Your horse used to enjoy his work, but now he pins his ears and sucks back when you ask him go forward. He balks when you ask for the canter and has trouble picking up the correct lead. He doesn’t seem lame—but he doesn’t seem right. What’s up?
While a number of causes can underlie these signs, in my work as an equine sports massage therapist, I’ve found that one is especially common: Tight muscles in your horse's girth area. In this article, I’ll tell you how to figure out if your horse has this problem, and I’ll outline some simple steps to solve it using equine sports massage.
The specific muscle involved is the posterior pectoral, one of three pectoral muscles that help move the foreleg. This flat, triangular muscle lies against the rib cage behind your horse’s foreleg. It fans away from a point on the back of the humerus (the large arm bone below the shoulder) to points along his rib cage and sternum (breastbone) at the midline of the belly. When this muscle contracts, it pulls the leg back. Other muscles contract to move the limb forward—but the leg can’t swing forward freely unless the posterior pectoral relaxes to let it go.
Simple muscle tightness here is a very common cause of shortened strides. If the posterior pectoral is tight, it doesn’t release the leg easily, so forward motion is inhibited. Hind limb motion may be affected, too, as a horse’s front and hind always move in synch. Your horse may be “girthy,” objecting when saddled or mounted or moving with short, stilted steps. In extreme cases, a horse may even rear to resist going forward. Often, though, the signs are subtle. Because your horse is uncomfortable reaching fully forward in front, he may:
- have difficulty going up or down hills;
- be reluctant to pick up a lead or tend to swap off or cross-canter;
- hang a leg over fences;
- have difficulty with banks, drops and ascending oxers—obstacles that require extra “reach” in front;
- show reluctance when asked for lengthenings or tempi changes; and
- tire quickly, because he has to work against the tightness to go forward.
When a horse shows any of these signs, it’s not difficult to find out if the posterior pectoral is involved. Perform this simple check on each side of your horse: Stand at his shoulder and run your hand, fingers flat against his side, over the area behind his elbow. (This is a sensitive spot, so be aware that your horse may move away or even kick out, especially if he’s sore.) If the muscle is relaxed, this area will feel flat and soft. If it’s tight or in spasm you’ll feel a knot—a lump in the shape of a small hot dog, across the muscle (perpendicular to the ground).
Work It Out
A simple massage technique helps the muscle relax. Standing behind your horse’s shoulder, put the flat of your hand against his side just behind his elbow. Keep your hand relaxed. Using soft, moderate pressure with the entire palm or back of your hand, gently work along the muscle for a distance of about one-and-a-half hand lengths. Your horse will tell you—by moving away, pinning his ears or giving other signs—if the pressure is too strong. Typically the knot releases in just a few minutes. Then the muscle feels soft and pliable, and your horse relaxes.
Follow the massage with exercise, which completes the treatment by activating and lengthening the muscle fibers. Cantering is especially helpful for this. To really solve the problem, though, you need to figure out what’s causing the tightness. Here are six prime suspects, and the fix for each:
- Saddle placement: Incorrect saddle placement is the most common cause. Too often, the saddle is put on too far forward, so the girth passes right behind the elbow. Girth pressure there pinches the muscle and provokes spasms. The fix: Because every horse’s conformation is slightly different, it’s hard to make hard-and-fast rules for proper saddle and girth position. But you’ll generally be safe if you place the saddle so that it doesn’t sit on his shoulder blade and interfere with the action of the shoulder and so there’s space between his girth and his foreleg.
- Girth length: A short girth like those used in dressage sometimes causes the posterior pectoral to tighten, particularly if the buckles line up right on top of the muscle. The fix: Switch to a longer girth, and see if that ends the problem.Girth type: A narrow girth concentrates pressure on a smaller area than a wide girth does and is more likely to cause problems. The fix: Try a wider girth. Fabric is a good choice, at least for schooling. I think it’s more comfortable for the horse than leather. Elastic at one end of the girth is also good, because it allows a little give. Elastic at both ends may be too much if it allows the saddle to shift.
- Work: Performing the same maneuver over and over—cantering endless circles, for example, or overdoing lengthenings—can lead to tightness in the girth area, as well as in other muscles. The fix: Vary the work, changing gaits and directions often.
- Footing: Working in deep footing tires your horse and contributes to muscle tightness. The fix: Limit the amount you do in deep footing.
- Hidden problem: Sometimes the real cause isn’t at the girth area at all. Your horse may have a problem in his lower leg or foot, for example. He tightens the posterior pectoral to protect his sore leg by limiting the range of motion. (In orthopedic medicine, this is called “protective splinting.”) Then the muscle goes into spasm. In cases like this, the knot often doesn’t resolve quickly with simple massage, and the problem doesn’t clear up with changes in tack and work routines. The fix: No simple fix here; a veterinarian and/or farrier needs to assess your horse.
Correcting the underlying cause of the tightness should allow your horse to move freely again. In addition, some simple stretches and changes in warm-up routines often help horses who have this problem.
- Before you mount, stretch your horse’s pectorals by drawing his front legs forward, one at a time. Grasp a leg behind the knee, lift it so that the forearm is almost parallel to the ground and gently pull it forward (see photos page 66). (Don’t grab the pastern and pull the whole leg out. That stretches his leg tendons.) Repeat with the other leg. If your horse has tightened his posterior pectorals in response to girth pressure, this will help release them. Do this stretch once or twice on each side, as tolerated by your horse.
- Warm up with work that encourages your horse to lengthen and stretch these muscles. Cantering is the most concerted exercise for lengthening. (That’s why the trot always feels so much better after a canter.) Walking up hills is also excellent.
- When you untack after work, repeat the foreleg stretch described above. It will help release any lingering tightness.
By identifying tightness in your horse’s posterior pectoral muscle and working to loosen it, you will be able to help him move more freely—and happily.
Jo-Ann Wilson is a licensed massage therapist, teacher and researcher whose clinical practice includes humans as well as horses. Her equine practice spans all disciplines—from international competition horses to backyard pleasure horses. She worked at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney as the sports therapist for the United States Equestrian Team’s eventing squad, winners of individual gold and team bronze medals. Based in Searsmont, Maine, Jo-Ann was a longtime associate of the late Jack Meagher, a pioneer in the field of sports massage therapy. She partnered with him in Wilson and Meagher Sportstherapy, which offers training programs in the Meagher method of sports massage. Jo-Ann has also produced an educational sportsmassage DVD, available this fall. Information on the programs is available online at www.sportsmassageinc.com.