Back Pain in Horses : By Mel Betts, McTimoney Animal Practitioner
Author: Mel Betts, McTimoney Practitioner
About Author: Mel Betts has a Masters Degree in McTimoney Therapy and treats horses and dogs. Mel also trained with Mary Bromiley, world leading authority on equine sports massage and physiotherapist to the New Zealand Olympic equestrian teams. Mel also has an ITEC Diploma in Equine Sports Massage and is a qualified ITEC Holistic Human Massage Therapist.
Back Pain in Horses
By Mel Betts, McTimoney Animal Practitioner
Estimates suggest back pain affects 17 million people in the UK. Although it is difficult to assess how many horses suffer back pain, it is also a common problem amongst our equine friends.
However, unless they have an underlying condition or have experienced trauma, horses which are not in regular work rarely have sore backs. Ridden horses fair less well because they are regularly asked to perform tasks which put stress and strain on muscles really only ever designed to eat grass and roam at will. Carrying tack and a rider inevitably puts stress on the horse’s back, so correct work in the school, to build the right muscles to carry the rider comfortably is key to the prevention of back pain in working horses.
Therefore pressing on with your flat lessons is important! Encouraging your horse to work with more engagement means he can carry you more easily. A horse that has a tendency to go ‘hollow’ is far more likely to have a sore back than one which works in a good outline. Imagine hollowing your back and then carrying a rucksack around – soon you will be pretty uncomfortable!
Correctly fitting tack is also essential as a badly fitting saddle can rapidly cause a back pain. Regular dental checks are also necessary to prevent patterns of compensation being created by tension due to a sore mouth.
However, back pain in horses can also be caused by a number other factors. Any lameness or discomfort in the feet or limbs, overt or subtle, is a common cause of back pain in horses. If you have ever broken a leg or needed to walk on crutches, you will have noticed how quickly your back starts to ache! It is the same for horses. Any foot or limb pain means they will alter their natural stance or way of going and these gait changes can cause secondary back pain. Although this is treatable, unless the primary issue is addressed the back pain will quickly resume.
Horses also have a tendency to be rather accident prone and frequently slip in the field or lorry or get cast in the stable. Such apparently minor accidents can result in them becoming sore and uncomfortable and as a result patterns of compensation from the discomfort sore or tight muscles can develop.
Pain can also be caused by an underlying back issue. Overriding Dorsal Spinous Processes or ‘Kissing Spines’ where the long bony tips of the thoracic vertebrae are overcrowded and ‘touch’ is an example. Similarly, damage can occur to the supraspinous ligament, which is the main ligament running along the horse’s back, usually following a traumatic incident at speed. Other conditions include sacroiliac dysfunction, anatomical abnormalities and degenerative conditions and even fractures as well as muscle strains, bruises or tears.
Because horses are ‘prey’ animals they have cleverly developed to hide signs of pain and discomfort which may make them more vulnerable to a predator on the hunt for his next meal! So, to work out if your horse is uncomfortable, we need to look out for subtle signs.
Back pain is often a secondary issue following the result of gait changes. Therefore, getting someone to lead your horse up and down and watching the way he moves is therefore often revealing. It will take an experienced eye to see subtle gait abnormalities, but with practice you can learn to spot the main signs that may be evident as a result of discomfort.
Looking from the front or side view, there should be no uneven head nod, which may indicate front limb lameness. Your horse should track up or over track to the same degree with each hind limb. He should not drag his toes or show a higher ‘ark of flight’ with any one limb compared with another. From the back view, the degree of ‘hip drop’ on each side of his pelvis should be similar and he should move in straight line.
Careful observation of the way your horse stands can also give important clues. Is he resting a leg? Does he always rest the same leg? Does he shift his weight frequently? Are his pastern angles the same? Keep a note of filling or heat in legs. Know what’s normal for your horse.
Horses which are uncomfortable also often alter their natural stance, so watch your horse standing at rest. For example, a horse with back pain may stand like a ‘goat on a rock’ with all four feet a little too far underneath him in attempt to arch his back slightly up, away from pain. Some can stand slightly reminiscent of a pony with laminitis, with front feet slightly too far forward, dipping the back down and away from the discomfort. Standing with the hind legs in the banks of the bedding is also a common way for horses to attempt to relieve back pain.
Standing your horse up square and taking time to observe muscle development is also a useful exercise. Any uneven development on one side compared with the other means your horse is not working straight or evenly. This will lead to back pain. If your horse has an underdeveloped ‘top line’ he has not built up the right muscles to carry a rider comfortably and may well get sore in his back. You might also question if there is an obvious underdevelopment or overdevelopment of any other muscle groups, even if they are matched either side of the horse.
Behavioural changes are also common in horses with back pain. Being cold backed, bucking, rearing, napping can all be because your horse is trying to tell you there is something wrong. However, signs can be much more subtle. You may find a preference for a particular canter lead, issues with straightness (or lack of it!), getting different degrees of bend on one rein compared with the other, a different feeling on one diagonal, or inconsistency of head carriage. These are all common issues which can be caused by discomfort.
Observation and behavioural changes can give clues, however, only accurate and subtle palpation and understanding the horse’s reaction will answer the question ‘has my horse got a sore back?’ This is where an experienced therapist can help.
What to Do if You Suspect Your Horse is in Pain
If you are in any doubt at all about the wellbeing of your horse’s back, then consult with your Vet, McTimoney Practitioner, Chartered Physiotherapist or Osteopath. It is always worth getting your horse’s back checked every six months by one of these properly qualified professionals – who will all have the minimum of a degree level qualification in their chosen specialism. Early or regular maintenance treatment of your horse’s back will prevent long term patterns of compensation developing which are generally harder to alleviate.
McTimoney Treatment is a gentle, non-invasive therapy which quickly releases muscle spasm around joints which have become restricted in their range of motion, focusing mainly on the spine and pelvis.
McTimoney Therapy is a highly effective manipulation technique that was first developed for humans in the 1950s and then later adapted for animals. It uses speed rather than force to deliver a trigger of energy to specific areas of the body, allowing muscles to come out of spasm quickly. Because it is so gentle is it readily accepted by animals.
McTimoney Treatment works really well in combination with Massage therapy. This ensures all the main muscle groups can be checked and treated effectively.
Around sixty percent of the horse’s body is made up of muscle. Massaging the horse warms the tissues and increases blood supply to muscles. This works because repetitive rubbing of the tissue makes the body think it is too hot. Blood is sent to cool the area. Elevated blood supply to a horse’s muscles is advantageous because it allows muscles to be cleansed properly, keeping them healthy.
Stimulation of muscles through massage also releases opiates – the body’s natural pain relieving chemicals – which allow sore muscles and muscles in spasm to relax. Blood flow can circulate more easily in a relaxed muscle than one which is in spasm. The muscle can then be better fed with nutrients and oxygen contained in the blood.
Some therapists also offer various Electro Physical Agents which can also be helpful to reduce pain and maximise tissue repair. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation or TENS can provide pain relief by simulating the pain gate mechanism or the opioid system depending on how it is used.
Laser therapy is particularly helpful to speed superficial tissue repair. Therapeutic Ultrasound can speed the rate of healing and enhance the quality of tissue repair, particularly in the dense collagen based tissues such as ligaments and tendons, whereas Pulsed Shortwave Ultrasound is more suited to help muscle repair.
Helping your horse
Introducing a proper warm-up and warm-down regime prepares soft tissue for work and aids recovery after exercise. Leading your horse the last half mile after a hack can help his muscles relax. Turnout after exercise to encourage rolling – the horse’s natural way of stretching – is also helpful, as is introducing a regular stretching routine. Frequent changes of diagonal and canter lead while hacking helps your horse work both sides of his body evenly. Using a mounting block, checking your stirrups are both the same length (measure them they can be deceptive!), plus regular saddle checks, dentistry and farriery are also essential to keep y our horse comfortable.
Six-monthly back ‘MOT’ and treatment from a professionally qualified practitioner, is helpful to prevent patterns of compensation building and keep your horse comfortable and performing at his best, long-term.
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