Awareness of back pain in horses

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Back pain is a source of poor performance and many different types of horses suffer from back problems. Early recognition of back pain is important, since damage may be cumulative and make treatment more difficult. This information is provided to help horse owners and riders prevent, recognize, and pursue treatment for back pain in their horses.

Causes of back pain

• Improperly fitting tack – A saddle that is too narrow will feel uncomfortable to the horse, pinching its withers and back. A saddle that is too wide places the weight of the rider directly on the backbone rather than properly distributing the weight. Saddle pads can help provide protection for this problem, but should not be considered an alternative to properly fitting tack.

• A rider who sits unevenly in the saddle – This may cause the least serious type of back pain, resulting in bruising of the muscle and skin. It concentrates excess weight on one part of the horse’s back, squeezing capillaries, decreasing circulation to the area, and causing muscles to become painfully inflamed. If the problem is chronic, the muscle and skin can be injured permanently. A patch of white hair or a bald spot due to damaged hair follicles is the most common evidence of this type of back pain. Learning to ride by taking lessons with a qualified instructor may help prevent this type of back pain from developing.

• “Kissing spines,” or impingement of the dorsal spinous processes (Bone rubbing on bone). The result is that the individual spinous projections are pushed together tightly. This generally occurs from the end of the withers to the beginning of the loin (10th -18th thoracic vertebrae).

• Back pain may develop secondary to chronic leg lameness – Hind and forelimbs may both be affected by problems such as hock arthritis, resulting in complex multiple limb lameness. Secondary back pain may result from abnormal posture and use of the thoracolumbar soft tissues when the horse attempts to compensate for the lameness.

Clinical signs and diagnosis

Some common behaviors that are suggestive of back pain are listed below.

• Bucking from the unexpected horse or when asking for another gear, especially to the canter/lope from the trot. The push and lift required for a smooth transition may be too hard for a strained back, especially if the rider is sitting a bit heavier.

• Refusing to stand during mounting. When a once mannerly horse abruptly begins walking off or sidestepping when mounted, this may be a sign of back pain. The horse will most likely resent tightening of the girth as well. A mounting block may help, but won’t cure the back pain.

• Sinking when a rider mounts, a saddle is placed on the back, or the girth is tightened

• Difficulty in negotiating hills. A horse must engage its hind end and use its back muscles to climb or descend hills, so a horse with a sore back might not want to climb or descend hills, will slow down considerably or take the hill sideways to decrease stress.

• Reluctant sliding stops. The extreme rounding of the back required for sliding stops might be intolerable for a horse with back pain.

• A poor general gait, stiffness and abnormal movement of the pelvis and back. The horse may have a shorter stride and lower foot flight arc in the hindlegs, decreased flexion at the hock and stifle, a “bunny hopping” gait or a very stiff, flat-backed gait where the whole back and pelvis are very flat and rigid due to overflexion or extension of the sacroiliac (back/pelvis) or lumbosacral (back) area.

• Reluctance to pick up and maintain one lead of the canter.

• Vigorous tail movements.

• Grinding teeth.

• Dragging one or more hind feet.

• Reluctance to back.

If your horse consistently shows one or more of these pain indicators, you should schedule a visit with your veterinarian to help differentiate proper diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment

First, it must be determined if lameness or another physical problem is the cause of the back pain. If that is the case, the underlying condition must be treated in order to alleviate the back pain. The most common cause of secondary back pain I find, is hock joint arthritis. Injecting arthritic hock joints with a cartilage protectant lubricant and cortisone is a common treatment that will in turn take care of the back pain. Some common treatments are listed below, their amount, frequency and specifics will vary from patient to patient.

• Massage.

• Rest.

• Anti-inflammatories.

• Proper core body strength/conditioning training.

• Chiropractic.

• Acupuncture.

• Therapeutic Laser: Laser light emits light deep into the tissue layers to stimulate cellular energy and metabolic processes which promotes healing and tissue regeneration. It also stimulates the release of natural, pain killing chemicals within the body which facilitate long lasting pain relief.

• Injecting long acting cortico-steroids around the spine.

Prevention

There are several things that you can do to prevent your horse from developing a sore back:

• Keep your horse in proper condition. An unfit, poorly muscled horse is more likely to injure his soft tissue and less able to work under saddle.

• Be sure that your saddle fits properly and is not too wide or too narrow.

• Sit balanced in the saddle to prevent back problems from developing by taking riding lessons from a qualified instructor. You may also need a chiropractic treatment yourself in order to ride balanced.

• Provide your horse periodic preventative maintenance chiropractic care.

Conclusion

Back pain is often overlooked. Use your sensitive finger tips to feel for heat, muscle spasm/tremors, and resistance from palpating the muscles on both sides of the spine from the withers to the tail. You will have to practice and repeat this on other horses to know what is normal resistance and how much pressure needs to be applied to detect mild or severe pain. Some of the above mentioned symptoms can be due to behavioral issues as well. This is where your veterinarian can help rule out a primary medical condition, since early detection can lead to a facilitated recovery. Preventing back pain should be the goal of all riders and horse owners.

Dr. Darin Peterson, DVM, was born and raised on a horse and cattle ranch in Rosholt, S.D., and received his B.S. in Animal Science from SDSU. He concentrates most of his work time with large animals. He can be reached at 701-347-5496.