Elite Equine and Fatigue Failure – 15 July 2019
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Chris Whitton, head of the Equine Centre in Melbourne, gives his view on fatigue failure in horses:
“In elite racehorses, biology is pushed to the limit – about four tonnes is placed on the joint surfaces in a galloping horse’s lower limb with every stride, and these repeated loads have the potential to cause injury to joints, tendons and bones.
As a horse runs faster, the loads it generates also increase, meaning that horses with a greater ability to run fast have an increased risk of injury. A common complaint from trainers is that it’s only the good ones that get injured!
The most common cause of injury is what’s called “fatigue failure” of bone or tendon tissue such as:
tendon and suspensory ligament injuries.
These injuries occur spontaneously, often with little warning, and are caused by repeated high loading.
Despite the term “fatigue”, the horse does not get “tired”, but suffers a gradual deterioration of bone or tendon which ultimately ends in breakage, strain or rupture.
Fatigue failure is a difficult concept to grasp but can be likened to the fatigue that occurs in a wire that is repeatedly bent at the same point – eventually, and suddenly, it breaks.
Our research has recently shown that in areas of bone stressed by repeated high loads – such as during training – the repair process slows, and those areas are prone to injury. In contrast, when horses rest from training, bone replacement rates are much higher.
In short, rest is best for replacing bone.
The key to injury prevention is achieving a minimum number of miles of training at the necessary speed. There is a balance, though: adaptation will not occur if the horses do not train at speed, but if they train too much at high speed, then tissues will fatigue.
We owe it to these incredible athletes to understand them better and that will only occur through greater research efforts and trainers basing their programs on the scientific evidence.” 
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