With all due respect to Mr. Ed, horses don't communicate well with their trainers. But across the Atlantic, French researchers are using technology to give horses (specifically their hooves) the ability to scream when it hurts.
The "Sequisol Project" (a play on the French words 'safe', 'equestrian' and 'terrain') attempts to find some scientific support for the theory that synthetic track surfaces could save horses. Through a series of research projects conducted at the Equine Biomechanics and Musculoskeletal Pathology department of the Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons Alfort, Sequisol has shown that synthetic tracks provide significantly greater damping than old-fashioned dirt (up to 50%).
"The relation between track surface and injury incidence has lacked objective data," said Professor Nathalie Crevier-Denoix, co-lead, with Dr. Henry Chateau, of the Sequisol project. "All the pros are well aware that there is a link, but it was based on epidemiological data and not biomechanical data."
To secure some of this conclusive biomechanical data, the Sequisol protocol equips horses with a series of gadgets that provide synchronized data during real training runs. Triaxial accelerometers quantify impacts on contact, while a 3-D dynamometric horseshoe quantifies the forces through the hoof as the shoe begins to bear load. Non-invasive ultrasound is used to measure the forces in the superficial digital flexor tendon, which flexes the joints of the lower leg and helps with weight bearing, all while high-speed video is used to quantify any changes in kinematics. None of the individual components is groundbreaking for human biomechanic research, but the combination and application to horses is the first of its kind. (You can watch video of the process here.)
Surprisingly, Sequisol is focused not on thoroughbred racing but on equestrian events, which may explain the lack of interest from the U.S. racing world. But while the testing compared a wax equestrian surface to dirt, and conducted experiments at 35 km/hr instead of the 45 km/hr expected at a racetrack, Crevier-Denoix has no doubt the trends would remain.
Crevier-Denoix has attempted to reach out to Kentucky Derby organizers, but has received no response to date. Instead, current interest is split between French government agencies and French track developers hoping to leverage the data in creating a better equestrian surface. But it seems inevitable the US racing industry will saddle up at some point.
Here's hoping it's not another tragedy on Saturday that prompts the interest.