We now know how to identify and diagnose back pain in horses, but once you know what the problem is, what are you supposed to do about it? Luckily, there are a number of treatment options available to horses with sore backs, be it soft tissue injury, or a bone pathology problem. The following list offers a number of possible suggestions.
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1. Chiropractic. In every area, there are usually a number of equine chiropractors available, however, it’s always worthwhile getting a chiropractor who comes highly recommended, as opposed to a cheaper chiropractor that nobody knows who shows up with a certificate of qualification printed on a used napkin. A poor chiropractor can make your horse’s back problems far worse, whereas a good chiropractor will trace the problem to its source, and hopefully mend it. Chiropractic treatment is used to treat the skeleton of the horse. Often back pain will stem from a vertebra that is out of alignment, or even a tilted pelvis, sacroiliac problem, hips, hocks, stifle – a good chiropractor will sometimes even work on the joints right down to the fetlock. In most horses, pain is caused mostly through compensation. That is to say, a vertebra slips out of place, and the horse becomes uncomfortable, so he changes the way he uses himself to compensate. This then causes soft tissue damage, which causes even more pain to the horse. It is my person belief that, in many cases, chiropractic treatment should be the first step taken to solve a back problem, as the root of most soft tissue injuries actually lie in the skeleton of the horse. Once you know that his skeleton is in alignment after being treated by a good, qualified chiropractor, you can then move on to other treatments to eliminate soft tissue injury. Horses will often feel a little stiff after chiropractic treatment, so should be worked lightly for the days following.
2. Physical Therapy (Physio). As with chiropractors, only trust a qualified and well-recommended physical therapist to work on your horse. Physical therapy involves the specialised stretching and palpating of muscles to reduce stiffness and promote healing. This can be especially useful for horses that have traveled long distances to a competition, and come out of the trailer feeling stiff. Physical therapy insists in the loosening of tight, stiff muscles to allow the horse to move more freely.
3. Acupuncture. Acupuncture involves inserting needles into specific pressure points in a horse’s body, occasionally coupled with vitamin B injections. The presence of the needle – a foreign object – inside the body causes blood to flow to the site of the needle, and thus forces tight muscles to relax. Acupuncture is particularly useful for treating pinched nerves or muscle injuries, although some horses respond better to this treatment than others.
4. Equine Massage. Massage involves rubbing the horse’s skin using specific Swedish massage techniques. The therapists’s hands will move parallel to the main blood vessels, promoting blood flow and thus helping to relax and heal the muscles and temporarily relieve pain.
5. Magnetic Therapy. Magnetic therapy can involve the use of a high powered magnetic rug, or an electro-magnetic back pad such as a Bemer. This will improve the horse’s comfort and reduce pain for a short period of time.
6. Faradic Pulse Therapy. This is currently my favourite treatment. After trying every treatment mentioned above on my own horse, Moonfire, with little to no improvement in his performance, I turned to Faradic Pulse Therapy, and – just as I was about to give up hope – Moonfire finally began to show improvement. Faradic pulse therapy encompasses the use of a special therapeutic machine along with a pair of electrodes and a connection pad on the horse’s back. The machine is moved over the horses muscles, making use of a faradic current to stimulate the muscles. During treatment, one can see the muscles contract, often quite violently. The faradic treatment breaks down old scar tissue, and improves circulation in previously injured muscles to encourage the horse to use them again, and thus heal and rehabilitate the animal through work. It improves the elasticity of the muscles, making the horse more comfortable, and helps to oxygenate and nourish the tissue. This treatment is particularly useful for treating muscle strains and tears – even old ones – and improving problems in a horse’s movement. It locates and treats injuries, even those from many years ago.
These are just a few of the many options available for treating an injured back in a horse. Often, depending on the intensity of the injury, many or all of the treatments mentioned may need to be applied before the horse is completely comfortable again. Of course, any treatment should be done coupled with careful rehabilitation work so as not to re-injure the horse when coming back into work.