Baby steps: Early therapy on young horses will pay dividends later

Share
Laura Stephenson

Horse owners today have a difficult balance to find for helping their horses achieve good health and mobility, while minimising risk of injury.

In my work, I have found that it is very important to start our horses’ lives right and keep good training and longevity at the front of our priorities.

As a therapist, I see many unusual behaviours, unbalanced structures and restrictive functions in horses. Tension and areas of tightness that arise in the horse’s body will inhibit natural movement to a greater or lesser degree. Some are obvious, others subtle and less easily detected.

Horses can produce incredible levels of athleticism, but only if their bodies maintain full mobility of muscles and connective tissues. When approached intelligently and holistically, muscle treatments guarantee a healthy flow of oxygen and nutritional yield to cells to keep body and mind in balance and aid deep relaxation. Therapy stimulates correct muscles for strength maintenance, increased stability and tension release so horses enjoy pain-free, symmetrical movement.

A horse is full of dreams

Equine therapy’s focus on performance horses brings a wealth of benefits when helping them to achieve optimum physical condition and injury prevention, yet as science moves us forwards we are finding that certain techniques applied in the early years of a horse’s life provide an excellent foundation for sound physical development and future career.

Foals and young horses experience inconsistent, awkward stages of growth and development and some youngsters incur injuries that will not become apparent until much later into their ridden years.
Foals and young horses experience inconsistent, awkward stages of growth and development and some youngsters incur injuries that will not become apparent until much later into their ridden years. Image by Candice

As with children; a horse’s early years heavily influence their entire future, impacting personality, behaviour, relationship-forming, performance and susceptibility to injury. Certain therapies have been specifically developed to help the young horse cope with anxious and stressful times such as changes in the environment, human encounters, the weaning process, and the beginning of training.

The precious early years

Experience has shown me that combined therapies have a profound impact on equine early years. We can safely implement specific therapies to all breeding stock – broodmares, foals, young stock, stallions and geldings – ensuring they receive the best possible start. Foals and young horses experience inconsistent, awkward stages of growth and development and some youngsters incur injuries that will not become apparent until much later into their ridden years.

One very important aspect often overlooked is that of learned posture and motion behaviour in the youngster. Issues here can further exacerbate tension the horse carries from its early years into all s/he does, so the cycle of unwanted behaviours and poor posture continues. Tension patterns impact how the horse thinks, feels and learns and will significantly restrict performance.

When to start checking and correcting

A lot can be gleaned of equine mobility by observing youngsters in their natural environment. Static and dynamic observations can assess the horse’s stance and movement.

Left: Picking-up along crest of neck to release tension. Right: Vibrations across withers to relax and loosen tissues. Notice the softening of eyes, relaxed head, nose and neck posture.
Left: Picking-up along the crest of the neck to release tension. Right: Vibrations across withers to relax and loosen tissues. Notice the softening of eyes, relaxed head, nose and neck posture.

It is very important that newborn foals have a veterinary or physiotherapeutic examination to identify and reduce the effects of the very common physical one-sidedness (asymmetry) that may occur during birth. Greater asymmetry of the pelvis may be a result of being born from mares standing up compared to mares lying down. Treatment at this early stage can address this before it becomes a problem, enabling the youngster to maximise her/his full athletic potential.

Most foals are born with some degree of limb deviation, mostly due to soft tissue weakness or laxity but, with the onset of exercise, this should be corrected.

A foal showing MLD - mild limb deviation (carpus valgus). He stayed in the day he was born, then went to paddock turnout for two to three hours the following day. Turnout time increased in the first week, leading to being out 24/7, and his limbs straightened naturally.
A foal showing MLD – mild limb deviation (carpus valgus). He stayed in the day he was born, then went to paddock turnout for two to three hours the following day. Turnout time increased in the first week, leading to being out 24/7, and his limbs straightened naturally.

During the first month, in particular, foals are vulnerable to many influences as they adjust to new environments and learn to manage increased exercise. Foals born with or procuring an abnormality that affects the musculoskeletal system needs immediate help to be able to grow and respond without any compromise to future ability.

