Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Horse Health Care: Using the Trailer to Help a Roach-Backed Horse

Roach-backed horses can be very difficult for the average owner to treat, especially if they want to use a do-it-yourself approach. These horses have a "hump" in their spine, usually where the hips join the rest of the ribcage.

This hump is usually caused by some sort of accident or traumatic event, and is difficult to resolve because so many parts of the body are involved. The necessary adjustments can often be difficult for a horse owner to perform.

Fezzywig: A Case in Point
Fezzywig is my roach-backed adopted horse. He jumped out of a tall corral as a youngster, and thereafter had a hump in his back. Although his horse health care program involves a lot of daily bodywork, I still could not free up some of his lumbar vertebrae myself. He would also get continually stuck in his withers, so that in addition to his roached back, he had a downhill posture with a large dip behind his withers.

Adjusting him so that he stays in the correct posture is extremely difficult. For one thing, he's 16.2 hands and not always very cooperative when I want to adjust him. Second, he is so stuck that even if I do manage to adjust him (using Equine Touch, Bowen, network chiropractic, or stretching), his muscle memory flips him right back into his roach-backed posture within an hour or two.

Talk about frustrating!

Enter the Trailer for Horse Health Care Bodywork
At the height of my frustration, I called Dr. Madalyn Ward to help me. We decided that we needed to use some "tools" to shake his muscle memory loose ... and we needed to do it in a way that wouldn't cause my body to be too sore. She suggested that I continue my backing exercises, but also start backing him up a steep hill.

While we do have a steep hill in the neighborhood, it's about a mile away, and I needed some horse health care approaches I could use daily that were easy and convenient. I had tried to use some of the Linda Tellington-Jones approaches, such as having Fezzywig walk over poles of different heights to shake loose his muscle memory, but being a Wood horse personality (learn more about horse personality typing here) he just knocked them over and walked through him. No use.

Then Madalyn came up with the brilliant idea of using the trailer as my "hill." Instead of backing Fezzy up a hill, she wondered whether I could back him into the trailer. I decided to give it a try, since I don't have access to a chiropractor here, and I love to do my own horse health care.

The Trailer as a Bodywork and Body Awareness Tool
Our first attempts at backing into the trailer were less than useless. Although Fezzy understood what I wanted, he couldn't seem to manage it. So I broke the exercise down into smaller pieces to see what was getting in the way.

Walking In and Backing Out
First I walked Fezzy into the trailer so that all four feet were in. Next, I asked him to back out of the trailer, which is different than how we normally exit the trailer front feet first. It took him quite a while to get organized enough to back out. At first, he could not seem to hold his weight on one hind leg while stepping to the ground with the other. After about 5 tries, he was able to so, although his muscles quivered a bit. We did this exercise several times successfully, and he showed many releases. He licked and chewed, yawned, and moved his tongue around.

Then I tried a different variation. I walked him into the trailer so that only his front feet were in the trailer while his back feet remained on the ground. I praised him. Next, I asked him to step one foot at a time into the trailer. I was surprised that he had a lot of difficulty doing so.

He grunted and had to sort of "launch" himself into the trailer to get in. This told me that his stifles and hindquarters were still quite weak, despite the backing we had been doing. That was a good diagnostic piece of information. When he was able to do this exercise successfully a few times, I stopped and moved on. I did not want him to strain his stifles, which had been quite sore when I got him (though they are not sore anymore).

Walking In and Walking Out
Next I tried the opposite variation. I walked Fezzy into the trailer front feet first and with all four feet in the trailer. Then I turned him around so that he was facing the back of the trailer. From there, I asked him to step only his front feet to the ground and halt. This left his hind feet in the trailer.

This posture achieved the same kind of position I would look for had I been backing him up a steep hill-the position that would free up the stuck lumbar vertebrae. The posture also clearly knocked some of muscle memory loose. Fezzy was happy to stand there for 5 minutes or more. He licked and chewed and dropped his head straight to the ground. I had him rest alternate hind feet on the toe so that his pelvis would shift back and forth a bit, too. He was fine with holding his hind end on one leg while resting the other leg, both ways.

Finally, I asked him to back up and bring his front feet back into the trailer. This was considerably more difficult for him than stepping out of the trailer. He had to spend a few minutes getting organized and thinking through how to accomplish this. He finally managed to do so, with a bit of stumbling and bumbling. I showered him with praise. We then repeated the exercise several times. I can see that this maneuver works his core muscles ... a lot! This excites me because Fezzy has always appeared pot-bellied with a bulging bottom line. I believe this maneuver seriously engages his core abdominal muscles and will help him build strength in his hind end as well.

Wow, what a tool for my horse health care toolkit!

What I've Learned from the Trailer Exercises
Based on the responses Fezzy gave me during these exercises, I concluded that he does not have the strength in his hind end yet to back into the trailer by himself. However, I do think that the intermediate exercises that he was able to do will make changes to his posture and start engaging the correct muscles for movement. I also believe that daily use of this exercise will shake free some of the stuck lumbar vertebrae, as well as the areas stuck between his sternum and withers.

Fezzy certainly likes these exercises, and I noticed a great deal more movement across his hips after I turned him loose. I will continue to work with these exercises as a form a chiropractic adjustment and muscle retraining. Using a big immovable object like a trailer forces Fezzy to think about where his body parts are placed, and how to use them in a coordinated manner to complete these exercises. While he normally looks quite balanced in pasture, his inability to properly engage the right muscles in his back, abdominals, and hindquarters due to his injury means he is actually quite unbalanced.

I love the continuing journey of bodywork. I love the innovations, the learning, the growth, and the increasing bond I have with Fezzywig, who, despite being a Wood horse personality, tries really hard and fights me very little. Amazing. More updates to come, of course!

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Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0


  1. I have an award for you at my place. Stop on by and pick it up when you've got a chance.

  2. I like it have a horse with sticky stifle, going to give it a try. Karen