Could Horses' Neck Postures Indicate Back Pain?

A recently published French study suggests a horse's neck posture might indicate correlating back pain.

In their two-part study, the researchers aimed to first validate the use of static electromyography (sEMG) as an alternative to manual evaluation of vertebral disorders, and then to establish a relationship between neck postures and back disorders.

"The use of sEMG measures is fairly new (to veterinary practice) and concerns mostly the study of muscles and back functioning during movement," explained lead researcher Clémence Lesimple, PhD, of the University of Rennes.

The team employed two groups of nine horses in the study: Group 1 consisted of pastured horses used for occasional leisure riding while Group 2 included stalled riding school horses, exercised 4-12 hours per week.

For the first part of the study, both groups of horses underwent chiropractic and sEMG evaluation in order for researchers to compare findings from both methods.

Second, researchers evaluated horses' neck postures. The team placed five self-adhesive markers in specific anatomical locations along the right side of each horse, beginning at withers and ending at the lower point of the facial crest (between eye and nostril).

Horses were then photographed both at rest and during different phases of the walk. Researchers subsequently used the photographs to measure angles between markers.

Key findings included:

  • sEMG and chiropractic results were "highly correlated" and indicated that 50% and 55%, respectively, of all horses were "severely affected" by back problems (multiple vertebral sites affected);
  • Two neck posture types were identified: concave (more prevalent in the riding school horses) and round (more prevalent in the leisure horses);
  • Concave neck postures were associated with high sEMG measurements while round postures were associated with low sEMG measurements; and
  • All evaluation methods showed that Group 2 horses were more severely affected than those in Group 1, indicating that riding school horses were more prone to having concave neck postures and back disorders than leisure horses.

The research team concluded that both sEMG and neck postures appeared to be reliable indicators of back pain in horses, with leisure horses having sounder spines. Owners and veterinarians might easily use these measures of neck "roundness" to identify back disorders in field settings. 

"If postures are to be a useful tool ... their measure needs to be possible in the home environment of the animal and should lead to few reliable but clearly visible markers," the researchers stressed.

The study, "Towards a Postural Indicator of Back Pain in Horses (Equus cabullus)," appeared in Plos One in September 2012. The entire article can be viewed online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.