So ‘as soon as we are born gravity begins to pull on our joints and muscles causing wear and tear’ as humans we constantly try to improve our posture, standing tall, exercising to maintain strength and fitness!
Is it so different for our veteran horses? I love the old phrase ‘if you don’t use it you lose it!’ pretty true I believe!
If we think about the anatomy to begin with, the knees, the hips, the stifle, the hock, all points of common issues in the equine patient! Now think of how many people you know who complain about their knee or hip pain! In the human patient the first port of call is your GP, followed by X-rays/MRI, Physio/Steroid injection…..or even a joint replacement! So most people go through life with the odd niggle, click or clunk and manage a normal life, carrying out their everyday activities (possibly at a slightly reduced function). As Physio‘s we are trained to restore function and normal movement of our patients by using a number of treatment techniques from soft tissue work…..to exercise prescription……to electrotherapy modalities! But the aim’s are always the same….
- Increase/maintain range of movement of the joint.
- To improve strength around the musculature of the joint to help support the joint.
- To control pain and aid healing.
So if we think about the horse the aims are pretty similar! One thing I often find when treating the older horse is that they lose muscle bulk around their hindquarters and topline, we often see their backs dipped and their bellies hanging low. With low level niggles comes compensations in the surrounding muscles, often through the pectorals, gluteals or the back.
Ok, so this is a very old horse, but a good example!
On assessment I often find difficulty picking up one or more feet, stiffness through the neck or mid-back, poor hind limb activation and associated soft tissue spasm!
So how can Physio help? I believe it’s about maintaining the older horse, giving the owner the tools to manage the effects of ageing through remedial exercises and graded work that is achievable for the individual horse involved.
We can’t tell the horse to go away and do 10 squats twice a day, nor can we tell them to rest and refrain from trotting or cantering when they are in pain, remember they are flight animals and the natural reaction when scared is to run!
So back to the main point of the post! When treating the older horse I have to assess carefully what compensations the individual horse is using to manage day to day. General aims of treatment;
- Relieve muscle spasm using soft tissue techniques and/or electrotherapy.
- Address areas of stiffness picked up on assessment, commonly through cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, through joint mobilisations and reflexes to improve range of movement.
- To introduce an individual exercise programmes for the horse that can be maintained by the owner.
Exercises need to be achievable for the horse, if they are too difficult the horse will evade the task and not target the correct muscle group or joint.
Pole work is a common exercise I prescribe as it really does work, even something simple such as the hogs back (pictured below) works to improve hind limb flexion, increases hind quarter activation, encourages spinal mobility and core activation!
Baited stretches are great to maintain spinal mobility and work the abdominals, and can be a fun after ride treat for your horse!
The treatment list goes on and on, but needs to be tailored to suit the horse, and their level of ability. So whether your horse is a 25 year old happy hacker, an 18 year old hunter, or a 20 year old field ornament physio can be beneficial……remember they can’t tell you they have a niggle or a stiffness somewhere it is up to us as owners to pick up on subtle changes….or if in doubt as a Physio for a routine well being check!!