Many equine athletes train extensively for their discipline and compete to win. Their musculoskeletal systems are exposed to considerable stress and strain in the course of training and competing. Many musculoskeletal issues that some of these athletes develop, that can negatively affect training and showing, involve their feet and limbs. Numerous competitive equine athletes also develop muscle soreness, often affecting their backs. A horse with a sore back is usually unable to compete at maximal capacity, and can also often be very difficult to effectively treat, especially in a short period of time. Obtaining an accurate diagnosis is important in helping get affected horses treated properly and back at their intended use.
Actions of the Back Sore Horse
There is a long list of behaviors and actions that back sore horses might exhibit in an attempt to accommodate their problem. Many of these are evasive behaviors relative to the discipline in which they compete. Jumpers may balk or refuse jumps, cutting horses may stop poorly, and barrel racing horses may run off at barrels rather than making their turns. Their attitudes often change, and they may pin their ears while being saddled or being worked. Many swish their tails and act as if something is really bothering them. Some will buck under saddle as their means of showing they have a problem. Again, the list of potential clinical signs is long, and a given horse will only display some of these signs. Recognizing there has been a change in performance and/or attitude, without any overt signs of lameness affecting a limb, suggests an examination for back soreness is warranted. In some cases, this further examination will include observing the horse being saddled, as well as watching the horse being ridden. Poor saddle fit can cause back soreness and a saddle fit expert may need to become involved in certain cases.
Evaluation of the Back for Soreness
The rider is usually the first one to recognize an attitude, saddling or performance change in their horse. Gently running fingers down the broad muscles of the back can identify muscle spasms if they are present. Overt spasms are not often evident however so generally one is looking for an evasive response to increased pressure. We have to be careful, many horses will act evasively to suddenly applied, aggressive finger pressure, making the observed response meaningless. Gradually increasing the amount of finger pressure is preferred, with observation for areas where such pressure leads to the horse dipping its back in avoidance.
Those who do acupuncture and/or chiropractic work on horses will often use focal finger pressure, or use a blunt ended instrument (like the smooth ended cap from a hypodermic needle) to map out trigger point sensitivity along the back as well as over the hindquarters. In some cases this is simply a muscle trigger point assessment, or in the case of acupuncture a more specific mapping along acupuncture meridian lines. In all cases it is an attempt to get an idea of extent and topography of soreness or trigger point sensitivity. Those who do chiropractic/osteopathic work will often also complete a motion palpation of the back to assess mobility of the different areas of the back. This palpation generally looks for areas where motion is restricted, and muscle guarding is taking place.
It is also important to ensure that lameness affecting one or more limbs is not also present. This will require involvement of a veterinarian proficient in doing lameness examinations. This person will also have experience in evaluating back issues. The back sore horse may have a primary back problem. Often however back soreness can develop secondarily to lameness issues affecting the feet or the limbs. Concentrating on the back alone in such cases will not resolve the problem. In selected cases, ultrasonography may also be helpful in localizing the affected muscles. Thermography and nuclear scintigraphy may also provide useful information in some cases.
Each case will need to be assessed and treated based on clinical findings and other variables. If lameness is present and the back soreness is considered secondary, addressing the lameness issue usually leads to complete resolution of the back soreness problem. If the soreness seems restricted to saddle contact points, someone experienced in that area will also need to be included in the treatment plan. Many individuals offer “equine body work” services but unfortunately that title gives no characterization of level of training, experience or ability. Obtaining quality references can help guide the decision making regarding those individuals. This includes the areas of massage, as well as acupuncture, chiropractic and physical therapy. Each case will require its own plan for return to exercise and performance.