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Back Problems in Horses and Ponies

Updated on May 29, 2011

Back Pain is common in the Ridden Horse

Horses and ponies weren't designed to be ridden. Despite this, they serve the purpose remarkably well and are incredibly willing servants. However, things can go wrong.

One of the most common ailments of the ridden horse or pony (and poorly understood) is back pain.

In my equine veterinary work, I am very commonly asked to investigate and to treat horse back problems. In addition to these, many unnotced problems are discovered during routine examination for other problems. I can safely say that few things give me more pleasure and ecitement, each day, than seeing the benefit of this work to the horse. I can also truthfully state that nothing I learned in veterinary school comes close to providing the consistent and daily welfare benefits that I am privileged to be able to provide, through the use of just two bare hands (equine chiropractic manipulation).

Why this essential area of horse care seems neglected by the veterinary schools is a constant mystery to me and I deeply regret the couple of years after i qualified, in which I hadn't encountered this technique. Now, 38 years on, I am still learning but the job satisfaction is enormous.

horse neck vertebrae
horse neck vertebrae

The horse's back

A feat of dynamic engineering

The equine back consists of a chain of vertebrae, each of which is specialised to serve its unique function depending upon its position in the spine. The spine runs from the back of the skull (cervical vertebrae) through the thorax or chest region (thoracic vertebrae), though the abdominal region (lumbar vertebrae), between the two halves of the pelvis, to which the pelvis is strongly mounted (sacral vetebrae or sacrum) to the tip of the tail (caudal or coccygeal vertebrae).

Between the vertebrae are the flexible and cushioning pads called discs, which allow for movement and spinal felxibility and which absorb some of the stresses put upon the spine. The vertebrae are held together by ligaments and they protect the spinal cord (the main nerve trunk of the body).

The whole spine is supported and moved by muscles, the largest of which is 'longissimus dorsi', which runs along either side of the spine, from wither to pelvis. It is upon this muscle that a saddle (and the rider's weight) is supported. It is this muscle that gives the horse his 'top line'.

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What can go wrong?

Just about anything can go wrong.

There is a condition called kissing spines, in which the dorsal spinous processes of the vertebrae of the back can come close enough together to cause pain. This condition my be a result of prolonged hollowing of the back in ridden work, with head held high, because of an uncomfortable saddle.

If the vertebrae of the neck develop incorrectly, possibly because of genetic susceptibility combined with diet anomalies, spinal cord function can be altered, with the typical gait termed 'wobbler' resulting. This condition is also called 'wobblers' or 'cervical spondylopathy'.

Obviously direct injury to the spine by collision or a fall can cause a variable degree and type of damage, depending upon the direction and strength of the forces involved.

If a horse slips, stumbles or staggers, his reflex efforts to regain posture can unleash a lot of forces on the spine, resulting in misalignments.

If a horse uses himself wrongly, in his daily work, either because of lameness or bad saddling, the unnevenness of the stresses and strains on the spine will leave their mark, resulting in misalignments. Sad to say, saddling is generally to a poor standard in the UK, with a massive proportion of horses suffering sub-optimal saddles. Owners and riders can spend a fortune in their efforts to make their horses more comfortable but the industry (with notable exceptions) is generally not serving horses and their riders well.

Even unbalanced shoeing can have adverse effects on the spine.

In their turn, such mislignments cause uneven movements which can result in deepening spinal injury or even damage to limbs. The resulting incorrect limb action can have further knock-on ill effects on the spine and a vicious spiral develops. The image shows a horse leaning because of incorrect shoeing and the uneven stirrup heights, which unbalance horse and rider and inevitably cause problems.

The challenge, when examining a horse, is to locate the misalignments and to try to trace their orgins, so that causes can be corrected or eliminated, where possible and the sequence of events unravelled.

What do we do about it?

Chiropractic Manipulation and Acupuncture

Every patient receives a back check, shoeing check and saddling check, to eleiminate such factors from our enquiries or to highlight problem areas.

