Can you reduce stiffness and improve movement?

The NICE guidelines for osteoarthritis, the leading cause of stiffness in humans and horses, include appropriate exercise. Exercise is recommended by doctors to tackle a whole range of health conditions in humans, and the same principles can be applied to our horses. We know that general exercise, even if only for 20 minutes a day can have impressive results on our health and the same is true of our horses.

In an ideal world, all horses would have access to grazing and the freedom to move around. Failing this, we try to go some way to replicate this natural process to maintain the health of our horses. Whether your horse is young or old, in full health or in rehabilitation, a series of simple exercises can do wonders for his general health.

Just as we know that our own core strength is vitally important to maintain health and performance, so the same applies to our horses.  Stubbs and Clayton (2008) state “One of the best ways to both prevent and to treat back pain in horses is through the regular use of core training exercises”1.

Dr Narelle Stubbs and Dr Hilary Clayton devoted years of research to building a series of exercises to improve core musculature in horses. The exercises shown in the book and DVD “Activate Your Horse’s Core” have been proven in field trials, as quoted in the Equine Veterinary Journal: “Research has shown that regular performance of dynamic mobilization exercises over a period of three months stimulated hypertrophy (enlargement) of the muscles that stabilize the horse’s back.”2

But it is not simply their work that has been examined under research. Other studies have taken place at leading centres of science and research showing that using the correct exercises can greatly benefit your horse. “Exercises to increase Multifidus cross sectional area (CSA) have been shown to reduce the amount and reoccurrence of back pain in humans. Similarly, dynamic mobilisation exercises have led to an increase in multifidus cross sectional area in horses on box rest.”3

Here the study has focused on horses on box rest.  This is important, as bringing horses back into after work after injury can be a daunting and difficult process, and one that can be improved if you can maintain some level of strength and flexibility during the box rest. A further study discusses the effect of exercises on asymmetries in horses. As asymmetry can contribute to further problems at a later date, exercises to balance out the difference between the left and the right hand side can only be a good thing. “Between the initial evaluation and final evaluation m. multifidus cross sectional area increased significantly at all six spinal levels on both right and left sides. Asymmetries in m. multifidus cross sectional area between the right and left sides decreased between the initial and final evaluations.”4

And finally, research suggesting that mobilisation can improve the quality of your horse’s paces: “Gymnastic exercises performed three times per week improved stride quality at walk.”5 So wherever you are with your horse, you can safely say that simple mobilisation exercises will benefit your horse.

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References:

  1. Stubbs, N. and Clayton, H. (2008). Activate your horse’s core. Mason MI: Sport Horse Publications.
  2. Stubbs, Narelle & Kaiser, LeeAnn & Hauptman, J & Clayton, Hilary. (2011). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of multifidus. Equine veterinary journal. 43. 522-9. 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00322.x.
  3. Tabor, G. (2017). The effect of dynamic mobilisation exercises on the equine multifidus muscle and thoracic profile. [online] Pearl.plymouth.ac.uk. Available at: https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/handle/10026.1/3320
  4. Stubbs NC, e. (2017). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of musculus multifidus. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21496085
  5. de Oliveira, K., Soutello, R., da Fonseca, R., Costa, C., de L. Meirelles, P., Fachiolli, D. and Clayton, H. (2017). Gymnastic Training and Dynamic Mobilization Exercises Improve Stride Quality and Increase Epaxial Muscle Size in Therapy Horses.

Why mobilisation is so important

 

By Lizzie Hopkinson

The NICE guidelines for osteoarthritis, the leading cause of stiffness in humans and horses, include appropriate exercise. Exercise is recommended by doctors to tackle a whole range of health conditions in humans, and the same principles can be applied to our horses. We know that general exercise, even if only for 20 minutes a day can have impressive results on our health and the same is true of our horses.

In an ideal world, all horses would have access to grazing and the freedom to move around. Failing this, we try to go some way to replicate this natural process to maintain the health of our horses. Whether your horse is young or old, in full health or in rehabilitation, a series of simple exercises can do wonders for his general health.

Just as we know that our own core strength is vitally important to maintain health and performance, so the same applies to our horses.  Stubbs and Clayton (2008) state “One of the best ways to both prevent and to treat back pain in horses is through the regular use of core training exercises”1.

