Help for the Hindquarters
By Maggie Moyer
How many times have you ridden your horse only to feel an odd 'something' in the hind end? You call your vet, nothing is found, the horse flexes fine, so your vet tells you to put him on a week of 'bute' and light riding or even stall rest. You comply only to have the odd hitch return in a few days. Or your horse is heavy in your hand and you reach for a stronger bit, training device etc. It works OK for the first few times then the heaviness returns or your horse becomes worse.
I am a TTeam Practitioner and Equine Massage Therapist and I also ride and show my own horses mostly in dressage and have been faced with these issues and many more. Despite my training I still find myself wanting to reach for a stronger something to help my horse. However most times when I really take the time to assess the situation I find the horse is actually struggling with some sort of discomfort, whether it is a muscle tightness, knot, old injury or just an old holding pattern acquired from a previous injury.
In this article I will describe some key areas to be
aware of. This does not in any way substitute for calling your veterinarian.
Instead, the information here may help you to describe what is going on
to your veterinarian a bit more clearly.
The best foundation for this is to think of how the muscle works. This topic in itself could fill volumes, but if you think in very simple terms the understanding will come easier.
The muscle fibers receive a signal and the muscle either contracts or lengthens. This is one aspect of what brings about the movement to that area. The movement occurs due to the contraction, shortening of the fibers. It pulls that body part in a particular direction. A muscle does not lengthen to perform the movement. Instead it lengthens as it relaxes to allow and coordinate with the opposite muscle's initial signal for contraction or to shorten. This is why it takes more than one muscle to perform a movement.
The hind end is a large area made up of very large muscle groups. Each muscle has a specific job. If a muscle sustains a small tear, the surrounding areas will take up for it, but this only works for so long. Eventually those muscles will get tired and over strained then another will take over. The result is the horse will start to carry himself differently, move differently, and will eventually end up with a distinct difference in development of the musculature.
We are often acutely aware of our horses looking or feeling off. But how many times do we know how to describe it? Or is it intermittent, and the horse works out of it? And is it OK that the horse works out of it or should we still worry? I know often times I find myself doubting what I am seeing and feeling because I become used to it. Try to do the following with as many horses as you can. Go to shows, clinics, etc. and watch. Even if you can only watch, be mindful of how the horse moves. Study the horses and their gaits and try to determine what is normal and what is not.
You think you saw or felt something funny in your horse's movement. Remove the tack and take a good look at your horse. Do you notice any strange bumps, indentations? Asymmetries? How is he standing? Can you square his hind legs up or does he constantly want to rest a foot? Does he stand with his hind legs uneven? (This is where prior work, TTeam Groundwork, with asking for specific foot placement is good so the horse is not confused by you suddenly tapping on his legs to move them.) If you note any bumps or dents are they sensitive? No reaction? Hard? Mushy? Where are they located? Look at the horse from behind but make sure he is standing squarely on level ground. Are the hips even? Is the muscle development even on both sides?
Key areas to look:
Top of the croup - This is the sacroiliac joint. Although there is not a lot of movement in this joint, it sustains a lot of stress especially when the horse twists, falls, or slips. If this joint becomes displaced you will eventually see a cap form called the Hunter's Bump. Most horses have this and the degree of how it affects the horse depends on where and how it is torn. If you see a cap or feel an unevenness, ask your vet about it.
Point of the hip - There are many muscle/ligament attachments here. If you see a hollow or bulge be tuned into this, especially as your horse moves. Are there any abrupt movements seen in the hip as the horse moves?
Stifle - This is known as the knee cap of the horse. However there can be many intermittent problems associated with it. From the classic locked stifle to a slight slip noted while riding. If your horse shows sensitivity while being touched near or on the stifle, gets startled, suddenly kicks at you, sinks, or simply moves away, look past it being a behavioral problem. Also use your auditory senses. Do you hear a popping nose as your horse moves? This can be from a joint or the neck and is generally harmless. If you hear a popping noise coming from the stifle this can indicate something is weak and needs to be addressed.
Hamstring - This is another area that takes a lot of wear and tear. A certain degree of tightness may be acceptable but do be aware of it and monitor it. A hamstring tear can be a serious injury. If the hamstrings are tight you will notice sensitive areas throughout the hindquarter and the horse will take shorter steps on the affected side.
Next, put your hands on your horse and feel. Run your hands along the muscles and understand how they should feel. If you are unsure, ask other people in your barn if you could feel their horses. Do not make any judgments, just mental notes at this point. A healthy muscle should feel round and pliable, not hard or mushy. You should be able to push on it and not get a negative reaction. If the horse shows sensitivity such as a simple skin twitch or an attempt to kick, keep this in mind. Or if it feels soft and pliable with a hard tight area, this may be a problem area.
