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4 Resolutions for a Sound Horse

If you've got big plans for the year, make sure your horse will be ready to enjoy them.


Have you made any resolutions this year? Do any of them involve your horse? Maybe you’ve decided that 2014 will be the year you will enter that competition, reach that training milestone or go on that ride you’ve always dreamed of. Whatever your plans for your equine friends, you will need your horse to be healthy and sound. Horses have a great talent for injuring themselves with the worst timing, but there are some things you can do to decrease the chances of him going lame.

1. Match work to fitness

Rachel Murray of the Animal Health Trust said in Horse and Hound (23.04.13) that the risk of suspensory desmitis in dressage horses can be minimised if owners “build cross training and core muscle development into the training programme”. The point made here is true for any discipline- the demands of work must be supported by an adequate fittening programme. Not just for cardiovascular fitness, but to strengthen bones, tendons and ligaments.

Rachel Murray goes on to say: “Asking a horse to perform and repeat movements for which he lacks the adequate muscle strength or endurance, flexibility or fitness to carry out means he is likely to start using the ‘wrong’ muscle patterns”. There’s no short cut to long term soundness, so if you want to increase your horse’s performance you’ll need to plan carefully how you will prepare his body to cope with it. Exercises to increase core strength like working over trotting poles are a great way to build up the ‘right’ muscles for self-carriage.

2. Be aware of surfaces

Arena surfaces are getting more and more technical and it’s easy to forget that even the best surface in the world can be a hazard if it’s not harrowed effectively. A patchy surface that fluctuates between deep and spongy or shallow and firm can be dangerous to ride on.

Also be aware of the conditions when you’re out hacking. If you get to your favourite canter hill and your horse is feeling well then you may forget about the recent weather, but one gallop isn’t worth 6 weeks on box rest! Ground that is too hard causes greater percussive forces in the limbs, and ground that is too deep causes extra strain on tendons and ligaments. If you have to maintain your horse’s fast work during a period of bad weather conditions then consider investigating your local all-weather gallops. If you don’t have transport then check out this blog post by Lorraine Jenkins on using canter laps in the school to build fitness.

What constitutes a ‘correct’ maximum pace on tarmac roads is well-debated issue. Again, what your horse’s legs are strong enough for depends on his level of fitness. Remember to collect the pace when going downhill and also to warn any cars behind you if you’re about to slow down.

3. Pay attention to his movement

There are a multitude of reasons a horse could be off colour, but keep a tab on his movement over the year by regularly watching him move on the lunge or as a friend trots him up. Trot your horse on a hard surface and listen to the footfalls. If you’re not hearing a regular one-two-one-two then he’s probably favouring one diagonal over another. Watch to see if he is dropping a hip or nodding his head in tempo. When one of the front feet is lame remember the phrase ‘down on the sound’: the head will nod as the sound limb hits the floor. If you watch from behind there will appear to be more movement in the hip of the lame leg if the injury is in a hind limb.

Trotting legs

Make sure your horse isn't changing his movement to compensate for pain elsewhere

If you’re concerned about a previous injury that was diagnosed via Standing MRI, consider a re-scan to monitor the healing. Rescans of the same region are usually charged at a lower rate than the initial study so phone up your clinic and ask. Knowing how the injury is progressing may help you to revise your horse’s rehabilitation program to give the best long-term results.

Straightness is a fundamental building block to a good way of going. A horse that is not straight and balanced will overload certain parts of the body and expose them to injury. When you’re schooling, make sure he is straight and even on both reins. If your position is crooked then it can cause a multitude of problems for the horse, particularly if you’re his only rider. A good riding instructor will identify any fault on your part, but also ask yourself if the saddle fit could be improved. The sweat marks left on the back after exercise give a clue whether the saddle presses more on one side than the other. It might be that the saddle fit is fine but it’s slipping because of an underlying problem. Work by Sue Dyson and Line Greve (of the AHT again) has recently connected saddle slip to hindlimb lameness. They found that the saddle consistently slipped to one side in 57% of cases where a horse was lame in a hind leg.

4. Keep it fun!

As Rachel Murray said above, cross-training is a great way to improve your horse’s resilience to injury. Only doing jumping and never practicing your flatwork is like a weightlifter skipping leg day. Why not make a resolution to try something different with your horse this year? You might even find that doing something new brings a new edge to your main sport and gives your horse an extra spring in his step.

If you usually jump and want to work on your schooling then there’s no harm in keeping jumps up in the school when you do your sessions. Every time your horse’s attention drifts, go over the jump and he’ll be wide awake again.

If your horse has accomplished a movement then ask yourself how often it now needs to be repeated. In a Grand Prix you might see 3 piaffes and 4 canter pirouettes, but these demanding movements would never be practiced so frequently at home. Each schooling session, ask yourself whether you’re doing an exercise again for your benefit or for his. Building fitness is important, but if you keep going until fatigue causes the quality of his work to fall then you aren’t doing either of you any favours.

What if it doesn't work?

You might have followed a meticulous fittening programme, brought a roster of equine health professionals check your horse and saddle, trotted him up daily and harrowed your school religiously, and your horse could still make himself lame by having a hooley in the paddock.

The vet will probably watch him trotted up in a straight line and on a circle. If the lameness is only visible when ridden then they will need to see him under saddle as well. The vet might use diagnostic analgesia ('nerve blocks') to try and locate the cause of the lameness.

If there is a problem in the lower leg then consider Standing Equine MRI. Click here to find your nearest site. If you're not sure if MRI is right for your horse, then there's a wealth of information and case studies on the Owners and Trainers part of our website.


Happy riding!

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