The skeleton a Thoroughbred is born with isn't the finished product it needs to be a successful competitor. The animal must develop and strengthen it through training and then maintain it. Understanding the process involved is important in preventing injuries that can cause equine athletes to miss races or end their careers, according to Dr. Larry Bramlage.
“Bone is very dynamic,” he said Oct. 17 during the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit IV that began a day earlier at Keeneland in Lexington . “Bone is laid down when strength is needed and removed when strength is unnecessary. Horses carry this to an extreme. They overload and they over-repair, and they overload and they over-repair. You want them to make these little steps all the way up the ladder so that eventually you get a racehorse skeleton. You have to give the horse the load at a rate he can withstand it in order to strengthen his bone to get him to the place where he can race.”
Variations in exercise are needed to prevent the bone from wearing out. Short bursts of speed are beneficial to young horses “as long as you don’t overdo it,” because “they show the bone where it is going,” said Bramalage, who is based at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Central Kentucky.
Lameness or soreness is the horse’s way of telling a trainer that something needs to be changed in its training or that it needs more time between races or works.
“High speed furlongs result in damage that must be healed, and horses heal when they rest,” said Bramlage, who spoke on the summit's opening day. “If horses start showing you they need a rest, you need to give it to them or they will force you to. Different horses can withstand different amounts of training, but you can’t (in general) keep a horse peaked for an excessively long period of time.”
In Bramlage’s opinion, the sturdiness of the Thoroughbred racehorse has changed over the years because of what he called “breeder mentality in the era of television.” That change has resulted in a less hardy competitor.
“The people who pay for horses want a horse that can run in the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup,” said the prominent equine surgeon. “That’s how we make stallions. If they’re right on the right few days, they can be stallions.”
In the past, “the Vanderbilts chose their stallions because the horses were good to them over a long period of time,” Bramlage explained. “They won a bunch of races and they got them there on a Saturday afternoon or a Wednesday afternoon. The horses that were good over a period of time were stallions, not the horses that were just good during the Triple Crown or the Breeders’ Cup.
“We certainly prefer the brilliant horse now,” he continued. “Career stamina or the ability to withstand training has been deemphasized in the recent past. If you want a stallion to stay in the breeding shed, he has to be brilliant early (through the performance of his progeny). That has made the job for trainers harder. They don’t have the same raw material to work with that we had whenever Seabiscuit was in training.
"Formerly horses probably had a little less speed. They didn’t go out as fast as they go out now in their races, but they were more durable.”