Back Basics for Horses & Riders

Objective: to create an awareness of the need to care for your horses back and where required to also treat your back as well.

Riding is a unique sport, requiring both members of a team – one animal, one human – to be in harmony to effectively execute an activity or movement. Any existing injuries or asymmetries in either of this partnership will have a direct effect on the other.

A lot of people analyse equine performance based on the role of the horse. Physiotherapists treating animals are usually asked to assess the horse when there are performance problems but it should be emphasised that assessment of both the horse and the rider may be required.

Animals are also subject to back pain, especially those used in competition sports and horses are most at risk. Much like humans, the horse today is subjected to stresses and strains for which it is not designed. The size and complexity of the anatomy of the horse’s spine predisposes it to a range of conditions which can cause pain or dysfunction ie problems with movement.

Before physiotherapists can treat animals they are required to first train and practice as human physiotherapists. This is why they are qualified to treat both horse and rider and to assist riders with body alignment to optimise muscle control, coordination and proprioception (body position awareness). Although an assessment of horse or rider can be carried out separately it can be very valuable and sometimes necessary to have a ridden assessment.

The Horse

Common causes of back problems

  • Poor conformation
  • Incorrect schooling
  • Badly fitting tack – especially saddle
  • Dental or foot problems
  • Problems stemming from the limbs
  • Results of misjudgment whilst jumping: slipping, falls
  • Fatigue
  • Inadequate preparation prior to competition
  • Cast in the box
  • Rider unbalanced/poor position


Types of Back Problems

  • Injuries to soft tissue – muscle strains, muscle tears and ligament strains
  • Degenerative changes – arthritis
  • Trauma – nerve damage, fractures
  • Deformities – “kissing spines”
  • Bruising – from poor fitting tack or rolling on a stone

Symptoms of back pain

  • A reluctance to work
  • Poor performance
  • A change of temperament
  • Muscle wasting
  • Dipping the back as the rider gets on
  • Resistance to saddle and girthing
  • Evidence of muscle spasm leading to stiffness – resistance to schooling
  • Changes in body language/behaviour
  • Assessment and Treatment – the Physiotherapist’s Role

Why and how can a physiotherapist help your horse?

The role of the physiotherapist is to identify the cause/s (assessment) and reduce the pain, stimulate and strengthen the appropriate muscles, etc and re-educate movement (treatment).

Physiotherapists have an in-depth medical training including anatomy, physiology and the study of movement. They are primarily trained and experienced in using their hands for palpation and massage which are very important not only for treatment but for assisting with assessment.

Palpation is exploring the muscles and soft tissue for tension spots, spasm, heat and general well-being of the skin and coat of the horse.

The Assessment Role

It is important to first rule out problems of poor conformation, incorrect schooling, badly fitting tack (saddle, bridle and bit) and any dental or foot problems. Here the physiotherapist may work together with other professionals – the vet, farrier, saddler and dentist – to make an informed assessment.

Research carried out in England has shown that all horses with potential spinal damage should be assessed for having a problem somewhere else other than in the spine. Soreness and discomfort in the back can be the result of injury in a limb, causing the horse to work out of balance and the un-even stresses of this strain the back.

Also, in contrast to humans and dogs, intervertebral discs in horses – although they degenerate with age in the thoraco-lumbar spine – do not present with the same clinical symptoms. They cannot prolapse or slip because they are flat, cartilaginous structures unlike the human disc which has a soft, pulpy centre.

In his paper “Conditions causing thoraco-lumbar pain and dysfunction in horses”, Dr Leo Jeffcott – a research veterinarian – examined 825 horses with potential back problems and found only one case of lumbar vertebral displacement. He considers curvature of the spine or mal-alignment to be caused by alteration in the tone i.e. increased spasm between the muscles on either side producing curvature of the spine. This imbalance, however, causes uneven loading on the muscles, resulting in poor performance and chronic back pain.

The basic assessment process (area and cause of the pain) includes the following:

  • Past and present history
  • Conformation – postural faults
  • Muscle spasm, wasting, sweating
  • Assessing movement – at the walk, trot and other gaits if required
  • Palpation of soft tissue
  • Passive limb movements
  • Testing muscle length and reflexes
  • Checking saddle/tack
  • Establishing dental and shoeing history

The Treatment Role

The aim of treatment

  • To decrease muscle spasm
  • To relieve pain
  • To strengthen appropriate muscles
  • To restore function

Many of the same electrotherapy techniques and other modalities that are used in human treatments are applied in the treatment of animals, but the application will usually differ.

Types of treatment – by hand and electrotherapy

  • Spinal and limb mobilisation techniques
  • Massage
  • Trigger point release
  • Myofascial release techniques
  • Ultrasound
  • Laser
  • Faradic current stimulation
  • Proprioceptive taping
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Stretching exercises
  • Strengthening programmes
  • Rehabilitation exercises

The Rider

A rider with a low back or scapular (upper back) area problem may have pain, a mechanical dysfunction or weakness which will affect the contact through the sitting position (seat) with the horses back muscles and because of likely instability, will change the contact through the riders upper limb and hands to the horses mouth. Similarly, asymmetry or imbalances in your horse’s body can result in tension being carried in the animals back and neck which makes it difficult for a rider to sit in the correct position.

It is important for riders to ensure they are riding fit for their appropriate discipline and the level of riding. Fitness does not just mean cardiovascular fitness but also strength and flexibility. A tired, low-toned, unfit rider will become a burden for the horse. Good riding requires high muscle tone which enables the rider to work the horse correctly and to maximise the horse’s abilities. A rider needs to stabilise their body and exercises based on isometric muscle contractions to enhance core stability, such as Pilates and Callanetics training, would provide the most benefit.

Horse Owner / Rider Care

  • Safety (avoid slipping, check environment)
  • Check saddle/tack
  • Regular dental care
  • Regular foot care/shoeing
  • Improve riding techniques
  • Be aware of emotion/stresses/fatigue
  • Aware of general health and wellbeing
  • Prepare adequately prior to competition (fitness, suppleness, flexibility, strengthening)
  • Correct schooling and flat work
  • Avoid gadgets (running reins)

A Note to the Rider

Finally, as a rider, please remember to ask yourself the following questions to establish whether you may be causing a potential performance problem in your horse: Are you level on both sides? Are you sitting with weight equally distributed? Are you weaker on one side? Suffering from lumbar spasm? Lacking in good muscle tone? Any of these could affect your horse.

So remember – look after your back and it will also help your horse!

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