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8 Common Musculoskeletal Problems in Horses

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

athletic horses running can be at risk for injury

Horses, these majestic and powerful creatures, have long been our companions in various endeavors, from farming and sports to transportation. With their remarkable ability to gallop, leap, twirl, and halt in an instant, horses showcase their extraordinary athleticism. However, beneath their grace and strength lies a unique musculoskeletal structure that renders them susceptible to a myriad of issues.

Picture this: horses essentially run on their middle fingers from the knee down, making their lower limbs particularly vulnerable to injuries. In the event of damage to these precious limbs, horses face dire consequences, including the risk of fatality. But it's not just the lower extremities that pose a threat; musculoskeletal injuries, which encompass a range of afflictions such as joint problems, nerve issues, muscle strains, tendon injuries, spinal disc troubles, and cartilage damage, can also disrupt a horse's well-being.

Among the most prevalent challenges confronting these magnificent creatures are chronic laminitis and osteoarthritis (chronic joint diseases), which, while not life-threatening, can significantly impede their performance and overall quality of life. To safeguard the health and vitality of these equine companions, understanding and recognizing the common musculoskeletal problems is paramount.

In this blog, we'll delve into eight of the most frequently occurring musculoskeletal issues that horses encounter, shedding light on their causes, symptoms, and preventive measures to ensure these animals continue to thrive in their various roles.

1. Lameness: Unraveling the Mystery of Equine Gait Disruption

equine lameness in the leg

Lameness, a common and often perplexing musculoskeletal issue in horses, manifests as an abnormality in their gait, stemming from discomfort in their legs or hooves. The causes of this irregular gait can be as diverse as the equine world itself – ranging from mechanical problems, neurological conditions, infections, to traumatic injuries.

Horses prone to lameness are more susceptible if they have previously suffered from back injuries, which further accentuates the importance of understanding this condition. Discerning lameness in your horse requires a keen eye and a watchful presence. One telling sign is to ride the horse on a loose rein, where subtle cues may reveal the source of discomfort.

If the horse dips its head downward during the ride, it suggests lameness in the front legs, indicating a possible issue with the forelimbs. Conversely, if the horse accentuates the upward movement of its hip, the lameness likely originates in the hind legs. This conspicuous change in their gait can also be detected from a distance as you watch your horse walk, enabling early recognition and intervention, thus ensuring the health and well-being of your equine companion. Lameness may vary in its intensity and source, but understanding its intricacies is key to providing timely care and safeguarding the horse's mobility and quality of life.

2. Kissing Spine: A Hidden Challenge in Equine Anatomy

Kissing spine, an enigmatic condition in the equine world, involves the convergence or contact of two or more bony spinous processes at the apex of the vertebral column. Although the exact etiology of this condition remains elusive, several contributing factors have been identified, shedding light on its potential origins.

kissing spine shown in x-ray

One of the most prominent culprits behind kissing spine is poor saddle fit, a critical component of equine comfort and performance. An ill-fitting saddle places undue pressure on the horse's spine, exacerbating the condition. Furthermore, improper training practices can lead to the development of kissing spine when the horse's core muscles are not adequately engaged. These suboptimal training methods can result in a misalignment of the spinal processes, further complicating the matter.

Interestingly, it's worth noting that some horses may exhibit kissing spine abnormalities on X-rays without displaying any overt clinical signs. This puzzling phenomenon underscores the need for keen observation and regular veterinary check-ups to ensure the well-being of our equine companions.

However, certain warning signs may manifest in horses afflicted by kissing spine, offering valuable clues for early detection. These symptoms include sensitivity or pain in the back when brushing, reluctance to jump, an inability to bend properly, an abnormal trot, and overall reluctant behavior. Some horses may exhibit signs of discomfort such as attempting to bite when the girth is fastened, or resort to behaviors like rearing, bucking, or kicking while being ridden, signaling their distress. An affected horse may struggle to maintain a smooth, 3-beat canter and may show reluctance to lie down or roll, further emphasizing the importance of vigilance in recognizing these symptoms.

Kissing spine, though complex and challenging, can be managed and mitigated through early detection, appropriate veterinary care, and adjustments to training and equipment. By understanding the intricacies of this condition and recognizing its signs, we can provide our equine companions with the care and attention they need to maintain their health and performance.

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

3. Sore muscles: Understanding the Unseen Discomfort

active horses can tear muscles and cause sore muscles

Sore muscles in horses, akin to their human counterparts, can be a source of considerable discomfort and potential complications. These overworked or strained muscle fibers, when pushed to their limits, are susceptible to swelling, tears, and the emergence of pain. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of sore muscles is vital for maintaining the overall well-being and performance of our equine companions.

Identifying sore muscles in horses can be a multifaceted endeavor, as it can manifest in various ways. Observing a horse's behavior and performance can offer valuable insights into their musculoskeletal health. Signs of sore muscles may include:

  • Weakness: Horses with sore muscles may exhibit a reduction in strength, leading to difficulties in performing their usual tasks.

  • Exercise Intolerance: These equines may become intolerant of exercise, displaying a reluctance or hesitancy to engage in physical activities they previously enjoyed.

  • Muscular Fatigue: Fatigue can set in more quickly, hindering the horse's stamina and performance during training or competition.

  • Muscle Stiffness: Stiffness can be a telltale sign of sore muscles, making it challenging for the horse to move freely and comfortably.

  • Abnormal Gait: Sore muscles often result in an altered gait, which may be observed as a change in the horse's stride or movement pattern.

  • Unusual Posture: Horses may adopt unusual postures or stances to alleviate the discomfort, making it important to pay attention to any atypical positioning.

  • Shifting Body Weight: The horse may shift its weight from the forelimbs to the hindlimbs or vice versa, attempting to relieve the discomfort in specific muscle groups.

  • Muscle Tremor: Muscular tremors or involuntary contractions may occur in response to sore muscles.

  • Abnormal Palpitations and Posture: When palpated, the affected muscles may be tender or exhibit signs of pain. The horse's posture may also change, reflecting its discomfort.

  • Lying Down More Frequently: Horses with sore muscles may lie down more often in an effort to alleviate the strain on their muscles.

  • Mood Swings: Discomfort and pain can lead to mood swings, altering the horse's behavior and disposition.

  • Loss of Appetite: Sore muscles can impact the horse's overall well-being, potentially leading to a loss of appetite.

By paying close attention to these signs and symptoms, horse owners and caretakers can swiftly identify and address sore muscles, thus preventing further complications and ensuring that these magnificent creatures continue to enjoy a comfortable and active life. Whether through tailored exercise regimens, proper nutrition, or veterinary intervention, the care and well-being of horses with sore muscles can be effectively managed, allowing them to thrive in their various roles and activities.

4. Navicular Syndrome: A Complex Challenge for Equine Health

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

Navicular syndrome is a perplexing and debilitating condition that affects horses, characterized by the degeneration or inflammation of the navicular bone and its surrounding structures. This ailment can have severe consequences, often resulting in permanent lameness or even complete disablement of the horse. Understanding the intricacies of Navicular syndrome is essential for timely diagnosis and effective management.

The primary causes of Navicular syndrome are typically twofold. First, trauma to the navicular bone can initiate the condition, leading to inflammation and degeneration over time. Second, interference with the blood supply to this vital bone can result in further complications. These factors collectively contribute to damage of the flexor tendons and navicular ligaments, exacerbating the severity of the syndrome.

Identifying Navicular syndrome can be a challenging task, as the symptoms are often insidious and progressive. One of the most prominent signs is a low-grade, bilateral lameness that tends to advance slowly over time. This lameness may manifest intermittently or become more pronounced during periods of exercise on hard and unyielding ground. As the condition progresses, the horse's comfort and mobility become increasingly compromised.

It's important to note that Navicular syndrome can sometimes be preceded by the onset of laminitis, another painful and potentially debilitating condition for horses. Symptoms of laminitis, which can serve as a precursor to Navicular syndrome, include a hoof that is warm to the touch, a swollen lower limb, an elevated pulse in the heel artery, and a tendency for the horse to lean back off its front legs in an effort to alleviate the pain.

Recognizing these signs and promptly seeking veterinary care is crucial to managing Navicular syndrome effectively. Treatment strategies may include specialized shoeing, medication, and therapeutic exercise regimens. By proactively addressing this complex condition, horse owners and caretakers can improve the quality of life for their equine companions and ensure they continue to lead fulfilling lives despite the challenges posed by Navicular syndrome.

5. Arthritis: Navigating the Silent Agony of Aging

Arthritis, a frequently encountered musculoskeletal challenge, often casts its shadow over aging horses, leaving them to grapple with degenerative joint disease and the unrelenting grip of inflammation. As time marches on, this condition can exact a heavy toll, causing profound and often irreversible damage to the joints' vital cartilage, resulting in a life defined by chronic pain.

Arthritis in horses unfolds as a gradual but relentless process. The persistent inflammation, over time, corrodes the protective cartilage within the joints, rendering it beyond the prospect of repair. The end result is an existence marred by persistent discomfort and limitation of mobility.

Recognizing the clinical symptoms of equine arthritis is essential for timely intervention and management. These symptoms may include:

arthritis in the hock horse pain
Photo credit: Oakhill Vet
  • Stiffness: Affected horses often display signs of stiffness, particularly after periods of rest, such as when they arise from their slumber or after extended periods of inactivity.

  • Trouble Walking: Arthritis can manifest as an apparent difficulty in walking, as horses struggle to move their joints with ease and grace.

  • Loss of Appetite: Pain and discomfort may lead to a loss of appetite, as the simple act of eating becomes an ordeal for horses grappling with arthritis.

  • Soreness of Affected Limb: The limb bearing the burden of arthritis may exhibit tenderness and discomfort, prompting the horse to favor or protect the ailing joint.

  • Joint Pain: The telltale sign of arthritis is the presence of joint pain, which can vary in intensity but is often a constant companion for the afflicted horse.

  • Warmth and Swelling of the Joint: The affected joint may become warm to the touch and exhibit noticeable swelling as a result of inflammation, signaling the presence of arthritis.

  • Reluctance to Exercise: Horses may exhibit reluctance to engage in physical activities, including exercises they once embraced, due to the pain and discomfort associated with arthritic joints.

Arthritis can escalate further when these symptoms begin to interfere with the normal structure and function of the joint, ultimately leading to the degradation of both cartilage and bone. This destructive cycle can have profound implications for a horse's overall quality of life, affecting their performance, mobility, and overall well-being.

Addressing equine arthritis necessitates a multifaceted approach, including veterinary care, tailored exercise regimens, and, in some cases, medication to alleviate pain and inflammation. By proactively identifying and managing this condition, horse owners and caretakers can provide their aging companions with a higher quality of life, ensuring they enjoy their golden years with grace and comfort.

6. Ligament and Tendon Injuries: Unraveling the Web of Muscular Support

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

Ligament and tendon injuries, two prevalent and often intricate musculoskeletal afflictions in horses, involve the tearing or rupturing of the soft tissues that serve as critical connectors between muscles and joints. These injuries can profoundly affect a horse's well-being, typically arising as a result of overexertion or strenuous work, leaving these essential components of the equine anatomy sprained or strained.

Ligaments and tendons play a pivotal role in a horse's musculoskeletal system, providing essential support to the body's framework and facilitating the synchronized movement of muscles and joints. When these crucial structures are compromised, it can have far-reaching consequences, altering the horse's performance, mobility, and overall quality of life.

Common symptoms of ligament and tendon injuries include:

  • Pain: Affected horses often experience varying degrees of pain, which can range from mild discomfort to severe agony, depending on the extent of the injury.

  • Inflammation: Inflammation in the injured area is a hallmark of ligament and tendon injuries, as the body's natural response to injury triggers the release of inflammatory mediators.

  • Heat and Swelling: The inflamed region typically becomes warm to the touch and swells as a result of the heightened blood flow and fluid accumulation, further contributing to discomfort.

  • Lameness: Lameness, which varies in severity, is a common sign of ligament and tendon injuries. It can manifest as an alteration in the horse's gait, making movement painful and challenging.

  • Enlargement of the Affected Area: In cases of minor tissue damage, a noticeable enlargement of the affected region may occur, signaling the body's attempt to repair the injured structures.

Notably, not all ligament and tendon injuries cause lameness. The degree of lameness can range from subtle to pronounced, depending on the severity of the injury and the horse's ability to adapt to the pain.

These injuries can occur as a result of chronic strain from overuse, but they can also stem from sudden traumatic accidents such as falls, improper landings, or excessive stress placed on the joints and muscles. Overuse of these structures without adequate rest and recovery can lead to chronic damage over time.

In managing ligament and tendon injuries, prompt intervention is crucial. Cold hosing the affected area can be an effective means of reducing inflammation and pain, aiding in the horse's recovery. However, severe injuries often require a comprehensive treatment plan, including rest, controlled exercise regimens, and veterinary care, such as the use of anti-inflammatory medications.

Understanding the dynamics of ligament and tendon injuries in horses is paramount to their health and recovery. Horse owners and caretakers must remain vigilant to detect early signs of these injuries, allowing for timely intervention and rehabilitation, ultimately preserving the well-being and performance of their equine companions.

7. The Thorn of Ill-Fitting Saddles: A Dual Struggle for Horse and Rider

Ill-fitting saddles are a double-edged sword, causing not only discomfort for the horse but also presenting a daunting challenge for the rider in maintaining balance and control. These saddles, when inadequately sized or positioned, impose undue pressure on specific areas along the horse's back, causing a cascade of issues that extend beyond mere physical discomfort.

An ill-fitted saddle can have a range of negative consequences, such as disproportionate pressure distribution along the horse's back. For instance, when a saddle is too tight or improperly adjusted, it can lead to excessive pressure concentrated along the horse's spinal cord, affecting the entire musculoskeletal system and causing discomfort. This, in turn, can compromise the horse's performance and overall well-being.

Recognizing the signs of an ill-fitted saddle is essential for both horse owners and riders, as these issues can manifest in various ways, including:

ill-fitted saddle can cause harm and pain to horse
  • Thoracolumbar Pain: The horse may experience pain in the thoracolumbar region, the area around the withers and lower back, which often indicates saddle-related issues.

  • Swelling Under the Saddle: Swelling or inflammation under the saddle area can be a clear indication of pressure points and saddle-related discomfort.

  • Hair Ruffles: Abnormal patterns or ruffles in the horse's coat, particularly under the saddle, can signal friction and pressure issues that need attention.

  • Dry Spots and Sweat: After exercise, the presence of dry spots under the saddle, accompanied by excessive sweat in other areas, can suggest uneven pressure distribution and discomfort.

  • Abnormal Hair Condition: The horse's coat condition may deteriorate under an ill-fitted saddle, often showing signs of hair loss, rubbing, or abnormalities.

Equally important are the behavioral cues exhibited by horses when they are subjected to ill-fitted saddles, such as:

  • Walking Away While Tucked Up: Horses may attempt to evade or resist the saddle, often by walking away while tucking their abdomen, attempting to alleviate the pressure and discomfort.

  • Shaking Head, Ears, or Back: The horse may express its discomfort by shaking its head, ears, or even its back in response to saddle placement or adjustments.

  • Swishing Tail in the Stable: Horses may swish their tails in the stable as a sign of irritation, which can be exacerbated by the discomfort caused by an ill-fitted saddle.

  • Pawing the Ground: Restless behavior, including pawing the ground, can be an indication of discomfort associated with the saddle.

  • Threatening to Bite the Caretaker: Aggressive behavior, including threats to bite or other signs of irritation when the caretaker approaches with the saddle, is another red flag.

Addressing ill-fitting saddle issues is vital for preserving both the horse's comfort and the rider's safety and performance. Saddle fitting by a professional, regular checks and adjustments, and proper care are essential in ensuring that the horse and rider can work together harmoniously, free from the constraints of an ill-fitted saddle.

8. Myopathies in Horses: Unmasking the Hidden Struggles of Muscles

equine vet checking for myopathy

Myopathies represent yet another facet of musculoskeletal challenges that horses can encounter, signifying primary damage to the muscular system. These conditions can manifest in various forms, arising from a multitude of factors, including congenital factors, nutritional deficiencies, trauma, injuries, or the ingestion of toxic substances. Among the distressing consequences of myopathies is the development of painful and debilitating muscular cramping.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of myopathies is pivotal for the early detection and management of these conditions, as they can have a profound impact on a horse's overall health and performance. Common symptoms associated with myopathies include:

  • Weak Muscles: Myopathies often lead to muscle weakness, making it challenging for the horse to perform its usual tasks, whether during work or exercise.

  • Stiffness or Soreness: Stiffness and soreness are telltale signs of myopathies, with affected muscles often becoming tense and uncomfortable.

  • Difficulty in Breathing, Standing, and Walking: Horses with myopathies may struggle to breathe, stand, or walk, further hampering their mobility and comfort.

  • Low Head Carriage: Lethargy and fatigue associated with myopathies can cause horses to carry their heads low, reflecting their discomfort and diminished energy.

  • Muscle Trembling: Muscular trembling, often referred to as fasciculations, is a common symptom, indicating the involuntary contractions of affected muscles.

  • Colic: Myopathies can also lead to colic in horses, causing abdominal pain and discomfort.

  • Dark Red-Colored Urine: In some cases, myopathies can result in dark red-colored urine, a condition known as myoglobinuria. This is often a consequence of muscle damage and can be associated with exertional rhabdomyolysis, commonly known as tying up.

Myopathies can vary in their presentation and severity, and their causes are multifaceted. Congenital myopathies are those that horses are born with, while acquired myopathies can result from external factors such as nutritional imbalances, trauma, injuries, or exposure to toxic substances. Management and treatment of myopathies often involve addressing the underlying cause, supportive care, and, in some cases, medication to alleviate pain and muscle cramping.

In recognizing the signs of myopathies early on, horse owners and caretakers can facilitate timely intervention and provide their equine companions with the care they need to regain comfort and restore their muscular health.

Healing with Light: A Ray of Hope for Equine Musculoskeletal Woes

red light therapy on horse to treat back pain

When your beloved horse is grappling with musculoskeletal problems, Poll to Pastern is your trusted partner in the journey towards their recovery. We offer a ray of hope in the form of red light therapy, a cutting-edge approach that extends its healing touch to a wide range of equine ailments, from nagging wounds to persistent pain, and even the most elusive clinical conditions.

Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation, has emerged as a safe and natural means of reducing inflammation and expediting the healing process for various musculoskeletal issues, including those affecting the joints and soft tissues. This non-invasive, drug-free approach has captured the attention of equine health professionals and horse owners alike for its remarkable ability to promote recovery and alleviate discomfort.

At Poll to Pastern, our practitioners are not only certified in the art of animal acupressure but are also well-versed in the therapeutic potential of light. By combining these two powerful techniques, we unlock a synergy that can enhance the efficacy of healing and pain relief to levels previously unattainable. This harmonious blend of acupressure and light therapy nurtures your horse's natural healing mechanisms, supporting their journey back to vitality.

Our commitment to equine well-being goes beyond just treatment; we are dedicated to empowering horse owners with knowledge. Our blog, "Photopuncture: Illuminating the Path to Equine Wellness," delves into the wonders of light therapy and how it can be harnessed to rekindle the spark of health in your four-legged companion.

In these challenging times of musculoskeletal distress, Poll to Pastern stands as a beacon of hope, offering a holistic approach that embraces the healing power of light and touch. We invite you to explore the possibilities, learn about the profound impact of photopuncture, and embark on a transformative journey towards restoring your horse's health and happiness. Together, we can illuminate the path to equine wellness, one radiant step at a time.

equine red light therapy practitioner and horse

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