The Benefits of Stretching for Horses Backs

Stretching is an important part of any exercise routine, and horses are no exception. Stretching can help to improve a horses flexibility, range of motion, and core strength. It can also help to reduce the risk of injury and improve a horses overall health and well-being. But what are the best stretches for a horses back?

The most beneficial stretches for a horses back are those that target the muscles in the back, shoulders, and neck. These muscles are important for providing stability and support for the horse. Stretches should focus on lengthening the muscles and creating more flexibility.

One of the most common stretches for a horses back is the shoulder stretch. This stretch helps to increase the flexibility of the shoulder muscles and helps to improve the range of motion. To perform this stretch, the horse should stand with its legs spread slightly apart and its head and neck held straight. The handler should then gently grasp the horses neck and shoulder and pull it gently towards the handler. The handler should hold this stretch for a few seconds before releasing the horse.

Another great stretch for a horses back is the back stretch. This stretch helps to increase the flexibility of the back muscles. To perform this stretch, the horse should stand with its legs slightly apart and its head and neck held straight. The handler should then gently pull the horses back towards the handler. The handler should hold this stretch for a few seconds before releasing the horse.

Finally, the neck stretch is a great stretch for a horses back. This stretch helps to increase the flexibility of the neck muscles. To perform this stretch, the horse should stand with its legs slightly apart and its head and neck held straight. The handler should then gently grasp the horses neck and pull it gently towards the handler. The handler should hold this stretch for a few seconds before releasing the horse.

Stretching is an important part of any horses exercise routine. Stretching can help to improve a horses flexibility, range of motion, and core strength. It can also help to reduce the risk of injury and improve a horses overall health and well-being. By incorporating the best stretches for a horses back into your horses exercise routine, you can help to ensure your horse stays healthy and happy.

Diary of an OTTB

Baby got BACK! Or at least your horse should! Getting your horse’s back in shape is the key to unlocking loads of potential in your mount. But it’s far from fast or easy to do and like everything else horse-related, it requires a lot of understanding, time, patience and practice.

So let’s take a look at what a horse’s topline is, how you can evaluate it, and some exercises you can do on the ground or under saddle to help strengthen your horse’s back and build topline.

What is a Horse’s Topline?

When we’re referring to a horse’s topline, we’re talking about the back muscles lining either side of the spine from neck to tail. Take a look at the diagram below.

From a horse’s withers to their croup, the topline is made up of the (1) thoracic trapezius, (2) the latissimus dorsi, and (3) the longissimus dorsi. Developing these muscles will help your horse carry him or herself in a more relaxed, collected, long and low position, and most definitely improve your show scores.

Much like proper posture, teaching your horse to engage these back muscles and lift their shoulders will put you and your horse in the best position to ride for years to come, while those who skip this step and ride their horse with a hollowed/dipped back (more explanation later) will most likely create physical problems (sway back, kissing spine, to name a few) for the horse in the future.

Still a little confused about what we’re talking about? Take a look at this short video from Evention TV that reviews all of this.

To help everyone understand these concepts a little better let’s take a look at these diagrams that were part of a .

First let’s look at what you don’t want: a horse with it’s head held high, forcing the spine to curve downward creating a “hollow back” and leaving room for potential pressure points due to poor saddle fit or lack of musculature. In this diagram you’ll see the high head forces the horse’s spine to dip while the majority of weight would be carried on their inside front leg.

Now let’s compare that posture to one where the horse’s head is long and low with the spine elongated and back engaged so the weight is being carried on the horse’s inside hind leg.

Here you’ll see the horse’s head is down, keeping the spine parallel to the ground and allowing the horse to engage those back muscles.

The same is true for the horse above. The head is lowered, spine lifted to form a bridge beneath the rider with the horse’s hind legs extending all the way underneath their hip.

Topline & Nutrition

In addition to exercise, nutrition plays a critical factor in building a horse’s topline. Just like any other athlete, a . There are 10 key amino acids that a horse requires including: . The need for these amino acids varies with age and the level or work and fitness of each individual horse, but each acid plays a unique roll in aiding growth and muscle development at all ages.

This SmartPak Ask the Vet video below discusses the subject of toplines and nutrition in a bit more detail.

Most horse feeds contain a mixture of crude protein, crude fats, crude fiber and a handful of other vitamins and minerals. This crude protein is the percentage containing essential muscle-building amino acids. Grass hays such as timothy and orchard grass often contain less protein when compared to alfalfa so depending on the quality of hay and grain being fed, you may consider a supplement that bumps up the levels of those amino acids if your horse is in a high level of work or needs some serious help in the right direction.

Evaluating a Horse’s Topline

To you’re going to want to look at few things, namely, you guessed it, their back! Using the topline grading system is also a good place to start keeping track. This system grades horse’s on an A to D scale with A being the best.

Take a look at this wonderful internet pony apparently named Zig Zag. In the top before photo you can see the curvature of the dipped spine and a little bit of rib showing. In the bottom after shot you can see that the spine is much more level, less of his ribs are showing, and the muscles are much more developed.

