Horses’ backs are not designed to carry riders, so it’s vital to do all that you can to reduce the impact of riding. You may already be alert to behavioural changes that can indicate back pain in your horse, but do you know how to prevent back pain from occurring?
Many performance problems stem from back pain1. Painful muscles are very common, but frequently not recognised1. There are many factors that can impact on the horse’s back, including hoof trim and saddle fit.
As well as educating yourself about these two important topics, here are five steps to prevent back pain in horses.
1. Be careful with any changes to terrain, footing or physical demands.
It’s easy to head off on a long trail ride with friends on a lovely day, and just travel without much thought to the ground under your horse’s feet or the physical requirements.
Riders often consider their horse’s cardiovascular condition when planning a return to work after a break, but the back also needs to be taken into account. An abrupt change to the level of work puts more pressure on the structures within the horse’s back, which can result in injuries and pain. Start slowly and only gradually increase your horse’s workload. Think about your intended purpose for your horse and the level of fitness that is appropriate for that purpose. Watch your horse for signs of discomfort.
Even if your horse is already fit, changes to terrain or footing can result in back strain. If you normally ride on firm footing and, once a month head off to an arena with deep sand for a workout, this can cause back pain.
Instead, you could go to the arena several times in preparation and do shorter, slower sessions to allow your horse time to adjust before asking more.
2. Warm up and warm down
Cold muscles are much less elastic and, therefore, prone to injury. Make sure you do a slow and gentle warm up before asking your horse to increase speed or perform more demanding movements.
An effective warm up can be done at walk and will help the horse by increasing blood flow to the muscles, warming the muscles, and stretching muscles, ligaments and tendons.
By incorporating different-sized figures and lateral work, and thoughtfully transitioning to and from walk to halt and a slow back up, you can benefit the whole horse, physically and mentally.
Modify your warm down routine based on how strenuous the ride was. Consider your horse’s temperature and respiration rate. Concentrate on walking for your warm down.
3. Use acupuncture as a preventative
Chinese medicine includes the premise that an individual’s physical constitution can predispose them to pain or injury in certain areas of the body.
For example, some types of horses are more prone to carrying excess tension in the muscles, increasing risk of injury. Other constitutional types have a predisposition to pain in the lumbar region. Thus, constitution can be a cause underlying the symptoms. A regular acupuncture treatment can help to correct imbalances, thus preventing back pain in your horse.
Acupuncture also eases tension or strain in muscles and ligaments, which helps the horse to move well and carry the rider without injury.
4. Increase your horse’s core strength
People sometimes talk about ‘building’ their horse’s topline by strengthening the muscles of the back. However, the muscles that provide the most support to the back and help build the strength to carry a rider without damage are found below the vertebral chain2.
Riding in a way that causes the horse to contract the muscles above the vertebral chain will cause harm, as these muscles need to be in a relative state of release for a ridden horse to move well2.
One thing that can cause contraction of the back muscles is mouth pain, as it tends to cause an elevated head and hollow back. Moving in this posture increases tension across the entire spinal column. Make sure your horse’s bit or teeth are not causing pain.
Some exercises that will help to strengthen the horse’s core muscles are:
Backing up one step at a time (ask gently for one step, then halt, another step, then halt). There is no need to do a lot of steps all at once. Start with just one step back and build up to a few. Make sure each step is done freely and loosely before asking for the next, and this will help to engage the core muscles.
If you’re just starting to build your horse’s core strength, be cautious when starting cavalettis. Begin by walking the horse over one pole laid on the ground, and gradually build to four poles at a walk with a few passes over the poles in each direction per session. If you support the horse to move consciously, rather than just rushing through, this is sufficient to work the core muscles; there is no need to increase the height or frequency for quite some time.
Incorporate hill work into your riding or groundwork, starting with slight inclines and declines, and only gradually increasing.
5. Calmness and softness
Horses in a state of hyper-excitement are likely to have spasm or excessive tension in their back muscles. This makes them more susceptible to injury.
Maintaining softness and calmness is, of course, key to good horsemanship, but its direct link to the horse’s back (and the rest of the body) is not always considered.
The horse’s back includes the spinal cord – an average of 24 vertebrae between the top of withers and tail head – muscles and ligaments holding the vertebrae in place, joints between the vertebrae and muscles that connect the vertebral column to the limbs.
With all those components needing to work together, and every movement of one part affecting other parts, protecting the back from injury is one of the most important things you can do to keep your horse sound in the long term.
Taking these five steps will also help to prevent behavioural and performance issues, giving both you and your horse a better ride.
- Harman JC. The Whole-Horse Approach to Acupuncture in Performance Horses. In: Veterinary Acupuncture – Ancient Art to Modern Medicine. Mosby, Inc. 2001, pp. 515-534.
- Bennett D. Principles of Conformation Analysis. Equine Network, 2012.