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What makes a fast racehorse?


Around 80 per cent of modern thoroughbred racehorses have in their pedigree the 18th century horse Eclipse, which went its entire racing career unbeaten. 200 years later the question of what makes a fast racehorse still perplexes trainers and racing fans but researchers at The Royal Veterinary College may have found the answer to this and other questions on animal locomotion.

The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has combined data about the length, shape and structure of horses with analysis of horses in the field to develop mathematical and computer models of horse movement. Using the models the research team can then build ’theoretical limbs’ on a computer and use them to test answers to questions on not only why Eclipse was so fast but also why horses can remain balanced when each leg is off the ground for 80 per cent of the ground during gallop and what limits a horse’s maximum gallop speed.

Dr Alan Wilson, leader of the research group, said, "A horse’s leg resembles a pogo stick that uses energy stored in the muscles and tendons to propel the animal forwards and upwards. We have found that the stiffer a horse’s leg restricts how quickly it can transmit force to the ground and bounce back up again and also increases the chances of injury. The team has also found that fast horses can bring their legs forward quickly in preparation for the next stride but that this is more difficult and therefore slower for large and long-legged horses."

Using portraits of Eclipse and contemporary accounts of the horse running the researchers reconstructed one of its legs and have discovered that its legendary speed may have been due to its ’averageness’. Dr Wilson said, "Analysis shows that Eclipse’s body shape and everything about him seems to have been right in the middle of the normal range, suggesting that all the factors for speed were perfectly matched."

The research of the Structure and Motion Laboratory at The Royal Veterinary College not only answers questions about the top speed of racehorses but also examines the locomotion of a wide range of animals including humans and may help to design more stable robots and help us to understand how dinosaurs walked.

Matt Goode | EurekAlert!
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