While this isn’t meant to take the place of a full and complete exam by your vet, I do use a regular “back” check on all my horses just to make sure the pads, saddles, and girths all seem to be fitting and the horse isn’t developing an issue under the saddle.
It’s as simple as this — you basically involve two methods to check the muscles along the horse’s back from the withers to the loin. You pinch and you push. That’s the finger movements I use to check the big, long muscles under the skin that support the saddle and the rider. As I say, it’s not a technical exam by a vet, but it’s simply a method I’ve found that lets me know where, or if, a horse has soreness in the back muscles.
What you are looking for when you pinch or push is a pain response — and only you will know what constitutes that in your horse. That’s where doing this regularly comes in — you will be able to judge by the regular reaction if more pain is present. When my horses exhibit some soreness, they’ll shrink, more or less, under the pressing fingers, or you’ll feel a tenseness as the painful muscle contracts under your fingertips. Some horses swish their tails and pin their ears; others swing the head around and try to nip you! (Hey, that’s why I recommend you do this with your horse safely tied, cross-tied, or held by a friend.) The important thing is to do it regularly so you get a baseline response, and will be able to tell pretty quickly if something isn’t the same.
I start with the pinch (see photo above). Starting on the horse’s left, I run the forefinger and thumb about 2-3 inches apart down the top of the spine, beginning at the withers and going all the way to the loin, or where the back flattens and goes back up toward the top of the hip.
Run your hand deliberately down the spine – too fast, and you can’t apply even pressure, and too slow and you won’t find the sorest muscle area. You’ll want to squeeze thumb and forefinger together as you press down slightly. Use even pressure all the way down. I do this on both sides. This is the first thing I do because it will indicate an area of soreness as you go down the spine.
Then, I’ll push – fairly hard – into the muscles on both sides, from the top down. Follow the panels of where the saddle is sitting, and particularly make note of any spot in your pinch exam that seemed more pain reactive.
I use all four fingers and press down and in with my hand bent. You want to first feel a softness, then as you push harder, your horse should tense under the fingertips and either move away from the pressure or shrink down if it hurts enough for a reaction.
If they hurt, they’ll let you know with this technique with the most emotion so be aware if you’ve got a sore horse, they may let you know QUICKLY if you’ve got the hurtie spot! (As in kick!) If they are fine, they will simply show a little irritation with your pressing on their back. You don’t want to hurt them, but you do want to feel if the muscle feels soft. By soft, I mean spongy, like the feel of a couch cushion, not a pillow, and not stiff or firm.
The last thing you’ll do is run your hand under the girth area, press into the V-shaped muscles underneath his forelegs where the girth goes. You’ll just be checking for some soreness or discomfort, or possibly a gall or bump indicating your girth might be pressing or rubbing. Should you find something wrong, call your vet!