Understanding and Addressing Back Pain in Horses and Riders
Back pain and stiffness is a very common problem for horses and humans alike. And there's often a common reason why your back - or your horse's back - gets stiff and sore.
In this podcast episode, I explain what that reason is and how you can prevent back soreness or stiffness in you and your horse.
I also include FREE resources to help you prevent or relieve minor back discomfort* and tension in you and your horse*.
💥Want to get expert coaching on putting this into practice?💥
Go to https://www.marydebono.com/joinhorse to join the waitlist for our online group coaching program, Move with Your Horse.
Be among the first to know when we open our doors again. And qualify for valuable bonuses!
FREE resources mentioned in this episode:
VIDEO: Relieve Your Horse's Back Tension in Minutes
ARTICLE: The Secret to Rounding Your Horse's Back: blog post explains how you can help your horse round their back in a healthy, comfortable way: https://www.marydebono.com/blog/the-secret-to-rounding-your-horse-s-back
Easily improve your movement and position in our FREE rider masterclass.
Feldenkrais® for Riders videos: https://www.marydebono.com/rider
Podcast show notes for this episode: https://www.marydebono.com/blog/h46
* Always consult a veterinarian if you suspect that your horse has pain, stiffness or tension. And please consult your own medical professional if you experience those symptoms. All info here is for general educations purposes ONLY and doesn't constitute medical or veterinary advice.
Today, I'm gonna share with you a very common cause of back pain for horses and their humans. Hello, my name is Mary Debono and this is the Easier Movement, happier Horses podcast. So let me start by telling you a little story. So this happened a few years ago. I was working at a hunter jumper barn that I often worked with the horses there.
The, the barn manager was bringing in a horse from the pasture, and I took a look at the horse, just kind of saw him outta the corner of my eye. And I saw that he had these big welts on his Hein corners. And it didn't dawn on me at first. Well, it didn't dawn on me at all what those were.
And I said to her, you know what, what happened to him? And she kind of rolled her eyes and she said, oh, she said he was at a show over the weekend and he stopped at a jump. She said he just flat out refused. And the owner who owned the entire facility, by the way, she was a very wealthy woman,
came off the horse and she wasn't hurt, except her ego was really badly, bur bruised. And so anyway, she excused herself from the class and then the trainer who was present at the, at the show, he took the horse and took him to a warmup area, kind of like behind the barn type of area. And he proceeded to basically beat the,
you know, what out of him and just beat him and beat him and beat him because the horse didn't wanna jump. Now, this was a horse that had always been just the most amazing horse, and all horses are amazing in my opinion. But this was unusual for him. And the barn manager was actually really, really sad about this. Well,
I was very sad, but I was also really angry because I put my hands on the horse and I saw, I felt and saw how tight this horse's back was and how painful ju you could just see it from the way he was walking, that he had a problem. He did what was described as a dirty stop and that's why the woman came off.
So let me explain that. In the world of show, and please listen up if even if you're not into jumping this, this story has, has relevance to any type of horse work you do. In this case, the horse did what is called a dirty stop. And that means that the horse is cantering up to a fence and then like starts to jump and then suddenly puts on the brakes.
And those are the type, because there's already that forward momentum going that the person often comes off the horse, right? The rider falls off. And so people get really, really upset with horses that do that because they feel like there's trickery involved that the horse did it on purpose like that, there's some kind of ulterior motive to get the rider off.
Now, I'm going to tell you, I have been working with horses professionally for over 30 years and spent my whole life with horses. Virtually every single horse I have worked with that the person said, did a dirty stop, had back pain, every single one. And what that shows me is, if you think about it, if you've ever had any kind of back injury yourself,
if you are like about to do something and then you start to do it and you get seized by that, that muscle spasm or that pain, you're going to stop. And that's what I believe is happening in, in most of these cases, if not all of these cases where this hor the horses do what they call dirty stops. Now, in this horse's case,
like I said, I was the barn manager, was very sad about how the horse was treated when he was st when he refused, in other words, he was taken out back and beat, you know, beaten severely, which no horse should ever have to, to deal with that ever. And I was sad and I was mad, I was really mad.
