Understanding Horse Back Pain

Back pain in horses can be a frustrating challenge for both horse owners and veterinarians. With a wide range of potential causes and varying clinical signs, diagnosing and treating back soreness in horses can be complex. However, by gaining insights from experienced veterinarians, we can improve our understanding of horse back pain and explore effective approaches for diagnosis and treatment.

According to Dr. Phillipe Benoit, a former French show jumping team veterinarian, back problems in horses often involve a combination of bony issues and soft tissue damage. While muscle or ligament soreness may be the primary cause in some cases, common sources of bone pain include conditions like “kissing spines,” arthritis in the vertebrae’s articular facets, spondylosis (vertebral joint ossification), and fractures. While some veterinarians dismiss hock lameness, poor saddle fit, and behavioral issues as causes of back pain, others consider factors such as discipline, rider imbalance, ill-fitting tack, poor conformation, unsatisfactory shoeing, lack of conditioning, and improperly fitted blankets as potential contributors to back soreness.

Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine Clinic lists several signs that may indicate back pain in horses, including resistance during saddling, slow warm-up, difficulty during shoeing, changes in attitude, work resistance, abnormal tail swishing, and uncharacteristic behaviors like bolting or running away. Specific signs associated with “kissing spines” include back stiffness, reduced jumping ability, resistance to work, temperament changes, and sensitivity during grooming or hind feet handling. This condition is more prevalent in young Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred-crosses with short backs used primarily for jumping, although it can affect horses in other disciplines as well.

Diagnosing back pain in horses requires a comprehensive approach. Veterinary assessment begins with obtaining a detailed history from the owner or rider, noting when the problem was first noticed, the specific issue, and any previous attempts at resolution. A thorough physical examination follows, involving visual inspection, palpation, and assessing the horse’s flexibility and range of motion. A lameness examination in motion is conducted to evaluate the horse’s soundness and gait while being walked, jogged, lunged, and ridden. Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays, ultrasound, bone scans, and thermography, may be recommended based on the initial evaluation.

Effective treatment of back pain in horses often involves addressing both bone and soft tissue issues, focusing on pain relief and restoring mobility. Treatment methods may include corticosteroid injections into painful joints, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation, muscle relaxants, mesotherapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture, therapeutic ultrasound, proper saddle fit, estrone sulfate to enhance muscle tone, extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT), and rest in cases of trauma. Rehabilitation of the back, regular re-evaluation within four to six weeks, and subsequent assessments within three to four months are essential. Research has shown that performing baited stretches, such as carrot stretches, can help activate and strengthen the muscles supporting the horse’s back, aiding in recovery and reducing the risk of future injuries.

Back pain in horses requires a comprehensive approach to diagnosis and treatment. By collaborating with qualified sports medicine practitioners and employing a combination of therapies, most horses with back pain can return to their previous level of exercise. Proper diagnosis, aggressive treatment, and rehabilitative exercises can help break the pain/spasm cycle, restore motion, and promote the horse’s optimal performance and well-being.

By staff writer
Photos courtesy of Lyndsey Lamell Photography