It’s so much easier to determine if a human is in pain. We feel pain. We deal with the problem. Our “dealing” with the problem may be anything from ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away to going directly to the orthopedic surgeon and, of course, an entire spectrum in between these extremes.
Horses are more tricky. Not on purpose. Yet they are designed to hide pain, lameness, and illness as long as possible to avoid being targeted by predators in the wild.
When a horse’s back is in pain, it affects all of his or her body. From performance, to possible lameness, to muscle development, and even to ulcers, back pain can cause problems everywhere.
How to tell if your horse has back pain
Many people check their horse for back pain by simply running their hand along the spine and squeezing. If their horse flinches, it shows the horse has back pain. If not, the horse must be ok.
This is a decent way to check a horse. However, it does have some flaws:
First of all, if you squeeze too close to the center of the horse’s back (the spine), you are actually squeezing on some ligaments. If you squeeze on any ligament hard enough, you will get a pain response. This may not be an accurate indication of back pain.
Second, back pain in horses is most often coming from either: 1) the muscles or 2) bone alignment (i.e. chiropractic) or 3) both. If you don’t know the exact places to check, you won’t know which is the real problem.
Third, horses have a wide range of pain tolerance (stoicism). You need to know the exact places to check and HOW to do it to make sure you don’t miss pain in a horse that is blocking the pain response. By holding his breath, for example.
So if running your hand down the back and squeezing has some flaws, what should you do? Check the muscle and the bones separately:
Check the rib "bones" first. The Rib Checkup Video is available here in the how-to videos. As you do this Checkup, you will learn how to find the “rib line” and be able to check for rib subluxation. This is one of the most common causes of back pain in horses.
Once you have checked the “rib line”, from there go HALFWAY up the back toward the midline. The major back muscles are located halfway between the center of the back and the “rib line." Press down with your fingerpads (try not to use “poke-y” fingertips) all along the back muscle and look for any reaction. You should be able to press down on the back muscles with as much pressure as it takes to slightly compress a tennis ball and the horse should not show signs of pain.
Signs of pain include: flinching, muscle twitching, ears back, stomping feet, moving away, lowering back, kicking, rearing, etc.
Once you have your results from these two simple tests, you know if you have back pain. What’s more, you know if you have muscle pain or pain from rib subluxations.
Causes of Back Pain
Sore back muscles and rib subluxations are the most common causes of horse back pain. Here is a short list of other causes:
- Underlying lameness. Lameness can cause back muscles to be overused, resulting in sore back muscles.
- Poorly fitted saddle. For more information on saddle fit, check wheredoesmyhorsehurt.com/saddlefit.
- Bridles and bits fitted or adjusted improperly. This causes the horse to resist the bit and set the neck muscles in such a way that it causes back hollowness and soreness.
- Sore feet or problematic shoeing
- Poorly conditioned horse
- Muscle damage, injury, or accident
Other chiropractic subluxations in the thoracic, lumbar, sternum, or pelvic areas.
How to help your horse with back pain
Back pain from Rib subluxations
If your horse showed rib subluxation pain using the Rib Checkup, then call your certified equine chiropractor to resolve that first. Even if your horse showed both rib subluxation pain and muscle pain, rib subluxations can cause muscle pain. Once your horse has been adjusted, the muscle pain should resolve within one week, if not immediately.
Back pain from ONLY muscle soreness
Once you have determined that your horse is ONLY muscle sore, then there are several causes to eliminate:
- Be sure your horse is in condition for the work that you are doing.
- Be sure your horse can physically do the work that you are doing. Some horses are simply not built for some jobs and they will be sore no matter how fit they are. Don’t use a Trotter for jumping.
- If you have not done the other chiropractic Checkups found in Where Does My Horse Hurt?, consider consulting with a certified equine chiropractor. Many times chiropractic subluxations are the cause of back pain.
- Check your horse’s saddle fit. This is an extremely common cause of back soreness in horses. Even custom made saddles may not fit perfectly, or simply need reflocking to fit well again. Click here for saddle fit information.
- Sometimes horse muscles are sore for internal or metabolic reasons. The most common of these include vitamin or mineral imbalances, liver or kidney problems, teeth float needs, and ulcers. For vitamin and mineral imbalances, as well as liver and kidney problems, see nutrition. For ulcer information, see ulcers.
- For teeth floating information, click how to save money on teeth floating.
I hope this has given you a good basis for how to check your horse for back pain, and what to do about it.