Biomechanics, Equine, Horse & Rider, Injury and Rehab, Injury Management

Horse Pilates: Encouraging core engagement through movement

In the run up and during lockdown my clients and friends have increasingly been using the words Horse Pilates to describe part of what I do to help horses move better. To the point that even the Daily Telegraph have used that term in an article published recently. So I thought a blog post about Horse Pilates was needed.

What is Horse Pilates?

Human Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates. He develop it when in the UK to help injured soldiers from the War to recover. Pilates believed that mental and physical health are closely linked and this is something that can be taken and applied to horses. Pilates is a low impact set of exercises aimed at strengthening muscles while improving postural alignment and flexibility. Any fitness level can benefit and Pilates exercises should be part of any training or rehab plan for a horse.

The focus of Pilates exercises are on the core. However it should also include other areas such as the hips, abdominals, back, inner and outer thigh. The core is the foundation and these other areas are all connected and need to be able to function as a whole.

In regard to horses what we term carrot stretches were a series of movements developed by Hillary Clayton and Narelle Stubbs and can be coined as the first form of Pilates exercises for horses. These exercises help develop the deep core and spinal muscles. They are a combination of stretches, stabilising exercises and lifts which are the first port of call to develop core. However with any exercise caution should be taken that it is the correct exercise for your horse and therefore consulting a professional to help is really important.

Intermediate & Advanced Pilates

Hilary Clayton and Narelle Stubbs exercises could be termed your beginner Pilates for horses as with human Pilates beginner exercise should still be practiced by intermediate and advanced students as it makes sure the deep core muscles are functioning and that the global muscles have not taken over, which often happens in very athletic inviduals. If this happens then the individual is more open to injury and it would be the same in the horse. However a horse can be stretched further so including straight line pole work and walking backwards would be the next step up. The horse can be progressed further by introducing raised poles (cavelletis) and lateral movement such as stepping under. Pole work on circles and in trot would progress things even further, shoulder in from the ground all increase the demand and complexity of the movement.

By working with your horse from the ground you can also develop your partnership with your horse. You don’t want to be doing lots of reps. This isn’t about increasing cardio fitness but about developing finer movements that are controlled. As the horse is able to control their movement through the use of its core muscles then its ability to work under saddle will greatly improve. Their balance will be better and there will be improvement in dealing with a rider on board. This is also a key time to work on yourself and develop your core strength. Your horse will appreciate this hugely.

So every horse can benefit from Pilate type exercise being added to their exercise regime. However professional help should be sort to guide you as the owner as to what would benefit your horse. If you would like to discuss things further do contact Pollyanna.

Biomechanics, Equine, Injury and Rehab, Injury Management

Case Study Part Two: Road to Recovery

Willow Road to Recovery

In part two we discussed Willows history and issues that were causing her complex lameness, which you can find more detail in Case study Part One: Complex lameness. In this part we are going to discuss what treatments were used and Willows progress.

Treatment

Willow’s treatment was started very gently. In this case less is more. Willow is also a very receptive and expressive horse, which as a therapists is brilliant as she leads her own treatments. It is so important to listen and respond to a horses reaction. In this case Willow directs me on duration and areas she needs working on. Willow is also very responsive to acupressure points.

Her treatment began with Bladder 25 to help strengthen her lower back, address any stiffness or pain in this area. Willow responded by lowering her head almost to the ground and softening her eye to the point that she almost went to sleep. This allowed me to massage through her hind quarters to release further tension and relieve pain. Willows neck and poll muscles were also released through a number of soft tissue techniques. As well as her adductors on her inner thigh. This caused increase tone and activation through the TFL and quadriceps.

To finish of the session 5 gentle dock pulls were included on both sides to help strengthen and activate the TFL and quadriceps. A number of belly lifts were also performed to help activate the core muscles and stretch through the back.

Initial Outcome

Just from the above treatment and exercise Willow showed immediate improvement. Firstly her TFL (tensor latae fascia) and quadriceps started to activate. Had increased tone and secondly she was far less sensitive through her back and hindquarters. Her movement seemed eased but was still showing signs that were present on initial assessment. However the goal of making Willow more comfortable was achieved.

