Equine Back Pain: Causes and Conditions


looking at a horses back for pain

The horse's back is not something simple. It is a complex interlinked network of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. The back's most important and sensitive structure is the spinal cord that runs inside the spine or spinal vertebrae. You can call the spinal cord the superhighway of the nervous system.


In every bit of second, countless nervous signals travel through the spinal cord, maintaining the coordination of the central nervous system with the body. The spinal cord governs any movement your horse makes or any step that your horse takes.


In this complex structure, any pain in the back can affect the whole body; because everything there is interlinked. It can be understood vice versa; if there is any injury on the horse's body, it will be expressed by his back – the horse may arch his back, and strains and spasms are easily visible.


Experts say all the performance horses push from the hind legs. If there is any injury or pain in the back, the horse cannot use his hind legs or will even have less movement in other places on the body. You know that performance horses have high stakes and you may want to ensure your horse doesn't have any pain with preventative measures. Therefore, let us end this once and for all; this article will educate you on how to identify, manage and prevent back pain in your horse.


What are the causes of back pain in horses?

Veterinarians say that 60-80% of back pain disorders in horses are diagnosed correctly. The most important step of diagnosing and treating back pain is finding its cause. It is easy to identify that the horse is in pain; however, it is not easy to find out its cause, which helps in the right treatment. There can be many causes of back pain in horses; some are the primary causes, and some are secondary causes.


Primary causes of back pain in horses

Primary causes of back pain include acute or chronic trauma to the back. There can be many ways your horse experience trauma in the back. Some of them are mentioned below.

woman saddle fitting a horse

Ill fitted saddle

Saddle fitting is one of the most important in horse riding. It is essential to fit the saddle properly. The location of the saddle describes its importance; if unfortunately, the saddle is ill-fitted, it can result in stretching, tearing, or any other trauma of back muscle, bone, tendons, or ligaments. Be sure to purchase a saddle that fits correctly on your horse to prevent any back injuries.


Arthritis

It is the inflammation of the spinal joints. It is a degenerative disease that progresses with time, and the joints become weak with age. Wear and tear of bone and cartilage result in chronic inflammation, which comes with severe pain.

horse skeleton showing kissing spine
Photo credit: Tad Coffin Saddles

Kissing spine

Kissing the spine is a famous condition of horses in which the spinous process tends to touch each other and result in pain and swelling. Normally, spinous processes are evenly distributed, and they don't suppose to touch each other. This condition can develop when the horse has an ill-fitted saddle or if the horse carries itself with its head up and has a hollowed back (not engaging core muscles). The spinal processes that are most at risk are the thoracic vertebrae 13 - 18. The horse may not show clinical signs if it is not severe, but can also have constant back pain when it is more severe.


Injury

Any injury due to fall, hitting a hard object, being bitten/kicked by pasture mates, etc., can result in severe back pain. Most injuries are acute and can be treated.


Pinched nerve

Your horse may experience a fall, awkward movement, cast in the stall, or hit by a hard object at the course of a passing nerve. The nerve may experience trauma and result in severe pain, stiffness, and poor movement.


Secondary causes of back pain in horses

It may happen that your horse is suffering from one disease that impacts the back. For example, the following conditions can result in secondary back pain.

  • Lameness of hind limb

  • Poor posture

  • Extended stable rest

  • Incorrect hoof

  • Dietary imbalance

  • Emotional stress or hormonal imbalance

The list of secondary causes goes on.


How to diagnose back pain in horses?

Diagnosis in the case of horses should be done as early as possible. If your horse is suffering from back pain, you can't afford to delay the treatment, and immediate treatment depends on the immediate diagnosis. There are two approaches to diagnose back pain in horses. The first approach is the physical examination and the second approach is the use of applied techniques.


horse pinning ears may have back pain
Photo credit: Mary Debono

Behavioral clues

If you assess, you can easily diagnose back pain in your horse by observing the behavioral clues. The following are the clues you can observe in your horse.

  • ignores or evades the contact during grooming

  • becomes unresponsive to your aids while riding

  • arches his back and frequently looks back

  • horse may restrict rolling on the ground, or he may roll violently

  • horse may be unable to concentrate, tense, and fidgety

  • horse may pin his ears or bite you while you saddle

  • difficult to catch

  • rear, buck, or sink while you mount

  • horse may resist backing up or develop annoying habits during riding

Allied diagnosis techniques

Behavioral observation may not differentiate back pain from other conditions. In that case, experts have confirmatory methods to diagnose back pain in horses.


