Day after day, you battle with your horse to get the correct left bend. Or maybe the trouble comes when you ask him to pick up the right lead, push off his hind end, or stretch out into a longer stride. Instead of a willing response, all you get is resistance. You assume you're facing a training obstacle, and you try to push both of you on through it. But if you take a moment to look beyond the surface, you might find that your horse isn't unwilling to respond--he's unable to respond. He simply can't do what you're asking because of stiffness.
Stiffness is defined as the inability or unwillingness to bend or flex as a result of an inability to stretch the tissues needed for bending to occur--in short, a reduced range of motion in the back, neck, or leg joints. But stiffness isn't actually a disorder in itself. Rather, it's a symptom of--and reaction to--pain or discomfort that could stem from nearly anything, including arthritis, vertebral injury, bad teeth, poor saddle fit, sore muscles, and more. This probably explains why stiffness is such a prevalent problem. It affects horses of all breeds, ages, and genders, and it crosses all lines of discipline, afflicting high-end performance horses as readily as childrens' pleasure mounts.
In fact, Kevin Haussler, DVM, PhD, DC, of Cornell University's Integrative Medicine Service with the Large Animal Clinic, notes that "80-90% of the horses we see in here present with stiffness, not obvious pain or lameness."
The bad news is that it's hard for veterinarians to measure and accurately evaluate stiffness. So, diagnosing its presence and cause becomes primarily a process of elimination (see "Finding the Cause" below). The good news is that horse owners have many treatment options at their disposal to combat stiffness once the underlying problem is diagnosed.
In this article, we've compiled a collection of the most commonly used weapons in the war on stiffness, noting which ones work the best on specific causes.
As with human athletes, a good warm-up for your horse will loosen and literally warm your horse's muscles before your "real" riding begins. This can especially benefit arthritic horses and horses which are sore from the previous day's exercise. Warm-ups also help prevent muscle soreness and soft tissue injuries.
Jessica Jahiel, PhD, a clinician and author specializing in holistic horsemanship, recommends 15-20 minutes of walking followed by five to 10 minutes of trotting on a long rein before asking your horse for any real effort. She also suggests allowing the horse to stretch his head and neck out every few minutes during the ride.
"After your workout, be sure that your cool down--or 'warm-down' as I prefer to call it--is equally thorough," she adds. "Give your horse another chance to trot on a long rein, then walk him until he is cool and dry." (During cold weather an active warm-down without an extended period of walking is needed to avoid letting the horse get cold, especially if he is clipped.)
Jahiel also encourages riders to alternate days of intense schooling with light-work days, such as trail rides. (Haussler notes that this is often referred to as cross-training.)
"Muscles have to be given time to recover and rebuild after workouts," she explains. "Use your good sense and treat your horse the way you would treat yourself if you started on a body-building program at the gym."
Much like a pre-ride warm-up, stretches benefit any horse by loosening muscles and connective tissue before a workout. They can be particularly useful for horses which spend most of their time in stalls with little to no turnout time.
"Horses are meant to be outside, lowering their heads to graze, raising their heads to look around, and moving about," says Haussler. "If the horse is stuck in a stall for extended periods of time, you have to create artificial ways to get that flexibility back."
Some stretches can also act as diagnostic tools to help determine if your horse needs chiropractic work, he says.
Haussler recommends doing stretches with your horse before and after riding; he also notes that some stretches can be performed while you're mounted. In addition, he encourages horse owners to consult with a trained and qualified equine chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist to determine which stretches will benefit your horse the most.
"They can also advise you on how many repetitions to do and how aggressive to be with the stretching," he says. (For some stretches that are safe for any horse, see "Safe Anti-Stiffness Stretches" on page 50.)
Few people object to a good massage, and horses seem to feel the same way. Like stretches and warm-ups, this tried-and-true muscle relaxer helps your horse get limber while easing pain and releasing tension.
Jahiel says that thorough grooming (with currying) makes a nice do-it-yourself massage. For additional techniques, she recommends Beating Muscle Injuries in Horses by Jack Meagher.
Horses with musculoskeletal problems might require a session with a qualified equine massage therapist. Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, of the Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, Va., recommends looking for someone who has completed courses in both human and equine massage therapy, or who has completed an extensive equine massage therapy program.
"You don't want someone with only one week of training," she cautions. "It's difficult to learn good-quality massage therapy in a week."
Horses with asymmetries of the body (i.e., the pelvis is higher on one side than the other), trauma to the vertebrae, or arthritis can all benefit from chiropractic adjustment, says Haussler. During a chiropractic session, the practitioner will move the horse's joints to affect muscle relaxation, thus restoring motion to the neck, back, and/or limbs, says Haussler, who is a Doctor of Chiropractic.
Beware of inexperienced or poorly trained chiropractors--they can harm your horse, warns Harman. She recommends using someone who is certified (as she is) by a reputable professional organization such as the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (see "Alternative Therapy Associations" on page 57 for more information on the AVCA).
"Make sure the person is willing to answer all your questions," says Harman. "If possible, go watch them work--most good chiropractors will let you."
Horses typically need at least four treatments to recover or get on the road to recovery, says Harman. Per-session prices range from $50 to $150, and you should expect to get what you pay for. "There are charlatans who will charge you $150 for 10 minutes," acknowledges Harman. "But usually, if they're charging that much, the person will spend a lot of time with the horse and will work in more than one modality, such as chiropractic, stretching, muscle work, and acupuncture."
Much like massage and chiropractic, acupuncture increases blood flow in the muscles, decreases pain, and relaxes muscle spasms and tension, says Harman. It might not be as effective as chiropractic for horses with skeletal problems, since the joints are not actually manipulated.
However, says Harman, "Even these horses will get some improved motion of the spine, because you're relaxing those tight soft tissues."
Harman again emphasizes the value of using a qualified practitioner. The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture (AAVA) (see page 57 for more information) has a directory of active members (including Harman), who must be graduates of a veterinary school and must meet AAVA-approved course requirements, including ongoing study.
Harman notes that in many areas, horse owners have access to either a good acupuncturist or a good chiropractor--but not both. That's okay, she says, because "for many problems, either one will get you a long way. It's more important to get a good-quality practitioner than to worry about which type is most appropriate."
Lasers, Ultrasound, and Magnetic Therapy
Harman notes that laser, ultrasound, and magnetic therapies "can be effective if used correctly and if you know the specific area to work on." Here are her tips:
Magnetics--For chronic problems like stiffness, apply the north-seeking side of the magnet to the trouble spot. Use for only one to two hours at a time. "No one knows the effects of keeping a horse in magnets for 20 hours over the long term," Harman points out.
Lasers--Harman considers lasers safer for the average horse person than ultrasound. Machines are expensive--about $3,000--so you will need to hire someone who has one to do the therapy. "Again, you want someone with an education who can tell you if this is the right thing to be doing for your horse and who can use the machine with knowledge," says Harman.
Ultrasound--Ultrasound is the most dangerous of these three therapies because incorrect use can actually damage the horse's bone, says Harman. Thus, an experienced therapist with solid references is a must.
Just how effective are supplements? Haussler feels that more research is required before that question can definitively be answered. But he and Harman agree that supplements are worth trying in cases of chronic stiffness. Specifically, says Harman, joint supplements are most likely to benefit horses who "warm out" of their stiffness within 15 minutes of riding or who have been diagnosed with some degree of arthritis. Haussler adds that it's always a good idea to have your veterinarian evaluate your horse to make sure that the stiffness isn't masking a more serious problem that supplements won't help.
There are several categories of joint supplements, primarily including:
- Glucosamine-based supplements (including extracts of green mussel), chondroitin-based supplements, or a combination of both;
- Products containing multiple ingredients, such as glucosamine, vitamin C, and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM);
- Western herbal supplements; and
- Chinese herbal supplements.
Each class works on a different biochemical pathway. For instance, says Harman, chondroitin and glucosamine focus on restoring joint fluid; Western herbals tend to aid soft tissues around the joints; and Chinese herbals increase circulation. If you don't see positive results with a supplement from one category after one to two months of use, Harman recommends trying another type. Similarly, if you've been using a product for a while and notice that its effects seem to be waning, switch to a product from another class.
How long you'll need to use supplements depends on why your horse needs them in the first place, says Harman. If your horse's stiffness is caused by chronic conditions such as arthritis, navicular, or ringbone, supplements will remain a permanent part of your horse's diet.
On the other hand, if your horse's stiffness problems pop up only in cold weather, you might be able to use supplements during the winter, then drop them the rest of the year. If you do this, cautions Harman, keep a close eye on your horse when you remove the supplements.
"If you notice he's not going as well as he was with the supplements, put him back on them," she says.
When you purchase supplements, "The key is to purchase high-quality products from companies that are willing to tell you the source from which they buy their ingredients and that use independent testing to verify that the products really contain what the label says," warns Harman.
You Can Win the War
The bottom line, says Harman, is that "stiffness should be correctable."
In many cases, you can completely cure the horse of the underlying ailment that causes his stiffness. And even in cases where the horse suffers from a chronic condition such as arthritis, your careful, consistent efforts to battle stiffness can improve his performance and, more important, his quality of life and his pleasure of performing with you.
Clayton, H. Conditioning Sport Horses. Mason, MI: Sport Horse Publications, 1991.
