How to treat and prevent equine injuries
Veterinary physiotherapist Michelle O'Connor looks at how to identify, treat and prevent injuries in horses
Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30
While the human athlete can identify problems at the very early stage of an injury, the horse will continue to perform until an injury becomes an outright problem.
As owners, riders, trainers and grooms we must learn to recognise the early signs of injury and advance the horse along the road to recovery.
To reduce the risk of injuries in the equine athlete, we must first look at some of the causes.
Apart from injuries sustained during performance such as knocks and falls, and other obvious causes such as becoming cast or getting kicks from another horse, there are a number of factors that may lead to muscle injury.
It is important to consider all potential causes in evaluating a problem in your horse.
Bridle/Bit and Teeth
Have you ever pulled a muscle in your lower back?
If so what is the first thing you will do in order to avoid further pain in that area? You will move away from the source of the pain, quite possibly changing the way that you walk, in order to alleviate pressure on your back. The horse is no different in terms of pain avoidance - in this case, pain that can arise from sharp edges on teeth, wolf teeth or a poorly-fitting bit.
The horse uses the head and neck for overall balance and if experiencing pain in the mouth or around the head area, the tendency is for the horse to twist the jaw, head or neck or any combination of all three.
In doing so, the horse compromises the balancing mechanism of the head and neck and the effect is offloaded onto the rest of the body in order to maintain balance. This strains the associated muscle and soft tissue structures.
Stress will be placed on the neck musculature, but what originates as soreness in the mouth due to a sharp edge on a tooth could actually manifest as a sore back.
The saddle can be a source of many problems for the horse such as restricted movement at the shoulder; uneven pressure along the long muscles of the back; pinched areas along the spine; slippage on to the weaker lumbar area during work; or even lameness.
Ultimately this will affect overall movement and performance. It is essential therefore that you have the saddle correctly fitted to your horse and regularly checked throughout its lifetime of use.
Very few, if any, of us are born with completely straight postural alignment. Horses are also reported to favour one side naturally.
One of the most fundamental and difficult objectives in horsemanship is the achievement of straightness of movement.
A rider with incorrect or imbalanced posture places an added burden on the horse which has to compensate by adjusting the way they move in order to remain balanced.
This compromises the natural movement of the horse and increases the difficulty of performing simple tasks such as working on a bend correctly.
A horse that works in an incorrect outline, where the head is elevated and the back is hollow, puts enormous strain on the weakest part of the back - the lumbar area, or the area between the back of the saddle and the croup.
It is also the least efficient and least comfortable position for the horse.
Long-term work in an incorrect outline can lead to poor muscle usage and development in the lumbar and lower neck (in front of the saddle) areas. Scientific research has shown that such an outline reduces lumbar mobility and decreases stride length.
When the horse works in a rounded outline with the abdomen tucked up, the head and neck in long and low outline, the back is raised, it makes it easier for the horse to use the back end and generate greater impulsion from behind.
When we talk about preparing a horse for performance we are generally working on two aspects of preparation - training and conditioning.
Training refers to the development of skills specific to the performance such as jumping technique for the show jumper, or doing a half-pass for the dressage horse.
Conditioning, on the other hand, focuses on the development of speed, stamina, and strength and this is achieved by increasing the workload over a specific timeframe whilst allowing the horse to undergo a process of adaptation between such increases, known as progressive loading.
Adaptation is the process that allows the structures such as muscles, tendons and ligaments time to adapt to the load before increasing the load further.
Increasing the workload without allowing for adaptation significantly increases the risk of injury to muscles, tendons and ligaments, potentially leading to breakdown.
By progressing slowly through the conditioning process and allowing sufficient time between increases in workload, the risk of injury is significantly reduced.
Signs of muscle injury
Evidence of muscle or soft tissue injury can be divided into behaviour-related and performance-related signs.
Behavioural signs generally include changes from normal behaviour, for example a horse that was typically easy-going becomes agitated or nippy when asked to perform specific tasks, or the horse appears off-form, or exhibits repetitive activities such as tail swishing, head tossing, teeth grinding, kicking or biting.
A selection of performance-related signs includes tracking up short, cold-back, stiffness, poor suppleness/flexibility, rushing fences, refusing fences, resistance to certain movements, preference for lead at canter, poor engagement, stumbling or tripping, poor transitions, or uneven shoe wear pattern. Also, a horse suffering a constant degree of pain will not thrive and could possibly present with a dull coat and weight loss.
Many injuries, if caught at an early stage, can be managed without the need to take significant time out and provide for a better type of recovery, thus leading to a stronger more flexible and supple muscle that is less susceptible to fresh injury.