Does Your Horse Have Stiff or Blocked Joints?

In this excerpt from her book Physical Therapy for Horses, former physical therapist for the German eventing and endurance teams Helle Katrine Kleven explains what is really happening inside the stiff horse.

Photo via Horse and Rider Books.

When a horse is worked incorrectly over a long period of time or, for example, he makes a sudden movement that’s too much for the joint, the soft tissue that surrounds the joint will be overburdened or overstretched. The musculature that lies around the joint is also rich in nerves and receptors, which measure the length of the muscles. This means the musculature shortens to protect the affected joint. This can only occur for a short period of time or else, worst case, the musculature will remain in this contracted state. This, in turn, leads to a blockage.

You’ve almost certainly experienced this yourself; for example, when you wake up in the morning and have a stiff neck, and can neither turn your head nor stretch. That’s a blockage in the neck and the pain that you feel is a tensing of the muscles—it’s not the joint. The joint experiences a movement limitation. This blockage can affect both sides, or just one side. Apply this to a horse, and it could mean that you ride to the right without any problem, but tracking left, it feels as if you’re riding a completely different horse.

The true source of blockages is the braced/tensed soft tissue, which can develop so much strength that it causes a vertebra to rotate or can even deform one. This disorder can be perceived both through touch and visually. You can feel the muscular tension and/or see a sideways-tilted spinous process in the thoracic or lumbar vertebra compared to other spinal processes, which are aligned. When you look down on the horse from above, it will be evident that the line of the spinal column includes small curves. Even the large pelvic bone can get pulled out of line by a tight muscle, resulting in a so-called misaligned pelvis. With such an example, it will become very clear how much strength the muscles can apply.

When the blockage is in the region of the spinal area, the connection between body and brain is interrupted. The reason is because the nerve must pass through a tight canal between two vertebrae before leaving the spinal column. Through the blockages in the vertebrae, the soft tissue swells around the column, which leads to pressure on the nerve. This, in turn, causes problems with coordination such as stumbling and uneven rhythm, lost strength, muscular tension, circulatory and metabolic disorders, and even lamenesses because the compressed nerve signals pain. As with people who have problems with their sciatic nerve, the pain may not show up in the back. These patients feel pain in the area of the hip joint, upper thigh, knee joint, or even ankle joint. In horses, unnatural sweat patterns (round, wet spots) can also be a hint about blockages in the spinal region, which demonstrates how the symptom can be located far from the source of the problem!

In an acute state, this muscular tension/blockage is very painful, as the circulation to the muscle is no longer good and it can very quickly become acidic. When the blockage exists over a long period of time, the affected soft tissue begins to change. The muscles “go to sleep” and, in the short term, they begin to work like a corset surrounding the joint. The blocked joint can no longer move optimally. In this condition, the joint itself is not the source of any pain, but for the musculoskeletal system it’s a major strain, which can quickly lead to secondary tension and injury. Somehow, the body must balance out the limitations on movement. So, the other areas must move more strongly, even “over-moving,” which once again can lead to overstressing those joints and, therefore, creating even further injury. It starts a vicious circle, which over time can lead to more secondary blocks or cause more injury—all originating from the primary blockage.

A misaligned pelvis can originate from blockages in the spinal column or trauma.
An acute blockage is always painful. This pain automatically triggers muscular tension and the horse attempts to relieve pain by adopting an “avoiding” posture. All of the factors lead to a circulatory disorder and secondary blockages. Injury and overstressing a body part are hardly avoidable. Over time, more and more body parts will continue to be pulled into this vicious circle. The intensity and number of problems will increase for the horse.

Normally, acute blocks that originate from a trauma or out-of-control movement go away by themselves in one to three days. If they stay or if they’re caused by ill use, they will be difficult to “release” through riding. It’s highly recommended that you allow them to be released by treatment from a physical therapist.

This excerpt from Physical Therapy for Horses by Helle Katrin Kleven is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (