Innovative Tools to Detect Lameness and Pre-existing Injury in Racehorses

Mongolian Groom. Sports Illustrated image.



Lameness is a term used to describe a horse’s change in gait, usually in response to pain in a limb that can occur due to a wide variety of causes (e.g. degenerative joint disease, laminitis, infection). Some conditions are more easily diagnosed and treated than others, which may only cause a subtle change in gait, or even just a decreased ability or willingness to perform.

Lameness is a clinical symptom not a diagnosis, which requires careful consideration by the veterinarian to determine the root cause. This will include the medical history of the horse, observation and appraisal of the horse at rest, a hands-on examination, application of hoof testers to the feet, evaluation of the horse in motion and joint flexion tests. To isolate the location and cause of lameness other diagnostic tests may also be required (i.e. diagnostic nerve and joint blocks, radiographs, ultrasound, and more).

Enter the Equinosis Q with Lameness Locator

The Equinosis Q with Lameness Locator is a veterinary diagnostic system used to objectively measure a horse’s movement. Although the Equinosis Q cannot diagnose a lameness problem independently of a thorough evaluation, its inertial sensors and algorithms help veterinarians detect early or mild lameness with high confidence. [1]

The algorithms in the Lameness Locator were created specifically to assess lameness in horses and were developed by University of Missouri’s Dr. Kevin Keegan and Dr. Frank Pai. [2]

The objective of the device is not to be used as a stand-alone diagnostic but rather to add a resource to the veterinarian’s toolbox that uses advanced technology to supplement the hands-on evaluation. This would aid in diagnosing lameness that is difficult to perceive by the naked eye.

How does it work?

The Lameness Locator measures the movement of the horse’s head and pelvis, two areas most closely associated with decreased weight-bearing on their limbs that suggests lameness in one of their legs. 

The device is equipped with three wireless motion sensors that are attached to three distinct positions on the horse; the head, the pelvis and the right front pastern. The head and pelvis sensors contain an accelerometer while the front right pastern contains a gyroscope.[3]

  • An accelerometer measures the acceleration, which is the rate of change of the velocity of an object, which in turn is the speed of the object (distance covered in time) moving in a certain direction. Consequently, the acceleration can be converted to a position with changes recorded as the horse is jogged back and forth while the veterinarian observes the movement.
  • A gyroscope is a device that measures orientation and is used to measure rotational motion. This is used as a reference point for the right forelimb stance.

A tablet with the Lameness Locator software collects the data the sensors generate through a long-range Bluetooth receiver.

“Acceleration is converted to position and differences in head and pelvic heights between right and left halves of stride [over many strides] are calculated,” said Dr. Laurie Tyrrell-Schroeder, director of veterinary services for Equinosis LLC. “[It is] essentially measuring the symmetry of movement between the two halves of stride. Shifting load off a limb will manifest as asymmetric head or pelvic movement.”

The program generates measurements that indicate the amplitude of head and or pelvic movement asymmetry, which tends to correlate with the degree of lameness. Negative numbers indicate left-sided lameness and positive numbers indicate right-sided lameness.”[4]

The following diagram illustrates the setup (the source provides a video as well).

Dr. Rhodes Bell DMV, who practices veterinary medicine at Park Equine Hospital in Versailles, KY, was introduced to this technology during his Masters studies where he studied the technology to determine the effectiveness in quantifying equine lameness.[5] Bell now advocates for its use on most, if not all, lameness cases and is sought out expressly by individuals who need advice on how to proceed with their horse’s lameness.  

It is also invaluable as a tool for “baseline wellness exams” where a horse may be monitored over time to determine how a horse develops over the course of their racing or sporting career.  

“A nice feature of the software is it is able to store a horse’s evaluation forever,” he said. “It would be nice to follow horses along through their season, comparing their current form back to their earlier evaluations. If something is changing, then some additional investigation may be warranted.”[6]

It also provides a relatively cost-effective means of supplying important information that may preclude expensive imaging techniques. 

So, what is stopping equine veterinarians from using this on a regular basis? Commercially, it has been available since 2009.

As always, resistance to change.

“I think many veterinarians question spending money for a piece of equipment that does something they think they can already do themselves,” Bell said. “A similar mindset was present when the new technology of ultrasonography was introduced–those palpating the reproductive tracts of mares and those palpating musculoskeletal structures of equine athletes thought, ‘What possible additional information could I derive from this machine that is so costly?’ I think you would be hard pressed to find either a reproduction or lameness veterinarian without access to an ultrasound machine in this day and age.

