Osteopathy And The Stressed or Anxious Horse.

How Osteopathy can help your horse’s mood.

A study published in 2017 has begun to give some credence and ask some interesting questions about chronic stress or depression in our horses. According to Jodi Pawluski   and team(1) a group of horses showing signs of compromised welfare (living conditions fostering social restrictions, limited space and interactions with inexperienced riders) showed abnormally low cortisol levels.

Cortisol, aka ‘the stress hormone’ is one useful indicator of the way the horses Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is working. The ANS is a largely unconscious mechanism which regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. It is also involved in controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, helping to reduce inflammation, and assisting with memory function.  It has two complimentary sides – the Sympathetic “flight/fight”and the Parasympathetic – “rest/digest”.  When there is a balance these work nicely together to maintain homeostasis – a happy balance.  Sympathetic stimulation acts to increase the blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood sugar levels and muscular tension. All these are characteristic of the sympathetic nervous system driven “flight/fight” reaction so commonly seen both humans and animals.  Elevated cortisol is one marker of Sympathetic activity.  On the flip side, insufficient or suppressed levels of cortisol, as can occur when stress is chronic, reduces all these functions.  One may think ‘Great! The opposite of flight/fight is rest/digest. That’s good, right?’, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. When cortisol levels become abnormally low, the body is on an almost constant ‘go slow’, with symptoms including fatigue, muscle weakness, lack of motivation or drive, an inability to cope with stress and depression. Neither state is conducive to a happy, enthusiastic individual, whether horse or human.

Further studies are obviously needed to help drill down into the relative influence of common management practices when it comes to our horses, though without a doubt the more a horse can live like a grazing herd animal and be handled by knowledgeable and gentle handlers, the better. In reality there are many things which limit this ideal situation, and we as horse owners have a duty of care to try to mitigate the effects our environment and interactions have on our horses.  For many the idea that Osteopathy can help to do this might be a new one. Many studies and much clinical evidence exists to support the idea that Osteopaths can play a significant role in helping to restore balance to the ANS function of our horses.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with a thoroughbred mare who has had what can only be described as more than her fair share of stressful experiences in her life. Being used as a surrogate for several years, and being a highly sensitive mare, she has developed a strong fight response to the sensation of being confined. This likely relates to being handled within a crush and coming to associate pressure against her sides or hindquarters as a stressful and threatening thing. This, of course, makes closing her into a horse float a highly charged event. Her owner has been working patiently with her, doing regular training to help desensitise her to touch on her sides and hindquarters as well as to teach her the float is a safe environment and has got her to the stage where she self loads, however as soon as she feels the divider or ramp come up she begins double barrelling and swinging her hind end from side to side to the point of inflicting wounds on herself. This naturally only serves to reinforce her inherent stress response and belief that confinement is dangerous. In general, she was noted to be an aloof and non-affectionate mare who displayed many stress responses both in handling and in the paddock. When ridden she works and is quite relaxed and happy, however would never mouth the bit and regardless how much suppling work was done would never display a single drop of saliva at the lips.

Our initial treatment involved working through the ribcage to encourage freedom of motion at the costovertebral joints all the way to the thoracolumbar junction to effect the adrenals sympathetic ganglion as well as to encourage full function of the diaphragm during respiration. She was found to be a very shallow breather and the ribcage as a whole was quite immobile. Human studies have shown significant effects of osteopathic techniques on stress hormones,  one in particular using a technique known as Rib Raising (2). This technique addresses the costovertebral joints through the length of the ribcage and is clinically well known to be a powerful way of helping balance the autonomic nervous system due to the anatomical link to the sympathetic ganglia.  Further work was done to put a calming stimulus into the sacrum, which is also associated with the sympathetics.  Again, the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system is the one which drives the fight/flight response.

Sympathetic chain

The parasympathetics, drive the “rest and digest” functions. This is the calm and relaxed state of affairs. Structurally this is in part composed of cranial nerves that supply the face, cardiovascular system, respiratory system and gastrointestinal system. Parasympathetic function can be readily supported by allowing the jaw and diaphragm to function optimally. By encouraging full diaphragmatic function with simple exercises, it is possible to also give the vagus nerve a nice bit of stimulation. In the image below we are looking at numbers 3, 15 and 16, so you can see how far reaching work around the jaw and poll can be and how the diaphragm (which divides the thorax from the abdomen) may stimulate parasympathetic function via the vagus nerve.

Screenshot (1)

Immediately after the first treatment the mare was noted to be far more calm than usual, quietly wandering around the small yard we were working on another horse in, picking at grass.  This was noted by the owner to be quite unusual behaviour for a mare who was usually on guard around other horses and tended to pace the fence line if not in her own paddock.  I left the owner with several easy exercises to do daily to help keep the autonomic nervous system more balanced.  Over the next week I was pleased to receive several updates saying how relaxed the mare had become, a total change in character. The next visit we decided to push our luck a little and give her her treatment standing next to the horse float, a space she would usually become anxious and on edge. Initially obviously nervous we quietly worked through similar areas, noting a big improvement in passive range of motion and tissue tension around the ribcage as well as a greater capacity for diaphragmatic breathing. The owner was again pleased to see the mare calm and relaxed and picking grass while standing next to her least favourite piece of metal.

Our next plan is to work towards adding more stimulus by opening the tail gate and potentially eventually treating her or doing daily exercises to flick her nervous system into ‘rest and digest’ while standing on the horse float. It may take a while to retrain her nervous system that this is not a threatening situation which requires a fight response, however initial changes have been very positive and have reaffirmed how powerful Osteopathic treatment can be for modulating this crucial part of our nervous system.

For those interested in more reading about how Osteopathic treatment can help us (and presumably our horses) towards a less stressed and more healthy state, I have attached are some extra references for studies (2, 3 & 4) which also have shown preliminary findings of positive effects of various Osteopathic technniques on the autonomic nervous system in both relaxed and stressed humans, measuring indicators for sympathovagal function at heart level, cortisol levels and immune function.

It is a fascinating aspect of Osteopathic practice which I always enjoy seeing results from. As with all natural approaches, results will vary and een after 15 years of practice i’m still often surprised by how much change can be achieved, and in ways I wasn’t necessarily anticipating. The main principle of Osteopathy is that if the tissues in the body are moving and functioning to the best of their ability then that body will head towards homeostasis (a happy healthy balance), and the path that takes is sometimes a little unpredictable but with time and patience it’s a rare case where we can’t help the horse achieve that balance in their system.

Update – After posting this, I received a call from the mare in questions owner. She was thrilled to report she had spent an afternoon during the week playing with the mare around the whole travelling in the float issue. She began with groundwork exercises to calm the mares nervous system as prescribed. Then as she was going so well progressed to loading her, letting her stand, bringing the divider across, again waiting, bringing up the tail gate and the final test a slow drive around the block. The mare maintained her composure the entire time besides one small kick out when actually moving. Upon return she stood calmly for another 5 minutes with the tail gate down and waited for the cue to back off. Naturally the owner is absolutely thrilled to be approaching the stage she can again contemplate taking her lovely horse out again! I’m also thrilled to see the changes 2 treatments have brought to this lovely mare’s general day to day anxiety levels.  Stay tuned and I’ll add more updates as they come to hand.

 

 

 

 

References/Further Reading:

1 – Pawluski, J.,  Jego, P., Henry, S., Bruchet, A., Palme, R., Coste, C., Hausberger. M. Low plasma cortisol and fecal cortisol metabolite measures as indicators of compromised welfare in domestic horses (Equus caballus). PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (9): e0182257 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0182257

2 –  Henderson, A.T., OMS III; Fisher, J.F., OMS III; Blair, J., OMS I; Shea, C., OMS III; Li, T.S., DO; Grove Bridges, K., PhD. Effects of Rib Raising on the Autonomic Nervous System: A Pilot Study Using Noninvasive Biomarkers. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, June 2010, Vol. 110, 324-330.

