Just as we do horses can suffer from back problems which can not only make riding difficult but can also cause the horse a lot of pain.
The vertebrae of a horse’s spine are close together and, just like our spines are, they’re supported by muscles, this works perfectly for horses with the back and abdominal muscles (known as their topline) baring the additional weight of a rider. If those muscles are weak though then the spine is forced to take more of the weight which can not only cause a lot of pain it can lead to further problems with the back and nerves.
Not addressing this can often lead to behavioral problems in a horse. This is because they’re not able to tell you their back hurts so have to find another way to let you know they’re in pain – not to dissimilar to a person crying with pain, it doesn’t make the pain any better but is a release for it.
The good news though is that in a lot of cases you can help your horse yourself by increasing their core strength and strengthening their back and abdominal muscles. There are plenty of exercises that you and your horse can do together but a few simple lifestyle changes may help too. Before you start any exercise plans or regimens make sure that your horse’s saddle is fitted properly and if necessary change the saddle, using extra padding is not a solution for a poorly fitting saddle.
What lifestyle changes can I make to help strengthen my horse’s back?
It’s not possible to improve your horse’s topline without exercise but there are a few simple lifestyle changes that you can make to help keep the muscles conditioned.
- Turn out regularly – Horses that spend long periods of time in a stable don’t engage their topline which can weaken the muscles over time. Turning a horse out everyday (for at least four hours) will not only give them time to graze but will also allow them to move about and play with other horses. This movement engages and therefore strengthens their topline.
- Feed at ground level – Horses are natural grazers so eating from a haynet high up is not only unnatural to them but can put unnecessary stress and strain on their skeletal system and soft tissues. On top of this eating with their heads raised increases the chance of choking but also puts the horse in a tense mental state because when tense they raise their heads – lowering them when they’re more relaxed.
- Sit properly – If you sit properly in the saddle and don’t bounce around then your horse will be able to you his core muscles properly which will, in turn, strengthen them, if you’re moving all of the time then he won’t be able to use these muscles, therefore, weakening them over time.
- Check feet – It can often seem like the two ‘go-to’ quotes for all horse problems are ‘have you checked his saddle‘ and ‘have you checked his feet‘ but both are extremely important and can cause a multitude of problems if they’re not right. If your horse’s hooves aren’t level then he’ll walk to one side and will strengthen the muscles on that side but weaken them on the opposite side.
- Protein – We’ve all heard that proteins are the building blocks of life and that protein helps to build muscle. There’s no point trying to increase the strength of your horse’s muscles if he doesn’t have enough proteins to maintain them. An ‘average’ horse (weighing around 1100lbs) at normal work should have somewhere between 600g and 900g (1.3lbs to 2lbs) of protein a day.
Exercises to help build topline and strengthen your horse’s back
Riding up and down hills
Both riding up and downhill will greatly help to strengthen your horse’s muscles far more than riding on flat level ground will do. Riding downhill will help to work the front legs as well as the chest muscles while riding uphill will improve the strength of your horse’s hindquarters. If your horse’s muscles are weak then start slowly with this and on small inclines/declines, over time you’ll then be able to move to steeper slopes. When your horse has improved sufficiently on those you can try more difficult slopes with looser ground, such as those with sand.
Your position is crucially important when doing this, if you’re off balance your horse will have to work twice as hard but won’t be engaging the right muscles. When riding up a hill make sure your position is forward, if the slope is really steep then you might have to raise yourself out of the saddle with your weight solely on the stirrups. As you would expect the opposite is true for going downwards, your body should ideally create a straight line with the horse’s front legs. Make sure you give the horse enough rein though so that he can move his head and neck freely to adjust his balance if he needs to.
When riding uphill some horses will try to crow hop (Where a horse jumps with his back arched and legs stiffened) up the hill, this can be because he’s eager to get up the hill but it can also be because he’s in pain so make sure you don’t overdo it. If your horse does start to crow hop bring him back down and perform a few small and slow circles on the ground to help calm him down. If he continues to do it then make sure you’re not trying to climb too big a slope before his muscles are ready.
