Nearly 10% of one-day eventers in study may have had a musculoskeletal problem

The relationship found between discomfort and performance highlights the importance of recognition and management of pain for optimising performance, researchers say.
File image by Filip Eliasson

Musculoskeletal discomfort is a likely driver of reduced competition performance in some Eventing horses, according to researchers, who applied a pain scale to mounts at several British competitions.

Leading lameness researchers Sue Dyson and her colleague Danica Pollard, in a study published in the journal Animals, applied the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) to 1010 competition starts at British Eventing one-day event competitions, including novice classes.

Dyson led research about three years ago that led to the development of the RHpE, and is extensively trained in its use.

It comprises 24 behaviours, each with strict definitions, that occur more frequently in a horse with musculoskeletal discomfort compared with a non-lame horse.

They include the likes of mouth opening with separation of the teeth for at least 10 seconds, repeated head tilting, persistent tail swishing, an intense stare for five or more seconds, spooking, bucking, rearing, tail clamping, repeated tongue exposure, and putting the ears back for more than five seconds.

The presence of at least 8 of the 24 behaviours is considered a reliable indicator of the presence of an underlying musculoskeletal problem. The higher the tally, the greater the likelihood that the horse has musculoskeletal discomfort which may compromise performance.

It has previously been shown that the most frequent score in non-lame horses is 2 out of 24.

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram. Image: Dyson and Pollard,

An association between the RHpE score and performance has been shown in previous research for 5* three-day event horses.

The scale in the pair’s latest research was applied during the dressage phase.

The overall median RHpE score found to be 4, with a range of 0 to 12.

The median RHpE score was a little higher, at 5, for BE90 competitors, compared with 4 for BE100 horses. BE90 competition involves a maximum showjumping height of 95cm and a cross country a maximum of 90cm, while BE100 classes have a maximum showjumping height of 105cm and a cross country maximum of 100cm.

The median score for horses in novice classes was 3.5.

The researchers found that horses who placed first, second or third had a lower median RHpE score (2) compared with other horses in the competition.

The proportion of horses with a RHpE score of 8 or more was lowest (2%) in those placed first to third, followed by horses with lower placings (9.9%). The proportion of these horses was highest in those who were eliminated, retired or withdrawn (11.3%).

Overall, the results showed that horses with a RHpE score of 8 or more performed less well than those with a RHpE score below 8.

The pair noted that the social licence to use horses in competition is increasingly being questioned. The overall low median RHpE score observed in the study supported the continuing use of horses in affiliated eventing, they said.

However, an RHpE score 8 or more was documented in 9% of competition starts, and this merits attention.

“Several dressage judges commented in conversation after the event that they considered that some horses looked clearly uncomfortable, but they felt powerless to intervene.

“Even when overt lameness was observed, judges commented that they felt reluctant to advise competitors to withdraw, although it was within their remit to do so, because of previous adverse experiences.”

In some instances, competitors had sought the advice of the event veterinarian, who evaluated their horse only moving in hand, and no lameness had been observed. This had resulted in complaints to the event organisers about the dressage judges.

“It must be borne in mind,” they said, “that there is a considerably higher frequency of occurrence of lameness in ridden horses compared with horses assessed in hand.”

Dyson and Pollard said the education of riders, coaches and trainers is required to recognise both gait abnormalities that reflect discomfort and ridden horse behaviours that are a manifestation of pain, and to understand the potential consequences of incorrect training on long-term musculoskeletal health.

“The relationship between RHpE scores and performance highlights the importance of recognition and management of pain for optimising performance,” they wrote.

“Riders and their coaches/trainers also need to learn to consider all reasons why a horse performed poorly, rather than attribute blame to rider errors, ground conditions, the uncooperative nature of the horse or the difficulty of the course.”

They said that clinical investigations of horses with pain-related gait abnormalities and appropriate treatment and management had the potential to enhance both welfare and performance.

Dyson, S.; Pollard, D. Application of the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram to Horses Competing in British Eventing 90, 100 and Novice One-Day Events and Comparison with Performance. Animals 2022, 12, 590.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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