What are Spondylosis?
Spondylosis in horses, as noted above, is a degenerative condition of the spinal column. This degenerative condition causes back pain of varying degree in the equine which is generally displayed by the horse in behavioral changes rather than obvious pain responses. The back pain and behavioral changes exhibited by the horse aren’t always spondylosis but can also be a result of improperly fitting tack, poor schooling, and heredity, to name a few.
When spondylosis in horses occurs there is a degeneration of the bones of the vertebral column, leading to new bone spanning the disc between the vertebrae.
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Symptoms of Spondylosis in Horses
Spondylosis doesn’t always exhibit in back pain per se but rather will more likely be displayed by behaviors not normally characteristic of your horse. Here are some of the behaviors your horse might display:
- Bucking or rearing
- Decreased performance
- Cold back - Stiffness or rearing when being mounted by rider, usually smooths out after a few minutes of exercise; once warmed up performance returns to normal
- Sensitivity to blanketing or brushing or farrier actions and avoidance of contact during grooming activities
- Biting or nipping
- Refusal or hesitation with jumping activities
- Stumbling or tripping
- Toe dragging on either front or hind limbs
- Reluctance or refusal to roll or lay down (perhaps the horse will even roll more violently)
This list of symptoms is not by any means exhaustive but it should give you some idea of some of the behaviors your horse might display that could mean he is in some discomfort. He can’t verbalize his discomfort but behaviors of this type could speak much louder than words.
Here are some of the types of spondylosis which can be found in horses:
- Cervical spondylomyelopathy
- Kissing spines (overriding spinous processes)
- Spondylosis deformans
- Osteoarthritis of facet joints between vertebrae
- Intervertebral disc disease
This is not an exhaustive list of the types of spondylosis in horses. This can be quite challenging for appropriate diagnosis due to the many causes of back pain and the behaviors which horses are known to exhibit to display their discomfort. There are also a variety of neurological conditions which can also cause similar discomforts in your horse.
Causes of Spondylosis in Horses
The spondylosis condition is basically a degenerative one. That being said, age of the horse is a causative factor of the degeneration of the components of the spinal column, but because the back pain can be caused by other factors as well, we will list some of the causes of general back pain that you and your vet may wish to consider:
- Age of the horse
- Injury or trauma
- Arthritis from previous trauma or injury
- Improperly fitting saddle and other tack
- Hereditary orthopedic defects in conformation
- Muscle strain
- Fractures or other bone breaks
- Systemic conditions or issues, for example oral pain causing horse to hold its head in an unnatural position or ovarian pain in the brood mare
- The rider’s weight, riding position, and possible saddle fit
Diagnosis of Spondylosis in Horses
Diagnosis of the cause of the discomfort being felt and exhibited by your horse will likely be a challenge for your veterinary professional since the potential causes are quite varied, as noted above. A thorough and extensive history will be necessary from you. This will provide the basis for the physical examination and any modifications determined necessary by your vet based on that history. Expect that radiographic imaging will be done to assess any abnormalities of bony structures noted during the physical examination.
Ultrasonic imaging may also be deemed appropriate to assess any soft tissue involvement that may be suspected. Sometimes, nuclear scintigraphy (bone scan) or thermography may also be utilized to get to the root cause of the back pain. Frequently, diagnosis will be dependent upon a process of elimination of the potential causes of the back pain. Once a definitive diagnosis has been obtained, an appropriate treatment plan can be developed and initiated.
Treatment of Spondylosis in Horses
The available treatments for the back pain will be dependent upon the final diagnosis obtained by your veterinarian. There have been many technological advances in veterinary orthopedic medicine and these will be reviewed by your veterinary specialist for the best options for the condition found in your horse. Here are a few options which might be recommended:
- Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy (VSMT) - Chiropractic manipulations to realign the vertebrae
- Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy (ESWT) - Pulses emitted from a transducer to help increase blood flow to assist in healing
- Injections of various anti-inflammatory drugs
- Utilization of Tildren - A relatively new drug being used to help bone resorption, this will help if bony lesions are responsible for the pain
- Equine physiotherapy
- Refitting of saddles and improperly fitted tack items
- Possible re-training of horse
Other treatment recommendations might include:
- Rest for a specific period of time
- Changes in various tack items
- Changes in paddock/pasture routine
Recovery of Spondylosis in Horses
Once the recuperation period has completed and your vet tells you it is time to return the horse to his normal routine, there will likely be some recommendations about how to slowly and safely re-integrate your horse back into his work environment. This might involve changing his work activities, adjusting the exercise routine and possibly even incorporating a warm up period for those horses who suffer from cold back. It might even involve changing the saddle you’re accustomed to using if it is too heavy.
Returning the horse to activities as close to those previously experienced will be dependent upon the type and extent of the spondylosis or the cause(s) of the back pain found during the diagnostic process. Your veterinarian will provide you with all of the information you need to determine if the work activities of your horse should be changed or adjusted in the future. The most important thing to remember is that the health and safety of your horse is the primary concern for both the health of the horse as well as your financial investment in your horse.