The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation held its sixth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit July 8. It was a lot of information packed into an eight-hour day.
Here are a few takeaways from this year's edition of the summit:
1. A lot of riders are not wearing ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) approved headgear, and it's placing them at tremendous risk. Honestly, I didn't know that it wasn't standard for commissions to require licensees to wear ASTM-approved helmets at all times. I am not legally permitted to so much as warm up my draft cross mare for dressage at a lower-level (non-recognized) event, per the standard release I have to sign to participate.
Dr. Carl Mattacola of the University of Kentucky has subjected popular brands and styles of helmets found on the racetrack to testing in order to determine which ones practically hold up to the rigors of falling. Mattacola and his team simulated falls at peak accelerations of 300 G, which is the recognized threshold that places riders at risk of head injury. The Charles Owen and GRA helmets his team tested performed the best. The worst performers? The Caliente style helmet that has been popular on the track for so many years. It consistently failed to reduce the force of falls below the threshold.
2. Those helmet manufacturers' replacement guidelines might be more than a marketing ploy. As a rider myself, I've heard the suggestion from helmet manufacturers that helmets be replaced after taking a tumble, but tended to assume this was nothing more than an attempt to sell more helmets. According to Mattacola's research, the force-absorbing materials under the helmet's hard shell do indeed compress after each impact. One Champion helmet the group tested saw the thickness of the pad go from 23 millimeters to 10 millimeters after four drops. Mattacola stressed that these changes could happen even without obvious cracking or damage to the exterior of the helmet, which means many riders probably assume the structure is still sound after they take a tumble.
3. Female jockeys may have a higher incidence of some injuries than male riders. Mattacola also presented sobering statistics from the jockey injury database, which included a few oddities. One of them is that female riders may be more prone to head injuries than male riders—33 percent of the injuries reported for female riders were concussions, while concussions made up 5 percent of the data for male riders. Lower back injuries also accounted for 11 percent of injuries suffered by female jockeys, while they were just under 5 percent for male riders. Mattacola wasn't sure why this might be, but believes that it's worth collecting additional data on injuries by gender. One more unsettling statistic from the database: just over 25 percent of riders involved in a fall were wearing non-ASTM approved helmets.
4. Data continues to support the notion that synthetic surfaces are safer than dirt when it comes to catastrophic injuries. This was something experts noted throughout the day, and the surface experts believe it has a lot to do with the day-to-day consistency of synthetics and their ability to deal with water. Information presented by Dr. Tim Parkin of the University of Glasgow backs that up. Parkin compiled data from 2.2 million starts in the United States as part of the Equine Injury Database. When studying fatalities (those occurring within 72 hours of a race), synthetic surfaces had “significantly” lower fatality statistics, with dirt ranking worst, and turf in between.
5. The longer a horse is in the barn, the safer he is. Parkin also noted that a horse's chance of a fatal injury goes down the longer he remains in the same barn. The risk for a horse who has been with a trainer for one month was 60 percent higher than for a horse who had been with his trainer four years. No matter how successful a given trainer's “program” is supposed to be, Parkin said it stands to reason that there would be no substitute for just getting to know the individual.
6. Data continues to support the notion that starting a race career at two is better for horses than waiting until they are older. Both Parkin and Dr. Larry Bramlage of Rood and Riddle said their research indicates that 2-year-old racing is better for a horse's structural development and overall safety than shelving them until they are older. Bramlage suspects that the bias against racing sound 2-year-olds comes from other equine disciplines, which don't ramp up athletic training until the horse is four or five. He reminded the audience that the Thoroughbred skeleton strengthens based on the stresses applied to it, so for it to respond appropriately to the stress of racing, it must experience racing. Parkin found that the rates of fatal injury were lowest for horses that had made their first start at two, and increased every year until age seven.
7. Speed, unsurprisingly, can be more dangerous for horses than middle or long distances. Data from the Equine Injury Database did support the perception that sprint racing can be more dangerous—races under six furlongs had the greatest risk for fatal injury, with risk decreasing in races six to seven furlongs and remaining fairly consistent from there and longer. The “safest” distance in terms of fatal injury risk was seven to eight furlongs. Interestingly, Parkin said the trend is reversed in the United Kingdom.
8. Racing is behind the eight ball on continuing education – but it's working to catch up. Only one state (New York) has any kind of continuing education requirement for licensees to renew. Racing authorities in Indiana, Washington, Colorado, California, and Kentucky are exploring options to encourage licensees to participate in continuing education. Currently, the New York Gaming Commission and Cornell are working together to develop a web-based program with peer-reviewed science for trainers; UC Davis and the California Horse Racing Board are collaborating on a free online program, and the North American Racing Academy is working with the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation on interactive, video-based web modules. Upcoming challenges for these programs: expanding the subject matter and adding a Spanish language option.
9. Two months may be the optimum vacation length for horses needing a freshener. Dr. Bramlage's research indicates that if a horse needs a break, two months gives the skeleton time to complete remodeling from the horse's last work, but isn't long enough to lose too much ground in terms of bone or cardiovascular fitness. The cardiovascular system begins “detraining” at about five weeks of rest, and Bramlage doesn't like sound resting horses too much idle time past this.
10. Got a horse with a bone bruise? Get him moving as soon as you can. Bramlage revealed that his least favorite thing to hear a client tell him is that they plan to tack walk a recovering horse in the shedrow for a few weeks, rather than giving him time outside either walking or on turnout. A horse is designed to be in motion, Bramlage pointed out. Their circulatory systems (not to mention their constantly-remodeling bones) work best when they're out grazing, allowing better healing of that bruise, and the same principle applies with some other injuries, as well.
If you'd like to catch up on the slides presented at the summit, click here.
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