The Horse’s Back (part 1 of 3): How to detect back problems in your horse

Stefanie Reinhold and a client horse

In order to detect back problems, we need to pay close attention to our horse.

Most horses I work on in my equine bodywork practice are healthy horses with normal restrictions as a result of their athletic activity. There is a good percentage, however, that has recurring—often unexplained—performance or lameness issues. Owners often embark on an odyssee of farrier work, alternative healing modalities and bodywork. In my estimation, at least 8 out of 10 ‘problem horses’ have undetected issues in the back that—directly or indirectly—affect their performance and well-being. (Please note: Any advice given in this article does not replace proper veterinary care.)

In this 3-part article I’d like to share some pointers with you in regard to

  1. Detecting back issues,
  2. identifying possible reasons for back issues and
  3. what to do about it (once the vet determines there is no underlying medical issue!).

How to detect back problems in your horse

As so often in life, the obvious is not always the cause, but rather the symptom. This holds especially true in case of back problems in horses. Often, the obvious symptoms in horses with back problems look—at first glance—like vices or behavior/training problems. Back problems in horses can be quite easily spotted, once you know what to look for. Does your horse display any of the following behaviors or reactions? Then this could be a sign of discomfort in the back:

Does your horse

  • stomp his foot, pin his ears, jerk up the head, swish his tail, hollow the back, kick or bite when you are grooming the back or saddling?
  • let his back ‘sag’ (think hammock) or tense his back during leading, lunging or riding?
  • have sticky, choppy, disharmonious (different lengths of strides, out of rhythm) movement when ridden?
  • rush when ridden, is extremely hasty, runs away when ridden?
  • lack impulsion, not step under?
  • not sufficiently accept the rider’s aids, especially the driving aids?
  • lack fluidity or suddenly and unexpectedly blocks the rider’s aids?
  • has a tendency to carry his head high when ridden?
  • grind his teeth, shake or jerk his head, tilt in the poll when ridden?
  • display extreme behavior challenges such as rearing, bolting, bucking or
  • unexplained recurring lameness not traceable to issues in the legs?
  • lack impulsion?
  • Is your horse restless when being mounted or does he bite, kick or (in extreme cases) throw himself on the floor or run off?
  • Do your horse’s back muscles feel hard and/or cold to the touch, is there a pronounced dip behind the withers/shoulderblades?
  • Do your horse’s back muscles flinch as you lift the saddle towards the back?

Any of these signs can point to discomfort in the back. Considering that the long back muscle (longissimus dorsi), located right under the rider’s saddle and seat,  in the horse is a locomotion muscle that needs to move with every step, you can imagine that pain and discomfort in this muscle will lead to

  1. shortened strides and restriction range of motion and
  2. a considerable amount of discomfort for the horse.

The ‘cold backed’ horse – a clarification

“My horse is just ‘cold backed’…”, some horse-owners tell me. Being cold-backed (being especially sensitive when first saddled and ridden, possibly bucking, needing to be ‘warmed up’ for a considerable time) is not an innate quality of a horse, like having a white sock on the left hind. It’s a man-made problem, needs to be taken seriously and remedied thoroughly.

The remedy for back problems in any horse depends on the underlying root cause. This needs to be thoroughly analyzed and many factors come into play. In our part 2 of this article series, we will take a closer look at “What are the causes of back problems in horses?”.

Until then, I will be happy to respond to any questions. Just drop me a line (email:!

Be well and enjoy your horse!


Stefanie Reinhold
Interactive Bodywork for Horses

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