This article by Stormy May was originally published in Horses for Life magazine Oct. 2008, titled: The Truth in the Back. The information in this article is very similar to Chapter 3 of Stormy’s book, The Path of the Horse; From Competition to Compassion, available here.
You can also listen to the first 3 chapters of her book, if you prefer, and the content this article was pulled from (Ch.3) starts at 32:20 minutes:
The Truth In The Back – by Stormy May
With all the talk in “natural horsemanship” circles about learning the horse’s language, this aim can never be achieved when it begins and ends with a questionable premise, that a horse enjoys being ridden.
In my studies, I have come to the conclusion that horses have learned our language far better and more honestly than we can imagine. This is why all the “new agey” books and teachers are talking about how horses are our mirrors. I’m not talking about horses understanding our spoken language to any great extent, but they are masters at understanding the language that we seem to have forgotten, the language of our actions.
As a veteran horse trainer, one of the things that most surprised me to learn was the science of what goes on in a horse’s back when it is subjected to a saddle and rider. Sure, I knew that horses occasionally got sore backs and needed treatment or a better fitting saddle, but I certainly didn’t understand what goes on each and every time a horse takes someone for a ride.
One of the reasons that some of this information might seem to be “new” is that it wasn’t until around 1992 that the “Saddletech” saddle pressure testing pad was developed. These pads, and other similar devices more recently developed, include sensitive sensors that can measure the amount of pressure between horse and saddle. These pressure-sensing technologies lead to a flurry of interesting scientific studies in the equine world.
The dilemma of pressure points
When this information was combined with other studies of mammalian muscle tissue it all suddenly pointed to a huge dilemma. In the Journal of Veterinary Science Volume 14 No. 11, 1994, well known veterinarian and saddle fit expert Dr. Joyce Harman reported the results of a study using the Saddletech pad. She wrote:
“For the purposes of this study, saddles with pressures of up to 1.93 psi were graded an excellent fit, between 2.0 and 3.38 psi without persistent pressure points were graded fair and saddles that exceeded 3.4 psi or had persistent pressure points throughout the session were graded poor. These numbers were derived from preliminary data indicating that it was difficult to find an English saddle with pressures below 0.75 psi, which is the highest pressure found in the capillary bed. Pressures that exceed 0.75 psi will close down the blood flow in the arterial capillary bed.”
So what does it mean if the blood flow is shut down? This is what happens on a small scale when we press on our skin and it turns white, or if we sit in an awkward position for a longer amount of time, and we experience our leg or arm “going to sleep”.
The author, Mary Wanless, writes in her book For the Good of the Horse, “Perhaps one of the horse’s saving graces is that squeezing the blood out of his tissues causes pain for the first ten to fifteen minutes of a ride, and then his back goes numb.”
So, until we learn how to levitate saddles, even a saddle with an excellent fit, the best air/foam/wool stuffed panels and an average weight rider, will have pressures which are more than twice what it takes to shut down the blood flow within the muscles.
Numbness & tissue damage
Dr. Harman goes on to state that in studies of canine and human muscles, sustained pressure of only 0.68 psi for over two hours causes significant tissue damage. It is important to note that the Saddletech sensor pad used in these first studies used sensors developed to evaluate the risks of pressure sores in bedridden humans, and only measured pressures of up to 4 psi.
More modern sensor pads, such as the FSA (Force Sensing Array) system developed by Vision Engineering Research Group (VERG Inc.) of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada can record much higher pressures. In one test involving Western saddles with high priced pads, average peak pressures measured between 8.25 and 14 psi. (Wesley, E.D.; McCullough, E.; Eckels, S.; Davis, E.; Article #9329; 2007; “The Horse” magazine).
Pressure sensing pads also have the limitation of only recording pressures at the level of the skin. Saddle pressure is transferred through the muscles to the bony structures underneath (the vertebrae and ribs) and if we could measure the pressure there, it would be significantly greater. Dr. Harman writes that, “There is surgical evidence in human medicine that subcutaneous necrosis [the death of cells] begins closer to the bone before cutaneous redness and ulceration is seen.”
This means that if we’ve been around horses long enough to notice white spots or tender swellings in the saddle area, we are only witnessing the end results of a long process of tissue destruction. The longissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles that a rider sits on have been developing since the dawn of the horse, when Eohippus first used them to facilitate movement. Their structure was never created to bear weight in the form of vertical pressure from above, and this remains true even after centuries of selective breeding for “riding” horses.
Kissing spines, ligament & joint injury
Other effects of weight on the horse’s back include extension (hollowing) of the back, which “may contribute to soft tissue injuries and kissing spines syndrome.” (DeCocq, P. et al; Effects of girth, saddle and weight on movements of the horse. Equine Veterinary Journal 36; 2004; 758-763.) Briefly, kissing spines syndrome is when the spinous processes of the vertebrae (the long bony protrusions of the vertebrae which form the structure of the withers and the topline of the back) start to touch each other and will eventually remodel themselves and fuse together in severe cases. “This condition is clinically significant in jumpers but occurs in all types of horses.” (Marks, D.; Medical Management of Back Pain; Vet Clinics of N. America: Equine Practice Vol. 15, No. 1; 1999)
“ ‘Kissing spines,’ or impingement of the dorsal spinous processes, occur due to repetitive undulations in jumping horses – basculing, or rounding over a vertical fence, overextending upon landing or stretching out and hollowing the back over a wide oxer can cause this problem. The result is that the individual spinous projections are pushed together tightly. This generally occurs from the end of the withers to the beginning of the loin (10th – 18th thoracic vertebrae).”(Nadeau, J.; Preventing Back Pain in Horses; University of Connecticut Dept. of Animal Science Fact Sheet 2006)
There are a plethora of similarly significant traumas to the back which are either a direct result of the rider on the back, or the indirect result of what the rider asks the horse to do (sliding stops, jumps, etc.) Some examples are: spondylosis, jumpers bump (a prominent tuber sacrale), sacroiliac joint injury, supraspinous ligament injury, dorsal ligament tears, stress fractures of the ilium, and lumbosacral joint injury to name a few. I hope that the reader is starting to get a sense of the risks we subject the horse to with what we consider to be “a normal use of the horse” so that I don’t need to go into detail with each injury.
Let’s go back now to the first trauma that happens when the horse is saddled, compromised blood flow (ischemia) in the muscles. It is true that muscles have wonderful regenerative properties, and many times pressure sores can heal if infection is avoided and the horse is receiving proper nutrition and time off from more pressure…but what about the pain that was involved in the process?
Pain & learning
We are all familiar with the sharp pains associated with sensation coming back into a limb that has “fallen asleep” or “gone numb” due to compromised blood supply, but who has experienced the pain of developing pressure sores, even mild ones which itch and hurt even before there are any outwardly visible signs? It is exactly this discomfort that causes us to shift position every few minutes when we are sitting or standing. If we didn’t, we would develop pressure sores (also called bedsores) just from the weight of our own bodies on a soft chair or bed.
In researching for this article, I was surprised to find that actor Christopher Reeve, originally injured in a riding accident, ultimately died at age 52 as a result of complications from a pressure sore. A horse, when saddled, has no chance to shift this weight to relieve the discomfort. He probably tries to tell us in other ways, like fidgeting, exhibiting a shortened gait, ears back, swishing tail, trying to rub on the rail, or bucking. These should all be considered signs of a perfectly honest horse trying to relieve pain.
The horse who is more dangerous to herself is one who quietly goes on with her work, knowing that the consequences of showing any signs of back pain will be a stronger pain in the mouth, head, ribs, or flanks, probably combined with a longer session under saddle. Horses are masters at learning how to “get along” and most will quickly discover exactly what it takes to survive. A numb back is probably much easier to tolerate than the other ways humans have devised to control horses.
When we subject our horses to these pains for our own pleasures we are breaching something fundamental in our relationship. The fact that many horses tolerate these traumas speaks more about their innate grace and understanding than any proof of our “right” to sit on a horse’s back or their enjoyment of this process.
I hope the above already makes it clear that any time we sit on a horse for more than a moment without understanding what’s going on underneath us, we are compromising the horse’s well being.
There are two ways we can be sure that we do not injure a horse. The first is to turn the horse out in a large field and wish her well in a natural herd, and the second is to study the horse’s systems so minutely that we can say with authority that what we are doing is not harmful. Now that the problem with riding has been detailed, let’s look at possible solutions.
First, we must understand why we want to ride a horse. If the answers include, “it’s fun” “I want to compete” or “it’s good exercise” then the discussion above will have little or no impact on what you do and the current horse world will give you plenty of support in pursuing your goals. If your answers sound more like, “I love horses” “I want to learn how to have a good relationship with my horse” or even “I think horses might have something to teach me” then it’s likely you’ve already started to look for alternatives to the traditional horse world.
