Exercises to Strengthen Equine Back Muscles, Reduce Pain

Editor's note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Common sense says it's better to prevent back pain than to treat the back after it starts to hurt. Now it appears there could be an effective way to do this for our horses through simple, but specific, exercises.

Chartered equine physical therapist and equitation scientist Gillian Tabor, MSc, ResM candidate, presented the results of recent supporting research at the 8th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

According to Tabor, who completed the research with Hayley Randle, PhD, equitation science researcher at Duchy College in Cornwall, U.K., strengthening a horse's multifidus muscle through a short-term physiotherapeutic exercise program could yield long-term benefits in preventing equine back pain. Nestled around the vertebral column, the multifidus muscle controls and supports spinal movement and protects it from injury.

"Given that back pain is relatively common in riding horses, affecting a varying percent of horses in each discipline--including up to 40% of dressage horses--we have to really consider not only the welfare but also the economic implications of having a horse that can't race or compete," Tabor said.

To investigate multifidus muscle development through her exercise regimen in active horses, Tabor and colleagues studied 12 Thoroughbred racehorses (at least 3 years old) over a period of 12 weeks. Half the horses received multifidus muscle-targeted exercise five days each week in addition to their regular training schedule, whereas the other half received their regular training only. The researchers monitored the size of the horses' multifidus muscles via ultrasound regularly, from before the exercise program began until after it ended.

After reviewing the results of the study, the team found that the additional exercise increased the size of the multifidus muscles significantly, whereas the control group's multifidus muscles remained the same size throughout the course of the study. Furthermore, the muscle growth reached its maximum only six weeks into the study, after which it remained stable, Tabor said.

"In the first two weeks the riders also noticed a difference in the horses in the experimental group, saying they found them more supple," she added.

Tabor cautioned that although the current research doesn't confirm that the exercises actually help prevent back pain in horses, previous research shows that similar exercises are capable of preventing or reducing back pain in humans. And because the multifidus muscle is often reduced in horses with back pain, developing the muscle would likely have the opposite effect of preventing or reducing back pain, she said.

Tabor recommended that interested horse owners contact a certified equine physical therapist to initiate an exercise program for their horses. She cautioned that if the exercises aren't performed properly or if the wrong stretches are selected, they could have little, no, or even detrimental effects for the horse. Thus, she recommends discussing with a certified physical therapist which exercises would be most beneficial to each individual horse prior to implementing a workout program.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.