Physical examination

Your veterinarian runs his hands over the back and observes the horse's reaction; it triggers painful clues and describes the exact location of the pain.


Radiography

Radiographic scanning helps rule out the possible other conditions. In this procedure, an image (radiograph) is obtained and can locate the area of concern.


How to treat and manage back pain in horses?

Treatment and management of back pain are based on the cause of pain. In different conditions, veterinary professionals apply different techniques. First of all, the cause of pain is eliminated or treated, and then supportive therapies are used. Pain can be managed with anti-inflammatory drugs, but can have side effects causing gastrointestinal issues or kidney damage.


Veterinarians administer targeted injections into the site of pain – joints of soft tissues. The injection is mostly corticosteroids or regenerative agents like platelet-rich plasma. Another technique is mesotherapy which has shown significant results in reducing muscle spasms. In this technique, veterinarians administer the injection into the muscle to achieve muscle relaxation. This condition is preferred because it is a less invasive approach than other traditional therapies.


Medical management also involves the systemic administration of drugs responsible for reducing inflammation and pain. Commonly, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and muscle relaxants are administered to counter inflammation, pain, and muscle tonicity.


Among the all-applicable procedures, the best method is non-invasive, red-light therapy.

Red light therapy, uses near infra-red and red light on the affected area to reduce the pain and inflammation. Red light therapy is a safe and effective approach to achieving our goal. A practitioner can locate and target the specific areas of pain.


Red light therapy as a Natural Pain Relief

horse with red light therapy for back pain

Red light therapy, as I described, is a non-invasive method that has grown its popularity in this modern world. In this technique, the affected area is exposed to near infra-red or red light waves, which help the body cells to regenerate.


Infra-red light is the heat you feel when exposed to any heating source. The fun fact is your skin radiates infrared light all day. Infrared light transfers energy to your body cells, and cells become able to self heal themselves. Sun is the source of infrared light, but it is accompanied by harmful ultraviolet light. Therefore, to make good use of infrared, experts have developed light diodes that have the specific near infrared light wavelength. Exposing the body to infrared light for a certain time provides the cells the vital energy to self heal.


Acupressure for Pain Relief

equine acupressure practitioner touching back for relieving back pain

According to old Chinese scriptures, body cells possess the life energy called "chi or qi." When cells become deficient in chi, they suffer from a disease; otherwise, they have the potential to counter any abnormality in their function. Red light therapy helps provide the cells the very chi they need to self heal and counter the abnormal condition.


Using light therapy with acupressure points can complement the benefits of both modalities. This process is called photopuncture.


In horses, red light therapy and acupressure can be used in combination with modern medicinal therapy to counter pain and aid in the recovery process. They can be used in the following conditions

  • Tendon injury

  • Muscle injury

  • Bruises

  • Arthritis

  • Fractures

  • Ligament injuries

  • Wound healing

Other Modalities

Both acupressure and red light therapy are complementary to vet care and other helpful modalities. Your horse can also enjoy equine massage, chiropractic, and PEMF for back pain. There are many helpful practices for helping relieve back pain in horses.

How to prevent back pain

Back pain in horses can be very obvious to observe or can be subtle. It can manifest itself as lameness, arching, sour attitude, etc. it is important to prevent your horse from painful situations. Here is some advice that can prevent the causes of developing back pain.

You should maintain a regular schedule with your farrier to trim the hoof and keep a check on the shoe. Slight changes in the length or angle of the hoof can result in devastating conditions.

horse exercising to prevent back pain

Make sure your horse remains moving; follow an exercise program that starts with short and easy training and gradually increases its intensity. You should make your horse achieve the desired activity level. Along with the exercise, your horse should be within the safe weight limits. Your horse should not be over or underweight.


Appoint a veterinarian to pay regular visits to check your horse's soundness. Regular checkups can prevent many abnormal conditions and result in early diagnosis and treatment of many conditions.


Final thoughts

The good news is that many horses affected with back pain when diagnosed on time and treated well, returned to their previous activity level. Therefore, you don't need to worry but consider certain precautions and take better care of your lovely horse.

horse painted with the muscles on his coat

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