There’s nothing worse than riding a horse that you’re not quite sure about – you’re not 100% sure that he’s comfortable or capable of doing the task that you’re asking of him – it’s this feeling of uncertainty that impacts the way you ride and your confidence.
It takes a team of professionals around you and your horse to manage every aspect of your horse's health comfort and well-being. That team is made up of your farrier, vet, dentist, saddle fitter, trainer, and massage therapist. As well as this crucial team there are things that you can do to ensure your horse is fit and healthy that will give you the confidence to know that he’s comfortable.
In this article I suggest four top tips that will help you ensure that your horse is comfortable, and his muscular skeletal system is prepared and capable of performing what you’re asking of it. If you are confident in your horse's comfort it will do lots for your riding confidence too.
TIP 1 - Walk and Trot Up Regularly
Trotting your horse up once a week is a great habit to get into. Don’t worry if you don’t really know what you’re looking for - if you make this part of your weekly routine you’ll soon learn what’s normal for your horse. Once you know what his normal is, you’ll spot when something isn’t right.
What to look for
Ask a friend to walk your horse in a straight line away from you and back towards you. Then repeat this in trot. It can also be useful to video this or make a few notes so you can study it in more detail.
As he walks and trots away and towards you consider the following:
· Look at how his body moves
· How does he place each foot on the floor?
· How straight are his limbs?
· Is his tail loose and swinging from side to side?
· Does his ribcage swing evenly to the left and right?
· How does he hold his head - straight or to one side?
· Look at how he turns at the end of the straight lines
If you'd like to learn more about how to assess your horse's movement the on-demand webinar series Undrestanding and Assessing Your Horse's Movement will help you with just that. This 3 part series focuses on the biomechanics of walk, trot and canter, techniques for assessing the gaits as well as exercises to improve them.
TIP 2 - Get Hands On
There’s so much you can learn about your horse by touching him. Make it part of your daily grooming routine to feel his legs and run your hands over his whole body. Feel for any heat, lumps, and bumps.
Again, it’s all about recognising what’s normal for your horse. If there’s heat one day that wasn’t there the previous day, you’ll notice it, and this helps you recognise when things aren’t quite right.
We're taught from a young age to feel our horse's legs ( I remember this being part of the Pony Club D test!) but what exactly are we feeling for? In the recent on-demand seminar on Understanding Your Horse's Lower Limbs we go into detail as to how to palpate the horse's limbs, hot to and which anatomical structures you can feel and what to look out for.
Learning more about anatomy is something I’d recommend to boost your understanding. I run a Developing Palpation course for professional equine therapists and we have more courses for horse owners in the pipeline so watch out on our WHAT'S ON PAGE.
TIP 3 - Massage Your Horse’s Back
The back is a common area of concern and it’s another area that you need to get to know. Feel your horse’s back every day - run the flat of your hand along his back from wither to rump - the muscles shouldn’t react. Remember, you’re looking to discover what’s normal for your horse.
To learn more there’s a great video in the Horses Inside Out Academy (in the free tutorial video section) called, Test for Sore Back Muscles (you do need to be a member of the Academy to view the video but it’s free to join). This video shows you several techniques that you can use to assess how comfortable your horse is in his back.
Regular massages from a soft tissue massage therapist are also important to help your horse stay comfortable in his body. Any ridden work puts demands on his musculoskeletal system – and this is where regular sports and remedial work from a professional therapist helps to support him.
Learning some basic massage techniques is a great skill to master and something you can do in between visits from your therapist. Regular massages are a superb way to support back comfort and improve performance. You’ll also learn what your horse’s back feels like normally and spot any changes early. At Horses Inside Out we run massage day courses for horse owners - dates for 2023 are listed on our website and we have an exciting announement to make very soon about an online massage course for horse owners.....
TIP 4 - Cardiovascular Fitness
Horses need to be fit to be ridden and help with back strength. Even if you’re just hacking a couple of times a week cardiovascular fitness is still important. This is because the breathing muscles are connected into the back. This interesting topic is something that I talked about in the online lecture demonstration, Riding from the Anatomical Perspective - you can find it in the Horses Inside Out Academy.
When we discuss muscles of the back, many of you will recognise the name longissimus dorsi but not so many will be familiar with the dorsal serrate muscle.
The longissimus dorsi creates the main bulk of muscle in the back, it lies above the ribs and either side of the spinous processes. As the name suggests it’s very long - starting underneath the pelvis at the sacrum and runs all the way through to the fourth cervical vertebrae. This is a large gymnastic muscle responsible for big movements. Whenever the horse extends his hip joint and pushes himself forward this muscle is recruited.
The dorsal serrate muscle however is very thin, and it attaches from the ribs just to the side of the longissimus dorsi and then comes up to the tops of the spinous processes. Left and right sides are connected by fascia over the spine.
This muscle is a special one because the fibres go across the main bulky muscles of the back which lie parallel to the spine. Its main function is to help lift the ribs in inspiration.
As soon as you sit on your horse, you change his posture, and adding this additional weight to his back causes it to go into extension, how much depends on the amount of weight added and the strength of the back muscles.
It’s also worth noting that the panels of the saddle sit on top of the rib cage, so when you add the weight of the rider the ribs are pressed down, stretching the dorsal serrate muscle in the process.
We want to support the rib cage and ensure that the dorsal serrate muscle going across the back is as strong as possible and the best way to achieve this is to make your horse breathe regularly. This is why cardiovascular fitness is so important – whatever discipline you do.
Those breathing muscles will give better support to his back and promote better posture. I always say fitness is an important aspect of protecting the body and keeping it healthy.
Also, knowing that your horse is fit gives you confidence and peace of mind that you’re doing everything you possibly can to protect your horse’s back.
Cardiovascular fitness is something we talk more about in the online lecture demonstration Riding from the Anatomical Perspective which is available in the Horses Inside Out Academy.
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