Locomotion on the edge: structural properties of the third metacarpal in Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racehorses and feral Assateague Island ponies.
The elongated, distally tapered limbs of horses are adapted for high-speed locomotion. Because these traits are artificially selected for in modern racehorses, they operate at a morphological extreme with a high risk of fracture. Racehorses are subject to different training and racing regimes depending on their breed and gait, and are therefore an interesting model to examine bone functional adaptation under variable biomechanically intense conditions. This study compares bone structural properties in the third metacarpal (MCIII) of Thoroughbred (n = 9) and Quarter Horse (n = 11) racehorses, using feral Assateague Island ponies (n = 6) as an untrained/unraced outgroup, to determine whether structural properties reflect variable racing and training regimes. Geometric section properties and bone mineral densities were determined using peripheral quantitative CT at two diaphyseal sites and through the distal epiphysis. Diaphyseal strength of the MCIII in all three breeds does not differ relative to body size, but in the mid-diaphyseal region Thoroughbreds have higher antero-posterior relative to medio-lateral bending strength than Quarter Horses, as well as higher bone mineral densities in left MCIII epiphyses (particularly in the lateral condyle). Interestingly, all breeds have lower bone mineral densities in the lateral versus medial condyle, an inherent structural feature that may influence predisposition to fracture when running around turns. Our results suggest that despite subtle differences in bone structure between different racehorse breeds, basic morphology of the third metacarpus is relatively similar among racing and non-racing horses, possibly reflecting intense selection (natural and artificial) across domestic equids for similar structural features within distal limb elements.