health care for English sport horses

Good footing, proper conditioning, and careful attention to joints and soft tissues are key to maintaining eventers, hunter/jumpers, and dressage horses

“Collect your horse! He’s all strung out. You need to put him in the proper frame.”

Those words probably sound all too familiar to anyone who has taken a few English riding lessons. We might think those commands are designed solely to help us better control our horse. If we move him forward from the haunches into the bridle, his body will be better able to transition smoothly up and down between gaits.

But riding any horse in a properly collected frame, particularly one you will ask to soar over fences or perform complex dressage maneuvers, also helps him remain sound. It is part of the arsenal that hunter/jumpers, eventers, and dressage riders use to train these athletes to reach their performance peak and keep them there season after season.

We caught up with Jim Wofford, Susie Hutchison, and Hilda Gurney, trainers and coaches in eventing, jumping, and dressage, respectively, and Mark Martinelli, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, who runs California Equine Orthopedics, in San Marcos, to discuss ways they work with horses (and riders) to handle health challenges and proactively ward off soundness issues.

The Fundamentals

While horses of almost any breed can participate in these sports, Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds dominate the upper levels. These are big, rangy breeds with plenty of scope and stride to tackle imposing fences and demanding dressage moves. The very scope and stride riders seek, however, can threaten a horse’s soundness.

“The bigger the mover and the better the mover, the more they can injure suspensories,” says Olympic dressage bronze medalist Gurney, of Moorpark, California, referring to the ligaments that originate at the top back of the cannon bone and continue down to the fetlock region, attaching to the top of the proximal sesamoid bones. Along with the hocks, these structures function to prevent fetlock joint hyperextension.

The concussive nature of an equine foot hitting the ground always poses a risk of injury to suspensory ligaments. Martinelli compares the suspensory ligament to a rubber band because it serves as the limb’s “shock absorber.” For this reason it is susceptible to injury when horses jump fences, traverse cross-country courses, or perform dressage tests. The risk of these types of injuries is inherent to the sport, similar to the way a high ankle sprain or knee injury is common among football players.

But unfortunately, that eye-catching elasticity and flowing movement that judges praise and trainers seek can, as Gurney mentioned, stress the hocks and the suspensories. Similar injuries can plague jumpers and eventers that stress their entire suspensory apparatus (the suspensory ligament and its surrounding structures that all function to prevent fetlock hyperextension) when they land after a jump. Concurrently, they might be required to turn to face the next obstacle or travel over uneven footing, further stressing these structures.

Former United States Equestrian Team member and World Cup show jumper Hutchison, of Temecula, California, says she and other trainers in the discipline are seeing more suspensory ligament injuries: “Part of it is that we had them years ago, but we didn’t have the (imaging) technology to know what we were dealing with.”

She says good footing—whether dirt, grass, or synthetic surface—is essential to prevent these types of injuries in jumpers as well as other sport horses.

Pan Am and Olympic eventing medalist Wofford, of Upperville, Virginia, adds, “We’re galloping at high rates of speed, and we’re not always traveling on a prepared surface. We are going across country on natural footing, and that is inherently not always super-level and not always super-resilient. Soft tissue injuries are a big part of the worry of training eventers.”

Importance of Age

These horses’ age also plays a role in their soundness and athletic longevity. Jumpers and eventers often come to their sports after spending time in other careers, such as on the racetrack. Dressage horses, while commonly bred for their sport, take years to mature physically and mentally and to learn their maneuvers. So instead of seeing 2-year-olds competing, as you might at the racetrack, or 3-year-old cutting and reining futurity horses, sport horses might not start competing until ages 5 or 6.

“Horses aren’t usually even Grand Prix (the highest level of dressage competition) until they’re 10,” Gurney says. “If you can get a horse to the Grand Prix level, you’d sure like to be able to enjoy it for a few years before you’re into geriatric dressage,” encountering arthritis and other lameness-causing ailments.