One other important thing to note when you’re assessing the condition of your horse’s topline is that atrophy of topline muscles begins in the withers, then continues to the back and gradually extends through the loins and croup and down into the hip and stifle. Rebuilding muscle occurs in the reverse order meaning that to see progress in the withers you’ll probably need to put in a month or more of stretching, exercising, and conditioning.

Exercises & Stretches to Build Topline

The point of these exercises and stretches is to strengthen and build the muscles in your horse’s back. Eventually you should work up to maintaining this position under saddle with the horse elongating it’s neck and back, lifting their shoulders, engaging their back and holding their head long and low.

Back Stretches

The first thing you should start with are some basic stretches and ground exercises. These stretches and exercises help gradually improve flexibility and strength over time and they can easily be done using a little treat before or after a ride. Check out this video from Dr. Emma Poole reviewing how to do some of these stretches.

This stretch is a great tool to use regardless of what stage you might be at with your horse. It’s how I start and end most of the work I do with my horse.

Hill Work

Another basic ground exercises you can do to improve your horse’s back strength is practice leading your horse backwards up a hill. It only needs to be a slight incline to be effective and you can always increase the size of the hill as you continue.

You can see in the video above that even though the hill is very slight, it’s all about the repetition of work for the horse that encourages them to use the proper back and butt muscles.

Cavalettis / Ground Poles

Cavalettis, ground poles, or cross rails are also great ways of encouraging your horse to look down and know where their feet are moving. By creating patterns with ground poles, most horses will naturally figure out to hold themselves in a long and low position because it’s just more comfortable than running around with their head up in the air so they can’t see what’s on the ground in front of them.

In the video below, the trainer makes a half boxed pattern and practices lunging her horse over the poles while using that helps teach the horse to keep their head long and low with their back engaged.

This is a great first step especially for young or untrained horses, but if your horse struggles to figure it out on their own you might need to adjust your strategy.

Transitions Under Saddle

Any kind of transition — walk to trot, trot to walk, trot to canter, canter to trot, walk to canter, canter to walk — requires that the horse use all of these back and butt muscles that we’ve been talking about. Which means one thing: transitions are an easy way to isolate this practice under saddle. This video demonstrates practicing a trot-canter-trot transition sequence as a way for dressage students to warm up (even though it could absolutely apply to everyone!).

Focusing on patterns that incorporate straight lines and lots and lots of transitions is one of the best ways to build back strength under saddle.

Liberty Work & Free Lunging

I’ve been doing a lot of these exercises with my OTTB Sure Prize and at some point between ground work and work under saddle, he started to have a bit of a rebellion in terms of how he wanted to carry himself versus the long and low, relaxed ride I was looking for. I’d done all of these stretches and exercises over poles, both lunging and under saddle, but it just wasn’t coming together under saddle.

If this happens to you it means one thing: stop and take stock of things. How’s your saddle fit? How’s your horse’s feed? If you can make sure you’re good on those fronts then the answer is to go back to basics. In my case, it probably wasn’t coming together as quickly as I wanted because his back muscles weren’t fully built up, making it more difficult for him to carry the weight of both of us.

So rather than make mechanical adjustments to my tack, like adding a tie down or going back to lunging with a pessoa system (which are all perfectly fine adjustments if you’ve started work and hit a wall), I gave it one final Hail Mary in the form of . Surely if my boy was ever going to figure out how to move more comfortably, the way to do it would be with absolutely no strings attached.

Turns out this theory was pretty accurate and by allowing him to move freely rather than in tight circles lunging around me, he started to figure it out. I started to reward the times he’d stretch out and lift his back, letting him walk or stand as a reward. After nearly a month of this practice we’ve gotten to a point where we can continue working on the same thing under saddle. You can check out our progress in the little video above, which will soon need to be updated because we’re going on 1 year together in August!

The process of getting your horse to move in a long and low, relaxed, collected manor is just that: a process. Don’t be discouraged and if all else fails, have faith and go back to basics!

Diary of an OTTB

Hi there! Welcome to my blog! My name is Meghan Lalonde and I’m an amateur equestrian and OTTB enthusiast based in Central New Jersey.

