Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Oesteopathy:knowing your horse's body inside and out

Become familiar with your animal's health to be able to act on, and stop, injuries occurring

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

As with any athlete, horses can pick up injuries, but unlike human athletes, they cannot simply tell us where the pain is. Our job is to be familiar enough with our animals that when something goes out of kilter, we pick up on it quickly and treat the problem as early as possible. By doing so, we can reduce both the time and expense required to bring our horses back to full health.

Meath-based osteopath Samantha Sherrington believes that horse owners need to make a habit of observing their own horses to become familiar with what is normal and what is abnormal for each horse.

"Ideally, you should get someone else to walk and trot your horse up in front of you regularly so that you can pick up on any changes," she says. "Irish horses are very stoic and they will sometimes keep going regardless of being injured, so we need to pick up on any problems early on."

Sam, from Australia, initially trained as an osteopath for humans before embarking on a specialist two-year animal chiropractic course in Melbourne. The course is only open to fully trained and registered osteopaths, chiropractors and veterinarians, ensuring that the graduates have a solid understanding and skill in manual therapy but also a sound understanding of the broader veterinary issues which may affect the health of your animal.

So what is osteopathy? Dating back to 1874, osteopathy is a non-invasive therapy that is used to detect and address movement disorders, with the intention of treating the cause rather than just masking the symptom. It uses manipulation of the muscles and joints to maintain health and minimise injury by addressing mild problems before they become major.

In Sam's practice, a routine call out to an injured horse involves assessing the horse's entire body by feel and then working on individual muscles and joints to relieve the problem. Following the initial treatment, the owner is given a stretching routine specific to his or her horse that can be used until Sam's next visit.

She says the type of injuries that osteopathy can help to treat include:

•Unexplained lameness, back soreness, head tossing or poll-shyness.

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•An uncharacteristic unwillingness to work or change in attitude or performance.

•A feeling of unevenness in horse and/or rider.

•Treatment of soft-tissue (muscle, ligament and tendon) injuries.

•Symptom management in chronic conditions such as poor joint healing, arthritis or conformational limitations.

•Return to work and rehabilitation plans after illness or injury.

•Many more muscular and neurological conditions.

One of the most common problems she is called out to is unexplained lameness in the shoulder and forelimb.

"Often in these cases, the horse is not hopping lame but there is an unevenness of stride that indicates that there is a problem," Sam says.

"It could be suspensory ligament damage or a problem with the shoulder or other injury that causes unevenness through the shoulder and loads up the tendons and ligament unevenly."


Other common issues include horses that become uncharacteristically sticky when jumping, back and girth issues and general stiffness and unevenness.

"I've also treated horses after neurological events, including one horse that suffered a stroke.

"The stroke came on the animal very quickly, resulting in a contorted face, droopy ear and scrunched up eye on one side of its face, and slobbering from one side of his mouth.

"It's amazing how much he has improved from a very distinct neurological event," she recalls. "The vet only gave him a week when he first saw him after the stroke."

When asked about horse owners' bad habits, Sam says failing to warm up the horse thoroughly before work is a common issue.

"We need to give our horses a good warm-up period -- at least 15 minutes of walk and slow trot -- before asking them to work," she insists.

"We should be asking them to bend their necks, move off the leg and walk over poles on the ground and doing some safe stretches before work."

"Unfortunately, the Irish climate means that, in horrible weather, riders often want to get the work over and done with as quickly as possible."

Warm up and cool down are important for horses in winter, when they may be standing in a stable and become very stiff and cold, she says.

Ground conditions have caused problems this summer, she adds, with owners reporting lots of leg problems, while fitness is always an issue when working a horse on hard ground.

The osteopath recommends that horses should always get a good, deep bed in the stable, both for warmth and to prevent the animals getting cast in the stable.

"I get a lot of horses whose owners cannot say for sure that they have been cast, but when I start to feel through the body, I can tell immediately that the horse has been lying in a very twisted position."

"Unless you can leave an anti-cast roller on all the time, a good, deep bed is essential," she says.

However, Sam says horse owners have improved in at least one aspect of horse management -- saddle fitting.

"Having a correctly fitting saddle can make a big difference to a horse in a short period of time," she says.

"Studies have shown that it takes only a very small amount of pressure to damage the deep tissue along the spine, so even a one-hour ride in a badly fitting saddle can cause damage.

"But people are getting better at ensuring that their saddle fits their horse," adds Sam.

Jumping is another area of the sport that can cause lots of injuries, particularly down the forelimb, so owners need to be cognisant of the forces affecting the forelimb when jumping and be vigilant for any problems.


However, injuries are not limited to horses under saddle, as Sam has also treated young foals with rib trauma after foaling.

"Studies have shown that a high percentage of foals suffer rib trauma during foaling and some even have one or more fractured ribs," she says.

"If we can treat these early, we can prevent problems later, such as a horse that is girthy or cranky to saddle up."

Recognising and treating rib trauma early can also help the young horse to develop and grow more evenly and not become one-sided, she claims.

Finally, the osteopath says turn-out is critical to preventing injuries.

"Movement is always better than no movement," she says. "When the horse can move around, his circulation gets going, resulting in healthier tissue throughout his body."

For details on equine osteopathy or to contact Samantha, go to

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