Arthritic changes can compromise any athletic horse’s soundness. In eventers, arthritis can stem from the stress of an earlier career, years of training, and—in older veteran competitors—natural wear and tear, says Wofford. “To get a horse to top international standard is a minimum of four years of work,” he explains. “During that time we are increasingly asking them to load their hindquarters and to compress their joints behind the ribcage, in their hocks and their stifles. After a course of time that starts to take its toll.”

Soundness and Conformation

Regardless of breed, certain conformation traits help an individual succeed in these sports, not the least of which is balance and correct movement. But different trainers prefer different traits: “I’m looking for a short back with their hind legs up underneath them,” says Hutchison. “If a horse is camped out behind and doesn’t have his legs underneath him, he’s going to have back problems.”

She says a horse that uses his hind end correctly over the top of a jump can strain his back if he’s not properly conformed. Martinelli agrees, saying, “If a horse is conformationally challenged with an inverted topline (a high head and a hollow back), an open pelvis (camped out), and/or a high-set neck, that horse may be predisposed to topline issues.”

Hutchison says if she has to take a horse with legs that are less than straight, she prefers one that toes in rather than out. One that toes out is more apt to hit and injure himself with the way he travels.

Wofford adds, “I prefer horses that are a little higher in their withers than in their hips because they tend to keep their balance at speed a little better, though that’s a rash generalization. I have a slight disposition to a horse that has a little bit of length in his back because they seem to be able to jump spreads a little more easily.”

Along with proper selection comes fitness, which is essential in keeping these horses sound. “My greatest defense against soft tissue injury is long, slow preparation in the conditioning phases,” says Wofford. “My horses do a great deal of exercise at the walk. They walk up and down hills on long reins.”

When asking horses to perform the more athletic maneuvers of these sports, the trainers emphasize doing less work more frequently. Hutchison and Gurney say they try to ride horses in training twice a day, if possible, preferably every day of the week. They also keep horses’ soundness in mind as they coach their riders.

Hutchison says she has noticed many lameness problems can be traced to a horse’s neck. “Horses use their neck as their balance point,” she says. “If they can’t control and help hold their balance with their neck, then it drops into the front end.”

Martinelli has examined and imaged many of these horses and has confirmed that some feet and leg lamenesses seem to originate from neck problems (see sidebar above). Riders of these horses, as Hutchison suggests, sometimes find their mounts to be out of balance and heavy on the forehand.

If the horse’s conformation causes him to put too much weight on his front end, stressing his front legs, he will compensate by shifting weight to his hind end, which can lead to problems there. An inexperienced rider might inadvertently ¬contribute to this by not keeping the horse in the proper frame, allowing him to put too much weight on the forehand. But skilled riders will keep a horse’s neck more elevated and engaged with impulsion coming from the hind end, taking weight off the forehand and keeping him balanced.

“If a horse trains, competes, and performs in a balanced manner, he is less likely to incur some of these compensatory lamenesses,” says Martinelli. “While an overt lameness may be present, if the overall balance of the horse and the way he performs is not taken into account, solving the initial problem may only be the tip of the iceberg (i.e., the imbalance could continue, perpetuating lameness). That’s why a full history and examination of the horse is so critical to solving its lameness problems.”

As with any equine athlete, early detection can deter many lamenesses. Hutchison, Wofford, and Gurney thoroughly and methodically check legs for heat and inflammation. They monitor minor muscle pulls, resting them to keep them from becoming major, and they wrap, poultice, and ice limbs as needed to ward off problems stemming from inflammation.

Take-Home Message

English sport horses need scope and range to negotiate stadium jumps, cross-country obstacles, and dressage tests successfully. Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds are the breeds that often succeed in these disciplines, though any horse with proper conformation that’s engaged in a solid fitness program has potential to reach his performance peak and remain sound. Horses in these sports can be susceptible to suspensory ligament, hind end, back, and neck problems, among others. Owners can help by riding their horses in a correct frame so the horse remains balanced, checking for early signs of injury, and taking proactive measures when they detect problems.