If a dressage horse has been problem-free and is well-conditioned and well-muscled, asking for a higher level of collection is a reasonable step. However, if a horse is stuck at a lower level because of injury, resistance or irregular work, it makes sense to rethink asking for more collection.
There are a number of things you can do to protect the longevity of your dressage horse. First of all, be sure to work him in good footing. The place where you work your horse on a regular basis is where the wear and tear occurs. So be sure that the footing is even and not too deep or hard.
Second, you want a horse that has even feet and lands evenly on them. Generally, if a horse puts his leg out and lands squarely on his hoofs, the horse has a better prognosis for remaining injury free than a horse who lands on the inside or outside of his hoof. To find out how squarely a horse’s foot lands, all you have to do is stand on the centerline and watch the horse walk toward you to see if his front legs travel straight.
It is a challenge for a farrier to balance the foot of a crooked-legged horse so that the foot lands evenly. In the mature horse, no attempt should be made to straighten a crooked leg by trimming the foot. If the mature horse is toeing out and the farrier trims the hoof so the inside heel is higher, there will be more stress on the outside suspensory branch. The same is true with a horse who toes in.
Third, don’t overwork your horse. Extravagant extended trots and half passes can really hurt a horse, especially when doing these movements at the end of schooling when the horse is tired. Also, if your mature horse has a weak side, don’t work that side harder. Drilling movements is never a good idea.
Cross-training that keeps the horse muscled can be beneficial as well. This applies especially to young, talented movers who have not yet built enough muscle to support their movement and to horses who have had any downtime.
Mary H. Bell, VMD, is the current chair of the Equine Canada Health and Welfare Committee. She is also a licensed FEI Veterinary Delegate for dressage and jumpers and an FEI treating veterinarian.