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Too much practice doesn’t make perfect

Horse health: Like humans, horses are prone to repetitive 
strain injuries from doing one thing too often

Horse walking along a trail.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Developing muscle memory through practice is important to learning a skill, yet overuse of muscles repeatedly in one particular way or pattern leads to musculoskeletal and nervous system debilitation. Too much practice can be as equally detrimental to performance as too little practice.

“Specialized” movement patterns can become firmly entrenched in the musculoskeletal system, sacrificing flexibility and eventually hindering the very movement or activity that practice was meant to perfect. Further consequences of excessive training are fatigue and boredom, both undermining to peak performance.

When the body is asked to repeat a task over and over, day in and day out, it is susceptible to repetitive strain/stress injuries. Unlike acute injuries, overuse injuries are chronic and insidious. The heavily used tissues, pushed beyond their abilities to rebuild and maintain themselves, undergo degeneration and an “inflammatory-like” process.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, runner’s knee, gymnast’s wrists, golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, baseball shoulder, and texter’s thumb are familiar human counterparts of repetitive stress injury. Human patients complain of pain, yet when examined by a health-care professional, nothing physical can be found. The pain itself is peculiar, often described as a burning, achy or gnawing tenderness. The sensation can escalate to tingling and/or pins and needles. Eventually a loss of sensation or strength may occur.

Behaviour change

There are no obvious ways to diagnose repetitive strain injuries in humans, as is also the situation with horses. It has been my experience that the most common presentation of these injuries in horses is a subtle yet persistent and consistent change in the horse’s attitude or way of going. Refusal, a “soured” attitude, and/or resistance are behavioural displays that may be indicating something in the body is amiss.

The combination of rigorous training regimes and skeletal and mental immaturity makes younger horses especially vulnerable to overuse injuries. Remember, a horse is not physically mature until five to seven years of age. Problems become further compounded when the horse/s in training are stalled instead of turned out where they are able to move freely and use their bodies in other ways.

From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Probiotics, prebiotics and horses

Horses asked to travel in a “frame” for a prolonged period are prone to repetitive stress/strain injury. The ability to carry its body in a particular “frame” is very demanding work for a horse. It requires conditioning and development of the muscles and connective tissue that support, balance, and stabilize the neck and back. These tissues are easily overwhelmed during the initial stages of training, and so the body becomes more prone to injuries.

Horses who gait or repeat the same “stride” for their sport can strain muscles of the shoulders, hindquarters, and distal limbs and joints. Western pleasure horses asked to travel with short strides and low neck carriage lose their ability to lengthen their stride while endurance horses that travel with long lengthy strides lose lateral flexibility.

Horses used for roping purposes are at risk for “frozen” withers and shoulders as well as arthritis in the lower joints. These tend to be a consequence of the ongoing stresses that occur following “dallying up.” This stress becomes magnified further if the horse is not in the correct position to absorb the concussive forces.

Training techniques that employ draw reins, side reins, and longeing have the potential to create unfavourable stress and strain in a horse’s poll, neck and back when used improperly for prolonged periods.

Engaging the whole body and mind in a variety of age-appropriate activities and training regimes allows the horse to develop in a manner which pays dividends in high performance, soundness and longevity. Scheduling rest is of paramount importance in any sporting program for it allows the body the time needed to recover and develop skills for expertise levels.

About the author


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



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