A search on pubmed, a web based research paper database, brings up over 14 000 results for complimentary therapy, among them, many papers on the long term effects of massage or hands on therapies. Although the quality of some research may be lacking, there is beginning to be a substantial body of research on the benefits of different types of touch therapies applied to all species.
Many people think of having a massage or treatment as an occasional treat, but the evidence suggests that regular treatment can help reduce stress, help people cope with chronic pain and conditions that cause chronic pain, such as arthritis.
It seems, though, that there is a general consensus that complimentary therapy should be able to “fix” a chronic condition, or any condition, in one or two treatments. I come across this a lot in practice, people hoping that a couple of treatments will cure them of arthritis pain for good.
It is interesting to me that people don’t expect this of western medicine, they don’t expect to take one dose of statin and have their cholesterol under control, or one dose of blood pressure meds, antibiotics, or even pain relief medicine, but they do expect this of a massage or therapeutic intervention.
I, myself, have chronic pain, for which I find regular Bowen treatments along side targeted exercise helps me cope with my condition, improves my quality of life and my mobility, and reduces anxiety and depressive feelings. If I stop either one, then the pain spiral and emotional turmoil starts again.
For my human patients with chronic pain, stress or anxiety I suggest at minimum monthly treatments, weekly would be best in order to allow an improved quality of life.
For my animal patients with chronic conditions such as arthritis I would suggest monthly treatments to help keep on top of any pain or restriction. Maintenance treatments for healthy horses are best at 1-3 month intervals depending on the intensity and regularity of exercise that they undertake. This will help prevent chronic muscle conditions from occurring in the first place.
It is important to realise that any complimentary therapy can help improve all manner of conditions, but at least a course of treatment is necessary to relieve symptoms and help prevent them from reoccurring.
My mission is far more than reducing pain in as few treatments as possible, my mission is to help you live a life full of vitality, free from stress with improved health and education to make choices that will help you acheive your goals. If this sounds like something you are interested either for yourself or you four legged friend, then call me on 07931 523606 and we can discuss your requirements.
I offer equine physical therapy, rehabilitation, saddle checks and nutritional therapy to help your horse thrive.
It’s never fun if all the hard work of owning a horse is over shadowed by a feeling that something isn’t quite right. You may be getting conflicting advice from other owners on the yard, but you’re not sure where to find the solutions to your problems?
You may feel stressed by your horses behaviour, or you’re not getting any further with your training and you’re not sure why. Maybe your horse is starting to have health issues, but your vet can’t find anything wrong. You may feel like giving up altogether.
Through my extensive knowledge of what horses actually need to thrive, I can coach you through these problems, so that going to the yard is once again a stress free experience.
My unique mix of experience, qualifications and compassion can help you find the answers you need to move forwards and start enjoying your relationship with your horse again.
So whether you are having problems with reactive behaviour under saddle or your horse has been injured and you need advice to help rehabilitate them back to full health, give me call, I can help you.
My approach is gentle, calm and methodical. I have adapted my training to make the techniques I use even more gentle, that’s why owners of even the most sensitive horses call me.
After therapy, your horse will feel supple, engaged and willing once again. Lifestyle advice will help you get to the root of your horses issues for a long lasting positive outcome so you can enjoy your time with your horse.
I don’t know about you, but I am terrible at sticking to my New Years Resolutions, so this year I have decided to rebrand them as my goals for the year.
My foremost goal for this year is to get properly fit. I have suffered a few setbacks in my fitness goals over the past few years. What many people, even my clients don’t realise is that I suffer from chronic back pain. Getting fit and strong has helped me to overcome this and helps me manage it day to day. But if I have a health set back, like I did at the end of last year, then my pain comes back too. This makes it difficult for me to do everyday things like hoover, and I usually wake up in pain, and have difficulty getting down the stairs first thing, it makes me feel tired and less likely to exercise, even though daily gentle exercise will help decrease my pain! This is why I can’t just get a pair of trainers and go for a run, high impact exercise is detrimental to my fitness progression as I tend to get injured and have to start over.
Another reason for my fitness goal this year is to be able to ride my young horse. He is 5 this year and I really need to get on top of his education, but most importantly, I don’t want to affect his health by being overweight and unfit.
I am currently around 20% of my horses’ weight, it might be a bit lower, but not much. Research that is due to be published this year has shown that riders of this weight ratio will have a grave impact on the physical wellbeing of their horse. Increasing their metabolic rate and energy expenditure even at the walk. They start to find moving difficult and may stagger and trip with a rider of this weight ratio. There is extra strain on tendons, the pasterns of the horse will start to lower and touch the ground at trot or canter, where this would only happen at gallop or landing from a big jump with a rider of 10% of their weight ratio. This will obviously have a detrimental effect on their back health in the long term as well and may contribute to lordosis and kissing spines.
An unfit rider will also put the horse at risk of injury, the rider is less likely to be able to balance themselves independently and research is showing how this can cause rider induced lameness in the horse.
I want to do this to improve my health, increase my energy levels and get more done in a day. I have other business and personal goals to aim for this year, and I want to give myself the best chance of doing so. So why am I prattling on about this to you? Well, I need to be accountable to someone to keep me on track, so I thought, what better way to stay accountable than to you. It is also a way to show how chronic back pain can be managed for the better and hopefully give others some tips on how to build their fitness without setting themselves back. I will be showing how I prepare my young horse for ridden work as well, so you may get some tips on this for your own horses.
So wish me luck, I will be routing for you too, share your new year goals with me, and we can do this together.
At the moment I’m starting my horse under saddle which is going really well. He stands like a rock at the mounting block and is taking it all in his stride.
But the last time I’ve ridden he was starting to fidget at the mounting block, put his ears back and throw his head when mounted, shaking his head and getting annoyed if I gently shifted position. Was he just bored of the process? Was he deciding a ridden career wasn’t for him?
Thinking back, his bed had been scattered that night, Badger is usually messy in his stable, kicking his bedding around, so I didn’t think too much of it, but when I looked back in his stable I could see scratch marks up the wall.
He had probably gotten cast.
So I treated him and left him to rest for a day or two before riding him again.
After being tested he was back to being his usual quiet, steady self.
Getting cast can cause musculoskeletal discomfort, getting your horse treated can help prevent unwanted behaviours, especially in a young horse being trained under saddle.
Lots of times when speaking to clients I hear many of the same myths and misconceptions about treatments and animal needs, one thing I often hear is that young horses won’t need treating as they’ve not started work yet or have only just started work.
I find this surprising, not least because young horses often have significant misalignments and tight muscles.
Research has found that one sidedness can occur in foals, preferring to place one foot in front of the other when learning to graze, this behaviour can impact the size and shape of their front feet, which in turn can affect the musculoskeletal system. Making one side of the horse more dominant, causing muscle mass to be uneven and affecting gait patterns.
Horses can get minor injuries playing in the field, or getting cast in the stable, these often go unnoticed until it’s time to work the horse and we find that one side is much stiffer than the other or the horse has difficulty bending in one direction, or the horse flat out refuses to cooperate.
It may be possible that a young horse going through the starting process seems more challenging than expected or they react negatively to the sight of tack, even though they haven’t done much work to date or only had the rider belly over.
Instead of signs of a poor attitude towards the starting process, these can all be signs of musculoskeletal discomfort.
Getting your young horse treated before and during the starting process can greatly improve their attitude to work and being ridden in general, it can highlight any injuries they may pick up along the way.
Ever wondered why horse insurance premiums are higher for horses going through the starting process? It’s because injuries or congenital disorders such as wobblers are often picked up and investigated at this time.
It’s the same with us if we start a new training regime, we are bound to get sore at first, but having a treatment can help us recover and continue to train.
To help with comfort at the time of starting, the saddle should fit well and should be checked by a professional fitter at least every 3 months or even sooner as the young horse adapts to increasing workload while still growing.
My own young horse, Badger, is going through the starting process at the moment and I find he is much more willing and able to cooperate with the process if I keep him treated, stretched and pay attention to any tightness in his hindquarters or back. I feel this is especially important as he isn’t gifted with the best conformation.
In summary, it’s important to get young horses treated as they grow, this helps prevent injuries or poor attitude at the time of backing and greatly improve their attitude towards being worked. Not only that, but getting treatments while the horse is still developing can contribute to a long and healthy working life.
Buying a horse is one of the most exciting things any equestrian can do, but many times it seems to go wrong. I have many phone calls from concerned new owners and the story goes along the same lines, “I’ve bought a horse about 6 weeks ago, it was an angel when I went to see it, and it’s been fine since, but recently he’s started bucking/ napping/ grumpy when tacked up/ won’t let me catch him. His saddle came with him and fitted at the time of purchase”.
Understandably, the new owner is filled with dread that their horse was drugged to keep it quiet, which has now worn off; or the vet must have missed something at the vetting, either of these are rarely the case.
It usually happens 6-8 weeks after purchase, so what is going on?
Practitioners often call this phenomenon “wheel’s fallen off syndrome”. Think about it, if you start a new exercise regime, you are often sore at first, you may stretch it out or ease back on the intensity of the exercise, but your new horse can’t tell you, and so you both continue at the same intensity, until your horse begins to complain.
A new routine, new management, new rider who may be more or less skilled than the previous one, a different amount of work, a change in the type of work, the list is endless as to the reasons why your horse may get sore within the first 2 months of ownership. Add to this a change in diet and exercise that may cause a change in weight or muscling of the horse, leading to a change in the way the saddle may fit.
It’s no wonder your new horse may get sore and begin to show a change in attitude or temperament.
In order to make the transition to the new home as stress free as possible, the following may be helpful:
Make sure you build work up slowly, short rides to begin with, even if the horse is fit when you get it.
Feed the same brand and type of food as the previous owner, buy one bag and transition to a new diet gradually over the first month, if you plan to change it. Make sure you’re not feeding too many calories as this may cause a horse to become excitable.
Get your saddle checked between weeks 6 and 8, it’s likely that your new horse may have changed shape.
Get your horses teeth checked, it’s always best to start knowing there are no problems in this department.
If your horse’s attitude to work changes within this time frame, it’s best to get its musculoskeletal system checked over, the changes may have caused different stresses on the body which may make the muscles sore.
Don’t forget to get a farrier out within this 6-8 week time frame, making sure the hoof angles don’t change greatly at this time.
There are a number of reasons why your horses attitude may change within the first couple of months of ownership, ruling out these issues one by one will get to the bottom of it. Most of all, you are not alone, seek out reputable professionals to help you, this is a very common problem that is often easily rectified, allowing you to continue to enjoy horse ownership.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.