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Posted on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 : 6 a.m.

Sport horses (and riders) need good core muscle strength to promote back health

By Kathleen Lundberg


Eadweard Muybridge | 1878

Riding puts a strain on a horse's back. While back trouble may occur in all sports and in all breeds, the best research is conducted on racehorses and the main culprit is speed, according to researchers at Michigan State University.

Dr. Narelle Stubbs, researcher at the McPhail Equine Performance Center at MSU, has studied race horse cadavers for years in Australia, Hong Kong and here in Michigan. “At the sports we've looked at, racing has the highest number of back injuries.”

While thoroughbreds are made for speed, agrees Dr. Stubbs, “Horses in the wild don't gallop for a mile or more. They do little, short sprints. You do most damage at extended gaits, and especially when you flex or twist the spine at the end of each movement.” In other words, when the joints between the back's 56 vertebrae are fully extended, rapid and forcible flexion bearing the weight of the horse and its rider again and again can cause damage.

Dr. Stubbs adds, “It's rare to find a race horse off the track that does not have a problem in the vertebrae, whether it's 2 years old or a retired 15 year old.”

Dr. Hilary Clayton, specialist in the biomechanics of equine movement at MSU, studies race horses for several reasons. There is a consistent level of injury and of terminal injuries (those requiring euthanasia) in racehorses, making them more often available for investigation.

Other factors helpful from a research standpoint are that racing is conducted on flat ground, on similar footing, at one (full) speed and in one direction. Racehorses are started under saddle as yearlings or 2 year olds. Jockeys are small and use the same riding style. Stabling, handling and training styles are similar everywhere.

“Our research relates well to sports other than racing ,” says Dr. Clayton. “A racehorse can fracture its pelvis coming out of the starting gate because it pushed harder with one leg and experienced torsion of the pelvis.”

This sounds similar to a polo pony changing direction at the gallop while carrying a 200-pound man whose weight can turn a 15-hand, light-footed twirler into a struggling ferry.

“In polo, acceleration and deceleration are both potentially damaging to the spine, along with superimposed twisting that comes from the turning and leaning of the rider. Another major stress is going from standstill to gallop.”

She added, “The forces of deceleration on injury are as important as acceleration when your joints experience high-force impact. The extreme is like whiplash in a person in a car accident.” Similar forces may apply to gymkhana, reining and cutting horses.

Drs. Stubbs and Clayton recommend strengthening the core to counteract the forces, and have authored a book ("Activate Your Horse's Core: Unmounted Exercises for Dynamic Mobility, Strength & Balance" by Sport Horse Publications) describing their techniques. “Stability is equally or more important than mobility,” says Dr. Clayton. “Our exercises strengthen the muscles around the spine and create a balance of stability and mobility.”

Dr. Stubbs adds, “Cross-training horses can develop dynamic strength. Dynamic strength is what allows a gymnast to balance on the rings and lift her legs. The gymnast is actually stable, but the movement requires great core strength and stability.”

The goal of training, Dr. Clayton explains, “is to train the muscles to help the ligaments to support the back against other forces — such as when a jumper lands with all the weight of the rider and the horse pulling down the spine between the front legs. Our exercises train and strengthen these muscles so they can stabilize the horse's back and protect it from over-loading. Both horses and riders need core strength.”

This column was written by Tania Evans, of Riverbend Equine Appraisals and edited by community contributor Kathy Lundberg for



Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 4:45 p.m.

One more deleted comment...If your horse is turned out with bully horses, who will not allow her into the run-in, approach the owner, and ask that your horse be placed in a different pasture with more compatible companions. You may reach some resistance with management if they believe mares can only be pastured with other mares. That is an out-dated idea. My mare lives with 3 very large Dutch Warmblood geldings...and they all get along famously.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 4:39 p.m.

Apparently, my earlier post was removed. Lorrie? I had wanted to make the point, that in Michigan, medium weight blankets are suggested, if the horse is blanketed at all. My horse has spent winters with and without a blanket. She did well, either way. Lycra undershirts seem to be the latest "thing" these day, but they are completely unnecessary. If your horse's blanket is causing a rub, you will spot it soon enough. I always apply a piece of moleskin (runners use it) to the underside of the blanket where the rub occurred. Problem solved. Blankets should be removed at least every other day, in order to groom the horse and check for problems. It is also best to buy the highest quality blanket possible....that is a blanket with at least 1200 denier rip-stop nylon. Cheaper blankets with only 600-800 denier will be trashed in a season..I use a fleece cooler when my horse has been working hard in cold the sweat can make them chill. I always make sure she is dry before I put her blanket back on.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 8:05 p.m.

A lot of horses experience back pain and injuries. One way to help prevent this and ease the horse's pain is to call in a good saddle fitter every few years, as horses' bodies change, as do our own as we age. A good fitter can make a custom half pad for your horse, using a sheepskin pad, and assorted shims. It is not always necessary to purchase a new saddle. As far as people are concerned, I know my back hurts when I haven't been riding for a day or two. Riding English actually strengthens your core. I had a herniated disc in my 30's, and the orthopedic surgeon could do nothing for me because I also had degenerative disc disease from my neck to my tailbone. He told me I should never ride again. I fired that back on the horse...and at age 60 experience no back pain. At all.