Modern-day horses face ergonomic hazards, too

Small pens, repeated movement and the training circle can all cause chronic injuries

Carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and texting thumb are all specific types of soft tissue injury that humans experience.

This type of injury to the soft tissue (tendons and ligaments) is unique to modern-day lifestyle and/or work environments. They arise in response to repetitive movements which are often carried out in an unnatural or imbalanced way.

Even small movements, like clicking a computer mouse or texting, done repetitively can result in a type of pathological and degenerative change in soft tissue. The injury itself may be seemingly small yet its additive effects are detrimental to the body. Over time shiny, firm and white tendonous tissues become dull, soft, brown and abnormally vascularized.

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With the current availability of imaging technologies such as ultrasound, magnetic resonance and nuclear scintigraphy (bone scanning) in veterinary medicine, and horse owners who have the financial resources to thoroughly investigate complex lamenesses, it is becoming apparent that horses too, experience a very similar type of painful soft tissue pathology.

The tendons and ligaments of the equine limb function as highly sophisticated ‘biological springs’ by capturing the recoil energy of elastic tissues as the horse takes stride — think pogo stick. In order for the infrastructure of tendons and ligaments to do their work properly all parts — bone, ligaments, tendons and cartilage — must be in their correct biomechanical position and alignment. This is not unlike the correct alignment of pulleys, gears and tires for the proper functioning of a machine.

Therefore all tendons and ligaments in the horse’s limb are important to the horse’s soundness and instrumental to function regardless of size. A ‘short’ list of smaller soft tissue structures in the horse’s limb, such as the accessory check ligaments, sesamoidean ligaments, branches of the suspensory ligaments and smaller ligaments that lie within the hoof capsule may send both horse owner and veterinarian scurrying to a detailed equine anatomy textbook.

Nonetheless each are just as likely to be problematic to the soundness of a horse as are the larger, more visible superficial and deep digital flexor tendons and/or suspensory ligaments that run in tandem along the back of the leg.

Soft tissue injuries can have serious consequences to the performance outcome and behaviour of the horse. Treatment options that improve healing of tendons and ligaments in the horse are in high demand, yet the prognosis for the horse’s full return to soundness is generally guarded.

As the diagnosis of soft tissue injuries becomes increasingly prevalent in the performance horse it becomes prudent to investigate the domain of ergonomics in the ‘working’ or living environment of the horse. People have become increasingly aware of the relationship between ergonomic factors in their work and the health of the human body. It is generally recognized that whenever bodies are repetitively stressed in an awkward posture or are asked for an unnatural movement for prolonged periods of time, eventually the body begins to suffer injurious effects. The modern-day horse also has an ergonomic hazard and it is the circle.

Round penning, colt starting, lounging, arena work, competition and flatwork patterns, jumping and schooling and training practices require the horse’s body to travel on a curve. It is not the circle itself that is inherently harmful to the horse. The horse is fully capable of turning in a circle, on a circle or turning tightly. However, it is not something they are designed to do repeatedly.

Therefore it is important to acknowledge that placing the horse on any variation of a circle is a gymnastic challenge for the horse — even more so when the horse is a youngster and weighted by a rider and tack.

If the horse is not properly prepared and unduly circled, its body will experience the unforgiving forces of compression, tension, torque, torsion and shear. The tighter the circle and the greater the speed — the greater the stress. Initially the event can be physically demanding to the tissues and plays a role in conditioning and skill.

However, if the event is carried out repetitively or the horse is in poor form, the movement becomes distressful and eventually injurious to the soft tissues. The developing body and mind of the young horse are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of circling inherent in many training programs.

When executed properly and within a reasonable dosage the circle is beneficial to the horse. However, the body of the horse needs to be properly conditioned and educated to travel correctly on the circle without bringing harm and distress to its body.

If not, the detrimental effects to the horse’s body become additive — both physically and mentally. Without the handler’s keen focus and awareness upon the quality of the horse’s cadence, balance and body carriage, ‘circling’ the horse is meaningless to both the horse’s body and mind.

For some horses this ergonomic concern also carries over into their living environment. If the horse is stabled or kept in a small turnout paddock its body will be continuously bent and curved in any movement the horse makes. As a result the horse will be unable to fully express the straightforward movement that is one of the most natural and essential movements to its body.

Unfortunately many soft tissue troubles in the horse are gravely misinterpreted as behaviour or training issues when in fact the horse is displaying signs of discomfort in the body such as resentment of being tacked up, unwillingness to go forward or laziness, rushing forward, busyness, hurrying, spookiness, resistance to aids, putting the tongue over the bit or outside the mouth, opening the mouth, carrying the head above or behind the vertical, twisting the head, swishing the tail, strained facial expressions including a vacant look in the eye, agitated gait transitions, bucking and rearing.

As a result many soft tissue injuries go unrecognized for a long time, until debilitating lameness later appears.

About the author

Contributor

Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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