Today I want to talk about the horse’s musculature and how it affects the distal limbs (lower limbs).
If any of the horse’s muscles are highly contracted, the effects will eventually be passed on to the distal limb: what happens is a chain of events rather than something that is isolated.
Muscles are part of an overall system. Although each muscle or group of muscles controls a specific part of the body, they affect posture and movement. So any muscle (or group) that is in tension will pass this tension along to another muscle (or group) until they affect the tendons and ligaments (where they attach to the skeleton). Muscles not only deliver the power to move the limbs, they are also the suspension and shock absorbers, so they are the last ‘point of safety’ in the system.
In a horse, the musculature *above* each point in the legs has to be elastic enough to withstand the amount of torque produced during flexion of the limb: if it is not, the tendons and ligaments *below* that point will be vulnerable to strain and damage. There is a chain of muscles involved, going right up into the upper body: so if the musculature in the upper body is contracted, it cannot provide the support and range of movement that the limbs require.
In the hindquarters this muscle chain starts in the lower back; and in the forelegs it starts in the shoulders. These muscles must be both strong and loose to provide the power and the safety for the legs. A large part of my job is to check the muscles above the distal limb, identifying any tension and releasing it. Keeping these muscles loose and working at their optimal ability allows the chain of safety to work as it should, providing protection below the hocks and carpal joints.
Of course tendons and ligaments can also become damaged due to impact or high velocity slips that cause hyperextension. But in the case of the elite dressage horse there is very little chance of this happening (except when they are turned out), so any damage is more likely to be a result of repetitive strain due to the increased amount of tight circling required to execute certain moves.
Over time, muscles that are kept in a tonic state of contraction during exercise will lose their elasticity. So it is really important to do a proper warm up and cool down routine. The stretching done during these periods allows re-oxygenation of the blood cells in the muscles. Don’t skimp here: make sure you spend plenty of time doing these routines, particularly the cool down.
Resistance felt on one rein will more often than not be muscle related – although there may be other factors such as rider imbalance, foot balance, teeth or tack. So if you do have a persistent tight rein my advice would be to get in a muscle specialist in. Tight muscles (or tight anything for that matter!) will eventually lead to distal limb issues.