Bone fatigue and its implications for injuries in racehorses

S. Martig, W. Chen, P. V. S. Lee and R. C. Whitton
Equine Veterinary Journal
July 2014


Musculoskeletal injuries are a common cause of lost training days and wastage in racehorses. Many bone injuries are a consequence of repeated high loading during fast work, resulting in chronic damage accumulation and material fatigue of bone. The highest joint loads occur in the fetlock, which is also the most common site of subchondral bone injury in racehorses. Microcracks in the subchondral bone at sites where intra-articular fractures and palmar osteochondral disease occur are similar to the fatigue damage detected experimentally after repeated loading of bone. Fatigue is a process that has undergone much study in material science in order to avoid catastrophic failure of engineering structures. The term ‘fatigue life’ refers to the numbers of cycles of loading that can be sustained before failure occurs. Fatigue life decreases exponentially with increasing load. This is important in horses as loads within the limb increase with increasing speed. Bone adapts to increased loading by modelling to maintain the strains within the bone at a safe level. Bone also repairs fatigued matrix through remodelling. Fatigue injuries develop when microdamage accumulates faster than remodelling can repair. Remodelling of the equine metacarpus is reduced during race training and accelerated during rest periods. The first phase of remodelling is bone resorption, which weakens the bone through increased porosity. A bone that is porous following a rest period may fail earlier than a fully adapted bone. Maximising bone adaptation is an important part of training young racehorses. However, even well-adapted bones accumulate microdamage and require ongoing remodelling. If remodelling inhibition at the extremes of training is unavoidable then the duration of exposure to high-speed work needs to be limited and appropriate rest periods instituted. Further research is warranted to elucidate the effect of fast-speed work and rest on bone damage accumulation and repair.

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