Rotational limb deformities can develop any time.
Rotational limb deformities can develop at any time.

Rotational limb deformities can develop any time until growth plates close. Deviations can be inwards or outwards. Manual correction to gently flex and extend the foot will help to stretch the tendons and is one of my most recommended treatments, as well as combining Kinesiotape to encourage the tendons to contract.

This type of therapy can work wonders to stabilise anatomical structures. The more severe the preference the foal has for one side over the other, the greater the benefit from regular massage and stretching treatments.

This foal's treatment included the use of Kinesiotape to encourage the tendons to contract.
This foal’s treatment included the use of Kinesiotape to encourage the tendons to contract.
Sway back (lordosis) in a three-year-old.
Sway back (lordosis) in a three-year-old.

 

As the foal grows, s/he may appear to be balanced, but back and core muscles are still developing and this can cause the back to sway.

During development, appropriate muscles need strengthening and conditioning to ensure symmetry while growing.

 

 

Foal n’ around

Young foals spend much of their days sleeping, drinking, galloping, sliding and jumping around. Growing and playing results in sore, stiff, fatigued muscles that can lead to asymmetry without us even knowing.

Young foals spend much of their days sleeping, drinking, galloping, sliding and jumping around.
Young foals spend much of their days sleeping, drinking, galloping, sliding and jumping around. Image by rihaij

This then leads to compensatory soreness (ligament tension and persistent pain) as extra strain is placed on other muscles. Compensation causes postural changes which affect movement. Addressed early, posture can be altered before it becomes a habitual stance.

Foals playing and learning social skills.
Foals playing and learning social skills.

Muscle disorders can appear with a variety of signs ranging from muscle stiffness and pain to muscle atrophy, weakness, exercise intolerance, and muscle fasciculation (twitching). The most common signs are muscle pain, stiffness, and reluctance to move because of rhabdomyolysis (the breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle), which may or may not be related to exercise. Muscle weakness or damage can also occur as a sign of many different disorders (such as nerve trauma).

The core muscles of the horse.
The core muscles of the horse. These muscles can be developed through systematic and rhythmical forward exercise.

Also, many foals suffer pelvic asymmetries caused by trauma or injury, from falling or sliding. Foals may show a shortened stride and drag their toes, swelling to the affected area, muscular asymmetry or a more prominent croup.

Left: An example of pelvic asymmetry in a 22 month old. Right: Using science to assess pelvic asymmetry in a foal.
Left: An example of pelvic asymmetry in a 22-month-old. Right: Using science to assess pelvic asymmetry in a foal.

At this stage, massage therapy is very helpful to increase blood flow, ensuring the foal’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints receive important nutrients for correct growth and development. Massage therapy benefits foals by re-aligning musculoskeletal tissues and reduces pain from muscle strains. To prevent incorrect development, it is crucial to treat foals as early as possible.

Left: Gentle finger compressions to gastrocnemius muscle to relieve tension and strain from foal play. Right: Hand gliding down the shoulder and triceps muscle to relieve tension from concussion in this area from the feet making contact with the ground and also from birthing traumas.
Left: Gentle finger compressions to gastrocnemius muscle to relieve tension and strain from foal play. Right: Hand gliding down the shoulder and triceps muscle to relieve tension from concussion in this area from the feet making contact with the ground and also from birthing traumas.

The action of copying mother to eat grass is difficult for the foal with its long legs and short neck. To manage, the youngster may spread its front legs wide thereby becomes unbalanced, or s/he will stretch out one front leg and kick the other foreleg behind.

Abnormal grazing postures of foals.
Abnormal grazing postures of foals.

 Over time, this repetition of constant weight-bearing will cause muscles on one side to become stronger and more developed. The muscles, tendons and ligaments of the leg that is always in the back position start to become contracted and blood flow is driven from the toe of the hoof to the heel. This posture encourages the heel to grow faster on that foot, causing an upright hoof growth pattern over time that is very hard to correct by trimming alone. Similar problems are seen with club feet. Combining therapy and conditioning exercises helps ease growth spurts during development, assisting body-awareness and control to form a better, easier athlete

A club foot.
A club foot.

