All You Need to Know About the Hidden C6-C7 Malformation That’s Bringing Horses Down

What if you were to learn that your horse is living with a hidden malformation? A skeletal abnormality that could be affecting it every day, changing the way it moves, creating a string of other physical problems, and possibly underlying the hard-to-pinpoint problems you’ve been noticing for months or even years ?

And that might even be causing a level of inherent instability that could be putting the rider in danger?

Sadly, this isn’t a hypothetical question. Instead it’s a reality that is only now being slowly uncovered.

And like the proverbial stone rolling down a mountain, the issue is gathering momentum as the equine industry, owners, breeders and researchers learn about it.

  • It’s a skeletal malformation and it can’t be corrected.
  • It’s congenital, ie inherited, so is present from birth.
  • It has been in some lines of TBs for hundreds of years.
  • It creates biomechanical issues due to asymmetry and lack of anchor points for key muscles.
  • At its worst, it can contribute to neurological issues such as Wobbler syndrome.
  • Some horses are so unstable, they are more prone to falling (not good news for jockeys).
  • It can cause constant pain and associated behavioural changes.
  • It’s primarily found in Thoroughbreds, Thoroughbred crosses and Warmbloods, but has also been identified in European breeds, Quarter Horses, Arabs and Australian Stock Horses.

 

The problem behind this is a congenital malformation of the C6 and C7 cervical vertebrae (ie, base of neck) – and it’s pretty nasty.

I’ve written about the work of Sharon May-Davis on this blog before and here I’m going to do so again. Through her many dissections per year, gross anatomist Sharon has become the first person to comprehensively document and quantify this problem. 

In doing so, and publishing her findings in peer-reviewed journals, she has triggered a minor research avalanche as others take up the subject.

 

Those of us fortunate to attend Sharon’s many equine dissections in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Europe have been learning about this for some time. For bodyworkers and hoof trimmers, it has dramatically changed our work. I believe I’ve worked on several horses with this problem, including an eventing horse, a dressage prospect, and a TB intended for a child.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an extremely serious problem that is in some cases grave for the horse concerned and can potentially cause injury or loss of life for the rider.

 

The following is an amended version of an article that I wrote for the Winter 2017 edition of Equine News, a NSW, Australia print magazine that sponsored one of Sharon’s series of public lectures on this issue.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 

 

A hidden problem: this OTTB had the C6-C7 malformation but presented few outward signs.

 

Twenty years of research

Sharon May-Davis’s path with this research began some 20 years ago. In February 1996, a Thoroughbred called Presley came down unimpeded in a race in Grafton, NSW, fracturing his pelvis, a hock bone, and right front fetlock.

Three years later, Sharon examined his bones, and saw something strange in his last two cervical vertebrae and his first ribs.

Fast forward to 2014, when Sharon published the first of her four peer-reviewed papers in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, concerning a congenital malformation in the sixth and seventh cervical (neck) vertebrae.

Although the problem had been mentioned briefly in papers, this was the first time that a researcher had accurately described and quantified the problem in its various forms.

Sharon’s unique perspective, gained as an anatomist who dissects between 15 and 20 horses per year, had certainly placed her in a position to do so.

 

The horse’s seven cervical vertebrae – made simple

Horses have seven vertebrae in their necks, labelled C1 to C7. Of these, four have unique shapes. Most horse people are familiar with C1, the first vertebrae known as the atlas, as it can be both seen and felt by hand with its distinctive ‘wing’ at the top of the neck.

Cervical vertebrae from C1 (top) to C7 (bottom), view from above (L) and below (R).

Almost as well-known is C2, the second vertebrae, known as the axis.

Both atlas and axis have unique shapes for a special reason: they support the heavy skull and anchor the muscles that control the head’s movement.

Heading down the neck, C3, C4 and C5 are broadly similar in shape, with each being a bit shorter and blockier than the one above.

However, C6 and C7 are both slightly different on the ventral (lower) side, for here they provide insertion points for muscles arising from the chest.

 

  • C6 has transverse processes (the protrusions extending outwards) that are different to those of neighbouring bones, with two distinctive ridges running the vertebrae’s length. C6 also has two large transverse foramen, the openings that the arteries pass through.
  • C7 is the shortest and squattest cervical vertebrae of all. Its transverse processes are shorter, while there are also two facets that articulate with the first ribs. C7 has no transverse foramen.

 

At least, that’s how the vertebrae should be in a normal horse.

 

So, what is wrong with the malformed C6 and C7 vertebrae?

In certain horses, these last two vertebrae are rather different, being malformed.

Sharon has identified the manifestations of this problem as a congenital (inherited) malformation affecting some Thoroughbred horses, and horses with Thoroughbred blood in their ancestry.

In C6, there is a problem with the two ridges of the transverse processes, as one or both can be partially absent.

When both are partially missing, it is common for one or two ridges (ie, parts of the transverse processes) to appear on C7 instead.

Also, the articular processes (the oval surfaces on the upper side, where each vertebrae links to its neighbours) can be radically different sizes. There can also be an additional arterial foramen or two.

The level of asymmetry can be radical.

 

 

The secondary problems this malformation causes

Being at the base of the neck, the asymmetry of C6 and C7 can cause alignment problems all the way up the vertebral column, leading to osteoarthritis of the articular facets.

It can also contribute to Wobbler Syndrome (Cervical Vertebral Stenotic Myelopathy), due to narrowing and/or malalignment of the vertebral foramen/canal, the opening through which the spinal cord passes. Not all Wobbler cases have this particular malformation, though.

A further problem is that the lower part of the longus colli muscle, which is involved in flexing the neck, would normally insert on the transverse processes of C6 and C7. When these processes are malformed, the normal insertions are not possible.

This means there is a serious symmetry problem in the junction of the thorax and neck, which can have a deeper effect on the horse’s neurology and proprioception, as well as respiration.

 

Asymmetry and narrowed vertebral foramen (canal) contribute to DJD and Wobbler Syndrome.

 

In a few cases, horses with both the C6 and C7 problem also have malformations of the first sternal rib, on one or both sides. This can cause problems beneath the scapular and further issues with muscular attachments.

Associated stability problems can have far-reaching consequences for the horse, not to mention some serious safety issues for the rider. The safety issue can’t be stated often enough.

(Add to this the fact that the horse’s nuchal ligament lamellar does not attach to C6 and C7, and often only feebly to C5, then you can see that this is a high level of instability in a critical area. Read more about Sharon’s findings on the nuchal ligament here – How the Anatomy Books Unintentionally Fail us Over the Nuchal Ligament.) 

Read on for information on for signs that this problem may be present in the living horse…

 

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!

 

Why isn’t the C6-C7 problem more widely known ?

Why hasn’t this problem been noticed in regular veterinary interventions?

The answer is quite simple. While neurological issues may have been diagnosed, the exact cause has often remained hidden. 

Both Thoroughbred horses and Warmbloods are known to have higher incidences of Wobbler Syndrome than other breeds, and while this is certainly not always due to C6-C7 malformation, the malformation has been found in some when dissected.

For example, the following dissection image appears in a veterinary account of large animal spinal cord diseases. It clearly shows a malformed C7 vertebrae, very similar to the one in the above image, but without giving any further categorisation.

The difficulty lies in the deep location of the lower cervical vertebrae. While normal radiographs can show all or some of C6, they are unable to penetrate the deeper tissues beneath the shoulder to image C7.

 

Photo from another online article: the familiar asymmetry of a malformed C7 is clearly visible in a dissected set of vertebrae.  (c) veteriankey.com (click image to access full article.)

 

Nevertheless, the malformation can be identified in radiographs of C6, once you know where to look.

Since Sharon’s first paper appeared, the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, has reviewed its history of radiographs from horses with Wobbler Syndrome.

Researchers found that 24 cases out of 100 (close to 25%) showed malformation of one or both C6 transverse processes. This study also clarified how to identify the problem on standard radiographs of C6.

In another study, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, completed CT scans on horses’ necks and found the various forms of the malformation in 26 horses out of 78 (33%). Unlike radiographs, the CT scans enabled identification of the C7 and first rib issues, although of course this imaging was conducted post mortem.

 

Is this rare, or are many horses affected?

While the problem has been identified primarily in TBs, it affects most breeds with TB blood in the ancestry to some degree.

