A Sound Investment

When evaluating a retired racehorse for a second career, what former injuries can you live with?

The prepurchase exam is a window into a horse’s past, present and potential injuries. Courtesy Dr. Kathleen Anderson

It’s no wonder we gravitate toward Thoroughbreds. The breed has long been a symbol of speed, grace and stamina. And these traits also make it a desirable riding and performance horse.

Yet the very thing these horses were bred to do — simply put, run — can take a toll on their delicate bodies. It’s one of the reasons many retire from the track so young: Their limbs, lungs or minds can no longer stand up to racing’s rigors. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t excel at nearly any other sport. You just need to know what to look for.

A Prepurchase’s Perks

Do you cringe at the thought of spending as much or more than your off-track Thoroughbred’s purchase price on his vetting? The reality is that this exam is critical to maintaining his future soundness. It’s a window into his past, present and potential injuries.

“Unquestionably, any of these horses coming off the track need to be vetted before they go into a program or anyone else’s ownership,” says Janik Gasiorowski, VMD, Dipl. ACVS, a practitioner at Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center, in Ringoes, New Jersey, with an interest in transitioning Thoroughbred racehorses to second careers. “And that vetting should include at least a basic set of radiographs,” particularly of the fetlocks and knees.

Also key to the prepurchase exam is working with a veterinarian well-versed in racehorses. To someone who doesn’t see these horses day in and day out, it can be difficult to determine whether a common racehorse issue, such as fetlock damage, is mild or severe, Gasiorowski says. And that can mean the difference between a sound sport horse and a chronically painful pasture pet.

Depending on the physical and radiographic findings, a veterinarian might then recommend ultrasound to further examine a problem, particularly if it’s soft-tissue-related.

What You Might Find

Let’s face it, few if any Thoroughbreds are going to come off the track with flawless radiograph films and arthritis-free joints. So when evaluating one for a second career, it’s important to communicate your goals to the veterinarian, says Kathleen Anderson, DVM, who treats race and sport horses at Equine Veterinary Care at Fair Hill Training Center, in Elkton, Maryland.

“If the horse needs to be able to go to at least prelim (preliminary, the eventing level at which jumps reach 3’7” and speeds, distances and difficulty increase significantly over prior levels), I’m going to be more critical than with the walk-trot-canter Pony Club prospect,” she says.

Some common injuries your veterinarian might come across while evaluating an OTTB prospect include:

Fetlock Damage A horse’s fetlock joints are under extreme tension and compression while he races. “I’d say of the most common things you’re going to deal with on a racehorse coming for rehab, fetlock disease is going to be first and foremost,” Gasiorowski says, “from stress-induced bone injury to fractured sesamoid bones and just general cartilage wear and tear on the fetlock joints.”

How these injuries affect a horse’s soundness, however, varies greatly. A horse with ugly-looking bone chips in his fetlock, for instance, can still go on to have a successful secondary career, even in rigorous sports such as eventing, says Gasiorowski. On the other hand, horses with far less obvious subchondral (just beneath the joint cartilage) bone disease at the back of the fetlock can end up becoming so unsound and painful they can’t move comfortably.

“For the untrained eye it can be such an easy area to overlook (on X ray), even when lesions are significant,” Gasiorowski says. “Those fetlock issues end up becoming nonstop chronic pain issues for the horse.”

Tendon and Ligament Injuries Many racehorses retire with some degree of chronic soft tissue injury, but determining how that will impact future soundness can be tricky.

“First of all, you’ve got to know the degree of damage, how widespread the damage is, and how much the damage has healed,” says Gasiorowski.

Take a superficial flexor tendon bow — your classic bowed tendon — for instance: “If that bowed tendon is thick, cold, firm, and the horse is not lame on that leg, he might have the ugliest profile in the world, but that leg might not be a problem,” says Gasiorowski. “If a racehorse has trained on a healed bow without re-injury, there is a very good chance that historical damage will not impact his second career.”

More recent or acute injuries — particularly lesions in the suspensory ligament, which lies beneath the flexor tendons — with signs of heat, sensitivity and lameness on palpation fall into more of a gray area in regard to prognosis.

“If you know the reason an off-the-track Thoroughbred is being retired is due to a tendon or ligament injury, then you just need to know that that horse is going to need some time,” Anderson says. “There are a lot of modalities out there to hurry the process and improve the appearance of the healed leg, but at the end of the day it still needs some time. Somebody who is looking for a turnaround horse in six months should not be looking at a (horse with a) soft tissue injury.”

Chip Fractures Many racehorses retire from the track with chip fractures in their knee or fetlock joints. Depending on the location and damage, you might need to have them surgically removed, but these cases often have excellent prognoses.

“If you get a fresh chip fracture in a small, forgiving spot, you’ve got a great horse on your hands,” says Gasiorowski. “You have to do surgery (to the tune of around $2,800) to get that chip out, but you’ve got a great horse.”

Of course, not everyone is looking to buy a horse, then turn around and send him to surgery. “That’s going to be a buyer’s decision,” says Anderson. A chip she says the average riding horse can probably live with is “a small, smooth, round chip in a front fetlock, probably embedded in the joint capsule, that has been there for years.”

