Dressage (British & Western) | Common Injuries & Treatments

What is the equine discipline of dressage?

Dressage is a highly skilled form of riding performed at exhibition and competition levels, as well as an "art" sometimes pursued solely for the sake of mastery. As an equestrian sport defined by the International Equestrian Federation, dressage is "the highest expression of horse training" where "horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements."

Injuries often experienced in dressage horses

The discipline of dressage demands total harmony between the horse and rider, and requires the equine athlete to have balance, suppleness, power and focus. To enable the dressage horse to be collected, have balance and freedom of movement, extra load is taken onto the hindquarters, which in turn increases the strain on the skeleton and soft tissue structures in these areas. 

The most commonly reported issues are damage to the suspensory ligament in both the fore and hind limbs particularly in the upper area (proximal suspensory desmitis or PSD), problems associated with the coffin joint, osteoarthritis of the hock joints, and thoracolumbar and sacroiliac pain.

Dressage requires the horse to increase the load on the hind limbs, especially at advanced levels, and so greatly increases the strain on the suspensory ligaments often resulting in lameness and associated pain. ‘Foot pain’, resulting from synovitis or osteoarthritis within the distal interphalangeal joint (DIPJ), is a commonly diagnosed problem in horses competing in all disciplines but in dressage in particular. Within the rigid hoof capsule, the ligaments and joints have to cope with the weight load of the horse which can lead to inflammation and pain.

Another area commonly affected by joint pain in dressage horses is within the two lower hock joints (the Centrodistal and the Tarsometatarsal joints). These are low motion joints which take a considerable load during common dressage movements. When any joint inflammation arises it causes pain and can lead to varying levels of lameness.

Bone spavin is a term used for osteoarthritis and pain in the distal intertarsal and tarsometatarsal joints of the hock and is often found in dressage horses. Bone spavin may cause overt lameness or poor performance. Horses with this condition may have an expressive free trot, but a poor canter, and in particular have problems in more collected gaits, where there is increased loading of the hock.

Common methods and treatments used to support dressage horses

To allow dressage horses to perform at the highest level possible the animal must be finely tuned and faultlessly functioning. Any mild lameness can cause a problem. It is therefore important to train and prepare well, ensure good foot confirmation and to keep an eye out for any changes in their behaviour or gait.

In the discipline of dressage, the horse’s leg definition and gait are of extreme importance. Ensuring the horse is supple and as flexible as possible is of great importance.  Many riders manage their horse with joint supplements, a controlled and balanced diet and regular rest and rehabilitation. 

Treatments for the most common health issues in dressage horses are varied and range from conservative to more aggressive forms of treatment, depending on the symptom. They can involve a change of work surface, shoeing, various medications, and surgery.

Rest is the foundation of treatment for suspensory ligament injuries, often found within dressage. The pain associated with suspensory ligament injuries is often transient and short-lived. It is common in short term injuries that the horse may “look and feel better” and may be returned to work only to have the lameness return. A rest period of three months would be typical for relatively moderate injuries, with more severe cases taking up to eighteen months or surgery.

More degenerative issues such as osteoarthritis are often treated with anti-inflammatory medications and using holistic approaches such as magnetic technology.

In all cases, treatment should have a strong emphasis on recovery and rehabilitation. Many horse owners search for alternative therapies to support their horses, with ‘prevention being as important as cure’.

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