Hard ground: why it is a problem for your horse and how to help

  • We know that hard ground conditions can be detrimental to horses’ limbs, but what effects do they actually have and what are the signs that something is wrong?

    Hearing the clickety-clack of hooves galloping across hard ground is enough to send a shiver up the spine of anyone who cares about their horse’s future soundness. Something’s got to give – and you can be sure it won’t be the cast-iron going underfoot.

    The concussive forces generated as a horse moves at speed on a very firm surface are largely absorbed by the structures of the hoof, before being dissipated further up the limb into the bones, joints and soft tissues.

    Understandably, a hammering can leave a horse feeling “pottery” and sore — as Hattie Lawrence MRCVS of Valley Equine Hospital in Berkshire explains.

    “You know the feeling in your legs after hard day walking on pavements,” she says. “A horse with straightforward concussion will feel much the same, with sore shins, bruised feet and general inflammation of the lower leg and hoof structures. Colloquially termed being ‘jarred up’, this is typically the effect of a one-off pounding.”

    If it is a one-off, your horse will probably get away with it. Damage can be accumulative, however, and in some cases catastrophic.

    “A much bigger issue is that hard ground is fast ground;” says Hattie, explaining that with firm going there is no “holding” factor to check the horse’s speed.

    “This increases injury risk. There is also the potential for a condition called subchondral bone disease, the effects of which can only be seen accurately with an MRI scan. The bone develops oedema [fluid] and, as it tries to remodel, it becomes more brittle and liable to fracture.

    “Subchondral bone disease in jumping horses, both showjumpers and eventers, tends to be caused by the cumulative effect of landing over large fences, while eventers can also develop the condition after galloping on firm ground,” she adds. “Lameness usually occurs before too much damage is done and should resolve with rest, although the prognosis becomes less favourable with repeated episodes.”

    Common injuries associated with hard ground

    • Concussion and jarring
    • Bruised soles
    • Splints
    • Tendon injuries
    • Laminitis: not all cases are due to ponies being overweight; some are seen in the summer months as a result of concussion, which traumatises the sensitive laminae
    • Sore shins: this is a common problem in racehorses, but it is also seen in other animals working on hard ground. The signs are swelling to the front of the cannon bone, which may lead to fractures within the bone if the horse is not rested

    Early signs that a horse may be jarred up

    Not all horses that are feeling the effects of hard ground will be obviously lame. More subtle signs to look out for include:

    • A shortening of the stride: a horse may lose the swing and spring in its step as it tries to minimise jarring when its feet hit the ground
    • Increased tension: muscles change their function on hard ground to help stabilise the lower limbs and reduce concussion. This means they reduce their ability to work independently and compromise overall performance
    • Refusing: jumpers may be reluctant to land after a fence, so may start stopping when they have never done so before
    • Flattening and rushing over a fence: to minimise concussion on landing the horse adjusts its technique to prevent it landing so hard

    How can you reduce the risk?

    “A horse with good conformation, who is fit for the work he is doing, will be less likely to suffer,” says Hattie. “He should be shod well, because correct foot balance will enable better absorption of concussive forces by the structures of the hoof. He should also be appropriately built and not overweight. As we become more inclusive of all types of horse at grassroots level, we must be mindful that we may be exposing less athletic horses to higher risk of injury.

    “Different terrain can cause different problems,” she adds. “Ground that is hard and rutted, or patchy with areas of deeper going, increases the risk of a ‘bad step’ injury. This might involve soft-tissue damage to structures, such as the deep flexor tendons or the collateral ligaments.

    “Applying ice or cooling boots after a punishing round will definitely help control the acute inflammatory process,” Hattie says. “With a tendon injury, for example, the horse’s inflammatory response is unhelpful and may worsen tissue damage and impair healing. While cooling cannot fix a significant structural injury – which needs to be identified and treated – it will settle everything down in the case of straightforward concussion, and make the horse more comfortable.

    “We are better at recognising the risks posed by hard going than we used to be,” Hattie summarises. “Many venues make a real effort to improve the ground, but there is a limit to what can be done in dry conditions. If it feels like concrete underfoot and you can save your horse for another day, you probably should.”

    Can hoof pads help?

    Hoof pads and packing can provide some relief from hard ground, says farrier Haydn Price DipWCF.

    “The frog and the digital cushion work within the hoof capsule to absorb concussion, but too much work on hard ground can exceed this absorbent capacity,” he says. “Pads and packing can help protect the solar aspect of the hoof from soft-tissue damage (bruising).”

    According to Haydn, a flat sole is more susceptible to hard-ground problems that can leave a horse feeling “footy”.

    “Early intervention is better,” he says. “If you know that your horse is likely to suffer the seasonal effects of hard ground, talk to your vet and farrier about initiating protection before it becomes necessary.

    “Options range from traditional leather pads and hard, thermoplastic versions to some form of packing sandwiched between the sole and a plastic pad,” says Haydn, explaining that a soft gel-pad, for example, will afford some cushioning to the sole and the rest of the foot.

    “There is a trade-off in that the hoof will lose its natural concavity and grip, but some pads feature ridges where the frog would lie to help prevent slipping.

    “Modern materials have really improved;’ he adds, emphasising that there should be no issues with degradation of the sole.

    “Where there is potential for bacterial ingress with repeated soakings or water ­treadmill use, we can even use a copper sulphate pouring pad [a pad that’s liquid when you pour it in, and sets to fit the shape of the hoof] with antimicrobial properties.”

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