Every day, we ask our horses to perform tasks which put stress and strain on muscles really only ever designed to eat grass and roam at will. However, 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 find out if your horse is uncomfortable, we need to look out for subtle signs. This is what Vets, McTimoney Animal Therapists and Chartered Physiotherapists do and you can also learn to recognise some of the main issues.
It is important to understand that any lameness or discomfort in the feet or limbs, overt or subtle, is a primary cause of back pain in horses due to patterns of compensation that occur over time. 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. The horse pictured had substantial ligament damage in his back and often stood in a way slightly reminiscent of a pony with laminitis, with front feet slightly too far forward, dipping his back down and away from the discomfort he was feeling. 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. Any horse with a tendency to ‘go hollow’ will also tend to be sore in its back – imagine dipping your back and then carrying a heavy rucksack around on it all day! 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.
Observation of your horse can give clues, however, only palpation will provide the definitive answer to the question: ‘has my horse got a sore back?’ Accurate and subtle palpation and understanding the horse’s reaction takes years of practice, however, I would encourage anyone interested in the welfare of their horse to try and learn the basics of this important skill.
Use the flat one hand to gently but firmly stroke along your horses back in the direction of the tail. Move your hand slowly and use enough pressure to see your horse’s skin bulge in front of your hand as it moves along his back – a little like the bow wave in front of a ship. Keep your fingers together and apply pressure evenly across your hand. At the same time watch for a reaction from your horse. Does he move away, dip his back away or alter his stance in anyway? Crucially, is this reaction repeatable – particularly when you reach a certain area?
As well as reaction, you need to learn to assess muscle tone. Feel the different contours and ‘softness’ or ‘firmness’ of the muscles as you palpate his back. Feel also for the different temperatures. Compare one side of his back to the other. A firm, or even solid, cold area can denote muscle spasm. A warm soft area is usually relaxed muscle, well supplied by circulation. If you have a sensitive horse you may notice ‘quivering’ of muscles in his back on palpation. This is muscle fasciculation or involuntary muscle twitch where you have come into contact with a stress point in a sore muscle.
It is not possible to cover all the signs that your horse might have a sore back in the space of this short article so, if you are in any doubt at all about the wellbeing of your horse’s back, then consult with your Vet, McTimoney Practitioner or Chartered Physiotherapist. It is always worth getting your horse’s back checked by one of these properly qualified professionals every 6 months to a year, depending on how much work your horse is in. Early or regular maintenance treatment of your horse’s back will prevent long term patterns of compensation developing which are generally harder to alleviate.
By Mel Betts, McTimoney Animal Therapist
|About Mel Betts. Mel has recently relocated from Devon to Herefordshire. She has a Masters Degree in McTimoney Animal 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, and has an ITEC Diploma in Equine Sports Massage and is also a qualified ITEC Holistic Human Massage Therapist.|