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Starting your own colt
Colt Starting Quiz
Problem Horses, part 1
Fear Problems, part 2
Bad Actors, part 3
The Cold Backed Horse
Want to Compete?
Bit Basics
Going Places
Common Sense, Horse Sense
Horsemen's Christmas
Rainy Day Training
Try Something Different!
Green Broke
Resolution Time
Going in Circles
Hot Enough for Ya?
Pleasure or Equitation?
Return to Work Carefully
Saving your "Good Stuff"
Holding Western Reins
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Cold Weather Warm Up
Expect the Unexpected, 1
Expect the Unexpected, 2
Bad Attitude
Horse of a Better Color?
Power of Exercise
Importance of the Herd
Bath Time
Even Up
Choosing a Martingale
A Good Night's Sleep
Alternative Therapies, Part One

Alternative Therapies and Horse Training
Part Two

Doris Eraldi

(read Part One)

When a horse begins training, it is much like us beginning an exercise program. There will likely be a certain amount of aches and pains as the muscles become used to the new movements and work. While we can rationalize (“No Pain, No Gain!”) and take action to address our own sore muscles, the horse cannot. If the horse’s level of soreness becomes persistent, then he will likely try to do something to alleviate it – and unfortunately for us riders his attempt to avoid the painful situation might lead to behavior that we’d rather not have.

I find that the three most common soreness situations involve the upper neck, the lower back, and the rib cage area. A horse with tight, sore muscles in the first third of his neck (behind the ears) will often resist bending in response to light cues on the reins, or might lean into the bit or refuse to give. This is both the most common soreness, and one of the easiest to identify. Standing on the ground next to the horse, use the pads of your fingers to palpate or rub along the top of the neck, starting a few inches behind the ear and about 2 to 4 inches down from the root of the mane. A horse with sore muscles in this area will often flinch away from firm pressure. You may also feel a “rope” of tight muscles running down the neck parallel to the mane. Starting at the top near the ear, gently massage the sore area. Often you will be able to feel the muscles relax – the “rope” will soften, and the horse will lower his head, and sigh or lick and chew. Massage the area for 2 to 4 minutes and then repeat on the other side. Sometimes one side will be definitely more sore than the other, and often this horse will turn one way just fine but resist the other side. When the horse is relaxed try riding again, with the motive to keep the neck relaxed. Bitting a horse up, using severe training aids, or demanding long periods of flexing work can contribute to the muscle soreness. Especially with young horses, break up the training session often and allow the horse to walk on a loose rein so that he can stretch and relieve the tension that comes from working on the bit.

A horse that hollows his back away from the pressure of the saddle may be sore in either the lower back area (lumbar and sacrum) or throughout the rib cage. Soreness in the rib cage often results in cinchiness and holding the breath. These horses will often resist moving forward freely, or move with short strides. Before saddling your horse, run your hand under the girth area, and encourage him to raise his back by tickling or pinching the skin. When he lifts his back, quickly smooth the girth area with a gentle stroke – a reward for raising his back. Most of my horses learn to raise their back a bit when I stroke the girth area, and I repeat this again when I begin to girth up, and when I remove the girth after the ride. With a sensitive colt, be sure to girth up slowly and give him time to take a breath before leading him away or mounting up. If he is holding his breath, try acupressure or stroking the front of the chest (about where the breast collar crosses) until he is breathing normally again. Proper saddle fit, girthing technique and having adequate padding (saddle pad) can greatly help avoid rib cage pain.

Pain in the lower back generally comes from the horse having to work while carrying a rider when his back and abdominal muscles are not sufficiently toned. Developing strong topline muscling takes time – years – and often the young horse in training is asked to learn more advanced moves than he is truly conditioned for. When the back becomes sore the horse will move away from the pressure of the saddle, raising his neck and not bringing the hindquarters up underneath himself. Try to include under-saddle exercises that specifically strengthen the target muscles – the topline and abdominals. Free-moving forward walk and trot on loose reins, encouraging the horse to step up as he strides forward, and as he gains strength asking for him to trot with his neck lowered can all help build up this important muscle area. The back lifts described above are helpful for this too, and you can do a similar “lift” exercise farther back to encourage the horse to raise his lower back – but be careful! Many horses are sensitive about touch to the belly or flanks and will kick. For horses who are suffering from lower back pain, I like pelvic tilts. Standing directly behind the horse, place your hands under the bony knobs of the horse’s butt bones and the push up and forward until he arches his back upwards, then release. Sometimes a gentle pinch will be more effective. I will do this exercise several times, while grooming, walking around to the other side when saddling, and again when removing the saddle. The motion seems to relieve much of the stress and tension that develops in the sore area.

When working with your horse, be aware of the signs of developing muscle soreness. A horse that is grumpy about heading to the arena, cinchy when girthed up, or that clenches his jaws might be trying to tell you that he is anticipating an uncomfortable situation. Under saddle, he might hollow his back, raise his neck and move forward with tight, short strides. Stiffness or refusal to bend the neck is also a common clue. If you suspect that your horse is becoming sore from work, address the situation right away; a horse that begins to “know” that being ridden will be uncomfortable might take further action – bucking, balking, or running off – to avoid it. If he is successful, the behavior could become ingrained enough to be a long term problem.

Doris Eraldi and Blue, 2005Doris Eraldi of Eraldi Training in Potter Valley, trains horses and riders of all ages. She specializes in Pleasure, Showmanship and Equitation events. She can be contacted at 707-743-1337, or by e-mail

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