Caregivers poor at spotting horse back issues – study

Caregivers are not adept at spotting back disorders in horses, a new study shows.
Caregivers are not adept at spotting back disorders in horses, a new study shows.

Caregivers are not effective in identifying back disorders in horses, a study has found.

Researchers from the University of Rennes 1, in France, and the University of Guelph, in Canada, used questionnaires to collect the opinions of caregivers at 17 French riding schools on the back status of horses in their care.

Researchers Clémence Lesimple, Carole Fureix, Véronique Biquand, and Martine Hausberger collected the opinions of 17 caregivers – one from each of the riding schools – resulting in spinal data on 161 horses in total.

Of the 161 horses, 59 were then subjected to manual palpation of the spine by Hervé Menguy, a licensed chiropracter with 20 years of experience, and 102 were assessed with a technique increasingly used for detecting back problems in humans – static surface electromyography.

Electromyography involves evaluating and recording the electrical activity of skeletal muscles, the results of which can be analyzed to detect biomechanical problems.

The study, the findings of which were published in the journal, BMC Veterinary Research, indicated that the caregiver-reported evaluations were not efficient in detecting back disorders

Only 19 horses – 11.8 percent – were reported as suffering from back pain by the caregivers, whereas the experimenters’ evaluation detected 80 of them – 49.7 percent – as suffering from back disorders.

The researchers noted that while most caregivers under-evaluated back disorders, a few over-evaluated, reporting more horses affected than were identified by the later clinical evaluations.

Horses were less prone to present with back disorders when under the care of these “over-attentive” caretakers, the researchers found.

The prevalence of back issues, based on the chiropractic and electromyographic evaluations, ranged from 36.3 percent to 85 percent across the riding schools. By comparison, the caregivers’ assessment of back problems at each school ranged from only from 3.9 per cent to 22 per cent.

Lesimple and her fellow researchers said the study showed that back pain was difficult to evaluate, even for professionals.

“As a consequence, horses often continue to be used in athletic activities despite the pain/discomfort caused.”

The results highlighted the need for observational training for caregivers in behaviors and postures indicative of back disorders.

The researchers said back disorders were recognized as a common problem in working horses, with the prevalence in ridden horses ranging from 27 percent or more, according to different studies.

Horses, they said, showed indirect or little expression of pain, with increased aggression towards people often misinterpreted as a bad temper, and escape attempts sometimes viewed as an unwillingness to work. Certain telltale postures were also commonly misread.

The study highlighted the urgent need for formal training to detect and correctly interpret signals, they wrote.

“As these problems are not detected, horses suffering from back pain or disorders may keep on working, leading to a possible worsening of the situation.”

Comparison of clinical examinations of back disorders and humans’ evaluation of back pain in riding school horses.
Clémence Lesimple, Carole Fureix, Véronique Biquand and Martine Hausberger
BMC Veterinary Research 2013, 9:209 doi:10.1186/1746-6148-9-209

The abstract can be read here.

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