Equine Soft Tissue Damage and Hyperflexion
By Sidonia McIntyre, RMT, CEMT, CCF
Canadian National Equine Massage and VR Instructor
This article addresses excessive force on the horse’s head and neck by implementing the “rollkur” and the “long and low” in a held state for prolonged periods of time.
The International Equestrian Federation (Fédération Equestre Internationale or FEI) made a formal statement regarding its viewpoint on the controversial training technique of rollkur or hyperflexion of the neck. This issue was debated at the FEI round-table conference at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Headquarters and the consensus of the group was that any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable. The FEI has redefined hyperflexion/rollkur as flexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force, which is therefore unacceptable. The technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR), which achieves flexion without undue force, is acceptable. The group unanimously agreed that any form of aggressive riding must be sanctioned.
Some riders will work a horse in the rollkur position for as long as an hour. Photo: iStock/Mishella
This article is not about blue tongues; excessive drooling; damage to the guttural sack, parotid glands, facial, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory and hypoglossal nerves; or psychological stress. There is a bevy of information available with just a click of the mouse. I am a soft tissue specialist with over 25 years of experience in the field and will stick to what I know best – damage to soft tissues.
For years, there has been controversy regarding the working of horses in both the rollkur and prolonged, sustained long and low. The most obvious question is: How do you get a horse to do that? The simple answer is: Force. No horse willingly or voluntarily leaves its head in either position for extended periods of time. Some trainers have used gradual pressure over time and the “as soon as he gets it right, then we release” method, which gives the horse the ability to learn, decide, give in, then be released, and have been met with excellent results that take time to develop. Others have chosen to shorten this training by tying a horse’s head in the desired position using various points of the saddle for leverage, making it next to impossible to release for reward.
The muscles of the neck and jaw and those that surround the hyoid bone must maintain a prolonged contraction during flexion. Soft tissue damage in both these areas will cause the horse a great deal of pain. Photo: Canstockphoto/Virgonira
It is continuous force that causes soft tissue damage as both the contracting and opposing muscles are forced to work in isometric contraction (the muscle length is unchanging in contraction) no matter what training method is employed. Naturally, the longer a muscle maintains a contraction, the more damage occurs.
The second area of concern is the force-length relationship, which has proven that a muscle is able to maintain a force that is exerted upon it with maximum efficiency at an ideal length of its approximate resting point. If a muscle is stretched or shortened with load (the load being the horse’s head), then the efficiency of the muscle is compromised, and the muscle will be unable to maintain the load. The most important aspect of the force-length relationship is the resting length. Each breed has a particular head/neck resting point. Choosing the horse that already has a natural resting point near to the desired length is crucial. All it takes is the ability to see the horse at rest to ascertain if the head/neck position is ideal.
The rollkur and long and low positions are diametrically opposed to each other, as long and low stretches the neck outward beyond the resting point, and rollkur forces the neck to contract well before its resting point. Let’s look at these two from a soft tissue damage perspective.
As defined by the FEI, rollkur is: A technique of working/training to provide a degree of longitudinal flexion of the mid-region of the neck that cannot be self-maintained by the horse for a prolonged time without welfare implications. I had to read this several times to understand the sentence. Unfortunately, the language is rather porridge-like as it lacks the bite of conviction and entirely misses the area of damage. The issue of soft tissue damage occurs not at the mid-region of the neck, but rather at the second joint of the neck, that being the atlanto-axial joint - the first and second vertebrae. The correct break-over point is the atlanto-occipital joint – the head and first cervical vertebra. When the head is brought to the correct position, it tightens the nuchal ligament and raises the back by stretching the supraspinous ligament. This system decreases muscular fatigue as the ligaments maintain the frame of the horse, while the ligament itself remains elastic, allowing free-flowing movement of the body. When the head is forced beyond the vertical line, the nuchal ligament will overtighten, leading to excessive pressure at the insertion point – the withers. This action will do several things: Lift the back excessively, and dramatically decrease the elasticity of the nuchal and supraspinous ligaments. This will in turn decrease the function of those ligaments, which are meant to decrease muscle fatigue, allow dynamic movement of the muscles, and allow kinetic exchange between the ligaments and the tendons of the lower limb. The horse’s body becomes stiffer, the gaits are dramatically affected, and muscles must now work harder to maintain the rider, which leads to excessive muscle soreness and tendon injuries.