Only one saddler in the UK has ever 'stolen' cases from me, curing them by resolving saddling issues. Every saddler in the country has had the same opportunity to do this but only one has done so. This person deals with most of our saddling problems.

We identify any shoeing faults that may be evident at the examination. Correction of these allows a horse to use its legs in a more natural and stress-free way.

We use chiropractic manipulation to correct spinal misalignments. This work can be supported by LASER therapy and/or by Acupuncture, as needed. The 'adjustment' is in fact a stimulus and signal to the body to self-correct. We do not move the bones ourselves. Follow-up visits may be necessary. When there are misalignment issues and when we correct them, improvements can often be immediately visible, with positive postural changes setting in very rapidly. The horse's response can be overwhelming. They always find a way to show their gratitude.

We would hope, in the case of kissing spines, to be able to correct the postural problems, remove the causes, treat the pain and the pathology with homeopathy, acupuncture, LASER and herbs and thereby avoid surgery. Sadly, we have few diagnosed cases to record results, since patients are usually submitted to surgery as soon as diagnosed by X-Ray. How many undiagnosed cases have been resolved by holistic input, we wouldn't know.

In the case of equine wobbler syndrome, we have seen a proportion of patients regain a useful role as hacking companions or even as dressage horses, with the help of integrated work with diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, herbs and LASER.

How to recognise a back problem in your horse

Seeing the signs - 15 pointers

The giveaway signs of a back problem are:

Touchy back

Dippy back

High head carriage during work

Tail swishing during work

Failure to 'track' properly

Consistently holding one hind leg ahead of the other

Uneven stride

Uneven sound to foot fall, when walked on concrete

Difficulty in standing four-square

Frequent changing hind legs at rest

Unequal resting of the hind legs

Ears back when worked

Tail held to one side, either at rest or at walk or trot

Standing with hind legs up the banking, in the stable

If you spot any of these, your horse needs help.

Summary

While it is quite impossible to answer a truly hypothetical question, it is possible that, if I ever had to give up any aspect of my work it would NOT be my back work. I love it, horses love it and the benefit it brings, while not in every case, is enormous.

No working horse should have to do without a back health check and necessary manipulation.

Physiotherapy (physio) can be used as well but it will be of limited benefit if the skeleton is allowed to remain misaligned.

Acupuncture goes hand-in-hand with chiropractic manipulation and, indeed, both were used together in Ancient China.

The author is independent of commercial interest or sponsorship and cannot endorse any products or advertising material attached to this lens.

For more information, visit AVMC's information website (over 600 pages).

Chris Day - holistic vet - runs the Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre in Oxfordshire (AVMC) in Oxfordshire, UK.

N.B.

If your horse has a back problem, he is in pain (low to high grade), cannot perform to his maximum and risks further knock-on injury if it is not corrected.

Remember

Your horse works hard for you. He merits some care lavished on him, to keep him comfortable. His back needs regular checking and his saddle should be optimised for him and, although it is important that it should comfortable and safe for you, you are less important.

Horse dozing
Horse dozing

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    • ChrisDay LM profile image
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      ChrisDay LM 6 years ago

      @anonymous: They really do - big time. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Another helpful and informative site..didn't realize the horses can also have back problems.

    • ChrisDay LM profile image
      Author

      ChrisDay LM 6 years ago

      @darciefrench lm: Oh yes, animals have a lot to put up with! Thanks for your visit and contribution.

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 6 years ago

      It seems we still have a ways to go in recognizing and attending to the karma we generate with animals by riding them, working them etc. I appreciate that your lenses on animal care discuss this naturally occurring chain of action and reaction, in this case, the impact on the horse from carrying the rider, without judgment and with the inclusion of solutions and preventive measures. We do like to keep our animals, and they deserve the best care available. Thanks for the great lens on the topic.

    • ChrisDay LM profile image
      Author

      ChrisDay LM 6 years ago

      @anonymous: Yes, and too rarely well-recognised

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very educational lens - horses too suffer back pain.