To build the muscles that strengthen a horse’s topline, first you have to get the horse to work correctly — to use his back, engage his abdominals, and push from behind and connect with your hand.
You can tell when a horse isn’t working correctly. His underneck is too developed, there’s not enough muscle over the back and they might be a bit “saggy” in the belly or back even if they aren’t fat.
Guess what? That describes Sheldon! He is a bit thin right now but mostly he needs to put muscle in the right places. He needs to lose the muscle under his neck and put it on the top of his neck and his back. He’s a bit over muscled and tight in his glutes.
It’s been hard to get Sheldon to use his body correctly but we’re making progress. Partly this is related to conformation. Because of the way his neck ties into his withers – Sheldon naturally carries his head high and it’s easy for him to hollow his back and pull himself along rather than push. And partly it’s because as a race horse no one asked him to use his body the way we want him to now. He needs to learn how to rebalance and simultaneously develop the muscle to carry himself properly.
The body work he had recently certainly helped. Often when a horse is too tight and doesn’t want to move correctly, there is some underlying pain and/or some weakness. I knew he was tight in his glutes and tender in his SI area; Gary focused on those areas. I never would have had the conviction to use that much pressure. I would have been afraid that it would just hurt and not help. That’s why you bring in the expert.
Before the bodywork I would get a few minutes of really nice work during a ride — times when Sheldon would drop his head, engage his abdominals and push into my hand. Those moments felt great but they didn’t last long.
Now I’m getting the good work sooner and it’s lasting longer. He’s staying nicely in my hand and reaching down into the bridle. His back is coming up and starting to loosen. He can hold it very nicely at the trot and his canter work is getting better every day. The trick now is to work him just enough to build more muscle but not so much that he gets tired and cranky. He’s still not great at the walk. He does better when his feet are moving.
I’m lucky to have a field to ride where we have a very slight hill. Working a horse on a hill is a great way to encourage them to stretch down and push from behind. Trot poles are also a great way to get a horse to use its back correctly too.
There are “short cuts” to bringing a horse’s head down, such as draw reins, but you have to be very, very careful with them. It’s too easy to focus just on bringing the head down and not achieve engagement from the hind end. If used tactfully, draw reins can help some horses but I knew that Sheldon would just feel trapped. He had to find his way into a better frame by encouraging him to reach down into my hand and pushing him forward. You might remember that forward can be a bit of a challenge for Sheldon so initially I let him stay inverted as long as he went forward. Now I’m insisting that he moves more correctly.
My guess is that in the next month or two Sheldon will look completely different. Just take a look at Freedom’s before and after shots. The first picture was taken about two weeks after I got him. He was underweight and had no topline. The second photo is how Freedom looked last year.
Now I’ll admit that Freedom has conformation that makes it easier for him to work properly. His neck ties into his withers much lower than Sheldon’s. Even from the beginning he didn’t have the same issue with hollowing his back — he was curled up behind the bit and needed to learn to stretch properly. In contrast, Sheldon is learning how to use his body in a way that will allow self carriage and will strengthen his back.
One of my theories about why Sheldon is so unhappy about bits is that, as a race horse, he most likely had his tongue tied during races.
Many trainers routinely tie down a horse’s tongue to prevent the Dorsal Displacement of the Soft Palate (DDSP) or to prevent a horse from getting its tongue over the bit. DDSP can interfere with the epiglottis and create breathing problems and that will slow a horse down.
How does that work?
Stacy Brown, a veterinary student, and Dr. Jeremy D. Hubert Assistant Professor of Equine Surgery address this topic in a paper from the Equine Health Studies Program at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine,
The epiglottis, a relatively rigid structure in the back of the throat, is positioned above the back edge of the soft palate, which is an extension of the hard palate (roof or mouth) and serves to separate the nasal and oral cavities. This anatomical arrangement helps assure that the air is directed into the trachea (windpipe). However, during eating and swallowing, the soft palate moves upward as the epiglottis flips backward to cover the entry to the trachea. This shift in the position of the epiglottis occurs so that food and saliva are directed into the esophagus and not into the trachea. Dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP) is a condition whereby the epiglottis becomes positioned above the soft palate (Figure 2). Swallowing should replace the epiglottis to its normal position; however, if this does not occur then a tentative diagnosis of DDSP is provided.
