Front-End Assessment of the Horse
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact location of a problem in the front end of the horse. Sure, there is the classic 'head bob' and the obvious need to call the vet for a gash or swelling, but what about the intermittent 'something is wrong' that you just cannot pinpoint?
A typical scenario is:
You tack up your horse and ride off. All seems well until you pick up the trot, and feel a definite bob to one side, or your horse just will not bend or turn his neck to one side. You dismount, check his feet for a stone and you see nothing out of place. You lunge your horse and do not see anything out of the ordinary. You get back on and decide to continue the ride and decide to ride him through it. Next thing you know your horse is bracing against your hand, head high in the air and racing through your hand. You did not see any cuts, swellings, or heat. Do you call the vet? What do you tell him? Why is your horse reacting this way?
To make a reasonable assessment of the situation, step back and look at your horse. How is he standing? Any weight shifting? How is he holding his head and neck? Look at his musculature - are there any bulges or divots? Look at his eye and facial expressions. Make a mental note of these observations.
Lunge your horse and really focus on how he is moving. Is he taking an equal length of stride in each foreleg? Does he seem to be quicker off one foot than the other, as if he does not want to keep weight on it? Any listing to one side or the other? Is there a head bob? Or is he just resistant to moving forward? Now either walk alongside your horse while on the lunge line or have someone walk/ trot him while you watch. Any difference in going the other direction? Watch him going straight. Always go by your first impressions. If you think you see something, do not second-guess yourself.
Put your hands on him and feel. Any heat? Swelling that you did not notice before? This is where it pays to be familiar with what is normal for your horse. Ask others if you can feel their horses and see if there are any differences. Note that just because you cannot feel heat does not rule out a problem. It just takes some more investigation.
When I work on a horse I look at the entire horse. When I suspect a front-end problem, the first place I look is the feet, for any obvious problems. Perhaps there is an injury, or an abscess developing. Simply because the hoof does not react to hoof testers or hold heat, a hoof abscess should not be ruled out. An abscess can migrate and show intermittent symptoms until it reaches an area where it is painful for the horse to step on it or it erupts through the sole or coronet band. Consult with your veterinarian and farrier/ hoof care professional. Another area to consider is the teeth. Even if the horse was just done a few months ago, there is always the chance a sharp point or cracked tooth was missed. (See NHM Volume 3 Issue 3, How to Safely Check Your Horse's Mouth.) Call your equine dental professional if you suspect dental involvement.
Moving up the leg feel the tendons along the cannon bone. Just as you need to be familiar with how your horse's muscles feel you also need to be aware of how the tendons feel and what is normal and what is not. Very few horses escape having a bump or thickening of the tendons. If you feel a lump, take note of where it is and its size. Has it increased or moved since the last time you noted it? Any heat? Is there any swelling around the ankle? Is it soft and fluid-like, or firm?
Now that you have checked for any obvious problems, proceed to the poll and neck of the horse. I say this because the poll and neck seem to take the brunt of many sorts of front-end problems. Even if the horse has sore feet, often times it will present as a high-headed, resistant horse. Many times this sort of horse finds himself in draw reins, martingales, etc. in an attempt to keep the head down, which is addressing only a symptom and not the cause.
If your horse is typically 'funny about having his ears handled' slide your hand up his neck and rest it behind his poll. Do not argue with him; just keep your hand passively on his poll. This is where teaching your horse to lower his head is a good thing to do. Any of the TTEAM books or videos have a wonderful explanation on how to do this without using force.
If your horse feels tight around the poll take note of any heat or unusual swelling. If your horse has sore feet, the discomfort often transfers up to the poll and he will typically carry himself with head up, resistant, and perhaps even feeling like he wants to fly backwards.
