This winter both Freedom and I are rehabbing. He’s still off with his SI injury — massage is helping but with no indoor, it’s hard to keep him in regular work. With less incentive (or ability to ride) I’ve decided that it’s finally time to fix the aches and pains that have been bothering me. Like many horse people, I’ve ignored the things that hurt, ridden through some pain, and spent my money on the things that matter: kids and horses.
It’s my turn to get the physical therapy, chiropractic appointments and massages that my horses and kids have been getting. I’d like to come into spring a little stronger, a little more flexible and pain free.
Like Freedom, I’m working to stabilize and strengthen my SI joint. I’ve had chronic piriformis syndrome for several years, brought on by many miles of driving. I’ve made more progress than Freedom has, but of course I can do my exercises at the gym. For him, I’m thinking of renting time in a local indoor as I know that regular work is a necessary part of his recovery.
Next, I’m moving onto my rotator cuff. A few years back, I had rotator cuff and biceps tendonitis. I went through PT and had knocked back the pain, but once it didn’t keep me awake at night, I admit that I
ignored it. Now, although it doesn’t hurt often (except during therapy, which hurts like the dickens), I’ve realized that I’ve lost (according to my chiropractor) 30% of my range of motion. I’d like that back, please.
The good news is that I’m a better patient than Freedom. I do my exercises regularly and I don’t try to bite or kick my therapist. He’s still not so sure about the massage. Although he greeted the therapist like an old friend, when she moved into some of the more tender, painful areas, he objected rather strenuously — who knew that a horse could reach so far to the side with his front leg? I don’t even think that it hurts him all that much; it’s more that he has to make the decision that he’ll accept the touch, because once he agrees to the therapy, she’s able to get deep into the tissue.
Still, I think about him when my therapist hits a particularly tender spot and holds it long and hard, occasionally asking how I’m holding up. It is at those moments that I think about kicking.
As part of the “Let’s Fix Freedom” initiative, he had a massage on Tuesday. He’s not the easiest horse when it comes to body work as he has very defined views on how he likes to be touched. Basically, he’s not a big fan. Although non verbal, he is quite articulate about his opinions!
Luckily, after the first few minutes, and when we figured out that letting him graze was a good distraction, Freedom stopped trying to body slam the massage therapist and actually started to enjoy the experience.
Massage was the “next step” in the process of getting him sound as it’s very likely that he either tweaked his hind end when he slipped out hunting, developed muscle soreness by compensating for the pain in his SI joints — or both. The injection should have taken care of the joint pain, but that didn’t address tight muscles. I know that when I’ve hurt myself, fixing tight muscles is a critical part of getting rid of the pain. Did I mention that I’m also treating my own SI pain? And it involves massage and stretching!
The good news? The areas where he was most sensitive and most tight responded well. By the end his back was soft and pliant. He’s still tight in his shoulders, but that will be addressed next time. I took him for a short hack after the massage, to continue the stretching, and he felt good! For the first time in a long time I felt like he was really stepping under himself and carrying more weight behind. He’s been (at least for him) on the forehand more than usual. And, he’s been tripping behind, especially when we’ve gone down hill. Both of those behaviors were gone.
On Wednesday, his back was tighter again, and I did my best to replicate the massage experience. I guess it helped a bit because I even did a small amount of cantering. The footing was slick and I didn’t want him to slip, but he did pick up the left lead canter without complaint a couple of times. I only asked him to hold it for about 10 strides, but it’s a start.
Unfortunately, since then the temperature has plummeted. It was 40 degrees on Wednesday and went down to zero last night. I think next week it will warm up some and I’ll be able to ride him again and see how he feels.
The next step in figuring out what’s not wrong with Freedom came today. My saddle fitter was in town and he also does body work. So, I asked Gary to give Freedom a “once over” to see if he found any tightness or body soreness.
He did, but not in the left hind. Although Gary found no soft tissue issues and no reactivity or heat in his leg, Freedom was highly reactive to his Temporo-mandibular joint, more commonly referred to as TMJ.
The TMJ joint resides just below and in front of the base of the ears on either side of the head. It’s where the lower jaw (mandible) of the horse articulates with the temporal bone.
Now, Freedom has shown some unusual resistance to having his head touched. When I took him to the hunter pace, my normally obedient and well-behaved horses pitched a fit when I tried to bridle him. I have the bruises to prove it! At the time, I thought he was just excited about being in such a congested area, but in retrospect it was more likely a pain response. Gary described it as having a massive headache that likely extended well into his neck — so affecting about a third of his body.
