Jelle Hoorens began his first career at age 19 as an international show jumper in Belgium, competing at the two-star level in shows around Europe. Yet it was the training issues he so frequently observed on the circuit, combined with is own family background, that eventually brought him to osteopathy. “I became an osteopath because I always wanted to help horses and riders, and also because I found problems with my horses that couldn’t be resolved by vets,” Jelle says. “My sister is an osteopath (human) and my father is neuropsychiatrist, so it’s also family-related I guess!”

For the uninitiated, osteopathy is an alternative, holistic approach to medicine which does not seek to replace traditional veterinary treatment, but rather, to work in harmony with it. Common osteopathic practices include physiotherapy, acupuncture, and more.

So what kind of issues can be corrected using osteopathy? Here are Jelle’s top five training complaints and how to treat them.

1. Issue: Back pain (the absolute #1 complaint!).

There are several problems that can occur, mostly thoracic and lumbar. A lot of ridden horses get back pain at some point in their career, and these can be caused by numerous things. The most common is excessive physical effort, training the wrong way, but also because horses are athletes and we all know, sport is associated with strained muscles and other pain.

What can be done: 

Riders can address them by palpating* their horse’s back. Apply light pressure–the same pressure you put on a knife while making a sandwich—on the back 3-4 inches next to (or parallel) with the horse’s spine, starting right after the scapula and continuing down until the end of the back where the hind leg starts.

*Palpation: rubbing against a surface with your hand.

2. Issue: Lateral movement dysfunction.

For example, when a horse doesn’t want to turn to one side anymore. Riders contact me often when they feel their horse becoming really strong on one side, or refusing to make lateral movements at all. Here, I always advise people to be careful and NOT to try to force the horse into making this movement. If they have a vertebra blocked, it’s almost impossible for the horse to turn in that direction and it can cause wounds in their mouth from pulling the reins too hard.

What can be done: 

I recommend taking a carrot or other treat your horse loves and trying to make the movement by letting his nose touch the shoulder and hind knee. There are more stretching techniques you can apply (we’ll elaborate on these in the next article, but you can see three basic stretching steps below). Flexible horses can touch their hind knee, but do not panic if your horse can’t. If you notice the horse’s nose can’t reach the shoulder or stomach, then something is blocked. In this case, it’s best to contact an osteopath, as it’s possible that the horse is blocked in its cervical joints, but it can also be radiating pain derived from the back or pelvis.

3. Issue: General Stiffness.

The horse feels stiff in training. Mostly this is acute, but horses can also suffer from chronic stiffness. This issue can have a lot of symptoms, but it always comes down to the same thing: sore muscles. It is very important for the rider to pay attention to what I like to call ‘muscle management’. Don’t rush your warm-up, and take your time with cooling down. On the management side, stiffness can be eased by showering the horse’s muscles and tendons after exercise and giving them the supplements they need if they work hard (vitamin E, electrolytes, etc.).

What can be done: 

Stressed, sore muscles have trigger points which cause pain. These trigger points can also be treated by dry needling* or physiotherapy. A licensed osteopath can determine how sore the muscles are and can help by making sure there is no blockage that is causing the stiffness. If it’s from hard work, massage from a physiotherapist or a dry needling* therapist can help when muscles are stressed.

*Dry Needling: One of the therapies I’m licensed for. A dry needling therapist uses an acupuncture needle and inserts it right into the muscle’s trigger point. The filaments actin and myosin, which cause the trigger point, will be loosened up by the needle and the trigger point will disappear.

4. Issue: Pelvic blockage.

The most common symptoms here are lower back pain, as you palpate the back, and biomechanical dysfunction in the hind legs. Sacroiliac joint (SI) pain often leads to pelvic problems and the other way around as the sacroiliac joint is located at the back of the pelvis and articulates between the sacrum and the ilium bones. Some signs that your horse may be having issues with this include: problems with lead changes, reduced impulse, or your horse doesn’t jump straight.

What can be done: 

In this case, an osteopath can bring huge improvement by manipulating the pelvis.

5. Issue: Your horse just isn’t the same anymore.

An osteopath is actually also an investigator. We set up an anamnesis, or history chart, by asking the owner or rider questions to get to know the horse and the training they do. But the complaints don’t always lead to the problem. Sometimes, an osteopath has to refer to a vet or another therapist. A lot of behavior issues can be resolved by correct training.

What can be done: 

An osteopath will try to figure out what is causing a certain issue with your horse and will be an advisor if osteopathy isn’t the only solution to the problem. Osteopathy isn’t about ‘a quick fix’, it’s about treating a horse by not only taking away the problem, but also fixing what causes the problem. That’s why it should be standard for professional riders to get their horses checked out every three to six months and for recreational riders every six months or annually.

-Photography courtesy of Jelle Hoorens.