Billy the Kid just shot two deputies and has escaped from prison. He's making his getaway on horseback. Just how far can he expect his horse to go — and at what speed?

To provide realistic answers to those and other questions, a production crew from The History Channel recently visited the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center and filmed a horse going through her paces on the hospital’s high-speed treadmill. The film footage will be used in “Real Cowboys,” a new six-part television series which is slated to air on The History Channel early in 2009.

Jennifer Brown, clinical assistant professor of surgery at the equine medical center, provided details on horses’ endurance capabilities at various speeds with Lola, a six-year old thoroughbred mare. Lola was fitted with diagnostic equipment and moving with the treadmill through a walk, a canter, and a gallop. Her heartbeat was monitored and displayed at all times, giving a realistic assessment of what the legendary cowboy figures might have experienced in the days of the Old West.

“By observing and monitoring Lola on the treadmill, we could see how she was handling the tasks we were asking of her,” Brown noted. “We could see her exertion, how she was sweating and breathing heavily, but we could also monitor exactly what the toll of her efforts was on her heart.”

While on the treadmill, Lola’s top speed was measured at 30 miles per hour, a pace she maintained for approximately 15 minutes. “At this point, though, we could see that she was starting to tire,” Brown said. “Like any athlete, she would be able to run at sprint speed for just so long. Then she would need to rest before she would be ready to move at a high speed again.”

The treadmill is routinely used to evaluate the upper airway and, specifically, the opening into a horse’s windpipe. While on the treadmill, horses can go as fast as they would in a race or other athletic event and the changes in the structures from the nose to the lungs can be evaluated to detect problems that are not evident while they are at rest. By using high-speed video, the horses’ gait can also be examined. “The treadmill adds a critical dimension to our ability to evaluate athletes,” said Brown. “It’s a valuable tool we can use to help us bring horses back to their full potential.”

With diagnostic tools such as the high-speed treadmill at the equine medical center, enormous advances have been made in understanding equine athletes.

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