A healthy pain-free back is essential to your horse’s quality of life, regardless of their job. Back problems often arise due to conformational deficits and/or are caused by the rider or handler, especially when a horse is not built for the discipline in which it is asked to perform.
The equine back is very complex and difficult to assess, even for the accomplished equine vet. Given its mass and depth, it is difficult to diagnose problems in the equine back without very powerful radiographic equipment. Even then, treatment (and assessing the effectiveness of treatment) remains a challenge.
Nevertheless, you should learn the basic regions of the equine back and anatomic landmarks including the equine vertebrae (sacral, lumbar and thoracic), withers, back, loin, croup (gluteal muscles).
You should be able to describe the basic conformation of your horse’s back, and become familiar with the look and feel of your horse’s back and your horse’s normal responses to touch so that you can better detect when something is wrong.
Halter your horse. Begin by evaluating your horse’s general conformation. Compare the left and right sides of your horse’s back looking at the musculature and anatomical landmarks. You should be able to answer these general questions:
1. Is your horse’s back long or short? Generally, if the distance between the withers and the croup is longer than the distance between the front and rear legs along the belly (underline), then your horse is long-backed.
2. Is your horse long coupled or short coupled in the loin?
3. Evaluate the depth of your horse’s topline, which is the curvature of your horse's withers, back and loin. Is it greatly arched (“roach backed”), or is there very little arch (“sway backed” or lordosis)?
4. Is your horse built “uphill” or “downhill” – i.e. is the topline higher at the withers or higher at the point of the hip?
5. Are your horse’s withers prominent or not?
6. Evaluate the superficial musculature. Are the muscles at the croup (gluteal muscles) full and round, or hollowed out? Are the muscles along the lumbar span flat and wide or bony and thin? Stand behind the horse with the horse standing square. Are the gluteal muscles symmetrical?
Now feel your horse’s back, taking note of their responses at any given location. Reevaluate your horse’s back muscles for symmetry and curvature. Ideally, you become familiar with these manipulations and your horse's normal responses to them.
1. Stand right behind the horse now and feel them and look right down the crease of the spine. Are the muscles symmetrical? Is there curvature?
2. Move to the left side of your horse and place gentle but firm pressure on the gluteal muscles on either side of the tail head. How does your horse respond? Do they raise their back? Do the same on the right side.
3. Move back to the left side of your horse and place gentle but firm pressure on the lumbar muscles. How does your horse respond? Does your horse drop their back? Do the same on the right side.
4. Touch your horse's belly and apply gentle but firm finger pressure. How does your horse respond? Does your horse arch their back?
Tips for safety & Success
Move slowly and start by pressing gently.
If you believe your horse is suffering from back pain, they may resent the pressure you place on the painful location.
Do not stand directly behind your horse if you believe you cannot do it safely.