Equine Back Problems

Equine back problems are common, particularly in performance horses. The conditions involved can be primary or can result from lameness, ill-fitting tack, or even inadequate schooling.
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Equine back problems are common, particularly in performance horses. The conditions involved can be primary or can result from lameness, ill-fitting tack, or even inadequate schooling. It is noteworthy that the most common reason for presentation of a back problem is poor performance rather than pain. Despite the availability of sophisticated clinical aids, definitive diagnosis of a back injury often can be made only by elimination of all other conditions.

Assessment of Back Pain

Quantifying the degree and precise site of pain in animals always has been difficult. This is complicated further because the major clinical sign in many horses with a back problem is impaired performance rather than pain. On the other hand, many horses appear to perform satisfactorily despite some low-grade back pain. To add to this confusion, some horses are naturally sensitive and resent being palpated along the back, which might be wrongly interpreted as a sign of pain.

Cold Back

This term describes hypersensitivity over the back with a transient stiffness and dipping of the spine as the rider mounts. There usually are no other clinical signs, although in severe cases, the horse might buck or rear at first. This initial stiffness wears off within a few minutes and causes no effect on performance. Whether this condition actually is associated with back pain or merely a matter of temperament is not clear.

Many of the difficulties in diagnosing back problems would be solved if some meaningful criteria could be established for assessing and quantifying back pain. The back has a system of nerve endings that are particularly sensitive to tissue dysfunction. They are referred to as “nociceptive receptors” and are represented in the back by arrangements of unmyelinated nerve fibres. In normal circumstances, this receptor system is relatively inactive, but it is stimulated by mechanical or other damaging forces applied to the tissues containing the nerve endings. Primary back pain results, therefore, from trauma or irritation of these nerve endings

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Professor Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, VetMedDr (h.c.) has been an official FEI Event Veterinarian since 1977, and has officiated at many elite championships including 4 World Equestrian Games. He has been an official veterinarian at the last 6 Olympic Games (1988-2008). He was President of the Veterinary Commission at Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004), and has been Veterinary Technical Delegate at Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Professor Jeffcott was elected Chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee and member of the Bureau in 1998, and served until 2006. He was then made an Honorary Member of the Bureau, and was the first veterinarian to receive that honour. He held the post of Dean at the Veterinary School in the University of Cambridge (1991-2004) and then at the University of Sydney (2004-2009).

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