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Muscle Damage Caused by Poorly Fitting Saddles: It Needs Treatment

By: Galadriel Billington

7:32PM Dec 21, 2006

Once a horse has developed damage to his muscles from a poorly fitting saddle, that damage doesn't heal on its own. The horse will still have that damage 20 years later. Horses who have been retired for years still have damage and tender spots.

Whether the saddle was yours, a previous owner's, a saddle used by a trainer for 30 days, or any other circumstances...Once a horse has worn a poorly fitting saddle, that muscle damage will be with him for the rest of his life--UNLESS the muscles receive the proper physical therapy. Let's talk about the damage and about the therapy to fix it.

What happens when a saddle doesn't fit properly?

Under a pressure point, the saddle is pressing down hard on the horse's skin. The pressure is actually enough to cut off circulation to the muscle right under the skin. As long as the horse is wearing the saddle, that muscle doesn't get any blood flow--it gets no oxygen.

It only takes 20 minutes for muscle to start to die from oxygen deprivation. If you ride in a poorly fitting saddle for 20 minutes or more, you will kill some of the muscle tissues in your horse's back.

While the muscles aren't getting circulation, they can't heal themselves. Approximately, the dying tissues stick together and form scar tissue. Once the saddle is removed, the stuck-together tissues block circulation from returning to the area. The damage that's just been done won't be fixed; blood can't get at the tissues to bring them healing.

The more you ride in a saddle that doesn't fit well, the more muscle dies and becomes scar tissue. The more scar tissue is there, the less the muscle will be able to work. In some horses, the scar tissue makes it impossible to use the muscle. This is when you see muscle wastage: the muscles just shrink away, since the horse isn't able to use them at all. The horse develops a very skinny, prominent wither and big hollows behind his shoulderblade.

What does the horse do when a saddle doesn't fit well?

The horse braces his back against the pressure points. They hurt! When a muscle is tensed, it gets bigger and harder; a pressure point doesn't dig as hard into a muscle that is tensed. (Try it: push on your picep, then flex your bicep and push on it again. Feel how much harder it is?)

The horse doesn't know that the saddle is supposed to fit, so many horses will just grit their teeth (literally), tighten up their backs, and work. Having the back muscles tensed makes the horse "hollow" his back, so he isn't "working properly" and the ride is often very choppy and less comfortable that it ought to be.

Now, consider: when a horse uses a muscle, it gets stronger. When anyone uses a muscle and doesn't also make sure to stretch and tone the muscle, the muscle becomes stiff. Eventually, if you have a very strong muscle that isn't stretched, the muscle contracts. The muscle is so strong that it never lets go; it's always flexed. It's not able to relax the way it should; it never really relaxes.

In a horse, keeping his back tensed while he's ridden means that the back muscles become contracted and tight. The horse's back is always flexed. This makes him look like he's a little sway-backed. The prominent skinny wither gets even more prominent, because the back dips down so low behind the wither.

We also mentioned "he clenches his teeth." Just like people, when horses feel stress, they often do clench their teeth. This means that the muscles around the jaw and in the horse's "temple" also become contracted. If they could talk, a lot of horses would probably tell us that they have constant "tension headaches"! The horse's "temple" is the area under his forelock; if your horse has two big, hard muscles on his forehead under his forelock, he probably clenches his jaw. Something in his life stresses him enough that he feels like he needs to grit his teeth a lot.

So what can we do about it?

Ah, you probably thought I'd never get to this part! We have mentioned:
  • scar tissue due to pressure points,
  • muscle wastage due to inability to use the muscles,
  • contracted back muscles making the horse flex his back constantly
  • (and likely sore, contracted muscles in the jaw).

Some of this is best handled by a professional equine massage therapist. A therapist trained in sports massage can help heal damaged muscles. That doesn't mean that there's nothing you can do yourself. You can have the therapist demonstrate some methods that you can do between visits, and you can also stretch your horse regularly.

If your horse has muscle wastage and a "swayed"-looking flexed back, he didn't get that way overnight. You won't be able to fix it overnight, either. Don't expect immediate miracles. After one massage treatment, your horse may feel 200 times better...but that doesn't mean he's all better. You may need several massage therapist sessions, and there's a lot you can do between visits. If you work on your horse regularly, you can speed up the healing process.

Scar tissue

Like any scars you may have, scar tissue is hard, thick, unyielding tissue. Whether horse, human, or any other creature with muscles, the treatment for scarring is similar: break it up. Breaking apart the scar tissue allows blood to get into the tissues again; they will carry away the broken edges of the scar tissue, and restore some life to the muscle underneath. It usually takes several sessions of deep scar manipulation to really get the area opened up and started on healing.

The horse often does not appreciate this therapy. It's not pleasant. However, the long term effects will make a huge difference in his life.

Muscle wastage

Once the horse's scar tissue is healing, the muscle is more able to work. Once the horse is using his muscle again, it will get stronger and fill out. That prominent wither will begin to be covered in good thick muscle.

Sometimes the horse has developed a way of going that ignores the muscle, and so he doesn't start using it immediately even when it is healing. (Well, he had to get used to moving with out it, didn't he? He couldn't use the muscle.) It may take some schooling to get him using those back muscles again. "Schooling" doesn't mean that it has to be done in an arena or in a lesson; it just means that you have to pay attention to what he's doing and get him to use his back correctly. Hey, it's better for him anyway, and it'll also make your ride a lot more comfortable.

Contracted back muscles

You may be a little confused: how can a horse with weak muscles also have strong, contracted muscles? Usually the muscle that contracts is the longissimus dorsi: a deeper muscle, that runs from the neck all the way back to the horse's croup. Even if this muscle is under the pressure points, it is so large that scar tissue will usually not prevent it from being able to flex. It may waste away in some areas, but overall the muscle is able to build strength and flex the back.

Again, manipulation of the muscle is the key to healing. Firm muscle massage, applied along the length of the muscle with several different methods, will help this muscle to relax again. Stretching will also do quite a bit of good: carrot stretches stretch the horse's back and neck.

Once the muscle begins to relax, the horse's back will lift and straighten--and paradoxically, the back will be more strong. He'll be able to use those muscles, instead of having them locked up all of the time. The "sway" in his back will improve, and he'll also stop being hollow all of the time; your ride will be more comfortable.

When people are emotionally stressed, they tend to develop tension in their upper backs. This physical tension in the back reinforces the emotional stress, and keeps them high-strung. If you think about it, "contracted back muscles" is about the same thing as "tension in the back." Potentially, if your horse is high-strung, relieving the tension in his back can make him more relaxed emotionally. A stressed-out or hyper horse can calm down significantly.

Jaw muscles

The muscles of the jaw are often hard to the touch but tender and sensitive, with many little muscle knots across the cheek or several large knots. The muscles on the forehead are often hard to the touch but tender and sensitive, with a few knots or many. This is quite uncomfortable for the horse--if the muscles are tender to the touch, think how uncomfortable they must be all of the time. Remember if he were a person, he'd probably complain of "tension headaches." Keeping the jaw clenched can also cause TMJ troubles. It should go without saying that keeping the jaw clenched means that a horse can't relax his jaw to accept the bit.

A skilled massage therapist can relax the muscles and relieve the spasms. The therapist may also be able to show you ways to work on them yourself, and you can speed up your horse's relief from tender muscles around the face.

For more discussion of finding a saddle that is comfortable for your horse, try Saddle Fitting Essentials. For more discussion of sports massage therapy, try the Equine Sports Massage Therapy section on this site.

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2006 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.