Protecting Racehorses

Part of the Horse exhibition.

In the spring of 2006, the thoroughbred colt Barbaro was the talk of the racing world. Undefeated going into the Kentucky Derby, America's most prized race, Barbaro won that contest by more than six lengths. But then, just a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, he stumbled--and broke his right hind leg in more than 20 places. Even with the best possible medical treatment, including six surgeries, Barbaro could not be saved.

race surface
Synthetic racing surfaces have several layers that provide a stable, cushioned surface with good drainage.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

Despite the many impressive medical advances now used to treat injured horses, it is still usually impossible to save an animal with a broken leg. If a horse is unable to stand and is in constant pain, the only humane option is often euthanasia. Fortunately, however, some new strategies offer hope of preventing such injuries before they occur.

Broken Legs

Fatigued bodies are prone to injury, and racing stresses limbs to the limit. To make matters worse, racehorses are bred for speed, not bulk. Their long, thin, lightweight leg bones can withstand the impact of hooves slamming into the ground, if they land cleanly-but if they don't, their legs can twist and break.

Unlike humans, horses rarely recover from broken legs. Lack of exercise can damage the tissue connecting the hoof to the leg, a painful illness called laminitis, which ended Barbaro's recovery.

On the Right Track

The thundering hooves of a thoroughbred strike the track with incredible force. If a horse is fatigued or lands on a rock, its legs can twist and snap. To reduce the risk of injury, some racetracks have installed synthetic surfaces that cushion the impact and prevent missteps. At the first synthetic racetrack in the United States, Kentucky's Turfway Park, catastrophic injuries dropped from 16 to three in the first year. Today, all major racetracks in California are required to use synthetic surfaces.