And I asked the barn manager to call down the owner of the facility. She lived in a big house on the property. And she's like, oh, I don't know. I said, please do it because if you don't, I'm gonna go up there and talk to her, you know, and, and bang on her door. So she did.
And ask the, the woman to come down to the barn that I had something to tell her. And I proceeded to show her how sore her horse was. And I did not do that by poking the horse. A lot of times people will do that, they will like palpate, they'll press into the horse's back to show them, you know, moving away from it.
I don't do that. That to me sets up a really bad experience for the horse and doesn't help you help the horse because now the horse is anticipating more pain from you. So I never do that. I don't need to do that. I can feel the quality of the muscles, how they're organized. I can watch the movement of the horse even at a walk.
I can, I can sense, I can feel if there's movement in the stir free movement in the sternum and ribs. I don't need to, nor do I want to poke the horse to feel the pain. Okay? So I don't do that. Many people do. So she, but she understood when I explained to her. Now, interestingly enough,
this woman herself suffered from a lot of back pain. So you would think she would understand. So, and at this point, you know, I calmed down a little bit. We had a good conversation. I showed her, she, she asked me then to work with the horse to help relieve the the issue, which I did. And then she ended up,
because I explained to her how horrific that was, what they did to that horse, she ended up firing that trainer, which I didn't feel badly about because what he did was wrong. And hopefully he learned his lesson. I hope he never treats another horse like that ever again. And then the good news is that horse was able to have a number of sessions with me over time,
which he, he, he developed so much more ability. His back softened. I mean, it was really awesome. He had been so stuck in his sternum and his ribcage, which we're, we're gonna get into in a moment, why that prevents the horse from using the back properly. But he, he got over that and he developed these lovely ways of moving and even better news because the woman didn't want to show him anymore because she was so not physically traumatized,
but emotionally traumatized at getting dumped in front of all her friends. She had, had, had invited a lot of wealthy people to watch the show and it was this whole big deal. She didn't wanna show him anymore. She ended up gifting him to this really lovely young woman who just adored him. So it was a really, really good ending to the story.
And the trainer was gone and it was, it was all good. So the barn manager and I were very happy about that. And you might think, well, I would never do that, Mary, I would never do that. But the point of this story is not only, yes, that guy was horrible and he should never have beat the horse point is it's very easy to overlook back pain.
And the reason for that is it doesn't present, it often doesn't present as a typical lameness. Like if a horse is off in the right front, for example, you're gonna see that they're waiting the left front more. You know, there's often a head bob. Same thing with the hiin. The Hein can be a little trickier for some people to pinpoint,
but there's, there's generally a real obvious change in gate patterns. And so you can see that it's not always the case with back pain. It's often something that we can, if you're very trained to look at movement, which we go into in my move with your horse program, you can identify where a horse feels like they're really restricted in their back.
But it a lot of times doesn't present very obviously to people. So that's why things like this can be, you know, undetected for so long. Another one, just, just to real quick, is also involved a person who jumped the horse. She had a horse that she asked me to work with. And again, the, the issue was refusals.
And she told me how her, her trainer was dealing with it, which was again hitting the horse. She, she rode with a crop and she was instructed to really beat the horse when he would stop at a jump again, I explained to her why the horse was stopping all of that. We got him over that similar case by the way, in that she ended up gifting that horse to her husband who didn't ride the same way,
let's put it that way. He was a much kinder rider. And then she went on to get a different competitive horse. Now, all that to say, I've also worked with many, many horses over the years that have had back pain and whatnot that went on to resume highly competitive careers. I'm thinking of one in particular that was kind of exciting at the time.
I used to do a lot of work with, with show horses, jumpers, high level dressage horses, et cetera. This was a, this horse was a jumper again, by the way. Lots and lots of dressage horses and rainers and just trail horses and lots of horses in general have back pain. I just wanna put that out there. This horse happened to be a jumper and he was having trouble with a lot of the very technical kind of combinations that they had.
And I gave him a session and I was present at the show. Then I was working with quite a number of the horses that were competing at that show. And he won his class and it was a really difficult class and it involved a lot of these combinations of different stride lengths in between different, you know, the jumps were, were, were different as far as width and height and all of that.
It was, he had to really be able to use his back well, and he had been having a lot of trouble with that before and after having some, some work with me, he went on to, like I say, win this very technical class. So that was really pretty exciting. So there's a lot of things that contribute to back pain cuz you might wonder,
well why is the horse having back pain? Well, there's so many, so many reasons, okay? But I'm going to, to drill down into something that I find very, very common. And that is your horse has a habit of using him or herself in a particular way. And in this particular way they're overusing some parts of the back and underusing others.
And guess what? We do it too. Humans do it too. Dogs do it also dogs to a different degree because we don't ride them and do the other things that we do as we do to horses, but they do it, they can do it as well. So that is, and stay with me cuz I'm going to explain how we can change this.
But that is the, a very, very common cause of back pain is that the back is not being designed, not being used, excuse me, in the way it was designed. So there's certain parts of the back of the spine that are more available for movement, that there's greater range of motion in certain parts of the spine, for example. And it's designed to do different things in different places.
And so what happens is, again, the horse gets into a habit of, oh, it's easier to move here, will they just keep overusing that one area and underusing these other parts? So if you think about this for your own point of view, very common for example, for people to overuse their lower back. They get into this habit, maybe they do a lot of arching of the lower back,
and then there isn't much movement happening in the mid back and the upper back. And suddenly it starts to get very restricted there over time can become very arthritic, can become almost like fused, right? The body lays down bone, different things can happen or people, another common one is they overuse the neck. Same thing with the horses. They often overuse it's individual.
But this is what I see often, just like with humans, they may overuse the neck kind of bend just through the neck and then the lower back and the middle part doesn't get, doesn't participate. So this is really, really important because how we move the, the efficiency of our movement, the comfort of our movement, the ease of our movement is dependent on the appropriate parts participating in that movement.
And so we, when we run into habits, when we keep invoking habits where some parts are being overused, well then they over time will get damaged, they'll be much more prone to injury, they'll suffer wear and tear damage, arthritis, things like that. And the horse just learns to further restrict, they get more entrenched in those bad habits because they're trying to avoid pain.
Okay? So it's like, okay, I developed this habit for a reason and they get stuck with it. So now you might, you might wonder like, well why did they even develop that habit in the first place? Why did I develop that habit? You might think, well let's go to your horse first. Maybe your horse was ridden with tack that did not fit properly.
So for example, if a saddle didn't fit properly and there was discomfort, right? The horse is going to do certain things to minimize the pain, to minimize the discomfort. Well that was a good solution, right? It helped minimize the discomfort. But then what happens is, okay, maybe the horse comes into a, with a new person gets the horse,
or that first person wises up and they get a saddle fitter out and they have a custom made saddle and it's all great. But the thing is, the horse has a habit of doing what they're doing. So even if they change to a certain degree, they often don't give up the habit a hundred percent. They hold on to what I often call an echo of the movement,
an echo of the habit, the compensation. So we do the same thing. You might hurt your foot and you limp for a while and then your foot starts to heal, it feels better, but you're doing a little thing like maybe just tilting your pelvis more in one direction than the other, loading one leg more than the o other, because that,
that solved a problem. And over time it just becomes an entrenched habit. And the brain loves things that are familiar. So the nervous system says, Hey, that worked. I'm sticking with it. And it sticks with it until you give the nervous system of the horse or the human a better option, something that feels easier, more pleasurable, okay,
this is real and feels safe at the same time. This is really, really critical. So first thing you do, if you suspect that your horse has any kind of pain, and I would say do this, whether you suspect pain or not in the back, is really make sure your saddles and bridle, every, every piece of equipment is fitted properly and that it's doing the job you want it to do.
Make sure your horse's dental is taken care of, that you have a really well qualified dental professional. Your vet or whoever that's very well trained in dentistry, take care of your horse. This is re another critical thing. Make sure that's all, all good. Make sure your horse doesn't have ulcers. And then very, very importantly, make sure your horse's hooves are balanced properly.
