Response to Dr. Larry Bramlage

Sometimes it helps to begin at the end.
Recently Dr. Bramlage was quoted extensively in a Bloodhorse piece entitled; “Bramlage: Rest Needed to Keep Horses Sound”.  Although I will summarize the interview extensively below and add my commentary, you may also read the entire piece here:

While I applaud nearly all of his comments, his final conclusion includes a statement that I hear from trainers and breeders quite often these days, a statement that is categorically wrong by any statistical measure: “Formerly horses probably had a little less speed. They didn’t go out as fast as they go out now in their races, but they were more durable.”

Breeders love to make us think that the high injury rate these days is a side effect of the blazing fast horses that they are pushing on the auction market. Now I’ll gladly stipulate that horses were more durable in the old days; but today’s horses DO NOT go out faster in their races, at least not in the biggest race of them all that is famous for brutal early paces  – the Kentucky Derby. See the evidence:

Here we have the last 33 runnings of the big race represented by data points that quantify the opening 4F fractions – ending with the final two Derbies: Animal Kingdom’s closing win off a glacial 48.63 half mile opener and Bodemeister’s near heroic 2nd place trip off a blazing 45.39. Of note is the trendline, the solid black line in the above chart which runs roughly parallel across the past 3 decades at roughly the 46.5 clocking. On my admittedly primitive Excel masterpiece above, faster times (like Bodemeister’s) are at the bottom of the chart, therefore if colts were progressively running faster opening fractions the trendline would point downwards. It does not.

So; owners have been paying hundreds of millions of dollars for breeders to selectively breed faster animals capable of peaking in May of their 3yr old season – but the breed is no more precocious than in 1980. More fragile – yes, fewer starts – yes, but neither is due to the fallacy of ‘breeding for speed’.

Even though half of the main conclusion to Dr. Bramlage’s is blatantly incorrect, he did speak to thoroughbred recovery from exercise in some very good detail, especially with regards to the skeletal system: “Bone is very dynamic, bone is laid down when strength is needed and removed when strength is unnecessary.”

Absolutely. One key precept of exercise physiology is what we can call the “Use it or Lose it” principle. Simply put, while you structure exercise for a horse to grow stronger bone; too much rest will result in that bone growth disappearing. This was best displayed in the amazing work of Dr. Nunamaker at the New Bolton Center with his seminal study; “On Bucked Shins”.

The main take-away from that piece is that bone remodels slower than all other equine physiological systems, and exercise frequency must be structured to take advantage of the work/recover cycle. Frequency is key to cumulative bone growth, if you wait too long between bursts of speed – the bone growth you stimulated in the first session begins to disappear before the second session. Nunamaker recommends breezing at speed 2x per week in young horses. Waiting any longer is counter-productive, yet no American horse posts recorded works this often, once every 6-7 days is more the norm.

I’ve blogged about this numerous times so I will simply post a link, but in Australia they do exercise at speed this frequently – and their turf breakdown rate is just 0.6 per 1,000 starts, while the US Jockey Club recently announced the US turf fatality rate remaining constant at 1.7 – nearly a 300% difference:

Back to the good doctor who then makes an excellent point: “You want them to make these little steps all the way up the ladder so that eventually you get a racehorse skeleton. You have to give the horse the load at a rate he can withstand it in order to strengthen his bone to get him to the place where he can race.”

Sadly, all of this is done mainly by feel, or observation of behavior – traditional ‘horsemanship’ in other words. Look, one can have the best racecar in the world, and a top driver – but he still needs a dashboard to reflect objective measures of fuel usage, tire wear, RPMs. etc. – only then can minute adjustments can be made to improve performance. That analogy extends to racehorses as well. The best trainer can have the top horses, but too often lacks a ‘dashboard’ to indicate when a horse needs time off. Instead one waits until a poor racing performance or a good one followed by lameness.

Here is what such a dashboard looks like using HR/GPS gear:

Next Dr. Bramlage addresses the need for horses to rest, and he doesn’t mention it here but other studies show that 90% of horses that breakdown in races have an existing injury or condition that predisposes them to disaster. These underlying physiological stressors are not always visible to the naked eye, but they sure do show up on a ‘dashboard’. Owners invest millions in horseflesh, and trainers invest countless hours and emotional capital in their racing stock – when will the US catch up and spend a few extra bucks and a few extra minutes per day to maximize this situation?

Of course we are never comparing apples to apples when we look at international thoroughbred racing. US racing is mainly on dirt, and through opening fractions that are faster than pretty much the rest of the world. Our horses run ‘positive splits’ meaning their closing fractions are slower than the opening ones. This is physiologically very demanding and makes an even better case for the need to utilize a dashboard to quantify equine fitness/soundness.

Larry Bramlage is a genius of an equine veterinarian, as are many of his colleagues, but I don’t want them conditioning horses. He talks to a group of trainers who already take 2 weeks off from fast work following a race; never breeze more often than every 7 days, get 6 starts per year on average – and tells them to put MORE rest into their programs? That’s the path we’ve been heading down for the last 25+ years and it isn’t doing us any good – why continue?

Would you allow your cardiologist to train your 17yr old football player?

What is ideal here in the US? To simplify let’s talk about 3yo. The biggest carrot is of course the Triple Crown campaign. Next up is the Breeder’s Cup. It’s common these days for 60-70% of Derby starters to end up injured/on the shelf within 6 months after the First Saturday in May:

I haven’t run the data yet on this season’s 3yo crop – but I imagine it to be even worse as current retirees already include Union Rags, Bodemeister, Creative Cause, Hansen, Gemologist, and I’ll Have Another.

So why not just give them a break anyway? Shut them down and turn them out in late June, and bring them back to the track in the fall with an eye towards the BC in November. Save the Travers, Haskell and all other big races for your older stock. Force them to take a break rather than wait for them to tell you via injury. Aim for two separate 6 week peaks over the course of a season, rather than one long 6 month one. And use a ‘dashboard’ to identify ideal distances/speeds/FREQUENCIES for each individual, for as Doc Bramlage eloquently states:

“Different horses can withstand different amounts of training, but you can’t (in general) keep a horse peaked for an excessively long period of time.”


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on October 18, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Pinpointing the onset of fatigue in a racehorse is key in the mornings. That’s what a HR/GPS dashboard does: shows you the exact point of metabolic fatigue, allowing you to work around it – maximally improving fitness while minimizing risk of injury.

  2. great stuff Bill thank you.

  3. second that–great post. More light that’s shed on this the better imo. Bramlage standing beside 8Belles: “this stuff just happens”.

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