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    The Healthy Spinal Column: the Key to Collection and Self Carraige


        Back Pain in horses develops often with reasons ranging from improper saddle fit, poor balance and rein tensioning by the rider, as well as insufficient development of the muscles that surround and support the vertebral column.  Once acute pain is resolved by the Vet, mobilizing and strengthening the muscles that surround and support the spine may further reduce pain, and increase flexibility and strength. Increased strength and mobility may act as a preventative against future strain.  Strengthening the back and core of the horse will help him perform collection and self carriage.      

    The following is a look at the critical anatomy and reviewing it is eye opening.

    The vertebral column is made up of: the neck which has 7 cervical vertebrae, the back which has 18 thoracic vertebrae, the lumbar spine which has 6 (sometimes 5) lumbar vertebrae, followed by the sacrum which is made up of 5 sacral vertebrae fused together and attached to the pelvis, and about 20 or so caudal vertebrae which make up the tail.


    The vertebrae are surrounded by the multifidus, a network of joint crossing muscles that form muscular connections between each vertebrae. The muscles that move and stabilize the spine are the sub lumbar, the epaxial muscles (long back muscles) and the abdominals.

    The sacrum is attached to the pelvis at the sacroiliac joint. In the thoracic region the ribs and sternum are considered part of the horses’ core and move with the associated thoracic vertebrae above, aided by the muscles of the thoracic sling. The thoracic sling muscles are incredibly strong and act as the sole attachment of the forelimb to the trunk of the body, as horses’ have no clavicle or bony shoulder girdle.

    There are several types of movement that are possible between the vertebrae: rounding and hollowing, lateral bending, and twisting also known as rotation. The type of movement possible and the range of motion vary along the different regions of the spine.  The equine spine is designed for incredible stability as it transfers the strong propulsive forces generated by the hind limbs. The horse needs sufficient mobility, strength and stability in the abdominal, sub lumbar and epaxial muscles to perform.

    – paraphrasing “Activate Your Horse’s Core”, Narelle C. Stubbs, Hillary M. Clayton  

        Performance horses who work in collection will find these muscles critical to the proper execution of collected movements and self carriage.  There are additional exercises done in hand and under saddle (not pictured here) designed to strengthen and engage the pelvic stabilizing muscles needed for turning, weight shifting, balance and quick bursts of speed. Below is a look at just one of many in hand exercises utilized for rehab.

    This exercise is done in hand and food bait is used. Here are some photos that show a horse in various degrees of exercising and stretching.


     As you can see the neck, thoracic and lumbar spine are stretched laterally on one side and contract on the other with this movement. The abdominal muscles (not pictured here) are in contraction, which strengthens them much like a “crunch”. These strengthened abdominal muscles will aid in supporting the spine above.  This stretch engages the long back (epaxial) muscles as well as the multifidus, the deepest layer of spinal muscling which often becomes atrophied after injury, persistent back pain or confinement in a recovery stall.

    These exercises developed by Narelle Stubbs and Dr. Hillary Clayton have had proven effects. This team conducted research using ultrasound assessment on the equine spine before and after utilizing these types of exercises. The epaxial muscles increased in size and strength, (visible upon ultrasound), after 10 14 weeks of daily exercises.

    Learning and using these exercises may contribute to the overall health of your horse's back and core. Strengthening in this way may reduce the risk of future strain and soreness. Stability, strength and mobility of the neck and back will help your horse perform at his best.

    I highly recommend that every horse owner buy a copy of Activate Your Horse's Core, by Narelle C. Stubbs and Hillary M. Clayton, 2008.




    Ann Ramsey B.S. Animal Science, 2017


    This article is not meant to diagnose, treat, or to be used to cure any condition of the equine animal. It is designed as a general exploration of the anatomy and the effects of stretching/in hand exercises. Rehab is not a replacement for veterinary care, but is a great addition to it.