A sharp dip in front of the withers is one of the most common things I see in horses. When the muscles of the neck and withers (the rhomboids and trapezius) are tight, you will see this dip. It will be impossible for the neck to naturally arch and reach for the bit. A vicious cycle can begin here: The rider wants the horse on the bit and strongly encourages with the hands to get the horse on the bit. Or gadgets, like draw reins, stretchers, or gogues are brought out. You can try to force the horse into a frame, but when the muscles of the top line are stressed, all the efforts will be counterproductive.
A horse that is ewe necked and braced can not be comfortable being pulled into an “on the bit” frame. The effects of tight rhomboid and trapezius muscles will also extend into the shoulders, making free action impossible. The horse will not be truly forward. Also, a horse that can not reach with a lovely arch onto the bit cannot lift its back. The small area in front of the withers can affect a very large portion of the body of the horse, which is one of the reasons I usually start the massage there. When the withers, neck, and shoulders are tight, the horse has no recourse but to compensate by over stressing the hind end or plowing heavily on the forehand.
I always show owners and riders how to work on the rhomboids and trapezius muscles. It is not difficult. The horses usually love it. And it is not something I can fix in one session. It will take patience and persistence to release the deep and strong rhomboid that has become overly tight. I have one client, a thoroughbred off the track, who took almost three years to finally have a beautiful and supple arch from his withers to his poll. He has moved up the levels and is performing beautifully and happily.
Quote is from Trigger Point Therapy for Myofascial Pain by Donna and Steven Finando
On this blog I often talk about individual muscles of the horse, and their function. However, muscles are mostly arranged and function in groups. They wrap around each other, share fascia and points of insertion and origin.
Muscles must work together to control movement: as one muscle, the agonist, initiates movement by contracting, the antagonist relaxes, allowing the stretch into the motion. Then the two muscle types switch actions to allow the opposite motion.
Sometimes when I massage a client, I am not sure which muscle is causing a problem. For instance, the trapezius muscles lies on top of the rhomboid. I might suspect the issue I’m seeing in the horse is in the rhomboid, but the massage I do will work on both muscles. Without x-ray vision, I might never know exactly which muscle was in spasm, but I will feel and see the effects of the release.
Massage gives muscles the best possible opportunity to function fully and freely.
Did you know that there is no joint connecting the front leg of the horse to the body? The front leg literally hangs from the withers, producing a limb that acts as pendulum when in motion. The scapula is attached to the withers by the trapezius muscle.
The muscles of the front limb must create the lift and suspension of forward motion. Then they must straighten the limb and lower it to the ground. This cycle of movement is repeated by the muscles of the trapezius, rhomboid,brachiocephalicus, latissimus dorsi, and pectorals for every step the horse takes.
You can see why massage is necessary to free up tight muscle tissue, enhance blood circulation, and improve muscle tone. For horses involved in competition, equine massage therapy can boost performance by improving range of movement, because you are improving muscle quality and circulation.
The rhomboid muscle is very important for several reasons:
The shoulder blade hangs from the withers by the rhomboid, making it responsible for the swing of the shoulder.
The rhomboid goes from the withers all the way up the neck to the poll, making it responsible for the ability of the neck to stretch.
If a saddle is placed too far forward it will put pressure on the rhomboid, interfering with the muscles’ function. If the saddle is too narrow, it will pinch the rhomboid muscle, eventually causing it to atrophy. If a saddle is too wide, it will sit directly on the withers, eventually causing lameness. If you see a hollow looking spot behind the scapula, there is most likely muscle atrophy.
Where the rhomboid attaches to the withers it is very thick and strong. When there is a problem with the rhomboid, you may notice tightness in the shoulders and a loss of coordination in jumping. Massage to the stress points in the rhomboid is extremely effective, and improvement in the horse will be immediately apparent.
The average head of a horse weighs around 20 pounds. One of the muscles that has the task of holding the head up is the rhomboid. The rhomboid covers the withers and travels all the way up the crest of the neck to the poll This powerful muscle not only has the job of lifting the head, but also attaches to the scapula and pulls it forward and up. I usually start body work sessions by checking the rhomboid. Feeling the health of that muscle can give me a good indication of what is going on in the neck and the back.
Since the rhomboid is so strong, it is not easy to change. Any constriction in the neck, especially right in front of the withers, can take many massage sessions to relax. I always show owners/riders/grooms how to continue the work I do on the rhomboid on their own. Balancing the muscles of the neck is crucial to athletic performance: when the rhomboid is very tight you will see the horse swing his head sideways at each stride. By flinging his head and neck away from the shoulder that is working, he avoids feeling the discomfort of a very tight rhomboid.
It will take persistence to free the rhomboid, but the rewards are many: jumping ability will increase. The horse will feel more elastic in dressage. The stride will feel longer and less choppy.
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.
I’m going to discuss the rhomboids and trapezius muscles as one, since it is very difficult to differentiate them by touch or by performance. The rhomboid and trapezius muscles cover the withers and go up the neck to the poll. They are the muscles that allow the neck to arch. When contracted, they can cause a ewe neck to develop. This muscle is also attached to the shoulder blade and pulls it forward and up in motion. Healthy muscles in this area will allow a horse to travel in an uphill frame comfortable and naturally.
Many horses have a dip in front of their withers. That is an indication of a tight rhomboid. Since this tightness can take up to a year to change, I always show owners how to massage the area so it can be done on a daily basis.
Tightness in the trapezius can cause a hollow back. It is important to release the tension since the horse will often develop hind end problems to compensate for the discomfort. Everything is connected! When the rhomboid/trapezius area is contracted, I almost always find trouble in the muscles of the shoulder. I will discuss those muscles (spinatus) in another post.