Subtle signs of back pain in horses

When these easy-to-miss signs arise, look for back pain as a possible cause.
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When a horse’s back hurts, he may communicate the problem clearly by acting up when saddled, “sinking” when mounted or bucking once a rider is on board. But he may also express his discomfort in more subtle ways that are easy to overlook or misinterpret. Put back pain on your list of possible causes for the following behaviors, especially if they arise suddenly:

Portrait of horse from across his back

Signs of back pain in horses an be subtle and easy to miss. 

• Stumbling, especially behind. A horse with a sore back may try to compensate by moving differently, which can lead to awkward strides, missteps and stumbling.

[Click here to read more about stumbling in horses.]

• Arching of the back. Most horses will drop their backs in response to pain, but a few will round it upward in a defensive posture. 

• Cross-cantering or swapping leads behind. As a horse with a sore back attempts to move in a way that doesn’t cause pain, he may have trouble holding his lead, particularly in his hind limbs.

• A reluctance to go forward. A horse who resists, balks or otherwise doesn’t “flow” forward may be trying to deal with a painful back. This can be especially difficult to differentiate from a purely behavioral issue, but until you determine otherwise, assume his reluctance stems from a physical issue and call your veterinarian for a full workup.

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For your bookshelf: Equine Lameness for the Layman: Tools for Prompt Recognition, Accurate Assessment, and Proactive Management

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #442. 

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