DDSP may be intermittent (the most common) or persistent. With intermittent displacement, the horse is able to replace the soft palate when swallowing. When a horse is persistently displaced, the displacement is not corrected when the horse swallows. Because the displacement is not corrected with swallowing in horses with permanent DDSP, these horses are not capable of covering the opening of their trachea during eating, which may lead to coughing and ultimately aspiration pneumonia.
DDSP most commonly occurs in racehorses, but can occur in other types of performance horses, particularly those required to over flex at the poll (i.e. Hackney ponies and Saddlebreds). Owners and trainers often complain that these horses are “choking down” or are “gurgling”. These horses are often observed to be open-mouthed breathing during episodes of this loud, expiratory (while breathing out) gurgling noise. Once the palate displaces they are unable to breathe sufficiently, which leads to rapid slowing or stopping, at which time, they usually swallow and replace the palate into normal position, causing the gurgling noise to dissipate and the open-mouth breathing to stop. Substantial exercise intolerance occurs during DDSP due to disruption in airflow. The exercise intolerance and gurgling noise are due to the soft palate creating an expiratory airway obstruction because of its abnormal position. While gurgling is relatively common, DDSP cannot be ruled out in a horse that is exercise intolerant, but does not make a noise. Approximately 30% of horses affected with DDSP reportedly do not make a noise.
Tongue tying may make sense for race horses, but the practice can cause long-term tongue issues which can be tough to fix.
In Sheldon’s case, the issue with his tongue comes up (or out) when he’s got a bit in his mouth and he’s feeling stressed. If I’m schooling him in the field, his tongue mostly stays in his mouth; if he’s out on the trails or in a new situation, it comes right out.
With bitless bridle, his tongue stays put.
Recently Sheldon had some body work done and his jaw was obviously bothering him. During the work that was done on his bars, his tongue came out farther than any horse I’d ever seen!
What about you? Have you seen tongue issues like this with OTTBs?
News flash: ten weeks of restricted activity and not-very-restricted eating = fat horse. Yes, for the first time ever, Freedom is round. Even my vet noticed when she came for his 8 week check up and spring shots.
I’ve cut back on his grain, for sure. He’s down to 5 quarts of TC Senior and 2 quarts of Alfalfa pellets per day (there are times when he’s need 7 quarts of Senior per day to hold his weight). Maybe he’s finally starting to relax and enjoy his extended vacation. He’s certainly gotten better at sleeping in the paddock, bossing around Willow (I just hope she likes to get bitten as much as he seems to like biting her!) and eating every tiny green shoot that dares to grow more than a millimeter out of the ground.
The good news is that I can ride him again. Okay, it’s at a walk but we’re up to 30 minutes now and that’s enough to go somewhere. I’ve been taking him on short trail rides — out to the pony club ring, around the big fields, and through the woods. He likes to get off property and is eager to go further. He’s a horse that really needs a job, even if it’s just a hack.
It’s good for me, too. I’m really lucky to have other horses to ride but Freedom is familiar in a way that other horses just can’t be.
If you have never had a horse that suffered from Sweet Itch, consider yourself lucky. According to an article posted on www.thehorse.com, as many as 60% of horses in Queensland, Australia, are affected; more than 21% of horses in Israel; 26% of horses on the northwest coast of North America; and nearly 5% of horses in Japan.
Sweet Itch is an allergic reaction to the saliva from the bite of midges — also called no-see-ums or gnats. The midges travel down the long hairs of the forelock, mane and tail to reach the skin and bite.
Horses that are allergic to the bites have a hypersensitivity reaction — an acute allergic reaction — which sets off a cycle of itching and scratching. In extreme cases the horses suffer so severely that they drop to the ground to roll and scratch themselves or destroy fencing by rubbing on it. Most horses simply end up with sores and hair loss, mostly along their mane and tail and spend a lot of time scratching, swishing their tails and biting at themselves.
- No see ‘ums congregate in wet areas like water troughs and ponds. Try to keep tanks clean or add a filter to keep the water moving.
- Keep your horse inside during from about 4pm to 8am when midges are at their worst
- Put bug screens on stable windows
- Hang insect-repellent strips in the stable and braid fly repellent tags into your horse’s mane and tail.
