How to bath a horse in winter. 

My young cob has been playing with his friends in the field and came in soaked with sweat the other night, his winter woollies coming through is keeping him toasty. 

He’s also itchy, very greasy, and has scurfy skin, he suffers from mild sweet itch which has been playing havoc with his skin and coat the last few weeks, despite my best efforts to protect him. Most of all this he stinks! If it was summer then washing him would help alleviate some of these problems.  However as it’s now November so that seems a bit mean. 

Enter the dry shampoo bath. Using baby powder sprinkled over a bone dry coat, then rubbed into the skin using a rubber curry comb. 

The powder then needs to be brushed out, best to do this with a body brush, keep going until no more powder can be seen in the coat. 

If you have a dark horse you can use cocoa powder instead, which will blend in better if you can’t get it all out. 

You will be left with a gleaming, shiny coat, the dry “shampoo” removes excess grease, scurf and stains without stripping the coat or removing the weatherproofing. 

Gleaming after his dry bath. 

Why I’m Happy That My Horse Is Fat

Seems like an odd heading for someone who despairs at seeing overweight animals struggle to do their jobs, however, bear with me on this one!

As some of you may know there have been many challenges getting Fox back to health, one of those have been his inability to keep weight on and to keep him warm, I’ve never known such a cold horse.

When he first arrived he would burn through calories due to being on a heightened state of alert, with his adrenalin levels through the roof (read about that here).  He also had stomach issues, he would chew wood, show clear signs of stomach pain if hungry (our field at the time had very poor grass, especially in winter), wind suck, grind his teeth, act “wild” and would refuse to be caught or became difficult to handle.  These are all clear signs of a horse being driven mad by pain, most probably, stomach ulcers.

His digestive system seemed to be in a state of stress (because he himself was stressed) and it was difficult to keep weight on him because of this.  Last summer we moved to a much better field, and along with lowering his stress levels and feeding to keep his system free from pain, his digestive system has actually become more efficient.  He now comes in some nights during the summer to have hay, this really settles his stomach down, as too many days out on grass can cause some inflammation.  He has a handful (literally) of Timothy Chop (very low calorie grass based, molasses free, chop made from a low sugar grass variety.) with vitamin and mineral supplement, and grass in the day time.

So how did we achieve this?  First, I should say that if you are experiencing any of these problems with your horse then you should speak to your vet about it, we decided not to go down the scoping and antibiotics route for the ulcers as we could see that simple management made him more comfortable and was not necessary.

First he got ad lib hay in winter, being hungry would cause a flare up of his signs, so it was imperative to keep something fibrous in his system at all times.  In spring and autumn when the grass is rich and growing quickly, this can also cause issues with horses that have ulcers, so we offered him hay or meadow grass blocks to help line his stomach.

If you are riding your horse make sure you give some hay (half a section would be fine) or some non molassed chaff of some type BEFORE you ride and never ride on  completely empty stomach. Although new research has immerged that chaff with “sharp” ends may cause mechanical damage (scratching) to the stomach wall, if the horse already has ulcers or inflammation of the stomach lining, this may exacerbate the problem. 

Fibre forms a matt over the acid layer and prevents it from damaging the sensitive tissues that surround the top third of the horses stomach.  Doing this will prevent your horse from getting crabby when ridden and prevent the ulcers or inflamed stomach lining from getting worse.  NEVER feed pony nuts or any type of mix before riding, even if they say they are high fibre, in fact if your horse has stomach issues you should avoid feeding these at all.  If your horse competes, there are other ways to get a higher energy fibre based food or balancing these with small amounts of cereal, speak to an equine nutritionist.

I also used liquorice powder as a supplement, this has mucilage properties, coating and soothing the digestive tract, it also has been shown in laboratory tests to kill some of the bacteria that are responsible for the continuation of stomach ulcers (in humans).

A word of warning when using liquorice, or slippery elm, or marshmallow root, that they are very high in sugar, which is what gives them their mucilage properties so only feed a teaspoon full twice a day for five days or a week, and don’t ride during this time as your horse may become a hyped up monster, don’t worry, stopping the supplement will reverse this.  We found that Fox was particularly susceptible to its effects so I prefer to warn people who may try it. Horses with intolerance to sugar due to laminitis, cushings or metabolic disorder should use these webs with caution.

