Solving Equine Back Pain

A recent survey published in England revealed that 70% of all sport horses sustain at least one musculo-skeletal disorder in any training season. In the past few years, horse health professionals have expressed the need for better and more definitive ways to treat back soreness in horses and to be able to differentiate between lameness caused by injury to the limbs and lameness caused by altered stance and movement due to pain in the pelvis, spine, or neck, and the attending muscles and ligaments .

As testimony to the high demand for new information in this area, more than 100 veterinarians and therapists attended a two-day in-depth seminar in October 1999 on the equine back as part of the Second Annual Sports Medicine Conference, hosted by Rochester Equine Clinic in Rochester, N.H.

Featured speaker was Professor Jean-Marie Denoix, DVM, PhD, of the National Veterinary College at Alfort in France. Denoix presented a series of more than 100 anatomy slides showing the skeletal and muscular structure of different regions of the horse’s back. These individual areas later were linked with specific problems related to the job a horse has to do (such as jumping), the effects of rider imbalance and ill-fitting tack, and the contribution of poor conformation, unsatisfactory shoeing, and lack of conditioning for the task.

Denoix has developed ultrasound and radiographic techniques for isolating structures in the back in hopes of finding lesions or skeletal abnormality and to pinpoint the the precise source of pain in the horse’s back (which might not be the same area where soreness or limited movement is most evident). He said the non-specific nature of most back pain in horses is stress-related and chronic rather than caused by an acute injury that begs to be diagnosed. Key to the complexity of the equine back was Denoix’ concise observation that the horse’s back contains the largest muscles and the smallest joints in the horse.

An important factor in the diagnosis of back pain is knowledge of previous injury to the horse. Many horses have sparse medical records from their early years, making it difficult for owners to know whether pain is a new condition or a recurrent theme.

Speaker Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, is the McPhail Chair in Dressage Related Sports Medicine at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and director of the new Center for Equine Performance. Clayton’s lecture focused on movement in the horse and how sophisticated gait analysis can identify abnormal gaits in the horse. Force-plate analysis in Clayton’s laboratory, coupled with high-speed video, can be used to identify patterns in rider weight distribution, saddle position, or the affects of different tack.

Joyce Harman, DVM, of Washington, Va., a leading authority in holistic veterinary medicine, states that the horse’s back is not independent of the rest of the horse and cannot be treated without evaluating the entire animal, its management, its training, and its history. Signs of back pain identified by Harman occur when a horse objects to being saddled, is slow to warm up, becomes difficult to shoe, develops a bad attitude, resists works, displays abnormal tail swishing, and initiates uncharacteristic behavior (such as bolting or running away).

Another source of minor pain mentioned was poorly fitting blankets, which restrict the neck or chest. Harman noted that a horse’s blanket size can change from year to year and should be carefully assessed.

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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