At one time or another, every horse owner ends up scratching their head, desperately trying to figure out what is the root of their horse’s downturn. An unsolved horse issue is a great leveler across the equine industry, is it purely behavioral? Does the horse simply need more training? Is the poor guy unsound? What’s the deal?! Problem solving this change in our partners is puzzling, frustrating, and usually expensive. It doesn’t matter whether we as owners are chasing ribbons or want to enjoy a quiet trail ride, we want our horses happy and healthy.
If our horses are working with pain, not only are they suffering while doing their job (as humble as it may be) their emotional state usually goes south as well. Our eager partner is replaced by a stumbling or heavy on the fore, unwilling, even dangerous horse that is becoming increasingly frustrated within themselves. And so begins the rounds of vet visits, tests, lameness exams, various treatments, nerve blocks, steroids, special shoeing, and tweaking. What is left to do but either rehome our friend, turn them out as an expensive pasture ornament, or the absolute worst of ending their life?
However if we could look at our horses as performance athletes, rather than fuzzy confidants or mechanical crotch rockets, we might be able to address their physical needs properly and in a timely manner. Even if ol’ Jed in the pasture doesn’t do much more than pack the grandkids around the lot, that simple task is actually structurally complicated. Asking a quadruped(mamal with 4 feet and we are sitting on the suspension bridge of their spine and ribs) to carry weight, perpendicular to the spine, is not natural. Expecting a horse to remain healthy on deep slippery mud isn’t likely without an increase in maintenance. Seeing the tasks we ask our equine friends to perform in light of the real physical costs would be a huge win for the species.
Further, most horses have experienced subluxations (a slight misalignment in the skeletal system) as early as seven months old. A misaligned or ‘out’ first rib seems to start the cascade of off movement and compensating physical patterns that spiral out of control. So all of the activity a horse does, for us and just to survive in the pasture, is done from a body likely in a degree of deep pain mislabeled as ‘behavioral or training issue’.
So how is an owner to know if her horse is experiencing pain, or if it is the causative factor behind a negative behavior pattern? The answer is to really see (or listen) to our horses. Owners can gather clues by being hyper vigilant in noting anatomical abnormalities, a disruption in the pattern of movement, changes to hoof health, facial expressions, and how our horses re/act. Knowing the horse’s healthy, normal posture is incredibly important to detect a downward turn quickly.
Let’s cover the difference between conformation and posture as the two terms are used interchangeably, but actually have separate meanings. Conformation is the basic physical structure a horse is born with, it is his native body. Posture is how the horse is choosing (or is forced into) presenting his body. Posture is where we see compensatory patterns and asymmetric stance. Some of the most common examples include all four feet strung out and not in the proper two by two and squared pattern, one hip could be higher, the neck might be held off center, or the tail can look clamped to one side rather than hanging relaxed in a straight line. Conformation can’t be easily changed. However it is exciting to note that a horse’s posture is extremely moldable and well within the grasp of the average horse owner to change with home-applied bodywork!
If these physical imbalances are ignored (or not seen), then they compound and become more serious. A relatively simple tight groin or ‘out’ rib pulls other body parts out of alignment and puts more stress on surrounding structures. A common practice to rectify this is to work the horse to strengthen his weak side. And how do we work the horse? Under saddle and in circles or over cavelletti – which is the correct approach if we want to strengthen the topline. Unfortunately if the cause is a strained back or hindquarter muscle this can cause more pain and spasms. And more pain usually produces more negative behavior, as seen from the frustrated owner’s side. From the horse’s viewpoint he is doing his best to communicate and convey his dilemma, and if previous attempts have not been heard, then what is left but to get louder?
Horses experience pain-spasm-pain cycles that are similar to what humans go through with pulled muscles. The more trauma that occurs to the body, the more soft tissue clamps down trying to keep the area still and protected. The more the skeletal system is pulled out of alignment, the more pain is experienced until it reaches a level that can’t be dealt with. Humans self-medicate and opt for surgery, or explore alternative solutions to their pain. Unfortunately our four-footed friends can’t google their own symptoms and rely on us to accurately read them.
However, home bodywork (or homework for the body) not only can help address physical and behavioral issues, it can also be used for prevention! Many horse owners are now incorporating a bit of bodywork into the warmup and cool down routine. Not only does this help out our partners, it also improves the relationship, and gets us and our horse in sync. Depending on the type of bodywork applied, benefits might also include a calmer or more focused approach to the job at hand, better digestion, more flexibility, more athleticism, improved behavior or attitude, and a shinier coat or a brighter bloom to the horse overall. What a win-win situation!
For more specific suggestions on how often to provide bodywork, check out the recommendations provided according to the chosen course or book followed. There are so many models of equine and canine bodywork, that there truly is an accessible style for all.
April Battles ~ Holistic Horwseworks LLC