The Equine Spine – Let’s Talk Tension!

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Often in any kind of equine sport the word TENSION might as well be a four letter word and is much to be avoided.  This is absolutely correct except one large and important exception.  I am talking the spine.  The spine acts as a coiled spring to load the weight of the rider so the horse can bear that weight and keep a loose swinging back.

There was an article reshared on Facebook recently from a 2010 Dressage Today that caught my eye for exactly this reason.  If you have time please read here.  The point that I pulled out of it that made me think about saddles was this: “Longitudinal refers to the topline of the horse, and flexion refers to the stretching, and elevation of the horse’s spine. Many people use the term longitudinal flexion to mean a softening of the poll, so that the front profile of the horse’s head is vertical with the ground. For our purposes, LF will deal with both flexion at the poll, as well as flexion or rounding of the rest of the horse’s spine.”

Can’t agree more with this statement and I will reiterate the whole article is worth a read!  This relates to a saddle fit issue that I tend to highlight at ALL of my saddle fittings: Pressure on the spine caused by too narrow saddles.  The reason why is because if the muscles, primarily the multifidus, of the spine cannot create the correct tension the effect is that of dropping wet laundry on a line.  It sags.



The multifidus is an important stabilizer of the spine and works with other muscles to stabilize the back and pelvis BEFORE movement of the limbs can occur.  This is a multisegmented muscle that has attachment points at the transverse process and base of each vertebrae and runs to the dorsal spinous process of a vertebrae 2-4 segments ahead of where it originates.  This is how the tension of this muscle creates a stable spring of the spine.  If this muscle is not engaged properly the back sags, the head lifts, the chest drops, and the hind legs are out behind.  Not a great frame for any horse to move properly in.  So where does this muscle sit?



When this muscle is engaged properly we can create the lateral flexion of the back spoken about in the article that I shared.



So how does all of this relate to saddles?  There are many ways a saddle can create the incorrect type of tension in the equine back.  Panels too long, tree too narrow, etc etc.  What can cause restriction on the spine is the gullet, or space between the panels, being too narrow.



I have seen a huge improvement in horses when the saddle pressure is relieved off of the spine.  Even horses in a situation of being retired because of unidentified lameness being sound after this pressure is removed.  If you would like more information or instructions on how to measure your horse’s spinal width please email me at!

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