Physical causes with appropriate treatments.

Some horses appear to be  unusually touchy, angry, dangerous, nervous, pig headed, stubborn, left or right handed, stiff, poorly gaited etc. to the extent that they are referred

to as being ‘weak’ , doggy’, ‘ignorant’ or are given some other demeaning label. If anyone is to be consulted ( professional person) it would seem logical to call in an equine psychiatrist. The more realistic alternative these days would be to call in a behaviourist. Importantly though, both of these groups have a golden rule of practice which states...

‘Before entertaining the notion of a psychiatric or physiological disorder being responsible for an abnormal or irritable behaviour, one must first eliminate any possibility of an underlying physical abnormality or abnormalities which may be directly or indirectly contributing to the altered behaviour.’

This rule basically suggests that ‘many’ and in fact in my experience with horses ‘most’ altered behaviours have a physical root cause!  It is obviously important to follow this rule because most physical causes are ‘treatable’ whilst attempts at treating psychological disorders can be less rewarding .

Let us now take a closer look at some of the altered behaviours of our equine friends and explore the possible physical causes of these.

1) Races well in Sydney (clockwise) but doesn’t handle Melbourne tracks (anticlockwise) the reverse too well .

That is the horse prefers to go right handed. When you walk around a corner have you noticed that your head/neck turns first. Try doing it with your head held straight.... now imaging your horse with a neck that is restricted ( stiff) in one direction or the other. These horses suffer from loss of ROM ( range of movement) and often experience pain when they try to bend. This pain is referred to as neuropathic pain (NP) or nerve pain .

TREATMENT :- In simple terms , eliminate the pain & stiffness by ‘mobilising the stiffened tissues. Horses being such large animals are often best treated under anaesthetic using a method referred to as a CVMUA ( cervical vertebral mobilisation under anaesthetic.). Other common forms of treatment include standing mobilisation in the sedated or unsedated horse and flexion training under saddle. 

2) Barrier rogues - Two reasons.

      (i) Don’t like the barriers - dislike confined spaces , ‘sensitive skinned’ , these tend to want to get out quickly ‘the front way’ - become more upset when barriers are shaken by another unruly horse - This horse is physically hypersensitive , that is suffers from NP. In some countries special rugs are used to reduce concussion with edges of gates.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

      (ii) Don’t want to go into gates at all. When in will lean back attempting to get out the back ( not the front) - This horse is anticipating  a ‘bad experience’ quite possibly some form of asphyxiation or asthmatic type sensation, that is a ‘respiratory or ‘breathing problem’. Think about someone asking you to enter their private pool where they had tried to drown you the week before. How do you feel about that?

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols. NOTE These horses often have lung problems which are secondary to breathing / throat problems so medical treatment for lung problems often affords only a temporary ‘fix’.

3) Hates other horses -

Hyperaesthetic ( over sensitive) horses resent being touched / bumped as their perception of a gentle bump is that of being hit with a sledge hammer. Their nerve receptors send a heightened or exaggerated message to their brain. Often ears back, hind quarters swung around as a warning. Cause NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.


4) Bites when being girthed. The girth area like our armpit is a sensitive area normally but if this sensitivity is heightened then the response to pressure particularly in males / colts can also be heightened and on occasions violent. The same horse is often described as having ‘shoulder’ and or foot problems and is a ‘short strider’. Cause NP of cervical ( neck) origin.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

5) Mouth open attacks / aggressive.

Most often colts / stallions. Are usually also describe as being touchy or sensitive generally. Cause NP often upper and or lower cervical origin.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

6) Drops when mounted then stiff stride for a bit before warming out of it. Cold backed.

These horses are hypersensitive under saddle and sides of chest. Increased sensitivity means that when you leg up a 52 kg rider the horse senses a 520 kg rider and responds accordingly. Cause NP of lower cervical origin. NOTE ill-fitting saddles and poor riders can exacerbate the problem but they are not the cause.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

7) Always sore after shoeing... “bloody useless farrier”

Wrong! - Some horses suffer from a chronic increase in hoof sensitivity a condition referred to as ‘laminar corial hyperaesthesia’(LCH). They are often short gaited and may also have poor hoof wall texture which leads to increased wear. Cause Cervical stimulated NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

8) Doesn’t jump ( fences) well , a shame because it stays all day.

The most important natural attribute required for jumping  is the horses spinal mobility. A stiff spine will dramatically reduce a horses ability to jump. 90% of a horses spinal mobility or range of movement (ROM) is in its neck ( cervical vertebral joints). Set up a set of small hurdles for yourself and run and jump them. Now borrow a neck brace and repeat your jumping effort wearing the brace. If your horse is having trouble jumping have a spinal examination performed to see if there is any evidence of stiffness ( reduced ROM) and or NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

9)  Doesn’t like swimming , won’t enter the water.

