I am often asked when out treating, why the horse I am seeing has a sore back… sometimes the answer is obvious as an ill-fitting saddle, accident involving injury or long-term arthritic changes can be identified as the probable cause. However, it is not always that easy to ascertain why one horse is absolutely fine and another gets sore seemingly at the drop of a hat. It may be a physical cause but one which is underlying and as yet undetected, or it may be completely rooted in the psychological state of the horse. Most likely the answer lies somewhere between the two…
So let’s look at physical causes first. Anything we put on our horses has the potential to cause rubs, sores, pressure and associated discomfort. This includes the saddle, girth, bridle, bits, rollers, rugs, training aids and so on. We tend to think of checking the saddle fit, (and be aware a saddle which does not fit the rider can be just as problematic as a saddle which doesn’t fit the horse – think about how a too large rider puts their weight down the back of the saddle and even the best fitting saddle for the horse now causes issues!) but we should check EVERY piece of equipment and tack we put on our horses.
Ulcers in the mouth, sharp tooth edges and a small area for the bit to rest in, can all produce pain which is reflected in the position of the head, tension in the neck and back and ongoing performance issues. At the very least, the teeth should be checked by a qualified equine dentist every year.
Similarly the foot balance, shoeing and foot shape should be appropriate and regularly maintained. Alterations to foot balance cause a range of changes in loading on the rest of the limbs and into the back, so although an improvement in performance after changing shoeing can be seen fairly quickly, the change can result in short-term back soreness if undertaken too quickly.
Pathological changes in the back itself may underlie an ongoing presentation of ‘sore back’ symptoms, either in terms of kissing spines or arthritic changes to the facet joints. These changes may render the horse unrideable, and diagnosis should be made by your vet. And of course, there are a multitude of other conditions not located in the back, such as spavins in the hocks, which then effect the ability of the horse to work forwards correctly and result in tension in the back musculature instead.
Accidents, falls, slips and injuries resulting in compensatory movement patterns, can all effect the back and produce symptoms of muscle tension, pain and back discomfort over a variable period of time.
So those are the main physical causes of a ‘sore back’…. But what about the psychological? Can a horse seriously ‘think’ itself sore? Well, I would argue yes it can, although probably not in the way you are currently thinking. Let me explain…
Animals feel emotions. Without emotions, we would all be dead, as they are an evolutionary survival mechanism. Fear is the dominant emotion overriding all others, and fear allows us to quickly respond to any threat, focussing attention and action necessary within a split second, and preparing the body for a fight or flight response. Fear, anger, hunger, deception, grief and love/care-giving have all been demonstrated in animal behaviour and in fact animal’s brains were initially used experimentally to ascertain where these emotions lie biologically within us. (Create lesions in the brains of dogs within the lateral amygdala and sham rage is exhibited towards handling which was previously enjoyed; interfere with the hypothalamus of a monkey and you will lose all goal-directed feeding behaviours as the emotionality associated with hunger is lost).
So what has this to do with a ‘sore back’…. Emotionality within individuals varies. Think about it and you will be able to identify one person who is very calm in the face of disaster and another who runs around like the old boy in Dad’s Army shouting ‘don’t panic!’ Horses vary in the same way, with some ‘seeing disaster’ around every turn and others taking their time to assess every new situation in a seemingly relaxed way. In a natural setting, away from domestication, my bets would be on the higher emotionality individual surviving longer, but this type of horse is the more challenging in our domesticated environment. The downside to living with higher emotionality is the increases in stress hormones released and priming of the muscular system for action, on a very regular basis. A ‘stressy’ horse is much more likely to carry a higher muscle tone, and shows symptoms of soreness and sensitivity sooner than the more relaxed individual who maintains a more phlegmatic approach to life.
And can this ‘stressy’ type of horse really make itself sore through stress alone? Yes, I think it can. Factors which increase the chances of this include a lack of exercise, time kept alone and a rigid training programme. Plenty of exercise, interaction with others and variability of exercise are often the best ways to channel these sensitive individuals into a calmer emotional world.
For most horses I see, there is a physical component to the cause of their symptoms, and in many cases these are the easier things to address, (get saddle checked, teeth checked etc). However, there are also those cases I see on a regular basis who get tight and sore in part (if not entirely) due to their ‘high stress’ outlook on life; horses who never really relax properly and who display unusually high sensitivity to almost everything. For those horses, the only answer is to keep up a varied work programme, ensure they are able to socialise with those horses they like most, (and whom they are likely to relax with), and to book in for therapy on a maintenance programme basis. What is lovely is the way these horses do relax with treatment, once they realise they can!