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EquiSearch’s Ask the Vet: Shoulder Soreness

Dr. Joyce Harman explains how a Western saddle's fit may be causing a horse shoulder soreness and back pain in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.

Question: I own a 5-year-old American Quarter Horse gelding, and he often has bouts of shoulder soreness. He is willing to walk/trot with nice forward movement but he tells me a definite "no" when I ask for canter. Sometimes I can persuade him to try to canter but as of late he is quite uncomfortable, especially tracking left. Are there any herbal or other supplements that might eleviate his muscle soreness? I live in Northwestern Pennsylvania and ride 2-3 times per week if the weather is good. He does get turn out and stall rest.

Answer: When you have a horse saying, "No, I cannot do whatever it is you are asking me," there is a reason, and usually it relates to pain. So your job is try to find out what is causing the pain. He is telling you he is happy to walk and trot, so that does not hurt. The most common reason to not want to canter is back and shoulder pain. Back pain can occur from many different causes, but a saddle that is uncomfortable is a very common reason.

A Western saddle that is too long for his back and/or is placed too far forward and sits on his shoulder is very common. Many Western saddle trees are made too flat and do not conform to the shape of the shoulder and back. In some cases the tree may work, but the manufacturer has made the leather skirts too stiff and straight. Without a pad, feel under the front of your saddle skirts (see photo 1). The shoulder should be able to move freely and should be the same on both sides. In many cases it is very difficult to get your hand under the saddle. Think about your horse trying to move his shoulders against that pressure. Then think about what happens when you add your weight to the saddle--the pressure increases enormously.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Joyce Harman
Photos courtesy of Dr. Joyce Harman
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The back of the saddle often puts pressure on the lumbar or loin area (see photo 2). Then when you ask the horse to canter, he is restricted at his shoulders and loins. Trotting is easier because it is a symmetrical gait, while cantering lets the saddle move more, especially up onto the shoulders. There are many more details to check when examining a saddle for fit. I do have a DVD on Western saddle fitting and a complete book on Western saddle fitting.

In some cases the saddle is not the problem, but back pain may be caused by an accident in the pasture or previous poor fitting saddles. It is often advisable to have a veterinary acupuncturist or chiropractor check over your horse and be sure there is no pain left from a previous problem. Check the Alternative Healthcare Organization Links for help finding a practitioner. Sometimes a massage therapist can help also if they are well-trained (not just a five-day course, but one that lasts for a minimum of three months). You can learn to do stretches, and there are several books available that can show you how to help your horse.

Your question of what herbal formula can you feed your horse to take away his discomfort is a good one. However, if the saddle is causing pain, any herbal formula may only help a bit and only for a short time, since the problem occurs every day when you put the saddle on. There are a number of high quality anti-inflammatory formulas available from companies such as Equilite and Hilton Herbs as well as others that are members of the National Animal Supplement Council, a group that has high quality control standards.

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. Visit her online shop.

Have you had a similar experience? Chat about 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.

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