The musculoskeletal system works to support the horse, protect its vital organs and function in a way that allows for smooth, free movement of the horse.
Injury or malfunction to the system will inhibit the horse’s performance, whereas a healthy musculoskeletal system will lead to a comfortable, supple horse who is able to perform at his best.
The Skeletal System
The skeletal system is an amazing structure consisting of bones, cartilages, joints, bursae and ligaments to form the ‘framework’ of your horse.
The bones provide support and rigidity to the body, whilst also protecting the internal organs. As you know, they also act as ‘levers’ to enable movement of the horse when working in conjunction with the muscular system. Nancy S Loving, DVM writes “The length of the bones and the angles at which they come together dictate a horse's conformation, way of going, stride length, and potential power as an athlete.”
The diversity of the bone doesn’t end there. Bone is mostly made up of collagen (a protein) that allows just that little bit of elasticity. They also store large amounts of calcium, phosphorus and other inorganic ions that contribute toward bone strength. And then there are selected bones that produce red blood cells within their red marrow. The most amazing feature of the bone is it’s ability to ‘remodel’ – to change shape - in response to the stresses placed on them. Equine massage aids toward increased mineral retention in the bone, and as circulation increases, massage can also help the healing process of a fracture by promoting accessibility of the ‘resources’ required for the bone to rebuild.
As mentioned, conformation is determined by the skeletal structure of your horse and is something we cannot change. Bad conformation can affect the horses skeletal muscles negatively, and result in dysfunction. The application of equine myofunctional therapy aids to release the tension in dysfunctional skeletal muscles to enable your horse’s joints to work through their full range of movement – to the best of their conformational abilities.
Lets stop to consider equine chiropractic for a moment, which focuses on the biomechanical dysfunction of the spine. Your chiropractor will work to correct any misalignment and restore mobility, but what about the muscles? The Equine Education Connection has a wonderful article that explains “If the muscles are holding or pulling a bone into an unnatural position, putting it "back into place" with chiropractic will only be a temporary fix. Or, if the muscles are so tight that they are causing the bones to crowd together, chiropractic may temporarily allow the bones to regain some motion. But, the muscles will eventually cause the crowding to return…… if you are only using an equine chiropractor and not addressing the soft tissue at all, you will most likely need your horse to see the chiropractor indefinitely.”
For a therapy that offers aid to the soft tissues of the horse, there are certainly profound effects it can have on the skeletal system.
The Muscular System
Let’s start by breaking muscles down into their three categories:
An involuntary muscle (meaning it is regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System) only found in the walls of the heart.
Also an involuntary muscle found in the digestive and respiratory tracts.
And then there’s the skeletal muscle, which we’ll focus on for the remainder of this article. Unlike cardiac and smooth muscle, skeletal muscle is voluntary and functions via signals the brain sends through the nervous system, allowing the horse to move.
The muscle has a ‘belly’ and attaches to bone via tendons at each end – one end is called the ‘origin’ and attaches to the least movable bone, while the other is called an ‘insertion’ point and attaches to the most movable bone. When the nervous system signals for the muscle belly to contract, the insertion and origin points move together (with the insertion point moving towards the origin), and this creates movement in the skeleton. It’s important to know, that muscles typically work in pairs and groups, so while one muscle (or group) contracts to move a joint, the paired muscle (or group) must relax to allow the movement.
When a dysfunctional muscle is asked to contract (tighten) but cannot then fully release, it will remain shortened and tight, placing strain on surrounding muscles and restrict blood flow – which then also deprives the muscle of oxygen and nutrients. A tight muscle will also lead to spasm, knots and tears in the fibres.
Overuse, poor diet, structural (or postural) imbalance, poor training or plain and simply the lack of warm ups and cool downs when the horse is exercised are all contributing factors in damage to the muscular system, and it’s worth noting that a problem in one area could ‘spread’ to another part of the body altogether. For example, a problem in the front near side of a horse may also be presenting in the far hind end due to compensatory factors – and vise versa.
Massage therapist Jim Masterson writes, “Furthermore, a muscle that is tight is putting unnatural tension on its tendon.” To explain, a healthy skeletal muscle will allow for 90% in stretch, whereas the tendons, which are quite strong allow for 10%. When a horse is exercised, the tendons stretch and retract along with the muscle (you can just imagine them attached to bone and moving the joints), so when a muscle is compromised, tense, and unable to stretch to it’s full potential, the movements of the horse will also be placing strain on the tendon’s 10% stretch because it’s now compensating for the loss in muscle elasticity. This then exposes the tendon to higher chances of injury.
An EMT practitioner will carefully apply techniques depending on what’s presenting in front of them. They will manipulate and help stretch the muscle, relax the muscle, increase blood flow which in return promotes oxygen and nutrient supply, and they will help to remove lactic acid buildup (which occurs when the muscle is depleted of oxygen due to exercise and prevents it from being able to fully relax). As massage therapy increases circulation, the elimination of waste products from the horse’s system will also hasten and quickening muscle recovery time. Each of the physiological effects that massage has on the horse act to positively encourage healthy muscle development and aid in restoring range of motion, muscle tone, body balance and posture.
And remember, by working to restore a muscles’ condition back to its best possible performance, there will also be a reduction in the amount of strain placed on the tendon.
Loving, Nancy S, DVM, ‘Equine Skeletal System’ (online) The Horse, http://www.thehorse.com/articles/24790/equine-skeletal-system
Equine Education Connection, n.d, ‘Equine Chiropractic Pros, Cons, and Alternatives’, (online) http://www.eec-equine-therapy.com/Equine-Chiropractic.html
Masterson J & Hughes C 2015, ‘’The dressage horse optimized", J.A. Allen, Clerkwell house, pp16