Many people believe the vertebrae in a horses’ neck lie below the mane, but they are actually much lower: they sit just above the trachea, or airway of the horse. Make sure your horse is in proper alignment through chiropractic treatments and deep tissue massage since any deviation in the neck will affect breathing. If the first two vertebrae ( the axis and the atlas) are out of alignment, you will not see a beautiful top line, since these vertebrae help shape the neck.
Always be careful when asking a horse to ” go on the bit.” Forcing the neck into a frame with your hands will create many problems down the road. Allowing the horse to find a natural balance through the whole body, rather than focusing on the shape of the neck in isolation, will save you and your horse much pain and frustration.
There are many similarities between the anatomy of horses and people, but there are also some startling differences. At birth the new born foal has a fully developed nervous system that lets it get up and run within less than an hour. In contrast, the newborn human is completely helpless for many months.
Both horses and humans have 7 vertebrae in the neck, though the size is considerably different!
Horses do not have collar bones. Collar bones in people make them less prone to shoulder injury than horses.
Humans have 12 pairs of ribs. Horses have 18.
Humans have 5 lumbar (lower back) vertebrae, while horses have 6 or 7. Most Arabian horses, however, have 5.
The tail bone is longer in the horse than the coccyx of humans.
Surprisingly, the human skeleton is much greater in mass than the horse. The skeleton of the horse must carry more muscle mass, which is important to remember when evaluating massage needs of a horse. While a rider might feel just fine after a vigorous run across country side, in a dressage test, or over jumps, the muscles of the horse may have experienced much more stress.
If you can see hollow areas right in front of the shoulders, on the neck, it is likely that the serratus muscles of the neck are not functioning properly. Unlike other muscles that get tight and need to be loosened, the cervical serratus muscles tend to become flabby and do not contract as they should. The serratus muscles of the neck are like fingers that attach to these vertebrae: C4, C5, C6, C7. When they are toned they help arch the neck, bend, and lift the forehand.
Sports massage is a fast and easy solution to the problem of serratus muscles that are not contracting efficiently.
Sometimes a ewe neck is the result of incorrect riding, but it can also be caused by the serratus muscles not working properly. The serratus muscles , which attach to four of the neck vertebrae and the first nine ribs,are responsible for lifting the chest and arching the neck. When the serratus muscles are tight, the horse appears to be on the forehand. Massage can loosen the cervical and thoracic serratus muscles. The horse will appear to re-balance as the muscles begin to function correctly.
The withers are comprised of 5 vertebrae, the 3rd through the 7th thoracic. What makes these vertebrae different from the other 50 or so is that they are easy to see and feel. Today I went to work on a pony for the third time. He had severe pain in his long back muscles and lumber area the first session. I released big spasms in the muscle attachments of the longissimus dorsi and gluteus. That pain was gone today, but I wanted to make sure it doesn’t return. I noticed as I watched him being led around that he was not bending at all when walked on a circle to the left.
When a horse travels left on a circle, you should be able to see the withers tip to the right, and vice versa. The withers should feel supple, and the suppleness should be equal in both directions. The pony felt very stiff in his withers, so I worked on releasing spasms and getting a feeling of softness. I ended with a rocking motion which he really enjoyed. Instead of bracing and standing stiffly as he had before, he started swaying and closing his eyes. The vertebrae of the withers should wiggle a bit. If your horse is having a hard time turning in a certain direction, check to see if his withers look stuck. Myofascial release, stress point release, and other massage techniques worked wonders for this little athlete.
An important part of any body work session is to assess the state of the tail. A tight tail can signal lumbar pain and general stress in the body. Performing a tail pull correctly can release muscles in the back and gluteals and allows the entire spine to feel open. The muscles of the tail are a continuation of the extensor muscles of the horse’s top line that start at the poll.
There are 4 major muscles in the tail. I believe these need to be massaged before a tail pull is performed. I make sure the entire horse is balanced and relaxed before I do a tail pull, so this is generally done at the end of a session. Tension in the tail muscles, which lift and lower the tail, and allow it to swing side to side, affects the suppleness of the entire body. Never just grab a tail and pull. That could be dangerous for both human and horse. You could get kicked, and you could damage tight muscles that have not been prepared properly to be stretched.
First I work on the hamstring attachments. Sometimes that work alone will allow the tail to relax. I continue by working with deep pressure down the sides of the vertebrae in the tail. I work on the junction where tail and sacrum connect.
The tail pull needs to be done slowly and gently. Hold the tail with both hands close to where the vertebrae end. Lean back gradually. Allow the horse to pull back against you on his own. Let the horse pull left or right if he wants to. Hold as long as your horse likes, up to 3 minutes or so. End the pull by gradually easing up on the pressure. Do not just let go. Hopefully you will hear a contented sigh. Time for some carrots!
Feel free to ask any questions that may arise from working on your horse!
In humans, spinal discs between vertebrae are fluid filled ligaments. A slipped or ruptured disc is when the fluid, through injury, spills into spinal nerves. This also occurs in dogs and cats. In horses there is no fluid in the disc. The vertebrae of horses can degenerate with age, but the discs do not herniate. Wherever there is more movement, such as the neck, there is a greater chance for wear with age.
Many horse owners believe that a diagnosis of “kissing spine” is career ending. It does not have to be. The condition occurs when the bony ‘spikes’ at the top of the horse’s vertebrae start to rub together, causing pain and swelling, especially when in motion. If the long back muscle is very contracted, it can pull the vertebrae together and cause pain. Kissing spine is most prevalent in dressage horses doing many collected movements, jumpers, and upper level event horses. Thoroughbreds seem to be predisposed to developing the problem.
Surgery and injections are often recommended, but I have seen horses recover with the following:
Spreading out the fibers of the tight muscles through massage is one way to allow the spine to return to a normal state. Teaching the horse how to raise his back by releasing the posterior pectoral muscle also helps. Cold laser is another way to ease pain and help relaxation. Proper saddle fitting is essential. Don’t overdo sitting trot. As in humans, it is always worth trying physical therapy solutions before surgery. Chiropractic treatment, cold laser, acupuncture, and massage have all been very effective in many cases.
The word sacrum is derived from the word “sacred”. There are cultures and religions that still consider the sacrum the seat of the soul. The sacrum is located close to the reproductive organs and the center of gravity. It forms the base of the spine and the “anchor” of the hind end. (I will discuss the atlas, the other anchor, in another post). The sacrum of the horse is formed by five vertebrae. A balanced sacrum will positively affect the hind legs and lumbar area.
If you find your horse sensitive to the touch in his lower back or sacrum, or you feel his stride is shorter than usual, it may be time for bodywork. A refusal to turn quickly or jump will be the next set of signs that your horse is feeling pain in the sacral area. You may notice an asymmetrical appearance to the hips, with one lower than the other, or a ” hunter’s bump”. Many people consider the bump to be normal for jumping horse, but it actually signifies an injury. Chiropractic treatment combined with sports massage can provide pain relief, restored movement, and prevention of more serious injury.