Pinpointing the underlying cause of stiffness is often a process of elimination that probably will require input from your veterinarian, your farrier, an experienced trainer or riding instructor, and perhaps a qualified equine chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist. They can check for the following:
- Subtle lameness--especially if both front limbs are affected, it can appear as stiffness;
- Muscle soreness from intense workouts or from learning new techniques that require the horse to use his body in unaccustomed ways;
- Arthritis, which directly affects the joints' ability to move without causing pain;
- Chiropractic problems, such as asymmetries of the body (i.e., one hip higher than the other) or traumatic damage to joints and vertebrae;
- Poor shoeing or uneven trimming, which creates unevenness not only in the hooves, but also in the horse's shoulders or hips, making him appear stiff;
- Tooth problems or an uncomfortable bit, either of which can cause the horse to pull against the bit, translating to you as resistance or stiffness;
- Poor saddle fit, which can interfere with the horse's ability to bend;
- Rider unevenness (i.e., sitting unevenly, using one leg more strongly than the other, or consistently riding with more tension on one rein than the other), which makes it difficult for the horse to find his balance and remain fluid and flexible; and
- Lack of turnout time; excessive stall confinement can cause a horse to lose flexibility, much like a person who spends too much time sitting at a desk.--Sushil Dulai Wenholz
You can safely perform any of these stretches on your horse as long as you keep some cautions in mind. "Never force a stretch," says Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, of Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, Va. "If you do, the horse will pull back when he hurts. That will tighten the muscle, which defeats the purpose of the stretch."
Adds author Jessica Jahiel, PhD, "Always warm the horse up before stretching his limbs. Warmed-up muscles can stretch, but cold muscles will tear. Walking and trotting the horse for 15 minutes before you do the stretches will save the horse from a lot of tiny, incremental muscle tears."
Multi-direction leg stretch--Hold the leg and just wait for the horse to relax it. ("You'll feel it drop into your hand and become heavy," notes Harman.) Then pull it gently out behind, to the front, and to the side. "Remember not to force it," warns Harman. "If the horse is pulling on you, you're pulling too hard or the horse has a lot of pain and needs professional help."
Leg circles--Pick up the horse's hoof as if you're going to clean it. Pretend there is a pencil hanging from the toe, then "draw" circles on the ground, moving the whole leg from the shoulder down. Complete four to six circles in each direction. Repeat with all four legs. "If you find that you're drawing odd shapes or very small circles, that's a sign of stiffness or tightness," says Harman. "In that case, do two or three sets of leg circles."
Belly lifts--These stretch the horse's back. "Tickle" your horse at the ventral sternum (near where the girth lies) on the midline, says Haussler. Apply firm pressure with your fingertips or fingernails, or scratch lightly back and forth until the horse elevates his withers. Hold the position for five to 10 seconds. For a second belly lift, stand to the side of your horse's back leg or thigh. Scratch with both hands in the muscular groove about four inches to the side of the tail. Apply pressure with your fingers until the back lifts. Hold pressure for 20 to 30 seconds. For both exercises, Haussler recommends four to five repetitions once or twice a day as needed.
Carrot stretches--Harman says this stretch is "extremely effective for loosening the neck and as a diagnostic tool." (Since this stretch involves hand-feeding treats, she adds that if a horse is mouthy, do it only occasionally and/or as the last thing before putting the horse in his stall or paddock.) Position your horse with one side against a wall or fence. Hold a treat near his elbow and then move it back to the hip bone, encouraging him to bend and stretch his neck around to reach it. Repeat on both sides.
"All horses should be comfortable doing this, unless they are so obese that they can't bend or they are broodmares heavy in foal," says Harman. "They should be able to bend their necks while keeping their ears up around shoulder height, stretching their necks to reach the carrot at the hip. If a horse ducks his head down and tips his nose up, then the neck is stiff and the horse needs chiropractic attention." (Haussler notes that a horse with good flexibility can reach clear back to his tailhead.) Next, hold a treat between the horse's front legs and ask the horse to drop its head to reach the treat.
Mounted stretches--To enhance flexibility through your horse's neck, you can also ask him to bring his head to your stirrup or behind your leg while you're in the saddle. And you can let him drop his head as far as he wants while walking and trotting.
(For more stretches, Jahiel recommends Nancy Spencer's video "Basic Equine Stretching.")--Sushil Dulai Wenholz
IS YOUR HORSE CROOKED? (Two Ways to Assess Symmetry)
When the horse is not symmetrical--the same on the left as on the right--chiropractic problems can evolve, and stiffness will likely follow. Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, of Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, Va., offers two simple methods for assessing your horse's symmetry.
1. Have someone hold your horse on a flat surface, with the horse standing square. Walk around the horse and see if each side is the same as, or similar to, the other. Significant differences indicate potential pain or chiropractic problems. Also pay attention to how willingly your horse stands square: If every time you put two feet parallel, the horse moves one, that's a sign of pain or discomfort.
2. With a handler still controlling the horse and with at least the horse's front legs "square," place a stool behind the horse. Look down on the horse's shoulders to check if they're even. If the shoulders aren't even, the horse might have muscular pain and tension that can lead to discomfort and even make your saddle sit unevenly, leading to more troubles. Safety precaution: If your horse kicks, don't try this. However, even a normally calm horse might get fidgety when you're towering over him. Play it safe and place the stool either right behind the horse (so if he kicks, it won't be powerful) or out of kicking range, about six to eight feet back (you might need a taller stool, or you might need to stand on a ladder).--Sushil Dulai Wenholz
About the Author
Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.