Can Dressage Cause Neck and Back Pain?

One expert explains why poor riding or ill-fitting equipment is more likely to cause back pain than one discipline alone.
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Dressage can provide horses with a good foundation for their training, regardless of their main discipline. | iStock

Q. Does dressage have a positive or a negative effect on a horse’s neck and back and his comfort and overall health?

A. As most dressage trainers know, the answer depends on the skill and fitness of both the horse and the rider. With dressage, the rider is trying to accentuate natural movement patterns, while at the same time inducing head and neck positions and collective movements though set gait patterns. This can appear to be quite easy for some horses and their riders but much more problematic for others. Physical fitness requirements for both horse and rider include strength, core stability, and flexibility. Neck and back pain have negative influences on these attributes. Repetitive-use injuries are common in any equine athlete. Excessive caudal cervical extension can predispose to cervical osteoarthritis. Heavy or unstable riders can aggravate existing impinged thoracolumbar spinous processes and hind-limb lameness. The improper use (of tack) or ill-fitting tack also contributes to neck and back problems. In any athlete the constant reassessment of equipment, modifications in training, and use of preventative care is needed to maintain athletic conditioning and performance.

In general, the horse-rider skills required in dressage provide a good foundational training across all equestrian disciplines. No matter the ridden activity, dressage provides the basic skills required to develop healthy horse-rider interactions, coordinated movement patterns at controlled speeds, and induced collected movements. Conversely, a lot of horses used in dressage can also benefit from cross-training during extended hacks, long-line work, or exercise over ground poles and small cavalletti.

Where we get into problems is when riders do not put in the required time or incorporate the needed skills for proper training. Several studies have reported that most owners do not recognize neck or back pain in their horses and are not able to determine if their saddle fits appropriately or not. If these common issues are overlooked or not recognized, then continued ridden exercise can be detrimental. While this problem is not limited to dressage, asking horses to work through their pain is not productive and is often harmful. Any activity that is done too long, too intense, or too frequent can predispose a horse to fatigue and injury. Like us, a good balance between work and time off is needed to maintain health and well-being.

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Written by:

Kevin K. Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1988 before completing a small animal internship. To further his training in conservatively managing spinal-related disorders, he pursued human training at Palmer College of Chiropractic-West and completed a veterinary chiropractic certification program in 1993. He completed his PhD, focusing on spinal pathology and pelvic biomechanics in Thoroughbred racehorses, from the University of California, Davis, and then studied equine spinal kinematics at Cornell University. While at Cornell, he directed the newly formed large and small animal Integrative Medicine Service. Currently, Haussler is an associate professor at the Colorado State University (CSU) Orthopaedic Research Center, where he’s involved in teaching, clinical duties, and researching. He is a charter diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and a course instructor for the Equine Rehabilitation Certification course, co-branded by the University of Tennessee and CSU.

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