Some of the most common questions I get asked as an equine therapist are, “Why is my horse sore there?” or “Why is he out there?”
At times the answer is relatively simple. For example if the horse has a pre-existing injury, some of the issues are most likely from compensating. If the saddle fits poorly, it’s an easy link to back soreness. If the horse pulls back regularly, it’s pretty much guaranteed that he will have a few things going on in the neck. If someone witnessed the horse falling and can explain the details of the fall, it can be pretty easy to relate which issues have resulted from the fall, although sometimes it takes a couple minutes playing anatomical connect-the-dots.
So while initiating incidents do happen, what about the rest of the time? Is it possible that the horse took a spill on the ice or in the mud during turn out? Yep. Got banged up playing with another horse? Sure. Threw it’s back out while rolling? Probably not.
In my opinion it is one of the most common misconceptions of horse owners that the horse must have done something to itself, but we forget about all of the things that we do with or to our horses that may have negative side effects. Things like running, bucking, and rolling are natural to a horse; carrying a saddle and riders weight is not. The unnatural things are much more likely to cause problems than the natural things.
One of my favourite statements comes from Dr. Kerry Ridgway when he is speaking about a straight horse. He says that straightness happens when we are creating a situation where every step is in accordance with gravity.
He then goes on to speak about how issues arise when movement is not in accordance with gravity. For the purpose of this piece I don’t want to get into the discussion of straightness (even though it is obviously a huge factor) because I find that the concept of moving in accordance of gravity has a grand magnitude of its own.
Picture for a minute giving a small child a piggy back ride for an hour. If that child leans off to one side for the entire time, it is going to affect your center of gravity and there are going to be a few things that change in both your balance and your movement. First of all, even though the child is small, you are going to have to brace certain muscles groups to keep from falling over. Due to the fact that these muscles are not normally active in this way during your normal day to day activities, they are going to get fatigued and sore. If they get really sore this may affect your posture and movement long after you are done with the piggy back ride. Secondly, the shift in your center of gravity and the engagement of different of muscles is going to affect the way that you land on the ground every single step. Say for instance the child is leaning over to the left. You will most likely take a shorter stride on the left and land heavier on your left foot. So instead of the effect of the extra load being shared equally between both legs, the structures of the left leg are going to be affected more so. If you only did the piggy back ride once, you may or may not have some residual soft tissue soreness and life would carry on. If you did this daily for a long period of time, your body would become conditioned in imbalance, and the chances of you having some sort of injury or developing arthritis on that left leg would increase.
Envision now a typical ride on your own horse. What percentage of that ride would you say that you feel that you are in perfect balance with your horse? Even if you are a pretty good rider there are still going to moments when you are out of sync.
The next step is to have a look in the mirror. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Put your hands on the top of your hips, are they level? Are your shoulders level? Do either your shoulders or your hips sit more forward on one side? Thinking about your day to day life, are your right or left handed? Can you see any visual differences in the muscling of your arms? Which leg do you normally put into your pants first? Tomorrow, see how it feels if you try the other leg first. If you were to do a stretching routine are there areas of your body that are more flexible on one side? How might these things affect your horse? The point is that none of us are perfectly symmetrical in our own bodies, so how can we sit on our horses, who are also not perfectly symmetrical and expect them to be straight and balanced, and move in accordance with gravity each and every step?
This is just one factor in your horses life. How many other factors can you think of that might affect your horses body in any way? Saddle fit, hoof balance, dental imbalances, how he stands when he eats, mental anxiety, are just a few more off the top of my head. My point in all of this is not to make anyone feel bad, but rather to provoke some thought about the different factors in your horses life. Being aware of the existence of these factors allows owners to take responsibility for the things that may be influencing their horse in a less than positive way. If you found that you have some imbalances in your own body, maybe you yourself would benefit from some body work. Maybe you could do some exercises to help strengthen certain areas or equalize the range of motion from one side to the other. Even awareness of your imbalances during your ride can help you make some adjustments.
Chances are we will never be able to create the perfect world for our equine partners, but we can certainly work towards the ideal.