You may be alert to behavioural changes in your horse that can indicate back pain, but do you get in early to prevent back pain?
Horses’ backs are not designed to carry riders, so it’s up to us to do all that we can to reduce the impact of them being ridden.
According to Dr Joyce Harman, author of The Horse’s Pain-free Back and Saddle-fit Book, many performance problems are the result of back pain. “Painful muscles are very common but frequently not recognized.”
How can we help to protect our horses’ backs from injury and pain? Well-trimmed hooves and a saddle that fits are two factors most people consider. Here are some other practical steps we can all take:
1. Be careful with any changes to terrain or footing, and with increases in physical demands.
It’s easy to head off on a long trail ride with friends on a lovely day, and just travel without much thought to the ground under your horse’s feet or the physical requirements.
Riders often consider slowly rebuilding a horse’s cardiovascular condition after a break, but the back also needs to be cared for. An abrupt change to the level of work puts more pressure on the structures within the horse’s back, which can result in injuries and pain. Start slowly, and only gradually increase your horse’s workload. Think about your intended purpose for your horse, and what level of fitness is appropriate for that purpose. Watch your horse for signs of discomfort.
Even if your horse is already fit, changes to terrain or footing can result in back strain. If you normally ride on firm footing and once a month head off to an arena with deep sand for a workout, this can cause back pain.
Instead, you could go to the arena several times in preparation and do shorter, slower sessions to allow your horse time to adjust before asking more.
- 2. Warm up and cool down.
Cold muscles are much less elastic and therefore prone to injury. Make sure you do a slow and gentle warm-up before asking your horse to increase speed or perform more demanding movements.
An effective warm-up can be done at walk, and will help the horse by increasing blood flow to the muscles, stretching muscles, ligaments and tendons, and warming the muscles.
By incorporating different sized figures and lateral work, and thoughtfully transitioning to and from walk to halt and slow backup, you can benefit the whole horse, physically and mentally.
Modify your cool-down routine based on how strenuous the ride was. Consider your horse’s temperature and respiration rate. As with the warm-up, concentrate on walking for your cool down.
- 3. Use acupuncture as a preventative
Chinese medicine recognises that an individual’s physical constitution can predispose them to pain or injury in certain areas of the body.
This constitution can therefore be a cause underlying the symptoms. A regular ********* acupuncture treatment can thus help to prevent back pain.
Acupuncture also eases tension or strain in muscles and ligaments, which helps the horse to move well and carry the rider without injury.
In addition to acupuncture, you can help to prevent muscular injuries by giving your horse acupressure, which you can learn at one of my ********acupressure clinics.
- 4. Increase your horse’s core strength
People sometimes talk about ‘building’ their horse’s ‘top line’ by strengthening the muscles of the back. However, the muscles that provide the most support to the back and help build the strength to carry a rider without damage are found below the vertebral chain.
We should not be doing anything that causes the muscles above the vertebral chain to contract, as these muscles need to be in a relative state of release when a ridden horse is moving well. One thing that can cause contraction of the back muscles is mouth pain, as it tends to cause an elevated head and hollow back. Moving in this posture increases tension across the entire spinal column. Make sure your horse’s bit or teeth are not causing pain.
Some exercises that will help to strengthen the horse’s core muscles are
- Backing up one step at a time (one step, halt, one step, halt). There is no need to do a lot of steps all at once. Start with just one step back and build up to a few. Make sure each step is done freely and loosely before asking for the next, and this will help to engage the core muscles.
- Cavaletti. If you’re just starting to build your horse’s core strength, be cautious when starting. Begin by walking the horse over one pole laid on the ground, and gradually build to four poles at a walk with a few passes over the poles in each direction per session. If you support the horse to move consciously rather than just rushing through, this is sufficient to work the core muscles; there is no need to increase the height or frequency for quite some time.
- Incorporate hill work into your riding or groundwork, starting with slight inclines and declines, and only gradually increasing.
- 5. Calmness and softness
Horses in a state of hyper-excitement are likely to have spasm or excessive tension in their back muscles.
Maintaining softness and calmness is, of course, key to good horsemanship, but its direct link to the horse’s back (and the rest of the body) are not always considered.
A better ride
The horse’s back is a complex structure that includes the spinal cord, 24 vertebrae between the top of withers and tail head, muscles and ligaments holding the vertebrae in place, joints between the vertebrae, and muscles that connect the vertebral column to the limbs.
With all those components needing to work together, and every movement of one part affecting other parts, protecting the back from injury is one of the most important things we can do to keep our horses sound in the long run.
Taking these steps will also help prevent behavioural and performance issues, giving our horses, and us, a better ride.