Sharon May-Davis reports that to date, published, peer-reviewed journal papers have tallied 136 out of 471 horses as exhibiting congenital malformation of C6.

These have been in a range of breeds including Thoroughbreds (39%), Thoroughbred crosses (27%), Warmbloods and European breeds (30%), Quarter Horses (11%), and Arabs (11%). Standardbreds have also shown the problem, although the numbers included in studies are very small.

A common question is whether it’s known which TB lines predominantly carry this problem. The answer is: Yes. However, it is now so disseminated amongst the modern equine population beyond TBs, that it is of little help to identify them.

 

“Eight Belles… might have been genetically predisposed to breaking down.” 

Exploring the views of a TB lineage expert, this American article from 2009 asks why certain TB lines were prone to breaking down on the track – Eight Belles Breakdown: A Predictable Tragedy

 

It must be remembered that these horses are those already brought to veterinary attention and/or euthanized for a related or unrelated reason, so the percentages may be higher than those for the general horse population. At the same time, the malformation might have played a major part in the horses’ decline, due to the many locomotory and postural problems it can lead to.

 Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 

 

‘Gift Horse’, the Trafalgar Square sculpture by Hans Haacke, displayed the malformation, presumably having been modelled on a modern-day skeleton. The George Stubbs anatomical drawing on which it was styled did not. Image (c) bowlofchalk.net

 

How do we identify these horses in life?

It’s all very well looking at these bones post mortem, you might say. Yet how can I tell if my horse has this problem? Or a horse that I might want to buy?

Some answers are forthcoming. As Sharon has frequently assessed horses before dissecting them – usually from video – she has been able to observe that many of these horses lack stability. (Indeed, in many cases, it is this very instability has directly led to the horse being euthanized, and ending up on the dissection table.)

As her research has progressed, she has also been able to identify many biomechanical and locomotion traits that make these horses ‘suspicious’ or at least ‘of interest’. Unsurprisingly, these problems have been particularly noticeable in horses with both a malformed C6 and C7.

For owners and equine professionals, here are some signs that can raise initial suspicions. All can also be caused by other problems, so a group of signs is more common than an individual indication.

  • Some of these horses have a problem with standing square in front, and will always keep one foot further forward. This can persist despite all attempts to improve the horse’s body and to train the horse to halt squarely.
  • Horses with the more serious malformations will often stand base-wide. Such horses can become very unbalanced on uneven ground, and sometimes in work. They easily become unbalanced when a hoof practitioner works on a forefoot. 

 

A bilateral C6 – unilateral C7 horse showing a toe-out stance and hoof distortion. The ventral part of the transverse process was transposed onto the left side of C7.

 

  • With such asymmetry in the skeletal structure, these horses have serious lateral flexion issues that can’t be overcome. When required to elevate the forehand, many will experience difficulties, due to the absence of correctly inserted musculature and incorrect articulation through the joints of the lower neck. 

 

The horse may have one very prominent, widely positioned scapula.

 

  • A high level of asymmetry may be seen in the shoulders, with one scapula sometimes positioned very wide, with no improvement after chiro, osteopathy or bodywork. This is particularly so with the C6-C7 problem and associated first sternal rib abnormalities.
  • The ventral aspect of the neck may show some scoliosis.

    There may be scoliosis along the entire spine.

  • There may be an obvious scoliosis to the underside of the neck.
  • The problem may lead to heavily asymmetric loading of the forefeet, so may be accompanied by a severe high foot/low foot issue (this is not in itself a sign of the C6-C7 problem).

 

 

 

 

 

If you suspect your horse has the C6-C7 issue

First, note that many horses do just fine with a C6 problem. It is those with the bilateral C6 and unilateral/bilateral C7 issue that tend to show the more worrying problems.

If your horse is showing ongoing signs of instability, it’s important to seek veterinary advice, so that neurological issues can be ruled out. (As this a recently recognised problem, it may be worth printing out the abstracts from the journal articles listed at the end of this page and handing them over.)

If the more severe malformations are identified by radiograph, it is important to remember that in some cases this can cause discomfort and pain to the horse, and it is not going to improve over time. 

Since this article was published, Sharon has allowed me to publish her paper with a preliminary protocol for radioagraphing for this issue. Read it here: By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation.

On the contrary, the cervical vertebrae of some older horses with the C6 and C7 malformations often display advanced osteoarthritis of the articular processes, as shown in the header image of a 19-year-old Thoroughbred’s malformed C7.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 

 

Where does this knowledge take us?

At the moment, that question is wide open. The findings published by Sharon May-Davis have triggered ongoing research on an international level. There are certainly ramifications for breeders in more than one equine sporting industry.

Connections have been made with a number of falls on the racetrack that have caused injury, and worse, to both horse and jockey, as well as other runners. Similar things can be said for the sport of eventing, where unforced errors can have equally catastrophic effects.

It is entirely possible that at higher levels, pre-purchase examination radiographs will come to include a check on C6. While it’s not possible to radiograph the deeply positioned C7, we do at least know that this will only be present if the C6 anomaly exists.

Vets in some countries are proving faster at picking this up than others. While papers are being published, it clearly takes some time for information to filter down.

And until more is known, this problem is being unknowingly propagated every breeding season.

Of course, many horses harbouring the milder manifestations of this problem at C6 level are functioning very well. All horse owners can do is be aware that this issue exists, make use of this information if a problem arises, and await further research findings.

 

Since this article was published, Sharon has allowed me to publish her paper with a preliminary protocol for radioagraphing for this issue. Read it here: By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!

 

Sharon May-Davis’s research includes the rarely documented arthritis affecting the elbow joint of ridden and driven horses – Revealed: the Common Equine Arthritis You Won’t Read About in Textbooks.

Plus, read about the effects of hard race training on Thoroughbreds – Buying an Ex-Racehorse: Can You Spot the Major Physical Issues? – and advice from a seasoned trainer on rehabbing your horse once it’s arrived at your stable – 8 Golden Rules for Helping Your Thoroughbred Get Right Off the Track.

 

Literature on the malformation

 

Peer reviewed journal articles on the C6-C7 and related first sternal rib issues.

 

How The Anatomy Books (Unintentionally) Fail Us Over The Nuchal Ligament

nuchal-ligament-header-1

The nuchal ligament is a soft tissue structure that is widely discussed in dressage circles. Unsurprisingly, given its deep location, relatively few of us get to cast eyes on it or feel it directly under our hands.

It’s equally unsurprising, then, that most of us don’t realize that the image we hold in our heads is somewhat different to the reality of the ligament inside our horse.

 © All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of images, partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!

I have recently been fortunate enough to attend another dissection with renowned Australian gross anatomist (and she will point out repeatedly that despite this title, she is not gross – or, at least, not that often), Sharon May-Davis.

In this dissection workshop, Sharon had yet another opportunity to show us that an aspect of textbook anatomy is incorrect.

Yes, apparently there are many points where this is the case.

 

Where the nuchal ligament is and what it connects

The structure in question is the nuchal ligament, or the nuchal ligament lamellae to be exact.

George Stubbs illustration

George Stubbs, 1777, showed the NLL attaching from C2 to C7.

To quickly explain, the funicular part of the nuchal ligament is the cord-like part that runs from the withers to the occiput (back of skull). The lamellae is the fibrous sheet-like part that extends from the funicular part to the cervical (neck) vertebrae.

According to the majority of anatomy diagrams and textbooks, it extends down to attach to the cervical vertebrae, from C2 to C7.

According to Sharon, it doesn’t. And here’s why.

 

Findings on the nuchal ligament’s true location

In this study of 35 horses on the dissection table, Sharon found:

  • No cases where the attachments were from C2 to C7.
  • No horses where the attachments were from C2 to C6.
  • In all 35 horses, the attachments were from C2 to C5.
  • And in 9 of the 35, the attachments to C5 consisted of thin and feeble fibers.
  • The horses were of a mixture of identifiable breeds, aged 2 to 28 years old.

So, why do the majority of anatomical drawings of the deeper structures of the horse show something different?

When received knowledge can be a problem

Nuchal ligament, 5yo TB [click to enlarge]

Nuchal ligament, 5yo TB [click to enlarge]

Many of today’s illustrators are referring to illustrations that have themselves been amended from earlier illustrations.

(The header image for this site’s most viewed post, The Disturbing Truth About  Neck Threadworms and Your Itchy Horse, shows an inaccurate rendering of this ligament, as do most of the other illustrations I used. Dang!)

Inaccuracy is a recognized problem when it comes to received knowledge – was this anomaly due to an earlier artist’s error, or was it a characteristic of some 17th century horses that has been progressively bred out over subsequent centuries?

  • And this raises the question of which structure, exactly, is supporting the base of the neck of the horse in motion? Read more about m. Spinalis cervicis in this post, Meet Spinalis, the Forgotten Muscle in Saddle Fitting.
  • And how does this awareness inform current training approaches that require horses to raise themselves into self-carriage?

The findings from this study are in a peer-reviewed paper by Sharon May-Davis and Janeen Kleine currently in press with the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. The paper includes a detailed review of illustrations in equine anatomy literature, an explanation of the study, and a thought-provoking discussion on the implications for our understanding of equine biomechanics.

Variations and implications of the gross anatomy in the equine nuchal ligament lamellae, Sharon May-Davis, Janeen Kleine, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 30 June 2014 (Article in Press DOI: 10.1016/j.jevs.2014.06.018)

Have you read about Sharon’s findings on arthritis of the humeroradial (elbow) joint in all ridden or driven horses?

 


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Revealed: the Common Equine Arthritis You Won’t Read About in Textbooks

elbow-header2

Sometimes, a person from outside a profession successfully identifies something that has been unnoticed, overlooked or wrongly assessed for a long, long time. Coming from another direction, they see something that has been hidden in plain sight, simply because nobody looked there before.

Take amateur astronomers. They’re particularly well known for rocking the scientific community. In 2009, Australian Anthony Wesley discovered a visible scar left by a comet or meteoroid that had slammed into Jupiter, and we’ve all heard about Mr and Mrs Shoemaker and their neighbor Mr Levy and the comet they discovered in 1993.

Unusually, the astronomy community is able to recognize that while professionals have more technical background to analyze data, amateurs still play an important role in collecting it.

You might think that there’s no new data to be collected about equine pathologies, because every condition that can affect a horse, certainly above the level of microbiology, must already have been charted, mapped, researched and thoroughly understood. But, in the words of the song, it ain’t necessarily so.

Sometimes, all it needs is for someone else to be looking. And if that someone is looking with a rather different set of eyes or from a slightly different direction to the conventional scientific community, some rather remarkable results can come about.

 © All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!

One lady who’s working in the field

If you’re looking for a different set of eyes for equine musculoskeletal pathologies, they don’t come much sharper than those of Sharon May-Davis. Few people have the razor sharp eye she has for a hidden pathology or condition in the horse.

She’s held in high esteem by riders in the sporting fields, because as an equine therapist, she has managed elite equine athletes at State, National and Olympic levels in 7 different disciplines including the recognized FEI ones such as eventing, dressage, showjumping and endurance. This has been accompanied by her extensive experience in the Australian and Japanese racing industries.

Teaching biomechanics, Sept 2013

Sharon, seated, teaching biomechanics, Sept 2013

Sharon is also a biomechanics expert, a university lecturer in equine therapies and anatomy, and – significantly – a practical anatomist.

She has been conducting private equine autopsies for many years – it’s not for nothing that she’s been labeled The Bone Lady and Equine CSI. She also uses these 2-3 day dissection workshops to teach equine professionals and horse owners more about how their horses move and the damage their bodies can incur as a result of breeding, illness, injury or work.

She has been dissecting for personal research for over 20 years and professionally for 14 years. In fact, she now conducts up to 15 professional dissections per year – that’s a total of around 300 dissections so far.

Sharon is the first to state that she isn’t a vet and doesn’t hold a doctorate, but as a practicing equine scientist, researcher and practitioner, she is uniquely placed to provide a source of raw data that is all but unparalleled.

Evidence from the dissection table

Some years ago, Sharon noticed an unusual action in the elbow of horses. She mentioned this to qualified practitioners and was informed that this action was quite normal. Not convinced, she began videoing horses prior to dissection and, within a short period of time, was able to match this action to a change in the elbow.

