Home › Causes of Spinal Problems in Horses

Saddle Fit

Problems with saddle fit can cause back soreness or pain, and often cause changes in gait. Poor back posture in horses is very common, and it is a combination of fitness and the saddle that is often the most major cause. The result of weak backs and saddle problems is generally loss of muscle under the saddle, roaching of the loin and disengagement of the hindquarters. Poor engagement, and probably hock soreness, are common consequences.

The most common cause of problems is the saddle being put on too far forward. This results in the saddle interfering with the action of the shoulders and also with the withers being jammed. Often the saddle does not contact well in the waist and greater pressure is put on the rear of the saddle. Usually the weight of the rider is thrown backwards, behind the movement of the horse. The latter puts greater pressure on the horses’ back.

Interference with the shoulder action can be recognised by the shortness of foreleg stride. The look it produces can mimic navicular disease. Jamming the withers produces sore areas above and behind the shoulder blades. The result is muscle loss in these areas.

The ill fitting saddle most often causes pain at the withers and, like the forward saddle, leads to muscle loss in this area. The tree and packing of a saddle has to be suited to the horse, if the saddle is going to be comfortable. Certain pads can be used to make a wide tree narrower but they are often not all that effective. Replacing the saddle with a properly fitting saddle is the only way to really do the job properly. Using a saddle with an adjustable gullet is highly recommended.

Saddles often either contact too much (rock) or too little (bridge) in the waist area of the saddle.

Many saddles have panels (the pads under the saddle) that are too small in size or are the wrong shape for the horse. This results in a concentration of pressure under the saddle and muscle soreness results.

In general air panels (FLAIR or CAIR) are much more comfortable than flocked panels.

Too many saddle blankets, or too thick a saddle blanket often create more problems than they fix. This extra thickness under saddle, while padding out the area more completely, tends to increase the pressure on the withers in a similar way to wearing an extra pair of socks in a pair of shoes that are too small, and end up causing more problems. Also the distance between the horse and rider is increased, creating more movement of the rider relative to the horse, which in turn causes more stress on the back..

Symptoms of saddle soreness include: looking and acting anxious or unhappy when being saddled; may wriggle, bite or kick at the girth when being girthed up. Often they will try to buck when first being ridden. Stumbling and having problems in transitions are common signs. Other symptoms are: not travelling down hill well, cold or hollow back, grey hairs over the withers or under the saddle seat, not ever walking calmly - always wanting to go faster, acting nicely for the first part of a ride, then its behaviour deteriorating.

Hoof length, Balance + Shoeing

Shoeing, and foot care in general, is of huge importance to the prevention of sore backs in horses. If a horse is trying to keep its weight off its forelegs, or there is a delay in the break over of the foot, then there is going to be back strain created.

Imbalanced feet can result in muscular and joint strain in the leg and body.

Contracted, undershot heels and long toes lead to uncomfortable feet, contribute to navicular syndrome, and stress flexor tendons and the suspensory apparatus. All of this can lead to the horse favouring the forelegs, and in turn straining the back.

Laminitis similarly leads to back strain.

Horses, which have had sore or badly shaped feet for a period of time, will often develop spinal mobility faults which require correction, even after the hoof problem has been addressed.

Dental Care

Teeth problems often cause pain and dysfunction of the joints of the jaw. This has repercussions for the poll, the horse’s balance and the way that the horse reacts to the use of a bit. Quite often the back teeth are not adequately attended to and tempero-mandibular joint problems develop as a result. Regular dental care from veterinarian, with a particular interest in horse dentistry, or a professional horse dentist, is of great importance.

Behavioural Problems

orses, which are anxious or generally nervy, tend to have abnormal spinal posture and muscle development that cause spinal problems. Mid back pain and poor engagement of the hind quarters is a common result. Pain will amplify any horse’s fear response. It appears that pain and fear become involved in a destructive cycle that feeds itself. Often just removing the cause of the pain will see the fear problems of many horses decrease markedly. Mental conflict or confusion is also a major cause of fear and related behavioural problems. Careful use of aids, after retraining of commands, can reduce mental conflict for the horse, with a result that the horse is much more able to cope with new places etc., and even with pain. Sometimes the use of natural remedies such as Bach flower essences can also be of great benefit. These remedies are an energetic medicine rather than a drug, and seem to “balance” the mind.