Many horses are affected by lameness and back problems. In athletic horses, ideally preventing injuries from happening in the first place or once an injury has occurred rehabilitation of the horse are vital for long term health of the horse and ultimately for a successful competition career.

Training and rehabilitation techniques are available aiming at improving core muscle strength that are suggested to increase dynamic stability of the equine vertebral column, however to date quantitative evidence about their efficacy is sparse. Dr Thilo Pfau, Professor Renate Weller and V Simons from the RVC have worked with Nicole Rombach of Equinology Inc., California and N Stubbs from the Department of Equine Sports Medicine, Tierklinik Lűsche, Germany, Samorin, Napoli Slovak  on a study aimed at investigating the effects of a specific system of elastic resistance bands that is suggested to provide proprioceptive feedback during motion to encourage recruitment of core abdominal and hindquarter musculature for improved dynamic stability. Specifically, their research quantified the effects of a 4-week exercise programme, devised with the use of the elastic band system, on the movement of the back. Seven privately owned general riding horses in regular (daily) exercise, (5 mares, 2 geldings, 4-22 years of age, 1.52-1.71 m height at the withers) were recruited to participate in the study. Horses had to be free from overt signs of back pain and lameness.

All horses were training and competing (at various levels, mainly for dressage). Back movement was quantified with small, wireless inertial measurement units non-invasively attached along the spine (head, withers, back and pelvis) during trot in-hand and lunge exercise at beginning (before the start) and end of a 4-week exercise programme.

The exercise programme involved use of a modified saddle pad to which two elastic bands (the hindquarter band and the abdominal band) were attached using buckle clips with the bands fitted at 30% tension. Initially (week 1) bands were only used for 5 minutes/day. Over subsequent weeks the duration of use increased between week 2 and week 4 from 10 minutes to 30 minutes while usage was reduced from 5 times/week to 3 times/week. Both translational (up-down, left-right, forward-backward) and rotational (around the three translational axes) movements were quantified both with and without the use of the bands. Stride time was measured as an indicator of speed. A statistical model was used that investigated the effect of band usage, the effect of time (exercise week) as well as the effect of whether the horse moved in-hand or on the left or right rein on the lunge.

Effects on translational and rotational movements were investigated. Back movement parameters were calculated from a total of 3215 strides (25 to 89 strides per condition) at the two time points (week1, week4), with and without the use of the exercise bands. When using the bands, there was less roll (rotation around the forwards-backwards axis) and pitch (rotation around the left-right axis) at the level of the withers as well as less left-right movement in the mid thoracic and lumbar regions (the region of the back stretching from where the saddle is located in a ridden horse to just behind the saddle). Over the course of the 4-week exercise regimen, roll movement at the withers and in the thoracic region and pitch in the lumbar region decreased while up-down movement increased by 1.7 mm (thoracic) and 2.5 mm (coccygeal). The majority of back movement parameters showed differences between in-hand tort and movement on the lunge with ranges of motion greater on the lunge compared to in-hand trot. In this study we found supporting evidence for the use of a specific system of elastic resistance bands in affecting a reduction in rotational movement of the withers and sideways (left-right) movement of the thoracic and lumbar region. This can be interpreted as an increase in dynamic stability of the vertebral column in trot both during exercise in-hand and on the lunge (we did not quantify ridden exercise). The effects were concentrated on the thoracolumbar area (the area underneath the saddle and just behind the saddle in a ridden horse.

During use of the bands over the course of the 4-week exercise regimen, the riders subjectively reported a greater ‘stability of movement’. Whether (or to what extent) any of the measured changes are directly translated into increased muscle activation of the postural core muscles was not the scope of this study. Future studies should now directly measure muscle activity to help understand the underlying mechanisms of providing increased dynamic stability. It is interesting to note that over time (between week 1 and week 4) up-down movement at the mid-back and at the caudal pelvis (just above the tail root) increased, which may suggest that the horses showed increased impulsion. This study is the first to investigate quantitatively the use of a specific system of elastic resistance bands, that can be used during in-hand, lunge and ridden exercise, simply by attachment to a modified saddle pad. The system is hence easy to use during the normal exercise routine of a horse enabling use in horses of any discipline. Our results suggest that the bands are increasing dynamic stability of the horse in trot, however further studies should investigate the exact underlying mechanisms leading to this increase in dynamic stability to optimise its use in training and rehabilitation.

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