What To Look Out For To Tell If Your Horse Has A Sore Back
Horse owners and riders need to be able to spot the signs of equine back pain. If you don’t know what to look for, back pain symptoms may be attributed to other health problems or even behavioural issues.
The truth is that back pain is a common problem in horses and can crop up for many different reasons. It can also seriously affect a horse’s quality of life and should be treated promptly.
In this article, we discuss the signs and symptoms of a sore back, common causes of back discomfort, and how to treat equine back pain with therapeutic tools, like treadmills, spas, massage, light therapy and/or specially designed pads. If you think your horse has a “cold back”, you can view our cold backed horses article.
How to Tell If Your Horse Has a Sore Back
One of the most common signs that a horse has a sore back is if the animal is reluctant to move. If your horse is moving more slowly than usual or seems to be in pain when moving, it’s a good idea to have the animal checked out by a vet.
Another common symptom of back pain in horses is poor performance. Performance horses struggling to jump or otherwise performing inadequately could have back pain, especially if poor performance is out of character for the horse.
Other possible signs of back pain in horses include:
- Reluctance to turn
- Unwillingness to stand up
- Stiffness or reluctance to move the neck
- A short-strided gait
- Discomfort when being groomed, saddled or even touched
- Tail swishing
- Changes in behaviour, such as irritability or aggression
Your horse may display grumpiness due to back pain in various ways, including biting, backing away when approached or handled, stomping its hooves, flinching, rearing, or kicking. Some behaviours may be subtle, while others are overt.
If your horse is exhibiting symptoms of back pain, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your vet. A vet can help you get to the bottom of the problem and create a treatment plan, which is often required to return your horse to full health.
Remember, the sooner you ascertain the cause of your horse’s pain and begin treatment, the happier and healthier your horse will be! And the better it will likely perform.
Causes of Equine Back Pain
Many different conditions and injuries cause back pain in horses, and the best treatment to reduce pain and restore your horse’s health depends on the cause.
Below, we discuss a few of the most common reasons for horse back problems.
Soft Tissue Injuries
Soft tissue injuries in the back area can cause sensitivity and pain. Injuries to soft tissue may be due to accidents, overuse or incorrect saddling. If your horse has a soft tissue injury, you may notice a wound, swelling, like a knot or lump, or bruising around the affected area. The horse may also be reluctant to move or in pain when they do move.
Sometimes, the injury may not even be to the back. The horse may have injured another part of its body altogether, but if the injury alters the horse’s movement and stance, it may lead to back pain and muscle soreness.
Treatment for soft tissue injuries often involves rest and anti-inflammatory medication. Light therapy may also help to speed healing and relieve pain.
Poorly Fitting Tack
It’s vital to ensure that tack fits both the horse and the rider correctly, whether you’re pleasure riding or competing on a performance horse.
Proper saddle fit is paramount. If the saddle is girthed too tightly, it can cause compression on the spine, leading to discomfort and pain. Similarly, a saddle that fits too narrowly or tightly at the withers can cause uncomfortable pinching and pressure, limiting movement. Pressure should be evenly distributed across the horse’s back, not concentrated in one area.
To verify that a saddle doesn’t create pressure points, first place the saddle directly on the horse’s back with no saddle pad. Without girthing it up, slide your hand beneath it from front to back to check for even weight distribution. If the saddle places an excessive amount of weight in one area instead of allocating it across the horse’s back, the horse needs a different saddle fit.
Also, check the distance between the top of the withers and the saddle’s pommel, making sure you can fit at least two to three fingers between them, both when mounted and dismounted. Commonly known as the three-finger rule, this test ensures that there’s plenty of wither clearance, so the withers aren’t pinched or crushed.
If you’re unsure whether or not a saddle fits, ask a professional to help you fit it correctly.
Traumatic Back Injury
Pain in horses, including pain in the back area, can sometimes be caused by traumatic injuries. If a horse suffers a serious fall during competition or in its pasture or stall, such as an incident where it rears and flips over, it can develop back pain. In some cases, the injury or pain can be so severe it can lead to paralysis.
If you suspect damage to the horse’s spine due to trauma, contact an equine veterinarian immediately for an accurate diagnosis and treatment options.
Horses experiencing lameness often compensate by shifting their weight to a good leg, which may lead to back pain due to the increased strain placed on other muscles and joints. The change that lameness creates in the horse’s stance and the way the horse uses its back can be significant.
If your horse is experiencing lameness and showing signs of back soreness, you should have a vet examine the horse and treat both problems.
Similarly to lameness, improper shoeing can cause disruptions in a horse’s bearing and gait, putting undue stress on various muscles and joints, and misaligning the horse’s spine. That additional stress eventually leads to muscle pain and discomfort in many horses. It can also create distressing spasms.
If you think improper shoeing is an underlying cause for your horse’s sore back muscles, have a trusted farrier evaluate the animal for re-shoeing.
Many people don’t appreciate the importance of good posture when riding, not just for the rider but for the horse. Poor rider positioning can put a lot of strain on a horse’s back, generating muscle pain and other problems.
Here are a couple of things you can do to make sure your posture is good when riding:
- Ensure you’re sitting correctly in the saddle. You should be sitting upright, with your shoulders back and weight evenly distributed.
- Keep your legs in the correct position. Your knees should be bent slightly, and your heels pressed down to maintain balance and stability.
When a rider sits correctly in the saddle, it makes the rider safer and more comfortable and benefits the mount.
Kissing spines is a condition that can generate a lot of pain for horses. With this condition, the bony projections at the top of the vertebrae in the spinal column come into contact and even rub together. The contact can lead to inflammation and discomfort in the horse’s back.
