Stefanie Reinhold and a client horse
In order to detect back problems, we need to pay close attention to our horse.

Most horses I work on in my equine bodywork practice are healthy horses with normal restrictions as a result of their athletic activity. There is a good percentage, however, that has recurring—often unexplained—performance or lameness issues. Owners often embark on an odyssee of farrier work, alternative healing modalities and bodywork. In my estimation, at least 8 out of 10 ‘problem horses’ have undetected issues in the back that—directly or indirectly—affect their performance and well-being. (Please note: Any advice given in this article does not replace proper veterinary care.)

In this 3-part article I’d like to share some pointers with you in regard to

  1. Detecting back issues,
  2. identifying possible reasons for back issues and
  3. what to do about it (once the vet determines there is no underlying medical issue!).

How to detect back problems in your horse

As so often in life, the obvious is not always the cause, but rather the symptom. This holds especially true in case of back problems in horses. Often, the obvious symptoms in horses with back problems look—at first glance—like vices or behavior/training problems. Back problems in horses can be quite easily spotted, once you know what to look for. Does your horse display any of the following behaviors or reactions? Then this could be a sign of discomfort in the back:

Does your horse

  • stomp his foot, pin his ears, jerk up the head, swish his tail, hollow the back, kick or bite when you are grooming the back or saddling?
  • let his back ‘sag’ (think hammock) or tense his back during leading, lunging or riding?
  • have sticky, choppy, disharmonious (different lengths of strides, out of rhythm) movement when ridden?
  • rush when ridden, is extremely hasty, runs away when ridden?
  • lack impulsion, not step under?
  • not sufficiently accept the rider’s aids, especially the driving aids?
  • lack fluidity or suddenly and unexpectedly blocks the rider’s aids?
  • has a tendency to carry his head high when ridden?
  • grind his teeth, shake or jerk his head, tilt in the poll when ridden?
  • display extreme behavior challenges such as rearing, bolting, bucking or
  • unexplained recurring lameness not traceable to issues in the legs?
  • lack impulsion?
  • Is your horse restless when being mounted or does he bite, kick or (in extreme cases) throw himself on the floor or run off?
  • Do your horse’s back muscles feel hard and/or cold to the touch, is there a pronounced dip behind the withers/shoulderblades?
  • Do your horse’s back muscles flinch as you lift the saddle towards the back?

Any of these signs can point to discomfort in the back. Considering that the long back muscle (longissimus dorsi), located right under the rider’s saddle and seat,  in the horse is a locomotion muscle that needs to move with every step, you can imagine that pain and discomfort in this muscle will lead to

  1. shortened strides and restriction range of motion and
  2. a considerable amount of discomfort for the horse.

The ‘cold backed’ horse – a clarification

“My horse is just ‘cold backed’…”, some horse-owners tell me. Being cold-backed (being especially sensitive when first saddled and ridden, possibly bucking, needing to be ‘warmed up’ for a considerable time) is not an innate quality of a horse, like having a white sock on the left hind. It’s a man-made problem, needs to be taken seriously and remedied thoroughly.

The remedy for back problems in any horse depends on the underlying root cause. This needs to be thoroughly analyzed and many factors come into play. In our part 2 of this article series, we will take a closer look at “What are the causes of back problems in horses?”.

Until then, I will be happy to respond to any questions. Just drop me a line (email: info@reinholdshorsewellness.com)!

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie

Stefanie Reinhold
Interactive Bodywork for Horses

For those of dissatisfied with the form and function of many popular (and expensive) modern saddle pads, here some of yesterday’s news: The good old Cavalry Saddle Blanket beats many a pad when it comes to providing protection for the horse’s back from impact and friction and a comfortable ride for the rider, minimizing the jarring micro-movements that can be so hard on our vertical spines. For those riders with back problems, this is good news!

In my recent blog about the advantages of the cavalry saddle blanket (see below), I mentioned several of the unique features of this proven and tested low-tech accessory:

  • minimizes friction to the horse’s back
  • provides rider with a comfortable ride
  • sustainable, made from natural materials
  • foldable, meaning you can always put a clean side on the horse
  • multi-purpose (use as cool down blanket or sleep under the stars)
  • washable!

Those who read my recent post saw a picture of myself and my horse Yankee, enjoying the comforts of a cavalry saddle blanket. Now I am happy to be able to share some reader images with you, that were generously provided by Warren Matha.

The images show Warren E. Matha, member of the US Cavalry at Ft. Riley in 1942. You can see, that the make and fold of the saddle blanket is the same as shown in my image. It’s a felted wool blanket (much softer than a wool felt pad) that is folded 6 times and folded “six corners to the rear and near“, as Warren explains.

Enjoy these very personal and historic images and please feel free to email me with questions about this type of saddle blanket (stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com).

Warren E. Matha, US Cavalry, Ft. Riley, 1942
Warren E. Matha, US Cavalry, Ft. Riley, 1942, on a ride
Brig. General Harry D. Chamberlin

Gel pad, foam, or saddle blanket?

The quest for the perfect saddle pad.

May it be for schooling, trail riding, endurance, or even rehabbing a horse, the search for the perfect saddle pad is almost as confusing and mysterious as the search for the perfect saddle. Many riders have a pad that they ‘swear by’, others try various models to find the one that finally helps solve the horse’s back soreness or seems to provide just the right amount of cushioning.

When searching the for the perfect saddle pad, it is important to ask the right question:

What does the pad do for my horse and me?

Here the criteria in the order of importance:

  1. Minimizes friction (!!!)
  2. Does not trap heat
  3. Wicks sweat away from the horse’s skin
  4.  Adds to the rider’s comfort
  5. Protects the horses back from pressure

In a survey of a variety of riders, most riders answered the question “What do you want your saddle pad to do for your horse” with “protect the horse’s back from pressure”. Is this really what needs to happen? What is putting the pressure on in the first place?