Humerus, radius and ulna, showing damage to cartilage

Humerus, radius and ulna, showing damage to cartilage

Not to beat around the bush, it’s an unusual form of degeneration in the horse’s elbow joint that involves all three bones. It’s a form of osteoarthritis that strikes the humeroradial joint and the ulna, causing deep and dramatic gouges into the cartilage, and eventually eroding bone.

When the joint is opened up, blood is frequently found in the synovial fluid (haemarthrosis). The fluid also displays decreased viscosity.

This is more than a little bit odd, as arthritis of the elbow is supposed to be rare in the horse.

Yet Sharon has found it to be present in numerous horses that have been euthanized under veterinary supervision for completely unrelated reasons.

Note: that’s not just some horses, but many.

Do you know where the nuchal ligament attaches on the cervical vertebrae? You think so? Evidence from the dissection table might prove you wrong – read more about Sharon’s findings on the nuchal ligament’s lamellar attachments…

This equine arthritis is visible in the living horse

The vital connection from video to dissection has enabled Sharon to indicate the presence of the elbow osteoarthritis in the horses she had been treating as an equine therapist.

It’s easy to spot, being a noticeable jarring in the elbow as the horse moves downhill – a kind of double action – you can see it here. Significantly, it’s what can be termed a gait anomaly, rather than lameness.

(If you can’t see the above video, you can view it here.)

Does it look familiar? It’s very likely that you’ve seen it in horses before and wondered what it was. The fact is that it’s so common, many people think it’s a normal action. It’s not. It’s a form of equine arthritis.

Sharon tells us she has seen the elbow problem in all types, breeds, sizes and ages of horses. Some affected horses have been elite dressage and eventing competitors. Interestingly, the problem is only presenting in ridden and driven horses.

If never worked, horses appear to remain forever free of this particular joint change.

Why the fuss – isn’t this just regular arthritis?

No. Arthritis of the horse’s elbow is considered to be rare in equine veterinary medicine.

How it should look: healthy radius and ulna (unridden horse)

How it should look: healthy radius and ulna (unridden horse)

The key to why it doesn’t often get diagnosed and is considered rare could be the absence of visible lameness. The arthritis identified by Sharon does not cause a distinctive lameness in the horse, although it does bring on a notable gait change, with the double step in the joint’s motion on the downhill.

Riders of such horses often just feel that their horse is a bit ‘off’, feeling a hesitation in the movement, but without being able to define the point of origin.

There are a couple more reasons why it’s not very visible: first, the action of the elbow is highly integrated with the overall shoulder action, and second, the massive triceps muscle has a further stabilizing effect on the joint.

Radius and ulna of ridden horse, showing cartilage wear and blood in joint

Radius and ulna of ridden horse, showing cartilage wear and blood in joint

And even if the elbow is explored, the relatively tight joint space means that degenerative problems are rarely seen in diagnostic imaging, although inflammation can show up in thermographic images.

When, unusually, a problem has been recognized and vets have attempted a corticosteroid injection of the joint (which happens to be the most difficult joint to access), blood has been found to be present.

A closer look at Sharon’s findings

Sharon May-Davis first presented some of her findings into elbow arthritis at a conference in Australia in February 2013: the Bowker Lectures at the Australian College of Equine Podiatherapy. Presenting alongside Prof Robert Bowker and Dr Bruce Nock amongst others, she discussed the club foot in the horse, and noted how the elbow degeneration she observes on the dissection table is always worse in the forelimb with the more upright hoof.

 

If the condition is bilaterally present, it unfortunately appears worse on the side with the slightly upright or higher hoof. What’s more, and according to Sharon, this also applies to the limb where an inferior check ligament desmotomy (surgery undertaken with the aim of correcting an upright hoof) has taken place and the ligament has later reconnected.

She has, as already mentioned, since established that it can occur in any ridden or driven horse. Here, she describes the problem in her own words.

“The action looks like a slip and or clunk into the shoulder or a shudder or a sliding / slipping action. It depends upon your perspective. The actual change in the action begins when the foreleg is in the ‘Stance Phase’ during the stride as the limb goes into the posterior phase of the stride. It is more obvious going down a hill.

“So far, 100% of ridden horses exhibit this condition to a varying degree (under dissection). Horses not ridden and with no abnormalities do not exhibit this condition (under dissection). Horses in harness also exhibit this condition.

“What does the joint look like? There appears under dissection to be substantial degradation in the cartilage of the humerus, radius and ulna.

“Most horses appear to handle this condition and continue with a normal life if not pushed to extremes. Although this sounds career-ending, in fact it is not. Once the horse gets through the worst of the wear pattern they re-settle in the joint and continue on with work.

“High level competitors require joint support to help sustain the elbow and other joints that may compensate for the change in action.

“Horses that jump are more inclined to land with straighter forelimbs. Be mindful that jumping and downhill work could possibly make the condition worse.

“Riders often feel instability in the horse’s forelimbs when traveling downhill and some even question the horse’s proprioception.

“Bodyworkers massaging the triceps (particularly the lateral triceps) actually exacerbate the condition as the massage releases the cast-like formation that this muscle provides.”

 

More research is needed, but so is support

Humerus and radial bones of ex-racehorse, showing arthritic wear

Humerus and radial bones showing arthritic wear

Despite finding and documenting a huge number of dissection cases involving this particular issue, all unaided and unfunded by outside bodies, Sharon has consistently met with brick walls and skeptical responses when she has put the information forward to relevant authorities.

Why? It’s not as if she’s new to this. She has previously identified congenital malformations in the caudal cervical vertebrae of thoroughbreds, and in the atlas of Spanish Mustangs, as well as asymmetries in the femur structures of racehorses due to racing (published in the Australian Veterinary Journal).

She isn’t looking for funding (although she obviously wouldn’t say no), but would like to have this research taken up for the benefit of all ridden and driven horses. The sooner the problem is recognized and investigated, the sooner that episodic pain in the horse can be recognized, with appropriate joint support or rest given where appropriate.

And the sooner we can all learn more in our great drive towards improved equine health, the better. As Sharon says,

“In truth, we are still in the dark. Seeing it is one thing, analyzing it and providing a preventative program is something totally different.”

 


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Two more cases (added January 2014)

Case 1: Thoroughbred gelding

Raced, then showjumped to ‘B’ grade, before being ridden as a trail horse. Euthanized at 14 years due to ongoing colic issues. Here is a video of this TB, filmed in 2011:

 

Here are images from the dissection table:

TB gelding radius and ulna, showing wear and blood spot.

TB gelding radius and ulna, showing wear and blood spot.

 

TB distal humerus, showing significant wear to cartilage.

TB distal humerus, showing significant wear to cartilage.

 

Read more about ex-racehorses and their prevailing physical problems here.

 

Case 2: Warmblood gelding

Showjumped up to 10 years. Competed in dressage from 11 years. Retired from riding at around 20 years due to unresolved lameness.

Here is a video of this horse, showing severe elbow degeneration (as well as other pathologies):

 

 

And here are images from the dissection table. Note the bruised and bloody cartilage of the radius, ulna and humerus. Also, the droplets of synovial fluid are discolored, being a very unhealthy reddish brown.

 

WB: cartilage wear evident in the radius and ulna.

WB: cartilage wear evident in the radius and ulna.

 

WB humerus showing significant wear.

WB humerus showing significant wear.

 

WB humerus showing wear - note spots of synovial fluid showing brown discoloration.

WB humerus showing wear – note spots of synovial fluid showing brown discoloration.

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Sharon May-Davis, B. App. Sc. (Equine), M. App. Sc. (Ag and Rural), ACHM, EBW, EMR was the Equine Therapist for the Modern Pentathlon Horses and the Australian Reining Team at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. She has worked with the Australian Champion from seven differing disciplines and has a particular interest in researching the musculoskeletal system. She also conducts clinics and seminars in relation to her work and regularly presents in the Northern and Southern hemisphere.

You can learn about Sharon’s work and approach in this interview: Skeletons from the Bone Lady’s Closet.

Meanwhile, Sharon is answering questions in the comments section, below. Discussion is positively welcomed, so please feel free to ask questions or share experiences. Sharon will drop in to answer them if you do.

 

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