The solution has to begin with the premise that the horse knows her own mind, and in any matter regarding her behavior, she is the authority. Horses don’t have a spoken language that we can understand but they do have a language that we can learn. It is a language of physiology and movement. Once we spend enough time letting go of what we think we know about horses, we leave space for “what is” to reveal itself.
For example, if a horse starts bucking under saddle, we might think (or have been taught) that it was due to him being “naughty” as if the bucking were comparable to a young boy beating up on a schoolmate, or maybe we think he’s getting too much grain, alfalfa, it’s too cold, too windy or any number of countless guesses.
On the other hand, if we start with the premise that the horse has a perfectly good reason for bucking and it’s our job to determine what that is, he will begin leading us on a path. It’s a bit like seeing the horse as a living language course. Of course the horse is the master of this language and we are the pupils learning to decipher his movements and attitudes.
Horses see us for who we truly are behind our masks of words and hidden meanings. They become privy to what we try to hide from ourselves and other humans: our frustrations, irritations, dissatisfaction, aggravations, and at the base of it, our fears.
In what other area is it socially acceptable to beat an animal, where it is even televised and the sport’s greatest heroes are ones who carry whips in their hands and strap spurs to their heels, showing their “mastery” by how invisible they can make these “aids”? The horse learns this language of ours and our capabilities for causing her pain so well that in the hands of an “expert”, the threat of these devices is sufficient and the devices themselves no longer need to be used.
In order to start to understand the horse’s language and in the process to relearn our own natural language, we must begin with a horse that we are not inflicting any pain on, otherwise all we are learning is about the actions of a horse in pain and then other humans teach us how we can control that through more pain. Truthfully, this makes up the bulk of information that’s been studied for the thousands of years that we’ve been riding horses.
It is hard for the typical rider to understand that a real relationship with a horse must begin on the ground with no halters, ropes, or small confined spaces. J. Allen Boone’s sentiment about dogs in A Kinship with all Life applies equally to horses, “There’s facts about dogs, and there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions. If you want facts about a dog, always get them straight from the dog. If you want opinions, get them from the human.”
As a person progresses in their understanding of horse language, with its syntax of anatomy, physiology, and psychology, there may come a time when it is appropriate to get on a horse’s back. Just as signposts point the way to a destination, I can give a hint about some of the elements that will need to be understood by the person who has endeavored to learn enough of the horse’s language to get to a point where riding might be a helpful step in their lessons.
As a human endeavors to learn the way a horse’s body is designed, the way certain muscles, tendons, and ligaments work in concert with the skeletal structure, and the capacities and limits of these physiological elements, he will learn ways to “play” with the horse which lead to more freedom and balance for the horse. In the same way that yoga can help balance our own bodies and spirits, the person will learn the yoga which balances and frees a horse to enable her to greater expression.
The next signpost is when the person learns how to work with the horse with greater discipline, where both human and horse apply themselves to specific elements which develop the physiology of the horse and the mental focus and concentration of both horse and human.
By this time, another signpost is that the personal desire of the human to ride the horse will have naturally dropped away. A person at this level of understanding would have no more wish to bridle and saddle her equine teacher than she would to bridle and saddle her best human friend and prod her along a nice “trail ride”. If you are at the beginning of this journey and can’t quite understand yet how a person could have a fulfilling relationship with a horse without riding, maybe it would be helpful to have a little carrot hung out to tempt you.
When a human has learned the horse’s language well enough that she begins to dance with her equine partner, she collects and balances him not as the end result of pulling, tugging, and restraining, but as a result of speaking a common language, never causing pain at any point along the path. She simply learns how to direct his movements as a conductor leads an orchestra; only then will the horse’s anatomy reveal that he can indeed carry a rider, on a strengthened spine that has not been weakened by hours of a rider pounding on the saddle, with muscles that are free from painful pressure sores, carried in a flexed and contracted state which leads to higher blood pressure within the muscle and the ability of this muscle to endure the pressure from a rider for a few minutes at a time.
In the final analysis, when we follow this path we will experience the gift that the horses have been holding for us. They can help us relearn our own ancient language and to live harmoniously with ourselves and the other residents of this planet. I hope in the following articles to be able to find the right words to express the fullness of what I’m starting to experience, but perhaps I’ll have to be content with pointing out signposts.
The Path Of The Horse Documentary Film
If you haven’t yet seem Stormy May’s full-length documentary, The Path Of The Horse, here it is: