Detecting back pain in horses

Is your horse trying to tell you his back hurts? Are you even listening?

Horse acting a little testy lately? Sidesteps out from under you when you try to mount? Reaches around to snap at you as you curry along his topline? Refuses to back up or get his haunches under him for a really good spin? Looks like some cranky old geezer shuffling along the riding ring? Flat out refuses to jump anything more; even cavalletti stop him cold? You better listen up because he’s not just being difficult; he could be telling you point-blank that his back is bothering him, maybe a little, maybe a lot.

A person resting a hand on a horse's back.
Equine back pain can manifest as a huge array of behaviors.

For as common as they may be, sore backs are often confounding to diagnose and treat. The “back,” the most complex and expansive locomotor structure of the horse’s body, includes

  • a total of 23 or 24 thoracic and lumbar vertebrae between withers and tailhead
  • the spinal cord running through them
  • the muscles and ligaments that hold the vertebrae in alignment
  • the joints between them
  • the multiple muscles anchored to them, connecting the spinal column to the appendages.

Unlike limb pain, which is usually reflected in identifiable lamenesses, back discomfort frequently lacks a readily discernable focal point and characteristic gait effects. A painful front fetlock produces this kind of limp, a strained stifle produces that kind of gait alteration, but what happens when a horse has discomfort in his topline? “The most common symptom of back problems is behavior problems,” says Joyce Harman, DVM, of Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, Virginia. With only these vague indications to go on, you can easily misinterpret manifestations of a sore back as signs of leg lameness or of a training problem.

Behavioral clues 

A horse with severe back pain usually makes strong behavioral statements about his distress, including

  • evading contact during grooming
  • pinning his ears or biting as you saddle him
  • sinking, bucking or rearing when you mount
  • restricting his rolling and lying down or rolling more violently than previously
  • regularly rearranging his stall bedding to he can stand in a more comfortable position. Minor back soreness is often reflected in generalized behavioral changes that can indicate other orthopedic pain as well as back soreness. Hock lameness, in particular, is easily confused with signs of back discomfort. Still, consider back soreness as the underlying reason a horse
  • becomes difficult to catch
  • develops annoying under-saddle habits, such as tail swishing
  • resists backing up
  • resents lateral work, often in one direction
  • acts stiff behind and seems reluctant to fully engage his hindquarters
  • is fidgety, tense and unable to concentrate
  • becomes less responsive to your aids as a riding session progresses. Certain activities may put the back into position to suffer painful pressures, causing horses to resist performing specific maneuvers. For instance,
  • a roping horse may begin to stop too soon or too late to avoid sudden jarring of the saddle
  • a reining horse may be reluctant to sit down in his slides because it hurts to round his back
  • a sore-backed jumper may produce less thrust, jump with a fixed, hollow back, rush to or away from fences or refuse to jump combinations
  • a trail horse may rush up and down hills or try to go downhill sideways to escape his back pain.

When you examine performance problems as possible expressions of back discomfort, consider the point in the maneuver that triggers the horse’s resistance. Is it when the horse has to bring his hindquarters under him, move laterally, bear weight on a particular limb or reach forward with his head and neck? Noticing a pattern in his objections can tip you off that a physical problem is a factor in his behavior. Now you’re ready to try to localize the pain, first by palpating the back, then by watching the horse move.

Search for back soreness

Examine your horse’s back by running your fingers along the muscles that parallel the spine, noting their tone. We may use the term “hard body” for an extremely fit, muscular person, but hardness is not what you hope to find during your examination. Hard muscles are tense and probably sore. Harman describes the feel of healthy muscles as “like Jello.”

Once you’ve completed the superficial examination, gradually increase your finger pressure to press more deeply into the muscles. Avoid sharp, sudden jabs, which will cause the horse to flinch, whether or not his back is sore. Instead, work your way along the muscles at hand-width intervals, repeating fingerpad pressure that gradually increases to a consistent moderate level. If your horse sidesteps or drops away, you may have hit on a sore spot. Lack of response to even significant pressure may not mean that all is well, however; the horse, instead, may be protecting his back from your poking by tightening his muscles. The difference in feel between resistant-hard and Jello-healthy muscles should be evident. Next, go down the back’s midline, firmly pressing on the top (dorsal spinous process) of each vertebra. If the horse drops away from the pressure, it may indicate soreness in either the spinal bones themselves or the supraspinous ligament running along the vertebral tips. Finally, check the back’s ability to flex and extend. Place your fingertips under his belly and push up firmly: If he doesn’t raise his back, he may be sore. Usually, vertebral or ligament pain is accompanied by muscle pain, but the reverse isn’t true: A horse with sore back muscles won’t necessarily have spinal pain.

Watch him move

Now that you have some physical clues to work from, the next step is for you or a qualified expert to study the horse’s movement. Enlist a capable handler who can get the horse to jog out as freely as possible in hand, and watch the horse’s general posture and the extent of his back action. A healthy back swings in rhythm with movement; a sore back remains rigid to guard against further pain. Continue to observe the trotting horse, looking for gait irregularities that might originate in his limbs. Head bobbing at the jog is characteristic of a horse who’s trying to unweight a painful limb.

If your horse is trained to longe, watch him move in large circles in both directions at all three gaits. Again, note any back rigidity and uneven movement. You’re not trying to distinguish between causes and effects: Subtle leg lameness might be making the back sore, or back pain could be affecting the horse’s rhythm enough to make him appear “off” in one leg. Next, tack up your horse and, depending upon your abilities, ride him yourself or have a skilled, quiet rider take the reins so the horse can be observed for any differences in his way of going under saddle versus on the longe line. The rider needs to make every effort to “follow” the horse’s motion with a relaxed back and seat, allowing the horse to move as freely as he can. Aboard a pain-free back, a rider can sense a pendular swing in the back and symmetry through all stride phases; conversely, he’ll feel stiffness and unevenness if the horse is hurting. Weight bearing is a surefire way to trigger or amplify painful vertebral, muscle and ligament conditions. If ill-fitting tack pokes, pinches or rubs, the horse will exhibit more pain while working under saddle than bareback. The observer can also note if rider stiffness or imbalance might be evoking signs of back pain in the horse.

Excerpted from an article that first appeared in the April 1999 issue of EQUUS magazine.

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