Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Causes of Back Pain in Horses

By Vanessa Craft

Consider the causes of equine back pain and how you can help relieve it.

Horse acting a little testy lately? Sidesteps out from under you when you try to mount? Reaches around to snap at you as you curry along his topline? Refuses to back up or get his haunches under him for a really good spin? Looks like some cranky old geezer shuffling along the riding ring? Flat out refuses to jump anything more; even cavalletti stop him cold? You better listen up because he's not just being difficult; he could be telling you point-blank that his back is bothering him, maybe a little, maybe a lot.

For as common as they may be, sore backs are often confounding to diagnose and treat. The "back," the most complex and expansive locomotor structure of the horse's body, includes

  • a total of 23 or 24 thoracic and lumbar vertebrae between withers and tail head 


  • the spinal cord running through them

  • the muscles and ligaments that hold the vertebrae in alignment

  • the joints between them the multiple muscles anchored to them, connecting the spinal column to the appendages.


Unlike limb pain, which is usually reflected in identifiable lamenesses, back discomfort frequently lacks a readily discernable focal point and characteristic gait effects. A painful front fetlock produces this kind of limp, a strained stifle produces that kind of gait alteration, but what happens when a horse has discomfort in his topline? "The most common symptom of back problems is behavior problems," says Joyce Harman, DVM, of Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, Virginia. With only these vague indications to go on, you can easily misinterpret manifestations of a sore back as signs of leg lameness or of a training problem.

Even after you are fairly certain that your horse is reacting to back pain, determining whether it's muscles, ligaments, vertebrae or multiple structures that are strained, injured or inflamed isn't easy. Identifying the cause of the soreness may or may not be possible; sometimes even sophisticated diagnostics aren't able to visualize an abnormality hidden under thick muscle or within dense bone. Yet as uncertain as diagnostics may be, a methodical, commonsense approach can help you eliminate hurtful influences and ease back discomfort that may be making your horse crabbier than he wants to be.

Behavioral clues


  • A horse with severe back pain usually makes strong behavioral statements about his distress, including

  • evading contact during grooming

  • pinning his ears or biting as you saddle him

  • sinking, bucking or rearing when you mount

  • restricting his rolling and lying down or rolling more violently than previously

  • regularly rearranging his stall bedding to he can stand in a more comfortable position. Minor back soreness is often reflected in generalized behavioral changes that can indicate other orthopedic pain as well as back soreness. Hock lameness, in particular, is easily confused with signs of back discomfort. Still, consider back soreness as the underlying reason a horse becomes difficult to catch

  • develops annoying under-saddle habits, such as tail swishing

  • resists backing up

  • resents lateral work, often in one direction

  • acts stiff behind and seems reluctant to fully engage his hindquarters

  • is fidgety, tense and unable to concentrate


  • becomes less responsive to your aids as a riding session progresses. Certain activities may put the back into position to suffer painful pressures, causing horses to resist performing specific maneuvers. For instance,


  • a roping horse may begin to stop too soon or too late to avoid sudden jarring of the saddle


  • a reining horse may be reluctant to sit down in his slides because it hurts to round his back a sore-backed jumper may produce less thrust, jump with a fixed, hollow back, rush to or away from fences or refuse to jump combinations


  • a trail horse may rush up and down hills or try to go downhill sideways to escape his back pain.


When you examine performance problems as possible expressions of back discomfort, consider the point in the maneuver that triggers the horse's resistance. Is it when the horse has to bring his hindquarters under him, move laterally, bear weight on a particular limb or reach forward with his head and neck? Noticing a pattern in his objections can tip you off that a physical problem is a factor in his behavior. Now you're ready to try to localize the pain, first by palpating the back, then by watching the horse move.

Search for soreness

Examine your horse's back by running your fingers along the muscles that parallel the spine, noting their tone. We may use the term "hard body" for an extremely fit, muscular person, but hardness is not what you hope to find during your examination. Hard muscles are tense and probably sore. Harman describes the feel of healthy muscles as "like Jello."

Once you've completed the superficial examination, gradually increase your finger pressure to press more deeply into the muscles. Avoid sharp, sudden jabs, which will cause the horse to flinch, whether or not his back is sore. Instead, work your way along the muscles at hand-width intervals, repeating fingerpad pressure that gradually increases to a consistent moderate level. If your horse sidesteps or drops away, you may have hit on a sore spot. Lack of response to even significant pressure may not mean that all is well, however; the horse, instead, may be protecting his back from your poking by tightening his muscles. The difference in feel between resistant-hard and Jello-healthy muscles should be evident. Next, go down the back's midline, firmly pressing on the top (dorsal spinous process) of each vertebra. If the horse drops away from the pressure, it may indicate soreness in either the spinal bones themselves or the supraspinous ligament running along the vertebral tips. Finally, check the back's ability to flex and extend. Place your fingertips under his belly and push up firmly: If he doesn't raise his back, he may be sore. Usually, vertebral or ligament pain is accompanied by muscle pain, but the reverse isn't true: A horse with sore back muscles won't necessarily have spinal pain.

