What Do These Fetlocks Mean For Racing Safety And Regulation? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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What Do These Fetlocks Mean For Racing Safety And Regulation?

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In mid-November 2022, a post appeared on Facebook showing photos of a Thoroughbred who had ended up in the hands of a horse trader after running through an auction in Ohio. While Thoroughbred advocates worked to place the horse with a rescue to avoid his entry into the kill pen pipeline, many horsefolk looking at the images were distracted by the horse's front fetlocks.

Photos appeared to show significant, asymmetrical, misshapen areas on both of the horse's ankles. In the way of social media, commenters immediately had strong reactions.

“How can he possibly jog sound?”

“How horrific and inhumane to run a horse with those legs. I'm surprised the jockey would even swing a leg over. So very heartbreaking. When is it going to stop, after they shut down the tracks?”

But there were commenters who said they'd seen worse fetlocks on sound horses.

The horse was identified as Blowing Strong, then a 7-year-old gelding who had made seven starts in 2022 with one third-place finish and earnings of $2,825. He last ran in a $4,000 claiming race at Mountaineer on Oct. 16, where he finished fourth of seven.

Eventually, Blowing Strong and another gelding were purchased by Second Chance Thoroughbreds Inc. in Spencer, N.Y. As of this month, Blowing Strong is still in quarantine there, having picked up a case of strangles at some point in the auction pipeline. (It is common for horses to exit the bail pen or auction system with respiratory illness.)

Christopher Logston, who is listed as the last owner/trainer on the horse, joined in the discussion beneath the photo of the gelding's fetlocks, defending the horse's soundness in his last start four weeks prior.

“I got him the middle of last year, had him x-rayed, the vet said everything looked good even though the ankles were big,” Logston told the Paulick Report in November 2022. “Osselets were set and there were no chips, cracks, bruises, or breaks.

“[That's the] only reason I raced him.”

According to records from the West Virginia Racing Commission, regulatory veterinarians were keeping an eye on Blowing Strong and didn't seem to be concerned about his osselets. When he returned to the races in May 2022 after being off for six months, he was required to undergo an examination by a regulatory vet. If a horse has been off for 150 days or more and a trainer wants to get the horse back to the races at Mountaineer, they must fill out a five-page report detailing the reasons for the lay-off, including medical records, and submit it to the West Virginia commission. (The Paulick Report submitted multiple requests to the commission for a copy of the 2022 lay-off report for Blowing Strong and did not receive a response.)

Blowing Strong made two appearances on the West Virginia vet's list in 2022, both in May after his May 8 return to the races, and neither appeared to relate to his fetlocks. Documentation of Blowing Strong's vet's list history provided by the commission shows he was on the list for eight days due to an unspecified “hoof injury” and the second was a ten-day stretch on the list for being off his feed.

Logston said the gelding passed pre-race exams ahead of each of his starts last year, and that veterinarians flex joints, observe horses at the jog, and feel for heat in legs during pre-race examinations at Mountaineer. It wasn't until after his final start on Oct. 16, 2022 that Logston said he found any unsoundness in the son of Boys at Tosconova. At that point, he decided to retire the horse and sent him to auction as a pony horse prospect. Logston said he did not know at the time that smaller livestock auctions may be frequented by bail pen operators or traders who may threaten to ship a horse across the border for the purposes of slaughter.

Further imaging of Blowing Strong's fetlocks can't be taken until he recovers from strangles but despite outward appearances, veterinarians say many cases of osselets – even severe cases like this one — are not a sign of a horse at imminent risk of serious injury. They can provoke a discussion on what is and isn't acceptable to the public in the social media age.

What are osselets?

The Paulick Report consulted a number of veterinarians about the photo in question. None of them could make a diagnosis without conducting a hands-on examination, but all indicated that enlarged, somewhat lumpy-looking fetlocks like those shown in the photo are characteristic of osselets.