Continued Treatment

The original plan was to come and treat Willow little but often to allow her body to make small adjustments and to not overload her system with change. So visits were made twice a week for about two weeks. During this time I was fully aware that the country might go into lockdown and that I wouldn’t be able to come up to physically treat Willow. So Willow’s owner was taught how to do some of the key techniques that were helping Willow the most and given equipment to allow progress if I couldn’t be there. Willows owner was also doing some of acupressure points on a daily basis in between my treatments.

So in the second treatment acupressure point Bl 25 continued to be used along with the introduction of Bl 21 which helps with atrophy, gastrointestinal issues, edema , back pain and general weakness. Each session I added a new point Bl 11 (helps strengthen bones and joints, nourishes and facilitates blood flow, benefits joint problems and also helps neck and spinal pain), Bl 19 (helps with hip pain and gastrointestinal issues) and lastly Bl 23 (helps with general weakness, lower back pain and estrous cycle). The owner was also taught these points as treatment progressed. Willow responded well to all these points

Massage through Willows back, hindquarters, neck and poll were also carried out to help activate muscles and release tension that has developed due to compensatory mechanisms. Again Willow responded well over the two weeks

Exercises

Initially dock pulls and belly lifts were introduced. Gradually the number of repetitions were increased and this was something Willows owner performed between sessions. In the second treatment weight shift directed through the shoulder was introduced this along with dock pulls were to encourage Willow to use her stabilising muscles. To start the main aim was to develop Willows core to give her a stronger foundation to develop more global muscle strength.

Willow was introduced to some foot pads. Just one placed under a fore foot to start and then moved to a hind foot. The foot pad was placed under for as long as Willow would stay. This was often a couple of minutes. This was again to encourage Willow to use the finer muscles to stabilise herself.

Before I got to progress Willow further lockdown occurred. However with guidance Willows owner was able to progress her exercises gradually. Walking over a pole in straight lines was introduced then progressed over a week to a figure of out over a pole. These progressions occurred over a 3 week period from initial treatment.

Willows owner continued with all the above acupressure points, exercises and pole work by week 4 she was walking over 2 poles in a row with several repetitions. By week 5 Willow was introduced to slightly raised poles done in hand exercises. Willow is also on a track for the summer months so poles and obstacles to step over were introduced to encourage her to use her hind quarters more throughout her daily life. By week 6 straight line trotting in hand was introduced. By week 7 3 poles on a circle at walk was performed with no ill effect.

Progress

Walk up 3 months after initial assessment

Willow showed great improvements in her walk and confidence by week 2 of initial treatment. She was also getting increased turnout time. By week 3 she was back out on full turnout and her Bute had been gradually decreased as well. Within a month Willow was out 24/7. Willows feed was also changed to help increase weight and muscle mass by phasing in Copra and Speedi beet into her seaweed, brewers yeast, lucerne and chaff. Gradually the lucerne was phased out and replaced with Agrobs Leichengrass. There were two aims with these changes one was to reduce any feed stuffs that might cause increase in inflammation (hoof friendly) and to help increase condition.

The above photographs show a vast improvement in muscle mass and posture. The video further up also shows huge improvement in movement patterns. Willow will always have some sacroiliac issues but with careful management she should be able to lead a happy and comfortable life.

If you have any concerns about your own horse and lameness then do consult a vet or contact Pollyanna with any queries and she will try and help the best she can.

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Biomechanics, Equine, Injury and Rehab, Injury Management

Case Study Part One: Complex Lameness

Willow the complex case of lameness

This case follows the assessment and treatment of a 19 year old horse, Willow. It shows the complexity of a case that has multiple factors interacting together and that by viewing the horse as a whole all these factors can be addressed in an efficient and effective way. This first part introduces Willow’s history and the problems that were being experienced by her. The second part will discuss treatment used and the outcome.

