Cold Backed Horse 101: Causes, Symptoms and Recovery

A once obedient and cheerful horse suddenly begins to act strangely whenever the saddle or a pack is placed on his or her back. This horse may seem to crouch, kick out a hind leg, eyes wide, ears back and maybe even trembling or breaking out into a sweat. Or, the horse may begin bucking or rearing as soon as someone gets in the saddle. This is what old-timers call a cold backed horse.

Modern veterinarians and horse owners call it a horse suffering any kind of back pain or sensitivity. This can happen to any horse or pony of any age or breed. Ignoring the problem will only make it worse over time. It needs to be addressed right away.

What Is a Cold Backed Horse?

A cold backed horse or pony is simply an equine with back pain. The pain causes the horse to behave dangerously – by bucking, rearing, stumbling or crouching. The horse’s back does not literally become cold. It may be stiff and need warming up.

Some horse trainers and owners will call a horse without back pain but with behavioral issues cold backed. But this is a mistake. Cold back is never the fault of the horse or pony. However, it represents the fault of the owner or trainer trying to force a horse to do something that causes it pain.

What Causes a Cold Backed Horse?

There are almost as many causes for back pain as there are cold backed horses and ponies. However, the main reasons are injuries, illnesses such as arthritis and poorly-fitting tack. Horses with sway backs or roach backs (the opposite of a sway back) are most prone to injury. This is because they are weaker than normally shaped backs.

Some riders may try to ride bareback to save them the cost of a saddle – but this can injure a horse’s back. Horses and ponies need the padding of a saddle to help prevent soreness and injuries.

Treatment Options Available for a Cold Backed Horse

  1. The first step in treating a cold backed horse is to stop working the horse and call the veterinarian. It is vital to discover the cause of the back pain before doing anything else. The veterinarian may need to take x-rays or other diagnostic tests in order to rule out problems like pelvic fractures. Oddly enough, horses can live for many years with a pelvic fracture and not go lame. One such horse was the 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic. His pelvic fracture was not discovered until his death at age 21.
  2. The vet may need to see how the horse reacts under saddle or in harness to watch how the horse moves. Different illnesses or injuries often cause very particular movements. The vet may recommend that the horse is not physically able to do the work asked of him or her and so should do something else. For example, a jumper may still make an excellent trail riding horse.
  3. Medication like painkillers, corticosteroids and muscle relaxants, physical therapy and surgeries may be necessary to treat the medical cause of back pain.
  4. You can use alternative therapies in conjunction with conventional treatments. Some of them are massage, acupuncture or magnet therapy.
  5. The horse may need rest but still needs exercise. Lunging or swimming the horse helps to keep the horse fit but does not put undue strain on the back or legs.

Horse Care Advice

Sarah Widdecombe, author of The Sound Horse Bible recommends these tips for owners of horses or ponies with cold backs:

  • Lunge the horse without a rider for 5 to 10 minutes before putting the saddle on. This helps warm up the horse’s back gently.
  • Stand in the stirrups for the first few minutes after mounting to help the muscles warm up.
  • When placing the saddle on, girth up slowly. Do not try to place it on as tight as possible all at once.
  • Use a massage aid (a small, hand-held device that vibrates pleasantly) to help gently massage the horse regularly.

If the horse passes vet checks, then the tack needs to be checked to be sure that it is fitting properly. Extra padding is necessary for horses with:

  • Roach backs;
  • Sway backs;
  • Extra-long backs like thoroughbreds.

Prevention of a Cold Backed Horse

The good news about cold back is that it is largely preventable. Not overworking the horse and checking to make sure all saddles or harnesses fit correctly helps prevent injuries that lead to pain and behavior problems. Horses destined to be pack animals need their packs carefully arranged. This way, weight is distributed evenly throughout the pack. More weight on one side will cause strains or injuries that can lead to cold back in horses and ponies.

However, not all causes for cold back can be prevented. Accidents can happen. Horses sold at auction or by an unscrupulous seller with minor injuries suddenly seem to come down with cold back overnight. Horses with cold back need to be ridden or used gently for the rest of their lives. This way, they can still work without being in pain or behaving dangerously. Taking time to warm up horses slowly for a few extra minutes may make all the difference between a pleasant ride and being thrown by a pain-panicked mount.

Towards a Speedy Recovery

A cold backed horse is an old-time expression for a horse suffering from back pain. Horses are not stupid creatures. If they are in pain, they will do whatever they can to stop the pain. This includes bucking off riders or refusing to pull in harness.

Cold back is a common problem because people have a tendency to overwork their horses or use ill-fitting tack. Fortunately, cold back is treatable. Horses and ponies fortunate to live with caring owners often recover enough to be worked for many years to come.

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