Norwegian research: Stretching the top line has several positive effects

Abstract

Preventive training to release tension, to stretch the top line and to build core muscles in the back, shoulders and hind quarters of the horse has not been given enough attention in equine sports in the last decade.

Written by Inger Lise Andersen, project leader ethology, NMBU

Most riders want their horse to have long, supple movements, yet it is easy to forget that learning and successful training that demand collaboration with the animal has to start with calmness and a relaxed state of mind both in the trainer and the horse. A high fear and stress level blocks or reduces the speed of the learning process and makes communication with the animal difficult.

Norske_Flagg LES OGSÅ – Norsk studie: Lang og typ rideform har flere positive effekter på hesten

For instance, stimulating the horse’s positive emotions by rewarding positive behaviours rather than using force and punishment, will stimulate positive behavioural expressions in the horse which indicates a positive mental state.

A high fear and stress level blocks or reduces the speed of the learning process and makes communication with the animal difficult

Behavioural indicators that could be of relevance to assess the mental and/or physical state (i.e.welfare) state of the horse are:

  • head and neck position,
  • tail movement,
  • mouth movement,
  • ear position,
  • other facial ques such as eye expression (Eisersiö et al., 2013)
  • or by the recently developed facial grimace scale to indicate pain or discomfort.

Not surprisingly, rein tension is among others clearly related to mouth movements (Eisersiö et al., 2013) as any excessive bit pressure causes oral movements, discomfort and pain (Manfredi et al., 2005; 2010).

We would like to address the link between behavioural expressions and biomechanical measures in riding horses subjected to a standardized, preventive, riding method

Facial grimace scale is not so easy to use during training when the horse is moving in different speed, but it is possible to develop related scoring system for all these factors mentioned. A consequence of this is most likely reflected in an improved quality and suppleness of the movements. Therefore, we would like to address the link between behavioural expressions and biomechanical measures in riding horses subjected to a standardized, preventive, riding method.

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Although general biomechanics of the horse is complex (Moore, 2010), it is far from being simply mechanical. According to McGreevy og McLean (2010), a longitudinal flexion that stretches and extend the horses back and top line should be a part of every daily training or warm up before every riding session because this loosens up the muscles and may initiate a relaxed state in the horse.

Flexion

Another and even just as important goal with this method is that it may strengthen core muscles along in the back and neck region if conducted in the right way. Simply head lowering induced by downward pressure on the head collar via a lead rope and then released pressure at the wanted height, did not result in calming effect of the horse (Warren-Smith et al., 2007), revealing that it is more to this than just forcing the head into a lower position.

175_1586b944d2b0903c3950e7f7ea9092e1_bc4b92_c6900c72491449fdbdb2a7a28e75e2b7
Engaging the horse back and top line: A longitudinal flexion that stretches and extend the horses back and top line should be a part of every daily training or warm up before every riding session because this loosens up the muscles and may initiate a relaxed state in the horse.

The way the horses is stimulated to stretch and how this is rewarded is likely to have an effect. An important point is that the horse should be allowed to find its own balance and then seek the stretch without any force from the rider, and the main key to achieve this is a relaxed emotional state in the horse. Without relaxation, the horse is not able to work correctly over the back and when stressed the cognitive ability of the horse is impaired and the horse becomes difficult to train.

A horse is likely to work in any frame as long as it is allowed to have a free-flow, non-retrained movement without tightening the rein and forcing the head in one constant position

Balance, straightness, self-carriage and positive reinforcement could be important components of this picture. A horse is likely to work in any frame as long as it is allowed to have a free-flow, non-retrained movement without tightening the rein and forcing the head in one constant position. We would like to draw the attention away from control to partnership with the horse, and verify a set of simple measures that can be used to assess welfare in horses during training as a whole, but first of all by brushing the dust away from and renewing a specific, old, classical and preventive riding method.

The scientific approach

The aim of the present preliminary study was firstly to evaluate short term effects of longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins while riding on behavioural responses, muscle sensitivity and gait length in riding horses. Secondly, we wanted to address whether this has a potential as a riding method to prevent back and neck problems.

The study was conducted by:

  • Inger Lise Andersen (project leader ethology, NMBU)
  • Linn Therese Olafsen (master student, NMBU)
  • Sylvia Burton (experimental rider, SekkelstenEnga Hestegård),
  • Lars Moen (veterinarian, Romerike hesteklinikk),
  • Juan Carlos Rey (veterinarian, researcher, SLU) and
  • Lars Roepstorff (veterinarian, expert in horse biomechanics, SLU)
  • Sylvia Burton (experimental rider, SekkelstenEnga Hestegård),
  • Lars Moen (veterinarian, Romerike hesteklinikk),
  • Juan Carlos Rey (veterinarian, researcher, SLU) and
  • Lars Roepstorff (veterinarian, expert in horse biomechanics, SLU)

The Norwegian research indicate immediate effects of a standardized method of longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding (LSR):

  • Behavioural scores
  • Mechanical Nociceptive Threshold (MSN)
  • Pressure (pain) Response score and
  • Stride length and quality

The preliminary project examined 8 riding horses aged 4 to 11, 2 cold blooded and 6 warm blooded,subjected to a 20 minute treatment.

