EQUESTRIAN sport and horse racing are sports, where, in the blink of an eye, events can be won or lost. Sport horse and racehorse health and performance can be significantly affected by subtle problems which lead to poor performance and loss of progress. This slows horses down and costs money.

An understanding of biomechanics and how muscles work will help keep horses sound and fitter for longer periods. Optimum performance requires all body systems to function at, or close to, maximum capacity. Hence the horse’s body comes under greater stress and strain from intensive training. Being able to identify problems early allows for quicker preventative intervention, enabling the horse to maximise his/her athletic potential sooner rather than later.

Human athletes benefit from support teams that recognise and treat athletic injuries such as muscle fatigue, stiffness, soreness, and micro-tears before they interfere with training. With horses, it is less acknowledged that muscle injury can be a reason for unsoundness and poor performance.

Lameness is not always a response to pain but can be a compensatory mechanism because of unloading affected limbs or structures. Unlike people, horses cannot tell us when they are experiencing discomfort. Musculoskeletal pain is often missed or misread, leading to chronic pain sites and loss of performance.

Prioritising musculoskeletal health

Musculoskeletal health is fundamental for a horse’s mobility and dexterity, and a good indicator of their overall health. Muscles act by contracting and changing the angle of joints to create the body’s internal and external movement. Movement is initiated through the combined effect of the activities of skeletal muscle, tendons, and ligaments. Not only do muscles work in pairs, they, work in chains to facilitate precise and continuous flowing movement. Deep muscles and those close to joints are postural muscles, responsible for supporting and stabilising joints. When one muscle group contracts and flexes the opposite muscle group extends and relaxes.

When there is a restriction in a muscle or in one part of the chain, the horse will experience musculoskeletal pain or discomfort and tend to engage different parts of their body to avoid using sore areas. This habit of “compensation” overloads precision structures such as tendons, ligaments, and joints.

Youngsters born with or acquiring an abnormality that affects the musculoskeletal system will need immediate help to grow and respond without compromising future ability. If not remedied early, irregularities will place excess strain on joints and ultimately interfere with speed and agility.

Posture and symmetry

Flat racing horses are raced from two years old or younger and the amount of force and impact of galloping at high speeds can cause concussion on immature joints and still-developing soft tissues. Repetitive concussion results in an imbalance and the domination of a favoured limb will lead to tears, chips, and fractures. It is not uncommon to see conformation changes in lower limbs from “back at the knee” to slightly “over at the knee” between the weanling and three-year-old.

Maintaining a healthy flow of synovial fluid, in and around joints, is crucial. When fluid becomes either too thick or thin, it cannot lubricate to protect joints. Specific therapy techniques increase the range of movement of joints by lengthening and stretching out adjacent muscles. This encourages the synovial membrane to release fluid thus allows articulating bones to move freely over each other with reduced friction and pain.

As a holistic therapist I consider the following compensatory movements when assessing a horse’s mobility:

  • Tight shoulder muscles transfer tightness to upper limb muscles, eventually down to flexors and tendons. Inevitably, the horse will suffer tendon injury.
  • A horse with pain in its lower forelimb (hoof, pastern, fetlock, or knee) will experience compensatory tension in the upper limbs. Upper limbs control movement but when limited through discomfort the horse is unable to lengthen its limbs. This will cause a decreased stride length and if unnoticed/untreated can manifest into the shoulder and further.
  • A horse with inflamed hocks is injected with anti-inflammatory medications by a vet. This helps reduce pain and inflammation temporarily but will not address the underlying reasons. Upper body areas such as the spine, sacroiliac, lumbar, pelvis, gluteals, stifle and hamstrings will experience secondary pain and restrictions because of gait compensations caused by hock pain.
  • Tightness in adductor muscles that stabilise the pelvis. Tension in these muscles can instigate pelvic asymmetry with secondary compensations in gluteals and hamstrings. Horses will have difficulty flexing hip and stifle joint thereby restricting the range of motion.