Back Talk: Spot and Prevent Equine Back Pain

Your horse's back can be impacted by a variety of issues. Be on the lookout for potential back problems, and know how to keep him comfortable.

This article is part of our Comfort Awareness Campaign brought to you by Bute-Less.

Your horse’s back health is paramount to his overall well-being. He can’t efficiently carry you into the show ring, down the trail, or on an enjoyable ride if his back is hurting. Here are a few common back problems, and some strategies to keep his back comfortable and pain-free.

Pressure/Friction Bumps

You’re most likely to see these hard lumps in locations on your horse’s back where there’s excessive pressure from the saddle. Although they typically don’t cause him any pain, these bumps tell you that something isn’t right. If you take steps to address your problems when pressure bumps first appear, you’ll reduce the chances of a more serious problem down the road. Check your saddle fit and consider some type of padding that distributes pressure across the back and minimizes friction.

Muscle Pain

The muscles of your horse’s back can become painful for a variety of reasons, ranging from a lack of strength and instability of the spine to poor, unbalanced riding, or an ill-fitting saddle. One thing is certain: If the muscles of your horse’s back are sore, he’s at increased risk for more serious bone-related problems. Correct riding and conditioning and properly fitted tack are key. Acupuncture or bodywork can be beneficial for treating sore back muscles when they appear.

Kissing Spine

Impinging dorsal spinous processes, or “kissing spine” is a fairly common abnormality, more likely to occur in a horse with a weak or “dropped” back. As the back drops, the joints between the vertebrae extend, bringing the dorsal spinous processes closer and closer together until they eventually come in contact with one another. The condition is possible in horses that experience no pain at all. However, if this condition is associated with inflammation (heat or swelling), it can be extremely painful, especially if it is combined with a soft tissue injury. For some horses, nuclear scintigraphy (a bone scan) of the area will be the most reliable way to make an accurate diagnosis of a significant case of kissing spine. If kissing spine is truly a problem, it can easily become a chronic, performance-limiting problem without intervention.

Articular Facet Arthritis

Weakness and instability of your horse’s spine eventually can lead to arthritis in the small facet joints between the vertebrae. Arthritis in these tiny joints will cause the back to become stiff and painful. Nuclear scintigraphy, radiographs, and ultrasound may all play a part in making a diagnosis, which can be difficult. And treatment is challenging; like kissing spines, back arthritis easily can become a chronic performance-limiting problem.

What’s the best answer for managing your horse’s back? Recognize and take care of problems that are likely to arise throughout his life—before they progress to something serious.

There are various problems that can affect your horse’s back. Skovax/
Here are a few other ways to avoid or manage back pain.

Proper Saddle Fit

Invest in a well-fitting saddle that distributes weight evenly and doesn’t create pressure points on your horse’s back. Regularly assess the saddle’s fit as your horse’s shape may change over time and with age.

Balanced Riding

Maintain a balanced and centered riding position to avoid putting undue pressure on specific areas of your horse’s back. Proper rider position prevents the saddle from sliding and minimizes discomfort. Your riding position plays an important role in your horse’s back comfort.

Warm-Up and Cool Down

Always warm up your horse before engaging in intense activities and provide a gradual cool-down period afterward. This helps prevent muscle strain and soreness. Know his activity level and capabilities and avoid potential problems by keeping him fit and in shape.

Avoid repetitive movements or exercises that can strain specific muscles. Incorporate a variety of activities to engage different muscle groups and prevent overuse injuries. Treat your horse like the athlete he is, and take care of his muscles at any age!

Supplement When Needed

There are many supplements on the market that can support comfortable movement. Opt for one with natural ingredients like Yucca or Vitamin B-12 to soothes aches and soreness that come with daily riding and activity. Work with your vet or equine practitioner to determine what supplements will best support your horse, and to provide him with something that will support his comfort.

Equine Bodywork

Consider massage therapy, chiropractic care, or other forms of equine bodywork to address tension and promote muscle relaxation. These days, there are so many options for bodywork and therapy that can help keep your horse feeling good and comfortable. Incorporate gentle stretches into your horse’s routine, both before and after riding, to help maintain flexibility. Work with a vet or equine bodyworker to understand how to stretch your horse in a safe way.

Equine bodywork can address tension and promote relaxation. Mark J. Barrett/

Adequate Turnout and Being Aware

Allow your horse regular turnout to encourage natural movement and alleviate stiffness. Pay attention to your horse’s reactions while riding or grooming. If he exhibits signs of discomfort, investigate the cause and make adjustments as needed. Remember, every horse is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. It’s important to maintain a holistic approach to your horse’s care, ensuring their physical comfort is a priority in every aspect of their life.

[Keys to Stall Rest Comfort]

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