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My Discipline: What musculoskeletal stressors does it cause?

Most people own a horse with specific goals to compete in a particular sport or discipline. In essence, they want their horse to be an equine athlete. They have selected their horse to be competitive, part of a winning team, the horse and the rider. In each of these different sports or disciplines the horse performs different maneuvers and thus different stressors are placed on their musculoskelatal system. Some of the most common discipline/sports in our will be addressed, and these include dressage, hunter/jumper, team roping, barrel racing, and reining/cutting (the working cow horse). The most commonly seen lameness problems are reviewed, but it must be kept in mind that any horse may have injuries not mentioned for the sport it competes. In other words "Not every horse will follow the book." Many of these problems are interrelated and more than one problem can occur simultaneously.

Dressage is one of many Olympic equestrian disciplines. It is a program of suppling, balancing and obedience work that prepares a horse for future pleasure riding or competition, Western or English. One popular horse sport, "combined training", includes a dressage test as part of the competition format. Most dressage horses are of warm blood breeding or thoroughbred cross breeding, although any breed can and do compete in the sport. The ten most common lameness conditions in the dressage horse are as follows:


  • Proximal suspensory inflammation of the both fore and hind legs

  • Suspensory branch lesions

  • Joint problems of the two lowest joints in the fore legs

  • Inflammation of the accessory ligament of the deep flexor tendons on fore legs

  • Osteoarthritis of the two lower joints of the hock joints

  • Inflammation of the middle carpal (knee) joints

  • Joint problems in both fore and hind fetlocks

  • Inflammation of the ligaments surrounding the fetlocks and the tendons that are in that area

  • Stress fractures of the front cannon bones

  • Lower back pain.

The degree of lameness from any of these problems can range from the very subtle to the most obvious of non-weight bearing. Characteristics to watch for in the more subtle stages of lameness are: not taking a specific lead, inappropriate swapping of leads, exaggerated head movements in transitions, and not wanting to finish the pattern.

The sports of show jumping and hunters basically involve horses going over obstacles or jumps. Show jumping is another Olympic equestrian discipline. Like dressage, the horses used in the jumping sports are primarily of thoroughbred, warm blood breeds, and the thoroughbred crosses. The ten most common lameness problems are similar to the dressage horse with some exceptions. They are as follows: 1) palmar foot pain, 2) lower hock pain, 3) osteoarthritis of the coffin joint, 4) proximal suspensory inflammation of the fore legs, 5) lower back pain, 6) osteoarthritis or trauma of the front fetlock joints, 7) stifle pain, 8) osteoarthritis or trauma of the pastern joint, 9) gluteal muscle inflammation, 10) inflammation of the accessory ligament of the deep flexor tendons on fore legs. The subtle clues of lameness in the jumping horse are similar the to dressage horse, and include refusing jumps, or dragging their legs over jumps.

Team roping is a western-based, timed event sport that has increased in popularity in the past several years. The team is made up of a header and heeler that rope a steer by the horns and by the hind legs, with the fastest time winning. The majority of team roping horses are Quarter Horses, chosen for their quick burst of speed, low center of gravity, highly muscular bodies and their cow sense. The higher level roping horses are usually in their mid to late teen years, which predisposes them to more age related problems. The most common lameness problems are:

  • suspensory apparatus of the right front leg of the heading horse. This includes suspensory ligament inflammation, inflammation of the accessory ligament of the deep flexor tendon, and inflammation of the lower ligaments to the sesmoid bones.

  • Osteoarthritis of the two lower joints of the hock joints

  • Navicular disease/heel pain in the front feet

  • Lower back pain especially in the sacroiliac area

  • Gluteal muscle inflammation

  • Fractures of the pastern bone of the hind legs

The signs that a horse may have problems includes becoming untrained or increased behavioral problems, unwillingness to enter the heading or heeling box, reluctance to face the front of the box, running past a steer, ducking or dropping the shoulder, reluctance to face at the end of the run, not stopping after the healer has thrown rope, and prancing or jumping around after the run instead of loping relaxed out of the arena.

Barrel racing is another western-based timed event sport. It involves running a horse around three barrels set in a cloverleaf pattern for the best time. Quarter Horses and appendix Quarter Horses are the most predominate type of horses used, although Thoroughbred, Paint, and Arabian horses are occasionally raced. The ages of these horses vary from the young 2 and 3 year-olds to the older middle aged to senior horse. The most common lameness problems in the barrel horse are:

  • Lower hock joint osteoarthritis

  • Hind leg proximal suspensory inflammation

  • Hind leg suspensory branch injuries

  • Sore feet, navicular disease/heel pain

  • Proximal suspensory ligament inflammation of the front legs

  • Inflammation of the fetlocks.

Some subtle signs of problems relate mostly to the barrel pattern. The most common complaint is coming out of the turn on the first barrel, and then taking the other barrels as usual. Additional problems may include the horse starting to run much slower times than previously run in the past, not starting the pattern properly, or running past barrels.

  • Suspensory ligament inflammation

  • Osteoarthritis in the lower hock joints

  • Navicular/chronic heel pain

  • Hoof related problems such as bruises, abscesses and cracks

  • Superficial digital flexor tendon inflammation

  • Stifle abnormalities and traumatic injuries

  • Fetlock inflammation

  • Inflammation of the sesmoid bones and the soft tissue of the theses attachments

  • Pastern joint inflammation and/or osteoarthritis

  • Inflammation of the coffin bone of the front feet

The most common signs of problems in cutting horses are not staying with the cow ("not holding the ground"), and hopping out of a stop, or "stutter stop". The most common signs in the reining horse is pulling up short in a sliding stop, walking out of a spin, not taking the correct lead, or swapping leads, and breaking out of or not following the pattern.

No matter your discipline, a finished horse is highly sought after, and not easily replaced. You have put much time and money into training your horse for the sport that you participate in. When you start seeing problems with your horse, seeking good veterinary care can prolong your horse's athletic career and increase performance levels.