When he needed higher energy food in the winter, to keep weight on, we found that feeding non molassed sugar beet (thoroughly soaked of course) and Alf Alfa chop or Alfa and straw mix (all non molassed) to be a great conditioning feed which prevented inflammation in his gut, we ended up swapping the Alfa for the Timothy Chop because his field mate was allergic to the Alfa.  Grass nuts were given instead, if the timothy chop wasn’t keeping enough weight on him with the addition of micronised linseed meal if the weather was really nasty. Although this last winter he kept his weight great being fed only adlib hay in the stable, non molassed sugar beet, linseed meal and the occasional meadow grass block on very cold days. 

This consistent regime over the course of 3 years has turned a skinny, wind sucking, lunatic into a fat, content, calm and happy horse.  This spring/summer will be the job of keeping the weight off!

Why are household cleaners usually lemon scented?

When you step into the household cleaning isle of the supermarket, have you ever wondered why by far the most popular fragrance for cleaning products is lemon?

Okay, okay, I know you can now get mocha chino latte flavoured washing up liquid, but lemon is the most frequently seen and the reason is simple, not only does it smell fresh, but naturally, lemon has antiseptic properties that can be utilised in your cleaning regime.

Replace your existing chemical lemon scented cleaner with lemon essential oil for a fresh smelling and clean and non toxic house!  Find below a recipe I use to clean my bathroom and kitchen.

Multipurpose household cleaner recipe.

To an empty spray bottle add:

  • about 100 ml white vinegar (a bit less than quarter of a 500ml bottle)
  • 5 drops of lemon essential oil
  • at this point fill the bottle to half way with water
  • add a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate
  • top the bottle up to the neck with water

Don’t forget to shake the bottle each time you use it or the lemon won’t get dispersed throughout the mixture.  Best to patch test your surface before using, but I use this mixture in the bathroom and on kitchen surfaces which are enamel, plastic, laminated or wood.  I even use it on my stainless steel hob, but I make sure I wipe it up immediately with a damp cloth.

To wash floors add 5 drops of lemon essential oil to a mop bucket of water to clean hard floors, patch test if you have marble or something porous that could react with the lemon before using.  I even use this to sanitise and deodorise my stable floors and rubber matting, it works great and prevents that horrible ammonia smell, add a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda for extra cleaning oomph.

Great for your skin.

Lemon essential oil can be used on your skin, and is great for balancing oily or combination skin, however, only use citrus oil at night and wash your face in the morning as it can make your skin photosensitive when exposed to light.  Add one drop of essential oil to a tablespoon of sunflower oil and apply to your face before bed, keep this mixture in a glass bottle and leave somewhere cool and dark to use later.  Remember to patch test on the inside of your arm in case you are sensitive to the oil before smearing it all over your face, it can also cause bleaching on some skin types. Wash off immediately with soapy water and rinse well if you start to have a reaction to it, seek medical help if the reaction causes swelling.

Aching legs.

Another use for lemon is on tired, aching legs as it helps to increase circulation, mix 1 drop of lemon and 2 drops of peppermint oil into a tablespoon of carrier oil such as sunflower or coconut and rub into your feet and legs before bed.  If your legs and feet are covered in the daytime you can use it in the morning to combat the feeling of tired legs throughout the day, but again, don’t use on skin that is to be exposed to the sun during the day as it could burn more easily.  I have been using this combination successfully to help prevent that awful heavy, tired feeling like you’re walking through mud or treacle that makes your legs ache from the inside even if you try to put your feet up.

This combination will really put a spring in your step!

Managing arthritis in the older horse – Moo’s Story

As horses age it seems that time can catch up with them, they may be slower on hacks or find being ridden up or down hills more difficult, for me, it was realising that my old mare, Moo, was only comfortable being ridden on warm days.  On cooler days she would seem to struggle to carry me.  She had bone spavin in both her hind legs that had made her increasingly stiff, and it seemed she had increased soreness through her back, possibly from arthritis in her spine, but on warm days she was perfectly happy to trundle about in walk, she was around 21 at this point.

