An Old Injury

The Choctaw Princess is dressed for winter. She has a dense coat that would serve to keep her alive in the minus-65o wind chill of the arctic cold front that came down across the Great Plains recently. But, here in New Mexico, we only caught the edge of it.

Since she is a princess, she does prefer to roll in sand or nice clean snow, not in the mud and manure in her pen. She usually manages to wait until we hit the good stuff, but today was 45o and sunny. She just could not wait and dropped to stride to relieve the itchiness in her warm heavy coat.the ground mid-stride to relieve the itchiness in her warm heavy coat.

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I had the camera because I wanted to get a still shot of her trotting past since she trots the fence line when I put her out in the big arena. But the camera on my not-so-very smart phone decided to put itself in video mode after I caught her with all four feet up in the air. I ended up with a 30-second clip of her trotting before the battery ran out.

I rarely use the video. I get too frustrated with the not-enough frames per second leaving out so many so very informative phases of the stride. However, what I ended up with was far more interesting than what I was aiming for, so my camera might be smarter than I think.

This brief clip showed me that when the Choctaw Princess got to one corner and turned to the right to head back down, she did a very nice smooth turn on the hindquarters without slowing down. She set her inside hind leg underneath herself, pivoted on it, crossed over in front and headed out along the fence at a trot in one smooth flowing movement.

When she got to the opposite end of the fence, she came to a complete halt. After considering the situation and deciding she was going to turn around, she made a small circle. After she turns, she zips off in a straight line at an easy balanced rhythmic trot. But there is a distinct, if fleeting, instant of discomfort where her head nods when turning to the left.

She is transitioning from a walk to a trot as she turns, so it is hard for me to predict her movements. And, to my frustration, the camera did not catch the moment when she should cross over in front. Which makes me want to rush out and get a Go-Pro video camera with a helmet cam and a computer with enough processing ability to slow down a gazillion frames per second. Then I could see see what exactly is happening.

However, I do have just enough information to see that there does not appear to be any discomfort or restriction in her movement when she is moving in a straight line. This brief video does make it clear that it is very specifically circling to the left that stresses something in her left front at a very specific phase of her stride. I suspected that an old injury is the reason why she screeches to a halt and swaps ends so persistently when I ask her to circle to the left in the round pen.

In order to minimize her discomfort and gain her cooperation, I have to understand where and why she hurts. Her front hooves are maintaining their natural shape so she can move freely in front now.   And, I do check her neck and shoulders for trigger points every time I handle her and most of them have released.

That means I can start narrowing down where her problem might be. Since she moves fine in a straight line, I can rule out injuries to her left foreleg. The original injury must have been somewhere further up in her neck or shoulder.

So I started my problem solving by considering the fact that the horses do not have a fixed collarbone like we humans do. Their whole front end is held up in a sling of muscles and connective tissue. They have three very large muscles attached to each shoulder blade with a thick ‘wrists’ and numerous ‘fingers’ that reach out and connect to their vertebrae. Two of the three muscles reach up from the shoulder blade and attach to the spinal process as well as the ribs. One muscle, the serratus ventrales, reaches down along the ribs towards their sternum. It bears the primary responsibility for holding up the mass of the horse’s body.

All three muscles also help stabilize and control the angle of the shoulder blade as the horse moves through a turn. Their ‘fingers’ should be the envy of every piano player because they reach from the middle of the horse’s neck to the end of their ribs. When they play freely, they instantly respond to the constant and subtle rotation of each individual vertebra as the horse moves, adjusting the position of the shoulder blade to accommodate changes off direction or footing.

The joints of the horse’s leg do not bend from side to side. Their legs must stay straight from the shoulder blade to the hoof if the joints are to withstand the tremendous stresses of movement. In order for the front legs to cross over as the horse turns, the whole shoulder blade has to rock along the rib cage. Then the whole front leg takes on a slightly angle from the tip of the shoulder blade to the sole of the hoof.

Extending her left foreleg to the front or at angle to the outside does not appear to cause the Choctaw Princess any discomfort at any phase of her stride on the straight away or while turning. The upward reaching fingers of the shoulder muscles help pull the upper edge of the shoulder blade closer to the withers when the horse reaches to the outside with a foreleg. If the range of the serratus ventrales’ downward reaching fingers were shortened and stiff from an old injury, she would be reluctant to reach to the outside with her left foreleg.

The phase of her stride that does cause the Choctaw Princess discomfort is when her left foreleg pushes off the ground at an angle from under her body. She nods her head at that moment when turning to the left. Since her shoulder blade rocks away from her withers as her left foreleg moves inside and to the rear, the original injury was most likely somewhere among the upward reaching ‘fingers’ that attach along the base of her neck and her withers.

When the horse reaches to the inside with a foreleg, it is the serratus ventrales working to position and stabilize the shoulder blade. The lower edge of the shoulder blade is held snugly to the rib cage as the upper edge moves away from the withers. Those up-reaching ‘fingers’ have to be able to flex and stretch in synchrony while still supporting the horse’s weight to keep the shoulder stable through the weight-bearing phase of the stride.

The injury is old, so there is currently little to no inflammation to treat. Bodywork has its limitations as the shoulder, back and neck muscles are big powerful masses in horses and have a significant amount of fascia. Their connections to the bones of the shoulder, rib cage and spine are deep and hard to get too.

And I want to build her trust and enthusiasm for working with the humans.  If I push her to do more than she is comfortable with, which includes putting any weight on her back, I risk re-injuring her physically. Once again, the Choctaw Princess is pushing me to get thoughtful and creative in how I approach her problems.

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