How to help your horse overcome back problems (part 3 of 3)

In the last two parts of “The Horse’s Back”, we talked about how to recognize that your horse may be experiencing back problems and what are some of the reasons that a horse may get a sore back. So you now already know some of the symptoms and causes for back pain in horses.

Today, let’s look at some no-fail/no-harm steps you can take to help your horse recover from back soreness or maintain a healthy, strong and pain free back.

Eliminate External Factors

First, before we get into hands-on bodywork or gymnasticizing for horses, we will want to remind ourselves that we need to eliminate any external factors identified in part 2 of this article series. Among those were saddle fit and rider influence. Again, investigate thoroughly, then eliminate these external factors before moving on to help the horse overcome his back soreness.

Identify and alleviate Internal Factors

We also touched on internal factors, such as pain/discomfort/restriction in other areas of the horse’s body. Another possible underlying cause for back soreness can be any type of hind end lameness, such as stifle problems or arthritic hocks. Discuss this possibility with your vet and take any steps your vet may recommend before addressing your horse’s back discomfort. Fear, worry, and anxiety—another big contributor to tightness and pain in the horse’s back—should also be identified and alleviated. Examples are an overly assertive pasture mate, ‘heavy metal’ music blaring from the barn workers radio or an irregular feeding schedule.

Now that you know the ‘what’ and ‘why’, here is how you can help your horse reclaim a pain-free back:

1.      Bodywork and active stretches

I mention this as the first item, since I find it most important. Whatever else you may want to do with your horse—hopefully plenty of beneficial exercising and possibly some changes to tack, etc.—releasing tension is the precondition for building muscle in the right places.

Exercise 1—Rolling the ball

The long back muscle is an important player in your horse’s movement. He uses these muscles with every step. If they are permanently contracted and cannot release, your horse’s movement will be restricted and the back will be sore. Release tension and stimulate blood flow in these muscles with a simple exercise, no massage skills required: Take a normal tennis ball and roll it around on your horse’s long back muscle all over the saddle area. Do this before you ride. Pay close attention to your horse’s reactions and be sure it feels good to the horse. Stay off any bony areas (shoulder blade, withers, spine) and concentrate on the muscle (see image). Stop at the last rib.

Exercise 2—The horse ‘sit-up’

This exercise is well known but many people don’t bother with it. But it is indeed a very effective exercise. When it comes to horses, I found that most things that are very beneficial are simple, not rocket science… This exercise creates motion in the most flexible junction in your horse’s back: The sacrolumbar junction. This is the only spot in your horse’s back that is really flexible. All other parts of the back are relatively rigid. For this exercise, you will need to use quite a bit of pressure with some horses: Stand behind the horse and find a point midway between the point of hip and the sacrum that is relatively sensitive to the touch. Use your thumbs to initiate a movement reflex in the horse by pushing down firmly, then pulling your thumbs down toward the poverty groove on both sides. Ideally, your horse should now lift his back, tuck in his abdomen and tilt his pelvis (as in a ‘sit-up’). If your horse is not that sensitive, use two quarter coins instead of your thumbs. Caution: Be safe behind the horse! Don’t do this exercise more than 3 x per session and no more than 3 x per week. This is a reflex point and will numb if overdone.

Exercise 3—The active tail pull

Yes, horse people pull on their horse’s tails all the time, with mixed results ;-). This exercise is a bit different, in that you will want to actively engage the horse in this exercise and make him use his abdominal muscles. Here is how to do this with your horse: Stand behind your horse and hold on firmly but carefully to his tail with both hands. Then pull back (you can even lean back a bit) until you find a point of resistance and the horse actively resists the pull, meaning you cannot pull him back any further, he is leaning forward. Then SUDDENLY let go. It’s important to do this quickly! Observe your horse’s abdominal muscles and area around the sacrum when you do this. He should quickly engage his abdominals and tuck in his pelvis just a tad. You will also see muscles around the sacrum engage when he recovers his balance. Do this two or three times before riding.

