By Christopher E. Kawcak, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, Professor, Orthopaedic Research Center, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, and Iron Rose Ranch Chair in Musculoskeletal Research.

Catastrophic injuries still plague the horse racing industry. This was clearly evident when Eight Belles fractured both front fetlock joints after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and was euthanized. Not only is watching an injured horse difficult, but the incident leaves the racing industry barraged by public criticism. Fortunately, the amount of research to date has led to considerable advances in preventing, diagnosing and treating injuries to racehorses. The challenge is to apply this information practically to prevent horses from fracturing their limbs.

All horses–especially racehorses–are susceptible to injuries of their lower limbs, which are relatively small in diameter considering the weight they carry at high speeds during racing and training. Racehorses are much like high-performance cars with large engines and light frames that create a low margin of safety, and they can run very near the edge of failure. Catastrophic injury occurs in approximately two horses out of 1,000 horses that start in races, while less severe injuries that require medical treatment are more common. Fortunately, the equine research community and equine clinicians have determined many of the causes and underlying risks for these injuries, thereby improving the treatment for these elite equine athletes. The industry is on the verge of making significant headway in implementing these findings on a daily basis.