Exercises And Stretches Help Strengthen Horses With Sore Backs

If your horse has a sore or weak back or is recovering from an injury, you may be wondering what to do to help him build strength, overcome soreness and develop a well-defined topline. In this article, we share ideas for exercises and stretches to help your horse recover from injury and/or build back muscle. We aim to cover both ground exercises for horses to build muscle and exercises for horses with sore backs. Read on to learn more.

What Kinds Of Stretches And Exercises Help?

A horse can suffer from a musculoskeletal injury and/or pain from head to tail (all along the neck and backbone) and through the ribs and sternum.

Recovery from back problems can be quite challenging and time consuming, but with consistent mobilization exercises, stretching and physical therapy, the outcome of back problems can be positive.

For some horses, active exercise, including hydrotherapy is key. For others, stretches involving the mid-back and/or the neck make all the difference in the world.

8 Different Horse Stretches

The type of rehabilitation you use with your horse is dependent upon the diagnosis and the advice of your vet. Before you begin any treatment or exercise, it is important to get a thorough evaluation.

Have your vet perform a complete clinical examination to pinpoint your horse’s problem and provide a proper diagnosis.

When you have a firm grasp of the situation, you can work with your vet to develop a rehabilitation program to help restore your horse to normal motion.

Your rehabilitation routine should include mobilization techniques for pre-warm-up, warm-up and strengthening.

Pre-Warm Up Equine Exercises For “Cold” Muscles

Pre-Warm Up Equine Exercises

Before you begin, you may wish to warm up your horse’s back with warmed blankets or hot packs. If the weather is cold, be sure to keep the back covered with a warm blanket or rug throughout your horse’s workout.

Carrot Stretches

A simple exercise routine known as the “carrot stretch” can help limber up your horse’s neck and mid-back after a time of inactivity.

This involves using a carrot (or other desired treat) to get your horse to move through a series of three different motions:

  1. Flexion or rounding
  2. Extension or hollowing
  3. Lateral or side-to-side bending

Performing carrot stretches every day helps improve your horse’s core strength and flexibility and enhances vertebral range of motion.

Refer to this PDF guide from the University of Tennessee for more information.

When you have completed the carrot stretch routine, begin quiet, gentle walking exercises back-and-forth, in large circles and figure-eight patterns. When your horse is thoroughly warmed up, you can move on to more challenging exercises.

Warm-Up Exercises

ground exercises for horses to build muscle
  • Lunging with side-reins is a good practice that warms your horse’s muscles and allows you to guide him to move in a way that supports recovery and strengthening.
  • When your horse is thoroughly warmed up and in his stride, try walking or trotting over poles. This helps encourage better muscles function in the hips and hind end. It is also beneficial to proprioception.
  • Vary footing and slopes while exercising or riding. Walking uphill strengthens abdominal muscles. Walking downhill can be beneficial for horses suffering from sacroiliac joint disease in that it helps loosen the muscles surrounding the joint and may help relieve pain and stiffness.
  • Walking in deep footing, such as sand, causes a horse to lift its hind feet higher, which has a strengthening effect.
  • Avoid firm footing, such as pavement, because it is jarring and can be damaging to horses suffering from injury or chronic conditions involving joints and bones.

What To Do About Specific Pain

  • If your horse experiences pain in the 18th (thoracic) vertebra, allow a lot of free movement in warm up. Allow the horse to move in large, open circles. Don’t use a surcingle because it may irritate soreness in the muscles and ligaments along the sides of the backbone.
  • Horses suffering from lower back pain should have ample time to warm up at the walk (at least twenty minutes) before moving on to the trot.
  • Interestingly, some horses are more comfortable cantering than trotting because cantering does not cause twisting of the spine. This is also true of horses suffering from sacroiliac, pelvic or lumbosacral pain. When this is the case, it may be better to move from the walk to the canter and then slow down to the trot.
  • When working with a horse who experiences neck, back or hip pain, always avoid working in tight circles and patterns. Instead, move in large loops and figure-eights. Horses with pelvic pain can benefit from working in concentric circles. Start in a large circle and work inwards to a small circle. Repeat this exercise twice going in opposite directions to work both sides equally.

Eight Other Therapies Your Vet May Recommend

therapies your vet may recommend

1. Adaptive Equipment

If your horse is having problems with stiffness in the ankles, hocks, stifles and/or hips, your vet may recommend that he wear weighted ankle or ice boots during pre-warm-up and while warming up.

In addition to increasing strength and flexibility, this helps improve your horse’s proprioception, which is the sense of where limbs are in relation to the body. This makes your horse more sure-footed.

2. Physical Therapy

Your vet may also refer you to a veterinary physical therapist for equine massage therapy. According to the journal of the American Veterinarian, equine massage is an excellent tool for providing relaxation and pain relief. Massage therapy encourages good circulation and helps locate the nexus of muscles spasms.

