Wellness Prevents (many types of) Illness
The 5 Pillars of Wellness in Horses
How optimized Wellness equals optimized performance
As horse owners, we are all in need of good, knowledgable, trustworthy, and expert veterinary services. And that is a good thing. In case of acute injury, colic, serious or infectious disease, dental problems, foaling, and many more we depend on the knowledge and experience of our veterinarian to restore our horse to health.
My vet is the best. I hope you can say the same about yours! He advises me well and promotes wellness and prevention and points out alternatives. During the past years (quietly knocking on wood’), I have only spent little ‘vet money’ outside of routine care (shots, dental).
In short: I love my vet but I am happiest when I see very little of him and I do think he agrees.
Economic circumstances demand that I be frugal and apply the motto “as little as possible, as much as necessary” when it comes to spending on vet care. Therefore, I chose to put my money where my mouth is: into Wellness! Granted, my horses do not work as hard as many of my client’s horses…
Below some (simplified) general key elements that will help any horse owner keep the vet bills on the lowest possible side, from my perspective as an equine bodyworker:
The 5 Pillars of Muscoloskeletal Wellness
(all that pertains to structure and movement)
1. The muscle connection—unexplained lameness
Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are connected. REPEAT: Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are connected.
--> Tight muscles result in strain on ligaments and tendons.
Unexplained front leg lameness is one of the major reasons why horses wind up in equine rehabilitation centers or are unable to perform their jobs for long periods of time.
These lameness issues recurr and often result in spiraling vet care expenses and mounting frustration with seemingly no way out.
Solution: Some of these issues can be prevented by enabling muscles to release tension and therefore provide enough elasticity to prevent strain on tendons and ligaments. Bodywork helps and you can learn some of the basic techniques yourself!
2. A new phenomenon: The equine couch potato!
Horses are born to move. Their entire anatomy screams: walk, trot, canter and graze… Up until recently (a few decades versus thousands of years of equine development), this is exactly what horses have been doing.
With the advent of our ‘convenience society’, we also strive to make our horses lives as ‘comfortable’ as possible. This often results in well-intenioned pampering. We now have a large population of horses living in stalls or small paddocks for most of the day, then exercizing sporadically, sometimes inefficiently or inappropriately, meaning not in tune with their true abilities.
Lack of muscle tone and stiffness lead to an inefficient self-carriage and strain on weak, inflexible muscles. (See point 1!)
The result is a myriad of problems, such as:
lack of flexibility,
less than optimal proprioception (Where am I in space?),
all with the potential to lead to unexplained lameness, injury, stumbling, and other performance problems.
Solution: Assess the current fitness level of your horse and come up with a structured gymnasticizing plan. This can be quite simple and doable enough to fit into your busy schedule! (See “Basic Horse Mechanics II”, this is one option to learn more about gymnasticizing.)
3. Gadgets & Co.—less is more!
There is one simple rule: Every type of equipment used on a living, moving body creates some form of resistance.
Simple experiment: Ask a friend to tie a piece of bailing twine or another light line around the back part of your belt. Now walk about and perform your usual activities while the other person is trying to keep the twine on very slight tension, just enough not to slack.
After about 10 minutes, remove the twine and move about in the same constellation as before for just a minute or so, just imagining the twine. How does it feel differently? Did you notice any resistance in your body when using the twine? This illustrate the power of even the slightest connection and resistance.
Beware of side-reins, running martingales, tie-downs and other ‘helpers’. They may soon be the cause of a new problem while you are trying to use them to fix the old problem.
(When longing, use a padded longe-caveson or tie the longe line to the inside ring of a snug-fitting flat halter. Using rope-halters or slack halters for longing introduces the wrong movement habits.)
Solution: Investigate WHY your horse is doing what he is doing (holding head high, not stepping under) and really work on improving on whatever is lacking. Don’t simply put a ‘bandage on the boil’ and put those auxiliary reins away…
4. Saddle-Fit: The No. 1 reason for back problems in horses
The horse’s back is the center of movement. Back problems in horses translate into all sorts of physical and mental problems in the horse, from muscle atrophy and shortened stride to unexplained behavior problems such as sudden shying and spooking or bucking.
The ideal saddle stays out of the horse’s way by conforming to his anatomy, ‘translates’ the rider’s aids into recognizable signals, and enables the rider to eventually align the horse’s and the rider’s center of gravity.
In my estimation, only about 25% of saddles I see on horses in my work actually fulfill these requirements, maybe even less. The result: Seemingly unexplained soundness, behavior, and performance problems.
Solution: Educate yourself around saddle fit. Then—when you then engage a saddle-fitting professional—you have a good idea of whether the presented solutions are actually sound and beneficial. In the US, there is no licensing requirement for ‘saddle fitters’. Beware and arm yourself with some basic knowledge around saddle-fitting that will enable you to ask the right questions.
5. Last not least: Where the brain goes, the body follows
Mental Wellness is not yet a commonly used term. In future, so I hope, it will be a household term for any horse person.
“A sore horse is a worried horse.” (Walter Zettl)
One may also want to say: “A worried horse is a sore horse.” (Stefanie Reinhold ;-).
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that enables us to fight or flight, just like our ancestors. The same thing applies to horses, who also—and even more so—have the fight or flight response.
An overactive sympathetic nervous system, however, blocks the parasympathetic nervous system that we need in order to regenerate, to be creative, and to recognize our own needs. In the horse, this is similar. Attention to the handler, trust in the process, actively trying to find solutions—all that is the work of the parasympathetic nervous system. Once the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive (stress response), your horse CAN NOT pay attention to you or be relaxed.
Any stress response is reflected in muscle contractions in the body. This is a simple rule for all mammals. How do you react when something suddently frightens you? How does your body feel after a stressful day at work? Where is the tension? Now imagine your horse after spotting a cougar in the bushes. What does his body look and feel like?
Solution: Don’t be ‘the cougar in the bush’. Before interacting with your horse, take a few minutes to calm down, leave the daily grind behind you and take a few deep breaths. Put your ‘agenda’ aside for a few minutes and simply BE with your horse before starting your work together.
This is a vast topic and this article could be several thousand words longer… ;-). I do hope that it encouraged you to look deeper into one or several of these aspects and I look forward to hearing from you with any questions or suggestions.
The above advice is beneficial in my own personal opinion. Please ensure fitness of your horse for any exercises described on this website by consulting your veterinarian, if in doubt. Equine Massage is NEVER a substitute for proper veterinary care. If you are in doubt about the physical condition of your horse, please consult a veterinarian.