I did the obvious thing and spoke to the vet about giving her bute to make her comfortable enough to be ridden more regularly, keeping weight off her was difficult and I didn’t want to retire her just yet in order to manage both her weight.

As the colder weather hit she started to move around the field less and needed to be rugged to keep warm, something that had never happen before, increasing the bute had no effect on her physically, in fact she became withdrawn, her gums were pale and she seemed “spaced out”.  She wasn’t interacting with the group as much and didn’t seem to lay down that much. It was clear it was all getting too much, but I wasn’t ready to make ‘that’ decision just yet.

So here I was with an overweight elderly mare whose quality of life seemed to be decreasing, she had breathing issues (COPD/ RAO), arthritis and insulin resistance.  I couldn’t find any answers from talking to my vet, I felt the bute may have been having an adverse effect on her stomach and wanted to take her off it.

People who know me, know that I use herbs for myself and my animals a lot to help with certain conditions, where medicine is not appropriate.

So I started her on frankincense, cinnamon, MSM and a mineral balancer.  Her weight had started to get out of control despite only being fed a handful of chopped straw and alfalfa chop, so I switched her to unmolassed oat straw to fill her up and started to use a muzzle for grazing over the summer.  Older horses with insulin resistance often suffer from a lack of protein in their diet as owners try to cut calories. In order to combat this I added a couple of tablespoons of linseed, high in omega 3 for joint and skin health, also great for improving metabolism and helps soothe inflammation in the airways, great for those with breathing issues. It is also high in protein, vital for health protein also helps to curb the appitite. This was a few years ago, I would recommend feeding spirinula, high in protein and minerals it was difficult to get hold of, now it is more readily available.

I started a massage and mobilisation routine that included gentle polework.  In 2 weeks she started to lay down again and got some proper rest, at 6 weeks she was trotting round the field with the young horses, the video below was taken at 10 weeks, cantering and playing with the young horses like she used to! (she’s the mainly white piebald!).

What’s more is that her breathing was much better too, she’s still overweight in the video, but at least she could be exercised now to help with that.

Springing into Action After Winter.

With the days gradually getting longer our thoughts turn to Spring. For many horse owners this means bringing your horse back into work ready for the warmer weather. 
Winter can really take it out of our horses, both physically and mentally; reduced turnout, less than ideal air quality in stables, causing stomach muscles to work harder; wrestling with haynets, which puts strain on the top of the neck causing soreness around the poll just by the action of pulling hay out; slippery mud in fields or out hacking can cause muscle strain or small tears which can go unnoticed at first. These everyday occurancies can cause sore and tight muscles and affect performance or behaviour. 

It is when we increase the workload that these issues can start to come to the fore. 

A horse that is sore through the poll from wrestling haynets may resist contact or have difficulty keeping an outline. Horses can strain the gracilis muscle on the inside of the thigh if they slip with one of more hind legs going outwards, or the pectoral muscles if the same happens with the front legs. 

If the horse becomes lame then veterinary advice should be sought, although in the majority of cases where lameness is not present, a horse may seem off colour or lack power or impulsion or resist schooling through turns or circles. 

If your horse is seen to have slipped then check whether there is any heat in the muscles, check around the inside and outside of the thigh and hip, compare this with the temperature of the other leg to see if it feels hotter in one place. If lameness develops or swelling is excessive then consult a vet.

Getting a preseason MOT for your horse in the spring can help avoid ridden or behavioural problems later on. 

Changing shape and muscle tone towards the end of the winter may cause the saddle to not fit as well as it did before the winter, getting it checked and getting your horse treated by a physical therapist can help avoid problems later in the spring and help a fitness program to run smoothly knowing your horse is in good shape, especially if you have goals for competing over the coming season. 

Getting your horse treated and building fitness back up slowly will help prevent injury later on and lays the foundation for a trouble free summer. 

Pain and loss of mobility are not necessarily a part of aging.

Keeping your dog fit and healthy into old age is the priority of most loving owners. However, did you know that the pain and loss of mobility that many dogs experience, sometimes quite early in life can be avoided or held off until later in life.

I have many older dogs that are brought to me for treatment because they are suffering from pain, stiffness and arthritis. This is great for the dogs, treatment can help ease the symptoms that many of us feel as we age, but did you know that having your dog treated on a regular maintenance schedule twice a year can help prevent these signs until later in life, if they occur at all.

Arthritis cannot be reversed either by physical therapy or veterinary treatment, the best we can hope for is that careful treatment including muscle strengthening, weight management, physical therapy and pain control we can ensure our dogs have a good quality of life as they age, but why do some dogs become plagued with joint injuries, while others seem to age remarkably well.

The Pain Spiral.
It is important to understand how injury can affect the body in the long term.

When an animal injures themselves, no matter how minor, the following chain of events will occur. Say your dog took a tumble while catching a ball or crashed into another dog while playing, accidents such as these can cause minor muscle strains or bruises that your dog will recover from quickly. However, it is hardwired in our dogs to subtly change the way they move when they have pain in their bodies.

For instance, once the bruising and muscle strain have occurred, the dog will walk by putting less weight on the injured area or leg, even if the pain is minor and doesn’t cause overt lameness. This helps to rest the area and allow it to heal.

Now for the important bit, the dog will continue to move with this altered gait, even when the pain has gone, with less weight being carried on the now healed leg, and more on another leg. The mechanism that helped the body to heal, can now cause further injury if this compensatory pattern isn’t addressed.

At first, the dog is fine moving like this, but over time the muscles that are being overworked will begin to get tight and tired, the muscles that the dog has been guarding will begin to atrophy.

The dog now has to try and guard the sore, overworked muscles, but the brain has shut down communication through the nervous system to the area that was originally injured, so the dog will compensate by moving weight to a different leg, putting the pressure it is trying to relive in two other legs onto one leg. Often it is at this point that the dog may begin to appear intermittently lame, reluctant to play as it used to or become slower on walks, he may glance at the painful area, be more prone being bad tempered or show other changes in behaviour or temperament.

You can see how this cycle over time can cause increased pressure on joints in limbs that are compensating, this is often the cause of early arthritis in dogs.

Preventing This Cycle.
It is important to prevent this downward spiral of pain and lameness before irreversible changes occur within the joints or ligaments. Regular treatment with a properly qualified practitioner such as a McTimoney practitioner can help remove these minor strains and effectively “reset” the body into it’s most efficient way of moving.

For this to happen the dog should receive regular treatment throughout its life, this will help to prevent the onset of damaging compensation cycles and help prevent mobility issues as the dog ages. Regular treatment doesn’t mean monthly, usually twice yearly is enough to keep the musculoskeletal system working in good order. The other advantage to regular check ups with a professional is that any underlying or more serious issues are likely to be picked up sooner and referred back to the vet in order to get treatment, which would give a better prognosis for recovery. This is especially true of very active dogs, or those that compete, who may pick up minor injuries, but mask them due to the excitement of competing and training.

Getting your dog treated on a maintenance schedule will help prevent minor injuries from becoming more serious and help prevent mobility issues later in life.

Physical Therapy, Behaviour and Health for Horses.

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

Lady - by kind permission of Seven Acre Horse Sanctuary.

Lady in her new home – by kind permission of Seven Acre Horse Sanctuary.

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
FoxFox 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.

Conditioning and Prehabilitation for Horse Owners.

Just as building your core muscles can help improve your riding and muscle control, it also reduces back pain and is also true for your horse. Making sure that your horse is fit enough for the work that is being asked of it is generally well known among horse owners and riders. Improving your horses fitness , termed conditioning, is important to carry out when increasing your horses’ workload. However, within therapy circles, both animal and human, are the concepts of rehabilitation and prehabilitation which takes the concept of conditioning further and includes exercises to improve core strength and allow the athlete to work and compete with a reduced risk of getting injured in the first place.
Conditioning plans for gradually introducing increased amounts of work for the horse concentrate on conditioning the cardio vascular system, the benefits of this are increasing lung capacity, reducing recovery times post exercise and building muscle mass. Gradually increasing the work a horse receives gives the body time to respond to an increasing work load and will prevent over use or strain injuries and prevent conditions such as tying up. The musculoskeletal system will also get conditioned, the major locomotor muscles will get stronger, which will reduce the likelihood of injury if, for instance, going over varied terrain.

horse-802043_1920The term prehabilitation means going through the process of rehabilitation to help prevent injury from occurring in the first place. The main result of prehabilitation for horses is to strengthen the core muscles. If the core muscles are properly strengthened and conditioned the horse is better set up to avoid injury. Increased core strength will help the horse deal better with being ridden, helping them to carry the rider with ease and prevent back pain, it can help prevent a horse from breaking down early with conditions such as arthritis and non-specific back pain or reluctance to work. A horse with a well-conditioned, strong core will be able to avoid doing the splits when slipping or will be able to “save itself” from a fall if, for instance, slipping or hitting a jump cross country or out hacking, if it has a strong core.
Rehabilitation is the process that owners, trainers and therapists use to bring a horse back from injury. First the horse receives proper veterinary care for the initial injury and supportive care to help the best chance of the injury healing, which is followed by a conditioning program to bring the horse back into working fitness.
Detailed here are a few simple exercises and small changes to your daily management routine that can have a big impact on the working life of your horse, this comes under the umbrella of prehabilitation.

Grooming for massage.
In days gone by people would make a hay whisp and use this to beat against the horses’ large muscle groups, look in any old horse management book and you will see instructions on how to make these. A more effective (and modern) way to achieve similar results is to use a rubber curry comb. Every horse owner should have a rubber curry comb in their grooming kit. They can remove dried mud from hocks, knees and fetlocks without hurting the horse or pulling the hair, and it helps to get the coat out when shedding, especially useful if your horse is too sensitive to use a striping comb. It also works to give your horse an all over body massage and is extremely effective to use between physical therapy treatments to help extend the benefits of the treatment and prevent small muscle knots from forming. Use it in big circles, pressing into your horses muscles on the neck, lower shoulder and back. Use a zig zag pattern over the hind quarters and outer thigh. Because the rubber curry comb is soft it won’t hurt if you go over a bony area, but it is best to avoid these areas.

Enjoying a massage with the curry comb

Enjoying a massage with the curry comb

Use this routine as part of your daily grooming, it will help increase circulation to the skin and help give a lovely shiny coat, your horse will really love it and it is an easy way for horse owners to give an effective massage. It is really useful if your horse wears a rug at this time of year to help keep the skin in tip top condition, preventing dry scurfy skin and helping to relieve any itches your horse may have under the rug. If your horse is really sensitive and doesn’t like being groomed much start off with a light pressure for the first week or so and gradually increase the pressure you use, you will be surprised that they may actually start to enjoy being groomed.

Carrot stretches and stationary reflex stretches.
Carrot stretches have been proven to mobilise the spine, reduce pain and increase tone in the deep postural muscles of the back, the very deep muscles that control the posture and stabilisation of the spine. See photos for carrot stretch postures.

Starting carrot stretches stand with your back to their shoulder and ask to bend round you this helps the horse keep their feet still.

Starting carrot stretches stand with your back to their shoulder and ask to bend round you this helps the horse keep their feet still.

Nose to chest

Nose to chest

Stretching down and to the side

Stretching down and to the side

Nose to fetlocks

Nose to fetlocks

Other carrot stretches include bringing the nose round the side to the shoulder, then the ribs, then when the horse is more advanced you can bring the nose round as far as the hip.  Advancing the ‘nose to fetlock’ exercise you would bring the treat further and further between the legs so the horse is able to strech its head right between and behind

Nose to knees

Nose to knees

its front legs.

Reflex stretches take a bit of practice, but they help to fire the nerves involved in contraction of the core muscles, helping to wake these muscles up and stretch the lumbar spine. Often physical therapists will use reflex stretches at the end of a treatment to stretch certain muscles and cause the core muscles to fire, aiding in changes that occur in the body after a treatment and helping to lengthen the effectiveness of the treatment. Practiced regularly they can really benefit the horse’s core muscles.

Simple reflex stretch.
If it is safe to do so, stand behind your horse with him standing square, press firmly with your fingers about mid-way across the gluteal muscles (see photo for details) and run your fingers back towards you passing either side of the hamstrings and pressing in firmly as the muscles curve in above the hind leg. This will encourage your horse to arch its back and tuck the pelvis under, stretching the lower back and firing the core muscles. Be careful not to put too much pressure on when pressing in at the top of the leg at first, as this may cause your horse to kick, go light to start with and try again if there is no response. The response is often small if the muscles of the hind quarters are tight or the horse is stiff through the lower back so don’t overdo this.

Starting position for the reflex stretch.

Starting position for the reflex stretch.

For more information on this Hillary Clayton and Narelle Stubbs have released a book and DVD explaining these exercises and more, it is available from the British Equine Veterinary Association online bookshop, entitled Activate Your Horses Core, it is a useful tool for all horse owners.

Simple Groundwork.
Working your horse from the ground is a great way to prepare for ridden work and enables you to watch how they move. Research has found that groundwork exercises help your horse to feel more relaxed once you get in the saddle. The first simple exercise is leading your horse in a small circle.
As long as you can lead your horse safely in hand then this exercise is great, it helps to encourage the horse to take more weight on the inside hindleg and to step under themselves correctly, in turn, this will encourage them to lift their backs and strengthen the core muscles. I have used this in the rehabilitation of lots of horses and really helps them before more demanding exercises are used, it is a great prehabilitation exercise.
You don’t need any fancy equipment and works just as well in a headcollar, or a bridle can be worn. First ask the horse to SLOWLY walk around you in a circle, if your horse needs a bit of help at first then make the circle bigger and walk next to him, if your horse can walk in a small circle slightly away from and ahead of you then all the better. Watch the inside hind leg and gently adjust the head towards the inside or outside of the circle very slightly by shortening or lengthening the rope to get the inside hind leg to step up towards the middle of the belly.

Fox's head is too high, but his hind leg is stepping the correct position.

Fox’s head is too high, but his hind leg is stepping the correct position.

As long as the horses back and neck are not restricted then they will be able to lower the head naturally and walk with their neck horizontal to the shoulder. This exercise helps to strengthen the hind leg and stretch the back. The horse should be walking slowly, but in a regular rhythm on a 5 or 10 meter circle. Only do a half to a whole circle to start with and build up to 10 circles over the course of a few weeks. At first, be sure to stop when your horse steps correctly, even if it’s just the one step, and give him praise and a rest so that he knows what you are aiming, then try again. Make sure you do this in both directions, you may find at first that your horse seems to bend to the outside of the circle in one direction, ignore this as the exercise will correct it, just focus on the inside hind leg and make sure it steps towards the middle of the belly. Practice this everyday if you can, before or after you ride, it only takes a few minutes and gives big rewards in the long run. This exercise forms the basis of therapeutic lunging, ensuring the horse moves correctly on a circle without the need for restrictive gadgets.

Fox has a good body position here, bending round me on the circle, without overbending through the neck.

Fox has a good body position here, bending round me on the circle, without overbending through the neck.

As the horse progresses and can hold the exercise on a 5 meter circle for 10 laps, stepping correctly with each step then the circle can be made bigger by a couple of meters at a time, if the horse starts to “lose form”, then make the circle smaller again and continue the exercise, eventually the horse will be able to move on a 20 or 25 meter circle, stepping correctly towards the middle of the belly, with the head held low and the body curving to follow the arc of the circle. Therapeutically, I would wait until the horse is able to do this in walk before asking for trot on a larger circle.
Backing up.
Backing up SLOWLY will encourage your horse to round his back and tuck the pelvis under as he steps back, it also helps the horse to carry weight on the hind legs, helping to strengthen them, especially the gluteal and quadriceps muscles. Start this exercise in hand before moving onto doing it whilst ridden.
Standing in front of and to the side of your horse use gentle pressure on the headcollar to ask the horse to step back, do not apply too much pressure or the horse will lift his head and hollow his back which is the opposite of what you want to achieve. Make sure the steps are slow and in a straight line. If your horse is a bit weak on one side he will tend to step back in a curve towards the stronger side, try standing on the same side of his head as the direction he tried to veer to, this often helps the horse to move back in a straighter line. Take a step then stop, ask the horse to step forward, pause, then ask again. Eventually your horse will be able to back for a few steps in a straight line.

Stepping back with the head low, encouraging the pelvis to tuck and the back to lift.

Stepping back with the head low, encouraging the pelvis to tuck and the back to lift.

If you are using positive reinforcement, move your target back towards your horses’ chest, when he steps back and touches the target reward him and continue to build the exercise.
This is excellent at helping to stretch the lower back and take weight on the hind quarters as the pelvis tucks and the back rounds. Once your horse can do several steps with ease in a straight line try backing up a slight incline, this will increase the stretch, then up a hill once your horse can back up the incline with ease. Think about how people move when they practice Tai Chi, the slower and more purposeful the movement the better at strengthening the muscles.

This article was first published in Everything Horse UK January 2015.

Canine Stretch Exercises for Physical Health.

Studies have found that baited stretches in horses, often known as carrot stretches, can reduce the incidence of back pain and help to rehabilitate a horse that has been suffering from back pain. The same has been found in humans and dogs.

The baited stretches work a bit like Pilates does in humans, the body is gently stretched to activate the long muscles of the back and core muscles of the stomach, without forcing them or causing strain to the joints. Helping to strengthen and tone these muscles, thus reducing strain and asymmetry.
This form of stretching is called active stretching, where the stretch occurs within a movement, rather than holding the dogs’ body in a stretch. Active stretching has proven, in both human and animal sport, to increase power and acceleration. So is great for those competing in agility or flyball. Passive stretching, where the handler holds the dogs legs in a stretch, immediately before training and competing actually decreases performance.
Using a piece of food or a treat move the dog’s head around to his side, while his feet stay where they are! Start slowly and only move the treat a small distance to let the dog get the idea that he needs to keep his feet still, if he moves his feet, be persistent, but don’t hand over the reward until the dog is in the desired position. This may take some patience to begin with, but the dog will soon get the idea. Remember to reward the smallest try and start off slowly. The following photos show me teaching this method to a family member’s dog, Bindi.

Picture 1

1. Getting the idea of moving her head with her feet still


2. Moving the head to the side while keeping the feet still.

Bindi is starting to get the idea in the second photo, which didn’t take very long at all. To progress this exercise continue to move the treat further towards the flank as the dog becomes more flexible. I left this session here because she had got the idea, she is young and it was her first session. Don’t forget to repeat this exercise to both sides.


Next, move the dog’s head between his front legs, by getting his nose to follow a treat. Again, start slowly, you can see the nice stretch over Bindis back, eventually you would aim for her to stretch her head between her front legs and take the treat from behind her front feet.

Ask your dog to stand with his front legs on top of a box, to stretch the back and hind leg muscles. This gives nice stretch over the hind legs. Obviously if you have a small dog, then a smaller step would be needed, make sure the dog is not straining to reach the raised platform, whatever you may be using, also make sure the footing is good and will not cause the dog to slip off.


Finally, teaching or encouraging your dog to “play bow” on command helps to stretch the shoulder, triceps and back muscles. Bindi shows the early stages of this, aim to make the forequarters lower than the hindquarters in true “playbow” pose, but again, do this slowly over time.


Repeat these exercises frequently, 2-3 times a week should be plenty, once your dog is proficient at these, then the frequency can be dropped back to once a week.
Look after your back whilst doing this too, you can see that I have my knees bent and back relatively straight to prevent me putting too much strain on my lower back.

And finally… try not to be gulted into just handing over the treats!


Why use a McTimoney Animal Practitioner

A popular saying among soft tissue specialists is, “the muscles hold the bones together, you don’t need to adjust the bones, it doesn’t release the muscles”. This common misconception stems from a misunderstanding about how spinal manipulation actually works. It does release the deep postural muscles as I will explain.
As a side note, the bones are held together by ligaments, the muscles attach via tendons and create the power to move the joints, rather than physically holding them together in the majority of cases. Releasing the muscles through soft tissue techniques doesn’t automatically bring the spine and joints back into alignment and so the same restrictions can crop up over and over again.
I started out as an equine sports massage therapist and got great results, the horses were happy, my clients were happy, but there was something I felt was missing from my practice. After training as a McTimoney Animal Practitioner, I am now of the opinion that to truly rehabilitate the body back to full function and prevent further injury occurring, the release of all joints and soft tissues must first take place. This allows functional full range of motion before rehabilitation can occur with the use of exercise, stretching etc. As someone who suffers from back pain due to a spinal injury, I know first-hand how painful stretching and mobilisation can be if muscles are tight and the body has not been brought into alignment first. Symmetrical muscle building occurs more quickly, and is more effective, once all spasms, tension and restrictions through the joints have been removed.
The muscles that are affected directly by spinal manipulation lay deep within the back and neck. These muscles control posture and stabilise the spine, they are always firing, so restriction and dysfunction of these muscles causes pain during everyday tasks and ridden activities for the horse. The most important muscles are called the multifidus, which sits directly next to and around the spine. It is composed of two sections, one which runs from the pelvis to the base of the neck and the second part which runs the length of the neck. The psoas is another important muscle which sits inside the pelvis, attaching to the underside of the lumbar spine and to the top of the femur. It is often implicated in recurrent low back pain, and forms an important part of the horses core muscles, it needs to function correctly for the horse to be able to work without pain and with correct biomechanics.
Using ultrasound scanning, researchers have found that spinal manipulation does release the deep multifidus muscle. Spasm of this muscle causes a decrease in the cross sectional depth of the muscle, after spinal manipulation the cross section measurement was increased, showing that manipulation of the spine causes release of muscle spasm in the deep postural muscles. In human patients the muscle spasms were found at the point that pain was felt, which was reported to have been relieved by spinal manipulation.
The McTimoney technique uses high speed movements to cause a joint to regain its full range of motion, this affects both the muscles and the myofacia, which is an important connective tissue that wraps around all muscles, bones and other structures within the body. The practitioner uses reflexes within their own muscles, which have been trained to respond during certain movements of the arms.
After an initial assessment of the horse, which includes questioning the owner or rider, watching for gait abnormalities, and checking that veterinary permission has been granted, the treatment can begin. When treating, the practitioner first feels for spinal misalignments, by feeling each side of the vertebrae. The tiny rotation of the bones can occur either due to tightening of the muscle attached to one side of the bone, or by direct trauma to the joints themselves, perhaps by getting cast or slipping and falling in the field. To release the tight muscle and realign the vertebrae, the practitioner places pressure on the bone to rotate it to its end of range of movement without forcing it. The McTimoney practitioner then uses a quick movement at the speed of a nerve reflex to “toggle” the bone and allow it to bounce back. This activates the nerves supplying the muscle which in turn releases it, allowing the muscle to relax. The stretch within the muscle and myofascia during adjustment and the consequent recoil of the bone causes relaxation of the muscles surrounding and attached to the bone.
This “relaxing and releasing” stage continues over time, and according to research I have conducted, can continue to create positive changes for up to 2 weeks after treatment. The nerves, which leave the spine by passing between the joints of the vertebrae, are now free from restriction to work at their optimum, the joints of the spine are now free to rotate through their full range of motion and muscles are now able to work at their optimum.

Adjusting the pelvic rotation on a horse

The practitioner will systematically move through the whole body making adjustments as necessary. Once the whole skeleton is realigned and the deep muscles have been released, it is then that massage or other techniques will be employed to make sure all the superficial muscles are released too. Personally I use a combination of sports massage, acupressure and myofacial release which gives a truly whole body treatment. I have found this approach leads to the need for fewer treatments to get the body to respond and stay in this prime state, treatments can be spaced further apart because it tends to hold for longer, allowing the muscles to build strength. Combined with good riding practices, a well-fitting saddle and further rehabilitation exercises given as part of the aftercare advice, the horse will begin to even up and will be able to use itself much more efficiently.
Horses that have strong muscles, good proprioception, and are fit, are far less likely to injure themselves. This is the aim of the McTimoney practitioner, to improve the horse, reduce the likelihood of repeated injury and allow for a longer, healthier working life. In the long run this reduces the amount of money spent by the owner, by reducing the number of treatments required and it reduces the amount of time to full recovery following the initial injury.
McTimoney practitioners are highly qualified and are trained at postgraduate degree level and hold an MSc in Animal Manipulation. They work alongside vets, riding instructors, saddle fitters, dentists and other allied professionals to help both the horse and owner or rider improve. Therapists will offer advice on changes that can be made and will refer to other professionals where necessary, to help owners get the best out of their horses, it gives great satisfaction to help a horse and owner move on, prevent early breakdown and give the horse the best chance of a long, healthy working life.

This article was published in Everything Horse UK magazine November 2014.