By Mel Betts, McTimoney Animal Practitioner.
Back pain in ridden horses is a common issue. As riders we sit on the weakest point of a horse’s back and then ask it to perform tasks it was never really designed to do!
So how can we prevent them becoming sore? Correct tack fitting and good farriery are essential. However, one of the keys to prevent back pain in ridden horses is teaching them to carry a rider properly. A horse that has a tendency to go ‘hollow’ is far more likely to have a sore back than one which works in a good outline. Imagine hollowing your back and then carrying a rucksack around – soon you will be pretty uncomfortable!
Therefore, pressing on with your flat lessons is important! Encouraging your horse to work with more engagement means he can carry you more easily. But let’s face it, we don’t all ride like, brilliant local gold medallist, Charlotte Dujardin, so all that dressage stuff is ‘easier said than done’, right? An insight into the mechanics of the horse’s neck and back may give you more incentive to keep on trying! Even the smallest improvements in the way the horse goes will have beneficial effects on the relative comfort of its back.
The Technical Bit
When horses are ridden in a ‘long and low’ outline there is increased tension on the nuchal ligament which is a strong structure that runs from the poll along the crest of the neck widening over the withers. It continues right through to the sacrum (think area of the spine below the ‘jumper’s bump’!). Behind the withers it is referred to as the supraspinous ligament but it is in-fact the same long structure. The laminae of the nuchal ligament stabilize the position of the neck bones.
Extensions of the nuchal ligament continue along its length and when it becomes the supraspinous ligament, it attaches above the thoraco-lumbar vertebrae. Here it becomes the point of origin for the latissimus dorsi muscle which is one of the muscles of the back – located under the saddle area. Therefore, this strong ligament is a key structure in the stabilisation of the spine. Lowering the neck puts the ligament under tension and flexes the spine.
In this way, in simple terms, the nuchal ligament has been described as similar to a ‘suspension bridge’ or ‘bow and string’ arrangement. If the horse lowers its head the nuchal ligament or ‘bow string’ become tighter allowing the horse to lift its back through the supporting traction on the supraspinous ligament. If the horse raises its head however, the bow string become slack and there is no traction to lift the thoraco-lumbar area.
The nuchal ligament has an important practical role to play in maintaining the normal position and contours of the back and it also is key to ensuring the horse can lift its back correctly in order to carry the weight of a rider. If the horse’s head and neck are not correctly positioned then this can easily result in a sore back particularly in the thoraco-lumbar region. Therefore, encouraging the horse to work initially with his head and neck ‘longer and lower’ is helpful.
Engagement of the hind quarters magnifies the tension on the supraspinous ligament and further increases the flexion of the lumbar vertebral ‘bridge’ stretching the long muscles either side of the spine and opening the spaces between the vertebral spinous processes (the long bony projections on the top of the vertebrae). Increased engagement of the hind quarters through lumbar-sacral flexion – in other words ‘tucking the pelvis under’ is maintained by increased work of the abdominal, iliac and psoas muscles. Increased hip flexion – bend in the hip joint – becomes apparent due to tension on the iliopsoas on the upper parts of the femur while the gluteal muscles are stretched.
The Practical Bit
So, in theory we know that the horse’s neck position and engagement of the hind quarters is important to ensure the horse can lift its back and carry a rider more easily, but assuming we don’t all ride like Charlotte Dujardin, what can we do practically to help our horses? Here are some ideas:
Working a horse regularly, using a training aid like a Pessoa can help encourage engagement and build the right muscles to carry a rider more easily. When it comes to ridden work, ensure saddle-fit is checked regularly. Be sure to warm up and warm down properly. Start and finish work in a long and low outline.
Get the help of a good flatwork instructor! Introducing more transitions and lateral work into your ridden work will also help improve engagement – you don’t even need an arena, this can be achieved riding down the road! Cross training (mixing up hacking with schooling and jumping or pole work) will prevent over-use of some and underuse of other muscle groups.
Hoof care and good dentistry is also important to avoid patterns of compensation elsewhere.
Lastly, get your horse’s back checked and treated regularly by someone suitably experienced and qualified. The British Equine Veterinary Association recognises only four categories of individuals who ‘have the necessary knowledge and experience to safely treat horses’: these are Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy, Osteopaths in Animal Practice, McTimoney Animal Therapists and McTimoney Chiropractors.
I trained as a McTimoney Animal Therapist because I found the technique so effective for my own animals. Many people are familiar with the McTimoney Treatment, having experienced this on themselves. It is a gentle, non-invasive therapy which quickly releases muscle spasm around joints which have become restricted in their range of motion, focusing mainly on the spine and pelvis. It is a highly effective manipulation technique when combined with massage treats the whole musculoskeletal system. Regular treatment and working at building the right muscles to allow your horse to carry you comfortably by encouraging him to work in and good outline is essential in avoiding a sore back.
About Author: Mel Betts has a Masters Degree in McTimoney Therapy and treats horses and dogs. Mel also trained with Mary Bromiley, world leading authority on equine sports massage and physiotherapist to the New Zealand Olympic equestrian teams. Mel has an ITEC Diploma in Equine Sports Massage and is a qualified ITEC Holistic Human Massage Therapist.