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How To Relax When Riding

dislike like the word relax when it comes to riding and being around horses, because the truth is they are a natural flight response horse. So naturally they are wired to bolt with signs of fear and the word relax when taken literally isn’t the best choose of words. When you say relax, I get it. But someone else may think you mean, relax in terms of chilling out on a couch and when around horses we need to stay focused, yet calm. Then when you say relax to someone while riding, they will often then turn into a blob and again I get what you are trying to achieve when a rider is tense, but often not the best choice of words. So how do you relax when it comes to horses? And what is it instead that you are trying to achieve? Today I thought I would give you different words to describe what you are trying to achieve. Whether you are an instructor trying to get a tense rigid rider to soften or someone having a lesson and you are doing exactly what is being asked, but its not working because your understanding of the word is different to what your instructor is trying to achieve. When we ride, there is a certain amount of strength and suppleness that is required. I like to think of this as fluid, elastic strength. You have the muscles switched on that are required to keep you balanced on the horse, but there is softness around this. We don’t tense our muscles instead we engage them and allow the body to move with the horse and you as a rider to stay balanced. So here are my words I like to use instead. Release Using your minds eye scan through your body and become aware of areas that are tense or holding on. Then ask that area to release. For example common areas are tense hips locking while the core is weak. So think of engaging your core to stabilize your pelvis, then allow the hip to release and open and close with the horses movement. Allow the shoulder joint to release to let the arm move softly with the horses mouth. Allow your ankles to release to absorb the movement of the horse through them. These are all examples and when you take the time to scan your body you will discover areas that are tense or holding on. This can be through poor alignment, stress, nervousness or just habits built over time. So spend time in the walk when you first hop on and allow the body to release areas that are tense, start out your toes. You will be surprised how often these are all clinched up as well! Engage When we are riding, you are wanting to carry around a deep and connected seat. This isn’t achieved by being a blob or creating the feeling of a sack of potatoes. Instead its about holding yourself up, centering your body and aligning yourself correctly in both seatbones. Be tall, be engaged through your core with your neutral spine. Feel yourself become stable when you do this. Then feel how the horse responds to your balanced position. Feel the horses movement Often when we ride we get a piecing focus with our eyes and we grip or clinch in certain areas. Instead allow yourself to have soft eyes. Eyes that take in 180 degrees. You know where you are heading and whats around you. Then with those soft eyes begin to feel what happens with the horses movement. Feel when the back legs come forward, feel when they hit the ground. Start in the walk and notice what naturally happens with your hips when you release tension there and allow them to move with the horse with your engaged core and soft eyes. Breathe Breathe into your belly. When we breathe into our chest our shoulders lift and our psoas can tighten which then affects your hips. So practice breathing deep into your belly and as you breath deepening your seat. Use your breathe to calm the mind and feel what is going on beneath you. When you breathe deep and relaxed notice how your horse does to. Deepen your seat Allow your seat to really deepen into the saddle. Imagine your pelvis is like the base of a tree and its roots can spread deep into the ground. Let your seat really deepen and ground itself to the horses back. Then your spine is like the trunk of the tree, grow up keeping your deep seat and your neutral spine. With your soft eyes and soft breathe engage your core to create a long spine and lengthen the back of your body from this grounded and deep seat. As you can see there are better word chooses to use instead of the word relax. So think about one place to start and work on creating that “relaxed” picture with these different word choices and see if it makes a difference. I would love to know if this helps. Comment below or get in touch 🙂 Share294Pin3K

I dislike like the word relax when it comes to riding and being around horses, because the truth is they are a natural flight response horse. So naturally they are wired to bolt with signs of fear and the word relax when taken literally isn’t the best choose of words. When you say relax, I get it. But someone else may think you mean, relax in terms of chilling out on a couch and when around horses we need to stay focused, yet calm.

Then when you say relax to someone while riding, they will often then turn into a blob and again I get what you are trying to achieve when a rider is tense, but often not the best choice of words.

Today I thought I would give you different words to describe what you are trying to achieve. Whether you are an instructor trying to get a tense rigid rider to soften or someone having a lesson and you are doing exactly what is being asked, but its not working because your understanding of the word is different to what your instructor is trying to achieve.

When we ride, there is a certain amount of strength and suppleness that is required. I like to think of this as fluid, elastic strength. You have the muscles switched on that are required to keep you balanced on the horse, but there is softness around this. We don’t tense our muscles instead we engage them and allow the body to move with the horse and you as a rider to stay balanced.

Using your minds eye scan through your body and become aware of areas that are tense or holding on. Then ask that area to release. For example common areas are tense hips locking while the core is weak. So think of engaging your core to stabilize your pelvis, then allow the hip to release and open and close with the horses movement. Allow the shoulder joint to release to let the arm move softly with the horses mouth. Allow your ankles to release to absorb the movement of the horse through them. These are all examples and when you take the time to scan your body you will discover areas that are tense or holding on. This can be through poor alignment, stress, nervousness or just habits built over time. So spend time in the walk when you first hop on and allow the body to release areas that are tense, start out your toes. You will be surprised how often these are all clinched up as well!

When we are riding, you are wanting to carry around a deep and connected seat. This isn’t achieved by being a blob or creating the feeling of a sack of potatoes. Instead its about holding yourself up, centering your body and aligning yourself correctly in both seatbones. Be tall, be engaged through your core with your neutral spine. Feel yourself become stable when you do this. Then feel how the horse responds to your balanced position.

Often when we ride we get a piecing focus with our eyes and we grip or clinch in certain areas. Instead allow yourself to have soft eyes. Eyes that take in 180 degrees. You know where you are heading and whats around you. Then with those soft eyes begin to feel what happens with the horses movement. Feel when the back legs come forward, feel when they hit the ground. Start in the walk and notice what naturally happens with your hips when you release tension there and allow them to move with the horse with your engaged core and soft eyes.

Breathe into your belly. When we breathe into our chest our shoulders lift and our psoas can tighten which then affects your hips. So practice breathing deep into your belly and as you breath deepening your seat. Use your breathe to calm the mind and feel what is going on beneath you. When you breathe deep and relaxed notice how your horse does to.