If the head and neck area around the skull-neck connection was ever torqued it may be sensitive. Does your horse like to play halter games in the field? Ever pulled back against a tie? Had a rough trailer ride where he may have slipped and pulled back on the tie or been tied too tightly? You may not even be aware of anything having happened. Sometimes these sorts of injuries occur when they are babies being taught to lead. If they were yanked or if they pulled back on the lead, the young, not-yet-developed vertebrae of the neck could be disturbed. Any tightness in this area can result in a tense, often spooky personality. Imagine how you would feel if your neck were tight. You may be cranky, then if someone were 'flexing you' to get you to soften you would react to it. When working with a horse that carries a lot of tightness in the poll and remains spooky and on alert mode, I will lay a heating pad or magnetic pad across the poll while tacking up. This will warm the area and make it easier to massage, and be more supple while riding. Make a note of this.
Now move down the neck. The neck is made up of ligaments and of layers of long, large muscles and many smaller muscles. The muscles have a variety of attachments to the sternum (breast bone) or shoulder bones and spine. They all work together to help the horse turn his head and neck, and to assist with bending, raising and lowering the head and neck, and with front leg movement. Do you feel any difference? Any areas of tightness? Divots? The areas of tightness are generally overstressed muscle. The little divots or dents may be areas of torn or damaged muscle. Sometimes this does not affect the horse's performance, depending on how much surrounding muscle mass there is. Also, in some cases, these areas can be improved with TTouch Circles. TTEAM and TTouch work to reactivate areas that have been 'turned off' for whatever reason - injury, trauma, lack of body awareness.
Try to passively turn your horse's head. Any resistance? Is he tilting his head away but moving his neck a few inches your way? Or is he moving nose first and twisting to avoid movement in the poll? When you turn his neck does he have to move his front legs or swing out with his hind end? The horse should be able to simply turn his head without moving any other part of his body. This would be similar to a person who cannot turn his head without turning his torso. When you see someone do this it generally means they have a sore or stiff neck. Many people feel if their horses can do the carrot stretches or fly bites they are fine, but the way the horses do the stretching is important. A horse that does them quickly or by twisting at the poll is actually avoiding discomfort or is compensating for a limited range of movement, and is probably guarding this area, so make note of it.
The pectoral or chest muscles extend from in
front of the chest to behind the elbow. Reach under and feel this
large muscle. Any tightness? Does your horse object, or perhaps
even bite at your hand? Think back - is your horse reactive when
you tighten the girth? Does he tend to step sideways or even towards
you when you are doing anything in this area?
The shoulder is composed of a series of large muscles and ligaments. The shoulder actually glides across the ribcage without any bony attachment. It is held in place by a series of ligaments. There is much opportunity for a 'snag' to develop deep inside the shoulder. I like to do the TTEAM Leg Circles first to gauge how much freedom of movement the horse has in his shoulder. Many times in just doing the TTEAM Leg Circles you can feel a release or softening of the movement and suddenly the circles become much clearer.
Finally, the withers is made up of the long spinous processes of the vertebrae. The soft tissue and muscle attachments can be affected by a tight saddle fit. This in turn will affect the shoulder, and movement of the shoulder and neck. It can also be affected by a fall or injury. Bruising or infection in this area is often mistaken for misbehavior as the horse will resist any pressure on his withers and upper back or saddle area. There is much space in this area for a pocket of blood (hematoma) or infection to remain undetected. I finished working on a client's horse when she arrived to tell me how he had been resisting her leg and twisting his head around to look back at her while she rode him. I did not find anything to indicate this sort of problem so I watched her ride. Sure enough he was twisting around and looked very uncomfortable. I checked the saddle with her off, and it looked OK. Then I checked it with her in the saddle. With weight in the saddle the points (front, under the pommel) were pressing into the horse's withers and shoulder. When I rechecked the area I noted a slight swelling. The problem had not progressed to 'full blown' but it was well on its way. I talked to her about the saddle and found it had not been worked on since she bought it two years prior. She immediately had it checked and reflocked with good results. Have your saddle checked once a year by a qualified saddler who will also watch you ride.
After you have compiled your observations for your assessment, the problem may be evident. It may be as simple as an ill-fitting saddle, but if not, consult your veterinarian. Diagnosing is the veterinarian's area of expertise. This article is meant to offer you guidelines on what to look for when you suspect a front-end problem, and your observations can provide the veterinarian with helpful information. TTEAM and massage can be very useful in managing so-called behavioral problems, and gathering observations to present to your veterinarian.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace veterinary and professional care.
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