- Put fans in the barn, as gnats cannot fly against a strong air current
- Use an effective insect repellent daily
- Keep your horse in a fly sheet with a neck guard and a fly mask.
- Consider adding garlic to your horse’s feed (but be careful because too much garlic can cause anemia)
According to a study conducted by the University of Guelph Equine Research Center (ERC) feeding flaxseed (linseed) can relieve the symptoms of sweet-itch.
Flaxseed has long been recognized as a superior vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids to treat many atopic (allergies likely to be hereditary) skin diseases in dogs. But while it is commonly fed to horses to improve the hair coat, the exact effect of these omega-3 fatty acids on the equine dermis (skin) is unknown.
In the ERC’s double-blind study, six Icelandic horses with a history of sweet-itch (confirmed by a skin test with Culicoides extract) were fed ground flaxseed, or an equivalent amount of bran meal as a control, for 42 days. On Days 0, 21, and 42, the horses were injected with Culicoides extract, saline (as a negative control), and histamine (as a positive control, guaranteed to trigger a skin reaction), and the resulting reactions were assessed over a period of 18 hours. Samples of skin, blood, and hair were also taken to provide a fatty acid profile.
Horses on the flax seed supplement showed significantly smaller skin test reactions to Culicoides serum after 42 days, indicating a less severe allergic response. Researcher Wendy Pearson O’Neill, MSc, also noted a reduction in the long-chain saturated fatty acids in the analyzed hair, which she says is an indication of changes in secretions from the skin. “By altering the fatty acids in the skin secretions, it’s possible that certain populations of dermal microflora were affected, changing their ability to metabolize compounds such as histidine and trans-urocanic acid, which are involved in immune function,” she explained. “This would reduce the overall immune response to Culicoides injection.”
Feeding flax seed is simple — studies have shown that you can feed it whole. I personally feed a cup and a half per day. You can see my previous post on it — Flax Seed: How and why to feed it to find out the other health benefits to feeding flax.
Sweet Itch Information & Resources
Freedom has been doing a really good job staying quiet. Sure, the Ace has helped, but I really thought he was getting used to being left behind.
When his friend Willow left this morning on a hack, Freedom blew through four tabs of Ace and ignored his good friends Curly and Fortune and ran. He ran and bucked and snorted.
I dropped everything (I had Sheldon tacked up and ready to go) and did my best to stop 1300 pounds of over excited horse from re-injuring his ligament. It was like one of those movies where the speeding car comes directly at the heroine and seconds before it plows into her she realizes that it isn’t going to stop and jumps out of the way.
Eventually, he did stop. It helped that Fortune and Curly didn’t get caught up in the game. Three running horses would have done me in.
Luckily he was wearing a halter (our horses generally do not wear halters in turnout) so I grabbed him as he slowed down. He didn’t show a second of remorse. He’s probably been storing those buck up for weeks.
I cold hosed his leg. There was no immediate swelling but it did feel warm. Up until now it’s been healing so well! Finally, I poulticed it with Sore No More poultice, wrapped it up and gave him some bute. This evening I went back, iced and poulticed it again — although I left it open (I don’t like to leave him wrapped overnight while he’s turned out as I figure he could get into more trouble by getting a wrap loose). The leg still shows no swelling so maybe he’s dodged a bullet on that. It would be very discouraging to be back at square one again with the rehab when we are 7 weeks into recovery. Fingers crossed that when I feed tomorrow his leg still looks good.
Have any of you used Sore No More poultice? From what I’ve read, many people use it without wrapping which is a new idea for me. When I evented back in the 80s we always wrapped and poulticed after an event. Now that I foxhunt, I just turn my horse out — so haven’t poulticed in years. Not sure if this is making Freedom or me feel better.
Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year, foaled a colt by top sire Tapit on April 1 at 11:47 p.m. EDT at Lane’s End Farm near Lexington. Coincidentally, it is also Zenyatta’s birthday.
The colt, which is a leggy chestnut with a blaze like Zenyatta’s, was standing on his own by 12:18 a.m. and nursing within the hour. He is estimated to weigh 145 lbs.
This is Zenyatta’s second colt. She also has a yearling colt by Bernadini.
There are more great photos of the foaling on Zenyatta’s website.