Allow your seat to really deepen into the saddle. Imagine your pelvis is like the base of a tree and its roots can spread deep into the ground. Let your seat really deepen and ground itself to the horses back. Then your spine is like the trunk of the tree, grow up keeping your deep seat and your neutral spine. With your soft eyes and soft breathe engage your core to create a long spine and lengthen the back of your body from this grounded and deep seat.

As you can see there are better word chooses to use instead of the word relax. So think about one place to start and work on creating that “relaxed” picture with these different word choices and see if it makes a difference.

I would love to know if this helps. Comment below or get in touch 🙂

Join other participants on our 12-week ‘step-by-step’ online rider training program. Improve the 5 components of your riding. Only available 3x per year.

Learn how to stretch your horse to help improve suppleness

Veterinary physiotherapist Hayley Marsh offers a variety of strengthening exercises to do at home — including stretches to increase muscle length, flexibility, suppleness and joint range of motion

The aim when teaching your horse stretches

When you are stretching your horse you’re looking to increase muscle length, flexibility, suppleness and joint range of motion, which all play a major part in stride length. Stretching also improves core stability.

Horse stretching exercises

Pick up the horse’s foreleg and, with both hands on the fetlock, ease the leg forwards towards the horse’s nose and hold for 10 seconds. For the hindleg stretch (pictured above), gently ease the hindleg forwards towards the foreleg and hold for 10 seconds. Start these exercises low to the ground then, as the horse becomes more supple to the movement, you can ask for more range.

2. Carrot stretches

Using a carrot, persuade the horse to bring his head down between his front legs. Encourage him to stretch as far as it is comfortable and hold the stretch for 10 seconds. Next, stand with your back to the horse’s shoulder and encourage him to bend his head and neck around you, ideally keeping his head vertical, and aim for the direction of the back fetlock. Aim for a smooth stretch — not a snatch — and hold for 10 seconds.

Pilates For Horses: The Benefits of Incentive Stretching

These exercises use treats to get your horse to (happily!) stretch to improve circulation and range of motion, and decrease soreness.

Human athletes know that stretching is an invaluable part of any training program to keep muscles elastic, and a tight muscle is more prone to injury. Stretching helps to improve circulation, range of motion, and overall health of your horse’s muscles, while also decreasing muscle soreness and fatigue. As an added benefit, spending a few minutes stretching your horse can help create a stronger bond.

Incentive stretches, one of the three types of stretches described in the following pages, use treats or “incentives” to allow the horse to stretch himself. By elongating the neck, the back will also stretch, and the core will engage to stabilize, making this a full-body exercise.

WHAT

The three main stretches covered in this book — , and — are all techniques that pull your horse’s various limbs and muscles into a lengthened state to help increase mobility and flexibility, and release tension. When strengthening muscles, it’s important to also lengthen them to maintain suppleness.

Require the use of a treat or “incentive” to get your horse to stretch into a lengthened state on his own.

Require a handler to support the weight of the horse’s limb as it is pulled into a stretch.

As with a human, too much mobility (hypermobility) can cause issues. If your horse can easily move into a full range of motion, strengthening the surrounding muscles of that joint should be prioritized over stretching.

The intensity of a stretch is considered the amount of force used to elongate the muscle, and less intensity is needed than you might think. Using too much force may strain or otherwise injure healthy tissue; keeping the intensity of these stretches to a light pull will be most beneficial for your horse.

Incentive Stretches

Also known as “carrot stretches,” incentive stretches use treats or a clicker to ask your horse to stretch himself through flexion (rounding), lateral bending (side to side), and even extension (hollowing or reaching).

Stretches may be done every day, ideally after work when your horse’s muscles are warm.

Chin to Chest

Ask your horse to bring his nose toward the center of his chest using a treat, creating flexion and stretch in the upper neck muscles.

Increases mobility in the upper and middle neck muscles, including the , and muscles.

1. Stand beside your horse, facing forward. 2. Offer a treat near the horse’s nose to get his attention. 3. Slowly move your hand back toward the center of the horse’s chest, covering the treat so he cannot grab it. 4. Make sure the horse’s neck is straight and his nose is pointing down. 5. When using a clicker, activate it right at the center of your horse’s chest. 6. Hold the stretch for 5 seconds to start, working up to 10-20 seconds over the course of several weeks. 7. Repeat 2-4 times, changing sides each time so your horse’s head doesn’t begin to tilt to one side in anticipation (images below).

Every day, after your horse is warmed up. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat 2-4 times.

(Left) Mark is stretching his upper neck muscles. Even though he is stretching straight down, I make sure to repeat the stretch standing on both sides, to discourage any tilt of the head or neck. Notice I have my fingers closed around a treat so Mark stays interested and cannot grab the treat with his teeth (right). I trust that I can move quickly if Mark tries to bite the treat out of my hand, but this is not advised if your horse tends to lunge for treats.

Nose to Knees

Ask your horse to bring his nose down toward his knees and eventually between them using a treat, flexing and stretching the neck and back.

