Skip navigationEngineering the Perfect Race Horse
POSTED 24 JUL 2003
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Sport science

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Seabiscuit didn't look like a winner to most people in 1938. But new techniques might have picked the famous winner out of a crowd. Photo: Universal Pictures.




As they say on the backside: My horse has won me a small fortune. Unfortunately, I had a large one when I started...














Computer models can follow a horse's every move. Examining a racehorse's gait can help owners decide what to work on before the race. Courtesy Paul Mostert, >EquiMost.



Pssst. Got a hoss here, he's the real deal. Guy I know watched him work in the morning. My friend says this hoss has a butt the size of a refrigerator.

Right. And I got a bunch a' watches in my trunk. How many do you want?

 Red and white outfitted jockey rides Seabiscuit through the mud. If you're a thoroughbred racehorse, it's important to have a big butt. It's also good to have strong straight legs, long pelvic bones and other assorted characteristics. But even the great ones, like Seabiscuit, usually lose more often than they win, and it's tough to predict which races they're going to win. It can be even tougher to know which horse to bet the bank on.

Meanwhile, owners have to feed them, train them and pay the vet and/or the farrier when the horse gets sick or hurt. As they say on the backside: My horse has won me a small fortune. Unfortunately, I had a large one when I started...

So what to do? How can you possibly get into racing without smelling too much like a chump?

Enter the field of equine biomechanics, one way to level the playing field a little against all the uncertainty.

In biomechanics, scientists measure and record how an animal moves to explain how the parts work together in a gallop, trot, or stroll. In racing, the real question is: Does the horse have a butt muscle adequate to propel him a mile and a quarter to cross the finish line first?

Equine biomechanics: Does it walk like a duck?
To run his race well, a horse needs:

Power to generate speed.

Stride to cover the ground.

Body weight to process energy.

"Ideally, you're looking for balance," says Dr. Elizabeth Santschi, chief of large animal surgery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. "For example, a slight build in the front cannot support heavy hindquarters, and too long or too short of a back can lead to inefficiency and injury."

Three frames show a jockey and horse racing on a track, with computer graphics overlaid.Biomechanists can measure the physical structure of a horse -- or a human -- to assess athletic ability. Companies like EquiMost, for example, use mathematical models and computers to predict things like a horse's ideal racing distance, rate of development, or potential as a sire or breed mare.

For most of racing history, enthusiasts relied on detailed pedigrees to gauge a horse's strengths and weaknesses. But computer models reveal precise flaws, like whether a horse will be prone to hip problems, or if a thighbone is too long to be efficient. Such models can also follow the faintest patterns in a horse's movement -- like how its head bobs up and down or how weight is distributed during a gallop.

An EquiMost analysis includes a "biomechanical efficiency score" between zero and ten. A ten reflects an unreachable ideal. Any horse rated at a six or above, says owner and founder Paul Mostert, is more likely than most racehorses to win.

EquiMost also offers a kind of high-tech matchmaking service for top racehorses. For a given mare, Mostert figures out her efficiency score (along with her strengths and weaknesses), and then picks a few possible suitors from an assortment of stallions. Next -- using sophisticated computer software -- Mostert predicts the traits of thousands of progeny - that's 2,000 imaginary foals from each possible mating.

"If there is a high probability of getting a good racehorse out of the mating, we'll recommend that stallion," Mostert says. "The chances of getting a good stakeswinner are much better than by chance alone."

As a result of techniques like his, Mostert expects to see a new generation of racehorses bred with the help of both traditional wisdom and the latest technology. "It's like having a new telescope or a new microscope, where you're in new territory, seeing things that nobody has seen before," he says.

Screenshot shows how a computer program follows points along a horse's face and front leg to calculate efficiency scores.
The software used by EquiMost "watches" a few carefully chosen points as a horse moves along the track. The numbers shown to the left reveal how efficiently the horse moves, helping breeders and owners predict how likely a horse is to be a winner. Courtesy Paul Mostert, The Mostert Group.

But as Santschi notes, the thoroughbred industry may have gone a bit extreme in the use of computational tools to ferret out winners among young, untried horses. The Triple Crown races -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes -- put enormous pressure on very young horses (three-year-olds) to perform consistently at the top of their game for an intense period of five weeks, not counting the time it takes to train.

Generally speaking, to do well in Triple Crown races you need a horse that matures early in life.

"If you breed for that specific characteristic, you also get traits that you don't want, perhaps horses that are prone to injury," Santschi says.

Of course, every once in a while breeders get a, er, biomechanism that seems to be a fluke. Much has been observed about the phenomenal size of legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat's heart, and what such heft has done for his equally phenomenal win record.

Horses race for the finish line along a dirt track.
Which horse has the highest biomechanical efficiency score? Only computers can tell. Photo: State of Kentucky.

But some characteristics simply refuse to be planned for or measured. The will to win, for example, seems to show up in unlikely candidates -- Seabiscuit, for example -- as often as it does in regally bred individuals with stunning conformation.

horse and rider Seabiscuit was runty and gimpy-kneed, with a highly irregular gallop. Nevertheless, he started to win and kept it up. He also recovered from monumental injuries that would have felled lesser horses permanently.

"The breeding, conformation and training are useful in creating a great racehorse, but those things are useful -- not always the deciding factors," Santschi says. "There are the Seabiscuit types that lack pedigree and conformation, yet run hard every time they race."

Whatever "it" is, what makes a racehorse great is indefinable and unmeasureable. Science can narrow the range, perhaps, but what makes great great remains a mystery.

-- Barbara Wolfflittle horse with rider




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