Some horses that ‘choke’ on the racetrack also choke in the pool. Why? because contrary to former beliefs most horses choke when their head/necks are over extended rather than over flexed. These horses will try to avoid stretching out their necks and will thus climb, drop their hind quarters and not swim efficiently.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.


10) Doesn’t want to go onto the race track.

Swings around at the gate at entry to the track for training / racing. Quick to get off the track. May also have a tendency to pull in work = try to get it over with ‘the sooner the better’. Cause - Breathing / respiratory problems.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

11) sweats excessively - two major groups.

      (i) Neurological, Hyper-responsive sweat glands which is an acquired abnormality. Tend to sweat excessively everywhere. This is a neurological dysfunction. These horses if taken to a hot humid climate will often progress to ‘non-sweating’ as sweat glands fatigue due to being constantly overworked.

TREATMENT - Sweating has been reduced in some cases where the condition has not progressed to ‘non-sweating’. with neural mobilisation and resultant alterations to autonomic function. Otherwise air-conditioning stables and electrolytes can help manage.

      (ii) If race day associated only then may well be a ‘fear’ response in anticipation of a respiratory dysfunction like choking.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.  

12) weaver/ walker.

As much as these are ‘ learned’ habits often associated with boxed horses and boredom, their frequency & intensity are very often increased in horses suffering from other physically abnormal conditions. Walkers have quit walking once they were able to breathe properly &  treatment for NP can reduce there propensity to weave. Chronic ulcer pain can also increase and exacerbate these abnormal behaviours.

TREATMENT :- depends on examination results ..

13) head / bridle shy.

Aside from the odd case of ‘ear mite’ these are most often ‘hyper-responsive’ cases involving NP triggered by trauma to upper cervical joint complexes. May also object to loading into a two horse float. roof too close to source of NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

14) always blows too much after races. Can’t get him fit !

Many of these horses simply aren’t getting enough air! In addition a significant percentage don’t make any noise and are therefore not being considered for ‘breathing problem’ workups. WRONG! Think again. The majority of these can be helped.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

15) Breath holds.

Some horses when under more intense pressure ( end of a race) seem to hold their breath. They are actually still breathing but inefficiently so they will eventually stop as if shot. They are actually holding their upper airways or throat open ( increased muscle tension) in an attempt to try and prevent it collapsing and thence ‘choking’. Problem is that as the fuel runs out they must let go and it is then they stop / choke.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.


16) Shivers & shakes race day.

a little may well be a healthy sign in  anticipation of the excitement of the race but more severe cases often sweating as well are typically breathing problem horses.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

17) Bad in the float, scrambles, rocks and occasionally goes down.

Two groups broadly

        (i) Those that only play up on the way to the races - fear anticipation = respiratory problems.

        (ii) Scrambles particularly under braking & generally poor traveller are quite often NP cases with  corial hyperaesthesia. Same horse doesn’t like to trot canter down hills. Scrambling is an attempt to get weight off their sensitive fore feet.

TREATMENT :- as for others.

18) Rushes into & out of the box / stall.

Doesn’t like narrow spaces ( touching their sides), also often not happy with barriers. Has sensitive shoulders & flanks. Lower cervical NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

19) Head tosser / shaker.

Is a cranial neurological condition which appears to be exacerbated by upper cervical / neck trauma. Horse constantly tossing its head up. worse in summer. Some snort and occasionally self mutilate ( strike out at their own nostrils).

TREATMENT :- several medical, sunglasses, and a positive response in some early cases to CVMUA.

20) Dogs, non-triers  .. or refuses to race.

Many of these are cases of undiagnosed respiratory / breathing problems. Horses aren’t stupid. Rather than choke they will downgrade effort. Problem then is that they show very few symptoms of anything. Investigation of HISTORY very important. “used to gurgle’., ‘Won a race then next race stopped and hasn’t tried since. There is no such thing as a NON TRIER.. but there are some not so dumb horses out there.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

21) Pulls up short / lame after the race..... unsaddled then 10 minutes later OK!

Tweaked a nerve? Maybe there is a neurological element. Any other history of intermittent forelimb lameness. Ask your vet to do a LCC test ( laminar corial compression) .

TREATMENT - CVMUA if positive LCC test.

22) Won’t take a gap you could drive a semitrailer through. -Two groups.

      (i) Those with sensitive shoulders & flanks are afraid of contact if the gap narrows. Once switched to the outside ( no horses outside them) they will get home.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA and a good period of time to regain confidence.

