Like us, horses tend to start sagging and aching and slowing down as they age. Their toplines droop and lose muscle tone. As their spinal health deteriorates, we see more and more performance issues, and we often have to deal with their aches and pains in a very real way. But as difficult as it is to watch, we can help mitigate the impacts of this process.
Let’s talk about spinal health – what influences it, what the signs of an unhealthy back are, and how we can keep our horses’ backs healthy and strong. Start by thinking about basic physics. Gravity pulls humans down on their bony columns. Our spines are upright, and the weight of our structure stresses our back muscles. Overexertion and improper movement can exacerbate the problem.
Horses are built differently. Their spines are horizontal, and gravity pulls down on the center of their span. Think of it like a suspension bridge. The muscles in the back have to support their ribcage and abdomen. Then we add a saddle, increasing the stress on the bridge. We next ask that our horse balance a rider, and perhaps move in a way that’s unnatural for him. This creates more and more stress on that fabulous skeletal and muscle structure on which the horse’s entire system relies.
How do spinal health problems develop?
A horse’s back can be stressed by many influences, not the least of which is his own conformation. Let’s look at a few possible causes of back stress:
• Poor structure – imperfect conformation
• Poor hoof care – imbalance in the foot can result in unbalanced movement that stresses the entire muscular-skeletal system
• Normal aging process
• Injury – either the back itself can be injured, or an injury anywhere on the horse’s body can result in compensatory issues in the back
• Poor saddle fit – ill-fitting gear can impede natural movement and cause pain that results in injury or compensatory issues
• Poor riding habits – not warming your horse up or cooling him down, improperly asking for or forcing “collection”, and not properly building muscle and flexibility before strenuous events can all be detrimental to back health
• Misuse – starting a horse too young or not allowing enough recovery time after an injury
What signs should you look for?
Spinal health problems typically begin showing up in both the horse’s performance and behavior. For example, you may see an obvious lameness. Sometimes the gait abnormality is less noticeable – perhaps your horse struggles with only one lead or direction.
Some horses exhibit pain through behavioral changes. A horse will become “arena sour”, for example. A horse that is typically pleasant and willing may become irritated when asked to complete a familiar task. Perhaps he simply refuses to stand still for mounting, or begins to bite or buck or kick. Ear pinning, head tossing and tail swishing are clear signs of a problem.
One of your responsibilities in maintaining your horse’s spinal health is to monitor the feel of his back. Be sure to check all along his spine when you’re grooming him, both before and after a ride. Notice any tender spots and feel for heat or swelling. Becoming familiar with your horse’s back (and overall health) when he is well will give you a good baseline with which to compare when you start to notice problems.
How can you keep his back in good health?
Nutrition is always the building block to optimal health and wellness. Keep your horse on a natural, healthy diet and monitor his health and body condition throughout the year. Consult your equine health professional for help in designing a program to best suit your horse’s needs and activity level.
Stretching is critical to muscle health. There are many great resources on the market and internet for stretching exercises. One of the simplest techniques is what most people call “carrot stretches.” They are designed to stretch the muscles and skeletal system from the poll to the lower back. There are also many great stretches for the hindquarters that benefit the back’s structure.
Building strength and flexibility is the next step. This is best accomplished through simple cavaletti exercises. Many people consider cavaletti work to be for English riders only. Nothing could be further from the truth. Achieving optimal strength and balance through cavaletti work is valable to any equine sport. Always begin by ground driving the horse. This is critical because the horse will be able to move more naturally if he is not carrying a rider. He will begin to find his balance and develop natural collection as he builds strength.
Finally, there are simple exercises you can do for your horse when grooming him, before or after you ride, that will begin to develop muscles in the topline. Each is designed to activate reflex points that cause the muscles to fire, beginning with the large muscles in the hindquarters, progressing to the long muscles in the horse’s back, and finally to the withers and neck. These exercises are easy to learn and incorporate into your daily grooming program. We have used them to bring older horses with sagging backs back to optimal health and performance, with toplines that would make many younger horses envious. We have also used them to maintain muscle strength and balance in horses rehabilitating from an injury. For a video of these exercises, visit www.perfectanimalhealth.com.
It’s possible to keep your horse’s back strong and healthy well into his retirement – and it’s all up to you! It doesn’t matter if your horse is young or old – or if you are, for that matter. Starting a program that targets spinal health is appropriate at any age. Don’t try everything all at once – introduce each new activity slowly, and perfect the techniques before moving on to the next one. Remember to relax and have fun! That’s the best gift you can give your equine companion when aiming for optimal health and performance.
Sandy Siegrist is a lifelong horsewoman who practices natural horsemanship, healing and horse care techniques. She works with clients throughout the U.S. to evaluate their feeding and horsekeeping programs based on their horses’ specific needs. She also does energy work and overall health analyses, often taking in horses for more extensive rehabilitation. Sandy’s approach is based on natural and alternative therapy techniques and incorporates bio-energy testing, cranio-sacral therapy, acupressure, kinetics, herbs and flower essences, among others. Her lectures, articles and DVD s address nutrition, hoof care, bodywork, worming, vaccinations, and emotional wellbeing, grounded in maintaining a more natural environment and healthcare practices. Visit www.perfectanimalhealth.com.