Back pain in horses

Back pain of the horse is frequent and is an important reason for the sometimes considerable restriction in use (rideability). Back pain can be a reason for the grumpy behaviour of a horse and its unwillingness to move; the movement sequence is then disturbed and the rider feels the tension and blockages in the horse’s body.

Back injuries are a challenge in diagnosis and treatment that every rider knows.

Often a neurological pain like a pinched nerve or a musculoskeletal pain appears. Both types can look clinically similar. The horse is then often unwilling, no longer rideable and sometimes no saddle is accepted on the back. In other cases, the pain is more subtle and a rider may only notice that something is wrong when the horse performs a certain movement. For example, higher lessons in dressage or tight turns in jumping.

Back pain occurs in all breeds of horses, regardless of their sporting orientation. Horses between 6 and 9 years of age are most likely to be affected. A direct trauma such as falling, getting stuck under an obstacle or getting stuck in the box can lead to back pain. It is difficult to find the cause when neither damaging riding styles nor faulty equipment are responsible.

  • Muscle blockages
  • Chronic tensions
  • Traumatic injury
  • Badly fitting saddle
  • Congenital defect
  • Arthritis of the spine
  • Incarcerated spinal nerve, like a herniated disc
  • Tumor of the vertebrae or spinal nerves

The triggers for back problems are extremely versatile. In addition to congenital damage, diseases of soft tissues such as ligaments, muscles, skin and the vertebrae must be considered. Diseases of the sacroiliac joint, the sacrum, the sacroiliac joint and the croup muscles also cause back pain.

One cause alone is not necessarily responsible for the development of the symptoms; there can also be many different combinations of damage.

The diagnosis is difficult and often the veterinarian can only suspect back pain due to the clinical symptoms. Sometimes the pain occurs directly during the physical examination, as the veterinarian palpates the horse’s spine. Afterwards the vet will look at the movement sequence in walk and trot at the hand and under the rider. The diagnosis requires a detailed and thorough examination in which the pain condition during grooming and saddling should also be considered.

An X-ray and ultrasound examination of the back as well as an anaesthesia (numbing by injection of a local anaesthetic) and, if necessary, a scintigraphy complete the examination. A determination of the muscle enzyme activities in the blood can also be carried out, which may indicate damage to the heart and skeletal muscles. If the CK value, creatine kinase alone, is elevated, this can be an indication of a muscle metabolic disease such as PSSM polysaccharide storage myopathy, a genetically determined metabolic disease.

If no anatomical causes can be found, therapeutic attempts should be made to eliminate the triggers (adjust saddle and riding style), if necessary an anti-inflammatory agent can be administered orally for a few days. Heat therapy, physiotherapeutic, manual, osteopathic and/or chiropractic treatment approaches should be used in conjunction with this.