07/08/2014 4:57PM

Bramlage: Short, high-intensity workouts might be best

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Horses need regular intervals of rest or “reduced exercise” during training in order to build bones strong enough to handle the loads encountered during racing, according to Dr. Larry Bramlage, the renowned equine orthopedic surgeon.

In a frequently technical one-hour presentation at the Safety and Welfare of the Racehorse Summit on Tuesday, Bramlage presented the results of studies and clinical research on bone growth showing that a horse’s leg bones are best strengthened through short, high-intensity loads followed by brief periods of little to no stress, to allow the bone to “remodel.” The short, high-intensity loads equated to approximately one furlong of high-speed work, Bramlage said.

Bramlage’s presentation introduced questions about how most modern Thoroughbreds are trained, typically by using four- to five-furlong high-speed workouts spaced approximately every five days in the weeks leading up to a race, along with daily gallops. Though he did not provide recommendations for an optimal training schedule, Bramlage’s research appeared to indicate that some common perceptions of training may need to be re-examined in light of ongoing research shedding new light on the physiological weaknesses that lead to injuries.

For instance, Bramlage said that “galloping a horse up to fitness” – using two-mile, relatively strenuous gallops to build muscle and stamina – might be counterproductive because it can result in too much stress on bones. In addition, Bramlage said “walking the shed row” or stall rest to get a horse to recover from minor injuries also was counterproductive because horses need some stress on bones to signal the structures to repair properly.

In recognition of all the factors involved, Bramlage said developing a training regimen to maximize bone strength is a very difficult balancing act, and he cautioned that many horses respond to stress and exercise very differently.

"You have to do damage to make the horse's bone stronger, but doing that right is like using a blowtorch to dry clothes,” Bramlage said. “You have to get it exactly right.”

The Tuesday presentation rehashed several points that Bramlage presented approximately a year and a half ago at the fourth Safety and Welfare of the Racehorse Summit, a semi-annual conference put on by the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation held at Keeneland. Bramlage, who works at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital near Lexington, is one of the racing industry’s foremost experts on musculo-skeletal injuries.

During the Tuesday presentation, Bramlage also stressed that horses need to be exercised regularly as 2-year-olds in order to build strong bones, citing the physiology of bone growth and studies showing that horses who run as 2-year-olds suffer far fewer catastrophic injuries than horses that do not run at 2. Many animal-rights organizations, and some racing insiders, have criticized the racing industry for training and running horses at 2 despite the data and the physiological understanding of bone growth and remodeling.

Bramlage also recommended that racetracks “entertain” the idea of allowing for both left-handed and right-handed training, as studies seem to suggest that horses’ musculoskeletal systems would benefit from the variation, he said. He also said it would be reasonable for trainers to modify the gaits that their horses use and require them to perform different exercises than just running around the track in order to allow for more complete growth of bone to handle different and unexpected stresses and loads that can arise during a race, such as when a horse takes a “bad step” on the track.

But Bramlage also said research has been unable so far to divine a “magic number” of furlongs a horse should train or race in a given period to avoid injury. He said a recent analysis of two populations of horses, one that required surgery for a leg injury and one that did not, showed that both populations ran essentially the same distance in racing and training, yet one population suffered injuries while the other did not.

As a result, Bramlage said, there’s no way yet to use distance worked to predict a fracture in a racehorse, but he said he suspects the speed or intensity of the distance raced and trained likely plays a role. Bramlage said he expected to pursue research in that direction in the future.

“I suspect it has a lot to do with not how often you race, but with what intensity you load the skeleton,” Bramlage said. “There is a limit. We don’t really know what that limit is. That’s one of the things we need to figure out better.”

DavidM9999 More than 1 year ago
Correct me if I am wrong but I assume Dr. Bramlage is not a fan of walkie talkie guided 6F works in 1:11 or faster.
Anna Montanucci More than 1 year ago
It seems Dr. Bramalage's results don't provide any universal answers. Keep them in the barn, they break down. Run them, they break down. I guess the answer is know your horse as an individual, which isn't going to happen in most barns.
Tony More than 1 year ago
Sorry, there won't be one furlong works. That seems really unproductive and superficial. Four and five furlong works aren't unreasonable for quality Tbreds who can do those in about .48 and 1.00 respectively; and beneath the class of those you see a lot more 3 furlong works.
william More than 1 year ago
what about drugs? Get rid of drugs. People will stop sending their mares to stallions that pass along their infirmities and instead look to gravitate toward horses that tend to sire sounder offspring. Eventually the infirm bloodlines get weeded out and the breed gets healthier. It seems pretty obvious to me.
Mike R More than 1 year ago
Dr Bramlage pointed out that pain tolerance as an important factor in training. When a horse has minor injury and is able to keep training with that injury he/she can maintain their fitness. They can continue training without getting "stupid" in their exercise regime, gate and paddock schooling because they can tolerate the pain. Many horses develop terrible habits, wheeling, rearing, propping, bucking, running off, flipping or freezing up in the paddock, flipping or dwelling in the gate because they can't tolerate the pain associated with training. Regardless of how often or how much work a horse can or can't do, I'll take and cherish the horse that can continue to train and race with minor pain over the "sound" horse any day. The fact is that most horses that can run fast enough to win races are going to develop some kind of injury, it is an athletic endeavor and requires lots of repetitive exercise to maintain the fitness level needed to compete against competitors that are fit and ready.
Richard Holmes More than 1 year ago
There is one thing in this article that is a little misleading. It is true that it is good for horses to have some training as 2 year olds. I don't dispute that. On the other hand, studies showing that horses who run as 2-year-olds suffer far fewer catastrophic injuries than horses that do not is misleading. Here is why. Almost everyone tries to run their horses as 2 year olds. When you see a horse that doesn't run until 3 or 4, it is rarely by choice. It is simply because the horse wasn't sound enough to run as a 2 year old. In general, the soundest horses run as 2 year olds. The ones who aren't as sound don't run as 2 year olds. It is no surprise that the horses who don't run at 2 have more breakdowns. These horses were not as sound to begin with. Anyway, I am fine with horses running as 2 year olds but I wouldn't want them to have too many hard races at 2. If I have a great horse that I think will be a Deby contender and a good older horse, I'm certainly not going to want to run him 6 times as a 2 year old. I may run him 2-3 times but probably not more than that.
DavidM More than 1 year ago
That's an excellent point!
Mike R More than 1 year ago
I guess California Chrome wouldn't fit in your stable-7 starts as a two year old. All horses must be treated as individuals, blanket statements don't work.
Mike G. Rutherford More than 1 year ago
Affirmed, Secretariat and Spectacular Bid all had 11 starts at least as 2 year olds. There is no easy answer is there? I watched Affirmed work a mile before the Derby at Santa Anita with Pincay in the saddle wiping him every stride as per Laz's instructions. Also , all 4 of the last triple crown winner's went to the lead out of the gate and were out of sprinter sire lines. They all had their bones set as 2 year olds. as per Bramalage's theory.
William Cacho More than 1 year ago
Great information, thanks Dr Bramlage for share your precious knowl·edge, and the RF.
GuyFleegman1 More than 1 year ago
The breeding stock in America is as fragile as can be...would take many years to change that...IF even possible.
jon g More than 1 year ago
Bramlage is a hack
Joel Firsching More than 1 year ago
i have been saying this for years that 6f, 7f and mile works are doubling the risk for injury. not enough pounding for young horses on synthetic tracks. california's synthetic era horses confirmed this with their results.
jay More than 1 year ago
I have been training my dog by having her do short sprints for 4 years now, and she has never had a serious injury.