The term 'osselets' can have different meanings depending on who's using the word and how. Dr. Katy Dern, surgeon at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, said it's sometimes used as a catch-all to refer to joint capsule thickening, and other times is a reference to radiographic evidence of mineralization around the joint capsule attachment on fetlocks.

Osselets happen in one of two ways – most commonly, they're the primary result of repetitive stress on the fetlocks, which take the brunt of each gallop stride. If you look at a photo of a horse crossing the wire, you'll see that the pastern, running from the top of the hoof to the ankle (fetlock), is almost parallel to the ground and often touching the earth as it hyper extends and takes the force of the horse's body in the downward phase of the stride. In some cases, that force can cause damage to the front of the fetlock joint. The body responds to that concussion with inflammation, which is then replaced by fibrous tissue or calcification.

The less common explanation for osselets is they can occur secondary to a pathology like a chip or other injury in the ankle, according to Dern. That's why she always advises clients who are sending her photos of ankles like these to get imaging done, just to be sure.

“Just looking at the images of those fetlocks, you can say that horse has fetlock effusion. That's about all you can say about that,” said Dern.

Dern said she's often asked about fetlock effusion or osselets by people who are buying a horse off the racetrack. Without radiographs, it's almost impossible to know whether visible effusion (or fluid build-up) is simply a result of wear and tear, or if it's secondary swelling from an issue inside the joint. In many cases of osselets resulting from wear and tear however, the issue is cosmetic and the horse will not experience lameness or performance limitations as a result.

Once osselets begin to form, it's not possible to reverse the process, but trainers can and often do slow it down.

“You can't really make them go away with rest,” said Dr. Scott Hay, president and managing shareholder of Teigland, Franklin and Brokken and AAEP past president. “Once you see those knots starting, they either stay that way or keep getting bigger with chronic exercise.

“I would say we probably see them to a lesser extent in this day and age than we did 35 years ago. We were probably seeing fewer then than my predecessors had seen years and years ago. In those days, keeping the horse going for financial reasons was more important, so they would continue to go and not get rest.”

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These days, horses are more likely to get some time off if osselets begin forming, and with ice, poultice, shockwave, or other therapies, trainers and veterinarians may be able to slow their formation.

“The other reason they're there and keep getting bigger is they don't usually cause a lameness,” said Hay. “That's why people keep going with them — the horses aren't lame. People don't really get as upset with them on a pre-race exam or other types of exams because they don't, at least early on, cause a typical lameness.”

Osselets can limit a horse's range of motion in its fetlock, according to Dern and Hay, although Hay points out that as horses age, their fetlock range of motion can decrease for various reasons, whether they have osselets or not. There is no research on whether this decreased range of motion has any impact on a horse's risk of fatal breakdown, though Hay suspects it doesn't in the case of a horse who is sound at the jog and responds well to flexion of the joint.

It probably does limit their performance.

“They figure out a way to compete, but maybe they're not at their best as far as being able to use the mechanics of their ankles,” said Hay.

While Hay points out that he doesn't often see this condition in top-level racehorses, he has seen plenty of horses have long, safe careers with osselets as long as there are no other underlying issues.

In most cases of retiring Thoroughbreds, Dern believes that in the absence of chips or other radiographic issues, osselets are not going to cause lameness or range of motion limitations significant enough to impact any other type of career.

The optics of osselets

There's another consideration that may begin entering into the equation for veterinarians and horsemen more and more in the age of social media – perception.

“I think aesthetically it's not a great thing to see horses with these types of ankles racing actively,” said Hay. “I don't know how much people pay attention to that, but in this day and age certainly aesthetics make a big difference, a lot bigger difference than they used to. We pay attention to those things.”

As an experienced veterinarian, Hay says he's not as hesitant as he once was to offer his opinion to clients, and that may include pointing out the optics challenges of running a horse with a visible abnormality, even if that visible condition isn't necessarily a danger to the horse or rider. Ultimately though, the question that he's being asked to answer as a vet is usually simple – is the horse sound?

