You can learn a lot about a horse just by poking at it. You can learn its sense of boundaries and self-respect. You can learn how it feels to be bitten or cow-kicked by that particular horse. You can also, more usefully, identify potential health problems.
Humans have been prodding at horses in the dim hope of finding/curing problems for centuries. It’s not a new fact, but thanks to the internet, it’s getting much easier for people to learn where and how to poke at their horse to identify sore spots and internal issues. Vets, physiotherapists, masseurs, chiropractors, saddle fitters, Bowen therapists etc. are still the best people to ask for help, but these techniques can still be useful in confirming your immediate suspicions that something is wrong and you should pursue medical help for your horse.
When working with a new horse, I will always palpate them in the following ways (usually subtly so that the owner doesn’t panic because I think that something’s wrong with them). Alternatively, I will palpate if the horse been out of sorts recently under saddle – bucking, rushing, shying, or just feeling a bit stiff and uncooperative. These are the three main palpations I will use first (I use several other palpations and assessment techniques, but will discuss those another time for the sake of space).
One – “basic back palpation”
My first stop is always the back. Problems under saddle usually involve the saddle, after all. Starting at the withers and running my hand in the pose shown above all the way down to their hip, I will apply no pressure at all on the first sweep. On the second sweep, I will push a little harder on the whole way down. On the third sweep, apply no pressure. On the fourth sweep, I will use a slightly firmer pressure all the way down, with a sudden push down on any part of the muscle that feels a bit “off” or tight. I will repeat this until I am satisfied that either the horse is completely unfazed by the contact, slightly annoyed by the contact, or very annoyed with the contact.
What I am looking for is any change in the horse’s demeanour. If they suddenly lay back their ears, tighten their lips, swish their tail, dip their back away from the pressure, try to sidle away etc. then I know that there is something about the contact that they don’t like. By alternating strokes of pressure with strokes of no pressure, I make it easier to pinpoint exactly where the discomfort starts (i.e. the horse doesn’t anticipate my pushing on it in a particular spot, so doesn’t have time to clench up the muscles to block me out). I am not able to fix the problem by doing this, but I am able to identify that yes, there is definitely a problem, and I need to call out an expert and let them know what I’ve found.
Two – “hind muscle palpations”
After the back, I will check a few of the major muscle groups across the horse’s body. If a horse tends to carry himself on the forehand (head and neck lowered, weight more on the front end than the back end), then it is possible for his gluteal muscles to be overstretched. Using the same soft-then-firm stroke approach as mentioned above, I will run my hand down the horse’s hip and follow the line of one of the major muscles. This 12-second video shows the location well, and also demonstrate the pinpointing pressure.
Three – “ulcer palpations”
Ulcers are regrettably common amongst horses and can be caused by a variety of different issues, including feeding and work routines. They vary in severity and location, and will often manifest as touchiness and irritability, as well as tension and outright evasion under saddle. Thankfully, there is no end of products available on the market to help treat ulcers, though your first call should always be to a vet in order to get a specific diagnosis. This set of palpation techniques is useful for confirming that ulcers, or ulcer-like symptoms are an issue for the horse, so it’s worth calling the vet out or investing in mallow root, ulcerguard etc.
This particular video on Youtube is excellent in that it shows three different levels of ulcer reactivity, as well as the application of the palpation checks. Definitely worth a watch!
Palpation can be a useful tool, but it does take some practice. Never underestimate the usefulness of calling out an expert to get some help, and don’t let your own palpation techniques replace the assistance of someone trained for the job. These are just useful starter-steps to get to know your horse’s strengths and foibles, and assist in their preservation/improvement. Try not to get bitten or kicked!