Back Pain in Horses

Anna O'Brien, DVM
By Anna O'Brien, DVM on Mar. 2, 2012

About Back Pain

Although not the most common injury in horses, back pain can sometimes be a reason for a horse’s grumpiness and unwillingness to move fluidly. With a range of different causes and a spectrum of the anatomy from which to affect (neck to tail), back injuries can sometimes to be a challenge to diagnose and treat.  

Symptoms and Types

Back pain usually originates from one of two sources: neurological pain, as in a pinched nerve, and musculoskeletal pain. Both of these types may look the same clinically. Often, a horse with back pain will become “sour” under saddle, meaning he becomes unwilling to be ridden, sometimes to the point of not wanting a saddle placed on his back. Other times, the pain is more subtle and a rider may only notice something is wrong when the horse is doing a particular movement, like in dressage or jumping, or another sport requiring tight turns or flexion of the body.



  • Traumatic injury
  • Ill-fitted saddle
  • Congenital defect
  • Arthritis of the spine
  • Pinched spinal nerve, as with a slipped disc
  • Tumor of the vertebrae or spinal nerve


Your veterinarian may begin to suspect back pain based on your description of your horse’s clinical signs.  Sometimes, back pain may become apparent on physical exam, as your vet palpates down the length of the horse’s spine. Your vet may also ask you to walk and trot your horse in order to observe how your horse is moving, sometimes even with a rider on the horse. A basic neurological exam may also be performed.

Locating the precise area of the back that is affected can sometimes be challenging. Further diagnostics such as ultrasound, and even MRI or CT scans are sometimes used. X-rays are rarely used to diagnose back problems, as the abundant musculature along a horse’s back impedes the penetration of the X-ray, resulting in very low quality radiographs.


When dealing with back injuries or pain, the course of treatment will depend on the underlying cause. For many mild cases of generalized back pain or soreness, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication such as phenylbutazone (bute) or flunixin meglumine (Banamine) along with stall rest for a period of time followed by slow return back to work. For more locally acute cases where the area of pain has been localized, sometimes direct injection of steroids or other anti-inflammatory drugs with ultrasound-guided needles may be warranted.  Occasionally, alternative medicine, such as chiropractic medicine is used as well.

Living and Management

If the back pain is mild and non-progressive, rest and anti-inflammatory drugs may be all that is needed to manage this condition. If the cause of the back pain is more malicious, such as a pinched nerve from a spinal tumor, chances of full recovery back to the horse’s original level of athletic performance may not be as favorable.  Proper diagnosis of persistent back pain is necessary to ensure adequate treatment and/or management is instituted.


Since many back injuries are due to accidents or improper saddling, careful riding, training, and safe working conditions can help diminish the chances of back injuries.

Anna O'Brien, DVM


Anna O'Brien, DVM


Anna O’Brien, DVM is a large animal veterinarian. A 2008 graduate of Purdue University, she currently works in Maryland, just outside of...

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