Wear and Tear
Wear and Tear
Jean Luc Cornille
Dressage and In hand horse trainer
Wear & Tear
“Biomechanical stress is specifically what the bone is responding to,
not mere wear & tear.” (Betsy Uhl, DVM, PhD)
When the British team won the Dressage gold medal I was thinking, “The gold medal is in good hands.” Effectively, the gold medal is in good hands. Recently Olympian Richard Davison expressed concerns about the fact that some high-level dressage tests are causing too much wear and tear on the horses’ physique. It is refreshing that at the higher level, a rider is concerned about the physical demands that modern performances induce on the horses’ limbs and vertebral structures.
This is a great turn away from Rollkur proponents that were, and still abuse horses for a medal or even a ribbon. Edsger Dijkstra wrote, "Why has elegance found so little following?" For a while, elegance was not invited in the show ring, not even in the training ring, not even in the corridor of a show barn. Webster dictionary defines elegance as “refinement”. Dressage movements are the refinement of natural moves and, as it is for ballet dancing, even if the moves are inspired by natural gestures, their refinement demands body coordination far more sophisticated than natural reflexes. Even a performance as simple as carrying a rider demands specific adaptation. “It should be borne in mind that the weight of the rider will raise two- or three-fold during locomotion and also that more energy is required by a mounted horse and this energy must be obtained by increasing the stance phase so as to recover more energy during the swing.” (J. L. Morales, DVM, PhD, 1998)
In1995, Reiner Klimke anticipated the problem underlining the discrepancy between the increasing quality of the horses and the slow evolution of training techniques. “Now we breed only Rembrandts and Gigolos, if we can- and therefore we have developed our sport. The riding has not become better.” Extraordinary horses are pushed in the show ring, but they are not athletically prepared for both the mental and physical stresses that the rapid succession of movements and the exuberance of their gaits induce on their limbs and vertebral column structures. There are two problems that have to be considered but also that can be resolved. One is preparing bone by bone, muscle by muscle, the horse’s physique for the athletic demand of the performance. This is not actually considered. Horses learn the judging criteria, how the movements are supposed to look like but they are not physically developed and adequately coordinated for the physical demand of the performance. They perform out of their talent but they don’t have the athleticism to deal with the demands. The second problem is that while breeding programs give birth to horses with astounding gaits, the training techniques are unable to proportionally enhance bone density, joints stability, muscle tone, as well as strength and elasticity of tendons and ligaments. Dressage horses need a conditioning program as obviously as three day event horses. They don’t need fast and long gallops, but they need increasing their bone density through eccentric training as well as rhythmic, regular, repetitive and moderated stresses. Their muscular system needs to be understood and approached in respect of new knowledge.
Most of the joints problems can be considered as different forms of arthritis. Classically, it was thought that the cartilage changes and frays and, as a secondary effect, the bone is eventually damaged. But really, cartilage is thin. One of the first things you see is an increase in bone on the bone-side of the cartilage (subchondral bone). Bone damage occurs before cartilage changes. The conventional approach is looking for help into food supplements or injections, hyaluronic acid or others. Greater efficiency can be achieved with adequate training. To fully comprehend how proper training can prepare the horse’s bone structure for intense stress, one needs to understand how bones respond to biomechanical stress.
Osteocyte is surrounded by bone matrix, which is a network of interconnected “spider webs” or sensors. Cellular filaments touch each other all around the bone. They are surrounded by fluid. As the pressures change, the pressure is transmitted to the osteocyte processes, which triggers them to eat bone. As the bones are resorbed, the remodeling (osteoblasts) happens in response to rebuild those areas. Different stresses create different patterns in osteocytes, which make researchers think that the biomechanical stress is specifically what the bone is responding to, not mere wear & tear. The same medium trot through the diagonal can induces very different stress on the front legs’ bones and joint according to the horse balance, rhythm, symmetry of the back muscles, rider’s stability, etc. If the horse is naturally exuberant, the density of the bones, the symmetry of the back muscles, the balance and the stability of the rider became even more important. The horse’s talent induces greater stress on the horse’s structures and the horse athleticism has to be further developed.
The bone system is magisterially designed as long as the stresses imposed by the performance don’t compromise the integrity of the structure. Micro fractures are common. Cracks in the bone also disrupt the network and the system that sense the damage (spider mechanism) gets damaged. When the system is damaged, repairs are not triggered. When one rushes a horse, obedient but not athletically developed, through the diagonal at a medium trot faster than the horse natural cadence, heavy on the bit and therefore heavy on the forelegs, with some asymmetry between right and left side of the back muscles and therefore greater stress on one front limb, cracks or micro fractures are likely occurring. The repair system is then damaged and the next diagonal at medium trot will further the harms. It is time to be serious. Training techniques teaching medium trot pushing the horse harder through the diagonal with more contact on the rider’s hands are not serious. Training techniques teaching lateral movement touching the limbs with a whip or spinning a rope are not serious. They make the horse perform in inverted rotation inducing abnormal stress on the vertebral column structure. Every dressage movement demands specific body coordination and without creating first appropriated body coordination, the repetition of movements induce abnormal stresses on the horse physique.
I personally never ask medium trot until the horse reaches an advanced level of balance control, straightness, but also has practiced hours of conditioning by hills and valleys at a very rhythmic, regular and slow trot with total lightness on the bit. We have published an article about this conditioning technique under the title, “The Pignot Jog”.
Researchers think that the biomechanical stress is specifically what the bone is responding to, not mere wear & tear. This Grand Prix dressage horse is the practical application of this belief. After recovering from navicular syndrome at age 17, he performed Grand prix movements until the day of his death at 36 years old. He was 33 at the date of this picture maintaining his muscle tone through adequate training and his bone density through positive stress training.
Jean Luc Cornille 2014