Watch him move

Now that you have some physical clues to work from, the next step is for you or a qualified expert to study the horse's movement. Enlist a capable handler who can get the horse to jog out as freely as possible in hand, and watch the horse's general posture and the extent of his back action. A healthy back swings in rhythm with movement; a sore back remains rigid to guard against further pain. Continue to observe the trotting horse, looking for gait irregularities that might originate in his limbs. Head bobbing at the jog is characteristic of a horse who's trying to unweight a painful limb.

If your horse is trained to longe, watch him move in large circles in both directions at all three gaits. Again, note any back rigidity and uneven movement. You're not trying to distinguish between causes and effects: Subtle leg lameness might be making the back sore, or back pain could be affecting the horse's rhythm enough to make him appear "off" in one leg. Next, tack up your horse and, depending upon your abilities, ride him yourself or have a skilled, quiet rider take the reins so the horse can be observed for any differences in his way of going under saddle versus on the longe line. The rider needs to make every effort to "follow" the horse's motion with a relaxed back and seat, allowing the horse to move as freely as he can. Aboard a pain-free back, a rider can sense a pendular swing in the back and symmetry through all stride phases; conversely, he'll feel stiffness and unevenness if the horse is hurting. Weight bearing is a surefire way to trigger or amplify painful vertebral, muscle and ligament conditions. If ill-fitting tack pokes, pinches or rubs, the horse will exhibit more pain while working under saddle than bareback. The observer can also note if rider stiffness or imbalance might be evoking signs of back pain in the horse.


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Remembering Aiken's Horsemen

F. Ambrose Clark: A lover of animals
Story By Pam Gleason; Photos courtesy of the Museum of Polo Hall of Fame

Frederick Ambrose Clark (1881-1964) was born to immense wealth and privilege. He was not ashamed of this, nor of his determination to live his life in pursuit of the things he most enjoyed. He did not go into business, or even, for that matter, finish college.

From his obituary in the New York Times:
“I am not a money-maker,” he once remarked. “All I know is horses. Why should I go puttering down to an office to meddle in something another man can do 100 times better?”

“Brose,” as he was known to his friends and family, rode to hounds, played polo, competed in showjumping competitions and steeplechases, and drove an immaculately turned out four-in-hand around Aiken and his properties in New York. He was a big man and a bold rider, but not necessarily a good one. In fact, descriptions of his riding almost invariably include accounts of his many falls. According to his obituary, by the time he was an old man, he had broken every bone in his body at least once. The fall that put an end to most of his riding happened when he was about 70 years old. He was at Broad Hollow, his 500-acre estate in Old Westbury, Long Island, riding one horse while leading another, a yearling racehorse prospect. Something spooked the yearling, which pulled Mr. Clark from the saddle, knocking him to the ground where he fractured his left hip. Still, he wouldn’t let go of the young horse. “Damned valuable yearling,” he said later.

Before consenting to get into the ambulance to go to the hospital, he is said to have asked for a blanket, a box of cigars, and a magnum of Champagne.

The Clark fortune, made in the 1800s, came from a partnership between Edward Clark, who was Ambrose’s grandfather, and Isaac Singer, who invented the Singer sewing machine. The elder Clark was a lawyer who first got involved with Singer during a patent dispute. His pay was a one-third portion of the sewing machine patent. Later, Clark became a full partner in the business, which relied upon Singer’s inventive talents and Clark’s brilliant business acumen. By 1860, Singer was the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world, and Clark was a millionaire many times over. He also invested in real estate and built the Dakota, which was one of the first luxury apartment buildings in Manhattan and remains a prestigious address.

F. Ambrose Clark was born in Cooperstown, New York, where his family had a vast country estate. Horses were his life from the beginning. In addition to his own athletic pursuits, he also owned and bred racehorses. In September 1902, when he was 21, he married Florence Lockwood Stokes, the youngest daughter of Henry Stokes, who owned the Manhattan Life Insurance Company. Their wedding was attended by 100 family and friends. The wedding cake, shaped like a horseshoe, was sprinkled with 100 solid gold horseshoe nails that guests took home as souvenirs of the occasion.

Florence (known as Meg) was both an heiress and an avid horsewoman and racing enthusiast in her own right. In fact, she maintained her own racing and breeding operation separate from her husband’s. Her older sister Marie, also an enthusiastic horsewoman, was married to Albert C. Bostwick. Marie’s sons Dunbar and George Herbert (Pete) both got their start in horse racing by working for their uncle Ambrose. Pete Bostwick, who was inducted into the United States Polo Hall of Fame, The National Racing Hall of Fame and the Aiken Racing Hall of Fame, used to ride Brose’s horses in both flat and steeplechase races. These races included the top contests in the sport – for example, in 1928, Pete finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes, riding Ambrose’s Whisk Broom.

