Does your trail horse have a stiff, sore back? There are a number of possible causes for his back problem, says top trainer Linda Tellington-Jones.
- Poor condition. "A horse who exhibits stiffness or a sore back after a long trail ride may not have been conditioned or prepared for the ride," says Tellington-Jones.
- Poor carriage. Your horse's carriage (posture) as he travels down the trail is another sore-back cause. Poor carriage includes a high head, hollow back, ewe neck, and over-eager/pulling on the bit. Such postures will make him hold his breath and tighten his muscles, resulting in a sore, stiff back.
- Poor/wrong equipment. Equipment causes are easy to overlook. For instance, a mechanical hackamore's long shanks may swing when your horse is in motion, even when he's just walking. Many horses will lift their heads in an effort to prevent the swinging. This raised head carriage can cause back stiffness and soreness.
- Poor saddle fit. "Saddle fit can certainly lead to a stiff and sore back," says Tellington-Jones. "If your horse is uncomfortable because the saddle is pushing into his shoulder when he's in motion, especially at the trot, he'll most likely develop a sore back. He'll tighten his muscles to pull away from the pressure in his shoulder blades."
A saddle that bridges your horse's back (that is, rests on two points over his withers and two points over his loins) will also cause soreness.
"If you have a short-backed horse, the saddle's cantle may seem to fit while he's standing," notes Tellington-Jones. "But when his head comes up to go into the trot or canter, his back will often drop, and the cantle will jam into the top of the pelvis. Of course, this will hurt, and he'll drop his back even more."
Also, keep in mind that horses change shape as they age and with their fitness level. A saddle that fit your horse when he was 3 years old may not fit when he's 6.
To make sure your saddle fits, seek out professional advice.
- Uncomfortable saddle pad. Use a saddle pad that makes the saddle as comfortable as possible for your horse.
"I've had success with the Cloud Nine saddle pads (www.cloudninesaddlepads.com), developed by Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM," says Tellington-Jones. "I've seen horses with sore backs recover during a ride by switching to a Cloud Nine pad. The other pad I like is the Skito pad (www.skito.net)."
The good news is that you can often prevent sore backs and/or relieve stiffness by performing Tellington TTouches before and after you ride.
Also, consider using a TTouch Balance Rein (available at www.ttouch.com) on your trail horse. This is a simple, braided, looped piece that you hold along with your regular reins. It works on the area of your horse where his neck ties into his shoulders.
"A Balance Rein will rate your horse — slow him down without raising his head or pulling on the bit," says Tellington-Jones. "When you engage the Balance Rein, it puts pressure on his chest, shifting the center of gravity back, slowing him down, and bringing him into balance and off the forehand.
"It's ideal for horses that are above the bit, behind the vertical, or strung out. It's remarkable how the Balance Rein can help to increase suppleness and mobility in the back, rather than making your horse sore and stiff because you have to hold him back with the reins and bit.
"The Balance Rein can also help you avoid a tug-of-war with your horse, and keep you from pulling on the reins.
Incorporating the TTouches described here into your regular pre-ride and post-ride routines will go a long way toward avoiding back stiffness and soreness in your horse.
Just 10 minutes of TTouch exercises before a ride will help your horse round his back and loosen his muscles. A series of TTouches after a ride will help your horse eat better, sleep better, and recover better than he would otherwise," says Tellington-Jones.
Below is how to use TTouch Tail Pulls to relieve your horse's stiff back. (For five more stiff-back solutions, see The Trail Rider, May '11.)
TTouch Tail Pulls are useful in the case of muscle fatigue in unconditioned trail horses. Not only does pulling the tail relax the back and neck, but it also activates cranial-sacral fluid through the spine.
"Your horse's tail has between 18 and 21 vertebrae that are an extension of the spine," says Tellington-Jones. "Many horses actually lean into the Tail Pull; imagine how good it must feel to them to stretch like that. It only takes a few minutes to gently pull and hold the tail, then put a little tension on it, then gently and slowly release.
"It takes only three or four times with this exercise to help your horse," she continues. "Once, a student's horse started trembling about 30 miles into a 100-mile endurance ride. My student did Tail Pulls, and the horse stopped the trembling in about 20 minutes and recovered enough to be ridden out to a waiting trailer."
To perform tail pulls, stand slightly to the side of your horse's hindquarters, angled so that one foot is in front of the other.
Hold your horse's raised tail firmly in both hands. Shift your weight from your leading foot to your back foot, applying a steady pull to the tail without bending your elbows.
Hold the traction for a few seconds and then slowly shift your weight from your back foot to your front foot, releasing the pull. Releasing slowly is very important. Repeat two or three times.
Don't be surprised if your horse turns his head around to see what feels so good or leans into the pull!
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for national horse publications. The author of eight books, her most recent is Cow-horse Confidence, written with Martin Black (Western Horseman Publishing). Horse-crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. She and her Paint Horse gelding, Ben, enjoy regular trail-riding adventures.
Linda Tellington-Jones (www.ttouch.com) is a lifelong horsewoman who's competed extensively in combined training, hunter/jumper, and dressage events.
She's completed six 100-mile Western States Trail Foundation Tevis Cup endurance rides and held a world record in endurance riding by winning the Jim Shoulders 100 some six hours before the second place rider. She's been an official member of the veterinary team for the United States Endurance Team.
Tellington-Jones is internationally renowned for creating the Tellington Method, a holistic system of training horses that deepens mutual trust, overrides common resistances, and strengthens the horse-human bond.
She's written 19 books on the Tellington Method and TTouch, and has produced 18 videos. There are more than 1,500 certified Tellington Training Practitioners in 27 countries.