Most equestrians have been subjected to some degree of neck or back pain and, thus, are familiar with the discomfort and difficulty that arise when carrying out even the easiest of tasks. Now imagine being expected to perform athletically with this discomfort.
According to Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Vice President of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, and equine physical therapist Narelle Stubbs, BAppSc (Phty), MAnimST (Animal Physiotherapy) of Animal Rehabilitation Institute in Loxahatchee ,Fla., back pain in horses is common, usually chronic, and is associated with lameness and decreased strength and activity of the back and core (abdominal) muscles.
"In humans, neck and back pain syndromes are associated with altered muscular patterns and reduced ability to control and stabilize the movements of the spinal column," explained Clayton. "Even after the pain goes away, the muscles do not recover their normal function, so the neck or back remains unstable and is predisposed to the development of further injuries."
In humans physical therapists prescribe specific exercises to help reactivate muscles to improve neck or back stability and mobility. According to Clayton and Stubbs, horses are similar to people in that the muscles stabilizing the joints between the vertebrae are inhibited by neck or back pain, and they do not resume their stabilizing function when the pain resolves.
Clayton and Stubbs' research has shown that performing baited stretches (carrot stretches) regularly over a three-month period can activate and strengthen the muscles that support and stabilize the horse's back. The stretches involve rounding the neck and back by moving the horse's chin toward the chest, between the knees, or between the front fetlocks, and bending laterally by moving the chin sideways toward the girth, the hip, or the hock.
"These stretches mobilize the joints between the vertebrae and, more importantly, activate the muscles that move and stabilize the neck and back," Clayton concluded. "Our results support the use of these dynamic mobilization exercises in horses with back pain and have shown that the exercises can be used to restore musculoskeletal function following injury, return the horse to maximal performance, and reduce the risk of further injury in the future."
- VIDEO: How To Stretch Your Horse
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.