The sport of racing has long held on to its historical roots, reluctantly utilizing new technologies (Keeneland didn’t have a public address system for a track announcer until 1997). Bell feels that the transition to using the objective lameness evaluation a regular basis for racing Thoroughbreds is a matter of time.”[7]

Time will tell. But it seems like a no-brainer to use such a diagnostic tool to rule out a compromised horse “before” they break down. Would this have saved Mongolian Groom? No doubt it would have.


A New Blood Test Has the Potential to Detect Imminent Injury in Racehorses

Researchers at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center have shown promising results using a novel blood test that has the potential to detect an impending injury prior to a horse exhibiting any signs of lameness or atypical imaging.[1]

The majority (85%) of fatal injuries in racehorses result from pre-existing pathology in the same location that the fracture occurs. It is also recognised that many types of damage (e.g. pre-existing stress fractures) rarely cause lameness and may go undetected by radiographic analysis.

Earlier research has shown that biomarkers may provide veterinarians with more means to identify problems prior to experiencing a serious bone or soft tissue injury.[2]

What is a biomarker?

Biomarkers, short for biological markers, are distinct biological indicators of a process, event or condition that can be accurately measured to detect normal or abnormal processes taking place in the body that may be a sign of an underlying condition or disease, including inflammation. Various types of molecules, such as DNA (genes), proteins or hormones, can serve as biomarkers, since they all indicate something about the health of an individual. An example of a human biomarker is blood cholesterol, which is a well-known biomarker for coronary heart disease. 

Since, more often than not, biomarkers that are proteins are typically discovered after an injury, the researchers took the approach of looking at an intermediary step prior to the formation of the protein. The starting material for the manufacture of a protein is DNA, which makes RNA which makes protein. Without going into detail, a simple schematic illustrates the concept.[3]

The researchers, Drs. Allen Page and David Horohov, decided to use mRNA (messenger RNA) as the biomarker which, as the schematic shows, is a set of instructions from genes made of DNA to produce a given protein.  In medicine, mRNA biomarkers have been developed as a common technique that offers early and more accurate prediction and diagnosis of disease and disease progression, and the ability to identify individuals at risk. 

Of note, is that for inflammation a horse may be experiencing, the set of instructions (gene copies) change with different levels of inflammation (gene expression) and hence serve as a marker for any potential underlying condition.[4]

Study method and preliminary results

Although the study has yet to be completed, Page and Horohov have collected more than 800 samples, half of which suffered fatal injuries and the other half of uninjured horses as control samples (that’s over 400 dead horses). Blood samples were taken both before and after racing. To date the study has shown that out of 23 genes, two have been measured to have tested consistently higher in the horses that died. The study is expected to be complete before the end of the year, after which it will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“My view of where you are now is that we’re a lot farther down the road than we once were,” said Dr. Johnny Mac Smith, EDRC member and veterinary consultant to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, during the council meeting. “Although it may be a road with a few more curves than you anticipate, I think it’s a worthwhile effort to pursue this. Who’s to say, if your work was finished and we had a screening test, we might still have Mongolian Groom.”[5]

The second phase of the project will use the same blood samples to analyze thousands of genes. It is generally believed that there are over 20,000 genes that are responsible for the creation of different proteins in horses. The hope is that more of the genes that are increased are identified in horses who have been fatally-injured. This would be a novel technique for the racing industry in identifying those horses who are at an increased risk prior to breaking down, hence preventing, or greatly minimizing, the incidence of catastrophic injuries. Both phases of the project have been funded to the tune of $300,000 by the Equine Drug research Council (EDCR).[6]

“I think anybody who’s involved in the industry realizes we’re at a pretty significant crossroads. We all need to be doing whatever we can to provide not only opinions but solutions. Based on the first year and a half’s worth of data, we’re definitely excited about the potential that this research holds.”[7]


I don’t think it’s too radical to say that the US racing industry is in crisis. After decades of talk, chronic resistance to change and heated debate, the implementation of uniform racing medication policies by the industry has been an epic failure.

The time for talk is over. 

It is not only the general public, but also the core fans of racing, who are losing their confidence in the industry’s ability of its insiders to promote the health and safety of racehorses. 

Self-regulation has not worked and will not work. If the sport is to survive, it must, at the very least, adopt an independent entity to establish uniform rules, regulations and testing protocols across all 38 racing jurisdictions. This, of course, is the focus of The Horseracing Integrity Act.

Until then, it will continue to spiral downwards into the abyss. 

As Maryland Jockey Club racetrack owner Joe De Francis, now chairman of the National Horseracing Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States sums up the racing’s credibility problems on equine safety and integrity issues . . .

“a growing tsunami . . . about to crest and destroy us.”[8]


Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), makes some powerful points in this article about the parallels between issues facing the U.S. horse industry and the Olympics when it comes to ensuring the integrity of those sports, specifically with regard to oversight on medications.[1]

Travis Tygart became USADA’s Chief Executive Officer in September of 2007.

