Therapy measures and equipment for horses

The horse is a cursorial animal that can graze in the wild for up to 16 hours. It is ready to flee from attackers at any moment. Its entire physique is designed for movement and short sprints. However, the use of horses for riding or driving and and the often inadequate keeping of domesticated horses are combined with one-sided stresses and strains that have a negative effect on the musculoskeletal system.

Horse is led across a riding arena

What are the most common ailments in horses?

The cause of pain in horses cannot always be pinpointed immediately. Sometimes it even takes time for a problem to become noticeable because horses, as fleeing animals, can suppress pain for a long time. Therefore, it can happen that it only starts to lame when the pain has become so severe and can no longer be ignored. As fleeing animals, horses must not be complacent.

The task of a diligent horse owner is to keep a close eye on his or her horse at all times, to respond specifically to the needs of his or her protégé and to intervene when its behaviour deviates from the norm. The basis of prevention is to satisfy the horse’s basic needs for air, light, roughage and exercise. Furthermore, one-sided stress and unnatural movement patterns should also be avoided.

Nevertheless, there can always be one or other shortfalls. The most common illnesses in general include:

  • Colik
  • Laminitis
  • Hoof abscess
  • Mud Fever
  • Lameness of any kind and cause
  • Thrush
  • Navicular syndrome
  • Sweet itch
  • Osteoarthritis
  • OCD (osteoporosis) or bone chips (bone splinters in joints)
A person holds a horse's hoof in his hand
Diseases on and around the hoof are not uncommon in horses

Lameness of any kind and form is the condition that most often affects the horse’s musculoskeletal system. The search for the cause is often complicated by the fact that the lameness does not necessarily have to be associated with an injury to the horse’s leg. Due to the fascial connection of the tissues, discomfort can have be rooted in one area, but impact in another.

The causes of lameness can be:

  • Tendon injuries
  • Kissing Spines
  • Problems with the sacroiliac joint
  • Tension in the back, neck and shoulder muscles
  • Osteoarthritis and bone spavin
  • Bone fractures, e.g. fractured splint bone or sprains
  • Laminitis
  • Overstraining of the musculoskeletal system
  • Diseases of the nervous system
  • Ataxia (abnormal movement)

Injuries and damage to the musculoskeletal system are not uncommon in horses as cursorial animals: whether during training or in the field, an unfortunate kick from a herd mate or an abrupt, unprepared movement can lead to strains, bruises and sprains, in short: acute trauma.

Through targeted awareness, skill and balance training, the horse can be prepared for unforeseen movements. Training, prevention and therapy should work in harmony. It should go without saying that the way of keeping should be suited to the horse’s need for movement and that his diet should be adapted to its range of activity.

Lameness – what to do when the horse is lame?

The horse’s legs seem to be almost predestined to sustain injuries through equestrian use, as they are not naturally made for this kind of stress. In addition, the bones, tendons and joints are only under a thin layer of skin, which means they are not sufficiently protected by fat or muscle tissue.

Cooling therapy boots are applied to the horse's leg
In the acute case of lameness, the horse’s leg should be cooled

In the acute phase of lameness, box rest is the first step in recuperation. If the problem is directly identifiable due to a warm swelling on the leg, it should be cooled immediately. The cold prevents the spread of inflammation and relieves pain.

In order to achieve a strong effect, cooling must be done for at least 10 minutes so that the blood circulation is reduced. The cooling process should be repeated 3 to 4 times a day in acute cases, but should not be practised for longer than 72 hours.

Following this phase, heat therapy is applied to stimulate blood circulation and the regeneration process.

If you would like to learn more about thermotherapy, we recommend our guide „Therapy & Regeneration and its Possibilities for Horse, Rider and Dog“. If you would like to know which therapy boots help in the various phases of healing, read our guide on the subject.

Often the reasons for lameness are not so easy to identify. In any case, the veterinarian should be consulted. He will investigate the causes and may even find reasons for lameness that are not found in the legs.

How do you recognise a lame horse?

In a few words, the horse’s movement is uneven. The distribution of the weight is no longer evenly balanced on all four legs, but is increasingly placed on the healthy legs in order to avoid pain. However, lameness cannot be detected in every movement or strain. Therefore, veterinarians distinguish four stages of lameness:

  • 1st stage: The lameness is only noticeable when trotting.
  • 2nd stage: The first signs of lameness are already visible at a walk.
  • 3rd stage: The lameness is clearly visible at a walk and at a trot. When there is pain in the front legs, the horse lifts its head.
  • 4th stage: The horse tries to relieve the affected limb completely.
Horse relieves one hoof

From stage 3, the horse begins to nod its head in pain. It lowers its head when the healthy front leg is weight-bearing and raises its head as soon as the painful leg is used. If the lameness is in the hindquarters, it is the other way round: the head goes up as soon as the healthy hind leg is weighted, the head lowers when the painful leg is used.

