To build a successful equine athlete, it is imperative that the health, strength and flexibility of the back be maintained. Back pain in horses, as in humans, is probably one of the most debilitating factors in performance.
Back pain can create an entire chain of events that impacts multiple muscles, the skeletal system, the nervous system and the horse’s entire way of moving.
Horses coping with unrecognized back pain generally have one of three “behavior” problems:
(1) They become aggressive
(2) They become nervous and unable to focus on their work
(3) They simply shut down and move as slowly as possible
The unknowing, but well-intentioned owner then puts a label on the horse such as “Girthy,” “a Grump,”, “Crazy” or “Lazy.”
A few tips to assist in keeping your horse’s back healthy and supple:
Learn the basics of equine anatomy. Learn what healthy muscle tissue feels like and what “problem” muscle tissue feels like. Learn how to evaluate your horse’s muscular tissue. Healthy muscles don’t hurt. If you apply firm finger pressure
along your horses back to either side of the spine and he drops his back or shies away from you, that is not normal; common, yes, but not normal.
Incorporate into your regular training program exercises that will strengthen and maintain the health of the horse’s back without a rider on board. I prefer to work the horse in straight lines rather then longeing. Working in straight lines requires the horse to fully engage the main back muscles, especially the Longissimus Dorsi.
- Ground driving and power walking a few times a week are effective in developing back muscles and keeping them fit.
- If you can perform the ground work on a varied, rolling terrain, rather than a flat arena, you will increase the stability of your horse’s core muscles and his muscular proprioception.
- Incorporate cavaletti work in straight lines and serpentines to help build strength and suppleness of the back muscles and hindquarters.
- As the horse becomes fitter, add some properly distributed weight to a surcingle or saddle to begin the transition to carrying the rider.
Gradually increase the length of exercise and the amount of weight. A heart monitor works great in all phases of this exercise routine to really fine tune it.
Do these exercises on a regular basis. I am a strong advocate of this policy for every type of horse whether it is a young horse just starting out, a horse in training, a horse recovering from injury or an older horse.
BE A FIT, FLEXIBLE AND BALANCED RIDER
Weak riders can cause sore backs. Fitness of the rider is of paramount importance especially at upper levels of competition.
Developing core muscle balance should be a goal for any serious rider. Upper level riders have a well developed set of core stabilizing muscles. This usually comes about through many hours in the saddle with a variety of horses.
In addition to core balance, rider flexibility and suppleness need to be maintained. Incorporating flexibility and strengthening exercises into everyday routines should be a goal of every rider.
The saddle and its proper placement are key factors in maintaining a healthy back. Enough cannot be said concerning the proper fit of the most important piece of equipment, the saddle. At the end of the day, the ultimate authority on saddle fit is your horse.
Often the reason for back pain in horses is one of two situations:
(1) The saddle is placed where the rider wants it rather than where it is designed to be.
(2) The saddle design and construction do not provide adequate protection for the horse’s back.
Saddle Fit evaluation requires methodical, detailed analysis. No single measurement determines whether a saddle fits or not. The saddle must be evaluated systematically from front to back to determine how well it suits the horse.
The top part of the saddle belongs to the rider and must support the rider’s needs. The underside belongs to the horse and must protect his back by disbursing the rider’s weight over as great an area as possible, while keeping all pressure away from the horse’s spine.
Massage is one of the most effective modalities for relieving sore or tight muscles. Learn how to perform some basic equine massage strokes and perform them regularly on your horse’s back. Remember, healthy muscle tissue does not
Avail yourself of the services of a good professional equine massage therapist to evaluate and work on your horse’s back on a regular basis. This can keep you posted on any changes in the back while benefiting your horse.
Incorporating these recommendations into your daily program will greatly benefit the fitness level of your horse. Your horse will feel better, present a better attitude and deliver better performance. This hard work will translate into a big smile on your face at the end of the day.
Don Doran, LMT, is a third-generation horseman with more than 35 years working hands-on with horses. He developed the Equine Sports Massage program in 1993, and, with his wife Lisa, founded the Animal Dynamics Company in 2002. Learn more at www.equinesportsmassage.com