Neck or Back Pain in Horses – Another Cause for Poor Performance

By Lisa Gift Krauter, DVM, DACVS, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

(Originally published in the Washington State Quarter Horse Association newsletter, Spring 2013)

As we continue to ask more of our equine athletes, more sources of injury and poor performance arise. We have all become accustomed to front limb and hind limb lameness issues as a cause of poor performance. But more recently we have begun to understand that pain associated with structures in the axial skeleton, which is the neck and the back, is also a common cause of reduced athletic ability in our horses.

The neck and the back of the horse are made up of bones, joints, muscles and tendons/ligaments, similar to the limbs. As such, injury can occur to any of the structures and result in pain and reduced performance ability. A comprehensive examination of these structures is required to diagnose the source of the pain and initiate proper treatment. Many of us are acquainted with chiropractic care and/or acupuncture as means to diagnose and manage neck/back pain. For many horses, this is beneficial and all that is necessary.

equine chiropractic

However, some horses have issues that are more long-standing or significant. In these cases, additional therapies are needed to provide pain relief and thereby allow the horse to return to its previous level of performance.

A horse with neck pain can show symptoms of a stiff or abnormal neck carriage, have reluctance to bend correctly in a circle, resist the bit, or have a mild forelimb lameness. Additionally, there may be a lack of normal muscling in the neck, and it may resent palpation or forced bending of the neck. In addition to physical examination, radiography and ultrasonography are useful in diagnosing the source of neck pain. It is becoming increasingly common to recognize that many horses develop strain and arthritis of the joints in the neck, just as in the limbs. And just like joints in the limbs, many of these horses respond favorably to anti-inflammatory medications injected into the inflamed joints.

A horse with back pain may show pain upon being saddled, tend to buck while being ridden, resent collection or engagement of the hind limbs, or just have poor performance. As with the evaluation of neck pain, radiography and ultrasonography can be useful in the diagnosis and treatment. Some of the more commonly recognized problems that often require treatment beyond chiropractic manipulation and acupuncture include: abnormal orientation and impingement of the vertebrae in the withers or under the saddle (“kissing spines”), arthritis or inflammation of the joints in the lumbar portion of the back, injury or pain associated with the sacroiliac joints, and sciatic nerve impingement.

Poor performance is a common complaint in our horses. In addition to lameness problems, neck and/or back pain can be a significant cause of reduced athletic ability in our equine athletes. Fortunately, many new therapies have been developed to alleviate the source of neck and back pain in horses.

Reach Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital’s equine department at 360.568.3111. 24/7 emergency care available. Located in Snohomish.

Published April 10, 2013