The Equine Jump

The Equine Jump – An Osteopathic Review

Chris Bates M.Ost EEBW BHSAI

Whether showjumping, eventing or jumping for fun, jumping horses is a thrilling activity and the horses often thoroughly enjoy it too. Jumping is certainly one of the more intensive physical activities that we do with our horses and so it makes sense to fully understand what the horse is going through and how it can affect them, this way we as owners and riders can ensure that the horse doesn’t undergo unnecessary strain or stress. 

Equine jumping is an athletically demanding movement whereby the horse completely leaves the ground usually to navigate over an obstacle although in the wild, this can also be to evade predation. There are numerous considerations when attempting to jump a horse safely and correctly:

  • Age of the horse
  • Level of training (horse and rider)
  • Type of obstacle
  • Surrounding environment
  • Surface
  • Light
  • Fitness of the horse
  • Foot health and shoeing
  • Tack worn
  • Ongoing health issues or injuries 

The list could go on and on. Essentially, it is important to go into this discipline prepared and educated. 

Let us look at the equine jump in more detail. There are 5 phases to the equine jump, the approach, take off, flight, landing and away. There is a substantial amount of effort from the horse to ascertain the height and depth of the jump, and to judge its safety on the surface which can often lead to accidents if these are not suitable. 

The Approach:

Preparation in key here. During this phase the horse is judging its speed, power and impulsion to clear the jump safely. Riders will need to consider the “line” which is the straightness and angle taken in approaching the jump. The line can, with training, become more angled and shorter for more advanced and challenging jumping courses. However in early stages, a straight and perpendicular approach to the obstacle allows the horse the best chance to plan and assess their movements.

The pace in approach will most often be canter, trot can be used to approach the majority of the line in some training scenarios but the last pace to gather in preparation for take-off will usually be a canter stride. The pace should be holding a good rhythm, balance and have enough impulsion.

The rider should not interfere with the pace in approach, changes to the pace should be prior to obtaining the final line to the jump. Some trainers and instructors will provide a place pole in front of the jump (usually one pace space away, sometimes multiples) to educate the horse in rhythm and consistency. 

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

Take off:

This phase is when the horse gets the right foot placement to leave the ground and engage the adequate force to clear the jump. The horse essentially jumps twice, once with the front limbs and once with the hind.

As force is transferred into the thoracic sling muscles and the tensegrity structures of the forelimb (see our last article on tensegrity), the elastic potential of these tissues allow for some lift as the horse then flexes the joints to raise the front legs.

The horse will raise their head carriage and focus their ears and eyes at the jump at this point too. Once the elastic “spring” of the front has elevated the forequarters of the horse, the hind limbs will step under into the space cleared by the front legs. The height of the jump and effort required will dictate how much compression the joints need to undergo to store potential energy. The hind feet will be placed close or even parallel and great force is exerted from powerful muscles such as the quadricep group and gastrocnemius and soleus. 

Photo Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

Flight:

The flight of the jump is where the feet are all off the ground and the forward momentum generated carries the horse and rider over the obstacle. Over the higher jumps, the horse will create a crescent shape called “bascule” as it travels over the fence.

At this point the rider can still actually affect the horse’s way of going by very subtle weight and rein aids; however at the fundamental level, the rider should remain fairly passive here. In preparation for flight, the rider will begin to compress their position at take-off and during the flight will fold their position to maintain their body weight over the horse’s center of gravity.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

Landing:

During the landing, the horse’s entire bodyweight and the rider’s weight are momentarily placed through the front limbs. This is where strain injuries can be developed (more on that later). With a high degree of flexion of the spine and lumbosacral junction, the hind legs follow under the horse’s body and continue to propel the horse forward transferring the forces into traveling motion. The ground and surface integrity is of great importance here to ensure that the horse does not slip or get stuck.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

The Away:

One the horse has landed, there is a significant amount of momentum that needs to be directed. The rider has some degree of control over the leading canter leg the horse picks on landing by using subtle rein and weight cues, but the away in training should be driven forward and straight from the obstacle to encourage maintenance of rhythm and impulsion.

At this point, the horse and rider are able to regain balance and posture over the center of gravity. The rider will bring their position more upright again and the horse will engage their hindquarters to lift the forehand and drive forward. From a training perspective, the horse can benefit from some light but encouraging aids to keep moving forward and free of restriction.

Photo Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

Injuries:

Damage and injury can be a risk in any equine discipline, however jumping obviously puts a high degree of force through the tissues and joints. It is very important to consider the growth stages of the horse when training younger jumpers.

Picture Courtesy of Equine Partnership

Horses are said to have reached skeletal maturity at around 6 years of age. This is not to say that jumping cannot be introduced earlier, but care should be taken to reduce excessive impact. Being careful of frequency in jump training, surface use and type of jump are important factors to avoid bone stresses that could lead to problems later in life.

We know from Wolfe’s Law that bone will change shape, size and density relative to the forces placed upon it, this means that over training at younger ages could potentially create malformations and injuries. The younger horse’s boney growth plates will also need to be considered as transverse forces from poor jumping surface, wet ground or training mistakes could damage this dynamically changing region. 

Tendons of the horse in the distal limbs contain tough fibers that withstand large forces. Jumping will place further force through these tendons and can potentially overwhelm their integrity. If using boots on the horse, they must be correctly fitting and not over tight.

The use of poorly fitting boots or bandages on horses can distort the shape and function of the tendons, this will put the tissues at a higher risk of being overwhelmed. 

Strength of the muscular system is vital in jumping. The forequarters of the horse take the majority of the bodyweight and with the addition of the rider’s weight too. Conditioning of the thoracic sling muscles ensures that there is sufficient tensile strength there to support the gravitational movement of the axial skeleton between the scapula. This can be done with gradual progressive overload by slowly ramping up the intensity of training over a well-planned period with adequate breaks factored in.

Many trainers and therapists value the use of ground pole work and raised pole work to encourage the building of strength with a fuller range of motion, preparing the muscles for the higher degree of range used in navigating jumps. 

The Osteopath’s Role:

Prevention is far better than cure. As Osteopaths, we can provide care to ensure that the horse has the adequate capacity to undertake the work being asked of them. Osteopaths can examine and assess the available range of motion in the horse’s body and address restrictions that may hinder performance.

Soft tissue care can encourage development and recovery of muscles and remove barriers to healing that could become larger problems. Osteopaths can also work in a remedial way to assist the Vet led team in recovery from injuries. 

One case that I have more recently experienced has been a horse jumping at a fairly high level of competition. This horse was suffering tenosynovitis (tendon sheath inflammation) in his distal left forelimb. This was being addressed by the Vet, a Nutritionist for ensuring optimum diet for tissue repair and by me to passively restore motility of the tendon tissue through the sheath and connective fascia. Using finely tuned Osteopathic palpation to work within the restrictive barriers and gradually extending those barriers, I have been able to allow his body to restore itself and avoid unwanted adhesions in the tissues.

By using OAB (Osteopathic Articular Balancing) and lymphatic stimulation, I have assisted the fluid dynamics to the area and thereby getting adequate nutrition/healing factors to the site of dysfunction. I was also able to observe wider body compensations from an antalgic gait and using body wide balancing and integration, encouraging the body to move more naturally. This avoided the onset of more chronic dysfunctional movements. 

For more information on how you can become an Equine Osteopath, click here 

Blog Post written by:
Chris Bates
Osteopath (DO), Equine Therapist and Lecturer at London College of Animal Osteopathy