3. Electrical Stimulation Therapy

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) electrotherapy stimulates nerves and helps decrease pain. Shock wave therapy is helpful in treating pain trigger points and reducing muscle spasms.

4. Therapeutic Ultrasound

Therapeutic ultrasound also stimulates pain trigger points while improving blood circulation and relaxing muscles. Wrapping sore joints with kinesiotape provides support for muscles and ligaments. Good wrapping can both strengthen and relax damaged joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments while providing relief from inflammation.

5. Hydrotherapy

Swimming, using a water treadmill and engaging in other forms of hydrotherapy can help a horse build muscle strength without weight bearing. This can be very helpful for horses who have been injured or have just undergone surgery.

6. Cryotherapy

Your vet may recommend cold therapy with anhydrous nitrogen to relax and stimulate sore muscles.

7. Laser Therapy

Laser therapy can be used as a way of stimulating pain trigger points to facilitate healing.

8. Magnetic Therapy

Magnetic therapy may be helpful in supporting blood vessel healing.

Address The Obvious & Work With Your Vet

Before you do anything, be sure your tack is properly fitted. Very often a poorly fitting saddle is the cause of back pain in horses. If you overlook this, no amount of exercise, stretching or therapy will help.

No matter what you may believe is wrong with your horse, it is of the utmost importance that you get a proper diagnosis from your vet and work closely with him or her in designing a rehabilitation and strengthening program for your horse.

Don’t try to do this sort of thing entirely on your own because missteps could cause more and different damage.

Building A Top Line

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What can you do to improve your horse’s back strength?

Just as with people, it is important that horses keep moving to attain and maintain overall health and fitness. If you keep your horse in a stall or small paddock, it is very important that you establish a regular schedule of light to moderate exercise to help keep him fit and strong. Regular walks, turn out time, lunging and light riding will go far to improve your horse’s overall physical and mental fitness.

2. What are some specific exercises that may strengthen a horse’s back?

Ground work that includes stepping over raised poles, backing and walking in fairly tight circles can be helpful and interesting to your horse. Note that if your horse has had problems with laminitis, tight circles are not advised.

3. What is “Pilates for horses”?

This is a term people often use when talking about equine physiotherapy. If your horse has a weak back or spine, your veterinarian may recommend special physiotherapy exercises such as:
– Lumbo-sacral tucks
– Caudal tail pulls
– Lateral tail pulls
– Sternal lifts

These are just examples of exercises that may or may not be helpful to your horse. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian and follow his or her instructions and recommendations.

4. What is an Equiband, and how do you use it?

Equiband is a resistance device for horses. It is very similar to the Theraband device people can use to add resistance to workouts. It can be used to help build strength in weakened hind legs.

To use an Equiband, you would attach it to a specialized saddle pad or surcingle so that it is positioned around your horse’s hindquarters. This device offers support to the hindquarters, encourages your horse to stand square and helps the horse engage the muscles of the hindquarters.

Again, be sure to get instructions from your vet before attempting to use this device.

5. Will a horse accept the use of an Equiband?

How well your horse adapts to any unusual equipment is directly tied into how much your horse trusts you. An anxious horse will have more trouble becoming accustomed to this type of equipment than one who trusts and relies on its handler. Even with the best horse and handler relationship, it’s important not to rush into use of this equipment. You may need to spend the first week just putting the band in place and letting your horse move about naturally for ten minutes or so to get used to it. In the second week, you might include the band daily for ten minutes or so of your regular groundwork, physiotherapy and exercise sessions. On the third week, it would be appropriate to reduce the number of days to four, but increase the amount of time the band is worn to twenty minutes. On the fourth week and ongoing, the number of days could be reduced to three, but the time increased to half an hour.

6. Why is core stability important to back stability?

The term “core stability” is used to discuss both abdominal and back strength. If your horse has a strong core, his strong abdomen will help support his strong back. Good core strength is essential to correct movement and balance.

7. What affects core strength in horses?

There are a number of reasons why some horses may be prone to poor core strength. For example, if a horse has a very long back, he may have poor core strength because of the constant pull of gravity on the long expanse of space front to back. Horses that have had problems with laminitis or have been lame for other reasons may lose core strength because sore feet cause them to move unevenly. Just as with people, when horses get older their ligaments and tendons may weaken, as may their muscles. As an older horse loses core strength, you may begin to notice resulting sway back. All of these are reasons why it is so important that you make sure your horse has opportunities to keep moving and maintain the best overall level of fitness possible.

8. What is a hollow back?

A hollow back is similar to a sway back in appearance, but it is often the result of a horse being ridden incorrectly with poorly fitted tack. A hollow backed horse will hold its head up at an awkward angle and drop its belly with its back held in a tense, tight, hollowed out position. There are some horses who are naturally built with a hollow back, but it is usually a result of poor riding and/or tack. Either way, the condition can be improved or corrected through proper diagnosis and patient exercise and work.

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