Dr Narelle Stubbs and Dr Hilary Clayton devoted years of research to building a series of exercises to improve core musculature in horses. The exercises shown in the book and DVD “Activate Your Horse’s Core” have been proven in field trials, as quoted in the Equine Veterinary Journal: “Research has shown that regular performance of dynamic mobilization exercises over a period of three months stimulated hypertrophy (enlargement) of the muscles that stabilize the horse’s back.”2

But it is not simply their work that has been examined under research. Other studies have taken place at leading centres of science and research showing that using the correct exercises can greatly benefit your horse. “Exercises to increase Multifidus cross sectional area (CSA) have been shown to reduce the amount and reoccurrence of back pain in humans. Similarly, dynamic mobilisation exercises have led to an increase in multifidus cross sectional area in horses on box rest.”3

Here the study has focused on horses on box rest.  This is important, as bringing horses back into after work after injury can be a daunting and difficult process, and one that can be improved if you can maintain some level of strength and flexibility during the box rest. A further study discusses the effect of exercises on asymmetries in horses. As asymmetry can contribute to further problems at a later date, exercises to balance out the difference between the left and the right hand side can only be a good thing. “Between the initial evaluation and final evaluation m. multifidus cross sectional area increased significantly at all six spinal levels on both right and left sides. Asymmetries in m. multifidus cross sectional area between the right and left sides decreased between the initial and final evaluations.”4

And finally, research suggesting that mobilisation can improve the quality of your horse’s paces: “Gymnastic exercises performed three times per week improved stride quality at walk.”5 So wherever you are with your horse, you can safely say that simple mobilisation exercises will benefit your horse.

References:

  1. Stubbs, N. and Clayton, H. (2008). Activate your horse’s core. Mason MI: Sport Horse Publications.
  2. Stubbs, Narelle & Kaiser, LeeAnn & Hauptman, J & Clayton, Hilary. (2011). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of multifidus. Equine veterinary journal. 43. 522-9. 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00322.x.
  3. Tabor, G. (2017). The effect of dynamic mobilisation exercises on the equine multifidus muscle and thoracic profile. [online] Pearl.plymouth.ac.uk. Available at: https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/handle/10026.1/3320
  4. Stubbs NC, e. (2017). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of musculus multifidus. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21496085
  5. de Oliveira, K., Soutello, R., da Fonseca, R., Costa, C., de L. Meirelles, P., Fachiolli, D. and Clayton, H. (2017). Gymnastic Training and Dynamic Mobilization Exercises Improve Stride Quality and Increase Epaxial Muscle Size in Therapy Horses.

 

Image: Toa Heftiba Unsplash.com

Are you stiff?

By Lizzie Hopkinson

For anyone who has been fortunate enough to never feel stiff or inflexible (does such a person even exist?!), and wonders what it feels like, I highly recommend you watch the beginning of the film “Up.” (Grumpy old man sails away in his house powered by helium balloons…) The protagonist’s attempt at getting out of bed never fails to bring a smile to my face. I have had moments where I have struggled to get out of bed, or off the sofa, usually caused by the same combination of events – either too much exercise for my level of fitness, or trying to perform above my current level of ability. Or falling off! Disregarding the last one, the first two are most definitely my responsibility and I could choose to prevent them from happening, or do my best to reduce the potentially painful consequences of either.

Our horses however are generally expected to do what we ask of them. If we ask them to work above their current level of ability, or to do more than is appropriate for their level of fitness, they are likely to suffer some level of discomfort. It is not their decision whether or not to do too much. Equally if we don’t do enough with them, if we allow their core to become weak through lack of exercise or put their joints at risk of damage through excess bodyweight (or horse and / or rider), we must shoulder at least a large proportion of the blame. If we spend too much of a particular schooling session working them in the same shape, using the same muscle groups without respite, we are responsible for their pain (imagine how much it hurts to stay in a prolonged squat, for example). The horse, intelligent though he is, cannot lead the process of developing or maintaining a fitness program, of warming up and cooling down, of working within his abilities, we must do it for him.

So much of what we owe our horses is in giving them care that they cannot give themselves, in return for the moments that we could not enjoy without them. Spending time doing simple exercises to improve their flexibility will improve their life. It will also improve our time with them, as it will reduce stiffness and improve movement, giving us not only improved performance (if that is something that matters to us), but also a more comfortable and enjoyable ride.

