The Road to Recovery: Rehab for the Horse's Upper-Body

For both injury prevention and return to work, Denton recommends stretching and strengthening the core muscles to mobilize and stabilize the horse's back.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Rehabilitation options for upper-body pain and injury

When you think of lameness, limb pain is likely the first cause to come to mind. Yet back, neck, and pelvic pain can be just as debilitating. Thankfully, therapies ranging from shock wave to acupuncture are available to help horses recover. 

In the first of this two-part series, we’ll explore full-body rehabilitation options; in Part 2 we’ll focus solely on the limbs.

A Multifocal Approach

Upper-body rehabilitation is rarely limited to one problem with one solution: Horses might be suffering from multiple problems, and several therapies can overlap during the course of ­treatment.

“I first do a full clinical exam,” says Stephen Denton, DVM, owner of Abingdon Equine Veterinary Services, in Virginia, and provider of sports medicine and lameness services through Performance Equine Vets, in Aiken, South Carolina. “Many performance horses will have a lower leg component, in addition to having a back problem, which always has to be addressed for proper treatment. There’s no cookbook rehab program—it depends on the horse’s clinical diagnosis, history, duration of the condition, and other complicating factors.”

“If the horse is really painful, we’ll throw the book at him,” says Carrie Schlachter, VMD, Dipl. ACVSMR, medical director at Circle Oak Equine, a lameness, sports medicine, and rehabilitation practice in Petaluma, California. “It may be a sequential thing, such as starting with shock wave and moving to laser as the pain improves. If the horse has nonfocal pain throughout the body, we might start with chiropractic and a course of Adequan to decrease the overall body pain and then hone in with other modalities where the more specific pain is emanating from.” 

Schlachter suggests finding a veterinarian within your area and budget that’s experienced using more than one therapeutic modality.

Where Does it Hurt?

Schlachter says the three main upper-body tissue types practitioners worry about are bone, muscle, and ligament. “The most commonly injured or painful condition in the upper body is probably bony—similar to the lower leg, arthritis in the upper body is common,” she says. “With muscle issues, you may be trying to keep the muscle feeling good so the horse can work. Ligament injuries are the least common type in the upper body.” 

Horses can develop arthritis in the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back), lumbar (loin), or sacroiliac (pelvis/croup) areas. “In performance horses in particular, arthritis can create pain, which may decrease performance or even be significant enough to take the horse out of performance,” says Schlachter. 

Regardless of the source of pain, she says treatment goals are to decrease ­inflammation and improve comfort. “­Often the rehab we do for upper-body bony issues is a maintenance type of rehab, to keep the horse feeling good and in work.”

Further, best outcomes stem from early intervention. “I think a lot of horses are in more pain than they let on, so my general rule of thumb for my clients is if you notice consistent soreness in your horse, have him assessed,” says Schlachter, adding that warning signs can range from discomfort during grooming to difficulty performing under saddle.


This article continues in the October 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue including this in-depth feature on current rehabilitation options for upper-body pain and injury and a promising therapy on the horizon.

Already a magazine subscriber? Digital subscribers can access their October issue here. Domestic print subscribers who have not received their copy should email


About the Author

Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA

Freelance journalist Natalie DeFee Mendik is a multiple American Horse Publications editorial and graphics awards winner specializing in equestrian media. She holds an MA in English from Colorado State University and an International Federation of Journalists' International press card, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. With over three decades of horse experience, Natalie’s main equine interests are dressage and vaulting. Having lived and ridden in England, Switzerland, and various parts of the United States, Natalie currently resides in Colorado with her husband and two girls.

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