The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

7.7.2022 An Excerpt From The Book ‘Horse Massage For Horse Owners’ by Sue Palmer

The Back

Longissimus Dorsi


Extends back and neck, stabilises vertebral column


Wing of iliac bone, spinous processes of sacrum and lumbar and thoracic vertebrae


Transverse processes C4 to C7, and tubercles of ribs

Massage Essentials

When the longissimus dorsi muscle contracts, it causes the back to hollow. This is the opposite to the action of the horse’s back ‘rounding’, which we ask for when we ask our horses to work ‘correctly’.

It’s all in the name

The longissimus dorsi muscle is the back muscle that you will concentrate on in your massage routine. ‘Dorsi’ means back,, and ‘longissimus’ means ‘long’, so the longissimus dorsi muscle is quite literally the long back muscle. You have the equivalent muscle running down your back, it’s a good muscle to work on if you practice your massage techniques on a partner.

What the muscle does

The longissimus dorsi muscle originates from the bones of the pelvis and back, and attaches downwards, forwards and outwards from those bones onto the tops of the ribs at the rib angles, and to the neck bones at the base of the neck. Effectively this muscle runs all the way along the back and into the neck. The horse’s back naturally has a slight hollow, and if you think about the ends of the back being pulled together, contraction of the longissimus dorsi muscle will cause the back to hollow further. This is the opposite of what we look for from our horses in correct ridden work, when we ask them to ‘work through their back’. Pain triggers contraction of a muscle, and therefore if pressure to the back muscle is painful it will automatically contract and hollow the back when you are sitting on your horse. This means that he will be unable to work as correctly as he is able to, even if he wants to.

Common causes of problems

Problems occur in this muscle for many reasons, just some of them are listed here:

  • A poorly fitting or poorly positioned saddle will put uneven pressure or too much pressure on the back muscle, causing pain and possibly loss of muscle tissue. You can imagine what this might feel like when you think of wearing a pair of shoes that are too small or don’t fit.
  • It is well proven that lameness can lead to back pain, even if the lameness is so slight that it can’t be seen or felt. This could be lameness in a front or a back leg, and the horse compensating for the pain by over using his back muscles, or using them incorrectly, may cause the pain.
  • Skeletal problems such as kissing spine (when the dorsal spinous processes are touching) can lead to back pain, including pain in the back muscles.
  • A rider who is unbalanced will put uneven pressure through the horse’s back, which could lead to pain in the back muscles.

Chalking on

You cannot get deep inside the horse to draw this muscle accurately, but you can draw an estimate of where it lies, for the purpose of massaging to benefit the long back muscle. You will of course then be benefitting the other back muscles in the area, and any other connected tissue.

First run your hand over the upper part of the shoulder blade, and feel your hand move from hard cartilage and bone underneath the skin to soft tissue at the back of the shoulder blade (many horses have a dip here, in the ‘wither pocket’, making the back of the shoulder blade easy to see). Draw a vertical line downwards from the withers that runs down the back of the shoulder blade at this point.

Next draw a vertical line from the point where your horse’s coat starts to change direction (at the front of his quarters) straight upwards to the top of his spine. Draw a horizontal line near the top of your horse’s back, parallel to his spine but not quite as far up as the bony prominences – you should avoid massaging over bony areas, as it can be uncomfortable.

Find the top of the ribcage (the rib angles) by pressing your fingers firmly into the middle of your horse’s ribcage at almost ninety degrees (do this carefully if your horse is ticklish). Slide your fingers upwards towards your horse’s back, until you feel them ‘fall off’ the ribcage into soft muscle. Be confident, and keep going until you find that soft muscle – many people stop too early. Draw a horizontal line at this level to join your line behind the shoulder blade to your line where the coat changes direction.

You now have a rectangle on your horse’s back that denotes where you will massage to affect the back muscles. Remember that the fibres run from the bones of the back, forward to the top of the rib. Draw a few fibres in to remind yourself of this, because it’s relevant when it comes to deciding which direction to apply your massage techniques.

Description of ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’ by Sue Palmer

”This book is a must for anyone who would like to improve the health, wellbeing or performance of their horse. Practical, educational and easy to follow, the author shares with you the knowledge and skills you need to massage your own horse. Learn about equine anatomy, massage techniques, and how to combine the moves to develop a complete massage routine. With the emphasis on how you can work with your own horse, Sue offers an insight into how to reduce pain and stiffness in your horse as well as improve performance. Massaging your horse gives something back in return for all he does for you, and will help you and your horse to truly enjoy the time that you spend together.”

5 star review on Amazon from Ann T

“I was really impressed by this book. Written clearly, with relevant illustrations that reinforce the text, it tells you what to do and explains why. I enjoyed learning a bit more about the horse’s anatomy and it made it easier to understand the massage. The techniques do take some practice – my forearm and partner are as well massaged as the horse! – but they get easier. My older mare certainly enjoys the sessions and it seems to give me feedback on how she’s feeling. I think she’s moving more easily too. Our horses have benefitted from treatment from both physiotherapists and osteopaths previously and this would in no way replace their expertise, but would hopefully be a useful adjunct. The FAQs are informative and the prompt section a useful idea. The book is great for amateurs like me but I feel that professional riders may find it of interest as well.”

Publisher: ‎ J.A.Allen & Co Ltd; Illustrated edition (30 Aug. 2012)

Language: ‎ English

Paperback: ‎ 128 pages

ISBN-10: ‎ 0851319998

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0851319995

Dimensions: ‎ 19.05 x 1.27 x 24.13 cm

For more information and to order your copy of ‘Horse Massage For Horse Owners’ today, visit

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion

July 7, 2022
Sue Palmer