A shiny coat – (almost) every horse owner dreams of a shiny coat. Whether we look at old paintings or photographs, show footage or horses in our environment, a horse with a shiny coat stands out and has always been revered as a symbol for vibrancy and health.
Most of the time, we associate a shiny coat with certain coat colors, especially black, bay, or chestnut. There is nothing like the glow of a dark bay or coppery chestnut horse! But what about our white or grey horses? Can we produce shine in a grey or white horse?
What makes a horse’s coat shine
There are several factors to consider:
Grooming technique and level of cleanliness
My horse Paladin – a dark bay – seems to have the ‘shiny gene’. So there must be certain factors that make dark hair shine. The university of Delaware on (human) hair color: “Hair color is determined by the amount of eumelanin (which is dark brown) and pheomelanin (which is reddish). The amount of eumelanin ranges continuously from very little, producing light-blonde hair, to large amounts, producing black hair. People with large amounts of pheomelanin have red hair, which can range from pale red (“strawberry blond”) to bright red to reddish brown.”
People and horses are mammals, so genetically and as it pertains to hair, the biochemistry is basically the same. The article further explains that certain genetic aspects seem to be associated with one hair color or another, which explains the whole ‘method in the madness’ of breeding.
But does the hair of dark horses actually have a component that creates ‘shine’? No. The simple fact is that smooth, dark surfaces play with light in a different way than smooth light surfaces. Think of a white car and a black car, both equally clean and polished. Which one will seem more shiny?
Grooming technique and cleanliness
And here comes the deciding factor: Smoothness and cleanliness. If the surface is smooth (again think of a car) versus textured (think of a wooden picnic table), there will be more light reflection. So the key is to create a SMOOTH & CLEAN surface.
Adding ‘polish’ (car) just makes the surface smoother and thus more shiny! Where is the polish on the horse? It doesn’t come from a can. Our horses have the polish built right in! It is produced by little oil glands attached to each hair root. The key to a shiny coat lies in
Cleaning the coat
Distributing the ‘polish’ (body oils) over the hair and
Just like in us humans, only a healthy horse will have a healthy coat. Feeding the right amount of essential nutrients and healthy oils will be the precondition for a smooth, healthy, vibrant, and shiny looking coat!
Shiny white and grey horses
Shine on your white or grey horse will not be as obvious. It will be a healthy glow and glisten when the light falls in just right. Just because light surfaces reflect light different than dark. The challenge with white and grey horses is that manure and grass stains show up more than in their darker herd mates, which immediately distracts from an overall good-looking, healthy and clean coat. We will talk more about how to tackle stains in white and grey horses in a different post.
Yes, white and grey horses can shine! But their shine will not be as obvious as that of a darker horse since dark surfaces reflect light differently than light surfaces (again, use the car example). The key to a vibrant looking white or grey horse: Good feed, cleanliness, and proper grooming techniques!
There is much talk about the German ‘Training Scale’ in the context of horse training and in many a barns – especially with dressage focus – we’ll find posters, images or signs on the walls, showing the 6 elements of the training scale or training pyramid.
Before we discuss the mental factors of relaxation, let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the German Training Scale:
The Training Scale (Skala der Ausbildung) first appears as a 6-step concept in the 1937 version of the “H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider”. At the same time, Siegfried von Haugk – cavalry officer, head of the remount school Oschatz and co-author of the HDV12 – created an updated version of the army hand book on “Teaching Riding to Recruits”, which contained – for the first time – the description of the 6-step systematic training system in sequence as we know it today. The HDV12 is – essentially – the basis for today’s FN Principles of Riding. The ‘principles’ were altered, however, to meet the needs of today’s recreational riders. In recent years, the panel responsible for the content of these principles has decided on a return to some of the original teachings of the HDV12 to ensure horse welfare.
While ‘Rhythm’ is the first element of the Training Scale and basic foundation in the schooling of the young horse, the late Olympic gold medalist Dr. Reiner Klimke valued Suppleness (Relaxation) above all. We can find suppling exercises in his and his daughter Ingrid’s books (for example Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country) as well as in the HDV12.
But are there preconditions for even getting to suppleness?
Is there a step before the step?
