Risk Factors for Horse Falls in U.K. Hurdle and Steeplechase Racing

It is well documented that the equine fatality rate for hurdling and steeplechase racing is significantly higher than that of flat racing. The disparity in fatality rates is likely due to the fact that the types of injuries sustained in jump racing differ from those sustained in flat racing. Some catastrophic injuries, such as vertebral fractures, occur more frequently in horses racing over jumps.

Researchers at the Department of Veterinary Clinical Science at the University of Liverpool, led by Gina Pinchbeck, BVSc, PhD, recently conducted a study to determine the frequency of falling and falling-associated fatalities in U.K National Hunt races. Another goal was to identify specific risk factors for falls in these races.

The study was conducted on 2,879 starts in hurdle and steeplechase races on six U.K. racecourses. During a two-year period, the researchers identified 124 falling cases, with 32 occurring in hurdling events and 92 occurring in steeplechase races.

Eighteen fatal injuries occurred during the study, and 44% of those were associated with falls. Pinchbeck said, "Of the horses that fell at a fence, 8.9% were injured, and 6.5% were fatally injured.

"Duration of journey (transport time) to the racecourse, the horse's behavior in the parade ring, and weather conditions at the time of the race also were associated with falling in both hurdle and steeplechase racing," she noted. "From our data, it appears that horses that had shorter journey times had a decreased risk of falling," said Pinchbeck. "Longer journey times--up to seven or 7 1/2 hours (prior to the race)--increased the risk of a horse falling." Horses that had long journey times but stayed overnight at the racecourse did not have the same increase in risk.

Horses that weren't walking calmly in the parade ring were also more likely to fall, coinciding with a previous study that demonstrated that winners tended to be more relaxed than non-winners.

Sunny weather was associated with a higher risk of falling in both types of racing, suggesting that bright conditions might not be ideal for the equine eye. The surface influenced the risk of falls in steeplechase racing. Good-to-soft and soft/heavy conditions were less risky compared to good or good-to-firm tracks.

Horses' age played a role in the risk of falling during steeplechase racing, but not in hurdling. Pinchbeck said, "In steeplechasing, young horses seem to be more at risk of falling, and the risk decreases as their age and experience increase. We did not see a similar effect in hurdling."

About the Author

Rallie McAllister, MD

Rallie McAllister, MD, grew up on a horse farm in Tennessee, and has raised and trained horses all of her life. She now lives in Lexington, Ky., on a horse farm with her husband and three sons. In addition to her practice of emergency and corporate medicine, she is a syndicated columnist (Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister), and the author of four health-realted books, including Riding For Life, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.ExclusivelyEquine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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