Also, most horses have a left/right preference anyway and hold their rib cage slightly to one side. Good physiotherapy, early on, decreases chances of the young horse developing a set preference. Specific therapy techniques help to rebalance the rib cage and encourage more balanced movement.

Performance problems associated with one-sidedness:

  • Imbalance increases strain/injuries and lameness
  • One shoulder more muscled
  • Stronger foreleg from carrying extra weight
  • Canter lead preference
  • Unequal distribution cause of irregular gaits
  • Uneven stride length/steps

These all alter the foal’s posture and create physical asymmetry.

A cow-hocked foal.
A cow-hocked foal.

Cow-hocked posture is also quite common and a simple thing that can be addressed in its early stages. Muscles that contribute to this posture and become tight are located on the inner thigh of the horse (hamstrings and adductor muscles). Applying regular massage to relax these muscles and gentle abduction stretches can avoid this common imbalance. Failure to treat early can cause serious stifle issues over time.

The Journal of Equine Veterinary Science has recognised this approach: “Research indicates that massage affects a number of physiologic systems as well as cellular and fascial components of the muscular system. Equine therapeutic massage employs a number of techniques to increase range of motion and stride length, reduce activity of nociceptive pain receptors, and reduce physiologic stress responses. Potential benefits should not be ignored in the care and training of many equine athletes.” (2009).

Healing bodies, healing minds

While we can’t change a horse’s basic bone structure or the length and shape of bones in their skeleton, we can work on the development of muscles and the horse’s basic posture. Affecting a horse’s posture is something that is difficult to achieve. I believe it can only be done with the assistance of other equine professionals — bodyworker, farrier, dentist and trainer.

Musculoskeletal postural imbalance in a five-year-old Irish Draught Sport Horse: Pelvic / Ischium misalignment and tight stifle / hamstrings – note his facial expressions. This horse would often rest a hindlimb and drag his offside hind.
Musculoskeletal postural imbalance in a five-year-old Irish Draught sport horse: He is showing pelvic / Ischium misalignment and tight stifle and hamstrings. This horse would often rest a hindlimb and drag his offside hind. Note his facial expressions.

 

After his first session, left, he is a more balanced and happier horse. At right, 12 weeks later: Combining reiki and massage along with corrective exercise, he is a transformed horse.
The same horse following treatment. After his first session, left, he is a more balanced and happier horse. At right, 12 weeks later; by combining reiki and massage along with corrective exercise, he is a transformed horse.

Ultimately, underlying tensions have an effect on how the horse functions emotionally, mentally and physically. If treated early, we can reduce the psychological load, along with the physical.

 

The picture at left shows another case of Musculoskeletal Postural Imbalance, with the front legs camped under the horse, taking pressure off the heels: Such a flat footed stance means caudal heel pain, and his shoulder and neck were tight and tense. His back is tight; loins are hard, and the pelvis misaligned. The second image, shown 12 weeks later, follows reiki, massage and corrective exercise and results in a transformed, happier horse.
The picture at left shows another case of musculoskeletal postural imbalance, with the front legs camped under the horse, taking pressure off the heels. Such a flat-footed stance means caudal heel pain. His shoulder, neck and back were tight and tense, loins hard, and the pelvis misaligned. The second image, shown 12 weeks later, follows reiki, massage and corrective exercise and results in a transformed, happier horse.
Reiki Therapy

I find this approach works very well with horses that are sensitive, anxious, and aggressive or in pain. Reiki supports the process of natural self-healing and heals horses simultaneously on both a physical and psychological level.

Using reiki notice the lowering of head and softening of eyes as he soaks up the energy.
Using reiki: Notice the lowering of the head and softening of eyes as he soaks up the energy.

The pictures below show a five-year-old racehorse with misalignment of the thoracolumbar vertebrae. He was not performing before the session, but following treatment won his next two races.