As a horse walks backwards (or backs up) he moves his hind legs much further under his body than normal, this is great for strengthening those muscles and can be done either mounted or dismounted although it does require more strength from the horse to do this with a rider.
At first, your horse may not be so keen to do this and will only manage a few steps at a time but don’t worry this is normal, just go forward a bit and then start to come back again. When your horse is doing this comfortably and without any problem, you can try adding poles and corners (reversing at a right angle around a corner) to the exercise. If you do use corners though make sure you do the same for the other direction, so if you turn to the right make sure you turn to the left too. Doing this will not only improve your horse’s strength but will also improve his coordination (as well as yours).
When you first start to do this pay attention to whether or not your horse moves in a straight line and if he tends to move in one direction or not. If he doesn’t keep in a straight line then he may be experiencing pain on the opposite side.
There are two different ways of improving your horse’s abdominal muscles, one you can do from the saddle but for the other you need to be dismounted.
If you have access to a safe stream or river (or any patch of water) that is knee-deep then you can use that to encourage your horse to use his abdominal muscles. As you trot through the water your horse automatically lifts his stomach, this will, of course, help to strengthen his abdominal muscles but will also help with his back muscles. This is because he’ll partly use his back to lift his stomach, rather like if you sit up straight and then bring your stomach in – you’ll feel your back working to do this.
This method is sometimes referred to as ‘horse sit-ups’ but is extremely effective. It can seem like it’s you doing all of the work with this method and that your horse isn’t doing anything but you’ll be surprised at just how much he is working his muscles. Doing this will not only strengthen your horse’s abdominal muscles but will also help to improve their spine, pelvis and all of their thoracic muscles.
Start by facing your horse’s side approximately six inches behind his shoulder. With your horse standing square, apply an upward pressure in the middle of your horse’s chest where the girth goes. When your horse lifts his breast bone up towards the withers you know you’ve got the right place and should hold the pressure for approximately 15-20 seconds. Next move the pressure back a little to the mid-girth, your horse will then move his thoracic area, again holding that for around 15-20 seconds before moving the pressure back even further to under the saddle area. This should be done before and after riding and repeated around five times before going round to the other side and repeating for another five times. You don’t necessarily need to do this on both sides but I personally prefer to – I feel it gives the muscles an even workout.
This method can also be used to judge how relaxed and flexible your horse is in his spine, the more he flexes the more engaged his muscles are and therefore the more flexible he will be.
We all know how pole work can help your horse’s rhythm, balance and suppleness but with irregular poles, this will also help to strengthen his muscles. Rather than a line of evenly spaced poles makes sure that the distances between each pole are random and that some of them are raised too. Your horse will then be forced to not only pay attention to the poles but also to his stride, having to readjust it as the poles gaps change. It’s this readjusting that helps with his muscles.
This exercise can either be done on a lunge line or in the saddle but you shouldn’t lead your horse over the poles. This is because your horse will need to do this exercise completely himself and can’t take any cues from you. It’s also a good idea to start slowly with this, don’t have too many irregular gaps at the beginning. This is not only a physical challenge to your horse but a mental one so don’t rush in. I’d also recommend not raising the poles too high to start with and not too many, the maximum height off of the ground should be no more than 45 cm (18 inches) so start with a few centimeters then over time increase the height.
It’s crucially important to start this at a slow pace, don’t think that your horse is great over poles so you can do this at a trot or canter. Over time your horse’s muscles and overall strength will improve so take it slow and build the speed over time.
When your horse has got the hang of this you can then further improve his strength by placing the poles in a circle. Use a sturdy box or barrel (a bucket will be too small) to raise one end of a few of the poles while the others are still flat on the ground. Then start to ride around the outside of the circle and slowly move in towards the center, as you move inwards the gaps become smaller and the poles higher which makes your horse work harder as he’s flexing his back more and more. This should be repeated in the other direction too.
