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Thoracic Sling

A popular topic…. Here's why!

The thoracic sling in horses refers to a group of muscles and connective tissues that play a crucial role in supporting the front end of the horse's body, including the chest and forelimbs. It is also known as the thoracic suspension system or the thoracic sling mechanism.

It is made up of several muscles, including the serratus ventralis, pectoral muscles, and the muscles of the abdominal wall, such as the rectus abdominis and external oblique muscles. These muscles work in coordination to provide support to the horse's front end, especially during weight-bearing activities such as standing, walking, trotting, and cantering.

The thoracic sling functions to help stabilise the scapula (shoulder blade) against the ribcage, allowing the horse's forelimbs to bear weight and move with efficiency. It also assists in shock absorption, energy conservation, and maintaining balance during movement. The thoracic sling is essential for the horse's overall biomechanics and locomotion, as it helps transfer the horse's weight from the front limbs to the hind limbs, and vice versa.

The strength and coordination of the thoracic sling muscles are important factors in a horse's athletic performance, especially in disciplines that require significant forelimb engagement, such as jumping and dressage. Proper conditioning, exercise, and veterinary care are crucial in maintaining the health and function of the thoracic sling in horses.

What can go wrong…..

Several dysfunctions or issues can occur with the thoracic sling in horses, which can affect the horse's performance and overall health. Some of these dysfunctions or conditions may include:

  1. Weakness or atrophy: Insufficient muscle development or weakness in the muscles of the thoracic sling can reduce their ability to provide proper support to the front end of the horse, leading to poor stability, decreased shock absorption, and compromised biomechanics.

  2. Muscle imbalances: Imbalances between the muscles of the thoracic sling, such as overdevelopment or tightness in some muscles and weakness or laxity in others, can disrupt the coordination and function of the sling mechanism. This can lead to altered movement patterns, decreased performance, and increased risk of injuries.

  3. Strain or injury: Overuse, strain, or trauma to the muscles or connective tissues of the thoracic sling, such as sprains, strains, or tears, can cause pain, inflammation, and reduced function. This can occur due to poor conditioning, improper training techniques, or accidents, and can affect the horse's performance and comfort.

  4. Neurological conditions: Certain neurological conditions, such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) or nerve damage, can affect the coordination and function of the thoracic sling, leading to weakness, loss of stability, and altered movement.

  5. Poor posture or conformation: Horses with conformational issues, such as those with long backs, upright shoulders, or weak top lines, may have compromised thoracic sling function due to altered skeletal alignment. This can affect the horse's ability to properly engage the thoracic sling muscles and can lead to issues with stability and performance.

  6. Inadequate conditioning or fitness: Lack of proper conditioning or fitness can result in weak or underdeveloped thoracic sling muscles, reducing their ability to provide adequate support to the front end of the horse. This can lead to issues with stability, performance, and increased risk of injuries.

Here is an example of how Physiotherapy can help:

Below is a 'Before and After' of pony with a dysfunctional thoracic sling that received regular physiotherapy and a tailored exercise plan. In the 'Before' photo we have a wither that is lower than the croup, externally rotated elbows and a VERY wide based stance in front. This posture will cause all the energy generated behind, to drive the front end downwards into he ground, resulting in a very unhappy, backwards pony. In the 'After' photo, we can see that the wither is now higher than the croup, the elbows are now in alignment rather than externally rotated and the wide base stance of the forelimbs has reduced. Now the energy from the hind end has some where to go, up, into a much lighter and lifted forehand. (It is the same pony, just photo taken from the opposite side due to my bad photograph skills)

It's important to note that proper veterinary care, appropriate exercise, and conditioning programs, as well as correct training techniques, are essential in maintaining the health and function of the thoracic sling in horses.Consulting with a qualified veterinarian and/or equine professional for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of any thoracic sling-related issues in horses is recommended.

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