Coffin Bone and Other Fractures Foot radiographs might reveal that a horse has a recent or old coffin bone fracture — usually from excessive hoof impact. The coffin bone is essentially the forelimb’s toe within the hoof, and fractures typically occur along the “wings,” where the bone’s edges flare outward.

“If it’s a relatively new wing fracture and it’s nonarticular (does not involve the joint), most times we can manage those with shoeing,” says Anderson.

Articular coffin bone fractures and those that have healed by fibrous union (meaning they’re not bone to bone), however, don’t have as good a prognosis. “They may be fine for years, or with concussion like jump landing they might start to become sore,” Anderson says. “Recognize that there may be an ongoing need for remedial shoeing with these horses and certainly a much higher risk for resale.”

Other breaks, such as long bone and condylar (the bottom end of the cannon bone) fractures, might not be worrisome if they’ve already been treated and healed.

“It’s not unusual during a prepurchase exam to find a screw here and a screw there,” Anderson says. “I am very comfortable with a repaired long bone fracture if the joint surface looks good, because they’re pretty much as good as new. If they’ve got a lot of arthritic changes and they’re unsound, then obviously that’s a deterrent for any kind of athletic activity.

“The tarsus (hock) and the carpus (knee) fractures with screws are a little trickier because they are more difficult to align and they tend to have more arthritis, so I’m a little more cautious with those,” she adds.

Lastly, stress fractures — although difficult to detect radiographically — typically heal well with time and shouldn’t be of concern if the horse has had adequate healing time and is sound, says Anderson.

Osteoarthritis The repetitive athletic trauma inherent to racing can degrade the articular cartilage that lines horses’ joints and lead to signs of arthritis such as pain, heat and swelling in affected joints. Most retired racehorses (or any high-level athlete, for that matter) will have some degree of arthritis from their track career; the more severe the damage, the more difficult it will be to keep the horse sound.

For Gasiorowski, one of the main reasons he’ll pass on a retired racehorse as an athlete is marked arthritis (characterized by significant remodeling of the joint), particularly in fetlocks and knees. “Almost all soft tissue injuries with enough time and if not accompanied by arthritis will heal,” he says. “Arthritis is a one-way progression. Whether it’s due to conformation or injury, if they suffer from osteoarthritis at the time they retire from the track, you’re going to have a hard time keeping those horses sound long-term.”

Aside from radiographic evidence, Anderson says the horse’s range of motion and soreness on flexions can help indicate the severity of joint disease.

Hoof Issues Many foot issues common to racehorses, such as bruises and underrun heels, will improve with time once the horse starts being trimmed and shod without the constraints and demands of race training, says Gasiorowski.

What’s more significant to a horse’s long-term soundness is a club foot, which can be either congenital (present from birth) or from injury. “I’m always concerned about unsoundness that’s proximal to the clubby foot (above it),” says Anderson. “Often these horses are more upright, which is going to increase their propensity for fetlock injuries, fetlock pain and related tendon injuries.”

With any retired racehorse’s feet, work with your farrier to correct or maintain hoof balance and quality and determine whether the horse needs to go barefoot for a while or should wear shoes for support.

Remember: The most minor injury is going to matter a lot more to a horse that’s racing than if he’s in another discipline. A horse that retires because he’s a “bleeder” or due to a minor injury probably isn’t going to suffer from those issues in his next career.

The Horse That Retires Sound

In a perfect world, we’d all find talented Thoroughbreds who retired from the track sound and are looking for new homes. These are the athletes that typically have the best chance of staying sound in their second career.

“The horse with ability that ran well and is still sound is a great candidate for a future athlete,” Anderson says. “Then you’ll have the horse that ran badly and is still sound. If they’re just plain slow, they can still be good training level eventers or 3’ to 3’6” jumpers, with the Cinderella success stories of horses, like Lynn Symansky’s (2014 World Equestrian Games event horse) Donner, that exceed their owners’ wildest dreams.”

“By and large it’s a good rule of thumb that if the horse comes off the track sound, he’ll have a far better chance of staying sound than if he came off the track lame,” Gasiorowski adds.

He points out, however, that some horses can come off the track technically sound but exhibit problems later as they let down and change careers. This is because a horse that’s recently had his joints injected or received anti-inflammatories on the track might jog sound the day he retires. As these maintenance therapies wear off or as the horse tightens up upon entering a less active lifestyle, lameness issues might emerge. This is yet another reason to work with a veterinarian familiar with racehorses.

Be Informed and Patient

One of the keys to finding a sound retired racehorse and keeping him that way is knowing what issues he might have ahead of time and getting a professional opinion on his future soundness.

“People getting horses through some of the well-funded and well-run retirement groups will often end up with a more thoroughly considered prospect than if they just got a horse directly off the track,” Gasiorowski says. “The formal retirement groups (such as Turning For Home, Second Call, etc.) have very educated, industry-involved people looking at those horses before they’re even available to the general public.”

Also make sure your expectations for a horse are realistic, and don’t rush the career change process.

“I’m a big believer in common sense and the tincture of time,” Anderson says. “Allow for transition time, and let the horse tell you when they’re ready to start doing something.”


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