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All horses move the same, no matter what discipline. Dressage, jumping, reining, racing, trail riding, all require the horse to bend, flex, extend, and rotate. Each discipline may emphasize one movement more than another which creates more stress and muscle tightness in specific areas of the horses body as a result of that discipline.

Problem: Cold back. Hollowing of back, with head carried high. Loss of forward motion at the canter.

I was called by Sally, a new client, who asked if I would work on her 6yo horse who seemed to “be cold backed” as she explained. “When I sit on him, he hollows his back, throws his head up, and is reluctant to go forward at the canter”. Sally’s vet assessed the horse and after a complete exam, involving flexion of his hocks and ankles, the vet decided to put the horse on a muscle relaxer for his back tightness. The vet diagnosed the horse with a sore back. If the muscle relaxer doesn’t work, the horse may have to have a nuclear scan, stated Sally.

When I met Sally and her horse, I asked if she could walk her horse in a straight line back and forth in front of me. The horse did not step underneath his body with his hind legs, appearing to lack any power to his stride. He walked like a person with a sore back. Using palpation, I found that the horse had a very tight back from behind his withers to where the back of the saddle ends on his back. The tightness was equal on both sides of the back. Upon this discovery, I immediately thought I found a simple cause for the cold back as reported by Sally.

Treatment and Cause: I worked on the entire horse using the Wilson Meagher Method of Sportsmassage™ and was able to easily loosen all the major muscles in the horse including the entire back muscles. The muscles of the back were restored to being pliable and soft.

I explained to Sally that when I can fairly easily restore the back muscle to being soft and pliable by eliminating the muscle tightness, this suggests that the cause of the back tightness is from something external. By external, I mean the tightness was caused by something outside of the horse’s body, not due to a spinal problem, injury, painful joints or feet etc. In other words, the tightness did not come from the horse, but from something happening to the horse. I asked Sally to show me her saddle and all the saddle pads she rides the horse with. I held the saddle in such a way so that I could view the gullet and examine the panels on each side of the saddle. The saddle appeared balanced and evenly stuffed. I then asked Sally to put the saddle on the horse’s back without any pads. I wanted to see if Sally was positioning the saddle correctly on the horse’s back. She placed the saddle correctly, behind the shoulder to allow the shoulder to move freely. I noticed by looking at the front of the saddle just behind the withers that the saddle fit snuggly against the horse’s back. The saddle itself did not pinch the back, but it did not allow any room for even a finger to be placed between the saddle and the body of the horse.

I then asked Sally to show me the saddle pad she used. Sally brought out two saddle pads and a ¼ inch square inch dense foam pad. Not one pad but essentially three! I held the pads and the foam pads together and found that by compressing them together, they measured about an inch in thickness. I then showed Sally that there was no space between the saddle and the back of the horse, when the saddle was placed on the back without the pads. The two pads and the dense foam pad were too thick to fit under this particular saddle, causing too much pressure on the horse’s back. There was not enough space between the saddle and the horse’s back to accommodate this thickness. Thus the pads were creating too much pressure, resulting in pain, and tightness in the back.

Sally had her horse’s best interests in mind and said she used two pads and a foam pad to protect the back because she didn’t want it to become sore. I explained that this is a common situation and is similar to a person wearing too many socks in their shoes, or, too thick of a sock in their shoe. Within an hour, or over the course of the day, the person’s feet will be sore, cramped and uncomfortable.

In summary, every problem has a cause! Fortunately this back soreness was relieved by a simple solution for a simple cause. Make sure that you don’t use too many pads if the saddle fit cannot accommodate the thickness of the pad or pads. Too much pressure in the back leads to discomfort, tightness, and ultimately, compromises the ease and freedom of movement in the horse.

For more info on back tightness see: “ Relieving Back Tightness” by Jo-Ann Wilson Practical Horseman. April 2010 and to learn a technique to relieve and prevent back tightness check out my DVD: “A Course in Equine Sportsmassage”.

To eliminate a cold back and to restore forward motion see my problem specific on-line training video: Sore Back, Hollows Back, Loss of Forward Motion


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