At the Midwest Horse Fair, which is held in Madison every year, I have lots of fun putting my hand under a gel pad and getting hit with a hammer. I enjoy this. Not because I am an undercover masochist, but because it’s fun, that it doesn’t hurt. This must mean that if we hammer on the horse’s back with very hard instruments (seat bones?) and lots of force (jump from a tree?) we don’t hurt the horse, at least not if we only hammer once or twice.

But is this actually what happens when rider meets horse in the horizontal/vertical alignment of equine and human spine, connected by an interface commonly called saddle? Unless you are an incredibly tough boned, unbalanced rider, I don’t believe so.

Let us leave the subject of ill fitting saddles aside – you should never attempt to correct an ill fitting saddle with a pad – we’ll need to examine what actually causes back soreness in the horse from the unavoidable forces that work together during the process of riding a horse.

For this purpose, we’ll take a quick look at the horse/rider biomechanics in the walk:

The horse, a quadruped, has a four-beat walk during which he naturally swings his rump from side to side. Humans are bipeds and can actually deal quite nicely with the horse’s walk, as long as they remember not to push simultaneously from back to front with both seat bones, which is not in harmony with the horse’s movement and counteracts any efforts to keep your horses back sound. Following the movement of the horse in a relaxed way, alternating the forward movement of the right and left sides of your pelvis to harmoniously engage with the horse’s movement, will ensure you are not working against your horse. Even under those most favorable circumstances, there are still two bodies at work, trying to harmonize in the same movement. The rider transfers his movement to the horse, if ever so slight, and the horse his movement to the rider. The result – or in other words: what happens between the saddle and the horse’s back – is FRICTION.

What actually is friction? What does it do to the horse’s back?

You all know the experiment where you rub both hands together until they feel really hot. If you keep doing it, you’ll get a blister. (I had my brother try it when I was a kid…) If you’d take a folded handkerchief between both hands and try it again, you will not get a blister, because there is less FRICTION on your skin. The more layers the less friction on your hands.

Also: the greater the pressure, the greater the friction force (here is a case for losing those 10lbs.!).

Here a little science:

“The force of friction is directly proportional to the applied load. (Amontons’ 1st Law)”

“When contacting surfaces move relative to each other, the friction between the two surfaces converts kinetic energy into thermal energy, or heat.”

“The force of friction is opposite of the direction of motion.” friction

(This is taken straight from Wikipedia. I am inviting anyone with more scientific knowledge to explain all this a bit better.)

If your horse’s back is subjected to too much friction, the results can be:

  • Muscular soreness
  • Damaged or inflamed hair follicles (white spots)
  • Calluses and hair loss

Now what does all this have to do with saddle blankets, foam or rubber gel pads?

Simply said, I have nothing against gel pads that can turn the impact of a hammer descending at 40 miles per hour into a soft caress, but – in my humble opinion – it doesn’t do enough for the horse’s back.

My horse’s back will still be subjected to quite a bit of friction, not speaking of the fact that synthetic materials have a tendency to heat up.

So what do you want in a saddle pad? You may say…

  1. What I want, is a natural, sustainable material that doesn’t heat up and wicks moisture away from the horse : wool felt!
  2. What I want is a pad or blanket that minimizes friction : multiple layers!
  3. What I need is something that I can wash, use as a cool down and turn around, if needed : a large blanket!
  4. And… what I also want is something that cushions my seat. Because if I move about less I transfer less movement to the horse’s back in return. Every millimeter counts!

This sounds like a sales job for a new, exciting product. Instead I’d like to get you enthused about a very old exciting product:

The military saddle blanket

The US cavalry and European cavalry forces used folded wool felt blankets for a reason:

  • They kept their horses back sound while riding 45-50 kilometers every day with heavy equipment by minimizing friction.
  • When sweaty, they can be refolded so you’d be able to put a clean, dry side on your horse.
  • When hopelessly dirty, simply wash and hang.
  • They are multi-purpose and double as a cool off blanket or – this might appeal to die hard distance riders – as a warm cover for the rider at night.

Please note: I am not a fan of war or military. Simply came to appreciate the practical cavalry approach. So when I got my hands on an original German cavalry blanket a few years ago, I simply wanted to try it on my horse Yankee, a long-legged pacer with big gaits.

I folded the blanket according to the cavalry instructions (below) and put it under his endurance saddle. Then we started riding….what a surprise: What a smooth ride I had! The layers clearly cushioned his movement against mine and I could feel a noticeable difference. What a difference he must feel as well!

horse_army_blanket3

I then proceeded to convince clients to try the blanket as well, starting with simple green blankets from the army/navy store, that lacked a bit in quality, but were still worth the try.

What ensued was no less than astonishing: Whether the rider used a Western saddle, endurance saddle or English saddle, the result was the same:

More comfort for the rider, less discomfort for the horse.

After a long search for the proper quality, I finally found a wool saddle blanket that is of exquisite quality and compares to the original cavalry blankets, ensuring long-lasting quality, durability, and functionality as a saddle blanket.

saddle_blanket_endur

Veteran endurance champion Bonnie Mielke: “My new horse was getting a sore back whenever I would ride him for more than an hour.  At first I thought it was the saddle, so I changed that.  Stefanie came out and selected the correct saddle and yet he was sore.  She suggested that I try the cavalry style padding system.  It worked.  He has completed several 25 mile distance rides without getting a sore back.  Thank you, Stefanie for encouraging me to try this.  Kota (PSL Lakota Chief) thanks you, too.”

Happy cushioned trails!

how to fold a military saddle blanket
This is how to fold a military saddle blanket.