Let’s face it: Horses weren’t designed to carry humans on their backs. Therefore, a horse’s spinal health is crucial to his function as a riding horse.

In this article, Moira Nusbaum, DVM, of PenMar Equine, in Myersville, Maryland, shares common issues owners encounter with their horses’ spine and appropriate treatments.

“The different parts of the spine serve different forms and functions,” she said during the Society of Master Saddlers Introduction to Saddle Fitting course, held May 1-2, in Hagerstown, Maryland. “To say that ‘a vertebrae is a vertebrae’ is simply not true.”

The cervical (neck), thoracic (from the withers to the last rib), and lumbar (from the last rib to the pelvis) vertebrae and their various muscle groups create a remarkable amount of spinal flexion and extension, she added.

With this remarkable amount of movement comes many potential physical issues originating in the horse’s back. Common owner complaints that Nusbaum said often relate to back problems include:

  • Bucking;
  • Rearing;
  • A horse not “using himself”;
  • A lack of hind-end engagement;
  • Being cold-backed;
  • Girthiness;
  • Refusing to collect;
  • Shying;
  • Biting or nipping;
  • Blanketing or brushing issues;
  • White hairs in the saddle region;
  • Farrier complaints;
  • Saddle fit issues;
  • Difficulty with flying lead changes;
  • Twisting over fences;
  • Refusing or rushing fences; and
  • Stumbling or tripping.

Clinical signs of back problems include:

  • Shoulder asymmetry, in which one shoulder appears more developed than the other;
  • Muscle atrophy (wasting) over the topline, resulting in prominent spinal processes;
  • Holding the tail to one side; and
  • Evidence of poor saddle fit, such as white hairs, scarring, and rubs.

Nusbaum said primary causes of back pain in horses:

  • Muscle strain;
  • Fractured withers or other vertebrae;
  • Impingement or over-riding dorsal spinous processes, also known as kissing spines, which results in chronic rubbing of vertebral bone on bone; 
  • Discospondylosis, or inflammation of an intervertebral disc;
  • Sacroiliac desmitis or joint pain;
  • Supraspinous desmitis, or inflammation of the ligament(s) on top of the spine;
  • Osteoarthritis of facet joints between vertebrae; and
  • Poor saddle fit, which she said is frequently overlooked.

Secondary—those resulting from another injury—causes of back pain include:

  • Hind-limb lameness that causes simultaneous gluteal and back pain;
  • Forelimb lameness, particularly hoof-based; and
  • Poor core strength.

Lastly, Nusbaum described therapies owners and veterinarians can use to either treat equine back issues or make affected horses more comfortable. These included:

  • Correcting poor saddle fit;
  • Injecting affected dorsal spinous processes;
  • Injecting affected facet joints;
  • Training the horse to use his core and hind end properly;
  • Administering muscle relaxants and/or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories;
  • Shock wave therapy to relieve pain and stimulate healing;
  • Magnetic therapy, which Nusbaum said still needs more science behind it; and
  • Mesotherapy, in which the veterinarian injects steroids into the back to keep the muscles from spasming.

Remember that not all equine backs are the same. If your horse starts showing signs of discomfort, involve your veterinarian to make an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, and don’t overlook the importance of properly fitting tack.