One of a dressage rider’s greatest fears, especially after all the years of training, money and emotional energy invested in getting a dressage horse to the highest level, is a career ending injury. Research and clinical experience have shown that damage to the suspensory ligaments, particularly in the hindlimbs, is the highest injury risk in horses doing dressage — at all levels.
The exact cause of the injury is not totally clear, but it is likely that a number of factors contribute to causing these injuries. Dressage-specific paces or movements could be risk factors, as could the type of horse used, the modern dressage horse has been bred to be super elastic, massive elevated paces and highly energetic and explosive.
It is possible that the repetitive nature of dressage training might mean that the influence of these risk factors is exacerbated — just as human athletes specialising in a particular sport are prone to repetitive strain injury. I remember reading somewhere that a dressage horse only has so many extended trots in its legs and that the movement should not be “trained” as such, rather like some show jumpers believe that their horses only have so many “big” jumps in them, and to overdo it is criminal and shortens a horse’s career.
Factors that increase the strain placed on the suspensory ligaments are generally associated with an increase in fetlock extension or hyperextension (beyond the normal range of motion). Photographs of many dressage horses show their fetlocks extended past the point that they should be (possibly a factor of the breeding for highly elastic paces). Look at photos of dressage horses in the big Grand Prix Passage or Piaffe, when they are carrying maximum weight on a hindleg for the greatest period of time and still need to spring off it for the next stride. In these cases something as simple as a heart bar shoe behind can offer fractionally more support to the hind legs.
Excessive exposure to these factors is likely to result in ligament overstrain and injury.
Studies reflect that conformation could play a part. Injury is more likely to occur if the horse has a straight hock and a dropped fetlock, probably because he is more likely to hyperextend the fetlock during normal locomotion.
Just as important is correct farriery, a horse with under run heels and long toes, a broken back hoof pastern access, a delayed or slower breakover are all predisposed to ligament and tendon injuries. A farrier who understands the demands placed on a dressage horse is vital, feet properly balanced and the correct shoeing for the job will all increase your horse’s competitive longevity.
Coupled with all of this is the correct training, a horse properly connected and using his back correctly, takes equal strain on muscles, joints and limbs. A horse braced in the back and not properly connected has muscles and connective tissue working harder as a result of joints not flexing and “springing” correctly.
Increasingly, the competitive dressage world is selecting dressage horses with extravagant, uphill movement to get higher scores in competition. As desirable as these qualities may be in the arena and winner’s podium, they are definite factors that increase the strain placed on the suspensory ligaments.
Having said all that, and feeling my heart pound at the very thought of it, how can you minimise the risk of injury?
- A talented horse requires greater responsibility from the rider and trainer, as they find the work so easy and can offer too much, it is the responsibility of those involved to not overpush or overproduce paces, this is particularly the case with an extravagant, uphill mover or a young horse with poor core muscle strength. To a certain degree elasticity is natural, but often the most elastic young horses are those that require more time to develp the strength to cope with the size paces that they offer. In humans I can only liken it to low muscle tone babies, who are highly flexible, but lack the necessary muscle tone and strength to truly support their skeleton.
- As discussed in many training articles worldwide, cross train and concentrate on your horse’s core strength, avoid over repetition of exercises when your horse is fatigued.
- Listen to your horse; they “talk” to us if we only pay attention. Signs of back pain, excessive muscle stiffness, any heat or swelling of joints or limbs, girthiness are all signs that they may be over doing it, or working incorrectly or ahead of their physical development.
- A potential problem not dealt with in the early stages, gradually leads to all sorts of compensatory issues that can have devastating consequences.
- Schedule regular saddle fittings, a badly fitting saddle can cause all sorts of other compensatory issues as well as potential temperament issues as horses become reluctant to work.
- Pay attention to the surface you train on, we spend 90% of our time in the training arena, not the competition one. Our training surfaces need to be of a good quality and well maintained. Too deep as well as too hard both predispose horses to injuries.
- If a training problem appears (resistances, stride variations etc), have your horse checked by a qualified professional whether a veterinarian or a therapist. Early detection for tendon and ligament injuries is vital. Tendons and ligaments can go gradually over time, and if picked up early have a good prognosis, left until they rupture they can have devastating consequences.
- Listen to your gut feel, often a rider will feel something before it becomes apparent to the people watching.
For subtle injuries, arrange evaluation by a vet experienced with dressage horses who can assess the horse fully.
For every rider, owner, trainer educate yourselves, read everything that you can lay your hands on. Become an “expert” on everything that pertains to your horse, so that you can ask the right questions of the real experts that you employ, and make informed decisions when they give you advice. Getting a sound horse to Grand Prix involves real teamwork, Horse, Rider, Trainer, Vet, Farrier, Therapists, Saddle Fitter and Nutritionist are all equally vital.
At the end of the day, it’s about having our dancing partner with us for as long and as successfully as possible.
Article by Mandy Schroder
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