Sometimes it can be difficult to know if your horse is sore or tight. Here I explain the technique palpation and how you can use it to improve your horse’s welfare.
What is Palpation?
Palpating is a technique that massage therapists use to identify muscles that we need to work on. Using our fingertips, we circle and zig-zag over certain muscles, looking for the 4 T’s: Tension, Temperature, Texture and Tenderness.
When muscles undergo too much stress, they can get tight and hard. This can be an easy one to identify on your horse as I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt sore, tight muscles after a day of long or difficult riding. Sometimes the muscles will spasm or twitch when pressure is applied to the tight area, and this can be an indication of a trapped or pinched nerve.
Muscles that are too hot or too cold is another indication of problems within the muscle. The normal external body temperature of a horse is around 36-38.5 degrees celsius so a muscle that feels warmer compared to other muscles could indicate that there are deeper issues, and a cooler muscle could indicate a reduction in circulation. I’m not suggesting you get out there with a thermometer, but it is a good idea to run your hands over your horse to check to see if you can feel any areas that are abnormal when it comes to temperature.
Texture refers to the density and elasticity of the muscles. This can be challenging to identify, but any muscles that feel stringy, lumpy, too soft or too hard should be looked at by a massage therapist.
This is simply how the horse reacts to the touch of your hands on a particular muscle or area. If you put your hands on the horses back and it jumps away from you, this could be an indication that the horse is uncomfortable there and may not want you putting any weight on it. It could also be a behavioural problem, which is why it is important to feel for all 4 T’s instead of just relying on one or two. It is also important to note that horses react in different ways, where one horse might jump away from you, another might try to bite you or maybe it will only just flick its ears back. It is important to know how your horse normally responds to stimuli so that you can know when they are trying to tell you they’re uncomfortable.
Areas to Palpate
So now that you know what you should be looking out for, the next question is: ‘where do I palpate?’ and the answer is: everywhere. It is important that you consistently run your hands over your horse, looking for any of the 4 T’s we’ve just discussed. If something feels wrong temperature-wise or if they move away from your touch, don’t be afraid to go over the area lightly with your fingers to see if you can find any tension or texture. Having said that, there are some areas that I use at the beginning of a massage to identify where they may need to work:
- Head Obliques
These muscles are right at the top of the head, behind the ears and part of the poll. Doing one side at a time, run your fingers along the muscle in a zig-zag motion with your thumb. Don’t be afraid to put a bit of pressure behind the movement, you want to be able to feel the muscles moving beneath your fingers.
This fun, dinosaur-sounding muscle covers the horse’s vertebra in their neck, so you need to be careful in this area. Starting at the top near the poll slowly work your way down the muscle, giving each vertebra a light squeeze.
3. Point of Shoulder
This is the bony part on the outside edge of the horse’s chest, at the front of the shoulder. When you palpate this area, make a circle around the muscle, noting if you feel anything different or if the horse reacts at any particular spot.
The triceps is the big muscle over the bottom half of the shoulder. As you may have guessed, it is made up of three muscles so have a feel around and see if you can find all three when you are palpating. To test for any potential soreness in this muscle, I draw a line with my thumb straight down from the top of the muscle to the bottom, and then another line from one side of the muscle to the other to make a cross.
5. Latissimus/Longissimus Dorsi
These are the big muscles along the back and so are arguably the most important muscles for massage, as they are the ones that carry us. To test this muscle, you’ll first need to find the shelf of ribs. Run your fingers from the top of the spine down towards the stomach and you should feel a hard line where the ribs start. Once you have found that, use it as a guide to do two rows of zig-zags, starting at the wither and ending just before the flank, at the last rib. Keep a close eye on the muscles for this one, as they will often twitch or move under pressure, which could suggest a pinched nerve.
6. The Last Rib
Did you know that the back of your saddle shouldn’t sit past the last rib? After that point is the lumbar section of a horse’s spine, and it is not as strong as the thoracic section and therefore cannot properly hold the weight of the saddle and rider. To test this area, simply run your fingers up the rib, starting at the end of the rib and working your way up to the spine. This area also suggested to be an ulcer point, and so a reaction in this area could be an indication of ulcers, though I would suggest checking other ulcer points and checking with your vet before jumping to conclusions.
7. Tuber Coxae
The tuber coxae is the pointy bone at the horse’s rump that is typically mistaken for the hip. To palpate this area, simply run your hands up and over the bone and press gently into the rump, as if you were continuing onto the other side of the bone inside the horse. This palpation is a little different to the others, as it is usual that you will get a back-dipping type reaction from the horse, if you don’t this could be a sign that a massage is in order.
The blue circle on my diagram is where the hip is actually located on the horse. To find this on your horse, run your hand from the flank towards the pointy part of the horse’s butt. Once you have located it, run your fingers around the area in a circle, similar to the point of shoulder, and watch for any reaction at a particular area.
The stifle is another palpation where a reaction is a good sign. You’ll need to put your hand on the stifle, at the top of the horse’s leg, and then run your fingers in a quick upward direction, from the hip to the top of the rump. You will need to put some pressure into this palpation, and the normal reaction will be for the stifle to feel like it jumps in your hand.
Palpation helps to identify if your horse requires a massage and it’s also great way to bond with your horse. It is important to go over these muscles on both sides of the horse, and note if there is a change from one side to the other. I hope this has helped you gain a deeper understanding of the way your horse functions, and that it makes you a better team.
Blackwell, J 2011, Basic Massage Techniques, Equestricare, Australia