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!
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.
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 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.
When standing, does your horse stand square, or do his hind legs appear to be trailing out behind? When trotting or cantering, does your horse feel strung out? The cause could be that the pelvis has rotated. This can happen when a horse jumps a jump that is too big for his fitness level. Also, if the horse lands with his feet out behind and the rider sits down hard at the same time, the pelvis can be shoved into a position that causes pain in the stifle, hocks, croup, lower back, and even the withers. Myofascial release and stress point therapy can reverse this condition. Hand walking down a steep hill will encourage the horse to maintain the position after it is corrected. It may be necessary to include chiropractic treatment if the condition is severe.
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.
There can be many causes for your horse being stiff in the area of the withers. If your horse is willing to take either canter lead, but just feels tight and stiff, there could be a problem in the withers that can be corrected with myofascial release. Sometimes in turnout the horse will roll over a rock, or the saddle might be slipping forward, or the horse has been ridden in “rollkur”. The thoracic vertebrae can be pushed out of alignment from any of these conditions. The trot and canter will immediately feel more supple,uphill, and free after one bodywork session.
We have all read books and taken fantastic clinics that point out the correct frame for our horses. Usually the focus is on the neck and head, but the problem really begins in the shoulder blades: When the shoulder blades go forward (just the same as in humans, see photos below) the withers sink and create a ewe neck. The vicious cycle begins: the muscles on the underside of the neck bulk up and the crest gets tighter and underdeveloped. Once proper posture is restored through various releases, self carriage is possible. The neck will appear longer and the withers will look higher. I have a client (a thoroughbred) who had a devastating accident a few years ago. His withers were shattered in three places and were completely sunken. There was a literal “valley” between his shoulder blades Gradually, through chiropractic treatment and many massages, this horse appears to be “growing” withers. He is ridden correctly and seems to be regaining the several inches in height that he lost in the accident. He is now competing at Training level in eventing and is back to his naughty, chestnut ways!
The top line of a fit equine athlete should appear to be a continuous flow. Angular areas are where I go first to find soreness. Most common areas for breaks in the flow are in front of the withers, behind the withers, and behind the saddle. Today I’ll focus on the area behind the withers. This is where the long back muscle attaches at the back of the withers.
The longissimus dorsi is a complex muscle, and very important to riders. It is where you sit, where the saddle sits, and it is used in lateral flexion. I often find the forward attachment to be sore after cross country day, especially in upper level horses that have big drops to navigate. But any horse that jumps and lands hard can become tight The resulting spasm is usually easy to find, and fairly easy to release.