Question: I bought my 15-year-old Paint horse last year, and I don't know his whole background. What I have come to find out through riding him is that he won't canter when I ask him to, and when he has tried to in the pasture with his buddies he might take a couple of strides and then quit. It seems to hurt him to canter or gallop. He walks and trots without problems. I only use him for pleasure. Do you have any ideas on what's wrong?
Answer: Anytime a horse does not do normal horse things, such as run in the pasture, we have to ask why? And the answer is usually that something is painful. However, finding the source of the pain can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. In your horse's case, it shows up as not able to canter or lope, even while without a rider on his back. If the problem was just with a rider, it would be easy to say that maybe the saddle does not fit and is causing pain.
Things that can hurt as the horse moves faster include:
Feet: Usually if his feet hurt there will be a limp, often when making a turn. But if both front feet hurt equally, the horse may just not want to go forward, jump, turn fast or break out of a starting box. He knows that the fast movement will hurt and is not willing to go there. Your veterinarian can perform nerve blocks where she numbs one of the feet. If your horse then looks lame on the other foot, then you know both feet hurt. X-rays and other diagnostic tests can help see exactly what is going on inside. Treatments can range from a change in shoeing or trimming to injections, anti-inflammatories and joint supplements. See past articles of Ask the Vet for hoof pain.
Joints: His joints such as his hocks or fetlocks may hurt. Again, if both sides hurt nearly equally, you may not see much limping, but when your veterinarian tests the joints either with flexion tests (where she holds the joints flexed for a short time then trots the horse off looking for increased limping) or with nerve blocks it is possible to figure that out and treat the joint. Treatments may include joint injections, oral joint supplements or injections such as Legend® or Adequan®, which help all joints.
Back: His back may hurt or be very stiff. When a horse mostly hurts from saddle pain you will see the problem while riding. But when the back hurts all the time, then the horse may not want to move much, just as many people with back pain find it difficult to move around a lot. Diagnosing back pain can be more difficult as not all veterinarians are familiar with it.
A horse's spine is supposed to have a normal, non-painful range of motion. Due to accidents, injuries or falls, it is possible that the normal motion of each joint causes pain. Try turning your head from one side to the other. I bet one way is easier, and the other way is stiff or hurts some. A canter or gallop requires the spine to move in a different way than a walk or trot, so it is easily possible for the canter to hurt more than the balanced gait of the trot. A chiropractor or osteopath is trained in restoring motion to the spine. Find a veterinarian or human chiropractor with advanced training in equine chiropractic; do not use somebody from down the road who has no training or just a weekend or week's worth of training. They can put make your horse feel a lot worse than he does now. Alternative Healthcare Organization Links has links to organizations that train professionals. A veterinary acupuncturist is also trained to find subtle back pain that may not be readily apparent.
Your horse could have arthritis in his spine and may need more diagnostic work up to find the location. There are now many clinics with specialized equipment such as ultrasound, scintigraphy and large X-ray machines to see inside the back.
Treatments can be tailored for your horse once you know the source of the problem. Chronic back pain often responds best to physical treatments such as acupuncture or chiropractic, rather than to anti-inflammatories, but those can be helpful also. High quality joint supplements can be supportive as well.
Your job as the owner here is to keep looking for the cause when you are confronted with a horse who is not happy or able to do horse things such as canter or gallop.