Senior Horse Back Problems Check

From Hands-On Senior Horse Care by Karen E.N. Hayes, DVM, MS, & Sue M. Copeland

Just as with your back, years of wear and tear can take their toll on your senior horse. Use the following info to understand, identify—and help prevent—horse back problems in your senior horse. The earlier you detect such horse back problems, the more quickly you can treat them and help avoid compensatory damage.

Mechanics of Muscle-related Horse Back Pain
Muscle-related back pain can result from exertion, compensatory strain (due to pain elsewhere in the body), and/or poor management skills. The pain involves spasms of the large supportive muscles alongside your horse's spine. These spasms trigger a vicious cycle.

Any back injury can produce spasms, and such injuries may not be clearly evident. Pain onset may be immediate, or occur several hours later. As with you, the most common area affected is your horse's lower back, over his loins. Whenever he attempts to protect his sore back, by hollowing it when you groom, saddle, mount up, and ride, he strains his already-injured muscles. This causes additional injury and pain, perpetuating the cycle.

Age-related Back Pain
Contrary to popular belief, your senior horse's back muscles don't do most of the work supporting his back. The lion's share of that load is borne by his abdominal muscles, which are thick and hammock-like. As those muscles weaken with advancing age and/or lack of exercise, more of the supporting role falls to your senior horse's back muscles. Oddly enough, these were designed only to flex, extend, and laterally bend his back when he's in motion— they aren't intended to support all that weight. The result can be the spasm cycle out-lined at left. Also, while it's common to think of a swaybacked old horse as having a weak back, his back condition may have started with weak abdominal muscles. Some of the most effective movements for strengthening your horse's abdominal muscles include hill work (especially uphill), trotting on the flat, and lope/canter departures.

Is your senior horse at risk for back pain?
He is, if he falls into one of the two following categories:

1. He participates in a high-level performance event. These include jumping, eventing, speed events, cattle events (cutting, team penning, working cow horse, roping), Western pleasure, and dressage. Each requires a level of performance that can lead to muscle sprain and strain in the back or elsewhere, which can trigger back pain.

How to minimize that risk: Work with your vet to design a management and training program that minimizes back problems in your senior horse.

2. He has one or more of the following conformation faults:
Small and/or poorly shaped hooves: Too-small feet, contracted heels, and longtoe, low-heel syndrome (a tendency to grow more toe than heel), all can contribute to navicular syndrome. In an effort to protect his painful front feet, your horse may sore his back.

Short, steep pasterns: Such pasterns can't absorb shock as well as long, sloping ones, so contribute to concussive injuries of the feet and legs.

Post-legged: A lack of sufficient hock angulation (which makes the hind legs appear straight up-and-down, or post-like), can increase hind-leg concussion.

Sickle or cow hocks: Too much hock angulation, called "sickle hocks," or hocks that point or angle toward each other, called "cow hocks," can result in hock strain and pain, and thus back pain.

Weak loins: A dip over the loins can indicate a lack of muscling, making him prone to injury at that site.

Croup higher than withers: In a mature horse, such a fault makes it difficult for the horse to shift his weight rearward, over his hindquarters, for collection. To compensate, he'll tend to hollow his back, resulting in hyperextension of the muscles there.

High tailset: This indicates weakness through the hip, which can lead to hind-leg problems, which can result in back pain.

Neck ties too deep into chest: Such a horse will naturally be high-headed, preventing him from achieving a balanced, collected frame from which he can safely perform maneuvers. This can result in back muscle strain.

How to minimize the risk: Avoid buying a senior horse that exhibits these faults. If you already have one, work with your vet to minimize the risk through careful training and management programs.

Observe your senior horse in the field for signs of back pain.
Photo © EQUUS Magazine.

Hands-On Back Check
Is your horse's back sore? Use this six-step program to detect telltale signs of back pain. If your horse tests positive for any sign, call your vet for an appointment.

1. Observe him in his stall, paddock or pasture. Look for:
A reluctance to raise or lower his head. His neck muscles tie into his back muscles, so moving his neck up and down can aggravate back pain.

Hock sores. Some experts believe hock abrasions can be due to a sore-backed or -limbed horse's struggle to rise, even in a deeply bedded stall.

Weathervane movement. Watch for a reluctance to bend his neck or back laterally, in order to turn around. Such a straight-spine body configuration resembles a weathervane turning in the wind.

Reluctance to stretch. If your senior normally gets up from a nap, then stretches by extending a front and hind leg, a failure to do so could signal pain.

Reluctance to lie down, and/or roll. If your senior horse typically lies down to nap, or likes a roll in the dirt, and suddenly fails to do either, it could signal back or leg pain.

2. Perform a tactile test. To check for muscle soreness in your senior horse's neck and back, palpate the muscles on either side of his spine. Press with flat fingertips, beginning at the top of his neck as shown (opposite page), working your way back. Use the same amount of pressure as you'd need to feel your femur (thigh bone) through the muscle on your thigh. Work your way down your horse's neck, then down his back, and finally over his loin. If your horse raises his head, swishes his tail, and/or tries to move away (right), reevaluate the area several times to test his response. He may be sore, or he simply may be sensitive. Pay particular attention to the area over his loins, where soreness is commonly located. Any hollow-backed, move-away response as you palpate this area is a strong sign of soreness. Mark that spot with tape or livestock chalk.

3. Observe his behavior as you groom and tack up. Watch for: Raised head, hollowed back, and swishing tail. These signs signal pain; a swishing tail signals irritation and pain. (Note: Some horses are naturally thin-skinned or demonstrate these behaviors due to an old injury. If your horse normally behaves in this manner, look for an increase in the degree of his behavior.)

4. Observe him as you ride. Feel for:
Hollowed back as you mount, as he attempts to protect sore back muscles.

Stiffness at onset of work. If your senior horse starts out stiff and resistant, with reluctance or refusal to lengthen his stride, he's in pain.

Resistance to perform normal maneuvers. Your senior loosens up a bit after the warm-up. But he greets cues for maneuvers requiring a rounded back (stops, backups, collection, etc.) with stiff-jawed, hollow-backed, tail-swishing resistance.

5. Watch someone else lead/ride your horse. Look for:
Signs of lameness.

Signs of resistance. See Step 4, above.