(Twenty-three participants were recruited, of whom 14 completed the study (7 in each group). Subjects who received rib raising had a statistically significant decrease in α-amylase activity both immediately after (P=.014) and 10 minutes after (P=.008) the procedure. A statistically significant change in α-amylase activity was not seen in the placebo group at either time point. Changes in salivary cortisol levels and flow rate were not statistically significant in either group.
Conclusions: The results of the present pilot study suggest that SNS activity may decrease immediately after rib raising, but the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and parasympathetic activity are not altered by this technique. Salivary α-amylase may be a useful biomarker for investigating manipulative treatments targeting the SNS. Additional studies with a greater number of subjects are needed to expand on these results.)

3 –  Fornari, M. DO (Italy); Carnevali, L. PhD; Sgoifo, A. PhD. Single Osteopathic Manipulative Therapy Session Dampens Acute Autonomic and Neuroendocrine Responses to Mental Stress in Healthy Male Participants. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, September 2017, Vol. 117, 559-567. doi:10.7556/jaoa.2017.110

(Conclusion: The application of a single OMTh session to healthy participants induced a faster recovery of heart rate and sympathovagal balance after an acute mental stressor by substantially dampening parasympathetic withdrawal and sympathetic prevalence. The OMTh session also prevented the typical increase in cortisol levels observed immediately after a brief mental challenge.)

4 – Saggio, G., DO; Docimo, S., DO; Pilc, J., DO; Norton, J., DO, RN; Gilliar, W., DO. Impact of Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment on Secretory Immunoglobulin A Levels in a Stressed Population.  The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, March 2011, Vol. 111, 143-147.

(Conclusion: High levels of human secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA) have been shown to decrease the incidence of acquiring upper respiratory tract infections. This study demonstrates the positive effect of OMT on sIgA levels in persons experiencing high stress. Results suggest that OMT may then have therapeutic preventive and protective effects on both healthy and hospitalized patients, especially those experiencing high levels of emotional or physiological stress and those at higher risk of acquiring upper respiratory tract infections.)

Osteopathy for the Agility Dog

How to avoid and treat agility injuries for a long and fruitful agility career.

It’s a well known fact that for all the amazing benefits Agility offers dogs and their handlers and the relationship between both, it can be a hard sport physically on the dog (and the handler, but that’s another story!).  Injuries can be either acute or chronic in nature, and management of the inherent risks presented by obstacles such as A-frames, jumps and seesaws is an important part of making sure your dog gets to have a long and enjoyable agility career. Factors which add to the risk of agility are the speed at which the dog is travelling, the tight lines often needed to navigate today’s courses and the athleticism required to traverse these obstacles, all of which leave the dog open to repetitive stress on various parts of their body as well as potential falls from or hitting the obstacle.

agility fall

From a training perspective it is very worthwhile to aim to minimise the repetitive nature of the work the dog does, especially with young dogs whose growth plates are still very susceptible to damage from excess and repetitive pressure. Keeping the work they do varied, while practicing the skills might look like breaking the exercise down into small chunks and practicing each part at a slower more controlled pace to perfect the skill, then building those parts to perform the full obstacle. Working on many small varied parts of the greater task, at a slower pace, allows the trainer and dog to refine their skills and communication while avoiding many high speed repetitions of the full obstacle.

As mentioned above, injury to growth plates in young dogs is one worry when involved in intense competitive training, and this is largely mitigated by changing the way the dog is worked at least until physical maturity. Other risks such as sprains, strains, contusions (bruising from hitting an obstacle) and postural changes due to repetitive movements of an asymmetrical nature can be more readily managed or mitigated with the help of Osteopathy and other rehabilitation or wellness options such as swimming.

Osteopathically we look at the way the dog is moving and using their body and then palpate (feel) to identify any restrictions in the joints and any tender points, tightness or weakness in the muscles, ligaments or tendons. When identified, gentle manual techniques ranging from soft tissue work (massage like techniques) through to joint manipulation can be applied to restore healthy and full range movement throughout the body. Ensuring that the musculoskeletal system has full movement not only allows these tissues to function well, it also allows the circulatory and nervous systems which have branches running all through these tissues to function optimally. This promotes healing and gives the dog the best chance of recovering fully from any injuries, as well as helping to avoid injuries in the first place.

old dog agility.jpg

Agility buffs, your dogs are athletes! Their bodies are working very hard while having an absolute ball, so make sure you give them the benefit of keeping that body working to it’s best ability and you’ll give them the best chance of a long, enjoyable and injury free time leaping and bounding their way through their favourite pastime.