1. Stand to the side of your horse, facing forward. 2. Offer a treat near the horse’s nose to get his attention. 3. Slowly move your hand back toward the knees. If your horse is already flexible in this area, you can reach your hand behind your horse’s elbow and forward toward his nose, slowly pulling the treat back to the knees and then farther, between the knees and toward the belly. 4. Make sure your horse’s neck is straight, the nose is pointing down, and he is standing squarely with the front legs. 5. When using a clicker, activate it right between the horse’s knees. 6. Hold for 5 seconds to start, working up to 10-20 seconds over the course of several weeks. 7. Repeat 2-4 times, changing sides each time so your horse doesn’t begin to tilt to one side in anticipation.

Every day, after your horse is warmed up. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat 2-4 times.

(Left) This stretch elongates the mid and lower neck muscles, as well as the entire topline of the body. Notice Mark’s knees are straight, he is standing squarely, and he is reaching straight down. (Right) Mark is stretching his deep neck flexors, lower neck muscles, and back, as well as engaging his core. I am not asking for a deeper bend toward the toes because I want to avoid any potential compression in the neck and shoulders.

Nose to Toes

Ask your horse to bring his nose down toward his front feet using a treat, flexing and stretching the neck and back.

1. Stand to the side of your horse, facing forward. 2. Offer a treat right in front of your horse’s nose to get his attention. 3. Slowly move your hand back toward the body and down toward the ground. If the horse is already flexible in this area, you can reach your hand behind the elbow and forward toward the nose, slowly pulling the treat down to the feet and then back between them. 4. Make sure your horse’s neck is straight, the nose is pointing down, and he is standing squarely with the front legs. 5. When using a clicker, activate it directly between the front feet. 6. Hold for 5 seconds to start, working up to 10–20 seconds over the course of several weeks. 7. Repeat 2–4 times, changing sides each time to give the muscles time to recover.

Every day, after your horse is warmed up. Hold for 10–20 seconds and repeat 2–4 times.

By Laura Reiman, MS, PMA-CPT is available from Trafalgar Square Books for $26.95 (USD).

For 50 years, Horse Sport has been the voice of equestrian competition in Canada. Our readers are dedicated owners, competitors, trainers, and breeders who are highly involved in the equine marketplace.

Topline Loss – How Nutrition Can Help

Muscle-related diseases such a polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) and exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER)

This can result in poorly digested feed. Combined with possible poor dentition, and your horse may not be getting the calories and nutrients he requires.

Stress due to bodily aches and pains, and possible changes in pecking order within a herd can influence the microbiome’s health and ability to digest fiber for calories.

Many horses develop metabolic conditions with age that manifest themselves as insulin resistance. In this situation, the tissues do not get enough glucose, leading them to rely on muscle for glucose production.

Loss of muscle tone is inevitable if the horse is retired and no longer has the same level of physical activity. Degenerative joint conditions can also make your horse less eager to exercise.

– 22 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Hemp seed meal is high in excellent quality protein (33%) and lower in fat than the hearts (10%).[xii]

29 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Hemp seed hearts are even more concentrated in protein, and their quality is the best source of plant protein. Highly palatable.

– 9 grams of protein in . Chia seeds are excellent to include in all horses’ diets because of their protein content, but more importantly, because of their perfectly proportioned essential fatty acid content.[xiv]

– 10 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Like chia, with an essential fatty acid proportion that mimics the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio found in fresh pasture grasses.[xv]

– 37 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Highly concentrated source of protein and digestive enzymes. The fat content is mainly omega 6 – linoleic acid (LA) which can be inflammatory if omega 3s are not also added to the diet.

– 5 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Mostly fiber. High LA content makes them inflammatory if omega 3s are not also added to the diet.

– 27 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. GMO Soy is not advisable.[xvi],[xvii],[xviii],[xix] Organic soy is excellent in quality.

– 24 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Can add water to soften but horses enjoy crunchy texture. High in lysine.

– 30 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. More concentrated in protein that the split peas.

– 25 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. Similar to peas, they are often added to horse feed, especially in Australia.

– 40 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. High quality protein from milk. Whey concentrate can contain lactose; therefore, choose the isolate.

– 18 grams of protein in . This is an excellent superfood.[xx] It provides insulin-like growth factors (IGF) which promote optimum muscle growth during exercise.[xxi] Also beneficial for aging horses who may be becoming more frail.

– 28 grams of protein in Contributes to joint and muscle strength.

– 22 grams of protein in 1/2 cup. This is coconut meal. Its protein is not high in quality[xxii] with a relatively poor level of lysine and other essential amino acids. When mixed with other protein sources, it helps boost the overall amino acid profile. Contains coconut oil, which is devoid of essential fatty acids.

Building Topline

It doesn’t matter which equine discipline you are involved in, building and maintaining a strong topline on your horse is important. Strong toplines attract judges or buyers and also help ensure the horse’s back remains strong and healthy.

While work and correct muscle conditioning play a huge role in developing and maintaining topline, nutrition plays an equally important role. To build topline you need to provide the right nutrients. Here are some tips on feeding for topline.

Underfeeding means your horse will need to dip into its stored energy reserves to fuel the muscles for work. Horses will quite quickly break down their topline to use it for fuel if they are underfed.

To build topline you must provide the building blocks your horse needs to make muscle. Using feeds with protein provided by soybeans, lupins, faba bean or canola meal will give your horse access to good quality sources of protein, which builds muscle. Feeds with one or more of these protein sources are best.

