As we learn more and more about the horse’s body and how things are connected, we try and find better ways of keeping our fur-kids safe, healthy and most importantly, happy.
There are lots of new fads that promise quick cures for imbalances, whether they are found in the feet or the upper body, but to find a long-term solution, we need to realise that, unfortunately, these imbalances have an underlying cause.
Usually, the underlying cause is either pain, bad training, ill-fitting gear, an unbalanced rider or husbandry issues.
This means that if the problem is a badly fitting saddle, a change in training is not going to help much. If the horse has grown unbalanced feet due to compensating for shoulder pain, feeding minerals for hoof growth is not the solution. And a horse that is kept isolated and develops behaviour issue as a result, will not become calm and happy with a chiropractic treatment.
To have a healthy and happy horse, we need a team of professionals to support us on the horse-keeping journey and our horse needs friends, exercise and healthy nutrition. Nevertheless, there are things you can do effectively and on an everyday basis to help your horse stay happy and healthy.
In this series I will explain some beneficial and simple core strengthening exercises and I will team up with trainer and coach Hayley Chambers, from Outback Equines, who will describe how to train the horse to stretch. But first, let’s lay the knowledge foundations.
Becoming your horse’s personal trainer for core strength
Horses, like any other animal or human, need movement, stability and mobility to stay healthy. Yes, they move while they are in the paddock with their friends and they are moving while being trained, but we can add more specific movements to their day – to help them stay healthy and to help us notice issues before they become big problems. Let’s have a closer look at this.
A joint needs to be able to move in a certain way for the whole body to stay healthy. If we get restrictions in a joint or a joint is too loose, we change not only that one joint, but through compensation patterns, we change the whole horse.
And the change doesn’t just affect the musculo-skeletal part of the horse but everything from breathing to blood flow, digestion to hoof balance and even the nervous system will be affected.
The nervous system
The nervous system is responsible for all functions in the horse’s body and it is made up of two parts. The central nervous system (CNS) is the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) refers to all other nerves in the body.
The skull and the spine protect the CNS. If we look at the horse’s spine, we know that it runs from the back of the head to the tip of the tail. The spine stabilizes the horse’s body and protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that send information from the brain to the rest of the body and receives signals from the body and sends them on to the brain.
If a joint in the spine lacks movement, the nerves coming in and out of the spinal cord will be compromised. This means that the signals to and from the brain will be disrupted.
You can think of this like a road with a traffic jam. The road is the nerve and the cars are the signals. The worse the traffic jam, the slower the signals get to their destination. A horse with only a few minor ‘traffic jams’ will not show many signs, but a horse with major road blocks will have a whole lot of issues.
The cause of these traffic jams can be pain related, of a metabolic nature or can be caused by a disease of the nervous system. But pain related issues are the most common.
Signs of pain-related issues in the horse can vary, from a behaviour problem to lameness, colic, changes in hoof health and hoof balance but also ataxia which means loss of coordination.
To learn more about the different signs of pain, including subtle signs, read the article I wrote for the January-February 2019 edition of the magazine.
Without a healthy spine, a horse cannot perform. Many behaviour and lameness issues are due to back or neck pain.
The issues we find in the horse can be caused by bone lesions (like kissing spines for example), or tissue damage like sacroiliac strains, longissimus dorsi lesions or damage to ligaments around the spine.
Throughout the length of the spine, there are also a number of stabilizer muscles. These are small but important for providing stability, flexibility and mobility. One of these muscles is called the multifidus.
The multifidus is a deep muscle that helps maintain posture, giving support and stability to the spine. If there is a back injury, the multifidus muscle atrophies and long-term, the muscle fibres can be replaced by fatty tissue. Unless we reactivate it through specific exercises this muscle does not recover well.
The multifidus muscle is important for stability and is a major cause for back pain. So if it does not work correctly we can have problems like a lack of top line, lameness, behaviour problems like rearing, bucking, bolting, jaw and teeth problems, inability to maintain contact, rhythm and self-carriage, reoccurring colic, saddle fit issues, the list goes on.
Multifidus atrophy is also the key to some of the common problems and complaints I see on an everyday basis. “He was lame all of a sudden”, “she started to buck out of nowhere”, “I can’t keep weight on her” or “he was the perfect kid’s pony until a week ago”.
These comments are common and sadly, nine times out of ten, these horses have been putting up with pain and discomfort for a very long time before they displayed such clear signs.
Horses are so good at compensating and hiding pain that it can be hard to notice when things are starting to go wrong. But there are clues in the horse’s body that we can use. And, if we are able to notice changes in our horse’s body before they become a real problem, we might avoid having to rest our horse for long periods of time or unknowingly cause damage beyond repair.
So how can you, as a horse owner help your own horse and catch little issues before they become major problems?
A simple way is by adding a few stretches and core strength exercises to your horse’s everyday routine. They don’t take long and the better you know what your horse is capable of, the sooner you will notice when things are ‘not right’.
By practicing stretches with your horse on a regular basis (5 to 7 days a week), you also get to know your horse’s body.
If suddenly he is not as flexible as he was yesterday or a week ago, you have the opportunity to get these problems addressed before the rest of the body has to compensate too much.
With increased flexibility we also increase joint stability and overall mobility and decrease the risk of injury.
Knowing where our horses are weaker and where they are stronger also helps us put together a better training plan. Regardless of whether you compete at the highest level or you take your horse on a trail ride once every few weeks, the stronger the core the healthier your horse. Because let’s face it, nobody is perfect, but we can aim to improve ourselves and our horses so they can stay healthy and happy for as long as possible.
In future parts of this series I will show you some stretches and core strength exercises, you can use on a regular basis to get to know your horse’s body better, improve core strength and spinal health and to keep your four legged friend happy.
This article was published in Horses and People March-April 2020 magazine.