Ever wondered about tight fascia in horses? It could be way more important than we’ve ever realised. A summary of work presented at the IAVRPT symposium by Dr. Rikke Schultz
What is Equine Fascia? And why is it so fascinating?
Fascia is becoming more and more researched and, this once ignored tissue is being released to have profound effects throughout the body.
It is even being shown that there are connections throughout the Equine body and amazingly - what happens in a hind leg may well affect something happening in the poll and neck and visa versa.
Fascia is a layer of connective tissue that runs throughout the body.
Myofascia relates to all the fascia that surrounds the muscles and is also connected to and contained within the muscular tissue.
If this strong connective tissue is loose it means there is mobility throughout the body. It is thick and organised which creates support and strength.
Whichever way the thick organised fibers are arranged will be the way in which the fascia can move, slide, and be supple.
Amazingly - nerves, blood vessels, organs, muscles and bones all lie within the facinating structure of the facia.
It looks like thin, white, smooth tissue that covers muscles, bones, organs and tendons.
The Strength of Fascia
Despite its see-through white appearance, fascia is incredibly strong, far stronger than it looks.
It can withstand over 900kg of force per square inch! (that’s a lot).
If you think about the ‘marbling’ in meat - this is exactly what fascia is! And if you have any experience with how tough these layers in meat can be then that starts to give you an idea of how strong fascia actually is.
Although it's amazing stuff - fascia can be problematic and doesn’t always want to go back into its natural alignment.
It can become thickened, which is called fibrosis, and over time, if not treated, this can cause a reduction in range of movement and an increase in discomfort.
It's vital that we encourage fascia to heal properly and in a relaxed way in order that we don’t encounter future problems with alignment, lameness and pain in our horses.
Remember that it doesn’t always have to have been an injury that caused fascial tightness - it could be repetitive motion in the wrong way, or a poorly fitting saddle used over a long period of time.
The superficial fascia that surrounds the whole body under the skin, which could be referred to as subcutaneous tissue, can be pictured as a loose (adipose) tissue that connects the skin to the underlying bones or deep fascia.
Adipose tissue is also where fat can be stored (we can all think of a horse with a bit too much adipose tissue..).
So although this layer of subcutaneous tissue is vital, we need to make sure our horses carry an appropriate amount of fat in their adipose tissue.
Have you ever worn a wetsuit? If the Superficial Equine Fascia becomes tight it starts acting like a wetsuit around the body causing everything to feel tight, lack normal movement and restrict range of motion.
Tight fascia in horses, fascial restrictions, or even facial damage, can result in loss of flexibility, change in range of motion, and even pain.
This is true for all animals with fascia. In the horse, dysfunctioning fascia and restrictions will affect the straightness and alignment of the animal which in turn, and over time may be expressed as asymmetry in the body and the paces, lameness, pain, and even behavioral changes.
If a horse suffers an injury the fascia will tighten and pull throughout the body.
Myofascial Release (MFR) is a vital part of equine health care and Equine Physical Therapists may find this training an invaluable tool in their kit.
Myofascial Release is a technique that applies gentle sustained pressure designed to release equine fascia and allow this connective tissue to align its collagen fibers, lay in a correct position and move freely in its plane (slide back and forth) - therefore restoring optimal comfort and range of motion.
What causes tight fascia in horses?
Problems can stem from direct injury to the equine fascia in the form of an accident or alternatively can occur over time.
For example, if a rider is asymmetrical then over time then they are causing a difference in pressure on the horse that will eventually create torsion in the horse’s body, restrict the equine fascia and lead to training difficulties.
This highlights the importance of a balanced and level rider and the work we must do on ourselves to achieve symmetry in our own bodies.
The best advice is to do some simple exercises and stretches on ourselves to ensure we are balanced, symmetrical, and relaxed when we ride our horses
Tight equine fascia and damaged collagen fibers can pull throughout the horse's body and can be expressed as hollow backs, tension in the neck and back and other areas, reluctance to stand square and uneven paces, to name but a few.
Horse Fascia Lines
There are several lines of fascia that run throughout the equine body.
- Superficial Dorsal Line - extension of the neck back and hip and flexion of the hindlimb
- Superficial Ventral Line - flexion of the neck, back and hip and extension of the hindlimb
The two above are antagonists to one another, meaning that they have the opposite effect.
- Lateral Line - lateral flexion. The Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is important here
- Deep Dorsal Line - works with the spine and the tail muscles
- Deep Ventral Line - works with the core muscles and trunk of the horse
These horse fascia lines all make profound connections throughout the horse's body - this really highlights that a whole body or holistic approach really is vital when considering the fascia.
Lameness and Injuries
Fascia can cause restriction in the limbs, particularly caused by the superficial dorsal line.
This line of fascia can become tense and create tension and rotation in the lower cervical(neck) vertebra which in turn creates tension in the muscles of the neck and shoulder which means the back can’t engage properly during work creating a dipped and tense back.
To top this all off - if the tension is experienced for long enough it can lead to suspensory ligament injuries and carpal joint pain!
If the back is put into too much tension when the fascia is compromised, the joints in the spine - known as the facet joints, will become closer to one another, effectively pinching and creating even more fascia tension and muscle tightness - leading to impaired nerve function and pain - remember that wetsuit we talked about earlier - this is the tension that the back will feel when the fascia is tight and uncomfortable.
If the horse's back is relaxed the facet joints will be open and mobile allowing relaxation of the fascia and muscles along the back and nerve function will remain optimal = relaxed horse with a supple back.
Treatment for tight fascia - working our horses correctly
Basically, we want our horses to be relaxed in their work.
- Number one - make sure your saddle fits - as soon as a poorly fitting saddle is used the horse will tense, causing the fascia to tighten and over time become damaged, leading to behavioral problems.
- Same goes for your bit and bridle - remember that fascia runs throughout the body so problems around the head could affect hind leg engagement.
- Next, make sure you always use a good warm-up with long and low work for at least 15 mins before you ask your horse to collect up. You could take your horse for a hack before a schooling session where you ask them to work in a long and low outline and - hey presto - warm-up complete.
- Always do a good cool down - just as you warm up, make sure you spend time cooling down. Fascia will become tense and tight if it’s allowed to get cold quickly after work.
- Incorporate exercises into your schooling that specifically lift your horse's back, allowing those crucial lines of facia to work in relaxation, meaning ultimate comfort during work for your horse. Examples include lateral work and pole work.
- Get your horse checked regularly by a professional Equine Physical Therapist who will be able to tell you if there are any areas of tension and what you can do to work on improving this. They will most likely use some Myofascial Release techniques to help your horse.
- Remember it's a whole body thing - take a holistic approach - fascial lines can connect the head to the hind legs so making sure other things are regularly checked such as teeth and feet are completely vital as part of the whole picture.