Avoid feeds containing cottonseed meal as the protein source. Cottonseed is a poor source of protein that is deficient in the most important amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of protein).

Feeding some lucerne hay will also contribute good quality protein to the diet.

There are feeds such as many of those based on rice bran or soybean that are designed to provide extra calories and protein to build topline. You can also use whey protein isolate or soy protein isolates. It is often wise to strategically feed whey protein based products immediately after work for the best timing to allow these products to assist in building muscle.

Once again it really is so important to ensure your horse’s diet is meeting all of its nutrient requirements as any deficiency will stop your horse from reaching its potential and this includes its potential for building topline. Also, minerals like zinc are needed to effectively build muscle; failing to provide these nutrients will inhibit muscle growth, no matter how well the horse is being worked and fed with quality protein.

Again, this is where FeedXL is so useful; knowing that you are feeding a balanced diet that does meet your horse’s nutrient requirements.

Use properly fitted saddles at all times and quickly treat any back injuries that may occur. A horse with a sore back will avoid using its back muscles correctly, in turn preventing it from building a strong topline.

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION OR COMMENT? DO YOU NEED HELP WITH FEEDING?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Clinical assessment and grading of back pain in horses

Federal government websites often end in. gov or. mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

Abubakar Musa Mayaki

Department of Veterinary Preclinical Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiti Putra Malaysia, 43400 Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia.

Department of Veterinary Medicine, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, P. M. B 2346, City Campus Complex, Sokoto, Nigeria.

Intan Shameha Abdul Razak

Department of Veterinary Preclinical Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiti Putra Malaysia, 43400 Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia.

Noraniza Mohd Adzahan

Department of Farm and Exotic Animal Medicine and Surgery, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiti Putra Malaysia, 43400 Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia.

Mazlina Mazlan

Department of Veterinary Pathology and Microbiology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiti Putra Malaysia, 43400 Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia.

Abdullah Rasedee

Department of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosis, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiti Putra Malaysia, 43400 Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia.

Background

The clinical presentation of horses with back pain (BP) vary considerably with most horse’s willingness to take part in athletic or riding purpose becoming impossible. However, there are some clinical features that are directly responsible for the loss or failure of performance.

Objectives

To investigate the clinical features of the thoracolumbar region associated with BP in horses and to use some of the clinical features to classify equine BP.

Methods

Twenty-four horses comprised of 14 with BP and 10 apparently healthy horses were assessed for clinical abnormality that best differentiate BP from normal horses. The horses were then graded (0–5) using the degree of pain response, muscular hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness and overall physical dysfunction of the horse.

Results

The common clinical features that significantly differentiate horses with BP from non-BP were longissimus dorsi spasm at palpation (78.6%), paravertebral muscle stiffness (64.3%), resist lateral bending (64.3%), and poor hindlimb impulsion (85.7%). There were significantly ( < 0.05) higher scores for pain response to palpation, muscular hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness and physical dysfunction among horses with BP in relation to non-BP. A significant relationship exists between all the graded abnormalities. Based on the cumulative score, horses with BP were categorized into mild, mild-moderate, moderate and severe cases.

Conclusions

BP in horse can be differentiated by severity of pain response to back palpation, back muscle hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, physical dysfunctions and their cumulative grading score is useful in the assessment and categorization of BP in horses.

INTRODUCTION

Back pain (BP) is a clinical condition that causes performance failure among athletic and riding horses [ ]. BP in horses are of many aetiologies, although among the common causes are thoracolumbar musculoskeletal lesions, supraspinous desmitis, lameness, ill-fitting tack, and inadequate schooling [ , , ]. Diagnosis of equine BP can be very challenging, because the condition is presented as a syndrome rather than with specific clinical signs. Thus, despite the availability of sophisticated clinical aids, definitive diagnosis of equine back injuries is most often made by eliminating other conditions.

Clinical manifestations in equine BP of primary and secondary causes may be similar. For example, lameness or neurological disorders involving the thoracolumbar and sacral region may be similarly presented with spinal muscular atrophy and abnormal gait [ , , , ]. Among methods of diagnosis of equine BP in the field is by visual inspection, palpation, and manipulation of thoracolumbar spine [ ] and examination at exercise. Currently, there is no suitable grading system that can be conveniently used by practicing veterinarians to grade and quantify BP/disorders in horses. A validated and practical grading system would allow veterinarians to categorize back disorders for better therapeutic interventions, assessment, and monitoring of the conditions. In this study, we hypothesised that the influence of clinical and spinal abnormalities on the manifestations of equine BP vary with type and severity of abnormalities. Thus, the aim of the study was to develop a grading system for equine BP based on thoracolumbar spinal abnormalities and clinical features.

Animals

Twenty-four patrolling or endurance horses from ambulatory cases of the University Veterinary Hospital, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) were used in the study. The horses comprised of 14 with BP and 10 apparent healthy horses as normal. The ages, sex, and breeds were recorded. The study was with horse owner consents and approved by Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, UPM (UPM/IACUC/AUP-R016/2018).

