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As in any sport, there are things that are done well, and things that are not done so well. Some thoroughbreds come out of the racing industry in fine fettle and have splendid second athletic careers in high end competition.
Unfortunately, many thoroughbreds with moderate problems land up in homes with people who are quite unaware of their horses’ issues. When working with clients, I see a range of issues that come up again and again in ex-racehorses.
The list that follows is by no means exhaustive – there are always more problems, especially as a combination of different problems can throw up further secondary issues. What I’ve decided to focus on here are problems that you can identify quickly and relatively easily. This problem really is the number one, as every ex-racehorse has damage to the ligaments in this area. Frequently, when damage to the ligaments is severe, there’ll be further changes to the pelvis that are also visible.
Major damage can rule out a future athletic career, while moderate damage may require rehabilitative work to strengthen the back and prepare the horse for future work. Check for: asymmetry of the tuber sacrales (the two bony ‘pins’ of the croup), with one side being more than 5mm higher than the other.
As well as sacroiliac problems, ex-racehorses can have other structural damage to the pelvis. In horses that have had heavy accidents at a young age, the pubic symphysis (the lower cartilaginous join between the pelvic halves, directly between the legs) hasn’t formed properly.
If you’ve found any sacroiliac or pelvic issues, you’ll probably find problems in the lumbar spine too.
Check for: Use your hand to check the lumbar spine for the ‘lumps and bumps’ that can indicate overriding processes.
Or so said Tom Ivers, one of the original equine sports therapy experts and a racing trainer to boot.
Problems such as slab fractures and bone chips in the carpal bones happen due to over-extension (when the joint is bent back slightly) at high speed, or from constant loading on the same bend. Check for: Puffiness around the joint, especially in front, due to previous swelling in the joint capsule. If it’s severe, there may be an undiagnosed stress fracture that can go catastrophic under high pressure at a future date. Check for: a curvature on the front of the cannon, which indicates that the problem was bad for heavy remodeling to occur. Injuries to flexor tendons are extremely common amongst racehorses, with the deep digital flexor tendon and superficial digital flexor tendon being the most affected. There is always a risk of re-injury due to the weakness, and in serious cases, a second rupture could be catastrophic. Check for: a thicker area of the tendons indicates an old injury that has healed, while a curvature along the length of the tendon is a classic ‘bowed tendon’, sign of a far more serious injury.
Fetlocks are vulnerable due to hyper-extension, when the back of the fetlock comes too close to the ground when all the weight is borne on one foreleg at high speeds. There are numerous causes for stifle issues in ex-racehorses, but you can take the view that if there’s a problem anywhere in the hindquarters, the stifle usually suffers. The hock comes under major stress due to being so involved in providing propulsive power in the gallop.
Racehorses can experience awkward impacts at the base of the neck, above the point of the  shoulder.
When damaged, this can lead to wasting or even paralysis of the muscles over the shoulder blade itself, which is a problem, because these muscles stabilise the shoulder joint.
It’s hard to know where to stop with an article like this, but I hope this is a good start when it comes to assessing a horse. To finish off, here are two horses that raced in Australia, where it’s common to train horses at the very racetrack where they run most of their races. The majority of these photos are my own and date from at least 5 years ago, so current clients can relax!
Is there any sort of website out there where you can enter your OTTB’s racing name and look up any injuries they’ve had? We see many of these structural issues not only with the Thorougbred but with the crooked riding horse at our training establishment. I was stunned at the practice of training at the track that happens in many places in Australia, which only allows for one option when it comes to exercise.
May I ask, if you don’t mind, did the scapular (shoulder blade) fracture or was it within the joint? Sometimes, a person from outside a profession successfully identifies something that has been unnoticed, overlooked or wrongly assessed for a long, long time.
Not long ago, I was having a quiet think about the reasons that people buy saddles that so obviously don’t fit their horses. Look on any ivermectin or moxidectin-based wormer packet and you’ll see a long list of parasites. Equine books: here's reading that will improve ridden performance while benefiting your horse!