The Clarks did not limit their sporting pursuits to the North American continent. They also had a country estate in Melton Mowbry, England, where they regularly went foxhunting. There, they often rode with the Prince of Wales, who later became the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. In England, the Clarks maintained stables of flat and steeplechase horses, and could claim the distinction of being among just a handful of American owners whose horses have won the English Grand National. The Grand National is the most prestigious contest in steeplechasing, famous for the height of its fences and for the fierceness of its competition. In 1933, Ambrose had two horses entered in the race, Chadd’s Ford and Kellsboro Jack. Believing himself to be a jinx on his horses that year, he sold Kellsboro Jack to his wife for one pound just before the race. Chadd’s Ford finished second to last. Kellsboro Jack sailed home the winner by three lengths. After the race, Meg magnanimously allowed Ambrose to parade her new champion to the winners’ circle.

In 1915, after German U-boats torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland, the Clarks, like many of their set, decided to spend their winters in the U.S. rather than venturing overseas. In 1916, they joined a growing number of “Winter Tourists” who regularly came to Aiken for the winter months. For several years, the Clarks rented winter “cottages” for their Aiken sojourns, often staying at William C. Whitney’s opulent Joye Cottage on the corner of Whiskey Road and Easy Street. In 1929, they purchased their own estate, Habersham House, which was built two years earlier for Kenneth Schley, the Master of the Essex Hunt. After the Grand National victory, Habersham House was renamed Kellsboro House in the horse’s honor.

Ambrose also built himself a distinctive brick stable in Aiken just across Mead Avenue from Whitney Polo Field. Known as the Clark Barn, the stable, complete with an indoor track, is said to have won an architectural award after it was built, but actual records of this are difficult to locate. In any case, the stable, which today stands beside Winthrop Polo Field and across from the Track Kitchen, was recently restored by Larlee Construction for its owners, Sandy and Don Nicolaisen, and this January won a Stewardship Award from the Historic Aiken Foundation.

F. Ambrose Clark’s love of horses extended to all disciplines and encompassed sporting art as well as flesh and blood horses. Broad Hollow, a 42-room mansion he purchased from Thomas Hitchcock, housed an impressive collection of paintings: “A month with every reference book on sporting art would be necessary to do credit to the gems in the collection,” wrote Harry Worcester Smith, the author of Life and Sport in Aiken. An appreciation for art ran in the family: Ambrose’s brother, Robert Sterling Clark, was one of America’s foremost collectors of Impressionist paintings, while his brother Stephen Carlton Clark, also an art collector, was on the board of directors of both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Stephen was also the founder of the National Baseball Hall of Fame near the family seat in Cooperstown.

Throughout his life, Brose was known for his passion, not just for horses, but also for good living and for a certain stubborn affinity for the past. With his elegantly tailored suits, fancy waistcoats and bowler hats, he is said to have always looked like he just stepped out of a 19th century sporting print. He loved Champagne – he even had it for breakfast. He hated automobiles, and insisted on driving his coach and four wherever he could. When he had to take a car, it was a Rolls Royce created especially for him with a bed in the back. For 15 years he hosted the Meadowbrook Cup, a timber race, at Broad Hollow. He refused to allow NBC sports to drive onto the property and insisted that they transfer their radio equipment to a farm cart in order to cover the race.

Above everything, perhaps, Ambrose Clark had a love for animals – not just for horses but for dogs as well. In the book The Clarks of Cooperstown, written by Nicholas Fox Weber, his great niece, Anne Peretz, remembers having breakfast with him at the estate in Cooperstown when she was about 7. She would sit at one end of the table with her great uncle at the other. Six high-backed chairs, three to each side, were arranged along the table. At a signal, Brose’s six Springer Spaniels would hop into the chairs and wait while the butler served them bowls of food. The dogs sat motionless while Ambrose said grace, and then ate with enthusiasm as soon as they heard the word Amen.

Many accounts of Ambrose’s life say that he and Meg had no children. This is not true, however. In 1910, they had a daughter named Ethel, who had some kind of physical and mental disability. Ethel is rarely mentioned, although when she was 18 she did accompany her parents to Melton Mowbry, according to a brief mention in the New York Times. She lived in her own home on the Clark’s huge property in Cooperstown, where she was attended by servants until she died in 1932. During World War II, the Clarks established a rest camp for Navy seamen in her memory.

In his later years, Ambrose suffered from the falls he took early in his life – little wonder as he is said to have had his spine held together by a number of silver pins. Alan Corey III, a longtime Aiken resident, remembers seeing him on a horse, but recalls that he always looked as if he was propped up there. Both Alan and Ambrose’s great nephew Charlie Bostwick remember him better driving his four-in-hand coach around Aiken’s dirt roads. Despite his increasing ailments, Clark maintained his racing stable until October 1963, when, not feeling able to “enjoy the fun”, he disbanded it. He died the following February at the age of 83.

“He was a real sportsman,” Francis Bellhouse, his trainer, was quoted as saying. “You don’t find men like him any more. After a race, he never quibbled. There was nothing cheap about him. He always ran a first class outfit, no matter what he did.”

Frederick Ambrose Clark was buried in a private cemetery on his Cooperstown property. Two other graves are in this cemetery: one belongs to the beloved horse Kellsboro Jack; the other to Buttons, a special dog. Both these tombstones have long inscriptions. Clark’s is more modest. It has just his name, his dates, and the inscription “a lover of animals.”

April-May 2015

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.