Misalignment of thoracolumbar vertebrae: The horse's coat has different textures and shades which shows a lack of circulation and blood flow. His shoulders are hypertonic and atrophied. The middle image is halfway through his treatment, and the picture at right shows realigned vertebra. The grit risen from the coat shows that tightness and tension is released, thus circulation is flowing.
Misalignment of thoracolumbar vertebrae: The horse’s coat has different textures and shades which shows a lack of circulation and blood flow. His shoulders are hypertonic and atrophied. The middle image is halfway through his treatment, and the picture at right shows realigned vertebra. The grit risen from the coat shows that tightness and tension have been released, thus circulation is flowing.

Equine lameness diagnostic specialist Dr Sue Dyson says: “Owners, riders and some trainers are poor at recognising signs of pain that manifest when horses are ridden. A study of 506 horses, presumed sound in normal work, showed 47% were overtly lame, or had pain-related gait abnormalities (stiff, stilted canter). Pain-related problems labeled as ‘this is how the horse has always gone’ often get progressively worse. Veterinarians are specialist health professionals, not trainers, so they can struggle to recognise musculoskeletal pain as a cause of loss of performance. Frustrated owners, believing their horse has an underlying pain-related problem, are informed by the Veterinarian no detectable lameness is notable and the problem must be ‘behavioural’.” (Dyson, S; 2019; VetTimes: Researching Musculoskeletal Pain in Ridden Horses).

Common causes through improper training

Some training methods can easily cause damage to the young horse. Many of these silently damage small bones forming in the feet and put excess stress on developing limbs and joints. Horses control their balance by keeping their head and neck at the vertical. Training aids attached to a bit not only apply adverse pressure on the mouth but prevent the horse from controlling its balance using its head and neck.

Left: At the vertical; right: Behind the vertical.
Left: At the vertical; right: Behind the vertical.

Horses are quick to adapt, and rather than co-ordinating upper neck muscles, will use the restrictions for support. Restrictions adjust natural self-carriage which modifies limb kinematics and the mechanism of the vertebral column. All horses have natural balance but being worked this way sets the horse up for tension and its consequences, right from the start. Their protective reflex mechanisms will become tense and this directly impacts on the entire biomechanical system.

Horses naturally go in straight lines. However, is the horse strong and balanced enough to cope with demands of repetitive circles and turns, or is this repetitive torque placing undue stress on joints in young or unconditioned horses?

The muscular system relies on the skeletal system and vice versa. When joints and bones are out of alignment they can pinch nerves or cause spasms. Tight muscles can pull bones and vertebrae out of alignment and the loss of, or abnormal joint motion, is a cause of degeneration.

Encouraging the horse to stretch, supple, and strengthen properly, over a period of time allows for healthy development and the horse’s posture can change.
Encouraging the horse to stretch, supple, and strengthen properly, over a period of time allows for healthy development and the horse’s posture can change.

Left untreated, horses will start to compensate for other areas of the body. Static and dynamic postures, in terms of spinal flexion/extension and lateral flexion and rotation mechanisms, then become tense. This impacts the entire biomechanical system.

The best therapy combining knowledge and care

Change is taking place in the world of equine veterinary medicine as more and more horse owners and practitioners look to alternative or complementary therapies as forms of preventative health promotion.

We all want the very best for our animals, and the safest and most effective care and treatment. We want horses to be happy, to feel comfortable and able to realise their full athletic potential.

As a practising therapist, I have seen the best results when the rider, owner, trainer and veterinary professionals all work together as a problem-solving team.

So, when considering our horses’ futures, the earlier we begin to care for the qualities we will ask them for later in life, the better and happier they will be.

Safeguard your young horse.

 

Laura Stephenson is a specialist in Equine Therapies for Performance and Rehabilitation. From her practice in Darlington, England, Laura treats horses both in the UK and consults Internationally.

She can be contacted on laurastephenson@equi-elitebodyworks.com.

Laura Stephenson

Laura Stephenson is a specialist in Equine Therapies for Performance and Rehabilitation. From her practice in Darlington, England, Laura treats horses both in the UK and consults Internationally. She can be contacted on laurastephenson@equi-elitebodyworks.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *