A very common issue that I get asked questions about has to do with back pain in the horse. There can be so many root causes for back pain in the horse, and it has such a great impact on a horse’s performance. From a an equine bodywork standpoint, because back pain displays itself in many different ways it’s very hard to pinpoint the source, let alone determine the best course of action to resolve the issue(s). In this 3-part series, I’ll show you some things to look at, as well as what you can do at home to help get your horse some much needed pain relief.
In this first segment we’ll cover the wither and scapula area of the horse as a common source of problems with the back. And while not what many would consider the “back” of the horse, it represents the first segment of thoracic vertebrae and is heavily influenced by things that are placed on the back. Yes, that’s right…the saddle!
Horses with downhill conformation seem to be predisposed to problems in this area by default because the saddle and weight of the rider bear down more on the withers due to gravity. These types of horses (the cutting bred horses especially) have a tendency to carry their weight on the front end anyway. Add an ill-fitting saddle and the weight of a rider and it’s a recipe for trouble. If the horse tends to have “mutton withers” – very wide and flat across the withers – finding a good saddle that doesn’t impede movement can spell double trouble!
Problems you might see related to the wither and scapula area:
- Scapula rotated forward on one or both sides
- Short striding with one or both front limbs
- White hairs developing behind the withers
- Bucking or kicking out
- Ear pinning or biting during saddling
- Problems with lateral flexion under saddle
- Unwilling to move forward under saddle
- Problems holding a bend in a particular direction
- Problems picking up a particular canter lead
Watch the video as I show you what kinds of things you should look for to determine if you horse may be having a problem in the wither and scapula area.
Therapies, Exercises And Stretches For Rotated Scapula And Painful Withers
When the scapula in the horse is habitually rolled forward, the cervical trapezius muscle is in a state of constant contraction along with several other smaller muscle groups associated with the shoulder girdle. This chronic contraction can cause become quite painful. If the problem has been going on for a while, it may take several weeks (even months in severe cases) of consistent muscle re-education to overcome the muscle memory.
- Enlist the help of a knowledgeable equine bodyworker, chiropractor and/or acupuncturist to help get some initial muscle relaxation and balance back to the area. Chiropractic can help resolve buried issues like those involving the first rib, which may be impeding movement of the scapula, causing misalignment of the vertebra at the withers and pinching nerves in the this area. Massage and acupuncture will help release the muscles and help facilitate bringing the body back into balance.
- Stretching and exercises that extend the shoulder/scapula and thereby stretch out the cervical trapezius muscle are very helpful in overcoming the muscle memory of a scapula that is rolled forward. See this article for additional information on the subject and individual stretches and exercises.
- When dealing with a possible first rib issue getting your horse to stand on a pedestal and then alternate having them hang one foot and then the other off the side of the pedestal. Or if you have access to a slope, have them walk along the length of the slope in both directions.
- If at all possible use a mounting block or fence to mount from. Mounting from the ground in essence gives your horse a chiropractic adjustment to the withers every time you get on. So if your horse is already experiencing problems in this area, you’ll want to do whatever you can to minimize additional trauma to the area.
- Giving natural herbal supplements that may help with inflammation like devil’s claw, chamomile, comfrey, or willow can help as long as their gastrointestinal tract is not compromised in any way. Apply a natural linament like Sore No More to the area. Or make your own with essential oils that may have properties beneficial in the relief of pain and/or inflammation like lavender, copaiba, frankincense, wintergreen and peppermint.
As you can see, the issue is quite complex, and all possible scenarious cannot be covered in the scope of this article. That is why it is so important to consult your veterinarian, equine bodyworker, and chiropractor before you begin any therapy for your horse.
In the next segment, we’ll discuss pain in the middle part of the back. Come on over to the Facebook page and tell us about things that have helped your horse with problems related to the withers and scapula. 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”.
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