Equine Back Issues: Origins, Side Effects, and Equine Massage

Is your horse’s back reactive, sore and/or tight? I’ve come across this issue in a LOT of horses. The lumbar area is often reactive when palpated, sometimes the whole back is tight, has knots and seized up. If the horse is really not feeling good, they will stomp or kick out when checked here. They are often also reactive in their inside hip and semimembranosus. If you are having behavior issues, e.i. gate issues, this is a good place to start checking for pain.

So you might be wondering, what makes their back sore and tight? Well, I cannot diagnose your horse, as I am not a Veterinarian. I can only give you common possibilities and encourage you to consult your Veterinarian. If a horse does not improve within 3 massages, I will always recommend the horse be seen by a Vet as it often indicates a structural, not muscular, origin.

First, I always check with owners and riders regarding their saddle fit. It is fairly common for people not to be sure about how to check if their saddle fits their horse correctly. Also, often people don’t want to hear that their saddle is causing their horse to have issues, like muscle atrophy and spasming/knots in the withers, pain, behavior problems, because it can be an expensive fix. I consider it an investment, and ultimately bad saddle fit can cost a whole lot more if not addressed, especially for competitors. And of course, if your horse is in pain every time you ride, isn’t is worth it to find a saddle that fits correctly? There are many places to sell saddles that no longer work for your horse online and to buy used saddles at a more affordable price as well.

Second, leg/joint issues can lead to back soreness and tightening because of the horse compensating for limb issues. Usually, this is coming from hock and stifle issues. I know, I know, no one wants this to happen to their horse! But, I strongly encourage you to take your horse to your veterinarian if you suspect hock/stifle issues. Turning a blind eye will not fix the problem!

To give you an example, if your horse is sore in her right hock, she will most likely compensate and protect that hock by putting her weight onto her left front, and tighten her back muscles. Again, as long as this goes untreated, the back will only continue to become tighter and more sore. This scenario can also happen with issues in the lower part of the hind limbs and hooves. You may also find tightness in the shoulder area and back muscles because of the resulting compensating stride.

Hoof issues such as low heels and/or long toes on the hind hooves can hinder your horse from moving correctly, and in result strain the back muscles.

Third, how does your horse carry his head? Mouth pain from an inappropriate bit, heavy hands, and lack of proper dental care, can also bring on secondary back soreness. This manifests in the horse elevating his head and “hollowing” and tensing his entire spinal column to escape the pain and discomfort (this is also seen when there is pain in the hind end, like the hocks!). This issue will also manifest in the front of the horse’s neck, in the Sternocephalicus and Brachiocephalicus, that will clearly be over-muscled. Horse’s in tie-downs often exhibit these side effects as well, because they will still be bracing against the tie down, though their head can’t go as high, and still be hollowing their back, instead of moving properly with their back.

Fourth, the condition, fitness, and training regimen of the horse can also cause back issues. It is important when getting a horse into shape to do it gradually, and not to take them from having the winter off to a 2 hour workout. The best way I can explain this would to ask you if you would go from not working out for months to working out for 2 hours in your first workout. You might, but you would be sore for days, and could end up with injuries. The same goes for your horse, make sure to keep this in mind!

Also, an over strenuous exercise regimen can also cause problems. Overworking your horse will cause soreness and continuing this will lead to tight muscles, that continue to get tighter, which can lead to tears and injuries. Many people advise a regimen of easy, moderate, hard, and then back to easy again. Overworking your horse will not make him more fit, it will make him more susceptible to injury. Muscles need recovery time!

Remember too, when horses are relocated to new areas with different ground, keep in mind this can cause some strain and take the time to let your adjust. A good example of this would be a horse coming from hard ground to a sandy place. When starting exercises like hill work, make sure to make it gradual. Too much, too fast, can cause problems as well, which ultimately contradict your goal of fitness!

Lastly, accidents. If your horse has landed wrong after a jump or taken a tumble going around the barrels, make sure to note this and look for resulting soreness, pulled muscles, etc. Don’t assume that they are fine. Most likely once the horse cools down you will be able to find where they are tight if they hurt themselves.

In conclusion, there are a lot of reasons that your horse might have a sore back, it is important that you be aware of the origins and signs that your horse may be hurting. MANY behavior issues are actually PAIN issues. It is important to make your horse comfortable and treat the symptoms of the problem, but also to discover the origin/reason for your horse being sore. Otherwise, your problem will continue and even worsen.

Sports Massage Therapy can help with soft tissue issues by releasing tension and knots that your horse may have in result of one of these issues listed above, as well as help prevent issues by keeping your horse’s muscle in good condition. ¬†Once the muscles are released you want to work them (in a easy, correct riding session to help them stretch and use their muscles correctly, NOT a long, intense session of roll backs and tiny circles!). Don’t forget how important a correct warm-up and cool down with stretching is!

PEMF Therapy is also a great way to help make your horse comfortable and prevent issues by increasing circulation to the muscles and oxygen levels in the blood going to those muscles. Remember, your horse is appx. 60% muscle, so massage is always a good idea!

NOTE: Massage is no replacement for proper Veterinary care!!