This important article, by veterinarian Nancy Loving, is a must read! Originally posted in the Horse magazine.
Bone was once considered an inert material with its structure defined by genetics. But it turns out there’s a lot more at work, explained Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS: “Selective breeding dictates the initial skeleton, but adaptive training in response to exercise modifies it further.” He and other racehorse surgeons are striving to better understand the balance between tolerable and excessive damage—the adaptive kind that occurs naturally and the type that sidelines animals or ends their careers.
During his presentation at the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 7-11 in Nashville, Tenn., Bramlage, of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, in Lexington, Ky., explained that bone is the only tissue capable of entirely reconstituting itself. With this capacity to change, he noted, there are several ways long bones strengthen themselves in response to training, including modeling and remodeling. Modeling is the process in which bone adds to itself, both inside and out, while remodeling is how existing bone tissue alters itself.
Bramlage started by describing the dynamic nature of bone activity on a cellular level. Two types of bone cells are involved in bone modeling and remodeling: osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Osteoblasts become trapped in the bone and become osteocytes, which are key to sensing biomechanical loads on the skeleton during exercise and directing bone tissue response accordingly. As they detect mechanical loads, they prompt additions to (formation) or reductions in (dissolution) bone mass, to achieve correct bone density for current athletic demands. Osteoclasts then tunnel through and cut canals into the bone, with osteoblasts following to make new bone. Continue reading →
One of the best ways to get a tight, sore muscle to relax is to first get it to contract more. Most massage techniques are based on this approach. If I push into a muscle that is very tight, painful, and in spasm, I can feel it respond by first getting tighter. If I hold my contact for 30-60 seconds the muscle will start to relax. (You can try this on your own sore shoulder or neck. If you see me at a show, grab me and I will show you.) Once there is a release from the tension, the muscle will be able to stretch. How much pressure to use is determined by the density of the muscle and the response. Some draft horses require a tremendous amount of pressure, while a lighter thoroughbred will need a very gentle touch.
I was working at the Woodside Horse Trials this weekend in California, and was approached to do body work on a 5 year old off the track thoroughbred that I had never worked on before. His harried owner told me he was dangerous and I should be very careful. She showed me scars! She warned me that he would kick and bite without warning and that he was very fast. I saw a very agitated horse in his stall and suggested we try and find a quiet place where he might be happier. To keep this story short, let me just say we never found that happy place!
So I entered his stall cautiously and started touching places I thought might be bothering him. Most race horses have spasms in their necks going up to the poll so I started there. He did kick out a few (dozen) times, but I just kept calm and tried to show him how getting spasms released was pleasurable. It only took about 10 minutes, but he eventually lowered his head, took deep breaths, half closed his eyes, and got quiet. I was able to work on his entire body. When I worked on his hind end I even walked behind him and worked on his tail without worrying about my survival. The only place I left alone (hopefully I will get there next time) was his abdominal muscles. I had the sense that might be pushing my luck. By the end of an hour I saw a new horse that was quite attractive and pleasant.
Later I had the opportunity to watch the pair in their dressage test. The warm up looked calm and relaxed, and the owner/rider told me he felt so good, she forgot where she was going during her test and made an error. But she had a big smile on her face.
I received an email this morning with many thanks. They finished their event and she reported that he jumped beautifully. Many people probably have written off this horse as a dangerous failure, but it really wasn’t that hard to transform him into a happy and willing show horse.
Did you know that it is not uncommon for a race horse to dislocate a rib when galloping? It can happen to event horses as well. The horse expands and contracts his rib cage at a rapid pace to meet the increased oxygen demands at high speed. The vigorous breathing that occurs during a gallop can cause the ribcage to be over expanded to the point of subluxation of a rib. A rider that kicks too hard can also cause the problem. During body work that rib will feel higher than the others. Muscles surrounding the sternum and the dislocated rib will feel tight. For upper level event horses and off the track thoroughbreds, checking the ribcage is routine during our massage sessions.
When you buy an off the track Thoroughbred, you can be sure you are getting a horse with speed and stamina, even if the horse was not a winner on the track.
Thoroughbreds to have long and lean muscles and tendons. The two stress points that I find the most on horses coming from the track are in the neck and around the sacrum. Some horses have had lactic acid build-up and are sore all over.
It is a good idea to give your horse a session of Stress Point Therapy and relaxation massage before beginning his new career.
