Sternal Elevation Reflex

Horses with poor saddle fit or back pain associated with impinged spinous processes will benefit from this spinal reflex due to the induced lengthening of the soft tissues and separation of the spinous processes. The goal is to help to develop core stabilization and strengthening of the scapulothoracic junction (muscular sling between the forelimb and rib cage).


Sternal Elevation Reflex

Position the horse with its feet placed squarely under its body on a flat, level surface. Begin by safely standing to one side of the horse while hugging the base of the neck with one arm to help stabilize the horse and reaching underneath the girth or sternal region with the other hand. Apply firm upward fingertip pressure or scratch along the ventral midline to induce elevation of the horse’s trunk, caudal to the withers.

Diagnostically, one of three responses typically occurs in response to pressure applied along the ventral midline of the sternum:

  • The normal response is to lift the withers and the lower the head and neck in a free and fluid motion. Active contraction of the muscles that contribute to the pectoral girdle (e.g., serratus ventralis, deep pectoral) produces elevation of the wither region and subsequent separation of the thoracic spinous processes.
  • Horses with girth pain or muscle hypertonicity may react strongly to the applied pressure and will often kick out, step away from the applied pressure and maintain an elevated head and neck posture.
  • Some horses will not respond to any applied pressure along the ventral sternum. Asking the horse to lower their head below the height of the withers may help to assist or initiate active elevation of the wither region.

The induced spinal motion is graded based on the fluidity, ability to hold the induced posture, and the amplitude of the induced movement. The amount of trunk elevation at the base of the withers is normally about 1 inch (2-3 cm). The quality of the induced motion is observed as noted in the above responses. The ability to hold the induced position is typically 2-3 seconds. Like any training aid, once the horse responds to the applied pressure, lighten your contact to reinforce the requested behavior or body movement.

Caution: Some horses will kick out with their hind feet if they are sensitive in the girth region. Please stand beside the front limbs when doing this exercise. Do not stand alongside the trunk or within reach of the hind limbs when doing this exercise.

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