Athlete horses are usually trained for a specific discipline. Jumping, dressage, eventing or racing, each of these sports requires specific and adapted training, involving distinct anatomical structures.
The same observation can be made within the same discipline: it seems obvious that a high-level horse, running international competitions or Group 1 races, will not be trained in the same way as a horse dedicated to amateur sport.
It, therefore, seems coherent to think that a horse, depending on his predilection discipline and his level of performance, will have a predisposition to a specific type of injury. But today, what does science say about this?
Sports performance: does the discipline affect the injury type?
In a study published in 2006, Murray reviewed and interpreted all the records of horses sent to the Animal Health Trust between January 1998 and October 2003 (Les chevaux n’ayant aucun diagnostic établi ou aucune discipline définie ont été exclus afin d’avoir les données les plus fiables possibles). In addition to the primary diagnosis, age, height, weight, breed and sex were included. The diagnoses were then classified according to anatomical sites, and the horses into discipline groups, which were further subdivided into two performance levels: “elite” and “non-elite”.
The study’s findings confirmed the hypothesis that the type of injury varies depending on the discipline practiced. Although the type of injury appeared to be affected by performance level, this difference was only significant in eventing. Based on the results obtained, the following interpretations could be made:
The level of athletic performance in show jumping significantly increases the risk of distal deep digital flexor tendon and superficial digital flexor tendon injury in the forelimbs. This could be due to age-related degenerative changes, as well as the high pressure on the forelimbs during the landing phase – reaction forces that are much higher than those experienced during canter locomotion.
There is a higher risk of injury to the navicular bone in horses competing at a lower level, suggesting that high-performance horses would not have achieved elite status if they were prone to this type of injury. Tarsal injuries were also relatively common, possibly due to the tarsal compression required during take-off (Van Den Bogert 1994).
Dressage training has a high risk of injury to the suspensory ligament of the hindlimb (Dyson 2002; Kold and Dyson 2003). This may be due to the occurrence of repetitive strain injuries as horses are almost always worked with frequent turns, on an artificial surface and in a limited space.
Horses competing at a high level are more likely to have increased compression of the tarsal joint – the metatarsophalangeal joint being hyperextended (Holmstrom and Drevemo 1997).
Those practicing dressage at a lower level are generally more likely to have navicular bone and ligament injuries. This may be related to the relatively greater load on the forelimbs imposed on “non-elite” horses, which, unlike high-performance horses, transfer less weight to their hindlimbs.
This discipline has a very high risk of injury to the superficial digital flexor tendon, as it is susceptible to considerable demands from both the landing phase (Meershoek and al. 2001) and the high-speed canter. This is exacerbated by increasing the weight of the horse, which increases the maximum extension of the fetlock joint (Clayton 1997a). Clinical reports identify the foot, forelimb flexor tendons, suspensory ligament and patella as frequent sites of injury during competition. (Bathe 2003; Dyson 2002).
A few years later, in 2017, Nicol Ruas de Soussa published a study to complete the knowledge on this topic: “Relation between type and local of orthopedic injuries with physical activity in horses”. The study is based on the evaluation of 116 horses – of different breeds and ages – with a history of lameness diagnosed by radiographs and/or ultrasound, between January 2012 and August 2014. The results also show a direct relationship between the type of physical activity and the type of orthopaedic injury in horses, and details the findings:
Considered as high-performance athletes, racehorses are subject to frequent muscle injuries due to fatigue (Menarim and al, 2012), as well as tendon injuries of the forelimbs (Williams and al, 2001) and carpal and pelvic fractures (Dallas, 2013). Moreover, racehorses have a much higher risk of fractures than sport horses. By reaching high speeds, they may suffer minor bone damage, but require significant rehabilitation time – during the bone re-modeling period, there is a temporary risk of osteoporosis due to osteoclast activity – leading to a predisposition to injury (Turley and al, 2014).
The prevalent pathologies in polo horses are fractures and muscle injuries (Baxter, 2011). Orthopaedic injuries in polo horses are rare and usually related to speed and impact between the club and the horse (Lobato, 2013). These high-speed collisions and movements are likely to damage the humero-radio-ulnar joint – this joint being highly exposed to trauma during the match.
How to prevent horse athlete injuries?
Nowadays, many systems are used to monitor horses on a daily basis, both in the world of horse racing and in other sporting disciplines such as endurance, dressage and eventing…
Let’s take the example of a stress fracture. Several visible symptoms can be identified: reduced performance, lameness, painful limb, altered locomotion, hot lump in the muzzle, … But it is now possible to prevent fracture, even before the physical appearance of these first symptoms, by setting up longitudinal monitoring of locomotion. A system such as EQUISYM, used regularly, will highlight the slightest change in the horse’s locomotion, allowing additional examinations (X-rays, ultrasound, etc.) to be carried out before pain sets in.
Other connected tools, such as EQUIMETRE VET, collect key data to inform veterinary diagnosis, such as exercise ECG, heart rate, recovery capacity, and locomotor parameters at work,… A horse monitored on a regular basis will have its own reference data recorded (maximum heart rate, locomotor profile,..), which will alert the owner, trainer and veterinarian if one or more of these parameters deteriorate.
These innovations therefore offer new possibilities and perspectives, in particular thanks to veterinary telemedicine, which allows horses to be monitored at a distance, without geographical limits.
The results of these different studies indicate that horse athletes are predisposed to a certain type of injury, depending on their sport discipline and performance level. Conversely, the type or location of an injury may reflect the discipline of the athlete, and his level of competition (Murray and al, 2006).
These findings can be used as a reference in the diagnosis of training and performance injuries in athletic horses. By combining this knowledge with veterinary decision support tools, the data collected will make these interpretations even more complete and accurate. They will be of real interest from the point of view of research, making it possible in the long term to better prevent injuries, and thus preserve the physical integrity of horses and their well-being.
Sousa, N.R. de, Luna, S.P.L., Pizzigatti, D., Martins, M.T.A., Possebon, F.S., Aguiar, A.C.S., Sousa, N.R. de, Luna, S.P.L., Pizzigatti, D., Martins, M.T.A., Possebon, F.S. and Aguiar, A.C.S. (2017). Relation between type and local of orthopedic injuries with physical activity in horses. Ciência Rural, [online] 47(2). doi:10.1590/0103-8478cr20151218.
Grizendi, B.M., Dória, R.G.S., Passarelli, D., Reginato, G.M., Hayasaka, Y. de B. and Fantinato Neto, P. (2020). Correlation between hematological evaluation and the type of physical activity performed by horses in the state of São Paulo-Brazil. Ciência Animal Brasileira, 21. doi:10.1590/1809-6891v21e-56959.
MURRAY, R.C., DYSON, S.J., TRANQUILLE, C. and ADAMS, V. (2006). Association of type of sport and performance level with anatomical site of orthopaedic injury diagnosis. Equine Veterinary Journal, 38(S36), pp.411–416. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.2006.tb05578.x.
Keywords: horse injury, veterinary diagnosis, show jumping, dressage, eventing, horse racing, polo, equine locomotion, equine physiology EnvA, CIRALE
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