A sore back or something else?

Denyse Cambie (ET Instructor)

I was asked to work on Elion who had a sore back. He was out on loan and the person he was loaned to suspected he had a sacro-iliac problem. Elion had had the winter off and had come back into work for an unknown length of time, then turned out again in September as was “dropping his hip” and was just sitting in a paddock down the road from the person loaning him. The owner wanted him checked out as she was worried about him. I met a curious, sweet boy, with fine legs and head, and somewhat overweight. His feet were in need of a trim (not badly but definitely not done 2 weeks ago as the owner had been told). He stood over himself, had a bad scar on his off hind where the front tendon had been injured, maybe badly as he walked with a small flick as if he had to learn a new technique to lift the front of his hoof. His shoulder and neck showed that he pulled himself along rather than pushing from behind, and he had a slightly odd double action with his off-side elbow when walking. After branding it was clear he was willing to work with me, although a bit unsure about handling his off hind.

Testing had also showed his hyoid needed balancing. His back reflexes and mobility were extremely good for a horse “with a sore back”, in fact I could get a back lift for 30 seconds on each side without any flinching or moving away. The only sign of an issue was a flinch near the kidneys. However his front end gave a different story, he was tense and braced through his neck, unhappy in the poll and front of ears (side of ears was ok though) and tight through his shoulders, with only one fingers width through his wing of atlas – unsure if this was conformation or a result of his neck posture or a bit of both.

I worked on his front end first to loosen up the TMJ, neck, pecs and shoulders before doing the tongue and hyoid. I got a little from the hyoid but not enough, so I repeated that later in the session. It was almost balanced after the second try (during the next few days it sorted itself as he processed everything, and when I next saw him it was back in balance). His shoulders were very tight, so I was surprised to find that when he finally let me into the sub-scapularis he was very soft and fluid. Initially he was still wary about me picking up the off-side hind, but after doing a tail rotation he started to really relax and let me work with elevated hind end moves without any problem. Apart from the wariness I didn’t find a lot to worry about behind. I left feeling confused about what he was showing compared to what I had been told, and although I don’t always believe the owner’s assessment, there is usually a compensating problem that they have picked up, but there was only a small niggle in the off hind rather than a back problem. I was wondering if I had missed something so I asked his owner if I could bring him to my place for the next weekend as Ivana was going to be there for a L3 course.

The first thing I did after he had some time to check out his new surroundings was to trim his feet. He was still a little unhappy on the off hind but ok. More ET after trimming and while he was still defensive in his poll and tight through neck, there were no issues showing behind. But his hyoid imbalance was gone. I removed a smallish willy bean. His owner had been worried that his willy wouldn’t have been checked – YAY a non-ET owner who knew what willy beans were! We used Elion as our demonstration horse for two days of the course and found much the same as in the two previous sessions and Ivana confirmed my findings. Although Elion definitely was a bit weak behind, I suspect his “dropping his hip” was more to do with Elion trying to keep his head in an exaggerated high and tense position.

Coming up with a plan

His owner wasn’t in the position to take him back with limited grazing and another horse, but she wanted the best for him and his future, so I came up with a plan to work on him to get him ready for sale to a nice new home where he would be loved and cared for and have a bit of fun. Our plan included regular ET, groundwork and riding without stress and to encourage new habits in his neck carriage and posture, as well as grazing him on a hill so he had to develop a stronger hind end. I didn’t have time to do all this myself so a very good friend would ride him three times a week, and I would do the groundwork, ET and trimming and his daily care. He wasn’t going back!!!

We did arena work to start with, lots of relaxing work encouraging his head into a better carriage (but had the problem of one extreme or the other – high or behind the vertical). Elion always tried hard and seemed to enjoy his riding sessions. And he loved his ET sessions. They were regular every week for the first month or so concentrating on his neck area and then I started lengthening the times between. I felt a bit mean as my boys always have a weekly session and their backs done every time they are ridden (and as often when not ridden too) but his neck was improving, and I didn’t want him getting used to ET all the time and then having it taken away when he was sold. The dentist found him very unlevel on one side. After the dentist he was much happier in his contact. As time progressed Elion became more confident in his new surroundings, loves to roll, and loves his cuddles. He was fine when I took my boys out on a hack and left him on his own, and then as we progressed with his riding, he came out on hacks with them, and down to the beach as well.

I set up three small jumps (45 cm) in the arena to see what he thought – well he thought that was a cool game! He was a bit rusty on striding but on the lunge he consistently aimed for the centre of every jump and had a lovely rhythmic pace between them, so it was time to see what he could do with real jumps. Easy!!! The first session we took it slowly, but it wasn’t long before he was happily jumping 80 cm jumps and then 1.05m. He has looked at a few but never had any thoughts about not going over. What a cool dude! So now we have a classy horse who has a big fan club. He moves really well, uses his hindquarters rather than his shoulders to propel himself, no longer has any sign of the leg flick (that we assumed came from the tendon wound) or the double action in his elbow? He is vastly improved through his neck and poll, and now has two fingers in the wing of atlas. He will probably always need some bodywork to keep his neck in shape, but he is in a lot better shape than a lot of horses thanks to ET as well as sorting his teeth, feet and exercise programme.

Elion was sold to a lovely new home and his new owner is a quiet rider with good hands and has regular lessons and wants to learn. She will do some low-level dressage and show-hunter with him, and he will have the company of her semi-retired older horse on their beautiful property.