Injury Prevention in Dressage Horses

dr david garth dressage performance dressage training natalie foxon Oct 14, 2022

Dressage horses require a high level of athleticism, and as with any sport, injury prevention in our horses is about having a solid prevention and maintenance plan.

As guest coach in our Gold Program recently, Dr David Garth from Sydney Equine Practice shed some light on the current advice for maintaining performance horses in peak health, the most common injuries he sees in dressage horses, and best practice for injury prevention.


The most common injury in dressage horses  

According to Dr Garth, the majority of injuries in dressage horses, aside from paddock injuries,  fall into the category of ‘overuse injury'.

Of course, you would never do this intentionally, but it’s possible, isn’t it, that as riders we’re putting our horses at risk by overtraining them without realising. 

What do you think, are you unsure if you work your horse too much? Do you work your horse at a dangerous intensity or duration? 


What’s an overuse injury?

Dr Garth talked about one major risk factor in overuse injuries, a ‘danger zone’ if you will, that occurs when our horses are having to work too hard, for too long. 

It’s in this zone that vets see damage occurring most often to suspensory ligaments, sesamoid bones, and sometimes coffin joints. Dr Garth says this is due to the repetitive strain being placed on the horse’s legs when they are overtrained for a long duration, at a high intensity. 

Dr Garth went on to explain that when cantering, horses’ ligaments and tendons are pushing towards their maximum capacity, and while the levels of strain they can withstand are astonishing, the longer we work at that extreme intensity, the higher the risk of wear and tear of those fibres. 


How can we avoid overtraining?

Dr Garth’s advice was to think about the idea of exercising at a level at which you can still hold somewhat of a conversation. When we apply that concept to the dressage horse, that means aiming for a heart rate level that stays around that 120 to 130 beats-per-minute range. 

Measuring breath rate isn’t as reliable as an indicator of work intensity, so if you’re serious about monitoring the workload, getting your hands on an equine heart rate monitor is a great idea. Keeping most (around 80%) of the training at that ideal heart rate level is good practice, as well as keeping most sessions to around 30 minutes, although going beyond that sometimes is fine.

With this in mind, it’s evident how vital it is to ensure each minute in the saddle isn’t wasted. If you need help with that, be sure to check out our dressage training program that will teach you how to train smarter. Mixing up the training surfaces and keeping the horse’s weight down is also key, Dr Garth says.


Best practice for dressage injury prevention

Dressage horses need to be healthy well into their teenage years (and even beyond) to reach the heights of the sport, so preventing injuries is obviously a priority for riders. 

There are so many trends, tools and ‘experts’, though, that navigating all the options (and all the promotions!) can be challenging. Let’s work through Dr Garth’s advice for regular injury prevention and maintenance strategies. 


Partner with a great horse vet 

In an ideal world, your vet would be a part of your horse’s journey from the time they are a foal, or as soon as you purchase the horse.

Dr Garth said that it’s a great idea to get your horses checked by your vet before you break them in. This allows you and your vet to monitor the horses as they grow and develop. Having the horse’s history allows issues to be dealt with swiftly and recovery solutions to be more effective.


Benefits and risks of dressage boots and bandages

Although most elite level dressage riders have been training their horses in boots and bandages for some time, there is debate about the benefits versus risks. Dr Garth said that both boots and bandages offer great benefits for your horses in terms of preventing knocks, although he did qualify that statement by saying that the overuse injuries are more of a concern than knocks. Still, better safe than sorry, but are boots and bandages actually safe? 

Dr Garth said boots and bandages can cause much more harm than good when used incorrectly (which is common). Avoiding rendon injuries from tightly or unevenly wrapped bandages should be a priority for dressage riders. It’s essential to be taught to apply bandages correctly and riders should consult with their vet and/or experienced coach for assistance. The same issues can apply to boots, but the risk factor with bandages is much higher.

Some riders have concerns about the heat generated under the boots and bandages. Dr Garth recommended using breathable materials such as sheepskin and only leaving the work boots or bandages on for the time you’re working (around 30 minutes). It does ultimately come down to weighing up the benefits versus the risks and if knock-protection is a priority for your horse, that will probably outweigh any risks from heat generation.


Advice for using stable and paddock boots and bandages

Dr Garth prefaced his advice about stable wraps by saying that he would prefer to see horses in paddocks 24/7, however he acknowledged there are factors that prevent this being an option for many people. His point was that movement is essential, and more important than the discussion about whether or not to use stable bandages.

He explained that as horses don’t have muscles below the knee, blood flow is limited and they easily suffer from filling and hindered injury recovery time for this region of the leg. If a paddock isn’t an option, frequent hand walking or using a walker is vital. In terms of the stable wrapping, Dr Garth advised that some compression may assist in the blood flow but again, injuries from incorrectly applied stable wraps/boots/bandages are a risk. 

The same goes for booting your horse in the paddock. To prevent cuts and knocks, paddock boots are great, but if they slip or are unevenly or too tightly applied, they can prevent a real risk. Dr Garth recommends using bell boots to protect horses’ shoes, heels, and feet.


To ice or not to ice? 

Icing has been used routinely on the lower legs for performance horses post-work for many years and most of us are familiar with the acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) in the human world. Some physical therapists, however, now don’t support this approach. 

Most commonly, icing is used after horses are exercised to cool down their legs in the hope of preventing or treating injuries, swelling and heat in the tendons, joints, and ligaments. However, when a small injury occurs, the inflammatory process performs a role in the recovery, to clean up the damaged tissue before the new tissue can be laid down and start to heal. If you ice the injury, you delay the inflammatory process from being able to get in there and start healing. Healing requires movement. On a day-to-day basis, Dr Garth advised that movement and blood supply is more important and beneficial than icing.


Mix up the training and the surface

Do you have a beautifully crafted and maintained dressage arena surface to ensure the very best in injury prevention for your horse?

You might be interested to know that Dr Garth recommends exercising your horse on a variety of surfaces. As Dr Garth explained, this is so you can build up your horse’s strength and tolerance in the bones and joints, and importantly, to avoid the highly repetitive nature of riding in the same way on the same surface each day and week. Different surfaces Dr Garth mentioned include grass, sand, dirt tracks, road or hard gravel, in addition to the synthetic or sand mix arena surface. As an extension of this, it’s beneficial to vary the type of exercise you do with your horse every week. 


Creating a strategy for injury prevention in your dressage horse  

It can be overwhelming to know what to do and how to do it, so seek advice and guidance from professionals such as your vet and try not to be too readily influenced by the myriad of ‘wonder’ products and treatments. Start with the basics of movement, appropriate weight, a variety of surfaces, and appropriate intensity and duration of work.

Managing those factors will go a long way in preventing injuries and producing a dressage horse that has a long and healthy life. It was a fascinating and insightful session with Dr Garth, and I hope this small snippet gives you some food for thought, as it did for us.



Not entirely sure what to work on, especially when you're by yourself?

Unsure if you're focusing on the right things at the right time?

I challenge you to take on my 5 rules to making every dressage training session productive and enjoyable.

It's all in our free guide... 'Beyond the 20 Metre Circle'

We'll follow up with training tips and ideas we think you might be interested in. Unsubscribe at any time.