This is adapted from a book called The Lame Horse, by James Rooney:
“We race horses on hard tracks, increasing both concussion and fatigue. We are selecting for high speed horses as breeding stock. Some of these fast horses break down with popped knees during their 3 year old year, and are sent to stud duty “retired due to an unfortunate accident.” With certain lines of Thoroughbreds, the unfortunate accident was they they were born with improperly developed carpal bones. The great forces exerted at high rates of acceleration are going to be particularly deleterious to a joint that was not properly built to begin with. Some of the most successful stallions of recent times have thrown a number of foals with extremely malformed knees. The best breeding is not about speed and money. The best breeding is about the ability to stand up under training and racing. A two year old that wins half a million dollars, goes like the wind, and breaks down with popped knees as a 3 year old should be given awards and promptly castrated!”
Be sure to buy horses with strong, well developed knees from bloodlines with a minimum history of the problem. We should start a movement to encourage distance racing at moderate rates of speed rather than sprint racing.
British Eventing officials recently released this statement:
“Event horses are very fit and sharp enough to run for their lives. Minor disobedience and keenness should not be punished too severely….Distractions such as close proximity to the show jumping and cross country should also be taken into account. If a horse is presented showing good training and way of going and does cope with the environment then it should be rewarded with very high marks.”
I was recently at an event where the dressage arenas (and the warm up areas) are right next to the start box on the cross country course. So many of the most fit horses looked on the brink of explosion during their tests.
Cold lasers are not just effective for injuries. They can also be used for relaxation. Lasers are often used at the race track to calm young thoroughbreds before a race. There are three spots on the head where the cold laser should be applied:
Barring an actual injury, many problems riders encounter can be the result of a muscle spasm in the horse. By releasing these spasms, the body can be restored to a correct balance (structural integration), tension will be relieved, soreness will resolve, and muscles will be restored to a healthy state. In this series of posts I will cover the most likely culprits that tend to spasm and affect the horses’ performance. Often, by releasing stress points and trigger points, a difficult horse will become sweet and compliant!
A stress point that I often see (especially in thoroughbreds) is on the neck, right behind the atlas (one of the cervical vertebrae). When your horse resists bending to the left, for instance, I will check to see if there is a spasm on the right side of his neck. At times there will be tenderness all the way to the poll. Even at rest, the head can appear to be pulled to one side. If you see your horse in turnout or in his stall stretching his head very low repeatedly, he could be trying to relieve the discomfort of tight muscles (the main culprit has a long name: rectus capitis ventralis). It makes me so happy to watch the horse shake his head and stretch once this knot is released. There is often quite a desire to move forward as well, so watch out!
Yesterday I went to a new barn (for me) to work on horses I knew nothing about. I got there early and walked down the aisle. All the horses seemed very friendly and curious (a good sign!). I stopped to look at one horse in his stall. He was obviously a thoroughbred. Lovely head and shoulder, but his hind end did not match. He had a hunter’s bump and a very flat and contracted rump. I wondered if he might have an injury and guessed his age at around 10-12.
The client arrived. I worked on a young Swedish stallion that was pretty close to perfection. He had a couple of tight muscles, but was so fluid and supple that there wasn’t much for me to do. He was also very calm and content and obviously well trained.
I asked who was next, and it was the gelding I had been looking at. He was just 6 years old and had only been in training for 6 months. I watched him walk on circles and a straight line, and told the client I was not sure if I could help him as he might need several sessions with a chiropractor first. I checked his entire spine and there was no problem there. His back muscles were fine. The gluteal muscles were extremely tight as well as the semimembranosus (inside of the hind leg). I focused my efforts there with every kind of release and muscle fiber spreading in my repertoire.
The horse held his breath as I worked. There was a lot of tension in his face and in his hind end. But I kept working and what happened next was wonderful and exciting. His hind end started looking rounder and rounder. The very tight muscles on the inside of his legs started to plump up.(remember: everything is connected!) It was a long session, but by the end, his rear end looked very different. He may need more help in releasing muscles that may have been tight for a long period of time, but I think this will be a wonderful horse for anyone to ride. His temperament is exemplary! I would like a whole barn full of him!
I went to work on a Thoroughbred who is competing at the 2 star level in eventing. I ran my hands over his body to get to know him. When I got to the area where I feel for the hyoid bone, I felt nothing, no matter how much I probed with my fingers.
The hyoid is a series of bony structures that supports the tongue, larynx, neck, sternum, and the pharynx. Where did his go??
This horse carried a lot of tension all over his body. Even his tongue seemed to bother him. This gave me a clue, that while it appeared he didn’t have a hyoid bone, the overall tension in his head, was pulling the hyoid up into his skull, out of my reach. Tension of the soft tissue surrounding the hyoid can affect breathing, swallowing, and even vocalizing. If your horse sounds hoarse (!), an adjustment of the hyoid may be called for. It took several adjustments from a wonderful chiropractor, and quite a few massages, but this horse now has a supple and easily manipulated hyoid, and is a beautiful specimen of health and fitness. He does love to get his tongue scratched, but it is merely a sensual delight, and not stress, that is motivating him!