The answer is YES: We need to embark on a ‘Path to Relaxation/Suppleness’, meaning
Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse
This ‘path’ never ends! It must be introduced before Suppleness can be expected. However, it is not a ‘step’ that we accomplish and then move on. We need to actively and consciously incorporate these three important ‘paths’ into our schooling – and the learning as well as the rewards will never stop.
Let’s look a little closer at these 3 elements on the path to suppleness
1. Eliminate factors that cause the horse to brace
Bracing is a reaction on part of the horse, where the horse protects himself against an external influence causing pain or discomfort. This can also be mental discomfort! In response, the horse will constantly contract muscles, not only fatiguing or even damaging these muscles, but also skeletal elements that these muscles are attached to. Relaxed, supple movement becomes impossible. Here some examples for factors that can cause bracing in the horse:
Incorrect use of spurs
Tightly adjusted bridles
Hard rider hands
Rider seat lacking suppleness
The goal: Identify those factors that cause bracing in your horse. Caution: This is not a ‘one fits all’ process, but a very individualized look at what your horse is expressing and an investigation into possible causes. Then eliminate these factors and replace with something that works for horse and rider, but allows the horse to move freely.
Note: Bracing is not always bad… When catching a basketball, you brace against the impact. The key is to be able to let go afterwards! Constant, habitual bracing is the problem.
2. Release existing tension in the horse (and rider)
Once certain bracing patterns or negative movement habits are established, the horse carries tension that he is unable to release himself. These tense, constantly contracted muscles, muscle spasms, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion translates into lack of suppleness. To get a fresh start on your Path to Performance™, you need to create a ‘clean slate’ by releasing tension and restriction and thus create the possibility of learning new movement or postural habits. For both rider and horse, this can be accomplished by:
Bodywork & massage
The goal: Find areas where tension & restriction resides and release it through various modalities, enabling the body to find a whole new way of moving in a relaxed way.
3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse
You are strolling down a busy street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – leisurely shopping pleasure. Suddenly, you hear a loud crash only a few yards away. A car accident! How does your body feel? Without any of your conscious doing, your body will show the typical human stress response posture: tucked in chest and abdominals, shoulders rounded forward, knees slightly bent, head moves forward (basically our modern ‘smart phone’ posture…) – and increased blood sugar and blood pressure, heart rate and sweating.
The horse – as a prey animal – has an even more fine-tuned physical response to stress. These physical responses can be so subtle, that we relatively loud-mouthed, always on the ‘go’ humans, do not even notice. Here a short list of the horse’s physical responses to stress:
Hollowed back or braced back
Holding abdominals tight (sheath makes wind-sucking noise when trotting)
Shallow, fast breath
Overall tension and short-striding
An many more….
The key to avoiding these physical stress responses is to eliminate stress. Easier said than done! Are you causing your horse stress? You may not think so. But once you experience truly non-confrontational dialog with your horse, you will see a difference.
The goal: Creating a relaxed mental platform on which horse and rider and interact productively without the barriers of stress response, which always leads to physical tension.
Got it? Got A-B-C covered? Then off you go, enjoy your success with Suppling Exercises!
In a nut shell: ‘Cinchy’ describes a horse that shows an adverse reaction to the saddle cinch or saddle girth, either during the saddling process or well before – for example when approaching the horse with the saddle.
These adverse reactions can range from subtle (tense facial expression) to aggressive (kicking or biting). Any response apart from a relaxed acceptance must be viewed as a defensive response on part of the horse.
Why is my horse ‘cinchy’ or ‘girthy’?
When looking at anyunwanted behaviors in horses, we are looking at 3 possible scenarios:
An unpleasant physical experience at this moment (pain, discomfort, etc.)
An unpleasant emotional experience at this moment (fear, panic, etc.)
A memory of an unpleasant physical or emotional experience, which is now anticipated (but may not occur…)
A google search shows: Most trainers address a negative reaction to the girth or cinch as a behavior issue. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation. As responsible horse owners, we need to consider physical pain and discomfort first, then rule it out or address it in order to then successfully address the behavior issue or habit that may be associated with this discomfort.
