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What is Wobbler Syndrome?

In order to provide your horse with the best treatment and give the best chance of a good prognosis it is essential that you contact your veterinarian to obtain a complete diagnosis as soon as possible.

Wobbler syndrome in horses is caused by damage to the spinal cord. This may be caused by a range of different factors, including injury due to a fall or a blow from an object. If your horse is suffering from “wobbles” you may notice symptoms such as stumbling, abnormal wear on the front toes, knuckling of hind legs and an abnormal, wobbling gait.

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Symptoms of Wobbler Syndrome in Horses

In mild cases of wobbles, the horse may show an inability to change leads, reduced or poor performance. As the disease worsens other symptoms may be seen such as: 

  • Abnormal gait including a shortened stride, spastic or exaggerated gait
  • Excessive tail movement while trotting
  • Bunny hopping during a canter
  • Sores on the front heels due to over reaching
  • Abnormal stance
  • Stiff neck
  • Kicking out or unusual, flighty behavior due to pain

Causes of Wobbler Syndrome in Horses

Wobblers syndrome can be caused by a range of different types of injury that cause trauma to the spine. These include:

Skull Fracture

Skull fractures can be caused by direct blows due to a kick due to overcrowding, collision or the fall of an object such as a pipe. In some cases, a horse may fall and strike the skull on impact. 

Cervical Spine Fracture

Fractures of the cervical spine may occur due to falls, pulling back when restrained, or a collision. 

Thoracic Spine Fracture

Fractures of the thoracic spine may result following a fall backwards, or excessive pressure. 

Lumbar Spine Fracture

Fractures of the lumbar spine can occur following a fall at high speed. Unfortunately, in the majority of lumbar spine fractures the prognosis is poor and many horses are diagnosed posthumously. 

Sacrum/ Coccygeal Fracture

Sacrum/coccygeal fractures may occur following a fall that causes a horse to sit on their haunches. 

Spinal Stenosis

This is often a progressive disease in which one or both articular facets of the caudal vertebra are enlarged. In many cases, this enlargement will be asymptomatic until a small traumatic injury causes a fracture. 

Diagnosis of Wobbler Syndrome in Horses

Your veterinarian will observe your horse from a distance to watch for an abnormal gait, signs of lameness or pain. They will then perform a neurological examination, this will allow them to assess the degree of neurological damage and spinal trauma that has occurred. There are a range of procedures your vet will perform such as a back withdrawal test, checking of the anal and tail tone, and leg placement test. 

Your vet may also walk your horse to further observe his gait and watch for signs of dragging, ataxia, or other neurological signs. Your vet will then grade your horse from 0-5 in levels of ataxia. If your horse shows some degree of ataxia, radiographs may be taken to assess your horse for signs of misalignments or fractures, collapsed or narrowed intervertebral disc space, and other spinal abnormalities. Other tests that may be performed are: 

  • Myelogram to check for compression of the spinal cord
  • Nuclear scan
  • Cerebral spinal fluid testing to rule out viral infection

Treatment of Wobbler Syndrome in Horses

The best treatment choice will depend on a range of factors including the degree of ataxia, the site of damage and the horse’s activity expectations. 

Conservative Management 

This may be an option for some cases. If your horse requires conservative treatment your veterinarian will discuss a long-term plan with you involving: 

  • Anti-inflammatory therapy with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • A careful exercise and activity plan
  • Osteoarthritic articular facet injections
  • Supportive nutrition
  • Supportive care and therapy such as acupuncture, water walking and physiotherapy

Spinal Surgery 

Spinal fusion surgery may be considered the best option for your horse. This will require a general anaesthetic; although there are risks involved in this, your horse will be carefully monitored throughout the surgery. Following surgery a compression bandage will be placed and your horse will be able to recover in their stall, a dark, quiet environment should be provided. The compression bandage should be replaced regularly and removed at 5-7 days under direction from your veterinarian.

Recovery of Wobbler Syndrome in Horses

Following surgery your horse should be offered food immediately, it is expected that your horse will eat shortly after returning to their stall. Your horse should be confined with no exercise for 2 months following surgery to increase the chance of recovery. Following this period your veterinarian will reassess your horse and may recommend a slow transition back into gentle exercise. Physical therapy and core exercises may be beneficial for your horse during the recovery period. 

The prognosis for your horse is dependant on many factors; however, the degree of spinal damage is a large part of this. For horses with severe ataxia the prognosis may be guarded. Your horse may take up to 18-24 months to reach maximum improvement.