What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Hypersensitive to Touch on Back or Topline


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.

  • 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 also might be observing
Very Common
Less Common
more observations

your role


What To Do

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.

What Not To Do

If your attempt to distinguish between a pain-related or behavioral response causes your horse undue stress, or you are fearful of being injured, DO NOT PROCEED. Let your vet evaluate the horse.

your vet's role

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.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Are there noticeable skin lesions, crusts or scabs in the area?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • Do you notice any lameness?
  • Do you notice any swelling or other abnormality in the area?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • Do you see white hair along the back or topline?
  • When was the horse last ridden?
  • Have you changed tack or type or degree of work lately?
  • Does the horse's behavior seem normal otherwise?
  • Are the horse's responses the same when other people interact with them?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
more diagnoses

further reading & resources

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP