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Horse Disease Focus - Sore Back

Updated on March 6, 2013
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Sore Back in Horses

Back pain and soreness is extremely common in working equines, and often more common than owners and riders realize.

As we expect horses to carry significant weight pressing down on their backs, it is not surprising that they may sometimes get sore or 'out' in the back. Lesson horses that routinely carry beginners are particularly likely to experience back pain, as are high end sport horses.

Symptoms

Symptoms of back pain may include the following:

1. Bucking. A horse that does not normally buck that suddenly starts doing so may have a sore back.

2. 'Cold back'. The horse's back dips when the rider mounts or, sometimes, even when the saddle is put on its back.

3. Unwillingness to go forward under saddle and 'balking', especially if not characteristic for the horse.

4. Unwillingness to flex the spine in one or both directions. A horse that is extremely one-sided should be checked by a chiropractor. Absolute refusal to canter on a specific lead may also indicate back pain.

5. Holding the tail to one side (note that some horses do this routinely).

6. Lameness that manifests only when under saddle, often intermittently. Both hind end shortness and shoulder problems can have their roots in the back, neck, or even tail.

7. Irritability when the girth is tightened or when mounting. Some horses may even become irritable when their back is brushed or touched. (Some horses are always irritable when the girth is tightened).

8. A tendency to cross fire or become disunited in the canter (Again, some horses do this as a habit and green horses may do it when imbalanced. It is also normal for cross firing to occur when teaching changes).

9. Head shaking.

10. Refusing fences, especially spreads or combinations.

Any of these may...or may not...mean your horse has a sore back. It's key to learn your horse and his habits. For example, head shaking can mean a sore back. It can also mean that the bridle does not fit, that the horse has ear mites, that the flies are being particularly annoying that day, that the bit is too harsh. I've even had a horse shake its head because a thin strand of mane was caught around its ear by the bridle. Looking at the entire picture is important to diagnose back pain.

Treatment

A horse that has a sore back may benefit from a massage therapist or even a chiropractor. It is worth having the chiropractor check the horse's regular rider too, as it's possible for a 'cycle' of back pain to develop, where the rider is out and pushes the horse out which pushes the rider further out. If you get off with back pain, see a chiropractor...and have him check your horse as well.

In some cases, the horse may need to be rested or may have to be ridden only by lightweight riders. The chiropractor may prescribe bute for a period of time. He may also put the horse on a muscle relaxer, most commonly oral methocarbamol. This will help the horse recover more quickly and be more comfortable.

In the case of intermittent hind end lameness that shows up only under saddle, make sure the professional checks the tail dock as well as the back, as tail pain can cause this particular symptom.

Have your saddle fit checked professionally and talk to your trainer to make sure it is not something you are doing when you ride.

Prevention

All of the following will help prevent back pain in horses:

1. Always ride in a saddle that has been correctly fitted. If riding western, always use a saddle blanket. A properly fitted English saddle can be used without a blanket or pad, although I still recommend one unless showing in a class which disallows them. Bear in mind that as your horse gets fitter, the shape of his back can change.

2. If using a therapeutic pad to correct saddle fit, do so only as a temporary measure. A horse should not be ridden in a pad for months on end.

3. Take regular lessons to ensure that you are riding your horse correctly. (Horses used for beginners benefit from being checked by a specialist every few months).

4. Do not work your horse beyond its level of conditioning. An unfit horse is more likely to develop back pain (and also soft tissue injuries and other problems).

5. Rotate your stirrup leathers at least once a month. Otherwise, the near side stirrup leather will stretch and many people end up sitting crooked without realizing it, because they never change their stirrup length. The easiest way to remember to do this is to do it when you clean your saddle.

6. Wash saddle blankets regularly. Always make sure your saddle blanket is even and has no 'tucks' in it under the saddle...these can create pressure points and cause saddle sores. Girths and girth sleeves should also be cleaned regularly.

7. Cross train. This is particularly important for jumpers, dressage riders, and barrel racers. Barrel racers can end up stiff because the pattern is always run in the same direction - making sure to run the horse the other way and going for a trail ride to help the horse straighten out is important. Jumpers should never over face either themselves or their horse. Dressage people should not work on high level movements all the time. All horses, too, benefit mentally from a relaxing trail ride every now and then.

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