Overlooked Sources of Back Pain in Horses
Horses and humans might seem like a match made in heaven, but truth is, these animals were never designed to carry us on their backs. Many do, of course, and nobly carry out whatever tasks we ask of them, but some are labeled “problem horses” when their behavior suddenly changes for the worse.
In my experience, horses don’t suddenly become “naughty” though. There’s usually a physiological reason for the behavior change. One such issue is back pain.
Horses with back pain may show a variety of symptoms, including:
- Bucking, rearing, spooking, or other types of “bad” behavior;
- Refusal to engage the hindquarters;
- Refusal to collect;
- Sensitivity to grooming;
- Trouble holding feet up for farrier;
- Difficulty with flying lead changes;
- Stumbling or tripping;
- Resistance to lateral work or backing up;
- Tail swishing; and/or
- Other sudden changes in behavior.
Admittedly, back pain can be perplexing to pinpoint and sometimes, difficult to treat. It can also be a symptom of a larger problem. Worst case scenario, your horse could have fractured withers or vertebrae or a condition known as “Kissing Spines”, an impingement or over-riding dorsal spinous processes causing chronic bone on bone rubbing. He could also be suffering from discospondylitis (inflammation of an intervertebral disc) or perhaps, arthritis in the joints of the spine. However, it might be something a little easier to treat.
There are a number of conditions which can affect the equine spine, including the more serious ones listed above, but here are a few which might be overlooked:
Magnesium Deficiency: This is a common nutrient deficiency, and fortunately, a fairly easy one to fix. Inadequate magnesium can lead to a number of problems—tight and sore back muscles, being one of them. Adding a magnesium supplement might make a big difference for your horse. Adding too much magnesium can cause diarrhea, however, so you will need to find a happy medium.
Improper Hoof Care: Imbalanced hooves or toes left too long may ultimately affect the joints and possibly, the spine and surrounding muscles—especially under the stress of hard work or competition. Find a farrier or trimmer who can correct this problem.
Joint Problems: Horses will learn to compensate for injured or sore joints, often transferring problems to other parts of the body, including the back. If your horse has deterioration in the hocks, stifles, or “knees”, consider joint supplements, complementary therapies, or as a last resort, joint injections, to make him more comfortable.
Ill-Fitting Tack: Tack that doesn’t fit properly is a common and easily overlooked source of back pain for many horses. Check for pinching, odd sweat patterns, or signs of rubbing from your saddle. If possible, hire a trained saddle fitter to help you find the right tack.
Mouth Pain: Dental problems, certain bits, or even riders with “hard” hands can lead to secondary back soreness. The horse will often tried to escape discomfort in the mouth by raising his head and “hollowing out” his back, which can lead to tense and sore muscles in the neck and back.
Weight of the Rider: This is a touchy subject, but one that still needs to be addressed. Horses, after all, have their limitations, especially if being asked to perform in speed events, endurance, or jumping. Some researchers believe a 10% rider-to-horse ratio is best for optimum performance, with up to 15% being satisfactory. However at a 20% ratio or more, the weight of the rider may have a detrimental effect on the horse. This is new research and their is still some debate on what ratios are acceptable, but this is definitely something we need to consider, especially if our horse is already showing symptoms of back pain.
If you believe your horse has back pain, a full veterinary exam is advisable, but it’s a good idea to consider all possible sources of back pain before choosing a treatment plan.
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