     (ii) Horses with a tendency to ‘choke’ don’t appreciate having the wind knocked out of them so try to avoid narrow spaces in running. If on the inside of horses may appear not to try until they end up out the back and then suddenly pick up the bit and charge home down the extreme outside.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

23) Over reacts to little bumps in running.

         same reasons as for (22)

24) Brilliant over 800 just makes 900 can’t get 1000m. ......runs free....

The majority of horses should be able to run out 1000m. Often these horses have a tendency to over race, or won’t settle. This is often because they are anxious to ‘get it over with’ and end up using up too much fuel too quickly.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

25) Goes berserk after a race, kicking, lashing out occasionally looking like it is going to collapse......

Do you know any acute asthmatics. An asthmatic attack is not a pleasant experience. Lower airways clamp down / can’t breath properly and everyone wants you to be calm and pleasant. Interestingly as much as these horses are a type, similar to human asthmatics, it does appear that upper airways problems are often the trigger for these attacks. Choke first which then triggers bronchspasm.. etc

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols. 

26) Suddenly collapsing for no reason- being saddled, being tubed.


Medical treatments are available.

27) Bites itself. on the shins - tendons / flanks

Self mutilation is not uncommon where people suffer from more severe forms of NP. In these cases the pain is described as severe searing, burning and unrelenting. No wonder they try to chew away the offending tissues.


28) Doesn’t handle heavy tracks - stops

Horses with breathing problems are almost always worse on heavy tracks as more muscular effort goes into limb control and less into breathing control.

TREATMENT:-  Stick to dry / firm  tracks  OR a respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols.

29) Hangs ... no diagnosis.

If lameness workups are negative or lameness treatment is unsuccessful then you should always consider NP. Test by galloping round problem turn with and without ‘bute’. Normal after bute means you have an undiagnosed orthopaedic condition. No change or worse means you probably have a neurologic problem involving NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

30) Shifting / intermittent fore limb lameness ( undiagnosed).

Seems to be lame one side one day , other side next. Can be suffering from bilateral fore limb LCH. Pain will vary from day to day depending on pressures applied to neck. If worked left handed might be lamer on right and vice versa.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

31) Every time you push the button ( increase training load) the lungs test ‘dirty’ again -   

      You treat them ... all clear for a few weeks / months then same cycle again.

Horses with pharyngeal breathing problems often cheat by taking a little ‘emergency air’ through their mouths ( mouth breathe) during exercise. This air carries with it food saliva and bacteria which are deposited into the lungs. Here they contribute to various types of lung disease and bleeding. The harder the work load, the more they mouth breathe and the more they contaminate their lungs. You work it out from there!

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols. 

32) 600 meter wonder!

Could be just a horse with speed and no stamina, but you should always try to eliminate breathing problems.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by surgery if appropriate  and rehabilitation protocols. 

33) Dry coat never looks good for long.... worms??? particularly neck & flanks.

Skin blood supply ( nutrient supply) is under the control of the sympathetic nervous system which is also involved in the neuropathic pain NP cycle. Is this horse also sensitive / touchy and at times short striding?

TREATMENT:- if positive for NP then a CVMUA or appropriate mobilisation therapy.

34) hates you touching its belly.

The pain caused by gastric ulceration is a type of ‘referred pain’ . Pain is referred to the superficial tissues ( skin & muscles) of the abdomen.

TREATMENT:-  have the horse examined for gastric ulceration and then if significant treat with appropriate medication.

35) Panting -Two groups -

      (i)  all day - horses that suffer from ‘non sweating’ syndrome’. Usually only seen in hot  climates. Panting like a dog for the same reason as a dog that is to cool the body.

Treat by removing from heat - air-conditioning.

      (ii) after work only - more likely to be suffering from lung disease and are experiencing low grade bronchospasm ‘tight chest’. As much as these are asthmatic type horses they can often be helped by reducing the pressure on lungs by improving upper airway supply.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate medical treatment and or surgery and rehabilitation protocols.  

36) Over-reaches -

As the great Horatio Hayes wrote this problem is more often the fault of the limb that doesn’t remove itself in time rather than that of the striking hoof. Horses that short stride in front are more likely to overreach. Reduced cervical or neck mobility means reduced shoulder mobility and reduced fore limb gait. Examine for signs of cervical NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate. 

37)  Always gets down on its bumpers-

There are many causes including poor racing surfaces and ill health but also occurs at with some horses that suffer from LCH of the forelimbs. Horse shifts try to transfer weight off fore quarters onto hinds when working to relieve pressure on sensitive fore feet.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

38) Poor hoof growth / crumbles....... in front.....  keeps ripping shoes off.