 

Why does my dog lick to the point of bleeding?

dog licking paw - english bulldog licking paw isolated on white

A common problem dog owners find themselves facing is when their beloved dog develops a habit of excessively licking a paw or leg, or sometimes even a body part to the point a sore develops. Often this is put down to anxiety, however it is often also triggered by a pain sensation which either becomes chronic, thus the dog continues giving it attention, or becomes a comforting habit. In the case of a chronic irritation, this can be as a result of localised pain, referred pain or pain in another area which causes the dog to seek comfort and the feel-good endorphin release provided by the licking behaviour. Similar to the way we humans rub a sore muscle or joint, our dogs find the best way they can to manage the discomfort.

Obviously if open sores are present we will want the owner to be consulting a vet for investigation for underlying factors such as parasites, allergies and arthritic joints amongst other sources as well as for topical management strategies, whether that be antibiotics, antifungals, antihistamines etc to help settle the local tissue response. An Elizabethan collar may also be an appropriate strategy to help break the licking habit and protect the skin while the underlying problem is addressed. From an Osteopathic perspective there is much we can do to help alleviate this discomfort.

One of the most common sources of lick sores when no definitive underlying problem has been identified is referred pain or nerve pain from a more central restriction or dysfunction in the body. In these cases, we search for tissues and joints around the spine, limb and associated areas which can alter the function of the nerves, blood vessels and pain sensitive structures all the way to the tip of the toes. If you’ve ever sat on your leg or slept on your arm and then moved to find your limb initially ‘dead’, closely followed by a strong pins and needles sensation or many other odd sensations associated with nerve and blood flow restriction, you’re sure to be able to picture the sensations your dog is trying to ease.  By finding these kinds of restrictions in the tissues it is often possible to create take enough pressure off these sensitive structures which may allow the dog to return his attention to the more fun things in life.

Furry-friends-welcome-Bob-the-dog-enjoying-the-view-from-Llanbedrog-headland-Abersoch-Daydreams-300x200

 

 

Hip Flexor for the rider – Part 2

So what exactly are these hip flexors we’ve been speaking of, and why are they so darn important to the horse rider??

The iliopsoas is one of the very important factors in achieving a symmetrical seat. I find if the hip flexors as a group are not working well through a full normal range of motion there will be huge struggles with trying to maintain even and effective seat and leg aids. There will also be knock on effects on the upper body and aids from there also.

As you can see below, they attach to the front of the spine and the inside of the pelvis before running down through the pelvis to attach onto the inner thigh. They act to draw the knee up towards the body, and as such are a muscle group which is in a shortened position whenever we spend time sitting, either at a desk or in a car during out work days. They also play a huge role in stabilising the hip in a slightly flexed position, during many activities throughout the day.  The very act of sitting on a horse puts the hip flexors into a slightly shortened position and, especially when the true core muscles aren’t doing their fair share, as soon as the horse begins to move we begin to use the hip flexors to help keep us upright and stable over the horses centre of gravity. To add to this complex system of controlling the hip and the core, we must consider the role the gluteal muscles (your butt!) play.

When tight, the hip flexors hold the hip joint in a position of slight flexion, and this is where the problems begin. In a neutral standing position this causes the pelvis to tip forwards and the lumbar spine to be pulled into extension (an increased arch in the lower back). This looks like the first mounted position we saw in the picture in Part 1.

HIp flexor 2Lower cross

Tightness in the hip flexors is usually also associated with other predictable muscular imbalances around the hips, pelvis and lower back, the most crucial of which is a weak abdominal core and gluteal muscles and a tight lower back and hamstrings . This pattern is often referred to as Lower Crossed Syndrome and creates for the rider a position of ‘duck butt’, lack of suppleness through the lower back, knees which grip and ride up in front of the centre of gravity and a lower leg and heel which just won’t stay where it belongs.