MSN (mechanical nociceptive threshold) was measured at the 6 following locations: muscle Brachiocephalicus at the basis of the neck, left (1) and right (2) side of mid line, mid thorarcic Longissimus, 10 cm lateral of the dorsal midline, left (3) and right (4), between Tuber sacral and Tuber coxae on the mid Gluteus muscle, left (5) and right (6), with a pressure algometer. Note: The nociceptive is the sensory nervous system’s response to certain harmful or potentially harmful stimuli

The following behavioural expression (variables) were scored by two pretrained observers:

  • Ear position (from score 1: flat orientated backwards, to 6: hanging in a totally relaxed state directed towards each side, «floppy ears»),
  • Eye expression
  • From score 1: Wide Open, much of the eye white is showing, tense muscles around the eyes to 6: Relaxed mucles around the eyes, no eye white is shown.) Head and neck position (from 1: head held high, tensed, nose above the vertical to 6: head and neck is stretched downwards and forward with the mule below the front knees, relaxed),
  • Mouth movement (from 1: large opening between upper and lower jaw, a lot of mouth activity with tongue and lips, rich in foam, lips very tensed to 6: no mouth activity, closed, silent, totally relaxed mouth with no tension in the lips, not more than a lipstick with foam if any
  • Collaboration with rider (from 1: not willing to move forward, bucking, rearing, or kicking to 6: show only positive and no negative behaviours towards the rider),
  • Motivation to work (working ability) (from 1: low working ability to 6: high working ability),
  • Gait quality (from 1: unbalanced/non-symmetric, lack of rhythm and flow, shortened and tensed to 6: balanced, excellent rhythm and flow, long and relaxed movements) were scored by two pretrained observers.)

In later projects, we have changed the range of scores from 1 to 5 instead of 1 to 6, because this enables one neutral score in the middle, two positive and two negative scores.

The following four consecutive phases of the treatment were evaluated:

1. first 5 minutes lunging,

2. first 10 minutes LSR (longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding, light and gentle rein contact),

3. last 10 minutes LSR, and

4. last 5 minutes lunging.

175_d2f0f87fb3a7ec75850be62787f3f952_image2
Figure 1. Longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding – LSR. Illustration by German National Equestrian Federation (GNEF, 1990)

Behavioral scores were made both from direct observations and later repeated from video to test for observer reliability. Stride length in walk and trot was calculated using the ETB-Pegasus Digital Gait analysis system. The last 10 minute of the LSR (long reins during riding) resulted in the highest scores for all behaviours recorded compared to the other phases of the treatment, and these were also summed up into a total score revealing the same result.

Results

In conclusion: Results are promising and suggest that we should further validate this method as a preventive riding method, both because it:

  •  increases stride length,
  • reduced pressure response,
  • and most importantly; because it initiated several positive behavioural responses in the horses during training.

Scores of behavioral responses and gait quality

The last 10 minute of the LSR (longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding) affected all behavioural responses positively, with significantly higher scores than the first lunging and the first 10 minute of the LSR (Table 1; Figure 1). The positive effect of the last 10 minute LSR continued in the last 5 minute lunging afterwards, and the last lunging had significantly higher total behavioural score than the first 5 minute lunging and the first 10 minute LSR.

175_8a30211a22753214932d6e1291d3fa45_image5 kopi
Longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding affected all behavioural responses positively.

The last 10 minute of the LSR (longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding) tended to give a higher score for gait quality irrespective of gait type (walk or trot), but the effect was not significant after this short time.

Table 1. Mean + SE behavioural scores during the training (from from the most negative score 1 to the most positive score 6) for the 8 horses.

 

VARIABLES STATISTICS

(MEAN Behavioural scores (mean ±SE)*

Χ2 P-value First lunging LRS first 10 min LRS last 10 min Last lunging
Head and neck position
15.0 0.0018 3.9±0.2a 3.1±0.4a 4.5±0.2b 4.3±0.2b
Ear position
13.9 0.0031 4.1±0.1a 4.2±0.5a 5.5±0.3b 5.0±0.2b
Eye expression
42.3 <0.0001 4.6±0.2a 5.3±0.2b 6.0±0.0c 5.1±0.1ab
Mouth movement
10.3 0.0162 4.7±0.2a 4.2±0.5ab 5.2±0.4c 4.9±0.3ab
Collaboration with rider
18.78 0.0003 4.8±0.3a 4.8±0.1a 5.8±0.1b 5.6±0.2b
Motivation to work
13.59 0.0035 5.2±0.3a 4.4±0.6b 5.5±0.3a 5.8±0.2a
Behavior total
9.8 0.0328 32.0±1.2a 30.2±1.7a 37.6±0.9b 35.7±0.9b
Gait quality
6.9 0.0767 4.8±0.2 4.3±0.3 5.1±0.2 5.2±0.2

 

Total sum of behavior.jpg
Figure 2. Mean+SE Sum of behavioural scores during lunging and LSR.

