Recuperating Back Muscles

Q:I have a 17-year-old Half-Arabian gelding that underwent colic surgery in August 2005. He had a totally uneventful recovery, and within six months he was back to his usual job of pleasure and trail riding. My only remaining concern is that he lost tone in his belly muscle and his back dropped somewhat, and I haven't been able to get it to return to normal. Although I was aware of the change, I didn't realize the degree of it until I tried an English saddle on him that we hadn't used since before the surgery.

The saddle was reflocked and fitted to him two years ago, and it was a good fit. Now the fit is so poor it's unusable (it's bridging, meaning the panels are not contoured to fit the shape of his back). I thought his everyday saddle was okay, but I have had some issues with his back getting sore, and on closer inspection, it's not a great fit, either. I am now using a small pad under his regular pad.

The bigger problem is why haven't I been able to get the belly and back muscles in shape? I've read several articles about bringing a horse back from injury/illness and went through the proper reconditioning initially, and he's really quite fit as far as stamina, recovery time for pulse/respiration, etc. That part is well behind us. I've been told lots of long trotting sessions and transitions will help to strengthen the back. I also do "carrot stretches" and belly lifts, but I'm not really seeing progress. Do you think he is too old to fully recuperate these large muscles or do you have other suggestions?    Alice Crooks, Michigan

A:For any musculoskeletal injury, specific issues need to be addressed for full rehabilitation and optimal performance. Most rehabilitation programs begin with pain control and progress to coordination, flexibility, strength, and endurance exercises. From your description, it seems like your horse is still experiencing some recurrence of back pain due to improper saddle fit. The added pad in the area of bridging is a good temporary fix to help provide support along the entire length of the bridging saddle. However, chronic back pain can prevent proper use and development of both the abdominal and back muscles.

Coordination is the next issue, which is both evaluated and developed through working in-hand, and while ridden at a walk or trot over ground poles, cavellettis, and small jumps. Horses with poor coordination or body awareness will not be able to walk over the poles or other obstacles on the trail without hitting their feet, tripping, or stumbling.

It sounds like you have been working on flexibility with the carrot stretches and belly lifts. Make sure that you are holding the carrot stretches at the stifle for 15-20 seconds (or longer, if possible) to stimulate maximal stretching and isometric muscle contractions of the back. Also, hold the belly lifts for 45-60 seconds by tickling at the tailhead (deeply scratching in the intermuscular groove about four inches lateral to the tailhead on both sides) to induce maximal lifting and stretching of the back. If your horse is able to do eight to 10 repetitions of belly lifts, two to three times a day without difficulty, then specific back-strengthening exercises are now indicated.

Core stabilization exercises help to stimulate the short, deep supportive muscles of the back. I would recommend using large elastic straps (also called Thera-Bands) or a long lead rope applied in a loop or figure-eight pattern from the girth to behind the hind legs. The stimulus to the back of the thighs helps stimulate collection and abdominal strength. For more information on this technique, look in some of the Linda Tellington-Jones books.

Transitions and hill work at different gaits and speeds will strengthen the abdominal and back muscles. Collected work both in-hand and under saddle during some of your pleasure or trail rides will also help back development.

Most horses can recover back function by following these rehabilitation principles, as long as there is no underlying residual injury. If you want to pursue further diagnostic tests, a bone scan (scintigraphy) might be indicated to determine if there is chronic pain or other areas of inflammation that are causing your horse's back to not recover fully.

About the Author

Kevin K. Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD

Kevin K. Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, is with Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences.

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