A strong core is crucial for a riders stability in the saddle, and may be the difference between sticking that awkward jump or unexpected stop or not. It also is crucial for allowing the rider to apply effective seat aids. The sum of these imbalances cause the body to move less freely and with less control than the ideal. Often one side is more restricted than the other and this is where many cases of short-stirrup-itis and dropping your hip or tilting one way originate from.

Hip flexor 1

How does this affect your horse? From the seat alone, if one hip flexor is pulling tighter than the other, a tilt to one side is likely to occur. Looking at the shape of the pelvis in the picture above, you can see that tilting the pelvis to the side (dropping a hip/creasing at the waist) will cause one of your sit bones (ischial tuberosity) to contact the horses back more than the other. Thinking about how sensitive we hope for our horses to be to seat aids, one can instantly see the problems this might cause. The horse who always bends one way or is travelling on three tracks and just can’t seem to straighten no matter how much leg the rider applies, which incidentally feels much stronger one way than the other. The changing  or disuniting canter leads. The inability to easily find or maintain the correct diagonal in trot and the horse who looks that little bit lame on one rein in trot but not the other and no clear diagnosis of true lameness can be found.  These are just a handful of the problems created by unevenly tight hip flexors and the postural ramifications of such. When both are tight we typically see the proverbial “”duck butt” rider posture. The horse typically reacts by hollowing to escape the increased weight through the tree points and falls onto the forehand as the riders centre of gravity is thrown forward of the ideal. The horses back end then merrily trails out behind him, pretty much precluding any chance of hip engaging from behind and lifting the shoulder. His own core blows in the wind, while yours does the same up top.

duck-butt-2(Above picture from this very humorous look at one riders battle with “duck butt”- https://barnbrat7732.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/a-swiftly-tilting-pelvis/).

In part 3 we will start to look at how you can test these muscle groups in yourself and where to start to unwind this pattern so you can begin to address the associated problems in yourself and your horses performance.

 

 

Hip Flexors for the rider – Part 1

How tight hip flexors (ilio psoas) affect the horse and rider.

Call Sam Sherrington on 0452 472 959 if you’d like any more information on horse and rider Osteopathy.

It’s been nearly 18 months since we covered this topic (on my facebook page. Since these posts never made it to this website I’m going to review the hip flexors again, since they’re such an integral part to getting your riding position working for you and your horse, rather than against you.

Do you find you often feel crooked on your horse? Is your instructor always shouting at you to stop tipping forwards or poking your backside out? Does your horse often land on the incorrect lead or not land straight over a fence? Is one stirrup being stretched or always feel shorter? Do you often feel like you’re always tipping forwards and can’t get your leg down and around the horse to give effective aids?

Hip flexor on horse

(Diagram source uncertain – if anyone knows where it came from do please let me know so credit can be given where it’s due!)

One big question I’m sure you’re all wondering – Why is it that so many people have tight hip flexors and an anterior pelvic tilt?

 

hip flexors seated

Surely if it’s not a biomechanically sound way to operate, it wouldn’t be the ‘go to’ posture so many people find themselves in, would it?
Lets think about what things we all might do on a day to day basis that promote short, tight hip flexors.

  • Get up from your bed and sit down to eat breakfast.
  • Get straight in the car and sit for whatever period of time it takes to get to work.
  • Spend a decent part of your day, you guessed it, sitting. Often with your legs crossed. If you’re lucky you have a job where you get to move around a lot, but even then, because our eyes are on the front of our head and our arms reach forwards there is a strong chance you do most things in your day reaching or slightly leaning forwards.
  • At the end of the day, you get back in your car, head to the yard.
  • Jump on board your favourite four legged beast having spent not a moment thinking about warming up or stretching out your own body.
  • Fight with your body and if you’re lucky, have someone on the ground shout at you to Sit up! Sit up! Stop tipping forwards! Drop your right knee! Stop leaning to the right, for goodness sake!
  • Head home and perhaps spend a bit of time on the sofa in something approaching the foetal position, mulling over why on earth you just can’t get it together on the horse, before heading off to bed to properly assume the foetal position.
    All in all, it’s a solid day of flexed hips.

