The California Thoroughbred Foundation recently announced that the 2019 Louis R. Rowan Fellowship has been awarded to Sarah Shaffer. A Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, Shaffer conducts her research in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine at the J.D. Wheat Veterinary Orthopedics Research Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Susan Stover.
Fractures of the proximal sesamoid bones, which are located in a horse’s ankles, are among the most common fatal bone fractures in Thoroughbred racehorses. The goal of Shaffer’s work is to create a mathematical model of the proximal sesamoid bones that will predict fracture risk based on the training program (including number of workouts/week, the type of surface the horse is running on, etc.). Ideally, results could provide recommendations to owners, trainers, and veterinarians as to which training programs put horses at a higher or lower fracture risk. “If we could reduce injury rates by modifying training programs, that would be really amazing,” says Shaffer.
A lifelong equestrian, Shaffer holds a National Reining Horse Association Youth World Title and multiple top 10 placings at the American Quarter Horse Congress in reining with her Quarter Horse, Roostamatic (a.k.a. Beau). She jumped at the chance to combine her passion for performance horses with her engineering skill set to solve real world problems by attending UC Davis for graduate school. “I really like the interdisciplinary research that occurs at the J.D. Wheat Veterinary Orthopedics Research Laboratory,” says Shaffer. “It is great to work with orthopedic surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, geneticists, and other engineers, both biomedical and mechanical. I think we have a better chance of understanding how and why musculoskeletal injuries occur in performance horses and what we can do to lower injury risk because of the variety of backgrounds people have who work here.”
After completing her Ph.D., Shaffer intends to work in the equine biomechanics field as a professor at a research institution. She is honored to receive this prestigious fellowship. “I know the Rowan award is competitive and usually goes to veterinarians or individuals trained for animal-specific research, so I really appreciate that the California Thoroughbred Foundation honored this interdisciplinary approach to a serious problem in the racehorse industry,” reflects Shaffer.