Have Researchers Discovered What Makes Horses Fast?

Researchers at The Royal Veterinary College in Great Britain believe they've found the answer to what makes a fast racehorse.

The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, combined data about the length, shape, and structure of horses with analysis of horses in the field to develop mathematical and computer models of horse movement.

Using the models, the research team then built theoretical limbs on a computer and used them to test answers to questions such as why 18th-century racehorse Eclipse was so fast, why horses can remain balanced when each leg is off the ground 80% of the time during gallop, and what limits a horse's maximum gallop speed.

Dr. Alan Wilson, leader of the research group, said: "A horse's leg resembles a pogo stick that uses energy stored in the muscles and tendons to propel the animal forwards and upwards.

"We have found that the stiffer a horse's leg restricts how quickly it can transmit force to the ground and bounce back up again and also increases the chances of injury. The team has also found that fast horses can bring their legs forward quickly in preparation for the next stride but that this is more difficult and therefore slower for large and long-legged horses."

Using portraits of Eclipse and contemporary accounts of the horse running, the researchers reconstructed one of his legs and discovered that his legendary speed may have been due to "averageness."

Said Wilson: "Analysis shows that Eclipse's body shape and everything about him seems to have been right in the middle of the normal range, suggesting that all the factors for speed were perfectly matched."

The research performed at the Structure and Motion Laboratory at The Royal Veterinary College not only answers questions about the speed of racehorses but also examines the locomotion of a wide range of animals, including humans, and may help to design more stable robots and help us understand how dinosaurs walked.

About the Author

Mark Popham

Mark Popham also writes for The Blood-Horse, sister magazine to The Horse.

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