Now, when you stand yourself up in between these periods of sitting and bending, your hip flexors start to complain as they’ve become quite accustomed to being shortened. So rather than happily lengthen out, they stay relatively short and instead pull your pelvis forward into a nice anterior tilt with an exaggerated lumbar lordosis. This in turn promotes short, tight lower back muscles and weak abdominal core muscles which makes your body even more likely to switch on those hip flexors to help stabilise the pelvis and lower back during unstable activities – like riding your horse 😉

So, what did you do today that would have shortened up the ol’ hip flexors?? I clipped the dog, then could barely stand upright again!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will look at the anatomy involved in a bit more detail and begin to consider what it is doing to you and your horse in daily work.

 

 

Dangling front legs!

How to fix dangling front legs showjumping.

Call Sam Sherrington on 0452 472 959 for further information on Human and Animal Osteopathy.

Nothing is more frustrating than a horse who suddenly begins to knock poles when jumping. A dangly front leg (or legs) can be the source of huge frustration particularly when all the schooling in the world just doesn’t seem to be working to get your horse to pick up in front. Lots of tight grids, well placed poles on an upright, leaving off the boots, using heavier poles etc. can all give a horse a little reminder that front legs are worth lifting, but what about when none of these have any long term effect and your beloved gee gee just keeps reverting to dangly, pole knocking form?

This is a problem I’d often see in both young and older horses, and often it will trace back to an actual fatigue issue.  Due to restriction in the neck/shoulder, thoracics and ribcage the horse is having to work at least twice as hard to lift the shoulder and forelimb when jumping. Those muscles can become hugely fatigued and sore and try as he might, your horse begins to leave a leg or two dangling. Other signs this could be the source of your pole knocking woes include a sudden crankiness about being groomed around the shoulder or under the girth or when being girthed up. Poor drainage from the limb might also be evident with an increase in windgalls particularly after standing in for the night, or increased heat in the lower limb after work. You may find the horse begins to dip away from the saddle even though the saddler just confirmed that it does in fact fit the horse just fine. Your farrier may complain that your horse has become suddenly a little more recalcitrant about standing on one leg for shoeing. If you attempt to stretch your horses leg out in front after girthing (which incidentally isn’t the best way to ensure no pinching and can be risky for the horse – more on that later) you may find your horse leaning back and trying to pull the leg away from you.

Horse-Muscle-Chart

So, a few boxes ticked there? What can we do about this?

Firstly it would be good to consider if your horse is showing any signs of lameness which warrant a visit from the vet.  Then ask if he is due his biannual Osteopathic (or similar) MOT. Working horses do best with a regular once over, even if all feels to be moving ok in work, often niggles from slips in the field, jolts landing from a fence or simply working hard for us can be found and trouble averted before it becomes real trouble.

Secondly, have a good, but gentle, poke and prod around the muscles around the shoulder girdle and upper forelimb (7, 11-19 in the image above) . Can you find any soreness or ropey patches through these muscles? Pick up your horses leg and bring the heel towards the elbow, then try to gently move the whole shoulder girdle and foreleg in all directions in a big circle. That is, in front, out to the side, behind, and under the body, then up towards the wither and down towards the ground. If your horse reacts to these movements or you find there are restrictions in any direction again it would be worth giving your friendly Osteo a call.

If you find tightness but no strong reaction from your horse (beware, so many of our beloved beastie are hugely stoic and pretend all is well even when they’re struggling), you can try for a week or so to use that circular range of motion as a warm up exercise to help mobilise the shoulder and see if there is an improvement in the lift over fences. If no change, again it would be worth getting an osteopathic MOT to determine if there are deeper restrictions preventing the muscles from releasing.

Finally, don’t forget to consider your own position. Are you leaning significantly to one side over fences and creating extra work for your horse? That’s something for both your instructor and also possibly your Osteopath to help with.

panam-showjump-1-7

As always, it’s worth considering if there are any signs of needing a vet. Problems in the lower limb or feet may also be worth ruling out. And, as for the best way to make sure there’s no girth pinch – a simple hand run down between the elbow and the girth will do the trick, without any risk of overstretching cold muscles.

Happy jumping, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like that MOT for your horse (or yourself)

 

Your Horses Body Type – Training to Avoid Injuries

When bringing a horse into training for any discipline, it is important to consider an individual plan aiming to get the best improvement in muscle strength, tone and flexibility while minimising the risk of injury. Anyone who has dealt with a range of horses within various disciplines, or even within one discipline alone will know that some horses seem so much more prone to injuries during training than others. Many times this can be due to the horses past work, for example ex-racers often come into their second career with variable degrees of ligament or joint damage due to the nature of their previous training. Starting with a fresh horse with a known history can be a major headstart, however every horse has his own physique and as such care in formulating a program accordingly can minimise the chance of injury.

Human professional athletes and their coaches have long considered their physique in optimising their training programs to get the best outcome from their training regimes and similar principles may be of great value in ensuring our horses perform their best. Three types of body type are widely recognised, the Ectomorph, the Mesomorph and the Endomorph. These three represent three distinct physiques, however in reality most individuals show elements of 2 or more.

The Ectomorph – The typical lanky thoroughbred type, light of bone, lightly or poorly muscled with weak connective tissue, they are long necked and small shouldered. They have small joints and relatively long legs in relation to their body size. They often carry low body fat, and are difficult to get good condition on, even with higher than average feed consumption. They are often also quite sensitive to temperature extremes and changes. Having poor natural muscle tone and weak connective tissue, this type is most prone to overtraining, and require the most care to build their strength gradually to allow them to perform without joint or ligament damage.



The Mesomorph – The athletic, well proportioned type with mature muscle, strong connective tissue and large bones. They tend to carry themselves well naturally, gain fitness and body condition readily. They are typically quite stoic and due to their inherent strength are more physically forgiving of errors in training than the ectomorphic type.


The Endomorph – Low natural muscle tone however, unlike the ectomorph, with work will gain muscle bulk readily. They have soft bodies and gain weight readily. They typically have smaller bone structure than the mesomorph, and due to their propensity to be ‘pudgy’ often resemble the typical “Thelwell” pony, with a big round body and little legs. This type are more resilient in training than the ectomorph, however require an awareness during training of the imbalance between body weight and the relatively small bone structure carrying this large body along.

Regardless of body type, basic principles of training are common to all. Following these guidelines you can help keep your horse fit and healthy while aiming for your ultimate performance goals.

  • Avoid excessive fatigue. Soft tissue injuries are far more common when muscles are fatigued.
  • Increased training should be matched with increased rest. It is during rest that significant increases in muscle strength and power are developed.
  • Resistance training increases the ability of muscle to endure hard training. Combinations of poles or cavalettis and working in varied and deeper surfaces build a horses core muscles required for support during faster and more jarring activities.
  • Introduce new work gradually. The more time the horse is given to build strength, the less likely he is to injure himself when being pushed during training or competition.
  • Train on as many different surfaces as possible. Varied ground stimulates the proprioceptors in the joints and improves the horses ability to maintain good stability when moving quickly over uneven ground.
  • Always incorporate a good warm up and cool down period to ensure maximum elasticity and power in the ligaments and muscles respectively during work, and preventing stiffness after work.
  • Professional athletes make use of manual therapists to ensure their bodies are working at their best and small injuries are dealt with before they become large problems. Your horse benefits in the same way from an Osteopathic consultation allowing his joints, muscles and tendons to work most efficiently and thus minimising the strain and risk of injury during your training and competition.
  • Do yourself the favour of considering your own balance and its effect on your horse. The daily impact of your imbalances can greatly affect your horses balance and work.

Following these guidelines will help both you and your horse work your best and pretty soon, you’ll start seeing the results in training and competition.