If the horse walks cautiously and sensitively, the cause may lie in the hoof. A hoof abscess, laminitis or a sensitive, thin hoof sole can be reasons for the pain.

How can I prevent lameness and severe deterioration of the horse?

  • Correct, regular hoof treatment (Hoof boots are recommended for barefoot horses. Please refer to our hoof boot guide for more information).
  • Warming up the horse: walk for at least 10 minutes to build up sufficient joint fluid.
  • Straighten the horse through correct training along the scales of training.
  • Leg protection: tendon boots or fetlock boots protect sensitive horse legs from blunt trauma.
  • A harmonious group combination is important to avoid kicks in the herd.
  • A species-friendly way of keeping with sufficient opportunity for free movement of the horse, so that he does not get stiff joints.
  • Agility and balance training to develop the horse’s physical awareness.

Therapy boots can be used to actively support recovery. You can find out which types of therapeutic boots are available and in which phase of the recovery process they are used in our guide to therapeutic boots.

Back pain – is it an ailment of riding horses?

Like lameness, back problems are not uncommon in riding horses – rather the opposite. The findings range from mild tension to serious problems that even make some horses unrideable.

Training and the rider play an important role in the horse’s back health, as do equipment, psychological stress and the way of keeping. In the case of back problems, veterinarians distinguish between primary and secondary causes.

Horse back
Back problems are not uncommon in (riding) horses

Primary causes of back pain in horses include:

  • Improper strain and tension
  • Accidents, abrupt/uncontrolled movements
  • Chronic overstraining due to unsuitable equipment
  • Improper riding style
  • Rider too heavy
  • Back trauma (being cast or frequent mounting by other horses)
  • Anatomical problems (sway back)

In secondary causes, the reasons are more detached from the symptoms.

  • Problems in the oral cavity, dental defects
  • Muscle pain (myopathy)
  • Growth problems
  • Problems with the limbs
  • Inflammation of the nuchal ligament (ligamentitis)
  • Exposure of the horse too early as a riding animal (the horse skeleton is not fully developed until the age of 6)

How do I notice that my horse has back problems?

If performance has slowed down, the first thing to check is the horse’s physical condition. The reduction in performance can be linked to rhythm issues (lateral walk, disunited canter), lamenesses and hind limb gait deficits. If the horse drags the hind hooves, this is a clear sign of problems in the back and pelvic area.

Defensive reactions and reluctance are also serious signals that the horse sends to its rider: Tail flicking, head shaking and biting during riding, saddling or grooming are indications of unsuitable equipment or already acquired tension in the back muscles.

Kissing spines are one of the most feared back ailments in horses. The „kissing spinal vertebrae“ are in the area of the thoracic and lumbar region and result on the one hand in pain and on the other hand in bony growth or even disintegration of the spinal vertebrae.

Horse jumps in the air to defend itself
Defensive reactions in the horse are to be taken seriously

Incorrect strain or overuse, which leads to muscle soreness and is not sufficiently recovered afterwards, can lead to the shrinkage of the long back muscle. This muscle lies protectively around the spine, which is now exposed due to the weakening back ligament. This leads to direct stress on the backbone during riding and eventually to proximal spinal cords. If left untreated, in the worst case scenario, the horse will become unrideable.

How do I strengthen the back muscles of my horse?

The key to avoiding these serious ailmentslies in healthy muscles. In order to maintain this, the rider and horse owner are required to keep and care for the horse according to its needs and to critically examine their own riding. In addition, only a rider whose height and weight are adapted to the horse’s physique should sit in a saddle that is suitable for the horse.

Horse trots through a pole course
Pole work strengthens the horse’s back

A varied training, which occasionally includes pole work and riding up and down hills, strengthens the deep muscles and trains the horse’s body perception.

This also improves balance, which is a basic requirement for healthy movements with and without a rider.

In addition to strengthening and promoting gymnastic back training, you can also maintain a healthy horse’s back through additional physiotherapy measures. Have an equine physiotherapist or equine osteopath look at your horse regularly. In the colder months, it is advisable to rug the horse, especially before and after training, to prevent the back from getting cold. If you have the possibility, put your horse under a solarium.

Therapy rugs are valuable aids for maintaining or regaining healthy, supple back muscles. You can find out what types there are and how you can use them in our guide to therapy rugs.