EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Back Pain

Dr. Joyce Harman explains how an aged gelding could acquire back pain and how to alleviate it in EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet feature.
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Dr. Joyce Harman explains how an aged gelding could acquire back pain and how to alleviate it in EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet feature.

Question:My 19-year-old Thoroughbred has begun to stretch out as if he has to urinate when I ride him. I know he does not have to urinate because I ride him right after he has urinated in his stall. He has been very grumpy lately, and the vet cannot find a cause. Am I missing the obvious here? As I was always told to get up off the horse's back when he stretches out to urinate, is my horse trying to tell me he wants me off his back?

I have had to put a cushioned riser under the back of my dressage saddle this past year also in order to keep the saddle positioned properly and to keep my back from hurting, so I know his back has changed and has become more concave as he gets older. I had this saddle made to fit this horse and have used it for about 4 years on him. I put my jumping saddle on him the other day and he seemed a bit happier, but I'm not sure.

If I were a horse, how would I tell my rider my back is sore when carrying a rider? Wouldn't I do what prompts the rider to get up off my back?

Answer: This is a great question because so often we get messages from our horses but no one seems to be able to help us interpret them. I am sure your horse is telling you that something is hurting, and I am glad you had your vet check him to be certain there was nothing obvious causing the problem. The reaction you are getting with him stretching out and being grumpy tells me he has either back pain or abdominal pain. The main cause of abdominal pain can be ulcers and if correcting things for his back does not help, then I would consider ulcers as a possible cause. Sometimes a test month on a supplement such as Hilton Herb's Digest Support can tell you if he is happier and if his stomach is comfortable.

I would put your saddle at the top of the list as a source of back pain. Older horses do change shape through their back muscles; this is a normal part of aging. Also, many horses change back shape after they acquire back pain. The cycle goes something like this: back pain starts from an injury (could be a slip in the field, could just be years of carrying a rider, could be something that happened while you were riding); then he feels pain and drops his back down to try to be more comfortable; then the saddle fits worse; then the back pain gets worse. Over time the back muscles actually shrink or atrophy which also makes the saddle fit worse.

Any saddle fit to a horse really needs to be rechecked every year or so, especially as you get to the older ages, or if your style of training changes significantly. Also, English saddles need to be reflocked (restuffed) every year or so, depending on how much you ride. The flocking inside the saddle compresses over time and in some cases the problem you describe with needing to add a riser pad to lift the back of the saddle, might just indicate you need the saddle reflocked. (Read my article Reflocking Saddles to learn why saddles need to be reflocked and how to check yours).

When you add a riser pad to the back of the saddle, often there is a space created in the center of the saddle. The problem here is that now your horse feels pressure at the front and back of the saddle, but no support along the entire length of the panel. The next thing that happens is the horse drops his back down some more, due to the lack of even contact along his back.

To solve your problem, I would have the saddle rechecked for fit by a reliable saddle fitter, and it does not have to be the manufacturer's fitter if that person is not around any more. You may need reflocking, or you may need a wider tree if your horse has gained weight as he has aged. A saddle that tips toward the rear is usually too narrow or needs reflocking. If the tree still fits well, but his back has dropped down, you might try a shim system such as the Mattes Correction Pad or the Skito Shim System to help lift the back of the saddle.

The best way to remove the back pain that is already there is to have a veterinary acupuncturist or a chiropractor (who uses gentle techniques) evaluate and treat your horse. Sometimes, if you can find a well trained massage therapist (one with extensive training, such as from Equinology, not just a week or so) you can also remove some of the pain. And, many horses who have been treated, even at his age, can increase the amount of back muscle they have, raise their back up and actually be easier to fit with a saddle.

My book The Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book can go a long way to helping you evaluate your own saddle for fit. Look for a happier horse to carry you into his 20s.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia.

Have you had a similar experience with your horse? Chat about how you handled it in the EquiSearch.com Forum.

Do you have a veterinary question for Dr. Harman? Send it to asktheexperts@equinetwork.com. Check back for her answers on EquiSearch.com.