By Frank Angst

One of the reasons Dr. Larry Bramlage believes trainers are handling cases of lameness better than ever before is because they realize that rather than being the problem, it signals a problem.

Bramlage, the renowned equine surgeon and partner at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, talked about that progress during a one-on-one talk with Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation president Ed Bowen during the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit Wednesday, July 8 at Keeneland.

“(The trainers) recognize that lameness is not the enemy, it’s a sign that there is something going wrong,” Bramlage said. “If you’re a trainer and a horse becomes lame, you can’t train them. In the past lameness was the enemy and the goal was to get rid of the lameness. The ones that are the best at training horses and having them have long careers recognize the lameness as a sign that the msucoskeletal system is getting behind. Something is not keeping up with the process.”

At that point, today’s trainers realize that further review by a veterinarian is needed to determine the specific problem.

Bramlage, who also is well known from his frequent contributions as a spokesman in the American Association of Equine Practitioners on-call program on racing broadcasts, has outlined the importance of the process of young horses building their musculoskeletal systems through training. In the training process, bones in the legs go through microfractures and then the bones rebuild themselves with added strength.

Bramlage said through improved diagnostic systems and better technology trainers have never been better than they are today at staying atop musculoskeletal issues. He said such monitoring is important because just the right balance is needed in strengthening the musculoskeletal system. Improving the horse’s cardiovascular fitness is not as exacting.

“You almost can’t overload the horse’s heart and lungs; they’re so good at it—it’s passive,” Bramlage said. “In humans, 15% of energy in running is spent on breathing. For a horse it’s almost nothing because they’re so wonderfully made—whether it’s God or evolution or both. A horse collapses his lungs when he brings his legs together and expands them when he widens them. He doesn’t have to expend any energy.

“They breathe passively. They’re so economically made and so wonderfully adapted, the musculoskeletal system is the one that takes the most adaptation.”

Bramlage said the Thoroughbred is so well-adapted to run swiftly in terms of its heart, lungs, and muscles, that the bones are typically what require the most monitoring. He believes that balance is one of the reasons they’re so beautiful to watch run.

“You could cross a draft horse with a Thoroughbred and you’d get a horse that is much more likely to stay in training, but it won’t run very fast,” Bramlage said. “The Thoroughbred’s skeleton is the support system that’s needed to carry the horse around the track. It has nothing to do with speed. It’s not going to help him push more oxygen or be stronger, it’s going to carry him around the racetrack. With a lighter skeleton, the faster that horse is going to be. That’s the beauty of the Thoroughbred racehorse.

“We have put such a good engine in breeding that Thoroughbred horse in terms of the heart, lungs, and muscle capacity, we have to train them carefully to develop that musculoskeletal system.”