Relieve Your Horse’s Back Tightness with Massage

Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Allison Price

A simple, safe sports massage method can help with some back problems in horses.

How do you feel when your back is tight? You may feel stiff or hesitant when you move, and your range of motion may be restricted. You won’t feel the same enthusiasm for your normal tasks until you find relief.

The longissimus Dorsi is the other muscle we will be focusing on. It extends the horse’s back and flexes its spine laterally. | Photos Jim Leiby

Your horse may feel the same way if his back muscles hurt or are stiff. You may be able to help him.

  • When you’re wrapping him, he will flinch or sink;
  • Travel with your head up and/or your back flat.
  • You canter less often than normal;
  • You will notice a decline in your coordinated power.
  • Instead of stepping under his hind end, follow his trail;
  • Instead of jumping flat, grab a round bascule instead.
  • You can drift sideways on the flat, or over jumps.
  • Refrain from doing lateral work.

Buck is not something your horse will do to relieve back pain or tightness. To buck, he needs to round his back. His normal response to back pain or tightness is to hollow out and move away from it.

Relieve Your Horse's Back Tightness with Massage

What is Hurting?

These are the longissimus Dorsi muscles that are often causing tightness. They are the longest and strongest muscles in your horse’s body, and an extensor of his spine. The longissimus Costarum are located below the longissimus Dorsi across each side. They are essential in lateral flexion and breathing (see photos on page 66).

Just below the longissimus Dorsi, the longissimus Costarum runs across the horse’s chest. This muscle aids in the extension of the spine and in flexing its laterally. | Jim Leiby

Let’s first look at the anatomy of muscles to understand how tightness can develop in these and other muscles. Each muscle has two ends that are connected by a tendon to bone. The anchor is at the end of the muscle and the bone it is attached to doesn’t move. The other end connects to a bone which moves when the muscle’s used. The belly is the middle of the muscle. It does the job of moving the bone. It is made up of hundreds of small fibers that each have their own blood supply. Normal muscle contractions occur when the muscle tightens and then relaxes or breaks down. Muscle tightness is when the muscle doesn’t release as it should. The fibers become closer together when a muscle is chronically tight. The muscle belly becomes more constricted, similar to stepping on a gardenhose that reduces the flow. It can be painful and less effective for the muscle to function when it is tight.

Every muscle works in pairs: When one muscle contracts, the opposite muscle releases. The muscle’s?release process is affected if a muscle is tight. Tightening of the back muscles causes the horse to have a longer spine. This can cause the horse to not be able to bend his spine to the extent that he needs. Your horse’s ability bend around your inner leg will be affected by tightness in the longissimuscostarum.

What Are the Causes?

There are many factors that can cause tightness in the back. The most common causes are

  • The strain and exertion that comes with repetitive schooling, like having to work more on one lead than the others;
  • Footing that is too deep or hard.
  • A saddle that is not in balance or ill-fitting
  • A very ineligible rider (her horse will try to compensate her?one-sidedness);
  • Poor saddle placement (for example, too high on the withers which causes the cantle to drive into the back muscles)
  • Too many pads underneath a properly fitted saddle. Contrary to what some riders believe, it does not decrease pressure on horses’ backs. It is more like stuffing two pairs socks in your shoes.

Tightening of the back can indicate a deeper problem like hock, ankle or weak stifles problems or ligament problems. How do you tell if your horse is suffering from muscle tightness? Your veterinarian should be contacted if your horse is still experiencing discomfort after you’ve done the exercise and massage I’ll explain on the next two pages. In my 20 years of experience as a massage therapist, I have found that persistent tightness in the front of horses’ backs can indicate a more serious problem. If the muscles in the area around his haunches are still tight, this could be indicative of a larger problem in his hind end.

For tightness, palpate

To find out more about your horse’s performance or training problems, you can palpate–simply apply pressure to the muscles with your hand.

Just below the longissimus Dorsi, the longissimus Costarum runs across the horse’s chest. This muscle aids in the extension of the spine and in flexing its laterally. | Jim Leiby

The longissimus Dorsi, and costarum muscles will be felt on both sides. No matter which side you are working on, place your horse so that his hind foot is slightly in front of the other side’s. This will give you the best sense of what’s happening to his muscles.

Start at his withers, where the dorsimus begins. Place your palm or heel on the muscle and push in gently. Then, release. During this motion, your elbow should be bent. Slowly and calmly work your way down the muscle. The muscle is not tight if it rebounds when you let go of the pressure. The tissue that feels rigid and doesn’t rebound from pressure is tight. Your horse might move away from you if you feel tight muscles tissue. This is because his instinct is not to suffer from pain. If the tightness is very severe, your horse may hollow his back if you touch it.

Avoid common palpation mistakes

  • Run a hard object, such as a hoofpick or ball-point pen, down his back.
  • Grab the muscle using your fingers
  • You can poke or stab the muscle using your fingertips.

These incorrect palpations can stimulate sensitive nerve endings in your horse’s skin, causing him discomfort if the muscle tissue is tightened or loose.

Follow the same steps as for the longissimuscostarum after you have tapped the longissimus Dorsi.

To your bookshelf: Beyond Horse Massage – A Breakthrough Interactive to Alleviate Soreness Strain and TensionHorse Physical Therapy: A Visual Course In Massage, Stretching Rehabilitation, Anatomy and Biomechanics

Massage for Relief

You can use basic Wilson-Meagher Sportsmassage compression to relieve tight back muscles. This technique is easy to use and requires no training.

As I am doing here, you can massage the horse by standing on a diagonal. To work with my right arm, I place my left leg behind me and push into my right. | Jim Leiby

Compressions can be used to loosen and expand the muscles. These are done with your open hand. You press down on the heel and palm of the foot. Your fingers stay soft and extend but not into the muscle.

Start with the longissimus Dorsi at your forward-most point, just behind your withers. As I show in the photo above, position yourself for stability so that your?energy goes from your foot through your trunk and arm to the massaging hand. Press your heel on the muscle with your right hand. Your horse’s skeleton will serve as a backdrop for the compression that spreads the muscle fibers.

Use moderate pressure to apply seven compressions every five minutes in a rhythmical pumping motion, slowly working your way down the muscle’s length. You can repeat the seven-compression process a few more times at a time, and then you can move on to the next spot. Keep going until you get to the point where the dorsimus and the gluteal muscles at the hind end meet. Massaging both the back muscles and the muscles in the haunches together will be more effective. Continue the compressions on the costarum and then switch to the opposite side.

Make sure you are correct in your posture and then start over. The massage should take approximately 20 minutes.

The compression technique for the longissimus Dorsi is where I press in directly towards the bone. This starts just behind the miters and continues along the length of the muscle. | Jim Leiby

Keep in touch with Canter

You can maximize the benefits of massaging your horse’s back muscles by riding him after you are done. Make sure you include several minutes of cantering in both directions in a flexible, connected frame. This canter will help your horse’s back muscles lengthen and relax. This is the horse’s equivalent to the back-stretching exercise that you might use on mornings when your back feels tight. Bring a knee up to your chest.

You should notice some improvement if your horse has back tightness. This may require you to do it again for maximum benefit.

If your horse is experiencing back-muscle tightness, the compression technique can be helpful. It can also be used on a regular basis if there are no symptoms. If you continue to notice the same issue that led to your desire to massage, then it is time to call your veterinarian.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!