“In our business model of the claiming ranks it's hard to pick up a horse either in the claiming box or inheriting a horse from another trainer and just saying this looks horrible, I can't run him, and you've spent money to get him or have an owner expecting him to run,” said Hay. “If they're sound at the jog and don't flex poorly and have no other warning signs, it's hard for regulatory vets to make a big issue about it because all else is looking ok for that horse. Certainly we've seen horses who raced for long periods of time who had ankles that looked like this. But that's not always the criteria anymore, because I think we have to pay attention to what the public thinks of the aesthetics of these things — and the chronicity of the disease that has caused the issue.”

Dr. Jeff Berk, also a past AAEP president and veterinarian with Equine Medical Associates in Lexington, Ky., said the modern landscape makes cases like this harder to navigate for vets and horsemen.

“It's no longer a binary matter of, 'is this horse sound?' and if the answer is yes, then they should race,” said Berk. “A visible abnormality like osselets is representative of some level of chronic soft tissue or bony change that deserves clinical monitoring in the form of veterinary examination (assessing progressive reduced range of motion) and/or imaging.”

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Berk points out it's also not practical to create a regulation around outward appearance alone; plenty of horses with healed injuries or cosmetic issues can and do race safely. But the optics of a case can be considered with other factors – is the horse still competitive? Are they falling down the claiming ladder or climbing up? If a veteran campaigner with big osselets is also struggling to pay his bills, perhaps it's time to look at advanced imaging to figure out why – or consider retirement.

“We are actively trying to educate trainers and owners as to when is the appropriate time to retire a horse from racing in order to preserve the health of the horse and maximize its potential for a second career, and the development of osselets is a good opportunity to have that discussion,” he said.

On circuits like West Virginia with lower purses and less access to advanced imaging, Berk knows that can be a tall order – but he also thinks for racing to endure at those smaller tracks, horsemen and track management are going to have to be willing to accept a change in culture.

“I want these tracks to stay in business and it's healthier for our industry if they do,” Berk said. “If you look at the way our industry works, it's a pyramid and at the very top are the Grade 1 horses, but in order to have those Grade 1 horses you have to have a broad base, and what is a broad base? Horses that are not as talented, but we need to have them racing and they're going to be at smaller tracks.

“In order for that to exist these days, those horses also need to be well cared-for.”

Dr. Michael Hardy, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and career-long racing regulatory veterinarian, said that veterinarians doing pre-race exams have a helpful perspective when it comes to a condition like osselets.

“Our exams are a snapshot in time,” Hardy said. “We examine that horse on that day at that particular timepoint. Unlike the practicing vet, we don't get to see the horse every day unless we have some reason to do so. But within those parameters, we have the advantage of utilizing a national database where we house exam information, and we're able to track changes on these horses whereas a practitioner or a horseman does see the horse every day. There may be some subtle changes but they don't recognize them as big picture changes, not as a fault, but it's what they're used to seeing.”

If a regulatory vet notices osselets that weren't there three weeks ago, it can prompt them to take a closer look for unilateral lameness, heat, or response to flexion. That can be an opportunity for discussion with the trainer or practicing veterinarian about whether the horse's career should continue. The nature of the regulatory veterinarian's role means that conversation can't be based on the optics of the ankle size, but of the actual risk of injury to the horse.

“It's a comprehensive exam, it's not necessarily based off the appearance that we just have this big joint,” said Hardy. “I'm considered an unconditional advocate for the racehorse; it is my responsibility to determine the soundness of a horse on race day and if that horse is lame, no matter the situation that horse would not be permitted or encouraged to race. I understand what the optics look like from a race fan perspective and an industry perspective. I think in this particular case, it's important to take educational opportunities to describe what we're seeing and what we're doing to ensure that horse is safely running.”

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