Assessing your horse’s posture is an essential part of her chiropractic exam and can give important clues about the overall health of her musculoskeletal system. But….. its not just a job for animal chiropractors! You should be periodically taking stock of your animal’s posture, because it is often the first sign of pain or discomfort that they will show us, and thus is paramount for preventing injuries and keeping our horses happy and healthy in their jobs. In Posture Part I We are going to discuss the fundamentals of your horse’s posture so you can understand what posture is, why it is important, and the basics of evaluating it. In Posture Part II we will discuss more specifics of evaluating posture so you can learn to assess it confidently, and recognize imbalance before it becomes injury.
What is posture?
Posture is the position in which we hold our bodies while standing, sitting, or lying down (primarily standing in your horse’s case). Good posture is the correct alignment of body parts supported by the right amount of muscle tension against gravity. For quadrupeds, this is referred to as normal neutral posture. Normal neutral posture is important for your horse because it allows her to stand and move in positions that place the least strain on supporting muscles and ligaments during exercise and weight-bearing activities (like carrying a rider!). Normal neutral posture for quadrupeds includes:
· all four limbs (cannon bones) perpendicular to the ground
· straight spine from withers to pelvis
· relaxed and symmetrical neck posture and muscles
· relaxed and symmetrical back muscles
· and hoof symmetry
Is posture the same as conformation?
Posture is different than conformation. Posture is how the horse stands or organizes itself and conformation is derived from genetics- like length and size of bone/skeletal structure- so…..posture can be changed, conformation cannot. The lines between conformation and posture can be blurry, for example: things that have been deemed “conformational” like a “ewe” neck or “sickle hocks” MAY be the result of abnormal posture and can be improved or even corrected completely by altering the external factors that have been causing the horse to adopt an abnormal stance.
This horse has very good posture: all four legs are perpendicular to the ground (like legs on a table), but he has poor conformation: he is rough-coupled (high/prominent tuber sacralae), has a sway back, and is very upright in his hindlimb (poor angulation the the joints on the hind limb).
What causes abnormal posture?
Three main factors are thought to be the root cause of an animal adopting compensatory (abnormal) posture:
· abnormalities in head/neck/back neuromuscular function (one of the causes of which are vertebral subluxations, treated by chiropractic adjustments)
· abnormal hoof balance (this is why I’m always asking about your horses feet!)
· abnormal dental occlusion, i.e. tooth balance/ oral anatomy (this is why I’m always asking about your horse’s teeth!)
A horse may adopt abnormal posture in response to pain, poor riding, poor saddle/tack fit, emotional issues, etc.
These feet from the same horse are very asymmetrical. Can you guess which one bears more weight?
How can I tell if my horse has proper posture?
Some hallmarks of normal neutral posture are:
· evenly weighted limbs that are perpendicular to the ground, like legs on a table
· the lowest point of the back should be just behind the base of the withers
· the neck and back posture should be relaxed with symmetrical and soft musculature
· symmetrical feet (compare front feet to each other and hind feet to each other).
This horse shows good posture
What are some signs of poor posture?
Many horses with abnormal -or compensatory- posture, will have difficulty squaring up and additionally will be fidgety, especially when on hard/firm footing. More specifically, you may see your horse repeatedly stand “camped out” (limb held in front of vertical for the forelimb and behind the vertical for the hind limb) or “camped under” (limb held behind the vertical for the forelimb and in front of the vertical for the hindlimb) with one or more limbs. Your horse may have over developed muscles (especially of the hind end) because they are using non-postural muscles for balance when standing. You may see muscle soreness along the back and the hind end.
This horse has poor posture. He is standing "camped under" with both his forelegs and his hind legs.
How can I help my horse improve her posture?
If you have taken some time to evaluate your horses’ posture and you believe there are some abnormalities, what should you do next? How can you help?
By correcting the factors that are causing the poor posture!
Bodywork- like acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, etc- can help restore proper function of the head/neck/back neuromuscular function; proper farriery to address hoof balance; and proper dental care to address any abnormal occlusions are all good places to start.
Other factors to consider are lifestyle: is it as natural as possible? Is your horse happy? And diet: is it as natural as possible? (i.e. based on long-stemmed forage sources). If you aren’t sure how to proceed, use trusted professionals: your veterinarian, your animal chiropractor (you can find an AVCA certified chiropractor here: https://www.animalchiropractic.org/find-a-doctor/ ), your animal acupuncturist, your farrier etc. They can help you identify potential problem areas and make a plan for correcting them.
It can sometimes be a puzzle determining how to best help our animal friends, but by observing their posture closely we can gain invaluable clues into their overall health and well-being! In Posture Part II I will take you through the static (non-moving) part of the chiropractic exam and discuss in more detail how you can best identify postural abnormalities and other imbalances in your horse--- stay tuned!
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