Browse the AMAZON categories by subject: lameness, bodywork therapies, anatomy, biomechanics, saddle fitting, worming, and more. Blowing a bit of hot air has always been a good way to attract attention and, hopefully, some cash in its wake. We've all had one of those girlfriends who brings her long-term boyfriend along to a night out with the girls.
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No matter how successful the athlete, the wear and tear and dings and dents will just keep on coming. Many have lower level issues that come right with some rehabilitation, leaving them suited to successful but less demanding careers. I also see plenty of unsuspecting owners who didn’t know what they were buying at the time.
I believe that when looking at ex-racehorses, even those that have already had a couple of non-racing owners, you could do a lot worse than check for the physical issues listed here. A horse can have one or two and still be able to function perfectly well (although if it’s straight out of racing, some rehabilitative work is going to be necessary). And I don’t go into hoofcare, which is worthy of another introductory article in its own right. Sacroiliac Damage – Not Whether it’s There, but is it Slight, Bad or Appalling? Depending on severity, there can be lesions that have healed, or lesions that have resulted in lasting weakness. The horse may walk with one side of the pelvis lifting higher than the other – a hip ‘hike’. With a severely distorted pelvis, a horse can’t work equally well on both reins and may not be able to canter at all on one rein.
Sometimes fractures lead to ‘knocked down hips’ or one tuber sacral may have dropped due to a fracture of the pelvic wing.
If you know the horse and it’s safe, stand on a box a few feet behind to take a look down the back of the squared up horse (if it can square up, that is). Lateral imbalance in the pelvis will, more often than not, rotate the lumbar spine to one side or the other.
Fused areas are painful for the horse while they’re happening, and OK once the fusion is complete. Equine knees are delicate and complex, with many small bones (carpals), and undergo a lot of stress in a racing career. Then there are more complex fractures, when the carpal bones break into more than two segments. Old bone chips and slab fractures may have been dealt with at the time, but there can be lasting damage within the joint that leads to osteoarthritis (carpitis) later on.
This is stress to the periosteum (the soft surface layer over the bone) caused by concussion – the body’s response is to lay down extra calcium to strengthen the bone.
These can be relatively minor lesions, which heal up quite nicely, to more serious ruptures that end a racing career.
It often depends on the quality of treatment and length of rest given at the time, as well as re-conditioning before returning to work. Extremely high forces occur at the back of the fetlock and pastern as the horse lands the forefoot. A damaged sesamoid (the two small bones at the back of the fetlocks are the sesamoids)can play havoc with the vital suspensory ligament.
There are so many ligaments around this complex double joint that it really isn’t hard for it to get compromised. This is the patellar momentarily catching, which can happens due to the lateral imbalance (causing misalignment in the femeropatellar joint).
Also look for bog spavins – these are specific fluid bumps on the front of the joint, which indicate underlying issues.
It can happen when bunched-up horses collide or run against railings, during a fall, or through everyday routine, such as a severe knock against a stable door. This is more than just tight muscles – the spine of the shoulder blade will be visually obvious and easy to identify through touch. In the state of NSW, the horses run clockwise (the bay), while in the state of Victoria, they run anti-clockwise (the chestnut). Also, to Sharon May-Davis for valuable lessons about TBs in her Biomechanics and dissection workshops, and Zarna Carter of Equine Positional Release for some  stunning remedial approaches for some of the above problems. The stewards reports of a race can give information about falls or interference that occurred during a race and sometimes injuries and vet feedback. Awareness and understanding is everything when it comes to any horse’s physical problems.
The crookedness leads to stress of limbs, ligaments, spine, back issues and often nervous issues.


Running in an inverted posture on a unilateral bend isn’t going to be good for any horse! I remember one training telling me of his revolutionary idea – to swim the horse in the opposite direction in the pool!
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You can then get a more knowledgeable person to help you assess the horse or get a vetting completed before making a decision. These horses also have a higher risk of having hidden stress fractures – hairline fractures that can worsen after a further fall or trauma later in life. Otherwise, hold a mobile phone directly overhead to get a straight-down-the-back photo, ensuring it’s dead center. Poor hoofcare, in the form of ‘low heel, long toe’ imbalance, also plays a significant part in this. So if you see signs of a problem, you’ll always need to know more, and that will usually mean involving a vet.
If one joint is larger and rounder, or if the ligament at the back of the foot feels thicker, with puffiness above the back of the fetlock, be suspicious. Other signs are visual: distension (swelling) of the joint may be visible from the side-on view, or from the front looking back towards the tail, depending on which part of the joint has been affected (femeropatellar or femerotibial). In the gallop, it must alternate between being compressed to absorb concussion, being rigid to build energy, and then extending fully to dispel energy and move the horse forwards. Bone spavins are their bony equivalents, being hard bumps lower on the face of the joint, which indicate the presence of established DJD (arthritis). One outcome can be damage to the supraspinous nerve, which runs over the face of the shoulder blade (scapula).
Mild cases usually recover, but more severe cases can be left with permanently wasted muscles. However, anyone who works regularly with ex-racehorses will recognize that there are certain sets of issues that come with these former athletes. The only injury I can see is a bump on her spine about a foot from her tail…lower lumbar vertebrae. I read through a friend’s horses history on it and his form was very consistent in his first 10 starts or so until he ran in one race where he was bumped at the start, badly interfered with but still raced on and came 2nd.
I have seen horses with multiple problems taking part in ODE-ing – they will do it, and willingly so (being courageous TBs), but their problems have then grown worse and are eventually career-ending.
I have owned him for a year and he is currently competing at Elementary level dressage and off to the regionals next week.
Are their lives the healthiest, richest and most fulfilling they could be – from a horse’s point of view? Wendy Ying of the Driving Radio Show and Five Elements for Animals) join us on this Classic Revisit from the Stable Scoop Radio Show. Many horses compete just fine with some fusion, but if it’s severe, there’ll be problems with flexion, both vertical and lateral. If the pelvis is tilted forward, you’ll find there’s often a longer dip in front of the croup – the sacrolumbar gap is larger than normal. With reduced function in one shoulder and a shortened stride, the horse won’t be suited to demanding sports. I saw one that had been show-jumped into the ground with carpal arthritis and fracturing – it broke my heart to look into the proud eyes of that horse. Yes he requires regular physio and I put in lots of time making sure he was working evenly but he is a joy to own and would urge people not to be completely put off by owning an ex-racehorse, they may just require extra tlc to keep them in shape – but surely all horses deserve this. There's a lot advice around about what you can do to help ex-racehorses, or OTTBs (Off the Track Thoroughbreds). Many therapists double up for horse and rider and some even work on riders while they're on their horses. The same is as true for any top athlete as for any trainee who doesn’t make it past the foothills of success. The horse can also find it hard to stand square, instead standing with hind feet close together – one toe may be angled outwards. My mares half sister raced unplaced in group races early in her career, towards the end of her career she started to badly miss the start – my horse dentist suggested she probably had a sore back.
Despite this, many Australians are testing positive - and that’s happening with horses, as well.



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