Anyone who’s ever injured themselves has likely experienced the effects of compensation. Sometimes these effects are even more uncomfortable than the initial injury, and if not dealt with can be very long lasting.
So what is compensation ? As an equine sports therapist I would define it as any adaptation, in the form of soft tissue tension, the body makes for a disturbance to its normal state of equilibrium. This disturbance might be an injury, poor fitting tack, an internal imbalance or an emotional state. All of these things can result in contraction of muscles which alter the body’s normal posture. Think about what you do when you have an upset stomach. Most people hunch forward, tightening their abdominal muscles. Now imagine what would happen throughout your body if you stayed in that position for a week or two while going through your normal routine.? Likely you would be sore in many areas that have no direct connection to your stomach.
With my clients I have found that there may be common patterns of compensations through the body, but there is also a great variation between individuals that may have similar initial disturbances. It is my belief that the individuals compensatory pattern develops based on a number of factors. These may include things like past injury, conformation, what has been done to support the body throughout the horses life, and personality. For example, two horses could have similar injuries to their right front limb, one horse may lean on the left front more, and the other may refer weight to the hind end more due to a previous injury to the left front. While both horses are adapting differently, they will both contract different sets of muscles than they normally would in order to support the posture they are using to cope. As these muscles aren’t used to working so hard, they become fatigued and sore. This may result in differences in the horses movement and more layers of compensation in other areas, long after the initial disturbance has healed. Another example would be of two horses with similar injuries placed on stall rest, but one horse is very sensitive and excitable, while the other horse is very calm and quiet. The calm horse might develop a pattern of compensation based on his postural changes while standing still. The sensitive horse might be moving non stop, even in the confinement of the stall, and so might build a pattern of compensation based on how he adapts his movement.
My own experience with compensation occurred after an injury to my foot. It wasn’t long before my opposite hip was sore, and eventually areas in my neck and shoulders, injured over ten years prior, became aggravated again. Symptoms similar to those I had experienced at the time of that injury reignited, which I had believed long since healed. While the experience wasn’t fun, I found it very interesting to track the changes through my own body, thinking about the patterns that I have as a result of my life, and that an injury to my foot ultimately resulted in tension at the complete opposite end of my body.
One of the reasons the effects of compensation can be so wide reaching is due to a type of tissue in the body called fascia. Fascia is a three dimensional spider web that is saran wrapped around all of the body’s cells. Due to the fact that this is one continuous tissue, restriction in one area may spread anywhere else in the body. A good visual of this is idea is to pinch an area of your shirt and twist. Lines of tension radiate outwards from the site of the initial disturbance. If you had a patch in your shirt, this area is less flexible and more likely to be one of the areas the tension increases, which then pulls on strands radiating outwards from there as well.
So what can be done to help break this cycle? Awareness of the compensation is the first step. Realistically, every horse has had some sort of injury or imbalance at some point in their life, so they will each have their own unique compensatory pattern, with varying degrees of severity and symptoms. Regularly checking the ranges of motion your horse has, or having a stretching protocol will help you identify when something has changed for your horse. Once we are aware, we need to look at what factors might be contributing. If there was an injury that is healed, then we can just begin working through the tension left behind. If there is an ongoing concern like stomach ulcers, an imbalanced rider, or poor fitting tack, these need to be dealt with. If these concerns are not addressed the tension will repeatedly show up, despite our best efforts to remove it. The horse may temporarily feel better, but in a very short period of time the tension will reappear. After identifying and addressing the areas of greatest concern with some body work, the horses owner or rider can start doing specific stretches and exercises to further help the horse. What many people don’t realize is that the homework left by the body worker is often much more important in helping the horse than the body work itself! Stretching helps elongate the muscles, and exercises can target and help correct adaptive movements. Done on a consistent basis, these are powerful tools to assist your horse in returning to a more balanced state.
Compensation is great in that it allows us to continue functioning when we have suffered some sort of injury or imbalance. However, once we have dealt with that imbalance, addressing the compensation that resulted is vital to helping our horses return to their optimal comfort and performance level.