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All equines in the wild are free- living herd animals, which rely on their ability to out run predators by a highly developed ‘flight mechanism’ and strong cooperation with other herd members. Over the distance of 2 meters the horse is the fastest land animal, allowing him to out accelerate the pounce of a cat or strike of a snake. In order to remain safe the horse needs the eyes and ears of the rest of the herd, and makes strong ‘pair bonds’ with other individuals. Behavioural experts say that a horse that is kept by himself, is likely to be in a state of heightened anxiety, always feeling the need to be vigilant, and often will not lie down for deep sleep, or get proper rest.
All the senses of the horse are much better than ours, he is purported to be able to smell blood up to a mile away, and can certainly hear frequencies we can’t. The equine eye is the largest of all land mammals, he has almost all round vision, and can see in the dark due to a special strip in the retina. Paradoxically, the horse is easily dazzled, and has blind spots due to his long head, so he cannot see what he is jumping when he takes off, or what is immediately in front of him, when collected and ‘on the bit’!
Due to modifications at the back of his throat, he cannot breath through his mouth, and is unable to vomit, this means his life depends on his sense of taste, and learning from his dam what is safe to eat. To cope with his fibrous diet, his teeth keep on emerging throughout life.
The gut of the horse is huge, and he is designed to eat forage for 16 – 18 hrs a day, this keeps his hind-gut happy. Leaving a horse for over 4hrs with nothing forage based to pick over can lead to dangerous changes in gut bacteria, and may lead to colic and laminitis.
Like the cat the horse does not have a collar bone, this allows his front end mobility, and the ability to compensate for difficult terrain. The equine limbs are built for speed, he literally runs on the tips of his middle fingers and middle toe, and his hoof is the equivalent of a finger or toe- nail. Unlike the cat and dog the equine spine is much less flexible, and provides a stable well braced structure, in order for the very powerful limb muscles packed around the trunk, especially those in the hind-quarters, to accelerate the light and mobile limbs when running.
Horses skeletons do not stop growing until they are often around 7 yrs old, and sometimes later. A horse is nowadays in his prime, often well into his late teens or early twenties, especially if ‘backed’ late when his spine is mature, and brought on slowly. With better care and more natural feeding, a horse may live happily into his thirties, there are many active veterans still in work.
OWNER EXPECTATIONS for horses and ponies.
These are often very complex and varied! Many equines are expected to be a cross between a cuddly pet, a stress counsellor, and a furry quad bike, or so it seems. Most horses are kept because the person wants to ride or work them, they are often ‘sold on’ and upgraded, several times in their lives, due to the needs of the owner, which may break ‘pair bonds’, and cause separation anxiety. Often, as with children’s ponies, they may simply become outgrown, much to the distress of their young owner!
A number of horses get little turn out, and may be kept without a companion, so cannot express their natural behaviour.
Often equines are fed too many concentrates, and are not fed enough forage to keep them occupied. This can cause them to ‘hot up’ temperamentally, suffer digestive disorders, and get bored and destructive. All these factors can lead to stress and physical and behavioural problems brought on by this. As herbivorous ‘flight’ animals with senses that are far superior to ours, and very different reasoning mechanisms, equines are by far the most difficult for us humans to understand in all ways, as their instincts and physical needs are often dramatically different from ours!
Generally horses are expected to work and do different disciplines. Physically, especially if brought into work early at say 3 or 4yrs, [or even earlier as used to be the convention in days when the horse was a beast of work and economics was the driving force], this can stress the softer structure of the still growing vertebrae and ribs of the horse. This is especially the case with a ridden horse. The soft growth plates of the equine spine are unfortunately orientated in the direction which makes them most vulnerable to strain and displacement when weight is put on the animals’ back.
This may lead to spinal distortion, eg. sway-back, and inflammatory reactions in the associated muscles and ligaments of the spine e.g ‘kissing spines’. Problems like this are likely to cause pain, loss of function, lameness, stress on other joints, early degenerative changes, debilitation, and pain related attitude and behavioural problems.
Therefore, it is our opinion, that if you want a horse to have the potential of being a sound and willing partner for many years, it is better to wait until their spine is mature before bringing them into work that involves putting undue weight or pressure on their backs. This does not mean neglecting their ground training, handling, leading and loading, or ‘sacking out’ procedures. Much valuable safety and partnership enhancing work can be done from the ground, and will result in a preferable outcome when ridden work commences.
