too much on hard ground. They are painful for the horse, meaning that they will need time off from training and competing. Sometimes as long as three to four months is necessary to allow a bone bruise to heal.
There is a sad reality of horse racing that horses can suffer injuries that will result in them losing their lives. No one associated with the sport likes this, with the British Horseracing Association regularly changing the makeup of races in order to limit the changes that it will happen. Yet no matter what, it is a sport that is inherently risky and the horses that take part in it could end up losing their lives accordingly.
Over the course of twenty years, horse racing fatalities have fallen by a third across the industry. British Racing has never tried to hide from the risks involved, with just 0.2% of horses that have taken part in races losing their lives because of it. With around 90,000 runners a year, that is a good figure. It could be lower, however, and the BHA constantly strives to bring it down as low as it possibly can.
The most serious injury that can be sustained by a horse is a bone fracture. Whilst advances in veterinary medicine mean that some fractures can often be repaired, there are some that are just too difficult to fix. It is not even the surgery so much that is the difficult thing for vets to carry out, but rather the complications that can arrive post-surgery as well as the difficulties in rehabilitating injured horses.
Horses often struggle with long periods of inactivity, with the way that they’re built stopping them from being able to lie down or rest an injured limb. It’s not as if a horse’s fractured leg can be put in a sling in order to stop it from bearing any weight, leading to numerous life-threatening complications. Bad fractures stop a horse from being able to bear any weight on it, meaning it cannot be repaired and so putting it down is the most humane thing to do.
Across the world, musculoskeletal injuries account for around 97% of all horse fatalities. Other reasons for a horse to lose its life include respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems and integumentary situations, but it is bone fractures or breaks that are the most common reason for needing to put a horse down. It is something that will forever undermine horse racing as a sport, that a broken leg could lead to a lost life.
Whilst fractures can sometimes be recovered enough for the horse to be put to stud or even to carry on racing, a broken leg is a situation that a horse simply can’t recover from. A horse’s bones are incredibly strong in order to carry their weight, but they’re also remarkably light so that the horse can be fast. Often a broken bone will therefore lead to it simply shattering, like a glass dropped on the floor.
If that happens then it is impossible for even the world’s best veterinary surgeon to fix it. Given the amount of money involved in the sport, it’s easy to believe that that’s true. The best racehorses could be worth millions of pounds if put to stud, so the decision to euthanise them is never taken lightly. Because the bone bends before it breaks, even a recovery of the bone would result in a bent one being put back together.
When a horse breaks its leg, it cannot bear the weight of the animal. This would result in a standing horse distributing 500 or so kilograms across three legs instead of four. This in turn results in the fibrous tissue in the horse’s hoof, known as interdigitating laminae, to take on more of a burden. The one-third extra force that is applied to the tissue puts it under such pressure that it becomes inflamed.
This inflammation is incredibly painful for the horse, causing issues for the blood supply. The result is similar to a bedsore for a human, with painkillers one way of treating it. The problem comes when a vicious circle of pain and inflammation is entered into, building quickly in the most severe cases. Owners therefore have to consider the immense pain that their horse will go through when recovering from a broken leg.
Euthanasia Isn’t An Easy Option
All horse races in the United Kingdom involve a veterinary surgeon following the horses in an emergency vehicle. Any time there is an accident that results in a horse being injured, a vet is on the scene almost immediately. A second vet is also not far away, meaning that an initial assessment and a second opinion can be garnered extremely quickly, leading to the impression that a decision to euthanise a horse is reached too quickly.
In reality, none of those involved in the industry ever want to have to put a horse down, so it’s a decision that is not taken quickly. Those that suffer fatal injuries can be assessed quickly because they are extreme injuries. They are the only cases in which euthanasia will be decided upon as the way forward, usually with the horse’s connected party having been able to assess it for themselves.