Physical Discomfort as Cause for Cinchy Behavior
Asking ourselves ‘could it be pain?‘, we need to start looking at the girth area, mainly the area of the deep pectoral muscles. Here some tips:
Run your fingers (carefully) from the center of the rib cage (under the horse, sternum) up towards the saddle area, across the ascending pectorals (see image). Look for reactions: Anything from muscle flinching in that area to more volatile reactions like kicking and biting. NOTE: Be careful! Start with very soft touch, take it up a notch only if no reaction from the horse. Never press harder than would be comfortable for you. Practice on your own leg first.
Did you get a reaction? If yes, it is time to investigate girth fit, tightness, material, placement, etc. Your horse is in discomfort!!
More clues: Is your horse ‘short-strided’ or tight in the shoulder? This could be another indicator of discomfort in the deep pectorals.
The detective work in finding out what causes the discomfort in the girth area (meaning in the deep pectorals) does not stop at riding equipment.
You also need to look at feet, any hidden front leg or shoulder discomfort, tightness in the poll, imbalance in self carriage. The underlying problem can also be a subluxation of any of the underlying skeletal structures (vertebrae), often called a ‘rib out’. Contact an equine chiropractor to rule out this very common cause of girthyness. More often than not, it is difficult to find the reason if all factors have been sufficiently addressed and girthy behavior persists. Gentle bodywork that addresses the entire system of the horse’s body and rules out compensation patterns – such as the Masterson Method of Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork – will often be the key to resolving the hidden causes of girthy behavior.
Reasons for girthy or cinchy behavior can include:
a saddle with a tree that pinches in the whithers
a saddle with protruding screws or knotty, aged flocking
a saddle that does not conform well to the shape of the horses back (bridges or rocks)
Girth/cinch or pad problems:
a saddle pad that bunches
a saddle pad that is too thick, thus making a well fitting saddle fit like a shoe, that is too small
a soiled saddle pad (for example plant debris, sand, old hardened sweat etc)
a synthetic saddle pad that ‘heats up’ during the ride and promises discomfort later on
a pinching girth/cinch or buckle (especially Western cinches with the buckle in the wrong position)
a too tight girth/cinch
Physical problems (sometimes caused by above)
Sore spots, abscess, insect bites or other wounds in the girth or saddle area (infected tick bites)
Back pain: the horse anticipates back pain when being ridden and thus has anxiety around the saddling process (for example: back-pain due to muscle spasms or hock problems).
Sore feet: The abdodimus pectoris muscle can get tender and sore when horses have pain or soreness in their front feet because of the way the horse moves to avoid the pain.
The horse associates the process of being saddled with a stressful experience, such as
feelings of panic or claustrophobia (often caused by starting the young horse in a hurry)
a negative riding experience, either in present or past (former owner, trainer)
unsoundness or painful illness (such as any digestive issues, ulcers, hoof sensitivities) that become very stressful when ridden
Equine massage or body work can help with any muscular issues, whether they may be primary – such as muscle spasm – or secondary – such as sore ascending pectoral muscles due to sore feet.
However, the first recommended course of action is to uncover the root cause, involving professionals such as vet, farrier, equine chiropractor, acupuncturist, etc. After the root
cause for the discomfort is remedied, the secondary discomfort and tension due to compensation can often be helped within only a few sessions of equine massage or body work.
The old saying ‘no hoof no horse’ gains special significance in the winter, when elements, cold temperatures and wetness can contribute to hoof decay. Here in the Midwest, this is a big concern.
In warmer climates, dryness and exposure to sand and rough terrain can also take a toll. Here a summary of factors that determine the condition of your horse’s hooves:
With these variables, there is much we can do to support healthy hooves in our horses. But one solution does not fit all…
What is a hoof?
The horse’s hoof is the equivalent of the last two digits of the human middle finger, encapsulated by horn layers. When caring for our horse’s hoof, we are concerned with the outer layers: the wall, the sole, the frog, and also the coronary band.
The coronary band: The equivalent of our cuticles. This is where hoof growth starts.
The wall: The wall is between 5 and 10 mm thick and consists of three layers. The outer layer of dense horn acts as a barrier to the inner layers. If the outer layer is healthy and maintained properly, it prevents dehydration of the inner layers.
