8 Common Musculoskeletal Problems in Horses

athletic horses running can be at risk for injury

Horses are powerful animals with the ability to run, jump, spin and stop on a dime. Over the years, we have used these beautiful animals for farming, sport, and transportation. Horses have a unique skeleton that make them prone to injuries. Their leg structure has them literally running on their middle fingers. From the knee down, they stand/walk/run on the same bones that are in our middle fingers. This puts the horse at extreme risk of fatality when injury of the lower leg occurs.

Other injuries, such as musculoskeletal injuries, also put horses at risk of reduced performance or out of work completely. Musculoskeletal disorders involve the injuries of joints, nerves, muscles, tendons, spinal discs, and cartilage. Musculoskeletal problems are among the most prevalent problems in horses. Chronic laminitis and chronic joint diseases (osteoarthritis) are the most common conditions affecting horses. Though they are not life-threatening, they can badly affect the performance and life quality of horses. Knowing about common problems of bones and joints is necessary to prevent them at the early stages.

Here are a few of the most commonly occurring musculoskeletal problems in horses:

1. Lameness

equine lameness in the leg

Lameness is an abnormality of the horse’s gait due to pain in the horse's leg or hoof. Abnormal gait may be caused by a mechanical problem, neurological condition, infection, or traumatic injuries. Lameness is more prevalent in horses with back injuries. You can know a horse is lame by riding it on a loose rein. If it dips its head downward, the horse is lame in the front leg. Likewise, if the horse pops its hip upward, the lameness is in the hind legs. You can even notice this change when you watch your horse walk from a distance.

2. Kissing Spine

When two or more bony spinous processes overlap or touch each other at the top of the vertebral column, the condition is called the kissing spine.

There is no exact cause for the condition but the most notable ones include poor saddle fit and improper training where the core muscles are not engaged. Some horses may show kissing spine on the X-ray but don't have any clinical signs.

kissing spine shown in x-ray

There are some symptoms that are warning signs

  • pain in the back when brushing

  • unwillingness to jump

  • inability to bend

  • abnormal trot

  • reluctant behavior

  • attempting to bite while fastening girth

  • rear, buck, kick while riding

  • the horse can't maintain a 3-beat canter

  • reluctant to lie down or roll

More information about back pain in horses can be found in our blog Equine Back Pain: Causes and Conditions

active horses can tear muscles and cause sore muscles

3. Sore muscles

A sore muscle is an overworked or strained muscle that can swell, tear or become a source of pain. Sore muscles can be identified with a variety of symptoms like weakness, exercise intolerance, muscular fatigue, muscle stiffness, abnormal gait, unusual posture, shifting body weight from fore to hind legs, muscle tremor, abnormal palpitations and posture, lying down more frequently, mood swings, or loss in appetite.

horse with navicular standing on his hind legs to alleviate pain in front legs

4. Navicular Syndrome

Navicular syndrome is the degeneration or inflammation of the navicular bone and its surrounding tissues. This disease can cause permanent lameness or disablement of the horse. The primary causes are trauma to the navicular bone or its interference with blood supply. This damages the flexor tendons and navicular ligaments.

The most visible symptoms include low-grade bilateral lameness that progresses slowly. This lameness may occur from time to time or when the horse exercise on hard ground for prolonged periods.

The horse may experience laminitis before reaching to the more chronic navicular syndrome. Symptoms of laminitis include

  • warm to the touch hoof

  • swollen lower limb

  • pulse in the heel artery is high

  • horse tends to lean back off the front legs

5. Arthritis

Arthritis is a common musculoskeletal problem found in ageing horses due to degenerative joint disease and inflammation. Over time the inflammation damages the cartilage within the joint beyond repair which leads to chronic pain.

arthritis in the hock horse pain
Photo credit: Oakhill Vet

Clinical symptoms include

  • stiffness

  • trouble walking

  • loss in appetite

  • soreness of affected limb

  • joint pain

  • warmth and swelling of the joint

  • reluctance to exercise

Arthritis further aggravates when the symptoms interfere with normal structure and function thus damaging the cartilage and bone.

bowed tendon on a horse
Photo credit: The University of Melbourne

6. Ligament and tendon injuries

Ligament and tendon injuries are tears or ruptures to the soft tissues connecting the muscles and joints. Usually sprained or strained because of over exercise or work.

Common symptoms include

  • pain

  • inflammation

  • heat and swelling

  • lameness

  • Minor tissue damage leads to slight enlargement of the affected area

Mild strains don’t cause lameness. Sudden traumatic accidents like a fall or overuse of the joints or muscles can also lead to ligament and tendon injuries causing severe pain and lameness. Cold hosing the area can reduce the inflammation and pain.

7. Ill-fitting saddles

Ill-fitting saddles are not only a trouble for the horse but also for the rider as they need to acquire balance. Due to an ill-fitted saddle, the nearby areas along the horse’s back will receive more pressure than normal. For example, if the saddle is too tight, it will create subsequent pressure up and down the horse’s spinal cord.