Strides ahead

When it comes to a horse’s gait and stride, every horse has its own individual style, and varying different degrees of success.

 

There’s no better illustration of the difference in a horse’s stride than looking at the super star stayers who won consecutive Melbourne Cups: Saintly in 1996 and Might And Power in 1997. In 1996, Saintly used his smooth economical lengthy stride to come from off the speed and run away from his rivals to win.

The next year it was Might And Power with his ungainly hard-hitting stride with his legs seemingly going, who led throughout to win narrowly over Doriemus.

To take the example further of the differences in stride, look at the contrast between the two superstar mares, Black Caviar and Winx.

To remind you of their extraordinary talents, Black Caviar won 25 out of 25 while Winx put together a staggering 33 straight wins including 25 Group 1 wins and four Cox Plate victories before bowing out in 2019.

Winx’s strides were short, but her strength was that she did more of them than any other horse. In contrast, Black Caviar’s stride was longer than her rivals.

A study by physicist Dr Graeme Putt of the University of Auckland (released in 2017) discovered that for every minute Winx ran, she took 170 strides which was 30 more than the average racehorse, with each stride seven metres in length.

For comparison Black Caviar’s stride was measured at around 8.5 metres and she was found to take 24 strides in the last 200m of a race, compared to her rival’s 30.

In a nutshell, Winx took more strides than most horses, while the sprinting machine Black Caviar took less.

Dr Putt found another strength of Winx was that she could accelerate her stride at any time during a race, and then she could not only sustain it, but could also increase its rate as a race proceeded.

He said that she could go faster than other horses because of the frequency of her stride, which he described as ‘freakish’.

Equine physiotherapist Tom Simpson had a bird’s eye view of Winx. At the forefront of her preparation, he treated her two or three times a week after she ran, and he agreed with those conclusions.

Simpson said Winx’s stride and ability to accelerate were her main strengths.

“She was different to most horses as she could maintain a stride for a long period. She also had the valuable ability to accelerate off bends, which is rare for a horse to do."

 

“She was able to accelerate off corners because of her small stride. Few horses gain pace around bends, but she bounced off the corners.”

 

“Hers was a unique action which she could physically cope with. It was not only unique, but she could continue to be repetitive. She had a consistency of stride and didn’t vary from it.”

Simpson said Winx’s forte was her acceleration.

“She would drive more at the back end using her fast-twitch fibres, which she could sustain longer than most horses. Black Caviar also had acceleration and a large stride.

“It was always a balancing act with her [Winx], as I didn’t want to overdo the treatment.”

Simpson completed a physiotherapy degree before he studied animal physiotherapy, where he then branched out into the equine world, finding racing incredibly addictive.

His services are in high demand from Australia’s leading stables such as Chris Waller, Team Hawkes, Peter and Paul Snowden and James Cummings.

Based at Randwick and Flemington, Simpson has a staff of three in addition to himself, who also completed physiotherapy degrees before branching out into the equine world.

Pictured: This iconic Eadweard Muybridge images of the galloping horse (1872) for Michael’s the Strides Ahead article. Until this revolutionary work, artists depicted galloping horses with all four legs outstretched not touching the ground. Muybridge’s work proved that the only time during the gallop gait that a horse is not touching the ground is when the legs are coming together (back legs are moving forward and front backwards). This revelation in understanding the various stages of the gallop gait lead to equine artists achieving more realistic depictions.

The physiotherapist said a horse’s gait was the start of any physical examination, as he would get them to trot up.

“Gait assessment is the starting point of my evaluation of a horse. My clinical evaluation starts with a horse’s trot to see if there was any degree of lameness.”

Simpson said if a horse couldn’t stride properly in a race, it was due to an injury or muscle soreness.

Simpson treats every horse as an individual and maps out tailored programs for each horse.

“Stretching and trying to prevent injuries is a key part of what I do. I also need to know what the horse’s stride style is and do my work around this.

 

“I do a lot of stretching to try to prevent injuries. I need to know what a horse’s stride is so I can do the appropriate stretching.”

 

“I believe prevention is better than cure, so a lot of my work involves stretching, core stability exercises and dressage work, plus the use of ice packs and heat packs.”

“If there’s a variation from a horse’s consistent and usual stride, it usually leads to an injury. If it shortens dramatically, then there’s normally an injury.”

Simpson said it was hard for a horse with an unusual gait to perform at a higher level, as they would have trouble coping with bends, and an unusual gait led to greater chances of injuries.