Julie Lynn Andrew’s Physical Therapy for Horses
Julie Lynn Andrew, of Laurenwood Equestrian Center in Chester Springs, PA, has developed a sensible applied physical-therapy program that any professional stable or private horse owner can readily incorporate into its training program.
The growth of sports medicine for humans has been enormous in recent years, and now we are starting to be deluged with information on the application of various human medical techniques to horses: the TEAM method of Linda Tellington-Jones, chiropractics, acupuncture, ultrasound, and so on.
Producing a winning horse is 50 percent training him to win and 50 percent keeping him sound enough to do it. Good training protects and develops the horse’s mechanism. Bad training can harm it and produce cramping and pain for the horse. The horse will then resist, and if the resistance is treated with discipline, the physical problem will worsen, and a downward spiral of pain resistance and discipline starts.
We must always remember that the horse was never made to carry the weight of a human being, and the horse’s back, the place where we sit, is the weakest part of the structure, the span of the bridge between two supports. We must always be aware of the horse’s physical well-being.
Of course, the horse cannot verbally tell us when or where he hurts, but he does tell us in many of his ways – crabbiness, reistance, and if not responded to, lameness. We must learn to listen to our horses, to respond sooner, and to know to respond.
Just as it does in the human athlete, physical-therapy can help keep the horse athlete gain condition for top performance.
Over the years, I have had many horses brought to me with back problems, primarily combined-training horses, then dressage, and lastly jumpers. Hunters do not seem to have as much trouble, perhaps because they are not asked as much and certainly because they don’t have their backs sat on as much. Like all busy trainers, while being deluged with information on medical techniques and being interested, I have limited time to sort out the information and apply it to my performing horses.
I had a little mare that had a sudden acute muscular spasm in her back. Julie happened to be there and made a few suggestions. With very honest and refreshing charm, Jule says there are people who know a lot more about medical therapy approaches to horses than she does, but that she has put together some exercises that help her horses. I used the techniques Julie has gathered together, which are all very simple, and I could not believe the improvement in the little mare in less than two weeks.
Julie has saved me the time to sort through the deluge and find some techniques that work. I have since used them on other horses, even ruined horses, and have been more than pleased with the results. They are techniques that make sense, are simple to use, and have had success: they should be considered by all riders and trainers. Try them and see what they do for your horses.
On the one hand, Julie has Judith Shoemaker, the farm veterinarian, who evaluates all new arrivals at the farm.She has also been influenced by shiatsu, an oriental healing method that she likens to acupuncture without needles, and she strongly recommends the book, Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses by Jack Meagher, which explains stress-point therapy in easily readable form.
On the other hand, Julie has her horses. “Of course, we are wise enough to use our experts as compasses and then apply your own common sense, awareness, and feel of our horses to work out physical-therapy programs for them.”
Julie and her people start the two-year-olds out in the physical-therapy program. But it is for the older horse in trouble that we can see the method at work more dramatically and that we will probably be moved to seek a method to help.
Julie brings out a 17-h.h., 18-year-old Thoroughbred gelding she acquired a little less than two years ago. “The man was selling him for his board bill. He was so lame he was crippled, so thin he looked like death. But he came out and tried so hard I had to take him home. You can’t leave them there when they try like that.” She calls him Ad Valorem (Val for short), and you would not believe now that he was ever thin.
He had a luxation (shift in the attitude or position of one of the vertebras to the others) in his back, which Judith Shoemaker put back. He had had an injury above his left hip which caused his hind quarters to buckle under. His whole left side was so tight with muscle spasms, he was crippled.
He is still tighter on the left side, as Julie demonstrates by doing front leg stretches. His reach up with his right front leg is considerably more than with his left. To do a front leg stretch, lift the front leg up and forward slowly until you feel resistance. Do about five or six leg stretches a day. Be careful not to lift the leg too high or too quickly.
Val’s therapy begins with a 45-minute groom, which is part groom, part pressure- point massage. “Here, run your hand down the shoulder muscle,” Julie says. “Feel this hard lump; that’s a muscle in spasm. Press it with your fingertips, then stroke it again and see if the spasm is out and the muscle is soft and smooth. Repeat until it is. Think of stroking a steak. That’s the feel of the muscle that you’re looking for. Here, here’s another one up on his back. Stroke here, now press the spasm, and stroke it again. Feel, see it gets softer and smoother. You can even feel his leg stretch and his toe go down as he relaxes.” (This is the hardest part, to learn to feel the spasms.)
“Val’s been in therapy,” Julie points out. “See how he responsive he is.” And he is. He shows you when you have found a sensitive point by stretching and trying to rub, and he relaxes as you release a spasm. “There’s always a trying-out period for massage and exercises. Horses that hurt are not trusting. You have to teach them that the massage and exercises make them feel better. You must pay attention to what the horse tells you, in his way. And the horses become more demonstrative when they see they are being responded to.”