To diagnose this condition, most veterinary medicine clinics perform an exam, looking for clinical signs of the disorder. Diagnosis also typically requires a bone scan to check the placement of the vertebrae.
Surgery is sometimes required to treat this condition.
Caused by inflammation and stiffness in the joints, arthritis can produce chronic pain and limit movement. Senior horses are most likely to suffer from arthritis of the spine, though the condition is not solely confined to older animals.
Joint supplements and light therapy may be used to reduce the symptoms of arthritis and restore easy and pain-free movement.
Pain and Muscle Spasm
Muscle weakness, pain and muscle spasms are often linked. Spasms may occur in the back when the back muscles must overcompensate to support the spine or when muscles are forced to operate in new and unusual ways.
These two things often become necessary due to an injury or weakness elsewhere in the horse’s body, which alters the horse’s stance and puts more strain on the back muscles. Spasms can also occur due to improper shoeing or ill-fitting tack, which can have the same effect as an injury.
If your horse exhibits signs of spasms, such as arching their back or kicking out, the pain may be originating in some other spot, and the underlying reason must be addressed.
Diagnosing Back Pain in Horses
If you suspect back pain, it is important to seek veterinary care. A vet can perform a number of tests to determine the cause of the pain so the horse can receive prompt and effective treatment.
Some of the most common tests include:
- A physical examination
- Magnetic resonance imaging
Once the vet has pinpointed the issue, you can work together to develop a treatment plan to relieve your horse’s pain.
How Horse Owners Can Treat Back Pain
Most horses are successfully relieved of back pain with proper treatment. We’ve outlined a few common treatments for back pain below.
In most cases, horses shouldn’t exercise heavily or compete if they’re experiencing back pain. Rest alone can make a huge difference in a horse’s healing process.
You shouldn’t ride a horse with back problems, and horses shouldn’t push themselves when in pain since it may exacerbate the problem. Give the horse a day or two off of work to rehabilitate.
Intense back pain can cause a horse to tense its muscles or stop moving around, which can worsen the problem. That said, treating pain is sometimes necessary to stimulate healing.
A veterinarian may recommend medications like muscle relaxants or NSAIDs to reduce pain and inflammation in horses with back pain. Topical anti-inflammatory treatments or steroid injections may also be used as treatments.
We recommend consulting a vet before administering any medication to your horse.
Chiropractic care can be very beneficial for horses with back problems. It can minimise a horse’s pain and improve its quality of life. Equine chiropractors use various techniques to help alleviate pain, but chiropractic treatment most often includes massage and spinal adjustments.
If a horse suffers from back pain, horse owners should consider taking the equine companion to an equine chiropractor. Performance horses may benefit the most from regular chiropractic visits.
Active horses may also enjoy better health and performance with regular use of products like power pads, which are designed to massage muscles at key spots to prevent or relieve muscle pain.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine that has been used to treat a variety of medical problems for centuries. Traditionally, acupuncturists insert incredibly thin needles into certain parts of the body to trigger specific points. The triggered points are meant to stimulate the central nervous system to promote faster healing, ease tension and provide other calming effects.
Alternatively, a cold laser, which doesn’t break the skin, can be used to trigger acupuncture points to alleviate pain and speed healing. A laser pen can make horse acupuncture easy and convenient.
Rehabilitation exercises often benefit horses with a hurt back because they can stretch and strengthen the muscles around the spine. Stronger muscles can help to support the spine and reduce pain. With more substantial muscles and better conditioning, the horse is less likely to experience another injury, so exercises are a great way to both heal a hurt back and prevent recurrence.
Water treadmills and dry treadmills are both ideal for increasing muscle tone, but water treadmills have the added benefit of reducing inflammation with cold water treatment. Equine spas are another great rehabilitation tool, especially for performance horses.
Of course, any rehabilitation exercises or programmes performed should be done under the supervision of a vet.
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Extracorporeal shockwave therapy can be used to treat back pain in horses. This therapy uses focused, high-energy shock waves to help reduce inflammation and discomfort. It is a non-invasive procedure that is often effective at ramping up healing and alleviating pain.
Shockwave therapy is usually used to treat bone, tendon and ligament problems. However, it’s also suitable for treating muscle pain and osteoarthritis in the vertebrae of the back. Shockwave therapy must be performed by a professional.
Many vets offer this service, especially those who specialise in treating performance problems and sports horses.
Surgery may be used to treat kissing spines or other back problems. During a kissing spines surgery, the ligament is cut to allow the individual vertebrae to move apart, stopping them from rubbing against one another.
Surgery is typically only reserved for severe back pain or injury and as a last resort. Surgical treatment for back pain is usually expensive and invasive, so most vets attempt more conservative treatments before resorting to surgery.
A vet can tell you whether surgery is a suitable treatment plan for your horse’s spine condition.
Conditioning Your Horse to Prevent Back Pain
Once a horse has fully healed from its back pain or underlying condition, riders should condition the horse carefully to prevent further damage to its muscles, soft tissues, ligaments and bones.
Strengthening the back muscles and the rest of the equine body is essential to keeping back pain and muscle strains from occurring again.
Here are some tips to help you build your mount’s overall flexibility, strength and endurance:
- Ensure your horse has a balanced, nutritious diet and plenty of fresh water.
- Exercise the horse regularly, using a longe line or taking advantage of therapy tools, such as treadmills or muscle strengthening exercises, to condition the horse.
- Use physiotherapy techniques, like carrot stretches, to focus on specifically strengthening the back muscles.
- Use massage products and therapeutic tools, like power pads, as preventive care instead of treatments.
When treated promptly and efficiently by a vet, many horses heal completely from back problems and can perform at their best again, which is excellent for both the horse and the rider. And with proper conditioning, your horse may avoid experiencing back pain in the future.