So sometimes, you know, people, they, they have a certain per professional that does their horse's feet and they just stick with them and they don't reevaluate if that's really working for the horse because the horse again compensates for maybe an, an unbalanced way of being trimmed. So these are really important things. There's many things like that that you first need to make sure that they're correct,
that you have really taken care of all those things. Now, another really important one is your balance in the saddle because this I find is an extremely common cause of your horse developing bad back habits, let's put it that way. Bad movement habits that involve the back. Just say you're sitting heavier on your left seat bone and it feels perfectly even to you because your brain has decided,
okay, that's what we do. And kind of evened it out in your awareness. You're not aware of it anymore. It's familiar. Well, your horse probably first thinks, oh gosh, she's sitting heavier on that side and then has to compensate, has to use his or her back differently, has to bend differently, has to, has to use those muscles to protect itself more from that increased weight on that one side.
And then over time it normalizes that situation and stays in this asymmetrical state where it's using the back in a very inefficient way that's harming the horse over time. Now, just say you as the rider, you improve. Now you're a hundred percent balanced. You've done your feld in Christ, you know, lessons with me and you're really balanced in the saddle,
but your horse still has that habit because again, even when you take away the cause of the habit, an echo of the compensation, if not even more than an echo, will often remain because it's an entrenched habit that worked for the horse. So that's why in your move with your horse program, we dive into how you help retrain the horse's brain to recognize that it doesn't need to do those inefficient movement habits anymore and can have new options in how to use him or herself.
And much freer, much easier, much, much more pleasurable movement, okay? So you really get a horse who is enthusiastic and happy to move because it feels good. Again, this is super, super common. I, I'm, I'm thinking about a dressage horse I worked with that I used to always be able to tell. Second, I would put my hands on the horse.
I could tell who rode the horse last. There were, there were two choices. I knew it was the trainer or it was the horse's person. And frankly the trainer was a much, much more skilled rider. She's a very elegant rider. She uses herself just in this wonderful, harmonious way and she doesn't have that driving seat that will often bring in back pain.
And the the horse's person unfortunately wasn't at that stage. And so I could immediately feel the difference. And the, the good thing was they had, they used to hire me to come out often enough that I could bring the horse back into a better state. And then we did, we did work with the rider as well so that she could be better balanced on her horse because this is why I stopped a long time ago,
only working with like, people would sometimes say, oh, I'm fine. I don't need any sessions from you Mary, but my horse does. I find that doesn't work so well. Usually I need to work with both the horse and the human because if the rider is still creating a problem for the horse, the horse is constantly having to compensate for that.
So I can put the horse back to, to feeling really great, but the horse has to deal with that same rider's issue again. That's not gonna work. So all the pieces of the puzzle have to be in place for it to be most beneficial for the horse and the human. What I'm going to give you in the show notes today is a little video.
It's just a couple of few minutes, couple of minutes where I show you how to do what I call a back muscle lift on the horse. This is not a back lift that you might have heard about where people tickle the, the, the, the underside of the horse, like around the midline. And, and let me explain why I often don't recommend that people do that.
People will often do that as kinda like an, like a isometric exercise for their horse. They will, they will put pressure along the horse's midline, right? Like starting at the girth area and going back. And what that does is that will create like a reflex movement in the horse where the horse will round the back. And people often use that as,
oh, this is a good thing to do to help your horse. Let me tell you something that can really backfire. I mean I've seen it done well. I've seen people who know how to do it skillfully and I've seen way too many people do that in a way that's harmful for the horse. And think about this, if you had a lot of pain in your back or even a little bit of pain,
just say you had some pain in your mid-back or any part of your spine and I came up to you and I put my hand like in your, in your front, right, in your, like in your solar plexus area or below, right? And I kind of poked you there, you would round your back. Now what if that rounding of your back caused you discomfort?
You did it because it was a reflex, right? I poked you here so you, you reflexively contracted your abdominals and your back rounded. But think about that, if that caused you discomfort. Now what did I just teach your nervous system? I just taught your nervous system that rounding your back hurts and that you don't wanna do it. So you might do it because of this reflex.
