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BodyWork and the Pleasure Horse

October 14, 2009

The benefits of manual therapies like massage are not limited to the high performance equine athlete. In fact, the pleasure/trail horse enjoys a more direct benefit than the horse in active training.

Like the human weekend warrior, the trail or pleasure horse has periods of inactivity interspersed with periods of exertion- for example, if an owner rides primarily on the weekends or even 2-3 times per week. While turnout can account for some physical activity, it does not aid in developing suppleness or even muscle tone. This makes the pleasure horse uniquely vulnerable to muscle imbalance.

Muscle imbalance occurs between tonic and phasic muscles. Tonic muscles are those responsible for postural control, balance and coordination. Phasic muscles are those responsible for creating movement. Inactivity frequently results in a decrease of suppleness and flexibility. Just like with people, a horse without an exercise routine becomes stiff and out of shape. This initiates a vicious cycle where the tonic muscles experience overload becoming tight and shortened. The resulting stiffness increases weakness in the phasic muscles, putting even more stress on the tonic muscles.

While many horses will never experience a catastrophic injury as a result of muscle imbalance, it contributes significantly to the risk of lameness and joint inflammation, especially as a horse ages. Preventing and minimizing muscle imbalance can assist in extending a horse’s working life.

For the pleasure horse, muscle imbalance sets up an increased risk of injury. When a relatively inactive horse is asked to exercise (whether in an arena or on a trail ride), the weakened phasic muscles are easily overloaded. Shortened, tight tonic muscles are more quickly fatigued, reducing coordination and balance. This can be particularly hazardous when trail riding over uneven terrain as the horse is less able to correct or catch itself in the case of a trip or stumble. Even without a stumble, a horse exercised once or twice a week is vulnerable to the intermittently overloaded phasic muscles causing inflammation of the joints they move.

Bodywork can be a powerful tool in minimizing the effects of muscle imbalance for the pleasure horse. Massage and stretching can reduce the tightness in the tonic muscles and stimulate circulation in the in the weaker phasic muscles. In relieving the tightness of the shortened tonic muscles, bodywork prevents the protective, guarded movements that result in short strides, a hollow back and inverted head carriage. Regular bodywork can assist the pleasure horse owner in preserving the health, soundness and comfort of an important partner. Owners can be proactive in this process by committing to a regular program of stretching both on the ground and under saddle to preserve suppleness and minimize muscle imbalance.

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