When a horse suffers a musculoskeletal injury, the following events typically include a diagnosis, treatment, and return to soundness. To make a full athletic recovery, however, affected horses might benefit from specific forms of rehabilitation that restore function to the back's deep stabilizing muscles.
During the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Focus on the Sport Horse program, held July 20-22, in Louisville, Kentucky, Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR, McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan, described rehabilitation exercises that owners can perform from the ground. These are particularly useful for horses with back pain or a history of back pain and are an adjunct to ridden rehab exercises.
In her presentation Clayton described three types of core training exercises: dynamic mobilization, core strengthening, and balancing. She said these exercises' main purpose is to help stabilize the horse’s spine and the fore- and hind limbs' attachment to the body.
Dynamic Mobilization (aka Carrot Stretches)
"These are the most important and beneficial exercises an owner can do," Clayton began. "The horse follows a controlled movement pattern to supple his intervertebral joints and, more importantly, to strengthen the muscles that move and stabilize these joints."
She listed three types of exercises: neck rounding, bending, and extension:
- Rounding Chin to chest flexes the upper neck; chin to knees and chin to fetlocks flex the lower neck and lift the back.
- Bending Chin to girth bends the neck; chin to flank bends the neck and back; and chin to hind fetlock bends the neck and back and activates the pelvic stabilizers and abdominal muscles.
- Extension Allow the horse to stretch his neck out as far as possible after the rounding and bending exercises as an unwinding exercise.
To teach these exercises to the horse, Clayton said owners should ensure their horse is standing balanced—perhaps against a wall or corner to control the haunches. Then use your bait of choice to entice the horse to flex or bend his neck, making sure it stays straight (ears level) during rounding. Start with a small amount of movement, hold the position for several seconds, and repeat each exercise three to five times daily.
Clayton recommended performing dynamic mobilization exercises on young horses to prepare them for work under saddle; on athletic horses to improve performance and help back injuries heal; and on horses that have had colic surgery starting one month post-surgery.
Clayton said owners can perform core training exercise at the start of or before exercise to recruit the horse's deep stabilizing muscles. She described two of these exercises:
- Apply upward pressure with a slightly noxious stimulus (e.g., a thimble on your fingertip), starting between the chest muscles and sliding slowly back along the horse’s sternum to lift the withers and the back.
- Apply firm pressure to the top of the spine at the tailhead and work forward until you find the horse's "sweet spot" that causes him to round his lumbar and lumbosacral (lower back) joints. You can also stimulate this motion by stroking down the hind quarters' intermuscular groove, taking care to observe appropriate safety precautions if standing behind the horse.
To train a horse to balance and strengthen the muscles that connect his limbs to his body, Clayton described the following exercises, which should be repeated three to five times daily:
- Apply pressure to the middle of the horse's chest, causing him to rock backward. This backward weight shift activates the serratus muscles that support the chest between the forelimbs.
- Gently pull the horse's tail to the side to activate the pelvic stabilizer muscles that help balance and stabilize the horse during collection and lateral movements.
- Lift a fore- or hind limb, and push gently on the horse's shoulder or chest just enough to rock his weight, which activates the fore- and hind-limb stabilizers.
Performed regularly, Clayton said these three types of rehabilitation exercises can help improve your horse's muscle function as part of a rehabilitation program following a back injury and can also improve the horse’s athletic performance and reduce the risk of future back problems.
- Understanding the Biomechanics of Lameness
- Limitations and Advances in Lameness Assessment
- Improving a Horse's Proprioception during Rehabilitation
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.