Therapists have helped to open the eyes of horse and animal owners to the benefits of physical therapy, owners have responded by getting their horses “back checked” if there is a problem such as bucking, napping, girthiness or performance deteriorates. However, less known are the benefits of physical therapy, including spinal manipulation, for general and long term health.
Most horse owners are now aware that taking a tumble while jumping, slipping in muddy fields, poor fitting saddle and unbalanced riders can all cause discomfort for the horse and muscular imbalance. However the more I treat, the more I come across horses whose behaviour has stumped their owners, but has resolved with physical therapy.
Behaviour and what it can tell us.
The horse has evolved to be stoic, in evolutionary terms, they often hide their pain to prevent predators from knowing that they may be easily picked off. This “hiding” of symptoms can prevent owners from recognising physical problems and is common to many horse I treat. Lots of horses appear to tolerate pain or don’t show the classic symptoms associated with pain, they may, however be trying to communicate their discomfort in other ways.
Changes in a horse’s behaviour or demeanour are a big clue to any issues that may be occurring. If a horse started a new behaviour such as pulling faces when tacked up, being difficult to catch or generally just being grumpy can all be indicators that something is amiss.
I often hear people say that their horse is always grumpy/ naps/ pulls faces, turns to bite when groomed “that’s just how he is”. It is my opinion, just because behaviour has always occurred, doesn’t mean that behaviour is normal. Trying to find the reason for the sour attitude can bring huge changes to the demeanour of that animal.
Many behaviours that are considered normal by horse owners or just bad habits can be clues to a horses stress or pain levels or mental state. In behavioural science, a behaviour is considered normal for a species when it is exhibited by all members of that species, just because a behaviour is common amongst riding horses for instance, doesn’t mean that behaviour is normal or healthy.
Until recently it was considered that cribbing was a “vice”, a bad habit that horses did and thought of in the same context as smoking or drug taking in humans, horses were often blamed for teaching other horses to crib. Nowadays it is known that cribbing is a consequence of gastrointestinal pain and that all horses under the same management and feeding regime are likely to experience the similar gastrointestinal upset, the pattern of lots of horses on the same yard exhibiting behavioural stereotypies. With new knowledge, previous examples of poor animal welfare come to light and we start to understand how to improve it.
Fear, aggression and musculoskeletal pain.
The more animals I treat, the more I am convinced that, fear, nervousness and aggression are in many cases, linked to musculoskeletal pain. This is true for dogs as it is for horses.
Many times I hear the phases – spooky, reactive, headshy, grumpy, headshaker, teeth grinding. While many of these are often linked to previous trauma, previous poor handling or rough training techniques I have found that many animals with these symptoms are the suffering from some kind of clinical or subclinical musculoskeletal condition.
Clinical conditions require veterinary treatment, such as lameness, however subclinical conditions are often related to musculoskeletal pain or spinal misalignments which lead to musculoskeletal restriction and pain.
In conjunction with behavioural therapy, physical therapy can dramatically improve the demeanour and subsequent prospects of a horse that is displaying behavioural issues such as aggression and nervousness.
Case Study: Lady
Lady is a horse I treated at my local horse sanctuary, where I volunteer my skills to help the residents. Before arriving there
her behaviour had become aggressive towards her owner who felt she couldn’t cope with her anymore. The previous owners vet had prescribed a hormone therapy to combat her grumpy marish behaviour, but had not had much effect. When I first met Lady she was watching her horsey friends and not paying much attention to the humans around her. On trot up she was sound, but was restricted through her whole body, moving in a rather stiff manner. Her muscles were hard all over and very asymmetrical, large bulges of muscle around her neck, hindquarters and underline, but no topline. Although sound on trot up, she generally looked stiff with no swing or stretch to her.
She showed discomfort on palpation through her neck and back. She stood for the treatment even though she was wary for a while and ended up looking much quieter and more relaxed. She had previously had violent reactions under saddle and so her treatment plan was field rest with regular treatments.
After 5 treatments spaced over 6 months longlining was introduced to help re-educate her body to move more with her back lifted and stepping under to help build topline and even up her muscles, which by now had greatly relaxed and a reduction in the areas of over muscling had been seen. With this groundwork and 2 more treatments over the following 6 months there was no evidence of muscular pain, she was much happier in herself, more relaxed and happy to begin her ridden work.
Lady was rehomed shortly after and now competes in dressage being placed every time out.
Case Study: Fox
Fox is my own horse and has been a really interesting and challenging case study. He came to me after proving to be difficult to catch and dangerous to ride, he was difficult to lead being high on adrenaline the whole time, he did not know how to relax and was very stressed. He was explosively spooky and did not trust people. He came from a very experienced owner, but they could not cope with his behaviour. He would appear quiet one minute, then suddenly exploding which would include galloping off at high speed, eyes wide, head as high as he could carry it.
He did not look quite right on trot up, and on closer inspection it was clear that here was damage to his pelvis, either a fracture or damage to the sacral ligaments, he had pain throughout his entire body due to over tight muscles. Despite all of this he seemed a sweet natured horse and I wanted to give him a chance.
On getting him home I noticed that his muscles were so contracted that he had difficulty in reaching the ground to graze. He accepted his first treatment and seemed a lot quieter afterwards.
Due to the nature of his injury I have been slowly rehabilitating his muscles over the past year, using exercise therapy alongside treatments to build his muscles in order to hold the pelvis in place, while teaching him to use his back and step under. He is now much quieter and able to cope with life in general, if he does spook, he reacts more normally, not running around trying to escape anymore. He no longer has contracted muscles and has had weight on his back with no reactions. He now reacts like a normal, albeit, high spirited horse with a rather cheeky personality.
Pain, depression and anxiety.
In humans, pain, depression and anxiety are commonly linked. Pain pathways cause a decrease in serotonin, a chemical that helps us to feel safe, calm and happy. When chronic (long term) pain is present, even low levels of constant or regular pain, then serotonin can get “used up”, the body can’t produce enough to counteract its use in the pain pathway, then we being to feel depressed and anxious. Although this has not been studied in horses, this phenomenon has been seen in humans, mice, rats and primates and has been shown to produce the same biochemical reactions in all species, so there is no reason why this would not be the same for horses.
The anxiety felt when serotonin is reduced, is caused by an imbalance between serotonin and adrenalin, the hormone responsible for the flight or fight response.
With adrenalin being responsible for mood and behaviour when serotonin levels are low, the individual will be more spooky and reactive, more flighty or when cornered, more aggressive.
The problem with high adrenalin and low serotonin is that adrenalin has no negative feedback mechanism. Adrenalin stays high, the horse becomes more flighty and aggressive, which in turn causes adrenlin to become even higher.
Once the adrenalin has been elevated for a while receptors on cells become “addicted” to it. So high adrenalin become the normal state for the body. Any small but stressful event causes a bigger, faster reaction because adrenalin is already high and more adrenalin gets released to add to it. The horse eventually appears to have a “hair trigger”. The horse looks calm enough but because baseline adrenalin is already high, any event, no matter how small, will trigger an explosive reaction, which to us looks like a complete over reaction. The horse begins to get labelled as unpredictable, explosive and dangerous. This may cause the horse to be put to sleep, when it was just trying to survive the situation and pain levels that it had been subjected to.
This article was originally published in Everything Horse UK December 2014.