Your horse's back is like a bridge, spanning the expanse between his shoulder/front leg and his pelvis/hind leg. However, instead of a solidly supported structure like the Golden Gate, it's more like a rope bridge. It's anchored at either end, but aligned and supported along its length only by the long muscle bellies running parallel to it, and strong, short ligaments connecting the vertebrae.
One factor in back problems is weight. The horse's own internal structures are heavy for him to support, let alone when you add the weight of a rider. But one factor that is entirely within our control is the stress of carrying extra fat.
If you have ever had a back problem yourself, you know the difference weight loss can make. The forces are oriented differently in an animal that moves on all fours, but the basic principle of extra weight causing more stress is the same. A key factor in helping to prevent and treat back pain is to make sure the horse isn't overweight.
Consider This . . .
• A horse with back pain may resist picking up one or both back legs for cleaning the feet or farrier work.
• Back pain may be due to lameness elsewhere in the body.
• You may think a horse battling back pain has tied up.
• Muscle relaxants, like Robaxin, may help during flare-ups.
• Weight loss can help an overweight horse with back pain.
One of the first recognized primary causes of back pain was dorsal impingement or "kissing vertebrae"-when the high spines on the tops of the vertebral bodies were touching and/or fused together. Typically found along the thoracic spine in the withers area and under the saddle, it was blamed on trauma or poor saddle fit and was easy to see on good X-rays. This problem may also be found farther back along the spine, especially in jumpers and racehorses who put their spines through more exaggerated movements than other horses.
Obviously, a poorly fitted saddle and/or bad riding can cause back pain. You should always work to eliminating bad saddle fit by either restuffing the saddle to fit the horse or replacing it entirely. Always use a good saddle pad, even a therapeutic one if needed, such as if your horse is either sensitive in his back area, in work for long periods of time or subject to a lot of uneven pressure from the rider or activity (see article on page 8 for Western saddles; our English saddle pad article will appear in a future issue). And, of course, we all should ensure good riding through lessons and practice. These are all basic good horsemanship. In this article, we're going to assume you've eliminated these potential causes for back pain and are looking for other sources.