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Your Horse’s Back Pain: Possible causes

Check everything from saddle fit to sore feet as potential culprits behind your horse's spinal discomfort.

A systematic investigation of back pain examines the horse's history and environment for possible causes of soreness. If the riding part of your examination really pressed your horse's pain buttons, start by checking the obvious: saddle fit and your riding technique. Then move on to consider other back-soreness culprits, such as lack of conditioning and sore feet.

Ill-fitting saddles are often a cause of back pain.

  • Ill-fitting saddles will usually hurt horses' backs, either transiently, during each use, or chronically, by repeatedly bruising, pinching or rubbing underlying soft tissue or spinal processes. As part of the investigation, have the horse ridden without a saddle, with a different saddle and with a cushioning saddle pad that isn't so bulky as to cause new saddle pressure. If signs of back pain diminish with these changes while all other factors remain the same, that's a strong indictment of the equipment he has been wearing.

  • Lack of athletic fitness is another common cause of back pain. "Unfit horses in the process of getting fit have the highest incidence of back problems," says Stephen Soule, DVM, whose West Palm Beach, Florida, practice includes many show horses. Abruptly introducing horses to more work than their bodies are prepared to withstand stresses the back from all directions. Even fit horses suffer back strain when changes in footing or terrain force them to alter their ways of going. Soule frequently sees back soreness in horses who have summered in New England and then been moved to Florida's deep-sand footing for the winter. Those who are relocated several weeks prior to the start of the winter show season fare better because they can have a period of reduced work to get "sand fit" before launching into full competitive efforts. Hill work can put a similar strain on horses' backs if they're used to being ridden only on level terrain. In itself, hill work is an excellent fitness and back-strengthening exercise, but it has to be introduced gradually, starting with slight inclines or minimal repetitions and increasing the challenges as the locomotor structures adapt.

  • Accidents, either under saddle or during turnout, can cause painful back strain. Try to recall if your horse has recently taken a misstep, landed awkwardly after a jump or fallen within a day or two of the pain's onset.

  • Limb soreness causes horses to assume "protective" postures and gait alterations that stress and produce secondary pain in the back. Painful hocks and stifles are most commonly associated with secondary back pain. A horse with a sore right hock, for instance, tends to try to protect the painful limb by shifting weight diagonally onto his left foreleg and tightening his back muscles. As long as the hock goes untended, his back muscles grow sorer and tenser. The protective back-tensing reaction also occurs when lower hind limbs and hooves are sources of pain. Stride alterations caused by forelimb soreness may lead to tightness in the shoulder-area back muscles.

  • Hoof condition is another potential pain maker. Low heels and/or long toes on the hind hooves can alter the locomotor pattern, overstressing the back muscles. Inadequate traction behind encourages slipping in deep or slick going, at the risk of strained back muscles.

  • Mouth pain from an inappropriate bit, insensitive hands or dental deficiencies can also bring on secondary back soreness as the horse tries to escape mouth discomfort by elevating his head and "hollowing" and tensing his entire spinal column.

Next Page Pt. 3 - Obtaining a Diagnosis

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

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