back injury

Does your horse pin his ears when you saddle him? Is he difficult to get moving? His behavior may be justified if his back hurts!

If you’ve been around horses for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the term “cold backed”. It’s often used to describe back pain in horses. The word “cold” refers to a state prior to warm-up in which the horse exhibits negative responses.

Back pain is invariably a symptom of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed before the discomfort can be resolved. The three areas you need to investigate are behavioral issues, structural pathology, and muscular insult or injury.

Then and Now

In the past, horses were used for pulling and carrying heavy loads, working the land, and as the primary mode of transportation. Although sometimes still used in a working capacity, today’s horses are predominantly used for recreational purposes. We now ask them to perform: to jump over fences, run as fast as they can down the backstretch, spin at lightning speeds, and stop and turn on a dime. And we ask them to do all these things willingly.

The horse’s back is not naturally structured to take the degree of downward pressure that modern riders apply. The long muscles in the back are poorly designed for such force. However, through conditioning, specialized exercise and riding techniques, we have encouraged these areas to become stronger.

Deciphering the Signs

Horses are limited in their ability to communicate with their riders. That means it’s our job to differentiate between problems with attitude and problems arising as a result of physical ailments. Certain behaviors such as balking, rearing, bucking, ear pinning and tail swishing are all obvious signs of discomfort. What may not be quite so clear is the cause of the discomfort.

Form and Function

A horse’s spinal column is made up of 51 to 57 individual vertebrae. Together, these vertebrae house the spinal cord. The equine spine is said to run in an almost straight line.

The individual vertebrae vary in length from one horse to another. This determines the length of the individual’s back, which is why horses of the same breed can vary so much in the conformation of their topline. The superficial muscles, being close to the surface, make up the bulk of the back and support most of the weight burden. It is the smaller deeper-seated muscles that connect and support the vertebrae that give the horse’s back its stability and core strength.

Signs and Diagnosis

Some symptoms you may notice when suspecting back problems include:

• Irritability
• Canter lead issues, or disunited canter
• Bucking within first minutes of exercise
• Balking or resisting forward motion
• Sinking or dropping when groomed or palpated over the back
• “Cinchy” or “girthy” when saddling

If you suspect your horse is experiencing back issues, a consultation with your attending veterinarian should be a first priority to rule out any other differential diagnoses. With the use of x-ray machines, if necessary, your vet will be able to determine if there are any structural changes to your horse’s spine.

Consultation with a qualified chiropractor and Registered Equine Massage Therapist should also be a consideration.

The importance of a well-fitted saddle can also not be over stressed. If it is indeed a saddle fit issue, addressing the cause will take care of the symptoms. A qualified saddle fitter will provide you with all the necessary information about therapeutic saddle pads that may be beneficial for your horse.

Sprains, Strains and Compensatory Problems

Every muscle, tendon and ligament in the horse has the potential to become strained or sprained. Some of the more common causes of strains and sprains are:

• Fatigue • Poor imbalanced riding
• Mounting from the ground without assistance or the use of a mounting block
• Ill-fitting tack and blankets
• Compensatory problems

Horses, like humans, are prone to fatigue. Under ideal conditions, the back muscles carry the rider’s weight. Once fatigue sets in, the muscles weaken and drop, thereby putting additional strain on the spinal column and its associated structures. The back muscles become taut and tense. If the cycle is repeated, chronic back pain sets in.

Any physical ailment brings with it compensatory issues. For example, when there is a chronic hock problem, the horse will adjust his movement to alleviate the pain. This in turn puts additional strain directly on other areas, with the lumbar or loin region being the primary target for compensatory strain because it’s the pivotal point of the horse’s back.

Six Tips for Preventing and Resolving Back Issues

As a rider, you can take measures to prevent putting stress and strain on an already compromised area of your horse’s back.

1 First and foremost, always use a mounting block to prevent pulling vertebrae out of alignment.

2 An adequate warm-up is essential. It takes roughly 15 minutes for muscles to be warmed up enough to withstand the workloads we ask of our horses. Be sure to allow your horse to walk freely with his head and neck stretched down, and incorporate suppling and flexibility exercises, as well as lateral work and circles, before you launch into a schooling routine.

3 Along with your warm-up, a proper cool down is just as important. Allow another 15-minute walk after your riding session. Hacks are a great way for your horse to warm up and cool down both physically and mentally.

4 A regular regimen of stretches can help ready the muscles for the task ahead. Although stretching looks and sounds easy, a lot can go wrong with a “simple stretch”. It is your responsibility to learn how to do the job right, both for your safety and the horse’s health.

5 Hydrotherapy can be hugely beneficial when treating muscle and joint pain.

6 When a muscle’s overall health is compromised, it is imperative that you take immediate action to prevent further damage. Massage therapy involves specific manipulation techniques to help maintain optimal muscle health. As a Registered Equine Massage Therapist, I have yet to treat a horse with a problem that doesn’t ultimately show up in his back. Massage therapy plays an important and necessary role in preventing and treating many soft tissue injuries that could result in a horse being labeled “cold backed”. A qualified equine massage therapist will be able to structure a care program that addresses your horse’s individual needs.

There are no easy answers when it comes to the health of your horse, but there are many options to choose from. As an educated horse person, you can make informed choices about the type of care your horse requires. Read up on the literature, ask questions and choose your professional caregivers wisely.

Jessica McLoughlin graduated from D’Arcy Lane School of Equine Massage Therapy in London, ON in 2003. She is an active member of the International Federation of Registered Equine Massage Therapists and completed a four-month internship — followed by a one-year work term — at the Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center (KESMARC) in Lexington. Jess returned to Nova Scotia as an enthusiastic advocate for equine rehabilitation. She established Atlantic Equine Massage in 2007, and is now the Maritimes’ only registered equine massage therapist, serving Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. (902) 275-7972