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Evaluating Equine Back
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The equine back may be compared to a suspension bridge with the added requirement that the bridge must be able to move!
The back is composed of a series of interlocking vertebrae bound together by cartilage, tendons, ligaments and muscular tissue, each assisting in support of the structure, similar to the cables of a suspension bridge. If any of these components become weakened or fail, extra stress is imposed on the other areas. Left unattended, this eventually creates an overload and dysfunction of the back structure.
The equine back consists of 3 sections: the Thoracic, Lumbar and Sacral regions. The Thoracic region is composed of 18 vertebrae to which the ribs attach, forming the trunk of the horse. The accessible portion of the thoracic region begins just behind the withers of the horse. Most people place the pommel of their saddle right behind the withers. This is a mistake because the shoulder of the horse cannot fully rotate backward if the saddle is placed too far forward. One should always place the saddle at least a hand?s width behind the withers. A saddle tree that is too narrow for the horse will cause painful pressure points here.
Unlike other mammalian species, including humans, the thoracic region of the equine back is comparatively rigid and inflexible. This is due to the shape of the interconnecting facets of the thoracic vertebrae that restrict dorsal (upward) and ventral (downward) movement of the spine.
The Lumbar region is composed of 6 vertebrae, which are flatter, wider and heavier than those in the thoracic region. The shapes of the lumbar vertebrae permit more lateral, dorsal, and ventral flexion of the spine in this region.
The cantles (rear aspect) of most saddles rest over the last few thoracic vertebrae. It is very common to find tight muscle tissue at the end of the thoracic section and the beginning of the lumbar section of the back.
Following the lumbar region is the Sacral region, which consists of 5 vertebrae that are naturally fused.
The area where the lumbar vertebrae connect with the sacral vertebrae is called the Lumbar-Sacral Junction. Flexibility in the lumbar-sacral junction (commonly called the croup) is key for achieving a collected horse. Flexibility must be maintained in the lumbar-sacral junction for the horse to excel in any athletic event.
Pain from improper saddle fit and poor rider balance can cause the back muscles in this area to lock up and lose flexibility. The end result is poor movement and impaired performance. For a human analogy, imagine trying to kick a football without the ability to bend your lower back.
Sadly, some of these back problems and their associated compensation issues are not widely recognized nor understood within the equine industry. Because these problems are not understood, many riders believe that it is normal for their horse to flinch and react when their backs are touched.
Back pain causes improper biomechanical action of the entire horse. Instead of traveling in a collected frame, the horse moves with a dropped back, an elevated head and neck, and trailing hindquarters. With these constraints placed upon him, the horse has no choice but to put most of his weight on his front feet. Over time, this improper movement contributes directly to skeletal and muscular damage to the areas of the spinal column, stifles, hocks, forelegs and front feet.
Two of the most common causes of back pain are improper saddle fit and unbalanced riders. These two elements have a direct effect on the performance and health of the horse. Both elements can restrict the ability of the back muscles to perform their job. Functions of the back muscles include forward extension, lateral movement, collection of the hindquarters and the ability to walk backwards.
EVALUATION OF THE BACK MUSCLES
Palpate the withers area behind the scapula for any signs of discomfort or reaction to light pressure. A reaction here can indicate a saddle tree that is too narrow.
Unfortunately, the usual answer in these cases is to add another saddle pad! All this accomplishes is to create more pressure in this area. Think about this from a human perspective: if your shoes are too small for your feet, would you want to put on an extra thick pair of socks?
Mid to lower back pain on both sides can show rider imbalance or weak leg strength. Reaction in this area can also be indicative of a saddle that 'bridges.' Bridging refers to where the saddle makes contact only at the withers and lower back with no contact through the middle portion. This creates pressure sores at the contact areas, resulting in tense muscles, which constrict lateral movement as well as locking up the sacral-lumbar junction. Horses with problems in this area often will carry their head and neck high and drop their back to relieve pain in the lower back area. Reacting to this symptom, unaware riders may resort to using a multitude of training aids to get horses to lower their heads and necks (side reins, tie-downs, martingales, shadow rolls).
Reaction on one side of the back can show rider body weight imbalance. An easy way to check rider balance is to use a pair of bathroom scales placed side by side. Stand with one foot on each scale and take your balance. Have a partner check the weight on each scale. Perfect balance would be identical numbers. A difference of more than 10 pounds between the two scales is an area of concern.
Check the lengths of your stirrup leathers. Leather can stretch unevenly, especially with imbalances in leg/body weight. Stirrup leathers should be switched out each month exchanging either side to the other. While exchanging, compare the length of each for any extreme differences. Replace the stirrup leathers as necessary.
Another saddle problem is a broken or twisted tree, which can create pressure to either side of the back. Usually this shows up as pressure sensitivity on one side behind the withers and on the other side in the lower back region. Extreme cases are fairly obvious, however a trained eye is useful to detect subtle problems with the saddle. If you are in doubt, have your saddle evaluated by a competent saddle maker or someone with saddle fit training. Beware, proficiency in one field does not automatically assure proficiency in the other.
The degree and categorization of equine back problems come under the following headings: ACUTE
Light touch elicits an uncomfortable reaction. Check for the presence of heat or swelling in the muscle tissue. This indicates that the injury to the muscular tissue is relatively recent. To help reduce the swelling and pain, you may wish to apply a cold pack to the area for 10-15 minutes. It would also be helpful to gently massage the area with an anti-inflammatory tincture or salve (Sore No More, Soft Tissue Salve). Deep massage is contraindicated in this situation.
The horse does not react to a light touch, but does become uncomfortable with a deeper touch and firm pressure. This usually indicates that the horse has been living with the problem for a longer period and that the muscular system has tightened up in an attempt to protect the integrity of the back structure.
The horse's back is dropped and the muscular tissue is tight without any elasticity or flexibility. Palpation and deep massage strokes show no reaction. The tissue is inflexible and in a contracted state. If this situation is left untreated, it will eventually lead to the degeneration of the integrity of the back, affecting the spinal column and its innervations to various areas of the body, as well as having a detrimental effect on the skeletal and muscular tissue in the stifles, hocks, forelegs and front feet.
Don Doran has been teaching Equine Sports Massage since 1993. He resides in Ocala, Florida, where he teaches Equine Sports Massage and Equine Sport Therapies. He also attends to clients? horses of all disciplines in the local area. For more information, visit his websites: www.equinesportsmassage.com and www.animaldynamics.com