Colorado State University Orthopaedic Research Center Protects Racehorses from Catastrophic Injuries, Advances Medicine to Treat Injuries

Note to Editors: The following experts are available to discuss research related to preventing and curing catastrophic injuries in racehorses, including information relevant to Triple Crown races such as the Belmont. These experts are available for media interviews; this list is not intended to serve as public contact information. For more information or to interview an expert on the following topics, contact Dell Rae Moellenberg at (970) 491-6009 or

Colorado State University’s Gail Holmes Equine Orthopaedic Research Center treats injuries in the nation’s elite racehorse population. The center is known worldwide for treating joint injuries in the world’s finest horses, researching ways to heal and prevent these injuries and assisting human athletes with translating these advancements into human medicine. Located in Fort Collins, the ORC houses the most advanced equipment and leading experts to treat and cure joint and bone injuries in elite equine athletes.

Drs. Wayne McIlwraith, Chris Kawcak, David Frisbie and Natasha Werpy are available for interviews on the following topics.


Colorado State University research has begun to unravel an equation of sorts for common injuries based on small variations in the racing horse’s body. For example, their research shows that just a one-degree variation in the angle of the fetlock (the ankle) may increase a horse’s odds for a specific bone fracture by a factor of 1.52. McIlwraith and Anderson found a correlation between certain injuries and conformation, which is the way a horse’s body is put together: the length and angles of its bones and joints, the straightness of its legs, the height of its withers, the stretch of its neck and so on. Long pasterns – the bone between the fetlock and the hoof – increased the odds of a fracture in the front leg. A slightly sharp angle of the carpal – or knee – bones may help protect against certain fractures, and offset knees and horses that toe-in are more susceptible to fetlock injuries.


Researchers at the ORC are developing blood tests that have shown promise in early identification of horses that may be prone to injury. The tests, which reveal biochemical and molecular markers that indicate joint disease, are being developed by McIlwraith and Frisbie. Blood tests of equine athletes with elevated levels of certain biomarkers point to weak or stressed articular cartilage long before an injury appears, for example. Once the tests are developed, horse owners can take steps to protect their racehorses from career-ending injuries. The study is funded by the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation and is in collaboration with racetrack veterinarians in Southern California.


Racehorses are often injured when their joints are under uncharacteristic stress caused by subtle flaws in the shape of their joints or from abnormal movement. Colorado State’s equine orthopedic researchers are building a computerized biomechanical model of a horse’s fetlock – or the front ankle joint – to objectively study the forces that affect the joint. The Charismatic Project is funded by Robert and Beverly Lewis in the name of their horse, Charismatic, which suffered career-ending leg fractures in the 1999 Belmont. The project will give ORC researchers the ability to study how muscles "load" a joint as well as detect signs of early and subtle joint diseases in racehorses. The three-dimensional model is built with data from several sources, including CT and MRI images. Once the model is completed, doctors can compare it to joint scans of a specific horse, calculate the forces on that joint and identify subtle abnormalities which may make the horse prone to injury. The model is being developed by Colorado State experts McIlwraith and Kawcak in conjunction with Dr. Marcus Pandy, a mechanical engineer with expertise in musculoskeletal modeling who is from the University of Melbourne.


Colorado State University’s Equine Orthopaedic Center is equipped with the nation’s most sophisticated equine imaging technology, helping to advance research in osteoarthritis and cartilage repair for the benefit of horses and humans. The state-of-the-art equipment provides doctors with the ability to take digital radiography, nuclear scintigraphy, computed tomography and magnetic resonance images of horses, drastically improving the doctors’ ability to diagnose and study a horse’s injuries and to find signs of injuries in time to prevent catastrophic damage. The center houses the first equine-dedicated high-field Magnetic Resonance Imaging facility in the United States. MRI, which is the highest standard for producing images of human joints and the best technique for non-invasively assessing a joint, gives these experts an ability to diagnose injuries to soft tissues, articular cartilage and bone in the early stages of damage. The facility also is home to an equine treadmill, which allows doctors to precisely exercise horses – from a walk to a gallop at 35 miles an hour. McIlwraith, Kawcak, Werpy and Park all are involved with this work.


As horses gallop around a racetrack, their speed and safety are impacted by numerous factors – their training, their jockey, their build. But the design of a racetrack also greatly influences their susceptibility to injury. To understand what is happening to horses as they race on any given track, ORC researchers are evaluating track surfaces to calculate the high loads of force and the high-speed impacts that the racehorse hoof applies to the track. Researchers at Colorado State replicated these loads and rates, which were key to designing a biomechanical hoof track tester. This machine is being used to identify track problems such as hidden soft areas that could potentially cause injury to racehorses. Based on the collected data, racetrack superintendents can maintain or modify their tracks to prevent catastrophic injuries in horses that are training and racing. This is a collaborative project between McIlwraith, Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Maine and Dr. Raoul Reiser of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State.