Man-made Horse Back Problems

Are you a pain in your old horse's back? Cold water, poor grooming and improper hoof angles are just some of the things that might be making your senior horse ouchy. Excerpted from Hands-On Senior Horse Care.

You could be contributing to--or even causing--your senior horse's back pain if you're guilty of any of the following practices:

  • Putting cold water on a hot back. This can lead to muscle contraction or spasms. Use tepid or sun-warmed water instead.
  • Inadequate warm-up/cool-down. Cold muscles aren't as elastic and supple as warmed up ones, so can be more easily injured; improper cool-down can lead to muscle damage and stiffness. See "Age-Adjusted Exercise," page 340.
  • Poorly fitting saddle and/or inadequate or dirty padding. A poor-fitting saddle applies pressure points along your horse's back; inadequate or dirty padding can irritate those points and/or cause sores. Use adequate pad-ding (wool is a natural shock-absorber, breathes well, and wicks away moisture), and wash pads weekly.
  • Leaving a too-tight cinch/girth on too long. The unending pressure can sore your horse's back, especially when you add your weight. This is a particular problem on mutton- or flat-withered horses, on whom the cinch/girth needs to be snugged down. When on long rides, periodically dismount and loosen the cinch/girth, to give your horse's back a break. (Don't forget to tighten it before remounting!)
  • Poor grooming habits. A dirty horse provides a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus, and acts as a magnet for biting insects. Compromised skin can lead to back irritation and pain. Pads pick up dirt and can cause/irritate pressure points. Groom your horse daily, paying particular attention to his saddle and girth/cinch areas before and after you ride.
  • Poor shoeing. Improper front-foot angles can result in such problems as navicular area soreness; improper sole protection; and general foot soreness. Too low a heel angle in the hind feet can lead to hock problems; unbalanced feet can cause hock and stifle pain. Any and all will be exacerbated by the wear and tear of age. And all can eventually cause compensatory back problems. Choose a top-quality farrier and vet who will work together to determine the best shoeing approach.
  • Unbalanced diet. Vitamin E and/or selenium deficiencies can contribute to muscle soreness. A diet too high in protein and/or carbohydrates also can adversely affect muscle function. Have your vet evaluate your horse's ration?based on his age and your region--to be sure it suits his specific needs.
  • Turning out a fresh horse. If you keep your senior stalled, and turn him out when he's fresh, his stiff muscles could be subject to sprains and strains from sudden movements such as stops and bucks. Instead, turn him out after you've ridden or longed him, so his muscles are supple and warm before he plays.
  • Inadequate dental care and/or bitting problems. Mouth pain and irritation will cause your senior citizen to tense his jaw, which in turn causes him to stiffen his neck and back muscles, increasing the likelihood of injury. Schedule regular dental care (see "Top Priority--Tooth Care," page 332) and work with your vet, equine dentist, or a reputable trainer to be sure your bit suits your horse's mouth conformation.
  • Improper training/riding techniques. If your senior has made it to his twilight years without having learned the basics of yielding to the bit or collection?and you still ride him?he'll be unbalanced under saddle, and resistant, putting him at risk for injury. Incorporate suppling, flexion, and collection into your senior horse's work routine, and invest in lessons with a reputable trainer. You could lengthen your oldster's productive years by doing so. These tips are excerpted from Hands-On Senior Horse Care. To order, visit or call 1-800-952-5813.