The horse’s skeleton is an amazing system of 205 various bones, that recent research from Kentucky Equine Research has found are capable of remodeling and adapting in response to exercise and training.
The horse’s skeleton has evolved over the centuries to allow them to run faster to flee from predators. They have developed an elongated appendicular skeleton for impulsion and acceleration and the bone mass of the lower limbs has reduced making the horse quicker.
Soundness in horses greatly depends upon their skeletal structure. It is truly amazing that this half ton animal carries itself around on such thin legs. As much as three times the horse’s body weight is placed with force on their limbs as they gallop. Extreme speed, jumping and other athletic movements can be overpowering to the appendicular skeletal system and accounts for the animals high incidences of injury. Adding the weight of a rider, with the horse’s center of gravity being located just behind its shoulders creates additional stress to the front limbs. While the horse’s conformation is inherited and cannot be changed to a large degree, bone can be modified with training.
The equine skeletal system is a living organism that is strengthened through conditioning by adjusting mass and arrangement of the bone tissue without modifying its mineral material. Bone tissue is continuously in state of mineral deposition and absorption. As a horse exercises the bone is responsive to the compression and displacement of training affecting bone growth and maintenance.
Bones that are not in use, rapidly become thinner and demineralized also known as osteoporosis, in a matter of days.
Genetic coding forms bone even in the absence of activity but proper nutrition is key to bone density and strength. Horses need proper mineralization of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc manganese and vitamins A and D, in order to reduce the likelihood of fractures and joint injuries.
Bones respond to training by either strengthening or breaking down. Gradually adaption of increased training strengthens bone and joints creating re-absorption and re-deposits of bone in new areas, reshaping bone structures. Bone cells via osteoclasts (cells that destroy bone) are removed and then rebuilt by osteoblasts, (cells that make a cartilage matrix and then mineralize).
One theory of bone remodeling is that osteoclastic precursors recognize a change in the bone properties through strain or deformation of the bone by force, signaling a need for increased bone mass.
Research from the Netherlands and Michigan State University reported significantly less bone density of horses kept in box stalls compared to those who were given regular exercise or regular turn out. Restricting exercise in young horse’s retards cartilage and bone development and moderate exercise trains skeletal structures to accept weight bearing and limb-loading forces.
The Kentucky Equine Research study showed that bone mineral content reduced the moment horses are confined to stalls and increases with regular training; plasma calcium and plasma osteocalcin levels drop when horses are confined and increase with intense exercise increasing bone formation.
The study found that gradual strategically applied training is important and jogging or easy gallops do not signal bone formation. Making it a training balancing act to not under or overtraining.
Current research is underway to examine the use of biochemical markers in bone formation.
"The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and fire."
~Sharon Ralls Lemon
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