YOUNG foals spend much of their days sleeping, drinking, galloping, sliding and jumping around. Growing and playing results in sore, stiff, fatigued muscles that can lead to asymmetry without us even knowing. This then leads to compensatory soreness (ligament tension and persistent pain) as extra strain is placed on other muscles. Compensation causes postural changes which affects movement. Addressed early, posture can be altered before it becomes a habitual stance.

Muscle disorders can appear with a variety of signs ranging from muscle stiffness and pain to muscle atrophy, weakness, exercise intolerance, and muscle fasciculation (twitching). The most common signs are muscle pain, stiffness, and reluctance to move due to rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle), which may or may not be related to exercise. Muscle weakness or damage can also occur as a sign of many different disorders (such as nerve trauma).

Also, many foals suffer pelvic asymmetries caused by trauma or injury, from falling or sliding. Foals may show a shortened stride, swelling to affected area and drag toes, muscular asymmetry or more prominent croup. At this stage, massage therapy is very helpful to increase blood flow, ensuring the foal’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints receive important nutrients for correct growth and development. Massage therapy benefits foals by re-aligning musculoskeletal tissues and reduces pain from muscle strains. To prevent incorrect development, it is crucial to treat foals as early as possible.

The action of copying mother to eat grass is difficult for the foal with its long legs and short neck. To manage, the youngster may spread front legs wide thereby becomes unbalanced, or s/he will stretch out one front leg and kick the other foreleg behind. Over time, this repetition of constant weight-bearing will cause muscles on one side to become stronger and more developed. The muscles, tendons and ligaments of the leg that is always in the back position start to become contracted and bloodflow is driven from the toe of the hoof to the heel. This posture encourages the heel to grow faster on that foot, causing an upright hoof growth pattern over time that is very hard to correct by trimming alone. Similar problems are seen with club feet.

Combining therapy and conditioning exercises helps ease growth spurts during development, assisting body-awareness and control to form a better, easier athlete. Also, most horses have a left/right preference anyway, and hold their ribcage slightly to one side. Good physiotherapy, early on, decreases chances of the young horse developing a set preference. Specific therapy techniques help to rebalance the ribcage and encourage more balanced movement.

Cow-hocked posture is also quite common and a simple thing that I can address in its early stages. Muscles that contribute to this posture and become tight are located on the inner thigh of the horse (hamstrings and adductor muscles). Applying regular massage to relax these muscles and gentle abduction stretches can avoid this common imbalance. Failure to treat early can cause serious stifle issues over time.

Reiki Therapy: Healing bodies, healing minds

WHILE we can’t change a horse’s basic bone structure or the length and shape of bones in their skeleton, we can affect the development of muscles and the horse’s basic posture. Affecting a horse’s posture is something that is difficult to achieve. I believe it can only be done with the assistance of other equine professionals – bodyworker, farrier, dentist and trainer. Ultimately, underlying tensions have an effect on how the horse functions emotionally, mentally and physically. If treated early, we can reduce the psychological load, along with the physical.

The best therapy combining knowledge and care

Change is taking place in the world of equine veterinary medicine as more and more horse owners and practitioners look to alternative or complementary therapies as forms of preventative health promotion. We all want the very best for our animals and the safest and most effective care and treatment. We want horses to be happy, to feel comfortable and able to realise their full athletic potential.

As a practising therapist, I have seen the best results when rider, owner, trainer and veterinary professionals all work together as a problem-solving team. So, when considering our horses’ futures, the earlier we begin to care for the qualities we will ask them for later in life, the better and happier they will be.