Friday, August 29, 2008

Legs Like A Supermodel

Exceptionally long, slim, and elegant legs are a ticket to a glamorous world of champagne and parades. However, I’m not talking about the world of a supermodel, but rather the world of a Thoroughbred racehorse.

The parallels between racehorses and models go beyond the length of their legs. Both groups are thought to live on a mainly herbivorous diet, neither speaks much in public, and both horses and models have a beautiful mane of hair. There are some important differences, of course: for example, racehorses wear flat shoes not stilettos.

You may have noticed that racehorses are heavier than models too. Racing fit, the average Thoroughbred weighs at least 500 kilograms. Racehorses also run faster than models, travelling at up to 60 kilometres per hour at full gallop. Due to their weight and speed, the bones in racehorses’ legs are subject to enormous forces during a race, and the presence of any flaws in these bones can have catastrophic consequences.

My research focuses on a bone growth disorder in Thoroughbred racehorses, called osteochondrosis. Osteochondrosis causes lesions in the joints of the legs. In a horse suffering from this disease, small regions of the bone growth plates that lie just below the joint surface fail to mature correctly. This leaves cores of weaker cartilage where there should be bone. A racehorse with osteochondrosis lesions has an increased likelihood of suffering both recurrent lameness and catastrophic breakdown.

Because osteochondrosis occurs while the horse is growing, I am following Thoroughbred foals through the first twelve months of their lives. I am recording the pedigree of each foal in the study, and visiting them regularly to observe the different environments in which they are raised. When the young racehorses are twelve to eighteen months old, they will have their legs x-rayed. This is traditionally the method by which vets diagnose osteochondrosis and other bone problems before the horses are sold. I will use this information to calculate the relative contributions that genes and environment make to osteochondrosis in racehorses.

In order to make my study statistically valid, I am following hundreds of foals. Fortunately, most foals are very inquisitive, and getting close to them is not hard. Unfortunately, foals (like babies) seem to follow the steps of 1) briefly observing the novel item – me, and then 2) trying to put it in their mouth or up their nose. As well as studying osteochondrosis, I believe I could track the foals’ increasing curiosity and independence by analysing the amount of saliva left on me at the end of each visit.

Foal spit aside, this research is important. This study should help breeders predict which horses are most likely to develop osteochondrosis, before the lesions occur. Horses that are identified as being at risk could then be managed differently to their healthier counterparts, by altering their diet and other factors that may contribute to the disease. Reducing the rate of occurrence of osteochondrosis will result in less pain and loss of life amongst racehorses, as well as saving money for horse owners, breeders and trainers. Equally importantly, the fact that this research is being carried out at all shows that the racing industry is increasingly embracing scientific research as a way forward.

The horse racing industry is one of the largest industries in the world. In Australia, it contributes more than $8 billion to the economy. In the USA, it is bigger than Hollywood. In the UK, there is almost £100 million of prize-money available for horse races, and one in eight agricultural workers is employed in the horse industry. However, with a few exceptions, it is a highly traditional industry that has not embraced change.

There are many challenges for the horse racing industry to face in coming years. Infectious diseases must be managed and treated, and new farming and training methods will be called for to work with the changing climate. Breeders aiming to create new champions will need information to ensure that their horses remain genetically diverse and healthy. Scientific research will be invaluable in helping the racing industry meet these challenges.

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