The muscles of the neck and jaw and those that surround the hyoid bone must maintain a prolonged contraction during flexion. Some riders have been known to work a horse in this position for upwards of an hour. Soft tissue damage in both these areas has caused horses and riders a great deal of pain. In my practice and in the course I teach, the area of the hyoid bone is taken very seriously as this is the most prevalent area of damage in horses from PEI to Vancouver Island. Simply stated, muscles attach to bones, and it is the relationship of these two partners that causes movement (with few exceptions: eyelids, tongue etc.). This symbiotic relationship collides quite dramatically when a muscle is placed into a forced contraction and the bone is unable to move. The end result is fatigue of the muscle that can lead to collapse; scar tissue formation which will shorten the muscle and not allow for full complete flexion/extension; sensitivity to touch (ear, head, bit shyness); and at the extreme end, the displacement of the bone itself from its position. The extreme tension that is generated under the jaw of these horses has sent many riders sailing off the saddle as the horse can no longer breathe. Horses, like other mammals, actually need to draw breath in order to maintain a heartbeat.
When the head is beyond the vertical line, the nuchal ligament tightens leading to excessive pressure at the insertion point (the withers). This lifts the back excessively, and decreases the elasticity and function of the nuchal and supraspinous ligaments. The horse’s body becomes stiffer, and muscles must now work harder to maintain the rider, which leads to excessive muscle soreness and tendon injuries. Photo: Canstock/Joyfull
Perhaps a touch of physiology might help here. A contracting muscle releases lactate, which when combined with hydrogen ions creates lactic acid. This draws a substance called bradykinin to the area. This is one of the most potent pain-causing substances in the body, and although it may seem to be a noxious chemical that we would rather avoid, it does indeed have positive influences upon the cardiovascular system. Bradykinin mediates both blood pressure and heart rate, blood flow within the muscle itself is increased, and it also enhances muscular glucose uptake which is vital to the muscle as an energy source for continued contraction ability. Adenosine has been found to aid in regulation of glucose uptake and increasing blood flow by vasodilatation. Lactate has been shown to be a pure metabolite, which is essentially fuel for muscles within anaerobic (without oxygen) contraction. The key words here are increased blood flow. This increased blood flow will cause the muscle to swell, which in turn will cause pressure to be applied to nerves, the guttural pouch, the parotid gland, and yes, the trachea.
Studies have shown that the difference between a horse at rest chin-to-chest head angle of 90 degrees, and that of a mere 45 degrees, can cause significant airway obstruction. The rollkur tucks the chin to a 15 degree angle. This alone, without the physiological implications, decreases air flow, applies pressure to nerves and the all-important guttural pouch, which protects the brain from overheated blood.
Sir Isaac Newton stated that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. This is demonstrated in the relationship of muscles working together to create movement as the rest of the body must work to maintain form. In the rollkur, the shoulder of the horse is also implicated as the angle of the scapula is increased. This changes the fit of the saddle as it is easier to have interference, as well as the angle of the thoracic vertebra as the tips move closer together at the base of the withers, placing an extreme amount of pressure just before or on the area where the saddle starts. Of course, this change will continue down the legs to the hooves creating massive forearm muscles as the horse moves more on the toes, necessitating the expert work of a farrier to trim the hooves at regular intervals to create the proper angle.
The Long and Low
The physical implications of working the long and low with prolonged force are just as serious as for the rollkur, but to a different set of muscles. In this physical stance, the nuchal ligament plays a pivotal role as it is the latticework of support. The ligament begins at the axis and each descending cervical vertebrae, attaching to the first, second, third and fourth thoracic vertebrae. The anchor point, being the first thoracic vertebrae, is stressed more so than any other vertebrae in this movement.
This horse displays a “U” at the base of the neck, indicative of having been worked in the long and low position with prolonged force. Photo courtesy of Sidonia McIntyre
Physical characteristic of horses with a displaced vertebrae are massive brachiocephalicus and omotransversarius muscles (the muscles located on either side of the trachea); underdeveloped topline that lacks a round, smooth, muscular appearance; a “U” at the base of the neck or where the angle dips at the base of the neck before the withers; and the scapula at a more upright angle and significantly raised up and forward such that the top of the scapula is near to the withers, or in extreme cases even above the withers. The angle of the hooves must be considered as well, as the horse will have a tendency to place more pressure on the back on the heels.
