Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Hypersensitive to Touch on Back or Topline

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

  • If you notice significant swelling or pain at the site.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

  • If you want to rule out any physical issue being a factor in the behavior.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

You touch your horse on the back or topline and they swish their tail, twitch their skin, pin their ears, or try to move away. Are they in pain or is this just a behavioral response without physical cause? It can be hard to tell the difference.

Obviously, an unhandled horse responds this way naturally. But for horses in which this response is unexpected, the question is whether they are really in pain. (If you withdraw your touch when the horse behaves this way, you may be encouraging this behavior.) Regardless, it is important to try to distinguish between a pain reaction and a learned behavioral response.

A variety of conditions cause a horse to be hypersensistive to touch on the back or topline including muscle soreness and strains, various back conditions, pain from poorly fitting tack, tying up, skin conditions, some neurologic diseases, and conditions that cause lameness.

Determining whether a horse is truly sore or not is difficult, because assessment is very subjective.


First, examine the back visually and with your hands, for heat, swelling, hair loss, wounds, or any other skin or hair abnormalities. Do you notice anything that might be causing this behavior?

If you cannot find a physical cause, then try to train the horse out of the behavior. Gently but confidently, put your hand on the apparently sore or reactive spot, keep it there as long as the horse resists or evades, but immediately remove it WHEN THE HORSE STOPS THE BEHAVIOR AND RELAXES. Repeat this several times, moving back and forth between left and right sides. Can you desensitize the horse until they no longer respond in the same way? If so, then the response may not truly result from discomfort. Stop if your attempt is met with great resistance or escalation of the behavior, or if you lack the confidence in your technique or timing. In that case, consider having your vet or a qualified trainer try to reproduce the response themselves.

If the response is consistent and it persists despite appropriate training, then contact may truly be causing your horse discomfort. Share your findings and concerns with your vet.


Your vet can help you separate true pain from a behavioral response. A typical examination includes a physical exam, observing and assessing the nature of the behavior, and a detailed assessment of the back. Lameness and neurologic exams may be helpful. If they conclude that the response results from anything other than behavior, they may talk to you about the diagnostic tests necessary to rule out some potential causative physical conditions.

POSSIBLE TREATMENTS or TherapiesTo Lessen or Resolve the Sign

Helpful Terms & Topics in HSVGWritten, Reviewed or Shared by Experts in Equine Health

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP


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