Getting the TMJ to release involves massaging the bars inside the horse’s mouth, which is easier said than done when a 1200 lb animal is trying to body slam you to keep you from touching him. Luckily for Freedom, Gary persevered and as the joint released, I could see Freedom’s eye soften and his entire demeanor changed. After some yawning he stood placidly, back to his normal self. He continued to stretch his head and neck as if testing to see if it still hurt. I know I feel that way when a headache finally goes away.
Here’s a video that shows a slightly different technique for relieving TMJ pain that also might be useful.
One of the systems of TMJ disorder is a horse that is reluctant to go forward at the canter, and one that may buck or jump in the air. I wondered if part of Freedom’s issue might be related to this, so I took him out for a short ride. While he felt calmer, he still had the same lameness pattern.
Tomorrow the vet comes. I’m leaning toward a hoof issue and hope that there’s a definitive answer.
Freedom has been off the past week. He’s not lame. At least he’s not off at the walk or the trot. Nope, he looks just fine until you ask him to canter. Then you get a discombobulated mess. And he’s not happy. It’s particularly bad going to the left.
I massage him regularly so it wasn’t hard to find what’s bothering him. His hamstrings are very very sensitive. The “don’t touch me or I’ll kick you into New Hampshire” kind of sensitive. And he’s reactive over his sacroiliac joint.
Right now I’m really, really hoping it’s not an SI problem. I’m hoping he has as soft tissue injury caused by running like a maniac and tweaking something. I’m hoping that some anti-inflammatories, massage, rest and long walks will show an improvement soon, or else I’ll need to bring the big guns in.
I decided to do some body work on him and see if I could
help him feel better. The tough part is that he’s a twitchy, sensitive horse at the best of times. If he never got groomed again, that would be fine with him.
I started slowly and with infinite patience and the lightest of touches, finally got some really good releases out of him. Then we finished it off with a half hour of walking under saddle and a bit more massage at the end.
As I’ve said here before, I use The Masterson Method on him. These are some of the techniques that seemed to help:
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.
Sheldon is a good acupuncture patient. He stands quietly while Dr. Carol inserts the needles, letting her insert them deeply (Freedom can’t take that — when he gets acupuncture the needles are only inserted a small amount). Sheldon has absolutely huge releases in the shape of yawns, neck stretches and shakes, and his muscles twitch like crazy.
It’s hard to believe that the needles shown to the left were straight when the were inserted. Believe me, they were. It’s also hard to believe that just the twitching of his muscles could cause this Interestingly, it was the needles in his back and loin area that were bent the most after treatment.
In fact, Carol removed them first because his body was vibrating from them.
According to Carol, what Sheldon experienced is called the De-Qi response (the arrival of vital energy), which occurs when the Meridian transmits the acupuncture stimulation from one point to other parts of the body. It’s described as the oscillation of the meridians — which is a very apt description when you see it happen.
In veterinary medicine it manifests as muscle twitching and flinching; humans typically report heaviness, tingling, soreness or pressure.
My guess is that Sheldon felt tingling. We could certainly see it! You could see the arrival of that energy for sure — it was a marked difference from most of the acupuncture treatment that I’ve witnessed where the result is usually relaxation. For Sheldon, that came after we removed those four needles.
Sheldon is getting acupuncture to help him release some of the stiffness and tension that he holds in his body. As an ex-racehorse, he’s a bit one sided and I can feel the stiffness in him during massages. The acupuncture gets a bigger response and hopefully a bigger and longer lasting release. He has stiffness and tension up near his poll, around his SI joint, and in his hamstrings. They are consistent with a horse who is learning to use his body differently as we ask him to rebalance and learn to step under himself and lighten his forehand. One of the big challenges with restarting an OTTB is that they can become quite sore as their body changes. Acupuncture is a great way to treat this.
I’ve also found that after acupuncture treatment, my horses are more receptive to acupressure and massage. It makes it easier for me to help them relax.
On Thursday, Sheldon got a treat — an acupuncture session with vet Carol. It’s not that Sheldon has an obvious problem. He’s actually in pretty good shape. But acupuncture can help with inflammation, boost the immune system and just make a horse feel better. I can get some pretty good releases using acupressure points and I was curious to see how he’d react to having more direct stimulation.
He loved it.
His initial exam showed that he had some tenderness in the SI and tightness in his right hamstring.
He stood like a champ when the needles were inserted — quite an improvement over Freedom who tries to body slam Carol when she treats him (he likes the results, just not the needles). At first he didn’t react much, but there were dogs and kids distracting him (he’s remarkably good about small creatures around his legs). Once they moved on, he gave some huge yawns and then his eye got soft and sleepy.