The highest positive behavioural score was achieved during the last 10 minute LSR, and this score was significantly higher than for the first lunging and the first 10 minute LSR.

Horses with a high score for collaboration with the handler/rider also had a lower, voluntary head position during riding, had a more relaxed eye expression, and had more relaxed ears with a “floppy” expression with the ears tilted to each side.

High score for willingness to collaborate with the rider was also associated with a high total behavioural score in general, which indicates a more positive mental state during riding. The lower the head and neck position were, the more relaxed.

Finally, a lower head and neck position was associated with a higher total behavioural score, indicating a positive mental state, irrespective of whether the horse was lunged or ridden. A lower position of the head was also strongly associated with a higher score for gait quality.

Biomechanical measurements like stride length (in meter/gait) was significantly longer during LSR (long reins during riding) than during lunging before and after, but there was no difference between first and last lunging or between first and last 10 minutes of LSR (Figure 3).

Stride length was significantly longer in the trot than during walking, but there was no significant interaction between activity and gait type. Median gait length (in meters) during the four activities: 1: first lunging, 2: first 10 minute LSR, 3: last 10 minute LSR, 4: last lunging for the 8 horses during 1: walk and 2: trot. The slower the speed in walk or trot during LSR, the deeper towards the ground was the voluntary position of the head (i.e. the longest stretch), but there was no relationship between the speed of movements in either gaits and gait length.

Interaction plot
Figure 3. Median gait length (in meters) during the four activities: 1: first lunging, 2: first 10 minute LSR, 3: last 10 minute LSR, 4: last lunging for the 8 horses during 1: walk and 2: trot.

Mechanical nociceptive threshold (MSN) and pain response due to physical pressure/palpation with a Pressure Algometer From the period after first lunging to after the 20 minutes LSR (longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding), MSN (mechanical nociceptive threshold) in five out of 6 locations (Figure 4) were significantly affected.

175_35dbc29190f02f962e2f67425034433a_untitled 2
Figure 4. 6 selected locations for measuring pressure sensitivity (pressure response score)

Pain response score caused by the palpation when measuring MSN (mechanical nociceptive threshold) did not differ significantly between the 6 selected locations, but we found an overall, significantly lower pain response score after the LSR (longitudinal stretching of the top line with long reins during riding) than before (Figure 5). Before LSR we counted 8 observations with strong pain response score, but after LSR there were no observations with strong pain response score in any of the horses or locations. Before LSR, we had 25 observations without pain response, whereas there were 32 observations without pain response after the LSR.

Pain respons
Figure 5. Mean+SE pain response score (scale 0, 1, 2 where 2 is strongest pain response and 0 is no behavioural signs of pain) before and after 20 minutes of LSR for all 6 locations along the top line.

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References

Eiersiö, Roepstorff, L., Weishaupt, M. A., Egenwall, A., 2013. Movements of the horse’s mouth in relation to horse-rider kinematic variables. The Veterinary Journal, 198: e33-e38.

Manfredi, J.M., Clayton, H. M., Rosenstein, D., 2005. Radiographic of bit position within the horses oral cavity. Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology 2: 195-201.

Manfredi, J.M., Rosenstein, D., Lanovaz, J. L., Nauwelaerts, S., Clayton, H. M., 2010. Fluoroscopic study of oral behaviours in response to the presence of a bit and the effects of rein tension. Comparative Exercise Physiology 6: 143-148.

Moore, J., General Biomechanics: The Horse As a Biological Machine. Clinical Technique. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 30: 379-383.

Warren-Smith, A. K., Greetham, L., McGreevy, P. D., 2007. Behavioural and physiological responses of horses (Equus caballus) to head lowering. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 2:59-67.


6 thoughts on “Norwegian research: Stretching the top line has several positive effects

  1. Great to see this finally getting attention. For those of you who want to learn this MOST valuable skill, which can be incorporated in ANY riding program and at ANY level, across every discipline of riding.
    I invite you to go to http://www.equinesse.com and request a date to host the 2-day F.I.M. Riding clinic. Read: Foundation in Motion. Time and time again, I see Horses change -in a matter of minutes- given the chance to use their bodies correctly, without interference from the rider.

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  2. We are open to give cliniques to demonstrate this method and other ways to make the horse more relaxed before work and training as well as helping you to improve the partnership with your horse for improved performance and welfare. This method can also be used for trotters or carriage horses. There are many ways to achhieve the same goal. You can contact me on inger-lise.andersen@nmbu.no. The second article with more resultst will be out soon.

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