The USADA, the official anti-doping agency in the United States for the Olympics, Paralympic, Pan American and Parapan American sport, is the independent non-governmental agency that would oversee horse racing’s medication policies under the proposed Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA).

“In his prepared statement, Tygart said that the ‘most vital principle of an effective anti-doping system is that it must be free from the influence of sport governing bodies. … Since our founding in late 2000, we at USADA have advocated for a clear separation between those who promote sport and those who police it. To do so otherwise, we believe, is to encourage the fox to guard the henhouse. No matter how well intended it might begin, it simply does not work.’”[2]

During the question and answer period after the hearing, there were several comments made as to how this kind of independent authority would benefit the racing industry.

Tygart, after an inquiry from Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico as to how independence will bring about genuinely needed reform, went on to discuss how the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) finally, in 1999, committed to outsourcing and making the USOPC totally independent from its board and staff by creating the USADA in 2000. He concluded that its effectiveness and success in curtailing drug use and the ability to identify cheaters has transformed the human sports world. 

The same would apply to horseracing if adopted by all those involved in the racing community.  

“The USADA was a result of the recommendations made by the USOP’s Select Task Force on Externalization to bring credibility and independence to the anti-doping movement in the U.S. The USADA was given full authority to execute a comprehensive national anti-doping program that encompassed testing, results management, education and research while also developing programs, policies and procedures in each of those areas.”[3

The key to its effectiveness is that the USADA is an independent legal entity not subject to the control of the USOC and staff, whereby none can have any financial interest or serve in any capacity for an organization they provide services to. 

This is precisely what the racing industry is up against.  Currently, it is a rogue organization with no central body of control or uniform regulations to prevent the abuses, particularly the rampant drug use, that are intrinsic to NA horseracing.  

In response to Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (Connecticut) question “as to whether he was extending the jurisdiction of your agency to include horse racing to prevent doping and substance in that sport.” Tygart was confident that independent models that do not rely on economic interests or other advantageous positives for those directly involved in making decisions, eliminate the self-interest awards that go hand in hand with nepotism. 

Tygart was presented with two questions; (1) whether he was interested in “extending the jurisdiction of the USADA to include horse racing to prevent doping and substance abuse in that sport”, and (2) how the USADA had evolved to improve the effectiveness of anti-doping programs

He responded with three concrete reasons why it would be in the best interests of a sports industry suffering from public scrutiny.[4]

  • The ability to stay abreast of new designer drugs that are emerging everyday from places outside of the US that are not intended for human consumption and the ability to test for them.
  • To profile testing of an individual/athlete over time (e.g. blood and urine markers)
  • The ability to encourage “whistle blowers” to speak up and hold those accountable who break the rules. 

While these are only three of the benefits about independence, they provide a transparency that does not currently exist, nor ever existed, in the horseracing industry. 

Triple Crown Winner Justify, a pawn in the chess match of doping in the Chemical Age of American Racing, wears a tarnished crown.

We have seen the cover-ups (e.g. Baffert’s Justify drug cover-up by the CHRB which would have cost him the Triple Crown); the blatant ability to allow disqualified horses in one jurisdiction from racing in another jurisdiction or under a new “trainer”, the classic case being Steve Asmussen turning his horses over to his assistant Blasi, who won another 198 races as the stable finished the year with more than $14 million in earnings; the overuse of therapeutics to mask pain; and of course, the reluctance of racing insiders to speak of their knowledge, which would ostracise them forever from the racing mafia.  

And although the HIA may not be perfect in every sense, as long as it completely partitions the racing industry from the oversight of it, there is a valuable opportunity to clean up the sport and regain the confidence of the general public and racing fans.  Particularly if the testing is done outside of racing’s jurisdiction – the only equitable way to implement a level playing field and without tampering from the insiders. 

While cynicism of the government’s involvement can be rationalized, the industry has shown that it simply cannot function properly on its own after decades wasted trying to justify the failure of the less than stellar attempts to “solve” their problems. For far too long, racing authorities have allowed cheaters to repeatedly cheat by either dismissing the charges or applying insufficient penalties. 

There are, of course, many nay-sayers, and one of the principal controversies is the suspension of race-day Lasix (a topic on its own) but the HIA has the support of much of the industry as well as leading animal welfare groups. Ironically, it is the very people who argue they can reform the sport, without intervention from outside sources, who have navigated the “ship of racing” into the current crisis.  

The time for change is now. Without change the racing industry won’t need to worry about remedies, the confidence of not only the general public but of its core customers in the basic product they offer will be lost and the invisible hand of the marketplace will drive the business into oblivion.[5]

Retired Hall of Fame Jockey, Chris McCarron

The most powerful traditions are those that adapt. Change cannot wait.” — Testimony of Christopher J. McCarron, Hall of Fame Jockey, Retired.