A muscle is a muscle is a muscle. I have stated this many times in classes, lectures, and in my massage manual. Damage to muscles is all the same in that scar tissue, no matter how it is obtained, will shorten the length of the muscle and decrease its load capacity and power capability. Atrophy, or wasting away of the tissue, occurs when a muscle has suffered an extreme injury, or is not used at all in movement. It lacks the ability to carry load at all, or can only carry load for very short durations. Trigger points can occur to any muscle at any time when the load exceeds the capacity. A small portion of the muscle is held in a tectonic contraction and is unable to secure its release – much like a “knot” that we get in our shoulders.
The long and low position. If the horse is worked in this position with prolonged force for extended periods of time, the physical implications can be just as serious as for the horse worked in the rollkur, although for a different set of muscles. Photo: Canstock/Virgonira
Rollkur or long and low? Which one is better? Which one causes the least amount of damage? They both cause changes to bone placement, the condition of muscles, strain, scar tissue formation, and arguably, psychological stress.
Unrelenting pressure on the horse in both these positions causes stress to the soft tissues of the horse because they do not allow the full usage of the nuchal ligament. Allowing the horse to utilize the ligament will build both a full, round, strong neck and will also lift the back so the rider’s weight is disbursed over the rib cage and will not come into contact with the bone material or the longissimus dorsi muscle, which is required for dynamic movement.
The Rider’s Checklist
As a rider, look to your hands and ask yourself if you are gripping the reins rather than gently making contact? When you ask your horse for a change, are your fingers mimicking a “squeezing of a sponge” or are you using more force? Feel your forearms – are they sore and tired after a ride? Look at yourself while you are riding. Are you hunched forward because the horse’s head is drawing you forward, or do you compensate by leaning back? Feel your own body. Are you sore and uncomfortable after a ride (more than you think you should be), especially the middle of your back and between your shoulder blades?
Each breed has a particular head and neck resting point. Choose a horse that already has a natural resting point near to the desired length. Photo: Shutterstock/Mariait
Understand that everything you do as a rider will be felt by your horse as the horse adjusts its own body to accommodate the rider.
Building the trust between horse and rider takes time and patience. This trust is built by giving one instruction at a time. Too many things being asked of the horse causes confusion. The pointing of both ears outward is the most easily identifiable sign to the rider that the horse does not understand what it is being asked to do. The landing of the rider in the dirt is the sign that the horse’s patience has come to an end. Nobody wants either of these events to occur.
The first rule of training is simple: There is no set period of time for any riding session. While we may engage an instructor for lessons which have a set time period, the horse has no sense of time and only understands that correct movement leads to reward. The reward is release. This may come in the form of tension being released when the horse is allowed to walk on a loose rein or when the rider gets off the horse’s back. These are the only two things the horse wants from a rider when it is working. This is simple and can be incorporated into any training session. If correct behaviour/positioning is rewarded with more work, then no connection can be made by the horse. This is when the horse can begin to do things correctly at first, then begin to do the same thing incorrectly as it seeks to do the right action so it can gain the reward of release.
The time and patience spent teaching the horse to understand the correct frame and to hold it comfortably will be rewarded with a horse that moves in unison and harmony with the rider. Photo: Dreamstime/Anky Van Wyk
Ask the horse for the correct angle – mirrors or a coach can help guide you until you can see and feel when the horse has the correct vertical line. When the horse has located the correct position, maintain the position for no more than five seconds, then release coming back to the walk with a loose rein for two minutes. This is a great opportunity to give the horse rubs on the shoulder (absolutely no patting or slapping as this only causes discomfort and tensing of the muscles). Gather the reins and ask for the frame again. When the correct frame is achieved, hold for no more than five seconds, then release on the loose rein again for two minutes. Repeat this during the session up to seven times. During the next session, ask for the same action, but hold for ten seconds, then give the loose rein, repeating throughout the session up to seven times. Do other things during the session, such as backing up, turning on the haunches and forehand, serpentines, etc.
As the horse begins to understand that the correct frame will bring relief, the correct frame will be sought. The muscles, and the nuchal and supraspinous ligaments all need time to adjust to their new positions. This is work that takes a great deal of time and patience on the part of both horse and rider. As these structures become stronger, the time they are held in the correct frame can be extended. The number of times the exercise is repeated must now be decreased. For example, if the horse can hold the frame comfortably for five minutes, then it is only asked to go into the frame four times. This represents 20 minutes of in-frame work, eight minutes of loose rein, ten minutes of warm up, and ten minutes of cool down along with ten minutes of turns, stops, poles, backing up, etc.
Take the time to both teach and learn from your horse, then enjoy the harmony created as you move in unison with your horse. Always remember to praise all correct behaviour by releasing pressure and giving a well-earned rub.