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Exercises for horse joint health are essential to keep our horses moving correctly and comfortably. For joint longevity and reduced risk of injury, here are three top exercises for horse joint health.
Carrot stretches, also known as dynamic stretches, as one of the top exercises for horse joint health.
Gentle stretching manoeuvres encourages your horse to extend muscle and soft tissue, therefore aiding flexibility. Supporting the lengthening of soft tissue, this means horses can benefit from relief of muscle tension which commonly builds up during work. Encouraging prolonged periods of lengthening/stretching can help with freedom of movement during work. This help joints by facilitating a longer, softer stride, with short, choppy strides increasing concussive forces on the limb.
Performed in a controlled manner and speed, they are also great to strengthen muscles and stabilise joints of the back. Strong muscles help to support joints through motion. Although, some movement at the joints are needed for comfort and functionality, excessive movement can lead to damage.
Researchers have found that performing a series of dynamic stretches increased the cross-sectional area and symmetry of the multifidus muscle. The multifidus is the weight carrying muscle, spanning across the horse back. Developing this muscle is important for carriage of the rider and increasing available movements for the joints between the vertebrae in the horses back. Staying in one position for long periods of time is harmful for all joints. Therefore, improving strength of this muscle means the horse can move more freely between positions of the back, especially when under saddle. Meanwhile, better symmetry of the multifidi should result in horse’s being less likely to compensate movement due to weakness. Movement compensation could result in joint injury or excessive loading to particular joints.
Carrot stretches should be performed until the horse reaches its maximal range of motion – this is to the point where the horse cannot stretch anymore without causing discomfort. Carrot stretches are particularly useful exercises for horses who have arthritic joints.
Some simple carrot stretches include;
For show jumping enthusiasts, grid work can an extremely beneficial exercise for horse joint health.
Gentling increasing loads on joints is one of the best ways to help them develop and become stronger. In addition, grid work can be a great way to shift weight bearing to the hindlimb, with horses naturally working on the forehand due their weight distribution.
Through grid work, it is important to encourage work from the hindquarters and over the back. Common mistakes during jumping include heavy loading of the forelimbs which counterintuitive for joint health.
To encourage work from the hind quarters, grid work step-ups should be incremental in height and width. Not only does this assist with good techniques but helps with horses’ confidence too!
Building the height down the grid encourages power through the hindquarters. After a confidence building first jump, a straight bar jump may be useful helping to easily build the height. Straight bar fences also require the take-off phase to occur much closer to the fence. The close take-off further encourages horses to push weight through their hindquarters.
Building toward an oxer or spread fence encourages horses into the ‘bascule’ shape. The bascule shape is a natural arcing of the back over the jump. This promotes natural movement through the joints in the back. Movement through these joints are required to keep vertebral discs healthy and encourage transportation of nutrients to the small joints between vertebrae. Not only promoting joint health and suppleness, encouraging the bascule shape further encourages hindlimb use and tucking of the forelimbs of the fence.
Feeding horses with the best ingredients for joint health is good, however, incorporating hacking into routine can enhance the benefits of these nutrients. Hacking is one of the ultimate exercises for horse joint health. Hacking encourages joints to be loaded in so many different ways, with terrain being the main facilitator of adaption and it’s joint health benefits.
Unstable or uneven terrain, such as loose stones and mud, can apply lots of different directional pressures to the joint. This provides the foundations for adaption, as structures in the horse’s body need to be put under a small amount of stress in order for them to develop to resist it. Although, humans cannot see it, throughout movement horses joints move slightly in many directions. Increasing the need for movement through riding on more unstable or uneven ground at a slow pace can help when performing at high intensity, reducing the risk of injury.
Meanwhile, hard ground such as roads, can also help to strengthen joints. Riding on hard ground increases the concussive forces travelling through the limb. This is good for adaption, aiding the process of bone remodelling. Bone remodelling is a continuous adaption process where old or damage bone is replaced according to the pressures it experiences. Bone health is vital for joint health, with the ends of long bones comprising part of the principal structure. Poor bone health can lead to dysfunctional joints and discomfort through movement.
If there is a water source available, hacking through it could aid joint health too! Water increases the resistance of exercise. Therefore, incorporating water-based exercise could help strengthen muscle which support joints through movement. In addition, water-based exercise can increase the aerobic capacity of horses. This means horses can work for longer without fatigue, therefore increasing the capacity for functional, healthy movement through training.