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Lars Roepstorff: "It often seems to be forgotten that the first months with a new horse always has an increased risk factor for lameness"

Wednesday, 09 December 2020

Photo © Roland Thunholm "We do way too much with the young horses, way too fast. It’s not just about giving the right education, it’s about taking the time when bringing the horses up through the classes,” Lars Roepstorff says. Photo © Roland Thunholm.


Text © World of Showjumping



WoSJ speaks with Lars Roepstorff – professor of equine functional anatomy and a highly experienced veterinary surgeon – about how to keep horses healthy and sound. 

“If you want a healthy horse, it starts the moment it is born,” Roepstorff says. “It is really important to create movement opportunities for the young foals. Through scientific research, we know with certainty that the cartilage and the tendons get stronger by a foal’s movement during its first six months. After, the cartilage and tendons are strengthened only to a limited extent. Hence, the young foals need to be allowed to move natural over big areas on different surfaces. This has also been a mantra for Ingvar Fredricson in his research projects.”

Don’t blame the breeders, blame the system

Roepstorff tells that he often hears how people complain that we are not breeding healthy and strong horses. “I totally agree that to some extent the breeders are responsible for how the horses develop later on, but not for the same reasons most people do,” Roepstorff says.

“In my opinion, most of the breeders today offer extremely competent horses – maybe too competent,” Roepstorff says. “The horses are strong, technically skilled and willing to work. They can more or less do piaffe and passage the moment they are born, and you hardly need to train a young horse to jump 1.20m – and this results in problems. With these capable horses, we see less and less versatile long-term build-up." 

From a health perspective the breeding is good, what we lack is competence to take care of this extremely high-quality horse material. 

"We do way too much with the young horses, way too fast. It’s not just about giving the right education, it’s about taking the time when bringing the horses up through the classes,” Roepstorff says. 

“The riders need to be able to read each horse individually,” Roepstorff continues. “It is important to know that the horses aren’t done growing and haven’t closed their vertebras until they get closer to the age of six. Most people are taught that the growth zones in the limbs usually close by the age of three. However, since we in equestrian sports sit on the horses, it is paramount to understand that the vertebrae closes at a considerably higher age – thus we should be careful and adapt to increased loading over a very long period of time. The rider needs to be aware of when the horse is growing and changing its body constitution – an attentive rider notices this and puts less pressure on the horse rather than thinking it is being difficult. It is all about horsemanship.”

Start up your horse early

The age of which the horses are started up vary greatly, some begin when they are 2.5 years old, others at 4. “I think it is much better to start with the horses early on, even though it might be more difficult to limit what and how much you ask of a very capable horse,” Roepstorff says. “I say this from a physiological point of view; a horse that is still growing can adjust to the work. A mature body doesn’t have the same possibility to adjust. Then we have the mental side of it as well."

Everyone is trying to breed the new World Champion – not a horse for the medium level – so the amount of blood and temperament is more fitting for a Formula-1 driver than a Sunday driver. 

"These horses are often easier to deal with when they are younger,” Roepstorff says.

When it comes to keeping the horses sound, Roepstorff really wants to point out the importance of the training. “All biological beings and all biological tissues have a great ability to adapt. If we learn to train our horses for what we aim them to do, on the surfaces that they will do it on, we have the best chance to minimise the risk of injuries. In order to achieve this, we need better knowledge about surfaces as well as the five factors – impact firmness, cushioning, responsiveness, grip and uniformity,” Roepstorff says. 

Surfaces are not entirely to blame

What are the most common injuries horses can sustain from working on surfaces that are not good enough? “Many veterinarians are of the opinion that suspensory and other ligament injuries often are caused by surfaces, but actually we don’t know much about that yet,” Roepstorff says. “An injury is so complex. It is not just about the surface. Most importantly is how you use it, it is also about the horse’s anatomy, how it is trained, how it is moving and so many other factors that come into play. Personally speaking, I would say it is mostly about how we train our horses – which means so many factors are involved. You can’t give the surface the full blame.”

Even though it is difficult to do a scientific study on this, Roepstorff is planning on doing so. “We will give it a try,” he says. “The idea is to have the same horses jump big fences on a good grass surface, on a fibre and sand mixed surface and on a sand surface. Then we will measure both the force and movements when the horses are jumping, trying to get a perception of how the different characteristics of the surfaces affect the horses. In the end it is always the force that causes injuries in the horses’ musculoskeletal system – in the ligaments, tendons, bones and cartilage.”

Always gradual adjustments

When it comes to how to keep horses healthy through training, Roepstorff operates with a few bullet-points. “Always do gradual adjustments when you are changing circumstances and conditions. When you want to jump higher, ride faster jump-offs, change surface, change rider – always stick with a gradual adjustment! The second keyword is variation. You need to create variation in your training and avoid doing the same thing every day on the same surface.”

To hack out and ride on uneven surfaces in the woods has many benefits, says Roepstorff – who himself competes in showjumping and eventing. 

1. “It is like gymnastics for horses. They get different loads on the skeleton, ligaments, tendons and cartilage as well as a general gymnastic exercise.” 

2. “They get a better coordination.”

3. “Mentally, hacking out is very good for the horses. They get variety. If we protect our horses mentally, we give ourselves problems. If we put cotton in their ears and stay in the indoor, the horses will of course be dangerous to hack out on and we will also get problems to handle them on a busy show ground. It is common sense.”

4. “It is a good way to get the horses used to different kind of surfaces.”

Be aware of the first months

”A well trained individual sustains an injury easier, as it has a better ability to work with high intensity,” Roepstorff says. “If you have a high-level horse and this horse gets a new rider, a new surface, and maybe new training methods at the same time that it is expected to perform on the same high level, the risk of injuries is higher compared to a relatively untrained horse. For those horses, a change of rider, surface and training method will not have the same consequences as they don’t have the ability to work with the same high intensity yet. It often seems to be forgotten that the first months with a new horse always has an increased risk factor for lameness,” Roepstorff closes off.


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