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Protect and Strengthen Your Horse’s Back

Simple exercises to strengthen and protect your horse’s back.

If you look at the anatomy of a horse, you can see they are really better designed for pulling a cart than having a human ride on their back.  They have massive hind quarters, and strong shoulders.  Then there is this span of unsupported spinal cord, from which all of the horse’s internal organs hang.  We then sit directly on top and add our weight to this unsupported area.

We don’t often think about riding a horse from this perspective because they seem so big and strong, but many behavior “problems” and poor performances in horses can be attributed to back problems.

 One way to keep your horse’s back comfortable and strong is to be sure that the saddle you are using fits him properly.  Each time a horse steps under himself with a hind leg, his back raises slightly.  A saddle must allow for this movement.

First - A properly fitted saddle

Western saddles are easier on a horse’s back because the weight is more evenly distributed, even though they weigh more than an English type saddle.  When a western saddle fits a horse properly, you should be able to put three fingers vertically between the horse’s withers and the pommel of the saddle, under the horn.  If the horse’s withers are closer than three fingers high it will rub and hurt him as he moves.  If the saddle sits higher than this, it will not distribute the weight properly and will pinch the horse’s back on either side of the withers.

 A properly fitted English saddle should allow you to place two fingers vertically between the horse’s withers and the pommel of the saddle while you are sitting in the saddle.  This is very important because the stuffing or flocking as it is called, in an English saddle will compress under your weight.  A saddle that looks fine sitting on the horse before you get on may fit very differently when you are sitting in it.  Another way to check the fit of an English saddle is to take a thick lead rope and run it in the channel under the saddle.  The channel is the part right under the seat, where the two side “cushions” do not meet.  When you are sitting in the saddle, you should be able to slide the rope forward and backward without it getting stuck.  You can also try standing directly behind your horse and looking under the seat of the saddle. If the saddle fits properly, you should be able to see daylight through the channel.  As with the Western saddle, if it sits too high off the withers, the tree is too narrow for the horse, and will pinch him on either side of the withers.  When you have finished riding, notice how your horse sweats under the saddle.  If the horse is wet with sweat where the saddle was, but you notice one or more dry spots, those are places where the saddle has pinched so badly that those areas were not able to sweat properly.

 Saddle fitting should be done without a saddle pad on.  Big thick pads and expensive specialty pads are not a substitute for a properly fitted saddle.  There are many professional saddle fitters available today that can help you determine if your saddle is properly fitted to your horse.  Asking your horse to work in a saddle that doesn’t fit is like asking you to go hiking in shoes that don’t fit.   

Then - The exercises 

Once you have a properly fitted saddle, you can also do these simple exercises with your horse to strengthen his back.  The first thing you can do is teach your horse to lower his head for you.  You can do this by using your fingers at the poll (right between his ears).  This is a very sensitive pressure point.  Do not try to push his head down.  Keep applying pressure like gentle poking and he should eventually drop his head.  Dropping his head stretches his back muscles.

After you have gotten him to keep his head down for a period of several minutes, you can try some “fly catches.”  Stand next to your horse’s shoulder, and reach under his neck to the shoulder on the opposite side.  Use your fingertips (or better yet, fingernails) and gently pick at the hair on the opposite shoulder.  Your horse will think it is a fly and will swing his head over to get it.  Very often you will hear his neck “pop” when he does this.  Do two or three fly catches on both sides.

 Horses are particularly fond of carrot stretches.  Make your horse stretch his head all the way back to his hip to reach his favorite treat.  You may be surprised at how difficult this is for some horses at first.  They will want to turn in a circle, but don’t give in.  Make them stand still and stretch all the way back.  If you have read my article, “Sweets and Treats” you know I am not a fan of using treats.  My own horse, Greta, became very nasty, frustrated and nippy after doing these stretches for just one week.  I have been able to get her to do these stretches by using the same “picking” or light scratching against the hair that I used for the fly catches, only doing it back by her hip on the same side that I am standing on.  Another alternative to carrots is using a couple long wisps of hay.

 Another type of carrot stretch is to make your horse arch his neck and reach between his front legs, close to his chest, for a treat.

  For stretching and muscle building you can ask your horse to lift his back muscles.  There are two ways you can do this.  One is to place the tips of your fingers directly under his belly, close to where the saddle’s cinch or girth would go, and push up.  Some chiropractors also use this method to get the horse to lower his head.  The resulting action in the horse is to lift his belly and arch his back upwards.  You can get a similar type of reaction by placing your hands on the horse’s rump, about a hand’s width from the tail on either side.  Using your fingertips, push or scratch up towards the hip.  You will know when you have hit the right spot because your horse will lift his back up.  He may also tuck his tail under, like he is trying to sit down.  If you ever got a cold hose up under a horse’s tail unexpectedly you know the motion, but it will not be as exaggerated.  These exercises are the equivalent of horse sit-ups.  They are difficult for the horse to do.  It is always best to do the other stretches first, and then only do one or two at a time.  They can do wonders to strengthen your horse’s back, engage his hindquarters for collection, and improve his suppleness.