An insight into how horses move and breathe may help scientists in developing ways to improve muscular horse health, and a different approach to breathing devices for humans.
A horse makes use of two systems for walking and running in a race. The first system involves its lower limbs that help them to move along on a "spring-like" tendon. The second one comprises a complicated respiratory system, which allows a horse to take in one breadth for every stride they make while racing. However, the secret behind the working of these two systems simultaneously has been a mystery till date.
But now, researchers team led by John Hermanson, Norm Ducharme and Jonathan Cheetham, all of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine have uncovered the secrets behind a horse's walking, trotting, galloping and running.
They found that two principal muscular factors in the fore limb guide a horse's forward movement. The first is the springy "pogo-stick" quality of the superficial digital flexor tendon, which provides the "bouncing" effect, which allows for trotting and, to a lesser extent, galloping. The second is work generated by the parallel deep digital flexor, which moves the horse forward over the ground. It is the balance between these two muscles that is required for horses to be able to move.
The scientists said that there is a possibility that some of the breakdown in the forelimbs may be related to fatigue within the deep digital flexor resulting from stress and strain on the tendons of the animal.
"Fatigue of the deep flexor muscle may overload the superficial digital flexor muscle and tendon, especially towards the end of intense, high-speed exercise,:" said Hermanson,
While running, a horse's breathing and stride are linked in a 1:1 ratio, so for every stride they take, they also take one breath. The peak airflow they generate is very high (about 80 liters per second). Thus, a very small defect in the airway can cause a big decrease in performance.
Two cartilages (the arytenoids cartilages) protect the larynx during swallowing. When the horse swallows, these cartilages close; when the horse breathes, the cartridges open. When the horse exercises, they open to the maximum extent possible in order to as much airflow as possible to reach the lungs.
These cartilages are opened by a muscle that is innervated by a long nerve, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which runs from the brain, down the neck, and around the base of the aorta.
This nerve is susceptible to disease and damage. In that case, the muscle does not function properly, so it is unable to properly open the cartilage. Thus, the cartilages collapse, obstruct the airflow and lead to a poor performance from the horse.
For three years the researchers have been developing a pacemaker for the larynx-The electrical implant that can be placed into the muscle or around the nerve in order to stimulate the muscle and keep it open during exercise. The implant has been developed to the point where it can be used to keep the airways of horses running 35-40 miles per hour, fully open.
The scientists are also looking at application for the pacemaker for humans for individuals who have laryngeal paralysis or undergo laryngeal transplant.
According to Cheetham, "We are hopeful that this pacemaker, tried in horses, will eventually be helpful to humans."
Hermanson will discuss the group's work at the American Physiological Society's meeting, The Integrative Biology of Exercise V.