The sole: The sole can grow up to 10 mm thick. Its Keratin* is more easily worn down than that of the hoof wall.
The frog: Keratin in the frog and bulb is also softer than in the hoof wall. With every step, the horse’s weight expands the frog, which in turn presses the hoof wall outward. This is called the ‘hoof mechanism’, a healthy and necessary function of a natural hoof.
[Keratin: a fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of hair, feathers, hoofs, claws, horns, etc.]
How a hoof stays healthy
With the three elements wall, sole and frog having distinct functions that interlace into one mechanism, there is a balance that we’d like to maintain:
The wall should stay hard and strong but resilient and not brittle.
The sole should be dry and somewhat flexible, but not crumbling or too dry and hard (think expansion).
The frog needs to be elastic and resilient but not soggy or rock hard to maintain a healthy hoof mechanism.
Step 1 – Determine the “Current State”
When striving to create and maintain a healthy hoof in our horse, it is first of all important to determine the current state:
Is the hoof soft and brittle?
Is the hoof hard and brittle?
Is the hoof dry and rock-hard?
Then we can decide what measures to take to help our horse maintain a healthy hoof. (For more important external and internal factors that determine hoof health see below.)
Soft and brittle hooves
This is what is looks like: A soft brittle hoof will visibly disintegrate. Pieces of horn break of the hoof wall. The hoof is described as “crumbly”. If shod, the farrier will have a hard time keeping a shoe on this hoof.
Causes: Too much exposure to wetness without proper ‘barrier’. Exposure to manure/urine/wet bedding/mud. Hoof horn possibly genetically somewhat soft.
Repair: Avoid wetness! Dry bedding, dry lot without puddles. Clean hooves thoroughly with water and brush, dry with a towel, then treat hooves daily with a hoof ointment or oil without petroleum-based ingredients (no vaseline).
Maintain: Keep horse’s environment dry and clean hooves daily. Treat several times per week with a natural hoof treatment.
Hard and brittle hooves
This is what it looks like: A hard and brittle hoof has lost its resilience and elasticity by allowing too much of the moisture of the inner layers to evaporate through the outer protective layer, mainly the hoof wall. It will show up as a hard, dry looking hoof with vertical cracks.
Causes: The outer layer of the hoof wall and sole does not act as a protective barrier and is stripped of its natural defenses. Harsh hoof treatments, harsh chemicals (shampoos, soaps), very dry environmental conditions, very cold environmental conditions. Hoof genetically predisposed to hardness/dryness meets unfavorable conditions.
Repair: A horse with a dry and brittle hoof can benefit from a bit more moisture. Standing in a puddle, hosing, soaking, spraying CLEAN bedding with a little water. Clean hoof daily with water and hoof brush, then dry thoroughly with a towel and apply a moisturizing, protective hoof conditioner (NO petroleum-based products!).
Maintain: Clean and condition daily or at least several times per week to maintain the outer layer’s ability to lock in moisture. Monitor the hoof for signs of dryness and soak or hose when needed.
Dry and hard hooves
This is what it looks like: Dry and hard hooves (hooves like a ‘rock’) are often mistaken for healthy hooves. If you examine your horse’s hoof and the sole and frog present rock-hard and inflexible, this is–while it looks so clean and healthy–not a good thing when we think about the hoof mechanism. A healthy hoof mechanism requires a resilient and elastic frog and bulb and some elasticity in the sole and wall.
Causes: Horses with dry and rock-hard hooves are mostly kept in clean stalls, are shod, and generally well cared for. Genetics also play a role. That said, this is a clean, but not a healthy picture!
Repair: Evaluate the horse’s trim. Is the horse carrying weight on the hoof wall, the bars and the frog? If not, consult with your (or another…) farrier. A shod horse can still have a healthy hoof mechanism to some extent! If possible, apply a nourishing hoof conditioner on the clean hoof several times per day. Spray clean bedding with a little water.
Maintenance: Clean hooves daily and apply a nourishing hoof oil several times per week. Soaking in water, standing in puddles, turnout in pasture and hosing can support hoof health for a hard and dry hoof.
Tips and Tricks
To provide some moisture for dry hooves, cut a thick piece of felt in the shape of your horse’s hoof, soak it in water, place it in a horse boot (Easy Boot Trail, for example, or any therapeutic boot) and let the horse stand in it while you are grooming.
The low-tech version is to cut 4 pieces of an old wool blanket to size, big enough to wrap and tie around your horse’s feet. Soak in water, wrap and tie around your horse’s feet while grooming. (Be sure this doesn’t scare your horse and tie the pieces securely.)
Applying hoof oil
Laurel oil has been a staple in old-school hoof care for centuries and is ideal for the maintenance and to support growth of a healthy hoof. Massaging the oil into the coronary band and then down will improve the effect. You can use an old tooth brush to massage the oil into the hoof.
Hoof health from the inside
There are several internal factors that determine the horse’s hoof quality:
Nutrition – Adequate nutrition, roughage, minerals/vitamins, balanced rations are crucial for healthy hoof growth.
Genetics – Certain breeds tend to have certain types of hooves or typical hoof problems. Individuals also have their special genetic ‘hoof make-up’. Again, there is no one-for-all solution!
Laminitic changes and other health factors – The insulin-resistant horse, the Cushings horse, a horse that has foundered in the past or is prone to laminitis is also a horse with possible hoof problems. Consult with your vet and farrier, care and hoof treatments can support your horse but not ‘fix’ the problem.
Hoof health from the outside
External factors determine your horse’s hoof health to a great extent. These are factors that you can control:
Manure – manure disintegrates the outer layer of the hoof and can lead to brittle, cracking hooves or to fungal/bacterial conditions. Keep the horse’s environment as clean as possible.
Trim/shoeing – consult with your farrier to determine the best possible trimming/shoeing solution for your horse. If your farrier applies a ‘one for all’ solution, look for a different farrier.
Weather/environmental – While you cannot change the weather, you can change the way you maintain your horse’s hooves (above).
Exercise – The ‘equine couch potato’ will have a hard time maintaining a healthy hoof. Adequate exercise is one of the important factors when it comes to healthy hoof growth.
Maintenance – Clean hooves and apply a conditioning hoof care treatment. This is the equivalent of using hand lotion, cuticle oil, hair conditioner, etc. It is not the ‘fix all’ but a necessary component of good care.
How to give wormer, medication, or electrolytes without battling the horse
Battling the horse for any reason is never a good idea. Even if we manage to muscle our way to goal achievement, both horse and human are left with a bad taste in their mouth, wormer or not. Any interaction between horse and human should be one of mutual understanding and cooperation, whenever possible.
Even the most well-meaning horse people, however, cave under the task of giving their horse an oral dose of wormer. Even for those, who practice fecal testing, it does become necessary to administer the foul-tasting chemical to the animal from time to time. No, I don’t buy the ‘apple flavor’! My horse’s face tells me that the stuff is not equine Godiva…
Over time, I have observed the following futile attempts to get the horse to accept the syringe and swallow the wormer:
Ear twitching (very, very dangerous to the horse’s ear cartilage!!!)
Tongue twitching (danger of fracturing small bones inside and connected to tongue!!!)
Use of nose twitch (while not downright dangerous, should be reserved for real emergencies)
Desperately hanging on to the halter (will help you spread wormer all over your new shirt)
Spreading the wormer over food (will entice the horse to spread the food all over the ground, this used to be my method of choice…)
and other similarly ineffective or drama-soaked techniques.
But what to do? The endurance riders among you probably already do it: You need to give your horse electrolytes during rides and probably practiced that with well-tasting syringe contents first. The trick is: Get your horse to happily accept syringes before approaching with the ill-tasting stuff!
This is the solution that will solve the problem in the long run and make worming ‘a piece of cake’:
What you need:
Empty syringes (farm supply store)
Unsweetened apple sauce (individual serving cups work well)
Any type of halter
A little patience
Every time you see your horse, find an opportunity to fill a syringe with apple sauce and gently move your hand with the syringe around the horse’s mouth. In the beginning, your horse may react unfavorably, thinking you are approaching with the wormer.
Don’t insist that your horse look at the syringe, simply make it available around the horse’s head. Curiosity will eventually lead the horse to take a sniff and let you touch his lips with the syringe. While your goal is to eventually be able to squirt the contents into your horse’s mouth, take your time and plan for several sessions.
