When we think of bodywork for horses, it usually brings to mind horses with an existing injury, competition and performance horses, and the older horse needing pain relief help. However, there are great benefits for starting bodywork on your young horse. You can nip several problems in the bud by tackling them before you even know they are a problem. Several musculoskeletal issues in horses derive from bad postural habits they pick up as youngsters. Let’s discuss some bodywork basics for your foal and the three most common, and preventable, musculoskeletal issues that you might encounter.
Feeding Toe and Club Foot
Feeding toe is probably one of the most common postural habits you will come across in the horse. It begins as soon as the foal starts to explore the joys of grazing. Because of their short necks, foals will often scissor their front legs, placing one far in front and one behind them, in order to reach the ground. Unless the foal constantly switches which leg is placed forward, they will begin to develop a preference of holding the same leg forward, much like being left or right-handed.
In doing so, the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the leg that is always in the back position start to become contracted and bloodflow is driven from the toe of the hoof to the heel. This posture encourages the heel to grow faster on that foot, causing an upright hoof growth pattern over time that is very hard to correct by trimming alone.
By noticing these patterns and taking action early on, we can stop them before they become bigger problems later in life. Using the same (but stepped-down) strategies that we would use for an older horse with upright hoof growth patterns, we can help relax and lengthen the soft tissues before they become chronically contracted and keep our young horses balanced and flexible. Until the foal is old enough to balance on three legs, we won’t start with stretches, but instead use simple leg massage at first. This will not only prepare your foal for handling it’s legs later on for cleaning its hooves, but will also help them prepare for trimming and other procedures that might require its legs to be handled. They’ll learn to associate leg handling with good things and enjoy the leg massages.
Starting at the back side of the arm (long-head of the triceps muscle), massage the muscles using the flat of your hand in a gentle downward stroking motion from top to bottom. Allow your hand to shape to the muscle as you move downward toward the elbow. Repeat this for a few minutes until you feel the muscle soften.
Then move to the muscles on the back of your horse’s leg. I like to use both a cross-fiber and with-fiber motion on the upper part of the leg. But since there is just a thin layer of muscle here, be sure not to be too aggressive with your pressure. The lower leg consists mainly of tendons and ligaments, but you can still run your hands down the backside and back and forth around the base of the fetlock (suspensory ligament).
Later on, once they have better balance, you can begin to incorporate stretches which will encourage them to fully extend both front legs and weighting the hooves more evenly on each side. The more severe the preference the foal has for one side over the other, the more often you should perform massage and stretching. Three days per week is a good place to start. See my article “Front Leg Extension Stretch To Improve Your Horse’s Range Of Motion” for a tutorial of how to do this stretch.
Preventing the development of a cow-hocked posture is a simple thing when addressed in its early stages before it becomes an habitual stance in your horse. The muscles that contribute to this posture are located on the inner thigh of the horse (mainly the semimembranosus). Horses that are cow-hocked will usually have very tight inner thigh muscles.
By making a point of regularly massaging and relaxing these muscles in your foal and doing stretches that encourage movement of the hind limb away from the body (abduction) this common imbalance can be avoided. Horses that are cow-hocked can develop serious stifle issues over time. Spending a few minutes a day, several times a week doing these preventive measures will save you and your horse a lot of pain down the road.
Balancing The Ribcage
Just as we are right or left-handed, so can horses. Many horses will hold their ribcage to one side or the other which can interfere with many things, including lead changes, lateral flexion, lateral movements like sideways and leg yields, and being able to hold a circle in either direction. Something as simple as habitually cocking the same leg can contribute to this problem, as well as the other issues addressed above.
Doing simple things like teaching your foal to reach laterally on both sides though the use of carrot stretches or teaching them to smell their tail, playing games like backing the weave pattern with cones or other obstacles, and encouraging balanced movement can greatly decrease the chances of your foal developing a preference for holding its ribs in one direction.
By starting bodywork early with your foal, you will not only help develop balanced musculoskeletal development and good posture, but you’ll also increase your rapport and relationship with your young horse. I hope these tips will help you now so you won’t need me later. Please feel free to come on over to my Facebook page and let me know what you think about bodywork for your baby here – http://www.facebook.com/HeavenlyGaitsEquineMassage.
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”.
Are you ready to get better results with your horse? Put your equine health care team to work so you and your horse can be doing what you were meant to. Click here to get started!