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Lameness in the showjumper

Owen and Ruby

Showjumping requires explosive power and great athleticism, combined with carefulness. It is a serious athletic test, which can unfortunately predispose horses to certain causes of lameness.

POOR PERFORMANCE?

Many lameness problems initially present as a poor performance issue, for example, resistance to one rein or rushing at fences. You know your horse best and picking up on these signs early will avoid problems later on.

A veterinary examination is important to determine the problem. Signs we may attribute to ulcers, dental problems or bad behaviour, may actually be due to a subtle lameness; which can be determined by a ridden lameness examination and the effect of nerve blocks.

Showjumping
Performing hind limb flexion test
Performing hind limb flexion test

In addition to a normal lameness examination, investigation of problems in show jumpers may also require examination under saddle over fences, especially for complex or subtle cases. Nerve and joint blocks, followed by a repeat assessment under saddle, are an important part of localising the problem.

Training for jumping emphasises engagement of the hindquarters, which places more weight and stress on the hindlimb and is unnatural for the horse. Stress on the forelimbs is also increased as they break the stride and provide vertical force on takeoff and absorb the entire weight of the horse on landing.

Due to the athletic demands of the sport lameness is a very common problem in jumping horses. However, provided an accurate diagnosis is made treatment for most conditions will lead to a return to similar levels of performance.

MOST COMMON CONDITIONS CAUSING LAMENESS IN SHOWJUMPERS

A thorough examination is important as showjumpers can suffer all of the conditions we see in other disciplines. However, some conditions are very common due to the particular demands of jumping. Furthermore, the problems affecting an old schoolmaster may differ from those we see in younger horses in training.

FOOT PAIN most commonly caused by COFFIN JOINT ARTHRITIS but there are a variety of possible causes. The gold standard method of diagnosis is MRI unless changes are seen on x-rays. Although MRI is expensive it is cost effective, as it allows targeted therapy for the precise problem, rather than wasting money on guesswork treatments.

DISTAL HOCK JOINT PAIN – often a bilateral problem so might initially present as reluctance to work, toe-dragging or shortened strides. Excellent prognosis with the correct management and joint medication.

SUSPENSORY DESMITIS – inflammation or injury of the suspensory ligament. Like hock pain it may be a bilateral problem presenting as a subtle loss of power initially.

BACK PAIN – may be secondary to a lameness problem, or a primary problem e.g. impinging or overriding spinous processes (“kissing spines”), facet joint arthritis, sacroiliac desmitis or sacroiliac joint disease.

FETLOCK JOINT PAIN – a common problem as the joint is overextended when the horse lands. May be due to inflammation within the fetlock joint or of the sesamoid bones at the back of the joint.

STIFLE PAIN – most commonly arthritis or injuries to a cruciate ligament or meniscus. May be treated with rest, intra-articular medications and in some cases surgery. While arthritis can respond well to medication, the prognosis for soft tissue injuries is generally only poor to fair.

OSTEOARTHRITIS OR TRAUMA OF PASTERN JOINT – common as the pastern comes under significant stress during jumping. Often starts as general stiffness before developing into a lameness. We also see injuries to the sesamoidean ligaments in this region.

CROUP & HIP REGION PAIN – can be due to inflammation of the hip joint but is more commonly caused by strains in the gluteal muscles. This may be a primary problem, or secondary to other lameness issues in the same or opposite leg. Gluteal strains normally respond well to rest and anti-inflammatories.

SUPERFICIAL DIGITAL FLEXOR TENDONITIS AND DESMITIS OF THE ACCESSORY LIGAMENT OF THE DEEP DIGITAL FLEXOR TENDON – prognosis is variable depending on whether a core lesion/tear is present or the tissue is just inflamed. Core lesions can be treated with stem cells or PRP.

CERVICAL OSTEOARTHRITIS AND PAIN – may present as neck pain or reluctance to bend a certain way, or as a forelimb lameness. Treated with joint medication, pain relief and physiotherapy.

Medicating a coffin joint
Medicating a coffin joint
Radiograph demonstrating osteoarthritic changes
Radiograph demonstrating osteoarthritic changes
A core lesion in a suspensory branch picked up on ultrasound.
A core lesion in a suspensory branch picked up on ultrasound.
Close or ‘impinging’ spinous process with bony reaction, which may touch when the horse is ridden
Close or ‘impinging’ spinous process with bony reaction, which may touch when the horse is ridden
Variety in a training regime can reduce the likelihood of lameness
Variety in a training regime can reduce the likelihood of lameness

AVOIDING PROBLEMS

A balanced training programme can help to minimise the risk of lameness issues in young horses. Gradual increases in the intensity and duration of exercise allow the joints and soft tissues to adapt to the new loads and movements they are being asked to make.

Unlike dressage, there are very few studies investigating lameness in show jumpers. However, it has been found that horses which have variety in their training, such as hacking out and training on different surfaces, are less likely to suffer lameness problems.