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Recognising Horse Back Pain - Part 2

Following on from facial expressions and postures in Part 1, this blog describes some movement and behavioural features to look out for.


The following may indicate that the horse has a sore back.

* The spine is made up of a series of joints, each joint should articulate – move up and down, side to side when you watch the horse walking towards and away from you and curve smoothly on the circle line. During a physiotherapy assessment I look for areas of restricted movement that are held braced, not moving smoothly in time with the rest of the body. Think how a person in pain keeps their trunk stiff and turns their whole body to see over their shoulder, rather than moving their spine.

Observing the movement of the spine.

* Do all the muscles move softly or do they twang and stand out prominently on movement.

* Can the horse take full length strides will all four limbs – if the back muscles are tight or in spasm the horse will take a shorter step to avoid stretching the sore muscle.

* Resistance to move forward, being ‘lazy’ to the leg aids, behind the leg, lacking hind end engagement, scuffing hind toes, disunited in the canter. If your back is sore you don't really feel like being super active.

* Not walking straight, hind legs drifting off to one side, trying to avoid using the sore area.

* Hind leg giving way, miss stepping or skipping, particularly in a transition, this may be due to a twinge of pain.

* Stepping short, lame, feeling stiff or not right behind.

* Reluctance to lengthen the topline and stretch over the back into a long and low outline.

* Bracing the back, being above or behind the bit and leg moving, to avoid being over the back.


Pain changes behaviour, the behaviours listed may suggest your horse has back pain:

* Fidgeting and difficulty standing for the farrier.

* Aggression or withdrawal from the herd, and you. Sometimes it seems there is a change in the herd hierarchy.

* Decreased activity in the paddock - less moving around or playing, decreased lying down or rolling due to pain getting up and down.

Getting up and down to roll requires a large range of movement through the spine. If your horse is rolling less than usual it may have a sore back.

* Attempting to bite or kick whilst being saddled or girthed.

* Going down in the back when mounting, cold backed – humping, dipping, taking a long time to warm up.

* Head tossing, napping, pigrooting, bucking, rearing when ridden, or when asked to do harder work such as canter on a small circle. You might think why would a horse with back pain be ‘naughty’ like that, well remember how the person with ongoing back pain might get grumpy, lose their temper and snap at someone.

* Refusing jumps – just like the person with back pain going through the gate rather than climbing over the fence. The horse may also drift or twist over the jump.

Horses really do tell you a lot once you start observing. I encourage you to spend 5 minutes quiet time just watching your horse (let's be honest we could spend all day watching them couldn't we!) and take note of his facial expressions, posture, how he moves and what behaviours he does and doesn't engage in. The better you know your horse the quicker you will be at picking up when something is not right.

Part 3 discusses response to touch and treatment for back pain.

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