Is my horse in pain?
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
How often do we hear this phrase from our trainer:
"Just keep going, they'll work out of it." Or "give him a good smack, he's being lazy!"
What if your horse wasn't naughty or lazy at all... what if they were instead trying to tell you that they are in pain?
I've learned so much in my time practicing and I continue to learn more as I read more books and take more courses.
But recently, I have really had my eyes open to a different philosophy of body work / rehabilitation for horses known as the Balance Through Movement Method (TM). This program focuses in depth on the thoracic sling.
I was very intrigued to find out that, just like humans, horses can be plagued with tight muscles and/or shooting pains in the neck due to compressed nerves. However, there is one key difference between horses and humans: horses do not have collar bones. For this reason, there is less stability through the low neck and shoulders... which can have interesting (and concerning) ramifications.
Biomechanically, horses are adapted to run and graze for many hours a day... but, what happens if you ask your horse to carry a rider and a saddle and do certain repetitive tasks? Will that horse be able to adapt to the added stress without biomechanical failure AKA lameness?
It is our job to be an advocate for our equine companions. It's our duty to listen to what they are telling us (by observing body language, subtle behavioral cues, and etc) to find out how we can best serve them as they serve us in our physical pursuits.
So, this begs the question: do you know how to listen?
SIGNS OF BIOMECHANICAL FAILURE
I remember 4H clubs and trainers teaching me about conformation. Horses were labeled as: over the knee, ewe neck, parked under in the hind, cow hocked, and more. I thought these descriptions as a static objective measure, something that described the horse and could not be changed. Often, I would label these horses and write them off, assuming a conformational fault would limit a horse's performance and/or rideability.
Through taking this BTMM course, I realized:
Well, humans can slouch and have a hunch back... but, should that person do some therapeutic exercises... couldn't their posture change?
Conformation is a misnomer. A horse's body, how they stand, and how they move is actually a reflection of their posture. Sure, there is still underlying bone structure that cannot be changed, but there is a whole host of muscles, tissues, and more that are constantly evolving.
So, what is POSTURAL and not CONFORMATIONAL?
Standing too narrow or wide in the front or hind
Unable to stand square
Parked under or parked out
Over the knee, excessive toe flair
Behind the vertical
Sway back, roach back
... and more!
As a young horse woman, I personally always rode off the track thoroughbreds. I would frequently find myself looking at their gimpy necks and long legs and wonder... why the heck does this horse look so wrong? Never mind how young the horse was... this was a "look so wrong" that horses didn't grow out of.
I attributed much of the gawkiness to the asymmetries of and lack of muscle tone. Shark fin withers, rail thin necks, and scrawny top lines were something I just became "used to." I was always just told that with regular work, proper head carriage, and core engagement... the horses would work and/or grow out of it.
I would find myself kicking horses up into the bit, riding them on endless circles, and doing butt tucks like my body worker told me to, however, I really never noticed much change. I would try different bits, side reins, martingales, shimmable pads all to no avail.
I have since learned that equipment wasn't the answer. There are many gimmicks and perceived short cuts, but nothing can replace putting in the reps and doing the hard work. If you want to build up your horse's muscles, you first need to find out why their muscles aren't working right.
What muscle changes indicate you may have a problem?
Underdeveloped top line / sway back
Over developed hamstrings
Tight shoulders / triceps
... and more!
COMPENSATION PATTERNS WHEN IN MOTION
Picture credits: Anna Nicole Hatvany
Now that I know better, it seems so ridiculous to put your horse on a circle to get them balanced. It's futile, also, to ride your horse inside leg to outside rein when your horse is constantly collapsing to the inside of the circle.
If you looked at the anatomy, horses are biomechanically designed to go straight.
Now that I think about it, I distinctly remember working young horses on a lunge line and always having to point my lunge line at them to prevent the horses from falling in on me. It was a vicious cycle.
Horses are not machines. They have bodies just like us. Think about sitting at a desk for several hours. all day every day. Wouldn't certain muscles tighten? Assuming you have aberrant posture, wouldn't certain things (like lifting your arms all the way) become more difficult?
A horse that can't do what you ask may be struggling to use their body effectively.
Signs of compensation patterns may include:
Difficulty one direction VS the other
Falling to the inside
Hard time picking up canter leads
Throwing head up when asked to go forward
Hollow side, bulging side
Tail carriage off to one side
Turning head/nose to the outside
... and more!
RESISTANCE TO BEING HANDLED
Picture credit: Pexels
A sore horse is an unhappy horse. Too often we can think of a horse as means to achieve something and forget about their well being. When you put your ribbons aside and take a long hard look, is your horse actually HAPPY? Or are they just EXISTING?
When you go to mount for a ride, are your horse's ears pinned back? When you attempt to curry and groom your horse, do they quiver and shrink away? When you go to put on the girth, does your horse offer to bite?
If you notice your horse growing increasingly agitated with your daily routines, maybe it's time to ask yourself why.
Handling avoidance may look like
Frequent head tossing
Excessive chomping at / tongue over the bit
Pain while being mounted
Resistance to being groomed
Inability to lift the feet
Excessive tail swishing
... and more!
HOW TO HELP YOUR HORSE
Check for poorly fitted equipment
Think of a professional runner trying to run a marathon in a shoe two sizes too small. Could it be done? Most likely. Would it hurt? Yes. Would it be something the marathon runner would want to do everyday? Definitely not.
The nuances of tack fitting is similar (although, fitting human feet is a lot more simple than fitting a horse's back.)
The number one cause of performance horse pain is ill fitting tack. If you are unsure of how to fit your saddle and bridle, call a professional and seek help. It's important for the tools you use everyday to be fitted well so you can perform at your best
Address unresolved pain
Animals are so much better at hiding pain than we are. By the time a horse shows you they have a problem, they are already a 6 to 7 out of 10 on the pain scale. (For the record, that's almost enough to send a human to the hospital.)
Think of all the small injuries (like falls in the pasture), repetitive stress (from turning barrels or going over jumps), or other things that could be adding straws to the proverbial camel's back. What are you doing to help your horse adapt to these stressors? All of these stresses combine and escalate over time. Your horse can only take so much before they will "break."
If you never truly address the stressors causing faulty biomechanics, then you will not fix the pain and will always need a crutch to keep you going.
My personal philosophy is conservative options first, medication second, surgery last.
Do what you can to "get the kinks out" so your horse's musculoskeletal system can work better. Better movement patterns will lessen the damage to ligaments and joints over time, which could reduce your need for medications or injections in the long run.
Consider expanding your horse care team by including an animal chiropractor, veterinary acupuncturist, animal physiotherapist, animal osteopath, and/or certified massage therapist. It takes a village!
Learn more, do better
In a day and age of technology, ignorance is no longer a valid excuse. Seasoned professionals are always writing books, hosting clinics, and offering online courses to help animal owners do better by their horses.
Carve out some time to do some learning so you can do better by your horse. When in doubt, get more than one opinion and don't be afraid to do your research.
Listen to your horse and try more than one method. Find what works for you and your horse. The less gimmicks, the better.
Work on your self
Go get adjusted. Get a massage. Hire a personal trainer. Take a yoga course. Take care of yourself, human!
Many times, a rider's biomechanical failures will mirror that of their horse and vice versa. If you want to really break the cycle, you have to address both sides of the equation. Just getting your horses worked on may leave you missing critical pieces of the puzzle.
You and your horse are guaranteed to be happier and perform better if you both are able to ride better.
I want to let you know you came to the right place for integrative and holistic health for your pet!
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