How Legs Help a Horse Race

Horses are the most beautiful creatures on the planet. Their bodies are sculpted in the most humane and symmetrical way, and their movement is hypnotic and fluid. And though some people criticize horse racing, arguing that it is inhumane and corrupted by doping and overbreeding, others believe the sport represents a pinnacle of achievement for the competitors.

Mary has written for Sports&Hobbies since 2009. She has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Aftalion, who is the director of EHESS’s Laboratory of Mathematical Sciences for Animal Behaviour, and her colleagues analyzed data from races run by the French National Racing Commission between 1996 and 2012. They found that winning horses employ strategies to maximize the energy output of muscles reliant on two different pathways: powerful aerobic ones that require oxygen, which can be in short supply during long-distance running, and anaerobic ones that don’t need oxygen but build up waste products that lead to fatigue.

The researchers also looked at how the horses used their limbs, and what kinds of obstacles they encountered on the course. They found that a horse’s limbs are used differently depending on the course and whether it is on dirt, turf, or grass. For example, on a turf course, the horses use their front limbs more often than on a dirt track.

On the dirt, the horses use their rear limbs more than on a turf course and their thoracic (chest) limbs more frequently than their axial (back and neck) limbs. A horse’s limbs are also used differently when the race is on a track that is muddy or dry. In addition, the researchers found that a horse’s trip—the path the rider takes—can have an effect on its performance. A good trip means the horse didn’t encounter any unusual difficulty; a bad trip may involve racing wide or being boxed in by other horses.

In the end, though, it is difficult to argue with the results of the research: Horses have improved dramatically over the past century, despite the fact that their inherent physical ability has remained the same. This improvement can be explained by common factors such as better nutrition and breeding, but a number of other more esoteric causes have been suggested.

Among them, are a reduction in the incidence of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage and a more efficient use of the horse’s energy (through anaerobic pathways) by increasing the number of mitochondria in the skeletal muscles. The other major change has been a decrease in the amount of roaring, or whistling, produced during inhalation by the paralysis of nerves that control the muscle that elevates the arytenoid cartilages and opens the larynx. This can be caused by injury or illness, and is a significant handicapping factor.