Body Work, Physical Therapy, and Maintaining a Sport Horse

Tomorrow, Doc and several other horses at his barn will see our wonderful chiropractor. It is something I do for him several times a year to keep him in tip-top form and to work out all the kinks that he incurs as a result of working athletically. Jumping, galloping, and even flat work can be hard on the body. When we suffer from aches and pains, we generally treat ourselves to some sort of body work that will make us feel better. Why shouldn’t we do the same for our athletic partners?

Body Work

I do not buy in to an overabundance of therapies. While I am sure there are benefits to most any treatment available on the market today, I believe that massage, chiropractic work, and acupuncture are all that a horse–or a person–really needs when it is paired with correct and responsible physical therapy. And by physical therapy I mean correct and responsible exercise and strengthening of the horse.

So what body work does Doc receive, and how often? I invest in regular chiropractic work for him, and I also employ a myofascial release therapist. Myofascial release, in very rudimentary terms, is a type of massage. It focuses on the soft tissue and works to release kinks in the system and to return the body to a state of balance. I cannot claim to fully understand it, but I can tell you…it works! I have seen it work on Doc, and I have experienced its benefits myself. Find a good practitioner and you will be amazed by this form of treatment.

Chiropractic work, of course, is the adjustment of the skeleton, specifically the spine. When horses work hard at their jobs, they sometimes throw out vertebrae from the stress or if they are wearing ill-fitting tack or performing a task incorrectly. A Chiropractor will move these “popped” vertebrae back into place, which relieves pain, swelling, and stress. This then allows the muscle to relax as well. If a horse has been out of alignment for a long time, soft tissue work will need to accompany adjustments because muscles that have compensated for incorrect movement will want to pull the vertebrae right back out of place again. In this case, the muscles will have to be loosened and taught to work correctly before the adjustments will hold. This is why, if you have employed a chiropractor before, you may have been told your horse will need a number of treatments before he is well.

Some chiropractors also employ the use of lasers. Laser therapy can be used to increase blood flow, decrease swelling, promote healing, and relieve pain. It works well in conjunction with chiropractic adjustments because the trauma of adjustments can sometimes cause the affected areas to swell and emit heat due to the force of moving them back into place. The laser can then ease this pain and reduce the swelling, making the adjustment more effective for the horse, and more likely to hold. I personally have seen the positive effects of cold laser therapy on Doc in a number of applications. The most helpful situations was the application of the laser on a very deep puncture wound. Once the wound had closed, we applied laser therapy to reduce the swelling, and today what could have been a very large scar on Doc’s neck is a small dent, about the size of two quarters placed side-by-side.

Physical Therapy

We often think of physical therapy being a rehabilitation process that follows an injury. However, I believe physical therapy is an ongoing and dynamic enterprise. We engage in physical therapy each time we exercise our sport horses. I believe that when you think of your horse’s training as physical therapy, it will emphasize the importance of schooling him in a balanced manner so that you correctly and equally build his strength and conditioning. You want all of his structural systems to work correctly and smoothly. You also want that system to be symmetrical from side to side and from front to back. While it is important for the horse to learn it’s job, I think our first priority to the horse should be to maintain him correctly, and this is why I think of my riding as an exercise in physical therapy.


Body work is important in the maintenance of a sport horse. You can even do some of the work yourself, such as the massage seen here that I am giving Doc.

When you consider each ride an exercise in physical therapy, I believe this shifts the focus. So often, if the horse is not quite right, we will throw in the towel and either quit for the day or just go for a little jaunt around the property. I do not think this is productive. I believe you should take the time to understand why the horse is not quit right. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why doesn’t the horse feel right?
  • Where is the problem coming from?
  • What does the problem feel like?
  • How could I positively affect the problem?

Once you have assessed the situation, I believe that work appropriate for the level of discomfort should be applied. If the horse is tight, I will work long and low to loosen the horse; if the horse is foot sore and adjusting to going barefoot, I will walk for a minimum of ten minutes on a hard surface; if the horse is body sore from laying on new muscle, I will focus on different muscle groups and try to stretch the muscles to relieve them. If you have ever experienced physical therapy after an injury, you know that it is not always pain free or easy. Work must proceed so that your body improves and corrects itself. I believe the same is true for the horse.

Maintaining the Sport Horse

So, how do I keep Doc at the top of his game? It’s a combination of myofascial release, chiropractic work, physical therapy in the form of correct work, and the occasional check up with our vet. I also work hard to educate myself about these systems, what the professional is doing, and the professional’s credentials. I let my horse guide me and provide feedback. The proof is in the pudding, and if the practitioner is worth his or her salt, Doc will let me know! Finally, I learn how to see and feel when the system needs attention. I do not call in my experts unless I can see that something is amiss that cannot be fixed merely through correct work. It is a balancing act, but worth gaining skill in understanding and maintaining!


4 responses to “Body Work, Physical Therapy, and Maintaining a Sport Horse

  1. We recently discovered the wonders of bodywork and chiro. Mika had never really worked hard enough to need anything before this year. Last winter he started bucking on one of the hunts and doing and odd kick out behind him move a couple times. I thought it odd, but couldn’t get a repeat that week. He did it again the following week’s hunt nearly the entire time. Called the chiro, he was out, she fixed the issue and he went back to not bucking/kicking out.

    Then he colicked at the crazy place and one of the other boarders does bodywork (you know her). She happened to show up to give another horse meds just after the vet left and we were sitting in the arena keeping an eye on Mika. She came in did a couple things and he looked INSTANTLY better. It was a shockingly dramatic difference. He walked off and looked vaguely uncomfortable when he’d before had this tight, horrible looked like he wished he was dead look to him.

    She’s worked on him a few more times since and Bert a few times since and has made huge differences in fixing Bert’s crookedness.

    I’ve never really thought of workouts in terms of being therapy, but I do to a large extent listen to my horse and see what it seems like we need to do today. Whether we can so strength or wind building exercises or if we need to just do stuff to loosen up.

  2. Admiring the hard work you put into your blog and in depth information
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    • Thank you! I have been very busy lately and haven’t been able to dedicate time to writing regularly, but I usually update on a weekly basis. Should be able to return to that rate by the end of August.

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