Do Your Horse’s Ribs Move Freely?

Have you heard the phrase “Life is movement”? In fact, life is dependent on movement and your horses’ ability to freely move his ribs is critical for his physical well-being. In fact, your horse’s ribs are so crucial to your horse’s freedom of movement that they are actually more important than the spine in terms of flexibility. For instance, ribs that are stuck or tight can irritate the nerves exiting the spine, which will in turn cause organ and musculo-skeletal problems.

Luckily, it is very easy to check for sore ribs. Simply ask your horse to raise his back by placing your fingertips on the midline of his belly (where the girth lays) and exerting sharp upward pressure. In response your horse should easily raise his back from behind his withers all the way to his lower back. If he is resistant or lifts one area but not another then he has tightness in his ribs.

In addition to flexing and extending your horse should also be able to move his rib cage sideways in both directions. To test for side to side flexibility stand as if you were going to ask him to raise his back but reach your fingers 2 to 3 inches past the midline (further away from your body) and ask your horse to bend his rib cage towards you. Then go to the other side and ask him to bend towards you from that direction. As with the first exercise your fingertips should give a sharp, firm thrust not just a push. You don’t want to startle or poke your horse but you want to generate enough energy to motivate him to move his ribs. Watch to make sure the movement is fluid throughout the entire ribcage and that there are no flat spots that could indicate an individual stuck rib.

Other signs of tight ribs include:

  • Irritability during saddling and cinching
  • Unwillingness to stand for mounting
  • Cold-backed behavior such as scooting or bucking when first mounted
  • Erratic behavior such as shying or balking that occurs after your horse has been working long enough to get winded. Horses with tight ribs are not able to take deep breaths and this can be frightening.
  • Poor exercise tolerance due to failure to take in enough air during breathing
  • Recurrent or persistent lung infections due to inability to clean the lungs by coughing

Horses become tight in the ribs for multiple reasons, including:

  • Injuries from falls or kicks
  • Poor fitting saddles and excessively tight girths and cinches
  • Spinal subluxations causing irritation to the nerves supplying the muscles between the ribs
  • Inflammation of the internal lining of the ribcage from lung infections
  • Irritations to the diaphragm from inflamed organs such as the stomach or liver, which lie against it
  • Guarding from internal pain such as ulcers or sore ovaries

A horse with sore or tights ribs is going to be neither happy nor able to perform to his potential. Routine stretching and suppling exercises along with regular massage or bodywork, such as Equine Touch, Bowen or TTeam, should keep your horse’s ribs free and flexible. If tightness or pain persists seek an evaluation from a professional to diagnose and correct the under lying problem.


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About Madalyn Ward, DVM

This blog provides information based on my unique take on horse health and well being. The articles are based on experience of treating and working with horses for over 40 years. In most cases the articles are focused on an holistic approach to health and management. When conventional medicine offers good research or therapy, I share this information as well. Madalyn Ward, DVM

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