Clinical examination

Complete clinical examination was conducted on all the horses at rest to determine the general conformation of the thoracolumbar region, including epaxial and pelvic muscle development, symmetry, and spinal curvature. The thoracolumbar region was then palpated with firm but gentle digital pressure along the dorsal thoracolumbar midline. Avoidance reaction (i. e., sinking) to palpation was used as indicator of pain. Digital palpation was repeated to ensure consistency of clinical findings. Response to thoracolumbar flexibility was assessed by spinal manipulation: lateral bending and ventral and dorsal flexion. Conformational variations, response to palpation and spinal manipulation among the 2 groups were noted. The horses were trotted on a hard surface and in small circles to determine gait. Oral examination of the horses was performed to rule out influence of dental pain on gait.

BP grading

The assessment of the horses for BP grading was then performed by an independent equine veterinarian who was blinded of the clinical category of the horses. Spinal abnormalities were graded on a scale of 0 to 5 based on the developed guide: degree of pain response to back palpation, back muscle hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, and physical dysfunction ( ). Lameness was graded using the American Association of Equine Practitioners lameness grading scale [ ]. The score for each horse was calculated and compared between categories of horses. Using the cumulative grading scores of pain response to palpation, muscle hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, and physical dysfunction, BP horses with cumulative score of 0 was classified as normal, mild (1–4), mild-moderate (5–8), moderate (9–12), marked (13–16), and incapacitated (17–20).

Data analysis

The statistical analyses were conducted using GraphPad Prism version 8.0.2 (GraphPad Software, USA). Descriptive statistic was used to summarize the data and the scores for each abnormality expressed as mean ± standard deviation. The association between BP and clinical findings was determined using the Fisher’s exact test. Differences between mean scores were analysed using the nonparametric Mann-Whitney test. The relationship between spinal abnormalities in BP was determined using the Spearman’s correlation. The value < 0.05 was considered significant.

Breeds and frequency of BP

Among the horses 13/24 (54.2%) were geldings and 11/24 (45.8%) mares. The mean age of horses with BP was 14.9 ± 3.2 years while normal horses in the study was 12.3 ± 3.3 years old. Among horses with BP, the predominant breed was Warmblood (7/14, 50%) followed equally by thoroughbreds and Polo ponies (3/14, 21.4% each), and Criollo (1/14, 7.1%).

Clinical observations

The clinical findings of horses with and without BP in the study are shown in . All horses with BP showed pain response to digital pressure on the back. Among other most common signs of BP were poor hindlimb impulsion, muscle spasm to palpation, resistance to lateral bending, and back muscle stiffness. Six horses with BP showed poor epaxial muscle development ( ). Other changes/abnormalities observed to be associated with BP the horses include mark of ill-fitted saddle ( ) and swelling on the back ( ).

Physical and function abnormalities in grading horses with BP

The severity and frequency of spinal abnormalities in horses with BP are presented in . Horses with BP showed significantly ( < 0.05) higher mean overall abnormality score than those of normal horses. All horse with BP showed significant pain response to palpation, muscular hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, and physical dysfunction in comparison with normal horses. Lameness was not a significant finding in horses with BP. However, there was a positive strong correlation between pain response to palpation and the muscular hypertonicity (r = 0.9027, < 0.05), thoracolumbar joint stiffness (r = 0.9098, < 0.05), lameness (r = 0.7763, < 0.05), and physical dysfunction (r = 0.9361, < 0.05) in horses with BP. In general, horses with BP in this study showed mild to moderate physical and function abnormalities. A few horses showed marked pain response to palpation. Based on the cumulative scores of abnormalities horses with BP were categorized into mild, mild-moderate, moderate and severe ( ).

Table 3

Horses with abnormality are presented as total severity (number of horses). Total severity = Number of horses × BP grade. Overall mean severity are presented mean ± SD. Too few normal animals showed abnormality, thus, score breakdown is not included.

Means for horses with back pain significantly different from normal horses at < 0.05.

DISCUSSION

In horses with BP, assessment of abnormal conditions is only based on observations and clinical findings; thus, it is therefore imperative that clinical abnormalities are clearly identified for the practitioner to accurately assess the clinical conditions to ensure precise management and treatments. Digital palpation and back manipulation are commonly used to determine BP. Though this method is subjective, it is still the most commonly used method in clinical practice to determine BP in horses [ , ]. Other method, like pressure algometry, has also been used in the assessment of BP [ , , ]. This method is more objective; however, there are confounding factors, such as individual differences in pain sensation and response that could compromise the accuracy and specificity of BP assessment using the method. Furthermore, pain perception can be influenced by time of day, rate and duration of machine pressure applied, and avoidance responses by the subjects from previous painful experiences [ , , ]. In horses, the assessment of pain using pressure algometry is also dependent on the ability of the operator to recognize pain response.

In the current study, we classified the severity of BP in horse based on clinical abnormalities: response to palpation, muscular hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, lameness, and physical dysfunctions. Though, there is overlap in the clinical abnormalities observed in both horses with BP and those without BP, this is not surprising considering the that other ailments may show clinical signs similar to BP [ , , ]. However, the clinical abnormalities fact observed in BP horses are often associated with thoracolumbar dysfunction. Furthermore, the percentage of occurrence of each clinical feature/abnormality was significantly higher in the horse with BP except for moderate-good epaxial muscle development. These clinical abnormalities include paravertebral muscle stiffness, longissimus dorsi spasm at palpation, poor epaxial muscle development, resistance to lateral bending, and poor hindlimb impulsion [ , , ].