A ‘collected’ horse is a horse that not only has his hind legs further under his body but also has a more rounded back. This way of riding will build your horse’s muscles and in turn strengthen his back. It can be difficult at first but with some persistence, you’ll soon get the hang of it. Also, some horses do this better at a trot so don’t worry if your horse isn’t walking when you do this.
Start by using your legs to ask your horse to move forward with vigor while using the reins to contain that energy and forward movement. You should be able to feel the horse ‘round’ his back underneath you and his hind legs move with more power than normal. At this stage don’t worry if your horse doesn’t stay like that when you continue to ride, it’ll take time for him too.
Stretching the head and neck
This is one exercise that your horse will love and the only thing you need to do this exercise is a carrot – now you know why your horse will love it!. This is best performed in a confined space (such as a stable) that limits your horse’s ability to move freely. The idea is that your horse will strengthen his head and neck to get the treat rather than moving his feet and his whole body to reach it, it might help if you also have somebody that can help you do this because they can stop your horse from moving his whole body.
The idea is to have your horse follow the carrot with his nose and perform a number of stretches. At first, you will probably need to use smaller treats to reward your horse when he DOESN’T eat the carrot but instead follows it. This can take a bit of time but eventually, he’ll get the hang of it and stop trying to eat the carrot.
Each exercise will need to be performed around ten times and at least five times a week but doing this will improve the multifidus muscles which are used to help stabilize the joints of the spine. There are seven stretching movements in total that will help your horse:
- Move the head so that the horse’s nose touches the chest in-between the front legs.
- Move the head so that the nose is in-between the front legs and the same level as the knees.
- Move the head between the front legs so that the nose is around six inches behind the front legs.
- Stretch the head and neck as far forward as they’ll go.
- Move the head to the side so that the nose is near the top of his shoulder (repeat for the other side).
- Move the head to the side so that the nose is near to where the hind leg meets the stomach (again repeat for the other side).
- Move the head to the side so that the nose is near to the hind hock (repeat for the other side).
After you’ve finished these stretches you can then give the carrot to your horse.
Lower back ‘rounding’
Designed to increase the flexibility of the lower region of the spine as well as encourage the mobility of your horse’s haunches this is a quick exercise that will only take a few minutes but will greatly help your horse.
Stand close to his flank and apply steady pressure to the center of the croup (roughly between the base of the tail and around six inches above too). Hold that for a few seconds and then slowly increase the pressure as you move it towards the base of your horse’s tail, then release before waiting a few seconds then repeat the process on the other side. In total this should be done around ten times each day.
Okay, I’ll admit that calling this section tail ‘work’ maybe a bit of an exaggeration but it’ll still help your horse’s muscles (especially his abdominal and thigh muscles). This only needs to be done once a day and can easily form part of your grooming routine.
Stand to the side of your horse (alternate the sides from day to day) and grab hold of your horse’s tail just below the dock before gently pulling it. You only need to pull it until you feel your horse contracting his muscles to counteract what you’re doing. Hold this for up to 10 seconds before slowly releasing it back.
How do I strengthen my horse’s muscles if he’s suffered an injury?
There can be any number of reasons why a horse as a weak back as well as weak muscles with an injury being just one of those reasons. The good news is that all of the exercises above are also perfect for horses that have suffered an injury and need to improve their muscle strength. If your horse is recovering from an injury though it’s important to speak to the vet before you start any exercise plan or regimen.
Don’t forget your role
It can be all too easy to think that your horse is doing all of the work and that you don’t need to do anything but unless you’re playing your part your horse won’t get any benefit from this. As I said before you need to make sure you’re sitting properly and are well balanced when you’re riding. If you’re worried that you’re not doing this then it may be worth speaking to your instructor or investing in a few lessons. A good instructor will help you to improve your riding in every way, including your position.
When you’re horse’s topline is strong enough you don’t need to stop these exercises, after all, you wouldn’t stop exercising yourself when you’ve reached your goal, would you? Okay, you would (I have to admit I would too!) but ideally, you shouldn’t. Continuing with these exercises will help prevent any further problems your horse may have with his back.
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I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.