Don’t ‘push’ the syringe on the horse. Hold it near the horse’s mouth and let it be the horse’s idea to approach it.
Be satisfied with small progress. A soft eye, not moving away from the syringe, may be a good goal for the first day.
Don’t have an agenda. Your horse will tell you when he is ready to give this a try.
Let the horse think that it is his idea to take the syringe into his mouth.
From then on, it’s smooth sailing!
There will be some disappointment after the first time the syringe does not contain apple sauce, but you can remedy this by squirting apple sauce into the horse’s mouth right after the wormer. He’ll take his chances with you again.
Let me know how this worked for you and leave a comment!
We humans are amazing animals. With our consciousness, drive, intelligence and stamina, as well as our ability to conceptualize and plan, we accomplish great things and have thus made our mark on the planet (for better or worse…).
Yet, we still feel puzzled by our horses.
Why can we not achieve our training goal?
What is the reason for the ‘mystery lameness’ or
simple unwillingness of the horse to perform to the best of his abilities?
Being the true humans that we are, goal-oriented can-do attitude and all, we usually turn up the ‘chatter’, involve different or more specialists, various techniques or gadgets and DO, DO, DO, DO…
What is my point? I believe the answer to the above questions can—many times—lie in a different mode of operation. As retired Professor for Physics at the University of Oregon, Dr. Amit Goswami, puts it: “Don’t just DO, remember to BE! Change your mode from DO-DO-DO to DO-BE-DO!”
What does this have to do with our horses? The “BE” is time we simply spend with our horses. Togetherness in stress-free situations, meaning away from training/conditioning scenarios, vet visits and other activities with an agenda, can yield incredible results.
What kind of “BE”-activities are we talking about?
Going for walks (you walking with, not riding on the horse…)
Conscious grooming (without agenda, moving slowly, paying attention to the horse’s responses, letting him guide you through the process)
Taking your horse along when you want to chat with your barn buddy, simply stand there with him, relax and have your chat. He/she can ‘participate’. Same goes for watching someone else’s training (if environment is safe and appropriate).
Very slow and soft body exercises, such as lowering the head as described in “True Horsemanship through Feel” (Bill Dorrance 1998) or “Beyond Horse Massage” (Jim Masterson with Stefanie Reinhold 2011), followed by just sitting or standing together.
In short: Involve your horse in as many low-stress activities as possible. If you do it in a relaxed way, you can even get the mail together!
Caution: DO NOT INVOLVE FOOD OR SNACKS in any of those activities.
What are the benefits of such “BE”-time together?
By shutting out the chatter and the agenda that is usually attached to our every day activities, even with our horses, we become attuned to the horse. This can answer the question: “What does the horse think?” (In a very down-to-earth way, reading his responses.) This way we notice very subtle changes in his expression and learn to interpret our silent friend’s body language better. In turn, we can practice our own body language and level of relaxation and see how the horse responds to that.
We may become aware of physical areas of concern that the horse may have. Why so? As trust grows between you through simply doing what horses do together—hanging out—your horse may feel free to express unwellness or discomfort. One example would be a horse that suddenly stands on three legs, lifting the right front, for example, instead of putting weight on it.
Trust, as mentioned, is a big factor here. As you go for walks and engage in other simple ‘togetherness’ exercises, you get to know each other better and trust grows both ways. Trust is the basis for relaxation, which is the basis for wellness. In that alone, this type of “BE”-time can contribute to make the horse feel safe and relaxed around you, which may eliminate stress-related health problems like ulcers and muscular tension due to emotional stress.
Do you want you and your horse to be ‘attached at the hip’?
Do you want to learn how to read your horse’s slightest responses, body language and signs of unwellness?
Do you want to enjoy the benefits of ‘accidental meditation’ by quieting your mind in soft and stress-free activities with your horse?
>>>Then you are ready for “BE”-time!
To learn more about what kind of activities that can easily be incorporated in your every day interaction with your horse, drop me a line or visit my seminars page at. I’d love to meet you and share experiences in one of my 1-day seminars for horse owners.
Enjoy your horse and remember to DO-BE-DO-BE-DO!!!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.