One of the first things I look at when I meet a horse, is their posture. In fact I do it with any animal I see. Their natural resting position can tell you so much, even before I get to put my hands on and palpate properly.
I’m going to talk you through a series of photos of horses that all have back pain.
The first photo is a thoroughbred not in active training, but has raced and is still in a racing yard and being exercised in a similar way. The young mare had quite bad back pain.
In terms of her posture, look at the two coral coloured arrows.
They show that she has shortened her base on the left side. Both her left fore and left hind are underneath her body. This allows her to reduce the length of the back muscle on the left hand side and shifts her weight from the left over to her right hand side.
If you then look at the green arrows you’ll notice that there is a slight dip in front of the withers, although this one really isn’t that bad. When the horse’s core is weak or there is a problem in the back the horse over uses the forehand. Gravity and additional weight affects the junction between the cervical and thoracic vertebrae. This causes the dip you can see. When the horse is strong and well through the back, she is able to use her core to lift up through the withers and build a strong foundation through the thoracic sling muscles that suspend her ribcage.
Then there are clear tension lines over the shoulder blade. This indicates that the shoulders are carrying a lot of the weight and the muscles have become tight in this area.
The red arrow, shows an area of tension in the lumbar region. There is a crescent like shape over the top of that arrow as the tension runs through the long back muscle.
Finally if you look at the two white arrows, you can see that the pelvis is quite angulated and the angle from the tuber sacral to the top of the tail is quite steep. The muscles covering the hindquarters are irregular and don’t make a nice smooth covering. Also you’ll notice, for the size of the horse, the hind quarters are proportionately smaller than you’d like. All these little observations point towards this mare being weak through pelvis and hindquarters.
At this point, even with all these observations, I couldn’t conclude the horse has definitively got back pain. I can see that she is compensating and there is tension present. Once I palpated, it was clear that she did have issues with her back. She was worse on the left hand side, which isn’t uncommon in horses that have raced as there is a preference to go left handed and overuse the left hand side of the body.
The next picture is of a thoroughbred in active training. He has had a problem with his pelvis and was particularly sore through his back just in front of his pelvis. From the two red lines you can see that the tuber coxae on the right hand side is much lower than the left. The gluteal muscles on the right have atrophied and he’s putting more weight through the left hand side.
Problems with the pelvis can be either the primary or the secondary problem to back problems. So its always worth taking a look at the symmetry of your horse from behind.
The final picture is of a thoroughbred again, but the reason I wanted to show this picture is because it demonstrates a weak back and weak core quite nicely.
This horse’s back is very hollow and the abdominals are also very weak. I’ve drawn two black lines (sorry my artistry skills aren’t the best) where you’d ideally like to see this horse develop some topline and tone up the abdominals to create that core strength.
The problem with horses that are weak through both their back and abdominals is that by adding a saddle and a riders weight the problem can be compounded and cause the thoracic vertebrae to close up and eventually cause kissing spines.
One of the ways to assess your horses strength is to video your horse on the lunge and then ridden to see if there’s a visible difference with how they cope with the addition of weight. Pay particular attention on the upwards and downwards transitions as they need a lot more strength to make the transitions. Falling out of a gait, doesn’t count, they should be strong enough through their backs to hold their weight and yours to make a good solid and distinct transition.
Recognising the pain signs:
Some of the common signs that you can easily recognise:
- Stiffness – either they look stiff when they move or if you have a good feel of the back, it feels hard to the touch and doesn’t yield from your fingertips.
- Hollowing through their back
- Disuniting in canter
- Bunny hopping in canter
- Unable to bend around the circle, your leg or on the lunge
- Making a left or right turn causes a physical reaction
- Tail swishing
- Ears back
- Girth Syndrome – A reaction when doing up girths or rugs
- Cold backed – I don’t really like this term as I worry people just think its an acceptable condition, whereas it really is a sign that you should be investigating why your horse reacts to being mounted and ridden away.
I have a few more but I thought 10 was plenty to start with!
Come back next week for the final part and we’ll look at some rehabilitation exercises that you can do to help improve your horses suppleness and strength through his back and core.