Look after his back

Our horses’ backs have to carry our weight while they walk, trot, canter and jump, so keeping this key area supple and strong is vital if we’re going to get the best from them. Here our expert, Emily Graham - a McTimoney animal therapist, helps you support your horse’s spinal region.

Easy back checks
Before you even think about hopping on board it’s important to do some routine checks of your horse’s back. These include…

  • Looking for any misalignments or asymmetry, e.g. where one set of muscles is built up higher than its opposite set
  • Your horse’s saddle fit – check it’s fitted correctly and is comfortable, and seek the expert advice of a Society of Master Saddlers qualified saddle fitter if you suspect there might be a problem (visit www.mastersaddlers.co.uk for a list of local fitters). Pro-lite pads are excellent for adding extra padding, but again take advice on this
  • Foot balance – are your horse’s feet the correct shape and healthy, and does he need any corrective shoeing?
  • Routine health check – e.g. his teeth and mouth where he takes the contact because this will affect the way he works over his back

“It’s so important to do these checks before you even start his training process,” explains Emily. “If you try to train your horse before you’ve done these checks and something’s not right, you’re going to create a bigger problem.”

Even simple checks to ensure your horse’s feet are the correct shape and healthy will help you to care for his back

Even simple checks to ensure your horse’s feet are the correct shape and healthy will help you to care for his back

Assess him on the ground
Once you’ve done your initial health checks, you can begin with some ground assessments. By lungeing your horse you should be able to assess the following…

  • How does he move?
  • Does he track up with both hind legs?
  • Does he flex his lower back?
  • Can he bend in the canter?

 Common problems that you might see…

  • Hollowing through his back
  • Head tossing
  • Pulling with his shoulder (i.e. not driving himself forward and using his hind legs properly)

Once problems are identified, you can then begin to put a work programme in place with the help of a therapist. Every horse is different and will have different issues so your therapist and vet will be able to tell you the best ways to correct any problems. There are many factors to take into account, such as your horse’s age, conformation, fitness, history etc.

It’s important to know that sometimes, depending on the problem, it may take quite some time to reach your goals and you may need to take several steps back in order to move forwards. But this is crucial to make sure your horse is in good condition before starting his training.

These procedures and checks are particularly important if you’re re-training your horse for another discipline or re-training an ex-racer. When any horse has a change of discipline he will be using different muscle groups so training should be gradual.

What you can do to spot telltale signs of pain
“Grooming your horse from head to tail is the best way to spot sensitive areas. You’ll get to know your horse’s body and what’s normal for him. Take your time over the saddle area to really see how he reacts. Signs of discomfort include…

  • Ears back
  • Kicking out
  • Twitching muscles
  • Bearing teeth
  • Tail swishing
  • Other signs include moving away from his tack and disapproval of the girth

Ridden warnings include:

  • Out of rhythm
  • Hollowing
  • Head tossing
  • Napping
  • Bucking in transitions
  • Refusing to bend

 If you spot any of the above signs, it’s time to call your vet.

Try this useful exercise
Carrot stretches are a fantastic way to help test the range of motion through your horse’s back and help him remain supple and strong. It’s also another way to check for signs of pain or to see if your horse is lopsided. These can be used from the ground by using a carrot as a reward for the stretch, and then progressed to when you’re on board using the release of contact as a reward for stretching. “If your horse is one sided and better on one rein than the other (as most horses are), take care to work him more on the rein he’s stiffest on, as tempting as it is not to because it doesn’t look or feel as nice,” says Emily.

Carrot stretches are a fantastic way to help test the range of motion through your horse’s back and help him remain supple and strong

Carrot stretches are a fantastic way to help test the range of motion through your horse’s back and help him remain supple and strong

More about our expert
McTimoney animal therapist Emily Graham uses McTimoney treatment combined with massage, mobilisations, stretching and laser therapy to help horses and dogs suffering from musculoskeletal discomfort. Find out more at www.emilygraham.co.uk