Birth Trauma in foals – what we can do about it.

Thoracic trauma (rib fractures or costochondral dislocation) in foals is a relatively common side effect of being born quickly, with a relatively deep chest, through a relatively small, hard pelvic ring. A study done in in 1999 in Coolmore Stud in Ireland by D Jean et al discovered a rate of around 1 in 5 foals having rib fractures, and further studies have suggested this might be a conservative estimate due to the lack of sensitivity of radiographic technique in detecting these fractures/costochondral damage. Interestingly, by around 3 days of age, the majority of foals are showing no overt signs of these fractures. Dr Ian Bidstrup has spent many years digging into this problem and correlating some of the typical ongoing issues that appear to be associated with a history of birth trauma, whether actually noted at birth or not. These include:

  • Increased sensitivity around the girth and ribcage
  • Spinal pain especially around the wither and associated dysfunction in this and other regions
  • Pelvic/sacral dysfunction – as the foal exits the birth canal large forces are exerted in an asymmetrical manner on the sacrum and pelvis
  • One sidedness in work
  • Forefoot asymmetry – one big flat foot with low heel and one narrow foot with high heel, or possibly even clubbed foot

In practice this pattern is seen quite commonly, presenting as a typical dipped thoracic and roached lumbar posture which predisposes horses to working in a hollow frame, dropping their sternum in the thoracic sling (by contrast think of a horse in self carriage lifting through the sternum and withers between the shoulder girdle). The following picture from Dr Bidstrup’s Spinalvet website is a perfect example of this posture.
posture_spinalvet

Photo: http://www.spinalvet.com.au/saddles.html

Horses will typically also begin resisting requests for a supple bend in one direction more than another by using their head and neck like a rudder for balance and by cocking or bracing the jaw. This resistance through the front end will also obviously have ramifications for the way the horse uses its back end, and if pelvic/sacral function isn’t as it should be that will compound the problems. I have also noted an anecdotal link to a propensity to gastric ulcers though of course this is often a case of chicken and egg where digestive dysfunction has a deleterious effect on thoracic and lumbar function.

So what can we do about this? Ideally all foals should be assessed and if needed treated within the first week or so of birth. By doing so, much of the asymmetry could be addressed to allow them to grow as evenly as possible with the aim of having a youngster who is as balanced as possible by the time they reach the stage of being backed and starting work. Observing foals to see how inclined they are to always graze with one particular leg forward can give a good idea of how much asymmetry they are carrying.
foal_grazing asymm 2Foal grazing sym

Photos: The Horse.com; Shutterstock.com

When we get to the stage of an established horse we’ll be dealing with more posturally and neurologically ingrained patterns as well as muscle memory and hoof asymmetry. These can take a little longer to unwind and often a few steps back in work schedule are necessary to help give the horse a chance to relearn how to use his body while the dysfunction is being worked on. It is phenomenal to see how quickly a horses patterns can change when given the chance with good Osteopathic treatment combined with some rehabilitative changes to their environment, for example introducing variable feeding positions, good farriery/hoofcare and some exercises on the ground to help translate those postural changes to work under saddle.

pilates horse

NB – Not a recommended Exercise. Photo: Unknown – if anyone knows please let me know as I love it!

By addressing these asymmetries early on, it is possible to hugely minimise the strains on the horses body and legs and give your horse the best chance of long term soundness and performing to the peak of their ability. If you have youngsters you’d like to ensure have the best chance of a sound and successful performance career please do get in touch to see how much difference Osteopathic management can make to their future.