Note: While feeling the muscles, be very careful - a horse could over react and kick at you. I hear owners say, "Oh he never kicks" I say, "Never say Never." Even the quietest of horses will kick if you surprise them by pushing on a sensitive spot. Learn to safeguard yourself. Stand as close as possible and plant your free hand against the gaskin as you work. This way you can feel the muscles tighten before the leg is lifted and you can either apply counter pressure to deflect the kick or be pushed safely away with the kick. Do not leave yourself vulnerable while working on the hindquarters!
At this point also be aware of the signals your horse is giving you. If it is an extremely tight area, he is not going to enjoy you pushing on it. Please do not think by pushing and prodding you are loosening the tightness despite the horse's objection to it. It hurts! If you ever had a very tight spasmodic muscle you will know that pushing on it does not always improve it. All you are doing at this point is gathering information. There are gentler ways to release these problem areas which a vet or trained body worker knows how to do.
Watch your horse and know what is correct and what is not in movement. Put your horse on a lunge line and watch him. If your horse does not lunge, ask someone to lead him while you walk along and watch. I like to lunge my horses along the long side of an arena walking beside them to see how the muscles move. Then compare to the other side. Watch the evenness of the stride from both sides. I even jog alongside my horse. Then lunge in a circle and watch how the inside hind lands and compare to the other side. Make mental notes of what you see without forming any conclusions at this point. If something strikes you as funny in your horse's movement it probably is. Go by your first impressions.
Now if your horse is not obviously lame, ride him. Many times horses react differently with and without weight. When you add the weight of a saddle and rider to the picture the pressure will affect how that horse moves his muscles. You can have a perfectly fitting saddle and a well-balanced rider but if the underlying muscles are injured the horse will not be able to work properly and in comfort. On the other hand, often I hear, "There is nothing wrong with him; he runs and bucks in the field." Yes he can, because there is nothing on his back irritating a potential sensitive area. The other consideration in this case is if he is running away from the pain. Remember horses are flight animals. If something hurts them and it frightens them, instinct will take over and they will run, buck, and flee frantically. This is not a feel-good, play-in-the-field to them. Horses' personalities and coping are as varied as people's. Some will just explode and try to get rid of the weight, pain, etc. Most will really try and compensate in their movement, take a shorter step, haunches in or out, etc. The rider's attempt to correct this may end up in a fight.
To avoid this, honestly look at the situation. Is the
horse simply not trying or is he trying to tell you something? Or is it
an old holding pattern for the horse? The horse has learned to compensate
in his movements. Then the rider attempts to straighten him and it is
now uncomfortable for the horse and he may be off as he is now using a
different set of muscles to perform a movement, even though they may now
be the correct set. There is a reason why he developed a compensation.
The Tail - Many people do not correlate the tail with the back. Through years of massaging horses and using TTeam tail work, here are a few observations I have made which may be helpful to you in your assessment.
The tail is really an extension of the spine. It contains the last set of vertebrae. Several years ago it became popular to do tail pulls. Although beneficial to the horse it was never clearly explained when to do tail pulls and when not to. Ever pull on a tail and have it feel like it was disconnected? Like pulling on a heavy rubber band? Ever have a horse clamp it down tightly or move side to side uncomfortably? Or ride a horse to see its tail clamped so tight against the hind end that it gets caught up in the hind legs? Is the horse using the tail like a rudder of a boat? Turning it in the direction he is moving? Or does he hold it at an odd angle? These are warning signs that something may be going on. I say 'may' because it may also be a sign of a very tense horse. But is it a horse tense because of pain or nervousness? You would not necessarily call your vet out because your horse's tail is tight but you would if it prompted you to look a bit further and you noticed a slight unevenness in his gait or sensitivity in the hindquarter. Note: If your horse's tail is tight or disconnected, gently massage the top of the tail and along the sides of the dock. Be aware of any shifting from side to side or lifting of the hind feet to indicate the horse is uncomfortable.
Now that you have gathered all this information, try correlating it to the original problem that drew your attention. Is the horse heavy in your hand so that all you want to do is get a stronger bit? Think about this: why is the horse heavy in your hands? Is it truly a training issue or is he trying to take some weight off his hindquarter and still work for you? If you cannot find anything on your physical assessment then ask for response in another maneuver. If there is no problem with him responding to that request, then it is likely not a training issue.
The heaviness in your hand can also be due to other problems in the front end. This is why it is important to keep an open mind and simply gather the information. You can then discuss your findings and how it correlates to your riding with your vet. However do not become locked into one idea as to what the problem is. Listen to what your vet has to say, as he should also listen to you.
About the author:
Maggie Moyer is an Equine Massage Therapist and TTeam practitioner located in South Central PA/Northern MD. She offers private sessions/workshops, will travel, and can be reached at 717-428-1514, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://brassringhorsemassage.com
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