Study: Owners Might Miss Signs of Equine Back Pain

Caretakers estimated between 4 and 22% of horses had back pain, whereas clinical examination showed that between 37% and 85% were suffering from back pain.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

If your horse had a sore back, would you be able to tell? Recent research by a French behavior team suggests that you might not. In a recent study, caretakers estimated that less than 12% of horses at various equestrian centers had back pain. In reality, however, nearly 50% of these horses suffered from back pain.

“These results are worrisome,” said Clémence Lesimple, PhD, of the University of Rennes. “While it’s true that back problems can be difficult to detect outside of a clinical evaluation, they usually lead to behavioral signs—in particular, aggression—that should alert owners and caretakers of a problem.”

Lesimple and her fellow researchers investigated 17 equestrian centers in France with a total of 161 horses. The primary caretaker at each facility completed a questionnaire about the estimated back pain in each horse in the facility before each horse underwent either manual palpation by a certified professional or surface electromyography (sEMG) to provide a more objective view of the pain level.

Lesimple found that in individual riding schools, caretakers estimated between 4 and 22% of horses had back pain, whereas clinical examination showed that between 37% and 85% were suffering from back pain.

The researchers also noted a distinct difference from one riding center to another, with only a few horses having back pain in certain schools and nearly all the horses having pain in other schools. The differences were the opposite, however, when it came to the evaluations: The lowest percentages of horses in pain came from sites where caretakers actually overestimated the number of horses in pain, Lesimple said, while the highest percentages came from the stables where people assumed their horses were mostly fine.

Although it’s hard to recognize physical signs of back pain, owners and caretakers can be on the lookout for behavioral signs, Lesimple said. The horse’s posture is important to watch. Recent study results from the University of Rennes have revealed that many horses with back pain tend to adopt a concave posture or high-neck posture at rest, rather than low and rounded.

Owners should also be on the lookout for grumpy horses, as chronic pain can lead to an aggressive attitude, she added. “Horses aren’t born aggressive; in general, they become aggressive over time when something is wrong,” said Lesimple.

Riders can also take a close look at their riding techniques, she added. “If we’re blocking a horse in a high-neck position during training, or forcing his nose into his chest, the back cannot function correctly, and there’s a strong possibility that this will lead to vertebral or musculoskeletal disorder and to pain in the back.”

The study, "Comparison of clinical examinations of back disorders and humans' evaluation of back pain in riding school horses," will appear in an upcoming issue of BMC Veterinary Research

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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