Using massage therapy to help strengthen and condition your horse’s hindquarters.
The hindquarters are the “powerhouse” of your horse’s body. This is where the impulsion he needs to successfully complete the activities you ask of him begins. As a Registered Equine Massage Therapist, I see many horses being asked to complete tasks they are not physically prepared to do, leading to tension, restriction of movement, compensatory problems and injury. As riders, it is our privilege to work with such amazing animals – and it’s our responsibility to keep them pain free, sound and healthy.
How His Body Works
Engagement and proper use of the hindquarters is achieved by three main muscle groups.
1. The quadriceps and associated muscles (iliopsoas and tensor fascia lata) are the main muscles responsible for flexion of the hip and for drawing the hind limb forward underneath the horse’s body. We can look at it this way – the stronger and more balanced these specific muscles become, the further forward the horse can reach and the greater capacity for propulsion he will have.
2. The middle gluteal, the large “meaty” area along the top of the horse’s croup, is the key player in the forceful extension of the hip joint, and assists with elevation of the forequarters. Knowing this, we can understand the crucial importance of this particular muscle in disciplines such as jumping, racing or barrel racing, where power and speed are imperative. The hamstrings are responsible for extension of the hips and hind limbs, and work together with the middle gluteal to provide forward propulsion.
3. The hamstrings have a tendency to become overdeveloped when a horse is allowed to move “on the forehand”. This restricts the ability of the quads to draw the limb forward and results in short, stilted strides, translating into incorrect use of the back and abdomen as well. Not only is the strength of the hamstrings important, they must also be relaxed, elastic and supple to allow for the quadriceps to perform fully and effectively.
Massage as an Element of Training and Conditioning
A horse’s level of conditioning, fitness, age, imbalance and training all affect the way he moves. When any of these factors are out of balance with the job a horse is asked to do, the result is injury, tension, improper development and pain. Manual manipulation of soft tissues by a Registered Equine Massage Therapist (REMT) targets all the horse’s body systems, with specific focus on the nervous, circulatory, lymphatic, skeletal and muscular systems. The proper application of specialized massage techniques will reduce tension, increase elasticity, rehabilitate damaged tissues and decrease pain. This allows the horse to perform at his best by increasing strength and range of motion, and lessening the chance of injury.
Each horse is an individual and will require a specialized massage therapy treatment plan. As equine massage therapists, we are able to isolate specific areas of tension, atrophy, pain and weakness on an individual level, address the concern within the treatment, and provide suggestions and insight into how you can address these issues on your own at home. REMTs work in conjunction with equine veterinarians, chiropractors, farriers and trainers to create the best healthcare team possible for your unique partner.
Stretching Prevents Injury
Stretching is an incredibly useful tool every horse owner/rider can use on a daily basis to help maintain joint health and range of motion, improve flexibility and promote muscular symmetry. I incorporate stretches into all my treatments, and always ask owners to provide stretches as homecare. Human athletes perform stretches before and after exercise to prevent injuries caused by muscle fatigue and overexertion – why shouldn’t our equine athletes do the same?
Gluteal Scratch – This stretch targets the middle gluteal and muscles of the back. Place your hand a few inches to either side of the base of your horse’s tail. Apply light to moderate pressure with your fingers, literally “scratching” the location. The response you are looking for is for the horse to lift his back and tilt his pelvis. You may have to increase the pressure a great deal; on occasion, I have had to use my entire body weight and knuckles to obtain a response! Take care with this stretch, as you are positioned directly behind the horse. Some animals may react negatively to the pressure, so know your horse and read his body language.
Hip Extensor Stretch – Targets the middle gluteal and the hamstrings. Lift the limb and draw it forward underneath the horse’s abdomen, aligning the toe of the hind limb with his front leg. With the hand closest to the horses hindquarters, support the fetlock, resting your elbow on your thigh or knee, and use your other hand to support the toe.
Hip Flexor Stretch – This stretch is a little more challenging, but it stretches the hip flexors such as the quadriceps. Ask the horse to lift the limb, then slide your body forward and place the front of his cannon bone along your thigh. Place your near hand on top of the hock as comfort and support, and use your far hand to support the fetlock. You should allow the pressure of your leg to encourage the stretch rather than pushing/pulling with your hands. Your hands are simply there for support. Should the horse pull away, the leg will easily slide off your thigh.
You perform a version of pre-and post-event massage every day simply by grooming your horse before and after each ride. Most see this simply as cleaning the horse, and fail to see the positive effects on the underlying tissue. The time you spend grooming is critical to muscular and joint health, and changes in the rhythm and pace of the grooming affect the tissues differently. Before you ride, brush your horse using deep vigorous movements with the intent to increase circulation and stimulate his body. After your ride, take a more relaxing approach to the way you groom. Make use of slower, more relaxing strokes. Think about how, with each movement, you are stretching and relaxing each muscle, and removing toxins and waste from the tissues. Simply by doing this, you are helping your horse perform at his best while reducing the risk of pain and injury.
Before You Stretch
A few rules to consider before attempting to perform any stretches with your horse:
• Never stretch a cold or hot muscle. The horse should be adequately warmed or cooled before executing a stretch. An appropriate time would be after a brisk hand walking, or after a post-exercise cool down. • Never hold the tendons. This is a common mistake. Holding the tendons restricts them, inhibits the stretch and leads to strain. Rather, support the horse’s joints.
• Always maintain a solid posture that is safe and supportive.
• Hold the stretches for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat two or three times.
Exercises to Strengthen the Hamstrings and Middle Gluteal
Jumping and grid work –
There are a variety of ways to incorporate grids into your conditioning. I suggest speaking with your trainer for the best techniques for you and your horse. Remember to always start low and work your way up, both in the height and number of cavelettis or fences.
Hill work – Asking the horse to push his weight (and yours) uphill is a great tool to increase the power of the hindquarters. A horse will find it easier to trot uphill than to walk, so begin at the trot. Allow him to stretch forward and use his full neck and body to assist in his movement. Again, start with a light to moderate slope, with three or four repetitions. Increase the degree of slope, number of repetitions, and speed of the assent as your horse’s strength and endurance increases. When cantering, make sure to make equal reps with each lead.
Exercises to Strengthen the Quads
Pole exercises – Start by placing three to five poles on the ground. Place them approximately 3’ apart for walking, or 4’ for trot work. This distance may have to be adjusted for ponies or larger horses. As your training progresses, increase the number of poles on the ground, and add a couple of inches of height if you are able.
Hill work – Asking your horse to simply stand on a downhill slope requires engagement of the quads. Begin by asking your horse to walk down a mild to moderate slope. Do not let him rush onto the forehand, but rather ask him to sit back on his hindquarters, and approach the slope in a slow but steady manner. Repeat three or four times each session, gradually increasing the degree of the slope, and the number of repetitions.
Reversing – Backing up requires strength and coordination. Always incorporate backing up into your training. Warning: demanding this too often or for too long can put strain on the stifle and hock. Just a few steps back, a few times during your ride, are sufficient.
Brittany Cameron is a lifelong horse enthusiast and rider who turned her passion and love of horses into a career through equine massage therapy. Based on a solid foundation of training through the D’Arcy Lane School of Equine Massage Therapy, Brittany was able to achieve acceptance into the International Federation of Registered Equine Massage Therapists in 2012. She is based in Truro, Nova Scotia, and provides service to clients throughout all of the Maritime Provinces. (902)957-1667, cameronequinemassage.com