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The Equine Musculoskeletal System
WRITTEN BY: Leslie Berro, ESMT @ HorseHolistics.com   [August 1, 2002]

The horse is an athlete; some are more naturally gifted than others. But the common denominator between them all, is that the musculoskeletal system, pound for pound, is their largest bodily component; over 60%! When you buy a horse, you're buying motion. When a million dollar horse no longer moves like one, he isn't one! And this is the system mainly responsible for motion. Yet it is mostly overlooked because it does not reveal itself in radiographic and other testing mediums.

The Equine Musculoskeletal System

The Four Causes of Excessive Strain are:
  • Speed of Contraction
  • Strength of Contraction
  • Isometric Contraction
  • Protective Splinting

The challenge of training any athlete, is finding the balance between maximum muscle strengthening (hypertrophy) and bodily abuse. Most injuries due to muscular strain are cumulative. It is not the last thing your horse did that caused the problem, but was most likely building for weeks.

The normal progression of muscle problems is:

Trauma or Strain -----> leads to Tightening -----> creating Spasm or Muscle Tear -----> resulting in Malfunction.

The Muscle

Generally speaking, a muscle features:
  • a point of origin (anchor)
  • a muscle belly (power), and
  • a point of insertion (motion)

It is during the cooling down period after a strenuous workout, when insufficient oxygen (anoxia) is getting to the muscle that it is most susceptible to strain and spasm. Stress is most likely to occur at the muscle's anchor, where it attaches to the bone by tendonous fibers and is the least flexible. Stress point locations are the same for all horses.
Features of an equine muscle

However, different disciplines stress different points. Depending on whether you train your horse for track racing, endurance, competitive trails, driving, English hunter-jumpers, cross-training, dressage, Western reining, roping, barrel running, cutting, or whatever else, will determine which points are stressed the most by repetitive movements. When a muscle can no longer accommodate what is being demanded of it, it will pull or tear.

Importance of Maintaining Good Musculoskeletal Health

"Any muscle that is not working for the horse, is working against the horse - actively!" - Jack Meagher

Muscles contract and release. Whereas contraction is a generated process, release is not. When muscles tighten and cannot achieve full release, they remain tight and shortened, or contracted. This puts strain on the surrounding areas. Tight shoulders pass their inability to release to the digital flexors and tendons of the fore leg. This creates a dangerous scenario for the lower limbs. Tight muscles lead to spasm (knots) which leads to tears in the fibers.

Here's where you start to see short choppy strides, refusals, and resistance in the horse, because it hurts! The tendons become irritated. Most often, one pain killer or another is prescribed and administered to alleviate soreness. But this just addresses the symptom (pain), not the real issue (muscle fiber adherence that results in spasm), not to mention the inevitable side effects and loss of efficacy over time. If the underlying issue, the spasm, is not treated and eliminated, the horse will compensate by passing the problem to other muscle groups. By covering up minor problems, we end up creating major ones. It's only a matter of time before you're headed for a full blown muscle tear or a permanent problem!

Signs of Muscular Problems:
  • Head tossing
  • Coordination difficulties
  • Saddle slipping to one side
  • Short, choppy strides
  • Improper tracking forward, back, or laterally
  • Resistance when bending &/or backing
  • Hind leg scuffing
  • Girthing problems
  • Refusing or resisting leads
  • Unwilling or unable to walk up or down inclines
  • Poor disposition, eating, or sleeping habits
  • "Off" for no apparent reason

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

The best protection against injury there is, is prevention. Most injuries due to muscular strain can be prevented. The more that is expected of your horse, the greater the need for preventive maintenance.

Not your horse, you say? Unfortunately, even a buck in just the wrong way, out in the pasture, is enough to strain a muscle. By the time you notice a problem with your horse's movement, it's a sign that a problem has already taken hold. With a sensible training program and regularly scheduled Equine Sports Massage Therapy sessions, you can avoid injury to your horse.

Located in Davidson, North Carolina, Horse Holistics provides professional Equine Sports Massage Therapy, Equine Myofascial Release Therapy and other holistic services & products for the equine athlete. Our general service area is throughout North & South Carolina, but we travel elsewhere as well. Our main focus is hands-on therapeutic services for equine and canine wellness and rehabilitation. Horse Holistics is a division of BusinessAdvocate, Inc., a corporation founded in 1999 by Leslie Berro, ESMT. Leslie is a member of the USDF, NCDCTA, and the International Massage Association Group, and she presents clinics and workshops. Check out her Instructional Clinics & Workshops to see where she may be appearing.

Recommended Books:

  • Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses: by Jack Meagher
    The father of human & equine sports massage.

  • Physical Therapy & Massage for the Horse: A Comprehensive Approach to Equine Kinesiology: by Jean-Marie Denois, Jean-Pierre Pailloux

    Equine Massage : A Practical Guide     Equine Muscle Massage Therapy     Anatomy Of The Horse     The Well Adjusted Horse

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    This article is copyrighted © Leslie Berro. All Rights Reserved. Re-Printed on: 8/1/2002.