History

Willow is an Irish cross (possibly thoroughbred with some Arad), she is 19 yrs old, 15.1hh in height and of a slight build. Willow has had hock surgery and been owned by the current owner for 9 years.

I have been giving Willow bodywork session for the last year and she also receives McTimoney chiropractic treatment from a very good practitioner. Willow has exhibited an unlevel pelvis on a number of occasions. This is potentially linked to an underlying issue within her sacroiliac joint, which could be a result of previous activities or injury. Willow had been ridden western style and potentially barrel raced in the past. With her current owner she is hacked and schooled at a low level. Willow has been barefoot for the last year.

Willows issues

Over the winter Willow lost a bit of condition and then the mud came. Willow seemed to find the mud particularly difficult to deal with. Willow developed some heat in her right fore and lameness. After a vets visit an abscess was ruled out. However it was noted that her gait was abnormal. Not just in her right fore but the hind legs as well. The vet placed Willow on restricted turnout on a firm flat surface for 4 weeks with Bute and then review her progress.

Willow’s owner asked me to come and help make Willow more comfortable. On initial assessment Willow showed a complicated lameness, by this I mean there were a number of potential issues going on. Firstly you had the forelimb lameness which was likely to be secondary refered lameness. There was also axial lameness going on, which can be harder to identify. Willow also showed left non weight bearing lameness in her hind due to the flight pattern and placing it along her midline when stepping through, this also affected her cornering to the left. She was also hesitant to place her left hind hoof down. Willow also walks on 3 tracks and has a slight head bob down suggesting a hind limb lameness. Lastly Willow’s right hind has a slight wobble when transferring weight onto it.

Willow on initial assessment

Closer look

On palpating, Willow showed a decreased tone and atrophy in her hind quarters specifically the quadriceps and gluteals bilaterally. Willow also showed decreased activation through her tensor fasciae latea and quadriceps on her right hind, this would explain the shaking through this leg when starting to weight bear. Willow was particularly uncomfortable through the lumbar and sacral area when palpated. Her neck showed tightness bilaterally but more so on the left.

The above introduces the issues that Willow has experienced. In part two we will discuss treatments and how Willow progressed. If your horse presents as lame always consult your vet before getting hold of a bodyworker. If you have any questions or concerns then please do get in contact with Pollyanna.

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Equine, Horse & Rider, Injury Management

Why get your horse massaged?

When I tell people that I am qualified to massage both humans and horses, I often get asked, “Why would you massage a horse?” I never get asked, “Why massage a human?” As a result I often want to throw back, “Why wouldn’t you get your horse massaged?” Let’s have a closer look.

I believe that I don’t get asked, “Why massage a human?” Due to the ability for people to understand how our body feels and are able to empathise with others when they feel stiff and in pain. I think sometimes humans forget that horses can feel discomfort like people do, and below are a few factors which can affect horses.

Horses are not designed to be ridden

Historically horses have been domesticated by humans for a number of jobs over hundreds of years. Horses were not put here just for human use and as a result have to adapt to the demands humans place on them. A horse needs to be broken in slowly and gently to allow adaptations to occur especially in the back. The vertebral column especially the base of the neck are the last areas of the horse to mature. By this, I mean the growth plates are the last to fuse. As a result skeletal maturation doesn’t occur until at least five and half years old. Further to this if your horse is taller, long in the neck and a gelding then fusion can take longer. You may be looking at eight years old before this has all occurred. Therefore, looking after the musculoskeletal spine is paramount too developing a strong and enduring horse for the future. Conformation of a horse can also play a role in developing tightness and stiffness, as certain conformations will predispose a horse to experience certain mechanical stressors. For instance, a horse with a long neck may experience more muscle soreness in the shoulder and neck, as they will have to work harder to stabilise. Regular massage, stretching, and exercises can help a horse to adapt, as they are developing and allow them to grow strong, flexible and supple.

Demands

Humans demand quite a bit from horses. Some have a job such as military and police horses. Others are competed at high levels in dressage, eventing, endurance, racing, team chasing and show jumping to name a few. All of these disciplines work the horse physically and mentally very hard, and as a result aches, tightness, and injuries do occur. A high performance human athlete wouldn’t go through a heavy training period without having regular massage, or treatment to help them train better and reduce the risk of injury. So why would we ask a horse too?

