How ‘less athletic’ horses can still enjoy competitive careers *H&H VIP*

  • Grassroots events allow riders to enjoy equestrian sport when they may not have the time, experience or ability to compete at higher levels. Across the disciplines, a wide variety of horses are competing at this entry level — many of whom may traditionally be perceived as ‘less athletic’.

    Cobs or heavier types, built for stamina rather than speed, can be good jumpers offering safer conveyance, albeit at a slower pace. Typically, this type of horse will have a steadier temperament, which may suit someone with less time to ride because of work or other commitments. More predictable behaviour is a definite plus point for the part-time rider.

    These grassroots competitors also include horses who may be athletic, but not the traditional type for that sport. A thoroughbred may adapt well to dressage or jumping, for example, with correct training. Recently, we have even heard about mules competing in different disciplines.

    Then there are horses with less-than-ideal conformation, occasionally seen competing at the highest levels. Some of these will require adapted training or management to prevent lameness or injury.

    The unconventionally built horse will face challenges. In eventing, a less athletic type may find it difficult to complete the cross-country phase at the optimum speed and within the time allowed. Heavier horses are more prone to joint wear and arthritis, as well as ligament and tendon problems due to increased impact and loading. A tiring horse with fatiguing muscles will often lack the sharp coordination needed towards the end of a cross-country course, which can lead to more unbalanced loading and the potential for injury.

    In dressage, challenges may arise because a horse lacks good natural paces or balance. A horse must have jumping ability in showjumping, however, even at the lower levels. Heavier horses in either of these disciplines will suffer increased loading on the supporting structures, tendons, ligaments and joints when landing or turning on a limb.

    It is important to consider your horse’s unique conformation and limitations in each discipline, and to adapt his training regimen and competition plans accordingly.

    Galloping him at his own natural pace and being aware of not pushing him out of his rhythm, especially when he is tiring, will help protect him from injury.

    Another fundamental of injury prevention is building muscular and core strength through correct and progressive training. The horse can then carry himself in balance and support his own bodyweight, minimising uneven loading on his limbs.

    There is a big difference between the heavier horse whose body mass is made up of strong and correctly developed muscle and the horse who is heavy but weak due to insufficient training. The hind suspensory ligaments are particularly prone to injury when there is muscle weakness or pain through the back or hindlimbs.

    Miles on the legs

    It’s often asked whether the training or the competition itself is more harmful.

    The risk of repetitive damage sustained through training is usually greater, although one-off injuries may occur during competition. An injury that appears to be a one-off, such as tendon damage or a pastern or cannon fracture, may actually be a result of repetitive damage.

    Microfractures are a common response to repetitive loading. These tiny injuries may repair as the bone remodels, given sufficient recovery time, but with sustained work may propagate into larger, more significant fractures. Likewise, repetitive loading on tendons results in damage to fibres at cellular level and weakening of the tendon structure, which usually manifests itself as a sudden tendon injury.

    A lifetime of work can take its toll: arthritis of the coffin joints, pasterns and fetlocks is common in the older heavier horse. Ideally, his schedule should be adapted to minimise impact and reduce injury risk.

    A heavier breed may find it more difficult to cope with the sustained training needed to develop cardiovascular fitness, compared with a thoroughbred.

    There is a balance between putting in the necessary work and inflicting excess wear and tear, so other tools such as swimming can be used to build cardiovascular fitness without adding too many extra miles on the legs.

    To prevent muscle fatigue during competition, however, it’s vital that muscles are strengthened through correct and regular flatwork and hacking over different terrain — all the while keeping the horse in balance. For the heavier horse, fittening work may need to be focused on building stamina rather than trying to increase speed.

    The ground underfoot and the surfaces used for daily work are fundamental in reducing injury. An arena should have a consistent surface: not too loose, deep, or firm, and without being so sticky that the horse’s foot is ‘held’ as he turns. Regular surface maintenance is important to ensure uniformity, so that the horse’s muscles can prepare for landing with each stride.

    Hacking over grass and tracks is ideal, but minimise fast trotting on the road as this offers no benefits for joints or tendons and only causes more impact related wear. Heavier horses should avoid too much work or competition on firm ground.

    Feet first

    Thoroughbred feet can be weak, while heavier types may be prone to cracks in the hoof wall or a condition called sidebone, which is ossification of the collateral cartilages of the foot. Regular attention from the farrier is key to keeping such issues under control.

    Limbs that turn inwards or outwards can lead to uneven wear on joints and soft tissue structures. We frequently see suspensory ligament branch injuries, for example, associated with crooked conformation.

    Splints are another problem, although these are usually only a temporary setback. The feet must be correctly balanced to allow loading to be as even as possible. Some light-framed, athletic horses may cope with having quite crooked legs, even at top level, but these are probably the exception.

    What’s important is to have realistic expectations about a horse’s capabilities, coupled with appropriate management to compensate for any athletic shortfalls.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 August 2018