Around 80 per cent of modern thoroughbred racehorses have in their pedigree the 18th century horse Eclipse, which went its entire racing career unbeaten. Two hundred years later the question of what makes a fast racehorse still perplexes trainers and racing fans but researchers at The Royal Veterinary College may have found the answer to this and other questions on animal locomotion.
The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has 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 can then build 'theoretical limbs' on a computer and use them to test answers to questions on not only why Eclipse was so fast but also why horses can remain balanced when each leg is off the ground for 80 per cent of the ground 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 its legs and have discovered that its legendary speed may have been due to its 'averageness'. Dr Wilson said, "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 of the Structure and Motion Laboratory at The Royal Veterinary College not only answers questions about the top 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 to understand how dinosaurs walked.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £300 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest. For more information on BBSRC go to: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk
About The Royal Veterinary College
Structure and Motion Laboratory The Structure and Motion Laboratory in conjunction with the Centre for Human Performance, conducts research into the structure and function of the musculoskeletal system. This is done from the level of the single muscle fibre all the way up to a whole subject level, including the effects of health and disease on musculoskeletal function. We are interested in a variety of biomechanical and physiological phenomena in biological systems. This is sometimes most effectively studied in humans and sometimes in animals that have evolved for a narrower range of athletic pursuits. Some of our work relates to musculoskeletal function and control, while other work focuses on how this is affected by injury and repair of musculo-skeletal disease.
The laboratory aims towards achieving world-class research into comparative biomechanics and physiology, which can be used to further the body of knowledge regarding musculoskeletal function. For more information go to: http://www.rvc.ac.uk/Research/Structure_And_Motion/
The above story is based on materials provided by Biotechnology And Biological Sciences Research Council. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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