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Keeping A Horses Back Healthy
 By Winniefield Park   •   5th May 2017   •   837 views   •   0 comments
We sit on our horseís backs, so it makes sense that we should make sure they stay strong and healthy. Horseís backs were not really made to carry a load. Selective breeding has perhaps created an animal that is more suited to this task, but problem backs are still common.



There are a few things that can affect a horseís back and the most commonly talked about issue is saddle fit. A poorly fitting saddle can cause a horseís back to become sore quickly and can cause long-term issues especially if we donít make changes. But there are other things that can lead to a sore or weak back. Conformation plays a role. A long back is harder to keep healthy and strong than a shorter one. Leg conformation and the way the horse naturally carries itself can affect its back. Hoof angle can have an effect, which is why good farrier care is important. Our own riding can have a big impact on a horseís back. A sloppy rider, one that cants to the side, is stiff or has heavy hands on the reins can make a horse sore and stiff. The bit we use can have an effect. A horseís own health and soundness is an important factor. And age affects a horseís back too, as muscles become weaker and harder to keep in condition.

So, how do we keep our horseís back healthy? First, of course, weíre going to change the things that can easily be changed. Conformation and age canít be controlled of course. But, we can make sure our horse is healthy, its feet are in good shape, and the saddle fits it properly. Weíre not going to tighten the girth anymore than it takes to hold the saddle firmly. Itís impossible to relax one part of the body if another part is very tense and restricted. We need to assess the bit we use to make sure itís comfortable for the horse and effective for us. Then, we make sure our own riding skills arenít hampering our horse. We also need to make sure weíre actually riding enough to keep our horse in condition. The phrase Ďuse it or lose ití, applies to our horses as much as it does to us.

Once weíve taken care of those things there are exercises that we can do to help gain and keep the healthy condition of a horseís back.

No matter if you regard your ride as schooling or a pleasure ride, itís important to warm your horse up gradually. This helps the horse relax, stretch its muscles and increase the blood flow to those muscles. You can lunge your horse, or you can ride. How long a warm-up will take will depend on what your horse was doing before you started working with it. A horse that is standing in a stall may take a bit longer to warm up than one out in the pasture. An older or unfit horse may take longer as well. Start by walking on a loose rein, for five to fifteen minutes. Keep your circles large, using the whole arena. Spend a few minutes at a moderate trot to get your horseís heart pumping a bit harder. Then go for a quick canter. Go back to the walk and trot making smaller circles, serpentines, and changes of rein to get your horse bending, and its mind on the job.

These are the two most easily accessible exercise that donít take advanced riding skills to strengthen your horseís back.

Cavalletti:
Cavalletti are like a Stairmaster for your horse. Cavalletti gently forces your horse to lift up its feet and strengthen muscles. They also help your horse learn to pay attention to what it is doing. Start with four or five poles on the ground spaced about five feet apart. Theyíll need to be closer together for a small horse or pony, and further apart for a really tall horse. Trot your horse slowly and steadily over these poles. As the horse gains condition, you can add a pole or two. As the horse gets stronger, you can raise the poles gradually up to a height of about eight inches. You can also add in a small cross rail at the end. Poles can also be laid on a twenty-meter circle and they can be lunged over, rather than ridden.

Hill Work:
Itís tempting to stay in the ring or arena when working our horse, but even if youíre not a trail rider heading to the nearest hill is a good workout for your horseís mind and body. You can ride or lunge your horse on a small hillside. The key to effective hill work is to not let your horse rush. It should climb in control without breaking into a canter or scrambling up. You can ride or lunge your horse on a hill. Or if you want a good workout yourself, you and lead it up and down. Keep sessions short and on a slight incline, especially if your horse is out of condition or older.

Stretches and Body Work:
Carrot stretches, belly lifts, and other hands-on work can help your horseís back. To do carrot stretches, you can hold a carrot or other treat at the horseís hip, knee and chest to encourage them to bend and stretch. They should hold the stretch for about the slow count of ten.

There are two ways to do this, but I find this easiest. Press your fingertips into the midline of your horse's belly, just behind the girth area. Youíll find a natural groove under there where you can poke your fingers. Lift up, niggling with your fingers a bit, and your horse should lift its back. Move your fingers back to encourage your horse to lift further back. If your horseís back is really tight, you might not get much discernible lift. I find with my wimpy fingers, I need to use a plastic mane comb, and press gently up with that.

Tail stretching also helps stretch and relax the back. Only do this on a horse you know well will not object to you standing behind and handling its tail. Lift the tail about half way down the vertebrae. Swing and lift it a bit to get the horse used to the idea that you are manipulating its tail. Some horses will not like this, so be careful and use your common sense. Gently lift the tail slightly, and holding the hair just below the vertebrae, pull back slowly, gradually adding your own weight to the pull, if you think it's safe to do so. Some horses will not react, some will lean forward. If your horse squirms, adjust your position and carefully try the pull again. You may be able to see the muscles in your horseís back flexing. Release the pull slowly after about thirty seconds. Many horses love this pull.

Schooling For Back Health:
Working on a circle, lateral work, transitions, and half halts can also help strengthen a horseís back. These take some skill as a rider, so might require you to work with a coach to increase your effectiveness.
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