Article and photographs by Julie Mankin
When a horse is “off,” the signs are exasperatingly subtle. He may carry his head slightly different or have a slight catch in his forward rhythm, but the clues could be as obscure as a new habit of bucking or running down the fence.
A good way to start your detective work when you’re running into a problem is to check your horse’s body for tender or sore places, according to equine therapist Bill Hackett.
Start at the Top
A subluxation, or out-of-place vertebra, at a horse’s poll can cause sore muscles and other spinal misalignments all the way down his body, Hackett says. If you’re inexperienced at palpating the poll, there’s an easier way to determine if the poll is well-aligned.
Stand in front of your horse, place your hands directly under his chin, and slowly lift straight up as high as you can. If your horse has no problem with you lifting his head up, that’s great. If the action causes your horse to tip his nose off to the right, you can guess that his first cervical vertebra is out of place a little bit to the left. The opposite is true if he turns his head to the left as you lift. This is because if part of the horse’s atlas is in the way, he feels unable to bring his head straight up, Hackett says.
If a cervical vertebra is tipped to the right, it’ll affect the horse’s left hip, and he’ll be reluctant to turn to the right or drive off a barrel with that hind leg, as well as have a lack of flexion in his neck at the poll.
Alternatively, if your horse keeps his head straight but is unable to lift it higher than his withers, the problem lies with a vertebra further down his neck. Subluxations cause muscles to tighten up, and acupressure is designed to release that tension, which can allow the vertebra to go back into place on its own. To “release” the poll area, place your hand behind the ears and apply constant pressure just behind the ears with your thumb and middle finger.
“You want to relax those depressor muscles that hold the first vertebra in place,” Hackett says. “Sometimes you need to apply slightly more pressure on the side that feels tighter, but for the most part, the poll should go back into place on its own.”
Hold your pressure until your horse drops his head and you see his eye soften – good signs that his muscles have released. At this point, most horses will yawn, lick their lips and/or shake their heads, which is how they release the energy that was pentup if something in their body was constricted.
But regardless of whether your horse’s poll is in place or a little off, using acupressure there helps relax his entire body, because the pressure points behind the ears hold hundreds of nerves that link the back of the skull into the body.
Line up the Middle
It’s never obvious when a horse has one or more ribs out of place, but the range of symptoms is great. Your horse might ring his tail or try to bite you when you cinch your saddle. Or if he has a rib out of place in his right side, your horse will have a hard time turning that direction because that rib is in his way.
“I seldom work on a horse that doesn’t have at least one rib out,” Hackett says. “And if it’s not taken care of, the muscles around it will tighten and pull a vertebra out of place in the horse’s thoracic area. Then, he’ll have another one go out in the neck or lumbar area to compensate. Pretty soon he has a spine like a rattlesnake, just because of one rib.”
Hackett checks ribs by running his hand slowly over the ribs about four inches down from the spine on either side, pressing slightly between each rib. He cautions that you won’t feel a rib out of place – you’ll just get a slight flinch from the horse, saying “Yep, that one right there.”
“There’s a thousand ways a horse can pull a rib out,” Hackett says. “There might be a small spot where the muscle hasn’t contracted correctly when he gets up from lying down, or when you step into the saddle or ride heavy in one stirrup.”
An out-of-place vertebra in your horse’s withers or back can contract a muscle, which will also pull a rib out. And if the rib that goes out is located up front behind a horse’s shoulder blade, it can actually make him dead lame. You won’t see or hear a rib slip out of place; nor will you hear a rib go back into place – it’s simply a slow muscle release, Hackett says. The rib cage stretch is valuable to your horse, however, regardless of whether any ribs are out. But before doing the stretch, get your horse as loose as possible, Hackett advises.
To relax a horse’s entire body, start with the poll, then work on the neck and chest area by applying about five pounds of pressure with your thumbs or squeezing a handful of muscle on each side of a horse’s neck right where it attaches to the chest. Hold for about 20 seconds and release slowly.
Release your horse’s back muscles by applying pressure in the indented spot usually just to the inside of the swirl at the top of a horse’s flank. Another great point for releasing back muscles is just under the tail on either side, about one or two inches below the tail connection, right on the hairline. Apply light pressure here in small clockwise circles for about 10 seconds or until the horse slightly lifts his tail and/or drops his head. For horses that may need a little more, massage by working your elbow down the break in the rib cage just below the spine, even into the shoulder blade and neck area.
To stretch the rib cage, pick up your horse’s front leg, bending it to place one hand on the toe of his hoof and one behind his upper leg just above the knee. Try to relax the horse and exhale so your own body is relaxed, then begin a very slow pull straight forward and slightly across the horse’s body. If your out-of-place rib was located toward the horse’s flank, pull straight forward rather than across, and hold the stretch longer because you’re trying to stretch a greater area.
“You don’t want to lift high,” Hackett says. “You want the leg just about level. If you pull up too high, you can actually cause a rib or the bottom vertebra in the neck to slip out of place.”
When you get to the peak of the stretch, hold it for 5 to 10 seconds, and then ease it back. Never pull and then let the leg drop – let it relax slowly. Then go back and feel along your ribs again, checking for that same flinching reaction to see if your stretch allowed the rib or ribs to go back into place.
Bring up the Rear
Your horse’s lumbar area, pelvis or sacrum could be off-kilter for any number of reasons, but it’s fairly hard for a horse to hide this problem. One way to check on the status of your horse’s hind end is simply to have someone lead him in a relatively tight circle.
“You’re looking for that inside hind leg to reach clear across the body and well up underneath the horse,” Hackett says. “If it’s not, and he’s short-stepping his way over with that hind leg, there’s likely something out of place in the lumbar region or sacrum.”
Here’s a quick anatomy lesson: a horse’s lumbar area consists of the last five vertebrae in his back, after which you’ll find the sacrum (somewhat similar to your tailbone), and then the peak of the pelvis on down to the tailhead.
Another good test is to have someone lead your horse in a walk straight away from you. Watch to see if the very top of a horse’s gluteal muscles look level to each other as he lifts each foot. You may notice that one hip seems consistently lower or the horse is holding his tail off to one side or the other, which indicates a problem.
If, for instance, the left hip is lower than the right, Hackett would guess a lumbar vertebra is probably tipped to the right, which allows the pelvis to drop to the left and the tail to curve off to the right. If you notice these issues, it’s a good time to call a therapist or chiropractor to work on your horse’s pelvis.
There are, however, muscles on each side of the pelvis that you can release by applying acupressure. If the right hip looked lower, for instance, stand on the left side of the horse and reach over the hip to apply pressure a few inches to the right side of the tailhead and rear of the highest point of the pelvis. If you’re in the right place, a horse should round his back and curve his pelvis your direction. Hold your pressure until the muscles release and the horse comes back against the pressure, Hackett says.
Also, it typically helps barrel horses to massage the groove down the hind part of the gluteus at the junction of three hamstring muscles, Hackett says, especially before a run and directly after. With 30 to 40 seconds of steady pressure in this groove, you’ll release everything from the top of the hip to the hock, and the horse will have relaxed enough to cock his hind foot. But be very careful with this one, Hackett warns. If a horse’s muscles are tight in this area, he’ll be prone to react or kick when you first begin.
“Calf horses commonly pull these muscles when stopping, but barrel horses will, too, because they’re driving off a barrel three different times,” he says.
Relaxing the muscles in a horse’s poll, back and neck is helpful in many ways, the least of which reduce stress for your horse. If you suspect out-of-place vertebrae in your horse’s neck, back or pelvis area, a therapist or chiropractor should be able to help.
Article originally published in the January 2007 issue of BHN.