Using the palpation method, horses with BP showed various degrees of pain response from mild to marked, with mild-moderate response being the most frequent. The variation in pain response to palpation is presumably dependent on the severity of the back disorder. Predisposing factors to equine BP are mostly associated with horse activity, age, use, management, diseases, and disorders. The age and the long duration of physical activities over the active lifespan of the horse could result in degenerative changes of the skeletal structure leading to spinal injury-associated BP [ , ]. Present study showed otherwise with both BP horses and normal horses share similar age, sex, and breed. Therefore, these factors do not predispose horses to BP [ , ].

The movement and stability of the thoracolumbar spine involve spinal epaxial musculature, ligaments, and intervertebral joints [ ]. Thus, the muscle hypertonicity and spasm associated BP in this study could be attributed to muscle fatigue, constant weight shifting because of pain and stress, and uncoordinated muscle contraction which may be due to high work demand. The BP horses showed variable muscle hypertonicity ranging from mild to moderate. Similarly, their pain responses to palpation were variable with a few showing marked responses. The reduced intervertebral joint motion and lateral bending is however considered a sequel to prolonged muscle spasm and stiffness of spinal musculature [ , ]. Although, poor musculature can also be due to disuse or neurogenic atrophy, however, the poor development of epaxial muscle observed in this study is a reflection of disuse atrophy of spinal musculature due to reduced muscle activity seen in thoracolumbar pain [ , , ].

Furthermore, the abnormal gait or reduced hindlimb impulsion seen when the horse is ridden may not necessary be due to lameness but could because of weight shifting behaviour display by the horse to accommodate for the BP [ ]. This is true for BP horses in this study as majority displayed reduced hindlimb impulsion. Nevertheless, forelimb or hindlimb lameness may occur concurrently with BP [ , , ]. Since the head is in continuum with the axial skeleton, abnormal gait will affect head motion pattern leading to asymmetrical thoracolumbar kinematics. In such cases, thoracolumbar asymmetry can be corrected by alleviating lameness-induced BP, allowing for increased axial rotation and flexion-extension range of motion, and lateral bending of the spine [ ]. Very few horses showed signs of lameness in this study, which led to the conclusion that lameness may not be a significant cause of equine BP.

Among causes of equine BP are conformational abnormalities and degree of back mobility [ ]. Conformation abnormalities, for example in the thoracolumbar region, predispose the horse to weakness, soft tissue injury, leading to poor performance may not necessarily be associated with BP, if motion is not affected [ ]. Incidentally, the horses in this study did not show any conformation abnormality.

Using the clinical abnormalities, it is possible to grade thoracolumbar pain based a scale of 1 to 5. Horses with BP had significantly higher scores than those without for all parameters except lameness. Horses with BP responded painfully to back palpation that ranged from mild to marked response. The variability in pain response is presumably dependent on the severity of the back disorder. Thoracolumbar joint stiffness and muscular hypertonicity, to a lesser extent, were also significant in horses with BP. Furthermore, there was a strong significant correlation between the degree of pain response, muscular hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, lameness, and physical dysfunction. According to this method of assessment, it is proposed that pain response, muscular hypertonicity, and thoracolumbar joint stiffness can reliably be used to grade the severity of equine BP.

In this study, based on BP-associated parameters, the horses showed different degrees of severity in abnormalities. The reason for the variation in abnormalities in equine BP may be associated with duration of the BP and individual horse tolerances. Some experienced athletic horses with BP may mask their pain by compensation and still perform adequately, while those sensitive to BP resist work [ , ]. It is important to note that because of differences in temperament, the relationship between clinical features or abnormalities and the true perceive pain behaviours may not be as straightforward in horses as in other animals and humans [ , ]. Even in normal horses, response to digital palpation or pressure along the back region can vary, since some horses, known as “cold-backs,” are very sensitive to touch and react abnormally.

Using the cumulative scores of abnormalities, this study showed that horses with BP could be classified according to severity. In order of frequency, the horses suffered from mild-moderate, mild, moderate, and severe BP ( ). Since muscular hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, physical dysfunction impact performance, the grading system could be used as a measure of response to treatment and recovery to full function.

In conclusion, the study shows that among clinical abnormalities, pain response to back palpation, back muscle hypertonicity, thoracolumbar joint stiffness, and physical dysfunctions are useful in determining BP in horses. Noticeably, BP in horse can be differentiated by severity of presentation of these clinical abnormalities. Despite the small sample size of the horses in this study, the data showed that cumulative grading score of abnormalities is useful in the assessment and categorization of BP in horses.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We deeply acknowledge the resident veterinarian’s at large animal clinics, University Veterinary Hospital-Universiti Putra Malaysia (UVH-UPM) for their assistant and horse owners for consent to use their horses.

Footnotes

This study was supported by Fundamental Research Grant Scheme (FRGS/1/2017/SKK15/UPM/02/2) from the Malaysian Ministry of Education.