Polo Players Edition

NOV 2011

Polo Players' Edition is the official publication of the U.S. Polo Association. Dedicated to the sport of polo, it features player profiles, game strategy, horse care, playing tips, polo club news and tournament results.

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Back pain may be a by-product of ulcers or lameness so a vet exam may include watching the horse move in circles with or without a rider. B A CKONT R A CK How to identify and treat back injuries in horses by Heather Smith Thomas There are many types of back injuries, including repetitive injuries due to use of the horse in an athletic career. These injuries can hinder a horse's ability to perform. Richard D. Mitchell, DVM (Fairfield Equine Associates, Newtown, Connecticut) sees a variety of back problems in all breeds, but often the more serious problems occur in horses that jump or work off their hindquarters, like polo ponies. SIGNS OF BACK PAIN "Many back problems show up first as a change in the horse's performance. It may be subtle to start with, but the horse is not performing as well as it was earlier," says Mitchell. The horse may be irritable about working, resenting the weight of a rider, not traveling straight, or maybe just "off" in his performance. The horse may demonstrate discomfort when palpated or groomed. "Some horses show soreness in the saddle area, or behind the saddle area as far back as the croup, when experiencing primary back pain. Resistance to saddling, or to tightening the girth may also be a sign of back pain," he explains. "When the horse is working, pay attention to his posture. Does the horse work in a round shape with his back up and his head down, with his hind end coming well underneath himself (flexing at low, in a resistant fashion? Sometimes a horse with a high head has mouth problems, so you need to evaluate dental issues and the temporal-mandibular joint to make sure there's not a mouth issue that's producing these symptoms," he explains. There may be primary issues in the back, and/or secondary problems. Mitchell says, "Secondary issues in the back may be related to front leg and/or hind leg lameness. If a horse is lame in a hind limb there may be altered function in leg swing and this may produce soreness in the low back even though it's just secondary muscle soreness and not a primary back problem. Muscular pain in the low back can be the lumbosacral joint where most of the low back flexion is)? Or is the horse working in an inverted fashion with head up and back 24 POLO PLAYERS EDITION due to strain of the long gluteal muscle— which starts at the 18th thoracic vertebra (the last rib-bearing vertebra) and goes all the way back over the croup to the top of the femur (the entire span of the lower back). "It's common to see horses get sore gluteal muscles when they have a sore hock or chronic high suspensory problem or even a chronically sore stifle," he explains. DIAGNOSIS We often need to put the whole puzzle together to find the true cause of a problem. If a horse has recurrent back pain, you need to look at all the possible causes. "One of the things that often looks like a back problem is gastric ulcers. Many horses with severe gastric ulcer issues have symptoms that look like back problems. "Experience on the part of the veterinarian is important, paying attention to what the horse has been doing, its dietary habits, how it's fed, when it seems to get the pain, etc. Does it get the pain the day after it arrives at a competition? There may be stress that sets off an active gastric ulcer syndrome that might be causing the discomfort, mimicking back pain. Many horses that have gastric ulcers have points along the back that are painful. You have to arrive at diagnosis through a process of elimination," he says. Proper diagnosis is crucial before you can help the horse. "The back pain may or may not be a

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