One of the most common issues I see during an equine massage evaluation is rotated scapula in the horse. With a large percentage of saddles on the market being too narrow for the wider more muscular horses being breed today, the problem seems to be at epidemic proportions. Even custom fit saddles can be too narrow at the gullet because they are fitted while the horse is standing still. Only once the horse is in motion and the scapula move to their fully extended positions can you truly find the appropriate saddle width for your horse. Rotated scapula can greatly affect your horse's athleticism and prevent full extension of the foreleg. Hunch your own shoulders up and forward and then try swinging your arms forwards and backwards. Very awkward isn't it? Now try the same thing with your shoulders back in a normal position. It makes a HUGE difference in your range of motion. Even after the underlying cause of the problem has been addressed, your horse may need a little extra help in putting things back where they belong.
What Causes Rotated Scapula In The Horse?
The #1 cause of rotated scapula in the horse is a narrow saddle. Most saddle trees used today are the same that were used 50 or even 100 years ago. Horses were much smaller and narrower than they are today. Most of the Quarter Horses that are being bred today have huge shoulder and hindquarter muscles and are they are very wide at the withers. Even many of today's Arabian bloodlines are built with a heavier, more muscular body, particularly the Polish lines. Many people think of Arabian horses as being little and petite, but my Arabian mare takes a much wider saddle than my large cutting bred Quarter Horse! Arabians have very large barrels to accommodate that increased lung capacity.
As the horse's forelimb moves upward, forward and backward, the scapula moves back and forth as well. When the horse's leg comes up as when jumping or cantering, the scapula can move backward by 4 or 5 inches. When the saddle is too narrow, the scapula get pinched by the tree of the saddle, causing great pain for the horse. The horse is forced to rotate the scapula forward in an attempt to move away from the pain. Most people have seen horses with white spots on either side of the withers. This is caused where the saddle is rubbing against the scapula as it moves back to that position. Unfortunately, even adding extra padding may not help with saddles that are too narrow. It's like putting extra layers of socks on your feet to ease the pain of boots that are too small for your feet! The Parelli Natural Horemanship site has some great information on saddle fit and checking range of motion of your horse's scapula.
Another thing that can cause rotated scapula in the horse is a very upright hoof. Too much heel on the horse is like putting on high heel pumps in the human. The horse is forced to stand on it's tippy-toes, forcing the scapula forward to accommodate the position of the foot/leg angle.
Some horses have only one side rotated forward. This can be caused by the ribcage being held to one side (see some of my spinal/ribcage mobility articles in the A Prescription For Parelli series for more on this topic). Heel horses on the roping circuit that have been forced to always be on a left lead often have the scapula rotated forward on the left and their ribs stick out to the left. Their bodies are perpetually in a left lead position.
Simple Stretch To Help Improve Rotated Scapula In The Horse
A very simple and easy stretch you can do with your horse to help improve a rotated scapula is the Parelli Lead By The Leg game. The leg position for this game is almost identical to one of the stretches used to help rotated scapula. It's a great way to teach your horse to follow a feel, trust your hands and stretch all at the same time.
Christi Rains, 4* Parelli Senior Instructor, demonstrates in the video below how to teach your horse the Lead By The Leg exercise. You can also use your hands on the pastern to guide the foot in place of the rope if you'd like. Using your hands gives you a better feel for whether your horse is really stretching the leg and shoulder or just holding the leg up.
The key to this stretch is bringing the leg out about 45 degrees while stretching the leg and shoulder at the same time. You want your horse to really reach into the stretch for about 20-30 seconds, then it's important to get them to actually take a step and put weight on the leg in question. Try this simple stretch about 3 or 4 times per week for 30 days and then let me know if you see any improvement in your horse. Share your story in the comment section below, we want to hear from you!
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".
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