17 Jul 2020

Does My Horse’s Back Hurt?


Anyone who has ever suffered from prolonged back pain, know that what may have started off as a manageable disturbance, can soon turn into the most annoying dancing partner of every single thing you try to do.  At least us humans can talk about it, complain about it, get some help to sort it out.

In horses, diagnosing back problems proves to be more difficult.

And unfortunately, back problems are just one of the occupational hazards if you are a racehorse or compete in show jumping, dressage, cross country or any of the other sport horse disciplines.

Challenges in diagnosing back problems in horses

When challenged with diagnosing back problems in horses, the following should be kept in mind:

  • Some horses will simply never perform to the highest standard – even without a back problem.
  • On the other hand, some horses can perform quite adequately despite having a back problem.
  • Horses are unique in their wide variation in pain threshold levels. This is evident between breeds, and even between sexes.
  • Horses have individual temperaments and personalities.

Keeping this in mind, often a definitive diagnosis of a back injury can be made only after all other conditions have been eliminated.

The Value of Clinical History

It is often noted in hindsight that undiagnosed back problems have been foretold by a change in behaviour or temperament.  This is not always associated with the issue at hand, as it may have developed very gradually over a period of time.

That is why the value of a thorough clinical history cannot be underestimated. Keeping track of your horse’s management, care and tack may prove equally important as his performance record.

Signs of Back Pain in Horses

Some of the signs that you may have seen, but have not yet linked to any back problems, are:

  • decline in jumping performance, or refusal to jump;
  • difficulty in urinating or defecating;
  • reluctance to lie down or roll;
  • avoidance behaviour when putting on blankets or rugs;
  • a dislike of grooming over the loins and quarters;
  • unease at having their hind limbs picked up; and/or
  • a reluctance to move backwards.

In some cases, a horse with severe back pain may resent bearing weight and often collapses the behind when ridden.  As you can imagine, putting a saddle on a horse’s sensitive back may cause pain, especially when tightening the girth.

During exercise, the signs often become clearer:

  • your horse may not be as eager to work;
  • unable to stride out at fast paces;
  • in severe cases, hind limb lameness may be evident;
  • in horses that tolerate pain better or where the pain is less, some stiffness in the hindlimb action can be observed;
  • the back is not as supple when ridden, but may seem fine when let loose in the yard or pasture;
  • horses that does not flat out decline to jump may lose some of their fluidity and timing, become tense and tend to rush over fences.

Although head-shaking and increased tail swishing can be indicative of a number of concerns, occasionally it can be linked to back problems.

Treatment and Management of Back Related Pain in Horses

Although a number of therapies have been assessed for their efficacy, many still have not.

However, feedback from actual horse owners and the veterinary team involved in treating and caring for animals in distress, suggests that the following modes of therapy may prove helpful – either individually or in combination:

  • Rest
  • Revised management programs and routines
  • Medical treatment
  • Physiotherapy
  • Manipulative therapy
  • Natural medicine
  • Surgery

In most instances, surgery is limited to cases where all other avenues proved futile and the diagnosis have been confirmed by radiological examination. 1

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