back pain in horses

For decades—likely even longer—back pain has been causing poor performance, dangerous behavior, and compromised welfare in riding horses. Unfortunately, we haven’t always been so aware of that fact. But there’s some good news on this front: A recent comparison of diagnosis and treatment of back pain in horses has highlighted the way riders and veterinarians alike have evolved in their awareness and management of this condition.

“In the last decade, the attention to back pain has grown so much,” said Andrea Bertuglia, PhD, of the University of Turin Department of Veterinary Science, in Grugliasco, Italy.

“The evolution in the available diagnostic imaging techniques has enabled vets to investigate this region further in detail, obtaining definitive diagnoses, and to tailor the right treatment,” he said. “Veterinary surgeons most likely have more training in physical therapy and rehabilitation as well, and the horses are followed during the entire convalescence period.”

Bertuglia and colleagues compared surveys about back pain sent to equine veterinarians 10 years apart (in 2006 and 2016). While it was impossible to make a detailed comparison since the questions weren’t exactly the same in both surveys, the results did reveal certain trends, he said.

For example, the response rate suggested greater interest in the topic of back pain management, said Bertuglia—only 47 veterinarians responded to the voluntary survey in 2006, but in 2016 there were 168 respondents.

Veterinarians administering local corticosteroid injection therapy increased from 80% in 2006 to 92% in 2016. And, whereas only 20% of the respondents prescribed alternative therapies in the first survey, 10 years later, 40% prescribed osteopathy, 29% kinesiotherapy, and 22% acupuncture, he said.

This knowledge not only helps see the evolution in back pain awareness, but also gives more details about how the different eight European countries represented in the surveys deal with back pain in horses.

“It is important to compare different approaches in order to evaluate the results obtained by different clinicians,” said Bertuglia. “As equine vets, we often travel around Europe to gain experience and join courses, and it is extremely motivating to compare different methods and learn different approaches to the same problems.”

Of particular interest, he said, was the high number of French veterinarians responding to the survey, both in 2006 and in 2016, compared to other countries. The French were also more likely, in both years, to prescribe alternative therapies and be proactive with corticosteroid therapy. In a sense, the French could be leaders in the European veterinary field with regard to equine back pain management, he said.

“The French veterinary medicine school seems to be extremely focused on equine orthopedics and biomechanics,” said Bertuglia. “French people have such a great horse culture. Even their lay people understand how orthopedic problems (back pain syndrome in this case) could affect their horses. It is satisfying working with owners and trainers when there is a good compliance and you can work as a team putting the horse first, as the French appear to do.”

Although the survey indicates a positive evolution in the emphasis given to equine back pain in horses, there’s still a long road ahead, the research team said. And that’s true for Europe as well as elsewhere in the world.

“Back pain is still a challenging problems for treating veterinary surgeons,” said Bertuglia. “A lot more research is require on this topic. In North America there is high percentage of competition horses, and therefore the problem must be very pertinent currently. However, it is difficult to make any assumptions for that region, as we have not involved any vets from there.”

A future study might involve equine veterinarians from across the Atlantic for the sake of comparison, he added.

“Perhaps it could be a good idea for the next survey in 10 years,” Bertuglia said.

The study, “Two Multicenter Surveys on Equine Back-Pain 10 Years a Part,” was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.