Tuesdays with Tony
Hanging around the clinic, I hear a lot about backs. My Docs will see sore-backed horses for spinal manipulation and acupuncture, along with lameness evaluations to figure out why they’re back sore in the first place. Often after a long day of treating sore horses, I hear the Docs go on about their own sore backs. This is why I stick to laying in the driveway, sleeping on my comfy chair, and holding the front counter down. No sore back here. Unless you count the time last week I lept for the hood of one of the vet trucks and missed, but we’re not going to mention that incident ever again. It’s like it never happened. Anyway, moving on! Much like exercises are available to help human back pain, there are some great exercises for horses with back pain. These exercises also help strengthen the back, decreasing the future pain potential.
If you’ve ever hurt your ankle, knee, or hip, and sought out a doctor’s advice (something you horse people aren’t so great at) you may have gotten exercises involving balance pads. These are squishy foam squares about 2” thick. For humans, you will be asked to stand on one of these pads and do fun things like stand on one leg, or touch things with the toes of the leg you have raised. These exercises improve your balance, and the little muscles around the joints that stabilize them. They also help you increase core strength, and responsiveness.
As it turns out, these exercises are great for horses, too! Many back injuries occur when sudden change happens. Think about that reach out for something on your desk, or down to pick up something off the floor. Then BAM! your back is in massive pain. Core exercises help prepare your back for that sudden need to pick a pencil up off the floor. They prepare your horse’s back for that moment when the footing changes as you ask for a change in gait, or their foot slips on a slick spot on the trail.
Any horse can do these exercises. In fact, they’re so easy, even a dog could do them. There are horse-specific balance pads, but regular old human ones work too (and they are a lot cheaper). Start by having your horse stand with either both front feet, or both back feet on the pads. Have them do this for about 5 minutes. You can increase the difficulty by doing all four feet, or diagonal pairs, or even by giving the shoulder or hip a tiny push to make balancing harder. My Docs have some advanced exercises as well that they will assign for homework to help specific problems.
Everyone knows stretches. Heck, we cats are masters of the good stretch. Back sore horses can benefit greatly from a daily stretching routine. Each horse is different when it comes to timing, but you will most likely get the best stretching after exercise. This is when the muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments have warmed up a bit and are most receptive to pushing their boundaries. The three big stretches my Docs recommend are nose toward stifle, chin to chest, and the butt tuck.
Nose toward hip: For this stretch, ask your horse to stand still while turning their neck and head toward one stifle. The key to this one is to keep the tips of the ears parallel to the ground. If your horse starts to turn their head a bit, try helping them with some gentle pressure on the side of the head to correct things. If they continue to tilt their head, go back to the furthest spot they can go without tilting, and hold the stretch there for a count of 5-7. Repeat three times on each side. Keep this up, and your horse will be able to turn further and further.
Chin to chest: Just like it sounds. Ask your horse to touch their chin to their chest. Hold for a count of 5-7, repeat three times. Then ask them to do the same thing but lower. Ask them to bring their chin between their fetlocks.
Butt tuck: There’s a spot about a hand width out from the tail that when itched will make any horse tuck their booty. That’s the magic spot for this stretch. Keep the scratching up to keep the butt tucked for a count of 5-7. Repeat three times.
If you’ve ever had the joy of being tortured by a personal trainer or physical therapist with resistance bands, then you know they can really take the work up a notch! While I haven’t experienced these things personally, and will use my claws on anyone who tries, I know they are fantastic at increasing workloads in a pretty safe fashion.
Work on the horse version of these, known as Equibands, has shown them to build some serious topline muscle. It’s a pretty easy system to set up. Ask my Docs! They can show you how. Using a band under the abdomen and one around the hind quarters, you can really get that core engaged. The key to resistance bands is to start with very short work sessions! Five minutes is often a whole lot of work in one of these. Consider holding a crunch or plank for a few minutes and you’ll get the idea. You can ride in resistance bands, but be very, very cautious about how long!!!
You humans know having back pain is no fun! Incorporating these simple things into your daily routine can help your horse avoid back pain. If they’re already experiencing pain, these can really, really, really help improve the pain, and strengthen the right muscles to minimize future pain. Want a program to help your horse? Ask my Docs! They’ll help you come up with a custom program to keep your horse performing for years to come.
Until next week,
P.S. If you haven’t checked it out already, the humans did a podcast episode called Pain In The Spine, which covers a lot of stuff that I didn’t get into here. You can find it over on the Podcast Page right here on my website, or download it on your phone with your handy-dandy podcast app. You should really be subscribed already. It’s an amazing amount of free access to your veterinarian’s brain!
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!