Grooming gets incorporated with the massage particularly in the spasm areas to further relax the muscles. After you have identified the painful points for the horse with your fingers and released them as much as possible with finger pressure, you can groom and massage them with a Grooma, a round, rubber, hand-held curry-like tool with rubber finger-like protusions, which are hard but supple and help relax the muscle. Protusions that are hard and stiff irritate the horse and cause the muscle to tighten, the opposite of what you want.
After massage and grooming, Val is ready to do some warm-up muscle exercises in the barn. He does his front-leg stretches. One of his most important exercises is carrot tricks, except that Val does them for licorice, which is his favorite treat. Carrot tricks get the horse to stretch his head around as far as he can without moving his feet, so he stretches his whole side. Here you can see Val actually twist around for his licorice. You only want to do these standing exercises three to five times to each side. Notice here and in longeing, the emphasis is on relaxing the muscles and then stretching and strenghtening them.
Val is ready now to longe. Julie prefers to longe just in a halter, not a longeing cavesson, in order to give the horse the fullest freedom, and without the chain over the nose if the horse is stable and doesn’t play too much on the longe. Val at 18 still plays, so he needs the chain.
“When you start the horse longeing,” Julie stresses, “you must look at him. Is he tracking up. What’s the position of his hip? Is he bending? You want to drive forward, ask him to bend by taking with the elbow of the arm holding the longe line, and then reward by offering your hand forward from the elbow. The horse should stretch his spine – back and neck – forward and down, as when you release him out of a half-halt.”
As you go to the trot, you must be careful to keep the horse coming forward and to keep establishing the bend. You have to be careful to establish a rhythm for the horse’s gait that is comfortable for him and then develop the length of stride without producing a quickening of the rhythm. Establishing the bending by taking and giving at the trot will also produce the stretching.
Val is now ready to do the cavalletti. Julie uses five cavalletti, never less, and adjusts the distance for the horse. For her horses, five feet is an average, but remember, they are big horses. Your horse may not be as big and may need a little shorter distance. Of course, you should start off with the poles on the ground and lift them little by little over time.
“You must be very careful to reestablish the horse’s rhythm and stride after the cavalletti, especially when the horse is starting and maybe hurrying or throwing himself through the cavalletti. Make a couple of circumferences and reestablish the trot before going back to the cavalletti.” The cavalletti can be included 10 or 12 times in each direction during a longe.
Was it worth it, to reclaim an 18-year-old-horse? “Of course. He is competitive now at Training Level and working toward First. He is a big handsome horse with a useful purpose in life. Yes it was worth it for one who is so generous of spirit.”
Our second example is Weltsporne, a 10-year-old Oldenberg jumper by Weltmeister. Weltsporne had a sore back and was stabbing with his right hind, but he x-rayed clean. “We found some apparent pain and a little heat in the stifle.” His therapy was to strengthen his back and the haunch above the stifle while keeping the stifle loose so as not to get any adhesions in the stifle area.
Weltsporne gets massage and grooming and then is ready for his standing exercises. He does back lifts to stretch and strengthen his back muscles. Take your thumb and press hard against his sternum. When he lifts his back, release the pressure and let him lower it again. He will do five or six. “Weltsporne gives an example of a good back lift because he shows the horse will stretch his whole spine – his back up and his neck forward and down.”
Weltsporne also does tail pulls to strengthen the muscles across his haunches and along his back in front of his hips. Take the tail bone firmly in two hands letting your weight slowly pull on the tail, and follow it up and forward. The horse will resist with his haunch and back muscles and then when you release, will relax, and the back will lft in front of his hips. Again, do five to six in a session. Weltsporne also does longeing to strengthen the back and haunch muscles. He is moving well now, and I can see little or no stabbing. With any stressed area, you must be careful to go a middle road: no exercise won’t help, too much will overstress the area. For a horse that is in pain from inflammation, Jule wil use “bute” to work him,, but within careful parameters so that the area does not get overstressed when the pain in reduced.
Of course, overall care goes along with the physical therapy. Julie works closely with her blacksmith and likes bar shoes. “They give support when properly applied and are extremely beneficial from an orthopedic standpoint.” She has a feeding program based on a carefully balanced pellet feed that is high in fiber. In winter, protein and fat content are included for a higher calorie burn; in summer carbohydrates keep the horses cooler. She uses a balanced mineral/vitamin supplement with a good calcium/phosphorous ratio and high copper content. Horses, are on their own turnout schedules, are all in superb condition.
This program – pressure-point massage, standing exercises, and longeing – is certainly easy, but don’t be deceived by its apparent simplicity. Try it for two weeks. If your horse really dislikes an exercise, don’t do it. There’ll be no gain if he just gets tense and fights. But in two weeks, you will not believe the improvement. Then do it selectively thereafter. This is a program that salvages a lot of horses, protects the younger horse, and keeps the older horse going – it makes the horses feel good and be happy, and that’s a nice place from which to train your horse.