Baby Steps: Early Therapy On Young Horses Will Pay Dividends Later

Reiki and craniosacral therapy on a 5yo IDSH. Photo courtesy of Laura Stephenson

BY Laura Stephenson

Horse owners today face a difficult balance to help their horses achieve good health and mobility, while minimizing risk of injury. 

In my work, I have found that it is very important to start our horses’ lives right, and keep good training and longevity at the fore of our priorities. 

As a therapist, I witness many unusual behaviors, unbalanced structures and restrictive functions in horses. Tension patterns, areas of tightness that arise in the horse’s body, will inhibit natural movement to a greater or lesser degree. Some are obvious, yet subtle and less easily detected. 

Horses can produce incredible levels of athleticism but only if their bodies maintain full mobility of muscles and connective tissues. When approached intelligently and holistically, muscle treatments guarantee a healthy flow of oxygen and nutritional yield to cells to keep body and mind in balance and aid deep relaxation. Therapy stimulates correct muscles for strength maintenance, increased stability and tension release so horses enjoy pain free, symmetrical movement. 

A Horse is full of Dreams

Equine therapy focuses on performance horses helping them to achieve optimum physical condition and injury prevention. Yet, moving forward with science, we realise that certain techniques applied in the early years of a horse’s life, provide excellent foundation for sound physical development and future career. 

As with children, a horse’s early years heavily influence their entire future, impacting personality, behaviour, relationship-forming, performance and susceptibility to injury. Certain therapies have been specifically developed to help the young horse cope with anxious and stressful times such as changes in environment, human encounters weaning process, and the beginning of training. 

The Precious Early Years

A foal born with mild limb deviation saw limbs straighten naturally after a week of gradual turnout to 24/7 turnout. Photo courtesy of Laura Stephenson.

Experience has shown me that combined therapies have a profound impact on equine early years. We can safely implement specific therapies to all breeding stock – brood mares, foals, young stock, stallions and geldings – ensuring they receive the best possible start. Foals and young horses experience inconsistent, awkward stages of growth and development and some youngsters incur injuries that will not become apparent until much later into their ridden years. 

One very important aspect often overlooked is that of learned posture and motion behavior in the youngster. Issues here can further exacerbate tension the horse carries from its early years into all they do, so the cycle of unwanted behaviors and poor posture continues. Tension patterns impact how the horse thinks, feels, and learns which will significantly restrict performance.

When to Start Checking and Correcting

By observing youngsters in their natural environment, much can be gleaned of equine mobility. Static and dynamic observations can assess the horse’s stance and movement. 

It is very important that new-born foals have a veterinary or physiotherapeutic examination to identify and reduce effects of the very common physical one-sidedness (asymmetry) that may occur during birth. Greater asymmetry of the pelvis may be a result of being born from mares standing up compared to mares lying down. Treatment at this early stage can address this before it becomes a problem, enabling the youngster to maximise her/his full athletic potential. 

During the first month in particular, foals are vulnerable to many influences as they adjust to new environments and learn to manage increased exercise. Foals born with or procuring an abnormality that affects the musculoskeletal system needs immediate help to be able to grow and respond without any compromise to future ability.

Most foals are born with some degree of limb deviation, mostly due to soft tissue weakness or laxity but, with the onset of exercise, this should be corrected. Rotational limb deformities can develop any time until growth plates close. Deviations can be inwards or outwards. Manual correction to gently flex and extend the foot will help to stretch the tendons and one of my most recommended treatments, as well as combining Kinesiotape to encourage the tendons to contract. This type of therapy can work wonders to stabilize their anatomical structures. The more severe the preference the foal has for one side over the other, benefits greatly from regular massage and stretching treatments. 

As the foal grows, s/he may appear to be balanced, but back and core muscles are still developing and this can cause the back to sway. During development, appropriate muscles need strengthening and conditioning to ensure symmetry while growing. 

Foal n’ Around

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 blood flow 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 rib cage 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 rib cage and encourage more balanced movement. 

Performance problems associated to one-sidedness: 

  • Imbalance increases strain/injuries and lameness
  • Straightness training
  • One shoulder more muscled
  • Stronger foreleg from carrying extra weight
  • Canter lead preference
  • Unequal distribution cause of irregular gaits
  • Uneven stride length/steps

This practice alters the foal’s posture and creates the trainer’s greatest obstacle, physical asymmetry.                                       

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. 

Healing Bodies, Healing Minds

Reiki and craniosacral therapy on a 5yo IDSH. Photo courtesy of Laura Stephenson

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 realize their full athletic potential.   

 As a practicing 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.  

Safeguard Your Young Horse 

Laura Stephenson MIRVAP, EMAP is a British registered Equine Musculoskeletal Specialist. Laura treats horses both in the UK and internationally.