2 days ago, I posted about swellings in the parotid glands. I could never have imagined this post went so viral world wide and am so humbled! If you have read the article, you might find this post interesting as well. If you haven’t read the post yet, here is the link: http://bit.ly/2D2Sbkv
Whenever a horse has swollen parotid glands, I ALWAYS check the mechanical fat pads as well. The term ‘mechanical’ fat is something I learned while attending whole horse dissections with Australian ‘bone lady’ Sharon May-Davis. It is something we all have noticed, but rarely ever pay special attention too.
‘Mechanical’ fat has an active function. It protects weak structures and can be found throughout the body. It is not to be confused with ‘abnormal’ fat that is caused by overweight. This extra fat has no function. One of these ‘mechanical’ fat pads is found above the eye. It is that ‘up-and-down jelly’ motion we see when a horse is eating. To understand it’s function, I’d like to eleborate a little bit on the anatomy of the eye. As it is complex, I will keep it as simple and basic as possible.
The fat pad above the eye is also called the ‘orbital fat pad’ as it protects orbital structures. The orbit is the cavity that encloses the eye and it seperates the eye from cranial cavity. Structures in its walls also determine the path of blood vessels and nerves from the brain to the eye. The general structures of the orbit are weak and prone to traumatic impact. The fat pad protects these important yet vulnerable structures. Embedded in the fat, we can find fascia, muscles, vessels and nerves. With age, the fat will get less / weaker. Now, as with the perotid glands, the orbital mechanical fat pads can become enlarged or asymmetrical in size. This can have a few causes:
- Metabolic issues: enlarged fat pads can indicate EMS (cushings), insulin resistance, or histamine reaction. When a horse has this, the fat pads are usually quite bulky in general and often you see other fat pads developing as well such as on the crest of the neck and on the butt. These fat pads might feel ‘hard’ (stiff and enlarged upperneck).
- Enlarged perotid glands: yup, here we have them again. When the perotid glands are enlarged, it can increase the pressure within the orbit when a horse is asked into a flexed position.
- Trauma or infections: from fractures to orbital diseases. It might also be an indication of an early phase of (subclinical) LAMINITIS. So always check the feet as well if you notice any enlargement of the mechanical fat pads.
- (Congenital) malformations: When foals come out of the birth canal it might get ‘stuck’ and there is too much pressure on the head. Or when its pulled out it might get damage in the skull. I know of horses whose brains were growing into the skull (attaching). It gives a lot of pressure on the brain and surrounding structures as it can’t develop properly and sometimes abnormalities above / around the eye can help indicate this.
- Jaw disbalances: when horses predominantly chew on one side, muscles on this side tend to overdevlop and this might be visible by uneven mechanical orbital fat pads (one is bigger / more popping out than the other). So it is very important to have a dentist that looks at the balance of jaw.
- Melanoma: when its a grey horse, melanoma might interfere with these structures.
- Training related: same effect as above might occur when a rider is always too strong on one side of the bit causing the horse to stiff that side and tense the muscles. When a horse is overflexed and too much pressure is put on the oxiput and atlas, the fat pads might also start bulging out. The term ‘overflexion’ is susceptible to a specific situation. Technically, any action behind the vertical is considered ‘overflexion’. So any flexion slightly in front of the vertical is usually considered ‘good’, but there can be huge range in how much a horse can / need to be out with the nose. So sometimes, even when the horse is slightly in front of the vertical, it still might be overflexion for that specific horse (the glands might to swollen to such an extent that the horse needs to lenghten out way more). And some experienced and well-trained horses can go ‘on’ the vertical and still keep the glands open and relaxed with energy from hind to front. So don't focus on mechanically creating a head/neck frame. When the body is in balance, this will follow as result.
If you look at the picture, you can see this horse has very uneven fat pads. The right side is enlarged and popping up, while on the left side almost nothing is visible. Considering this is a grey horse, I palpated further and found melanoma further on the jaw region and on the nose and yes, swollen parotid glands. So training this horse will require some specific excercises to keep this area open.
Again, as with all my posts, I can’t tell you WHAT specific excercises / action you and your horse needs in your specific situation straight from paper. However, there are a couple of general things to note to create/keep healthy oribital mechanica patpads:
- Improving your horse starts with yourself! Are you balanced? Symmetrical in your actions?
- ANY backwards motion of your hands will create unnessacary pressure on the head. It will block motion from flowing all the way from hind to front.
- Riding is just an extra gift. There is so much more to with your horse from the ground and other forms of being togehter. The relationship and the conversation is the foundation. When you have that, riding is just an extra thing on top and not your only foundation of way of interacting with your horse.
- Your horse is ALWAYS right. So if you experience any signs of: Pulling the reins; tilting the head; rearing / bucking; ‘against’ the bit; uneven rein pressure, ‘leaning’ into your heads.. the horse is TELLING you something is wrong. What you feel in your hands is a reflection of what happens in the body.
- Training without FULL RELAXATION is ineffective. So if your horse is tensed in the jaw
area, it will work all the way through the hind. ALWAYS prioritize to relax your horse fully before you start working
- It’s never JUST training. Its always a combination several factors. Invest in a BODYWORKER who can help with cranio sacral release. Have a critical look to your horse’s DIET. Have a critical look at your tack. Do you go with bit or bitless?
- Keep breathing. Don’t get frustrated if it takes a while. You’re doing this for longterm health for you and your horse. Remember: it’s not about the result, but the journey!
So look at your horse. Feel your horse. Ask for help or guidance if you’re struggling. You’re horse will be thankful.