Horses can develop back or neck pain and these conditions are difficult to diagnose and treat. Neck and back pain are not uncommon in performance horses. Dr. Robin Dabareiner, DVM, said at the Western Veterinary Conference that the horse’s neck has more than 100 muscles and seven very large vertebrae. Neck pain is common in horses that turn quickly, such as cutting horses, barrel horses, and eventers. Horses can develop back pain from hock arthritis, as they move in a way that causes strain on the back. Some affected horses are unwilling to flex their neck and they may have a crabby attitude. Others may work well in one direction but not the other.
There is debate on the conditions causing equine back pain and how to treat it. Horses can have arthritis in the back, strained muscles, and inflammation of the ligaments between vertebrae. Overriding dorsal spinous, a condition known as “kissing spines” (when the dorsal spines of the vertebrae rub together and cause pain), can be another cause of pain. Symptoms of horses with back pain include kicking or bucking under saddle, resisting bending side to side, poor quality cantering, poor jumping technique, cross cantering, and objecting to being saddled.
Treatment of neck and back pain includes anti-inflammatory medications given orally or injected into the affected joints, injecting ligaments between the vertebrae, or mesotherapy (injecting small amounts of steroids, and local anesthetics under the skin at affected areas). Shock wave therapy in addition to acupuncture is used in some instances. Some horses with kissing spines respond to surgical removal of the portion of the spinous process involved.