No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to get your horse to lift his back or engage his hindquarters. The strides are choppy, maybe even rushed, and he is fighting the bit. Before you criticize him for disobedience or bad behaviour, it’s important to make sure he isn’t suffering from back pain.
Here’s a look at possible causes and how you can go about trying to remedy them.
1. Check your saddle’s fit.
It’s important that the rider’s weight is distributed evenly, and that the shape of the saddle fits the shape of the horse’s back without any pressure on the spine. This includes ensuring the gullet is wide enough, that the withers are clear (check while mounted, as well), and that the rider’s weight isn’t levered onto the back of the saddle. For a more comprehensive look at saddle fit, check out this article.
How to remedy it? Consult a professional saddle-fitter if you’re in over your head, but adding an extra saddle pad, sheepskin half-pad, thinline, or various other shaped paddings to fill in gaps can get you by if you’re in a pinch. Just keep an eye on sweat patterns on their backs/pads. That will tell you where pressure points are.
2. Feel their backs.
It’s good practice to feel along the spine every once in a while anyway for sensitivities, but even more so if they are sore. Run your fingers down their spines, top and sides, feeling for any deviations with vertebrae, but, on another pass, also slide your fingers into the muscle a few inches from the spine. Dropping their backs as you go along shouldn’t immediately raise a red flag (it may just mean they are dropping from the pressure and showing that they are able to), but any additional signs of agitation should prompt a closer look. These could include a sudden drop or shying from pressure (observe other body language that indicates discomfort), jerking their heads up without flinching their backs, swishing, stomping or signalling warnings to you.
Any spinal deviations should be seen to by a qualified professional, be it a vet and/or chiropractor. Concerns about muscle pain should be consulted by a massage therapist or bodyworker.
What can you do? Using the tips of your fingers, you can dig in a little at the very bottom of their barrel, 6-12 inches behind the girth and push up to ask them for back lifts. It’s important to treat this like a squat for yourself so you don’t injure your own back. Keep an eye on their body language if they are uncomfortable with the idea. You don’t have to ask them to hold it – just ask for a lift, and release when they yield for even a second so they learn to yield away from the pressure. You can gradually increase duration as they learn the idea. One or two per day is enough.
3. Check their hindquarters.
This might not seem totally practical at first glance, but if there has been an injury to the sacroiliac joint or a strained or sore muscle, ex: gastrocnemius, this would prevent the horse from being able to step under with their hind end and lift their back.
What can you do? You can try a fairly basic stretch for the hind end which involves asking them to stand squarely. Lift a back foot, then, supporting the hoof and fetlock, slowly bring it forward towards their front fetlock on the same side. You should not force them, and only go as far as they are comfortable. It’s crucial to keep the foot as low as possible while minding your fingers. It’s best if you can keep your body facing backward, so that you can use your weight to gently lean back as you pull the foot forward. Also, in the event they jerk or kick out, your body will naturally fall away from their “danger zone”, taking you to their shoulder instead. Your safety should be your first concern!
If there is obvious pain or unwillingness, it might be in your horse’s interest to consult a massage therapist or a bodyworker for an assessment and/or physical therapy.
4. Check the hocks.
This is something best done by a vet, but possible indicators to you could be reluctance to pick it up when picking out feet, or walking out lame after it has been picked up. They may have a “mysterious on-and-off” lameness, or you might notice they start out stiff but work out of it as they warm up. Backing up, small circles and backing off a trailer, for example, might be difficult or he may downright refuse. These should all raise a little red flag, because if it goes untreated, it can worsen, and what stiffnesses and pain they are showing you now will continue to snowball.
If you’re suspicious of hock pain, cold hose after you ride to help reduce inflammation and talk to your vet for treatment options. Consulting an equine nutritionist might also be a good idea for additional long-term options.
Pain in the horse’s hocks and hind-end can and will manifest into back pain if left untreated, as they will attempt to compensate or “hold” themselves in an attempt to take some of the torque out of the aching parts. While the back pain can be addressed with massage therapy or shockwave treatment, to name a few options, wherever the triggering pain is occurring (ex: the hock) needs to be addressed and treated.
As long as they are still fit to ride, encourage them to stretch their necks forward and down, carrying their heads around chest-height, if possible, and ask for lateral bend through their spine. (At the trot, cue with your inside calf as you rise, riding with wide hands. At the canter, apply inside calf as the forehand lifts towards you.)
The lateral bend unlocks the rigidity down the length of the spine and in turn will encourage them to round their backs and lower their heads. Gently support and reward any give they offer.
Less is often best on the road to recovery, so don’t be afraid to end with short and sweet than ask too much too soon.