That Strange Stepping by War of Will

The Preakness winner has stringhalt, but what does that mean for the racehorse’s participation in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes?
June 5, 2019

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Thoroughbred racehorse War of Will handily won the Preakness Stakes on May 18 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, but many racing fans were concerned by video footage that surfaced later on social media. Shortly after the race, the bay colt was caught walking back to the stables with a strange hitch in his step.

War of Will’s trainer Mark Casse said there’s nothing to be concerned about—the abnormal leg movement was due to the three-year-old horse having a benign condition called stringhalt. “It’s never been lameness,” Casse told BloodHorse, explaining that although the leg tic looks troubling, War of Will’s racing performance has never suffered because of it.

Kirstin Bubeck, a veterinarian at Tufts Equine Center, explained that stringhalt is an old but little-understood motor disorder. Characterized by a fast, exaggerated upward movement of the hind limb, classic stringhalt can affect either one or both of a horse’s rear legs, explained Bubeck, who’s specially trained in equine surgery as well as sports medicine and rehabilitation and is a clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Although it’s sometimes found in horses with known prior trauma to the hind end—and therefore possibly the result of nerve damage or scar tissue—classic stringhalt usually “suddenly starts happening, and we don’t know exactly why,” Bubeck said. Australian stringhalt, on the other hand, can occur in pastured horses and is associated with ingesting a toxic weed found there, she said.

The good news for War of Will is that the mechanical disorder “is not painful,” Bubeck said. “Most sport horses with stringhalt perform just fine,” she added, because the abnormal movement occurs only at slow speeds, such as during walking or light trotting. The one exception would be dressage horses, Bubeck said, as all gaits are evaluated and judged in that sport.

Given that stringhalt typically is sporadic and doesn’t affect quality of life or performance, most horses with the condition require no interventions. However, horses that are bothered by a higher degree of stringhalt can be treated with leg surgery to remove part of the muscle and the small tendon found on the outside of the hock and cannon bone. “Some horses improve dramatically after that,” said Bubeck. She noted that in some cases acupuncture and a type of massage called myofascial release therapy also may help improve stringhalt.

As for War of Will, his stringhalt spasms occur rarely—usually only when the colt is fatigued, according to his trainer. Reports suggest that the racehorse will skip his “breeze,” or extra-fast workout, in preparation for Saturday’s race. But War of Will should start in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes as planned—attempting to become only the twelfth horse in history to win the Preakness and Belmont after losing the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.