Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sue Dyson: How Poor Performance and Pain Are Linked in Equestrian Sports

Dr. Sue Dyson brings to her job not just her exemplary career as an imaging and diagnostics expert, but also her expertise as an advanced-level rider and trainer. (AHT photo)

At the 2012 International Society for Equitation Science Conference in Scotland in July, Sue Dyson MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, presented some data collected in her work as director of orthopedics at the famous Animal Health Trust (AHT) referral clinic in Newmarket, England. The large number of cases seen at the clinic and the thoroughness of Dr. Dyson's exams and imaging provide a broad database for analyzing trends in lameness diagnosis in sport horses.

“Conformation plays a significant role in determining the likelihood of an individual horse suffering an injury during its competition career” advised Dr Dyson. Conformation issues of concern to her include straight hocks, a high croup relative to the withers and overly-extended hind fetlocks.

Dr. Dyson maintains a special arena for observing horses referred to her for lameness diagnosis. She also employs a professional rider to put them through their paces--going in both directions--and in hand. (AHT photo)
“Horses with one or more of these defects are statistically more likely to suffer lameness...Size is another risk factor for injury,” continued Dr Dyson. “Larger horses -- those above 16.3 hands -- appear more prone to injury of the limbs than smaller horses.”

Hoof asymmetry was also identified as a cause of increased incidences of lameness. Horses with asymmetric feet were considerably more likely to experience foot pain and have shorter competition lives.

Dr Dyson’s team also examined a number of horses which initially presented with behavioral problems and found that, in most of those cases, subclinical pain was the cause of the reduced performance.

“The evaluation of subtle variations in gait regularities can be difficult” noted Dr Dyson, “However pain should not be discounted as a cause of behavioral difficulties or a loss of performance. Just because a horse isn’t obviously lame doesn’t mean that it isn’t experiencing some form of pain.”

“Problems such as a sudden difficulty in performing flying changes, stiffness on one rein, alterations in rein contact or changes in head carriage may be signs of a musculoskeletal problem,” advised Dr Dyson.

“A bridle-lame horse is a lame horse” said Dr Dyson, referring to horses that exhibit poor performance on one rein or the other or whose work falters or improves when the rider is changed. Dyson is noted for employing a professional rider on her staff who rides horses referred to the clinic  for performance-related lameness.

According to Dr Dyson, the correct management of performance horses includes careful farriery for correct hoof balance, care in the choice of riding surfaces, protection against over training and providing sufficient time for repair between episodes of strenuous exercise.

The timing of a horse's workouts is critical, noted Dr Dyson. “It’s (not until) two days after the strenuous exercise that the muscle soreness sets in," she said. "We know to give the horse a light workout the day after heavy exercise, but we need to take care the next day as well.”

She stressed that progressively increasing the intensity of fitness workouts to allow the horse time to adapt as well as scheduling sufficient time for recovery and repair will reduce the likelihood of a horse developing muscle, joint or back pain.

Diet was also identified by Dr Dyson as an area of concern. “Many of the competition horses entering our clinic for lameness evaluations are obese,” commented Dr Dyson. “The extra weight carried by these horses puts additional pressure on their joints leading to increased wear and tear which results in lameness.”

Dr Dyson noted that obesity is also likely to increase the risk of sub-clinical laminitis, which affects performance as well as causing the horse pain. The horse may not appear lame but will show a shortened stride or loss of freedom in action.

In summary, pain may not be obvious but it should never be discounted as a cause of poor performance in competition horses. Sudden changes in behavior should be clinically investigated to rule out a physical cause for the change.

An excellent report from the International Society for Equitation Science was used as a source document for this article. Photos of the gray horse are by one of the Hoof Blog's favorite photographers, Sara Carter of Oklahoma City and are protected by international copyright

About Sue Dyson
Dr Sue Dyson is Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, England. She is world renowned for her expertise in the diagnosis of lameness and poor performance. Her research interests center on sports horse lameness and imaging. Sue is co-author of the standard equine veterinary texts Diagnosis and Management of Lameness in the Horse, Clinical Radiology of the Horse and Equine Scintigraphy.

She has competed at top national level in both eventing and show jumping and has trained three horses from novice to advanced level that subsequently competed at European and World Championships and the Olympics. She is also a British Horse Society Instructor and has kindly served as an advisor to Hoofcare and Lameness for many years.

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