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Equine Sciatica Explained

| Updated September 26, 2017

If your horse has started to exhibit signs of pain in the neck or back, or perhaps has begun to buck under saddle for no discernible reason, the problem may be a pinched sciatic nerve. Often misdiagnosed, sciatic nerve pain can be a significant problem in horses and often manifests itself as a change in performance or behavior.

The Sciatic Nerve

The sciatic nerve runs down the horse's spine and through the sacroiliac joint. Changes in the bones of the pelvis and sacral vertebrae that limit the joint's movement can affect the nerve in the sacroiliac joint, with severe pain the result. To cope with the pain, the horse may change the way it moves or reacts to certain stimuli. Changes in movement are most often noticed first at the canter.

Performance Problems

Sciatica in horses often manifests itself at first with an inability of the horse to collect, especially at the canter. In some horses, the hind legs even seem to interfere with each other. Lead changes are be difficult, and the horse also drags his feet and stumbles at times. If the horse's motion is too crooked, the rider will often feel as though the stirrups are uneven regardless of how much they are adjusted. The horse also has trouble in traveling downhill and sometimes has wobbly hocks.

Behavior Problems

Since a horse with sciatica will usually be in pain, he often displays noticeable changes in behavior -- especially when he is ridden, given the weight on his back that can increase symptoms. Not only will the horse often refuse to stand still when being tacked up, he may buck or bolt when ridden. A horse with sciatica may find it difficult to stand still or raise his legs for the farrier due to pain.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A diagnosis of sciatica is often difficult to obtain due to the location of the nerve and the resemblance of the symptoms to other skeletal-muscular problems and diseases such as EPM, or equine protozoal myeloencephalitis. While bone scans can be helpful, they are expensive and may only give limited results. Medications such as phenylbutazone and muscle relaxers can manage pain in many cases; stretching exercises and liniments can also reduce pain. Owners also use chiropractic adjustments to resolve joint issues that pinch the nerve.