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FEATURED IMAGE: Mongolian Groom / Sports Illustrated

Frolicking filly by Justify

Justify works out at Belmont in preparation for the final leg of the Triple Crown. Image by Julie Jacobson / AP

It is virtually impossible not to be very concerned for this precious little filly’s future, especially viewing her sweet innocence which all purpose bred racehorses begin their lives with.

Propagandists for the industry would say that without horse racing she would not have been born, and that racehorses love to race and live pampered lives. We find that virtually impossible to believe.

See Racing Babies: Are Two Year Olds Too Young? See all Horse Racing Reports at the Fund for Horses website.

Featured Image: Justify works out at Belmont in preparation for the final leg of the Triple Crown. Image by Julie Jacobson / AP.

Bob Baffert, Justify and the Chemical Triple Crown

Trainer Bob Baffert and Justify. Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images.


Everyone who knows us knows we are no fans of Thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert. He is a cheater, a liar and a doper.

I had written a dear colleague a day or so ago stating it is my opinion that when all is said and done, Baffert’s Triple Crown Winner, Justify, would go down in history with an asterisk by his name, marking that the horse had won during the Chemical Age, and his victory would count for little. The next day she wrote back saying, did you see this . . . . ?

“This” turned out to be Joe Drape’s The New York Times article, “Justify Failed a Drug Test Before Winning the Triple Crown”.

In it Drape states:

“On June 9, 2018, a colt named Justify thundered home to the full-throated cheers of a capacity crowd to win the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and claim horse racing’s Triple Crown, one of the most storied achievements in sports.

“It was the perfect ending to an improbable journey for a talented horse, his eclectic ownership group, and his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert.

“Only a few people, however, knew the secret that Baffert carried with him into the winner’s circle that day: Justify had failed a drug test weeks before the first race in the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby. That meant Justify should not have run in the Derby, if the sport’s rules were followed.”

“. . . . if the sport’s rules were followed.” But they don’t follow the rules, do they? And in the case of Justify’s doping prior to the Derby, documents reviewed by The New York Times show they did not enforce the rules in the case of Baffert and his horse.

Drape continues:

“Instead of the failed drug test causing a speedy disqualification, the California Horse Racing Board took more than a month to confirm the results. Then, instead of filing a public complaint as it usually does, the board made a series of decisions behind closed doors as it moved to drop the case and lighten the penalty for any horse found to have the banned substance that Justify tested positive for in its system.

“By then, Justify had become just the 13th Triple Crown winner in the last 100 years, and his owners had sold his breeding rights for $60 million.

“Only a handful of racing officials and people connected to Justify knew about the failed drug test, which occurred April 7, 2018, after Justify won the Santa Anita Derby. He tested positive for the drug scopolamine, a banned substance that veterinarians say can enhance performance, especially in the amount that was found in the horse.

“Justify was undefeated at the time, but he still needed to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, on May 5. While the colt won at Santa Anita, the failed drug test would mean disqualification and forfeiture of both the prize money and the entry into the Kentucky Derby that came with the victory.”

“None of that happened, though.

“Test results, emails and internal memorandums in the Justify case show how California regulators waited nearly three weeks, until the Kentucky Derby was only nine days away, to notify Baffert that his Derby favorite had failed a doping test.”

The rest of the article talks about the actions the California Horse Racing Board took, or perhaps I should say didn’t take. Interestingly, “The chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, Chuck Winner, owns an interest in horses trained by Baffert. Two other board members employ trainers and jockeys they regulate.” It is an incestuous business.

Insofar as the drug itself, “Scopolamine cases have resulted in disqualifications, purse reimbursements, fines and suspensions over the decades.” Not it seems, however, if it is used by Bob Baffert.

Justify was “retired” almost immediately following the Triple Crown and shipped off to stud. What about Justify’s Triple Crown? Bring on the asterisk.

In the meantime. . . .

Horse racing is gambled on. Horse doping is race fixing. How this so called “sport” is still running is criminal in every sense of the word in my view and should be banned from being gambled on, which would sink the industry. More on that in another post.


Justify Failed a Drug Test Before Winning the Triple Crown”, by Joe Drape, The New York Times, 11 Sept 2019.


Deadly to Horses: The Baffert Effect Part 1, by Jane Allin »
Deadly to Horses: The Baffert Effect Part 2, by Jane Allin »
Baffert horses big part of sudden death spike, by The Bloodhorse »
Horse Racing in America: A Spectacle of Liars, Dopers and Cheaters – Part 1, by Jane Allin »
Horse Racing in America: A Spectacle of Liars, Dopers and Cheaters – Part 2, by Jane Allin »

Trainer Bob Baffert and Justify. Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images.