So as long as the person is doing the, the pressure or whatever you might do it. Some horses learn by the way, to brace so much that no amount of this, of pressing on their midline will create that rounding. And there's other reasons too for, for that. But you are giving the horse a, a, a, a bad association with rounding the back,
right? What we want, and I I preach this over and over, is we want to associate movement with ease and pleasure. So instead I show my students a very different way of working with the sternum and the ribs in a very supportive, helpful way that gets the attention of the horse's nervous system while it feels safe, while it feels, oh,
this is relieving my pain. Cuz you can support the chest and the ribcage in such a way and that you relieve the pressure on the back, you actually create this sense of softness in the back and you could use your hands to do that. It's really pretty cool. And the horse just automatically starts to soften in the back. You'll see the back start to come up,
but it's not from a reflex. And you do it within the realm of this feeling of safety. And when the horse starts to feel these easy, safe movements that that starts to generalize. And now you can do bigger movements and you can involve more parts of the horse, but it's always in the context of this feels safe, easy and good. And that's how you help the horse get over those habits of overusing one part of the back and underusing other parts and creating these problems for themselves.
And the same thing with humans. So in, in the work we do, do I take you through Felden Christ's lessons. You can call them exercises like awareness exercises. They're very gentle, incredibly powerful stuff. And through this context of safe, easy movement, you learn new patterns of movement, you learn new options where you can involve more of yourself and wake up parts that have been underutilized.
So really pretty cool. Just even this morning I was just teaching the Move with your horse group, another Feldon Christ lesson that was just amazing just to see I could literally through Zoom see the improvements and how their spine was able to rotate in these different ways and how the ribcage was able to, to kind of wake up and they felt that their limbs were lighter and everything and we were relating that back to then the hands on work that we do with the horses to get the same idea.
I'm gonna leave you with a couple of things. Number one, the most common cause that I see of back pain in horses and humans is that we have this habit of overusing some parts and underusing others. What we want to do is restore more appropriate distribution of efforts of movement, okay? Of using the back in a more appropriate way where all the parts play a role as they should.
Okay? So in different ways, of course, because there's different, different anatomical, there's different degrees of movement, I'll say in different parts of the spine, but they, they all play a role in a certain way. Sometimes they're quiet, but it's like there's an awareness there and they're called in to support at different parts of movement. So this is really important involving more of ourselves as appropriate in movement.
So that involves letting go of these harmful habits that we've developed over time, both us and our horses. And then you of course, at the very beginning as you have to search, just to, to recap, you have to really go through and make sure all your tack fits properly, right? That your horse medical care is up to date, the dental,
that the hooves are well balanced, you know, all the things are taken care of. And then very importantly, that you are sitting more balanced on your horse. And if you haven't already done my Free Rider Masterclass or you haven't done it in a while, please do that again because that's a good first step to helping you sit more balanced on your horse.
We have many, many more, more advanced Feldenkrais lessons we do for that. And then we do on my program Move With Your Horse. But that's a very, very powerful first step and that's a hundred percent free. So I will make sure in the show notes you get, let's see, you get a link to the Free Rider Masterclass, you'll get a link to this free short video that will show you a simple way of just supporting your horse's back muscles.
That's something you can do to help break the cycle of, of the tense tenseness in the back of the tension. Now, that's not the only thing you'll do because, and, and you really need to be in the program for me to show you the other parts because they involve working with the sternum and the ribs and all kinds of, of really fun stuff.
But that's a good first step to help the horse feel a little relief from those tense muscles, okay? You still have to help them regain a new sense of different movement habits. But that's a good first step to give them a sense of relief both before and after you ride, for example. That can be very, very effective and just takes a couple of minutes,
super simple and I explain how to do it in the video. So I would suggest you definitely do that. And if you haven't done the Rider Masterclass in a while, do that as well. Yeah. And remember, we can improve how we use ourselves and our horses can too. And this works best when you do it together. I I always say you and your horse deserve to feel great together,
okay? So thank you so much for joining me here. I love sharing this work with you. It's, it was life changing for me and all the animals I I interact with and I want the same for you, really up level your life and your horse's life as well. So thank you for your time and attention and I can't wait to talk to you again.
Bye for now.