horse pulling back

Q.Recently I witnessed a tied horse pull back very violently. I’m wondering what kind of physical damage a horse can do to himself when he pulls back. What kinds of physical injuries could be sustained? Any spinal column nerve damage? Muscle damage and, if so, which muscles could be affected? How can you reduce a horse’s pain after a violent pull back? Should you ever call the vet?

—Laura Ponter, via e-mail

A.Horses can create amazing forces, especially when in flight mode. In the scenario questioned, the main areas of stress are through the spinal column—especially the neck.  

The spine is resilient and unlikely to be injured if the horse pulls straight back. When lateral forces come into play the stress becomes higher on one side of the spine than the other increasing the chances of an injury to the vertebra.

The real potential for injury escalates if the restraint were to fail and the horse were to fall backwards. Fractures in the poll area can be lethal, and fractured neck vertebra can lead to neurologic deficits or loss-of-use injuries. Fractured withers often heal over time. Pelvic fractures and sacroiliac injury can occur if the horse falls on his hind end. Hamstring muscle injury can occur with hyperextension, possibly leading to fibrotic myopathy.

Management of the horse after pulling back would vary with how it presents. Many are fine and do not need special care. Mild, brief soreness or stiffness can be treated with anti-inflammatories after consulting your veterinarian. A change in posture or gait or lack of desire to move would warrant an examination by your veterinarian. Inability to stand, incoordination, and nonweight-bearing lameness are emergency situations.