During a lameness examination the vet always looks at how the horse walks on a hard surface and on a soft surface. It sometimes happens that your horse is lame on a hard surface, but not on a soft one. A lot of information can be obtained from this for a vet! This is because the surface on which a horse walks has an effect on the body and affects it.
Horses are injury-prone, especially when it comes to the legs. It happens more than once that a horse stumbles (during training), lands incorrectly after a jump, taps itself, slips, overstretches or experiences chronic overuse. This can cause injuries to the horse’s tendons, for example. Besides the fact that those legs, and especially the tendons, are injury-prone, the horse’s surface also has a certain influence on the tendons. It is therefore important to keep a close eye on how your horse walks on different surfaces. To prevent injuries, it is also important that horses are given time to get used to a new surface, so always build up the time on a new surface. Horses need to get used to soft and/or uneven ground.
Structure of tendons
The reason it is so important to get a horse used to a different surface is because tendons are fragile and therefore prone to injury. Horses’ tendons are quite long and are used to a certain amount of stretching and retraction.
A tendon connects bones to muscles through which, when the brain or nerves send signals, a body part can be moved. A tendon is literally a form of connective tissue. They are made up of several bundles made of tendon fibres. These fibres are strong, but can also stretch and retract. The tendon fibres are held together by collagen, a protein that is part of connective tissues and provides strength and elasticity. Collagen is an important protein because it is largely responsible for the body’s mobility.
What a hard surface does to tendons
Hard ground such as concrete, asphalt or compacted (dried out) soil increases the impact of shocks because these types of surfaces can absorb little to no energy.
In the horse, we then see a reduced length in the strides. The horse also puts its legs away less well and the moment of gliding is reduced. A hard surface increases the risk of injuries to cartilage, bones and even joints. Of course, hard surfaces can also be good. You can use it to improve bone density and it is often recommended for tendon injuries to step on a hard surface. This is less demanding on the horse and tendons, giving them time to recover.
What soft ground does to tendons
A soft ground is often called a heavy ground in the horse world. By this we mean that you sink far into the ground, making walking more difficult. Think, for example, of an overly loose arena, the beach or ground you sink deep into when it is wet. What is nicer is that the shocks are better absorbed by the ground. However, the muscles have to work harder to enable movement. As a result, it takes more energy and becomes more laborious. With a soft surface, the risk of injury and strain of tendons and ligaments is higher.
Conclusion: different surfaces have advantages and disadvantages.
So a surface can have a significant impact on the horse’s legs and body. By making good use of different surfaces, you can make your horse stronger and more resilient. But when used incorrectly, there is soon a greater risk of acquiring injuries and pain. A scientific study of orthopaedic injuries in sports and racehorses shows that risks of injury differ between surfaces, riders and trainers (Hernlund, 2014). It is therefore important to keep in mind that the way we use surfaces and train the horse can make or break the horse.
Similarly, another study showed that when a dressage horse, who trains on a softer surface with regularity (and in which they sink deep when it is wet), is more likely to suffer an injury than a horse trained on a firm surface in which they cannot sink (Murray et al, 2010).
Hernlund E (2014) Equestrian Surfaces – A Guide – FEI, Swedish Equestrian Federation & the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Murray RC, Walters JM, Snart H, Dyson SJ, Parkin TD (2010) Identification of risk factors for lameness in dressage horses – Vet J; 184, 27-36