Exercise 4—The good old carrot stretch!

Active carrot stretches are great for the horse since he determines the amount of stretch and you cannot do anything wrong. They are fun and will make you really popular with your horse since he will anticipate the treat. Folks who don’t like to feed treats, don’t worry! You are feeding the treat within the framework of a predictable exercise. The horse will quickly learn that this is the only time he gets treats. For carrot stretch instructions see my previous article on carrot stretches with horses.

If you are interested in learning more about your horse’s back and how to keep it healthy, please visit my seminar page. You may also enjoy learning more about equine bodywork. I recommend Jim Masterson’s book Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension.

2.      And now… the ‘G’-word: GYMNASTICIZING

When you google ‘gymnasticizing’, you will see that the word mainly pops up in the context of dressage training. However, we don’t all ride dressage. Do we still need to ‘gymnasticize’ our horse? And what does it mean?

The answer is YES, we all need to gymnasticize our horses, no matter what type of activity we engage in with our animal. The reason: We are asking him to perform unnatural things like carrying a rider or pulling a cart. So what does gymnasticizing mean? It simply means to build maintain the horse’s muscles and self-carriage to an extent that will allow him to stay SOUND and well while performing the activities we ask of him.Since ALL of the horses back muscles are locomotion muscles…(!!!), it is important to ensure that they can release and contract. This can be achieved by regular targeted exercise, targeted to the needs of your horse.

Sounds complicated, but it’s not at all. For most recreational riders, the effort will be rather small. If you horse is an active athlete and you compete, you will need to think about gymnasticizing a bit more than the average rider.

Here some basics:

Longing

Longing is not simply mindless running about on a circle or tiring your horse to let off ‘steam’. It can be a very meaningful way to gymnasticize your horse.

My tip: Get a good book such as “Horse Training In-Hand: A Modern Guide to Working from the Ground: Long Lines, Long and Short Reins, Work on the Longe” and glean some tips and try some techniques. If it gets overwhelming, stick to some basic longing techniques. Stay away from auxiliary reins! They can be necessary in special cases, but generally cause more harm than good. How much? 3 x 20 minutes per week can work wonders.

Cavaletti

Cavaletti and ground poles are a wonderful and low-tech tool to improve your horse’s fitness, rhythm and mental focus. Whether you are a Western rider, a dressage Queen or a trail enthusiast… your horse will benefit from these basic techniques. Great teachers in this area (and very compassionate horsemen) are Reiner Klimke and Walter Zettl. Again, I recommend to get a good book, such as Reiner Klimke’s book Cavalletti: Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Rails or a DVD or even VHS (you can find good deals on ebay).

Last not least: A good hack!!!

I will call the outdoor activity or hitting a trail with your horse ‘hacking out’ here, versus ‘trail riding’. The reason: Trail riding is often understood to be a leisurely activity, spending time with your horse and fellow riders in the great outdoors and….mostly keeping the horse at a walk. This is counterproductive for what we’d like to do: strengthen the horse’s back.

Your horse’s back will be strengthened by a nice, fresh tempo on the trail. A forward walk, then a bit of brisk trotting, a nice walk, followed by a brief canter, etc. Tackling hills and slopes at various gaits will also help your horse. Important: Post the trot and be in a two-point in the canter! Enable your horse to move freely and stay within his limits. A tired, sweaty horse or a horse that ties up after exercise is NOT what we are after. It’s better to ride for 2 hours at a doable pace than race about the park for an hour! Give your horse at least 15 minutes of brisk walk at the start of your ride to warm up before you start picking up the pace.

So, you see, it’s not all that complicated. Once you know

You can apply a few simple techniques to make great strides in getting your horse’s back into shape. I hope that these pointers inspire you to get on the path to your horse’s wellness and enable your horse to perform at his personal best.

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold