Your horse seems to have an odd stiffness. He’s dragging his hind feet and seems reluctant to move off. You figure he’s lame. You’re probably right — if the symptom is worse on one side. But if it’s even and the horse also resents having his belly/flanks touched and/or he shows other behavior changes consider abdominal pain.
With chronic and low-grade abdominal pain, symptoms can be subtle and easily confused with other problems. Horses in any kind of pain often appear preoccupied and disinterested in their surroundings, which occurs because the horse is distracted by ��� and focused on — the discomfort.
The behavior may come and go, as pain waxes and wanes for various reasons. For example, the horse may eat well but develop this preoccupation and distraction an hour or more after eating. And there are other subtle symptoms of abdominal pain to be aware of, too:
Irritability: We all tend to be irritable when we hurt, and the horse is no exception. If your horse has his ears pinned more often than pricked, acts unusually surly, often stands with his head in the back corner, suspect pain.
Sensitivity to brushing, touch: Horses with abdominal pain often dislike being touched or brushed, especially on the belly and flanks.
Playing with water: Horses with abdominal discomfort will sometimes make multiple trips to the water bucket but end up just moving the water around or standing with his nose just barely touching the water without drinking much.
Defecation: Changes in the character of the manure aren’t necessarily present, but a common sign is that the horse passes manure in smaller amounts than normal each time he defecates and may frequently stand with his tail slightly elevated, as if he is considering passing manure.
Changes in stance: Abdominal pain may result in the horse showing variable degrees of the parked-out/stretched-out stance seen in a more exaggerated way with severe abdominal pain.
Changes in urination: Abdominal pain may make the horse reluctant to bear down and push in the manner needed to empty the bladder efficiently and rapidly. This is often seen in association with hind-end stiffness/dragging, back stiffness, reluctance to move on.
Hind-end stiffness, toe dragging and knuckling over: This is related to abdominal wall tenseness and “splinting.” With gut pain, the abdominal wall is often more rigid as the horse attempts to guard against movement of the abdomen or its contents. This is easily mistaken for a hind lameness. A horse showing this sign will also be tight through his back, and reluctant to move off and/or trot.
Back sensitivity/“cold backed”: The abdominal muscle tension these horses often show also makes them hold their back stiffly. If applying downward pressure on the back, the horse will brace up against you to avoid moving his abdomen.
Reluctance to work: In addition to just plain not feeling well and not being terribly interested in work for that reason, the abdominal stiffness and guarding specifically makes the horse reluctant to move off, especially at the trot.
The horse improves on Banamine but not bute: Banamine works well on intestinal pain and bute poorly. If the horse responds poorly to both consider an ulcer (see October 2000).
Of course, any of these symptoms could have other causes. Sorting through them takes careful observation and a vet exam. However, your awareness of these symptoms may head off a serious ailment.