I have experienced this for myself. When I started running, my muscles ached and my joints hurt. As I became fitter, the running improved, as did the recovery time, provided that I increased my mileage gradually and built my time and strength up accordingly. But when I added in doing regular yoga to the mix, something amazing happened. Rather than feeling okay, I suddenly felt fantastic. As I became looser, suppler, more flexible, I found I could run faster, stronger, longer, with less negative effects on my body. It seems like such a small thing, but for me that time spent doing some simple yoga moves on a regular has the most incredible effect.

The evidence backs up my experience, and so we know that similar principles apply to working our horses. When they are comfortable and flexible, fit and working at the right level, they will feel fantastic. Rather than feeling short and choppy they will move with improved rhythm and greater stride length, whether they are moving around the field, working in hand, being ridden out hacking, schooling, jumping or competing. Simple exercises to help our horses stay fit and well will help maintain good health in the long term, encouraging flexibility and core strength.

Getting into the habit of performing simple mobilisation exercises with our horses at least two or three times a week (ideally daily) will not only help our horses and offer us a lovely way to spend time bonding, it enables us to give something back to the horse that serves us so well.

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Activate Your Horse’s Core

Dr Hilary Clayton is an internationally renowned veterinarian, author, researcher and clinician. Her work in the field of equestrian biomechanics has provided incredible insight into equine sports, and the relationship between the horse and rider. She has carried out research across an extensive range of areas including, though not limited to; bit fitting, saddle fitting biometrics, kinematics, kinetics and locomotion. Her work has helped to further knowledge and to improve welfare for horses across the globe.

This book and DVD describe three types of core training exercises: dynamic mobilization exercises, core strengthening exercises and balancing exercises. The dynamic mobilization exercises, otherwise known as baited stretches, teach the horse to follow a treat or a target with his nose to achieve specific positions that round and/or bend the spine. Veterinarians and therapists use baited stretches to evaluate the horse’s range of spinal motion and to compare the horse’s flexibility to the left and right sides. The book Activate Your Horse’s Core describes how to use these exercises to activate and strengthen the deep spinal stabilizing muscles that are responsible for stability of the back and neck during locomotion, which protects against the development of facet joint arthritis. These muscles often become inactive as a result of back pain and targeted exercises are needed to reactivate and strengthen them.

Three research studies have shown hypertrophy (increased size) of the deep spinal stabilizing muscles after performing baited stretches regularly for several weeks. All the studies had the horses perform three types of rounding exercises (chin-to-chest, chin-between-knees, chin-between-fore fetlocks) and three types of bending exercises performed to both left and right sides (chin-to-girth, chin-to-hock, chin-to-hind fetlock). The studies differed in how many repetitions of each exercise were performed each day and how many days per week they were repeated. The results were evaluated using ultrasonographic images to measure and compare the cross-sectional area of the deep spinal stabilizing muscles before and after the exercise program.

Study 1a Study 2b Study 3c
Location of study US Brazil UK
Type of horses School horses Therapy horses Racehorses
Number of repetitions of each exercise per day 5 5 10
Number of days per week 5 3 5
Duration of study (weeks) 12 6 6
Cross-sectional area of muscle increased increased increased

 

All three studies showed a statistically significant increase in cross-sectional area of the deep spinal stabilizing muscles at the end of the study. The changes were measurable within as little as 6 weeks after starting to do the baited stretches. Although we recommend doing baited stretches every day, the muscles will respond even if the exercises are done only 3 days a week. The best time to do the baited stretches is immediately before exercise in order to pre-activate the core stabilizing muscles in preparation for athletic activity.

References

aStubbs NC, Kaiser LJ, Hauptman J and Clayton HM. Dynamic mobilization exercises increase cross sectional area of musculus multifidus. Equine Vet J 2011;43:522-529.

bde Oliveira K, Soutello RVG, da Fonseca R, Costa C, de L. Meirelles PR, Fachiolli DF and Clayton HM. Gymnastic training and dynamic mobilization exercises improve stride quality and epaxial muscle size in therapy horses. J Equine Vet  Sci 2015;35: 888–893.

cTabor G. The effect of dynamic mobilisation exercises on the equine multifidus muscle and thoracic profile. MS thesis, Plymouth University, 2015.