While I have discussed high performing horses all horses being ridden can benefit from massages. While they might not have the high demands placed on them as high perfuming horses do, they still get ridden regularly even at low level competition and as a result experience aches and pains. Horses also have to deal with us humans. We are not always the fittest or most balanced and horses have to compensate. More often than not if a human is stiff on their right side so will your horse. Both horse and rider receiving treatment at a similar time can help the partnership hugely. Imbalances and stiffness can be addressed as a whole entity rather than separate allowing progression to be more rapid and in tune. By having your horse massaged means you can have one as well.

Field, stable and
ridden antics

Horses like to have a frolic around the field with friends or solo and as a result can slip and pull muscles like humans can. This can also occur from spooking and isn’t just limited to the field but when ridden as well. Massage can help horses recover from soft tissue injuries, even impact injuries like a kick, where massage techniques and taping can be employed. Horses that are regularly stabled due to weather or other circumstances like box rest can also suffer sore muscles from repetitive actions like feeding from a hay net. They can experience fluid retention in their limbs due to reduced movement and as a result can feel stiff. Massaging can help relieve muscle soreness and fluid retention but can also relax a stabled horse and give them something different in their daily routine.

Old and young horses

Old horses, like older people suffer aches and pains as they age. Some of this can be due to arthritic changes in joins, a reduced healing rate or cellular turnover, changes in circulation and other health conditions. Massage can help increase mobility in joints, improve circulation and help with pain management making an old horse feel better.

While it wouldn’t be thought that young horses would experience aches and pains they do, but not in the same way an elderly horse might. Young horses are growing rapidly and may experience muscle ache or other problems associated with being young and growing. A young horse also has to adapt to the demands being placed on it such as accommodating a rider, which it has not experienced in its early years. The horse may then be expected to be ridden in an outline and jumped, which it needs time to adapt. Also a young horse is still growing when this is all going on so they need to get used to their own bodies. During all of this young horses can experience discomfort, stiffness, and tight muscles. Massage can help prevent compensatory movement, avoidance behaviour and finally injury.

Past injuries

Unless you have had your horse since a foal you won’t know all its history. As a result there are past injuries that may be still affecting your horse. When I got my current horse and had a bodyworker come and treat him, she said that he had probably had a fall at some point, perhaps into a ditch! It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to chat to a past owner that she confirmed this is exactly what happened. As a result of having a bodyworker (massage therapist) we were able to release this tension and work towards building up his strength. A few years on you wouldn’t know this had happened. Massage can help a great deal towards allowing a horse to function at a better capacity after an injury, as well as help prevent further injuries or compensatory movements. Through massage certain muscles can be released allowing other muscles to be strengthened, and further helping your horse to perform to their potential, be it a happy hacker or a top class event horse.

Well Being

Humans find massage relaxing, so why wouldn’t a horse! More often than not horses completley zone out when experiencing a massage. They relax, some even go to sleep. It allows them time out and a moment to recharge. Your horse will appreciate regular massages and you may find that unwanted behaviours may diminish, due to being relaxed and removing any discomfort. Horses tend to not be naughty in nature and often behaviours occur due to pain. I will admit some horses do have a sense of humour and you could deem this as naughty, but there is a big difference between this and avoiding doing something because it is sore. Horses can also be very good at hiding pain, due to being a pray animal and not wanting to show outward signs to a predator. This means as owners we have to get very good at reading the signs. A regular massage can help prevent this from happening and help your horses well being.

Horses are all very different, they experience muscle tightness and discomfort in different areas and ways, due to age, conformation, injuries, jobs, health conditions and environment. However, to reduce this and allow horses to perform better, in comfort and enjoy it, we can give them regular bodywork sessions. This can be a combination of massage, exercises, stretches, tape, acupressure and many more to allow horses to relax, release and reduce discomfort. Empowering horses to move more freely and naturally.