Repetitive motion can cause soft tissue injuries in equines

ALBERTA FARM EXPRESS — Soft tissue injuries are not common in horses that live in the wild; these injuries generally occur when a repetitive motion is carried out in an unnatural way. Even small movements done repeatedly can damage soft tissue damage over time, even if the injury starts out as minor.

Tendons and ligaments in equine legs act as springs; to do their job correctly, all parts, including bones, tendons, ligaments and cartilage, must be aligned and positioned properly. Even the smaller soft tissue structures are important for a horse to maintain soundness.

Soft tissue injuries can potentially affect the long-term athletic future of a horse, if all available treatment modalities are used. Because of this, it’s worthwhile to investigate what could potentially be causing the increase in soft tissue injuries in working horses. Dr. Carol Shwetz reports that horses being asked to circle repeatedly and in poor form is the culprit of a lot of soft tissue injuries. Round penning, lunging, schooling and competing in many disciplines ask a horse to work on a curve. While a horse can turn in a circle, his body is not designed to do so repeatedly.

An unfit horse asked to circle endlessly will experience torque, tension, compression and shear on his body. The greater the speed and the tighter the circle, the more stress he will endure. Though effective as a training tool, the tissues can be injured if the horse is forced to repeatedly circle in poor form.

When executed properly and in a reasonable amount, 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 the body. In addition to the physical stress constant circling can place on a horse’s body, this motion can be mentally detrimental as well.

Horses that are kept in stalls or in small turnouts must continually bend and curve as they encounter the sides of their enclosures, as well. Many soft tissue issues are misunderstood and chalked up to misbehavior or training problems. A horse that is unwilling to go forward, rushes, spooks, opens his mouth, twists his head or displays any number of other issues may be trying to let his handlers know he is uncomfortable. It’s worth trying to determine if a horse that exhibits these issues is physically uncomfortable (and not just being “bad”) before a soft tissue injury develops into a debilitating lameness.

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A Horse’s Gait

When walking, a horse’s legs follow this sequence: left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, right front leg, in a regular 1-2-3-4 beat. At the walk, the horse will alternate between having three or two feet on the ground. A horse moves his head and neck in a slight up and down motion that helps maintain balance.

The four basic gaits are the walk, trot, canter, and gallop.

The walk is what is known as a “four-beat gait” and two feet always maintain contact with the ground.  The gait is from side to side as both feet on one side of the horse (e.g., right front and right hind) hit the ground before the two feet on the opposite do. The average stride length of the walk is 5.5 to 6.5 feet.

The trot is considered to be a “two-beat gait” in which the opposite hind foot and fore foot hit the ground simultaneously, e.g., the right forelimb and the left hindlimb move together.  The average stride length of the trot is nine to 17 feet.   The pace is a two-beat gait in which the hind foot and fore foot on the same side hit the ground simultaneously.

The canter has three beats in which the non-leading forelimb and the opposite hindlimb strike the ground at the same time. For example, if the horse is cantering on the left lead, the right forelimb and the left hindlimb strike the ground simultaneously. 

The gallop is a fully extended “four-beat gait” in which the stride length approaches its maximum of 15 to 22 feet or greater.  The gait is similar to the canter except that the non-leading forelimb and the opposite hindlimb do not strike the ground together.  In this gait there is a period of “suspension” in which all four feet are off the ground at the same time.

Five-gaited horses are notable for their ability to perform five distinct horse gaits instead of the walk, trot and canter or gallop common to most horses.

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