Our guest blogger is Dr Hilary Clayton.

“If it’s tight, relax it. If it’s stiff, move it. If it’s sore, relieve pain.”

“If it’s tight, relax it. If it’s stiff, move it. If it’s sore, relieve pain.”

As a Chartered Physiotherapist, Sue’s aim is to encourage the body to fix itself. Sue says “I want to ‘press the right buttons’ to trigger the body’s own healing response. I’m not a surgeon so I won’t take anything out. I’m not a medical practitioner so I won’t put anything in. I believe that nature knows best, and that if the body is able to heal itself then it will do so given the right conditions and encouragement. 

My ethos in life is one of no violence, and I will not try to force the body in any way. I know that stress reduces the ability to heal. For this and other reasons I work with the horse rather than against him, aiming for relaxation as part of the treatment process.” 

Much of Sue’s work comes through word of mouth, and so the results speak for themselves. Many clients choose the option of regular treatment sessions for performance enhancement, to give comfort when there are known underlying conditions, or simply for peace of mind as a preventative measure. All assessments and treatments are tailored to the individual.

Techniques used include:

Massage: Massage involves working and acting on the body with pressure – structured, unstructured, stationary, or moving – tension, motion, or vibration, done manually or with mechanical aids.
Joint mobilisation: Joint mobilisation is a manual therapy intervention, a type of passive movement of a skeletal joint. It is usually aimed at a ‘target’ synovial joint with the aim of achieving a therapeutic effect. When applied to the spine, it is known as spinal mobilisation.
Soft tissue mobilisation: Soft tissue mobilisation is the hands on mobilisation of soft tissues, including fascia, muscle, tendon, ligaments, and more.
Craniosacral therapy: Craniosacral therapy (CST), or cranial-sacral therapy, is a form of bodywork or alternative therapy focused primarily on the concept of “primary respiration” and regulating the flow of cerebrospinal fluid by using therapeutic touch to manipulate the synarthrodial joints of the cranium. To do this, a practitioner will apply light touches to a patient’s skull, face, spine and pelvis.
Myofascial release: Myofascial release (or MFR) is a soft tissue therapy for the treatment of skeletal muscle immobility and pain. This alternative medicine therapy aims to relax contracted muscles, improve blood and lymphatic circulation, and stimulate the stretch reflex in muscles.
Spinal mobilisation: Joint mobilisation is a manual therapy intervention, a type of passive movement of a skeletal joint. It is usually aimed at a ‘target’ synovial joint with the aim of achieving a therapeutic effect. When applied to the spine, it is known as spinal mobilisation.
Stretching: Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon (or muscle group) is deliberately flexed or stretched in order to improve the muscle’s felt elasticity and achieve comfortable muscle tone.
Neurodynamics: Neurodynamics is related to communication between different parts of the nervous system.
Muscle energy techniques: Muscle energy techniques are used to treat somatic dysfunction, especially decreased range of motion, muscular hypertonicity and pain. Historically, the concept emerged as a form of osteopathic manipulative diagnosis and treatment in which the patient’s muscles are actively used on request, from a precisely controlled position, in a specific direction, and against a distinctly executed physician counterforce. 
Joint manipulation: Joint manipulation is a type of passive movement of a skeletal joint. It is usually aimed at one or more ‘target’ synovial joints with the aim of achieving a therapeutic effect.
Exercises: Physical exercise is any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness. It is performed for various reasons, including strengthening muscles and the cardiovascular system, honing athletic skills, weight loss or maintenance, and merely enjoyment.
Gait analysis: Gait analysis is the systematic study of animal locomotion, more specifically the study of human motion, using the eye and the brain of observers, augmented by instrumentation for measuring body movements, body mechanics, and the activity of the muscles.
Heat: Heat therapy, also called thermotherapy, is the use of heat in therapy, such as for pain relief and health.
Ice: Cryotherapy is the local or general use of low temperatures in medical therapy.
Electrotherapy (TENS): Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is the use of electric current produced by a device to stimulate the nerves for therapeutic purposes.
Advice and education
The definitions above are mostly taken from Wikipedia in May 2015.