The goal in riding, in our bodies, and our horses, is balance. Poor balance and posture is a symptom that the body is stiff and in pain. A horse that is heavy on the forehand is a horse with bad posture. An uneven gait is often the result of bad posture.
I worked on a horse recently that was so downhill it looked like it’s chest was sinking to its knees. His rider said she was tired of having to hold him up, of having him lean on her. I found his pectoral muscles to be tight but stretched out. The pectoral muscles support the rib cage, and if they are stuck in an extended position, if they have not contracted back to a good postural balance, it is impossible to elevate the forehand. Trying to do collected movements on this guy was a losing battle. He was severely limited by his weak and inflexible muscles.
There is a massage technique for raising the chest and I spent quite some time and effort trying it. At first I got nowhere. I had to go back and work more on the pectoral muscles (there are four) before he was ready to be lifted. The second or third time around I started to see the withers and back raise just a bit.
This is the beginning. It will take a few sessions and good riding to reverse the effects of bad posture in this teenaged horse. I am confident that it will happen. The horse was relaxed and happy at the end of the session and I got a good report of a comfortable and relaxed ride today. Working towards good posture and flexibility will be the key to prevent injuries that can occur when a horse is heavy on his forehand. With posture restored, horses feel more tranquil and less stressed. Postural balance is good for the mind as well as the body!
The way the muscles of your horse are developed can give you big clues as to what areas are getting over-stressed and which muscles the horse might be avoiding using.
I have an equine client that is massive. He is half draft, half Dutch warmblood and is impressively huge. When I work on him, I work up a sweat trying to get through the density of his muscles. But a red flag has been waving since I first started working on him: his pectoral muscles have always felt flabby in comparison with the rest of him.
I always aim to massage this big guy to help him achieve better balance and shift weight off his front end. His front legs have been injury prone and his owner has found that keeping him on a 3 or 4 week body work schedule helps keep him free from injury. Keeping a horse balanced, both laterally and longitudinally, is one of the best insurance policies you can find. Noticing the weaker muscles on your horse can guide you towards a fitness and injury prevention program.
The pectoral muscles are flexors. They keep the chest from sagging. They support the rib cage. They allow the front legs to swing. It is not unusual for the pectoral muscles to get tight when stretched out. Instead of getting short, they get stuck in an extended position and do not contract as they should. The horse will appear to be on the forehand. Usually I loosen tight muscles so they can lengthen. In this case, I need to use massage to relax the muscles so they can contract. Once these muscles are released, they will once again be able to elevate the forehand and the front legs will be able to stretch forward freely.
Exercise after the massage helps to keep the muscle fibers released and relaxed. Hill work and cantering encourage the further stretching and relaxation made during the massage.
When muscle cells can slide easily past each other, movement is smooth. If certain cells or muscle fibers adhere to each other, a muscle may have difficulty shortening as well as lengthening. Any time muscle fibers get clumped together, the muscle will be prevented from easily lengthening or shortening. A muscle can get stuck in an extended position, a situation I see fairly frequently with the pectoral muscles of a horse, and the triceps. A buckling may occur on shortening: think of a rug getting wrinkled.
Even when there is no apparent pain, I often find trigger points in muscles. When pressed the horse does show that there is soreness. These tender points are bands of tight tissue within the muscle. When left untreated, pain will eventually show up away from the area of tight tissue.
An example of trigger point pain in people is a headache. When there are trigger points in the neck and trapezius muscles, a tension headache is a common result.
Trigger points are formed by chronic overload of a muscle, and can then cause secondary points to form as a result (sort of satellite trigger points). Other causes are arthritis in joints, fatigue, and trauma. Poor posture can put enough stress on muscles to create trigger points.
In people, carrying a heavy purse or briefcase on the same side all the time can cause enough muscle overload to cause trigger points to form. In horses, I suggest that people alternate the side they mount and dismount on to avoid trigger points in the serratus, long back, rhomboid, trapezius,and posterior pectoral muscles.