Another difficult area, is that of saddle fit. Contrary to popular misconception, the area of the equine spine under the saddle, does move. The movement is quite small, but nevertheless very important to the dynamic balance of the horse. It is vitally important that the saddle is of the correct shape, balance, and width, with a wide enough gullet not to press on the costo-vertebral junction,- the area of union between spine and rib cage,- and is preferably constructed to move with the horse. Saddles that ‘bump’ around on the animals’ back, cause discomfort, lack of performance, and can irritate the underlying autonomic nervous system, which controls the vital day-to-day management and coordination of overall body function.
Ultimately, even a very well fitted saddle will put pressure on the horse’s back, and needs to be checked regularly, all horses in regular or irregular work should have their backs checked, and [with veterinary permission] owners have reported that they have found the routine attention every 6mths by a good Equine Cranial Osteopath to be of benefit to their horse.
Many equestrian disciplines that we like to do are of themselves difficult and demanding for the horse, and may cause physical and mental problems for him. Unless sympathetically approached by the owner, this can cause a lot of discomfort, stress, tension and resentment in the horse. Prolonged stress can lead to problems like colic as the autonomic nervous system controlling the gut becomes altered in it’s normal function.
Most horses are shod with metal shoes to prevent wearing down of the foot, but this can reduce the important shock absorption mechanism of the foot, and contact of the frog with the ground, reducing circulatory return from the foot, and increasing jarring through the joints of the legs. Correct attention to foot balance and trimming is vital, and will affect the balance of the entire body of the horse.
We also expect our horse to travel to events in trailers and boxes, often this is hot, cramped, noisy and uncomfortable, and close confinement is alien to equines. The horses’ muscle and ligaments are stressed and overworked by prolonged standing and adjusting to cornering, braking, acceleration and bumps in the road, as well as the ‘whole body vibration’ factor. This makes travelling a very demanding process mentally and physically for the horse.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG for horses and ponies.
Unfortunately, quite a lot, but fortunately as Osteopaths owners believe that we can help a lot in the care, treatment and rehabilitation of all equines. We often find ourselves working alongside vets, farriers, saddle fitters, trainers and equine behaviourists. With our knowledge of both human and equine anatomy, and body balance, owners often seek our help with ensuring correct saddle fit for horse and rider, spot rider related problems, assist in finding optimum foot balance for overall body comfort, and horse friendly psychological solutions to training and handling problems.
Horses usually communicate their problems to us by ‘body language’, so, often pain and discomfort in a well fed and reasonably healthy horse will, if the initial small signs are ignored, eventually escalate, and be likely to appear as behavioural problems. The horse is not ‘mucking about’, he is simply trying to make you understand that there is something wrong, and please could you find a way of fixing it!
Sometimes a horse may seem stiff and ‘out of sorts’, finding work difficult. Often this may be due to unresolved strains and compressions from falls or twists, which could have occurred at work, or at play. Quite frequently a horse may slip or trip, jarring his joints and overstressing his muscles as he struggles not to fall. Another common occurrence is when a horse bumps his hip going through a door, the jolt from this, aggravated by the horse then bracing himself, can cause strain and misalignment to the hips, pelvis, and spine.
Over-training, with little meaningful reward or release for the horse, and too much travelling and competitive work, can also cause physical and mental stresses, giving a disrupted hormone balance and resulting in a depletion of vitality and stress on the organs and immune system.
Owners have reported that they believe that Cranial Osteopathy has done an excellent job in resolving these stresses, strains, congestions, compressions, and the consequent depleted function to the equine body, resulting from all of the above occurrences.
Knocks to the poll from low doorways and falls, bumps and clumsy handling to the head face and jaw, can cause tempero-mandibular joint strain, cranial sutural jamming, which may result in eye, ear, and nose problems as manifestation of disturbance in normal drainage, nerve, and circulatory function. This may result in ‘head-shaking’ or tossing, excessive face rubbing, quidding, and the animal may become head shy, resistant to bitting and fractious!
Not surprisingly, as facial neuralgia is a very painful complaint. Here owners have reported finding that normalising of function of the disturbed structures with Cranial Osteopathy, in conjunction with resolution of tack, mouth, handling and environmental problems has been extremely helpful.