The neck – back connection… (April 2017)

Every good professional completes CPD (Continued Professional Development) to enhance their skill set, knowledge and keep abreast of recent advances in their chosen sphere. Animal therapy is no different in this respect, and there is a wealth of knowledge available – no one therapist can ever know every answer!

CPD is also a great opportunity to mix with other therapists, discuss different treatments and have a few days of comparative ‘holiday’ as well…. Well, it feels like a holiday to me, anyway. So, last week I spent three days improving my anatomical knowledge, by getting down to the nitty gritty of dissecting a recently deceased older pony.

Our tutor was extremely experienced in gently peeling the layers of tissue away one at a time, to reveal the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, but what became increasingly obvious to all those attending this fascinating workshop, was the sheer amount of fascial connective tissues holding everything together.

Fascial tissue is rarely seen when we buy a joint of meat from our butcher or supermarket, yet it is vital for the living body to remain intact. Imagine I gave you a box full of the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and organs to put together and ‘build a body’…. Whatever you did, you would also need a large roll of clingfilm to hold the whole lot together as well – the clingfilm is akin to fascial tissues, and these are wrapped around every bit of the body, particularly in between the muscles, around the spine and form many connections between these two throughout the body.

One of the most interesting findings for me, was how the longissimus dorsi back muscles connect to the lower neck (cervical) vertebrae bones in a fan shape, via these strong connective fascial tissues. Look it up in a conventional anatomy book, and the longissimus dorsi back muscles finish around the early thoracics, but take look inside a real equine body and this is not the case – this has huge implications for how the horse’s neck and back connections affect its ability to move comfortably with a rider. A horse who is ‘locked up in the neck’ as my clients describe it, is holding the first part of the longissimus dorsi muscles in spasm and cannot then relax and release the back fully, no matter how much treatment is applied to the back.

Similarly the deep psoas muscle attaches to the underside of the lumbar spine, facilitating movement of the lower back and pelvic flexion in the anatomy books, but take a look inside the real equine and this psoas muscle also fans into the diaphragm muscles which control inspiration and expiration of breath… therefore a tight psoas influences respiratory effort, particularly in canter where the horse is limited to taking one breath per canter stride… a tighter diaphragm due to tension through the psoas connection will reduce the amount of air inhaled and exhaled by the horse, potentially leading to poor performance without any obvious cause.

So how does this affect the way we work our horses? Well, there are many conscientious owners I meet with the latest in massage rugs, machines and tools, and these are all great when used sensibly. However, there is no substitute for a knowledgeable, highly trained and competent therapist who can identify how and where your horse is holding tension, and how it needs to be released – if you are in doubt about your horse’s performance, and the machine or rug isn’t working, then get a professional to look as well – it may just be that you are looking in the wrong place!