Poor or reduced nutrient blood supply to laminar tissues of hoof means minimal growth rates and poor quality horn. Health Test - Healthy hoof will wear aluminium's away whilst poor hoof is the opposite ‘shoe wears it down’ particularly in the heal area. A problem in advanced cases of sympathetic dystrophy / NP.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA but will probably require repeated treatments.

39) Suffers from chronic ‘racing laminitis’! Up the grain and it goes lame!

Laminitis is a much studied and today well understood subject. What is less well understood is why certain individuals seem to be more prone to suffering from this condition. Horses with increased base levels of corial sensitivity are more likely to suffer from this condition. Laminitis can not always be avoided but returning laminar corial sensitivities to normal or near normal will reduce the likelihood.

CVMUA or other mobilisation therapy deemed appropriate.

40) Travels like PHAR LAP until asked for an effort and then appears to ‘blow a tyre’.

As stated before most choke ( pharyngeal collapse and displacement of the soft palate) occurs when the horse is asked for maximum effort or stride and thence head and neck are extended. If a horse is concerned about the possible consequences of extension then it won’t and will more likely adopt a shorter stride and head neck lift position.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols. 

41) Horse suffers from an intermittent / or chronic lameness ... so I gave it ‘Bute’ ( Butazolodine) but it did nothing / didn’t work!

In the simplest terms neuropathic pain (NP) unlike orthopaedic pain ( joint, tendon ligament) is not an inflammatory condition and therefore will not respond to anti-inflammatory medication like bute! If there is a poor or nil response to anti-inflammatory medication then start thinking NP!!

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or appropriate mobilisation therapy.

42) Doesn’t want to TROT. . Goes from a walk straight to a canter.. most times! If does trot then is like a ‘cat on a hot tin roof’.

Trotting is the most concussive gait. Horses with LCH ( laminar corial hypersensitivity) will often try to avoid this then more ‘painful’ gait.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA  or appropriate mobilisation therapy.

43) Chronic ‘shoulder’ problems.. won’t stride. Vets can find nothing. Chiropractor ‘helps’

       but doesn’t fix!

Loss of ROM of the lower neck ( stiffness) causes a loss of shoulder ROM. Put your head back, stiffen your neck and then try lifting your arms. Now relax lean your head forward and repeat.

TREATMENT:- CVMUA or appropriate mobilisation therapy.

44) Passing wind ( from the rear passage- anus) with faeces after a race. Opening up!

May just be a symptom of ‘fatigue’. Should also check for a throat condition that allows air to fill the stomach during exercise. Passing gases at the other end could reduce the increased intra abdominal pressures caused by swallowing air. An X-Ray of the throat is the best diagnostic tool. Condition referred to as 4BAD ( Fourth Branchial Arch Defect

TREATMENT:- None very successful.

45) Colic before a race.

A combination of severe gastric ulceration and pre race apprehension can occasionally lead to colic. The previously mentioned condition 4BAD should also be considered.

TREATMENT:- depends on findings

46) chronic cough mostly when eating off the ground (hay / grass) or when having a roll.

Some throat coughs ( not ‘deep’ chest coughing) are due to the irritation that occurs when a horses palate displaces out of sequence. Happens in some horses that have a short stumpy epiglottis. Occurs when the head / neck is extended as the palate rides forward in relation to the epiglottis. This is a ‘mechanical’ cough.

TREATMENT:- The anatomy can’t be altered. However the next question to ask is “is this horse also displacing / choking in its races? silently.. is it performing well as these horses are also more prone to choking.

47) Gets wound up / nervous when the ‘shampoo’ comes out!

Anything that says to your horse ‘ race day is here’ in the case of a horse that suffers from race associated breathing dysfunction's could trigger nervous / apprehensive behaviour. Shivers shakes sweats, can’t stand still.. etc.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols. 

48) Turn left out my driveway ( to the track) and he travels well. turn right ( to the races) and he starts ‘rocking & rolling’!

Same story as in (47).

49) Runs & wins 1000m trial... but stops in a 1000m race.

The likelihood of a horses airway collapsing increases proportionately with the pressure applied to the airways. More pressure is applied to a horses airway in a race than in a trial.

TREATMENT:- A respiratory workup, followed by appropriate surgery and rehabilitation protocols. 

50) Eats well but doesn’t show it!

There are a multitude of conditions that contribute to weight loss but two which are often overlooked are

     (i) NP - if of cervical origin are often well conditioned over the hind quarters but ‘poor’ about the lower neck, whither and shoulders.

     (ii) Chronic breathing problems with associated chronic lung disease. You might be surprised how much weight horses will put on once breathing problems are dealt with.


Research over the last 20 years has revealed that many of the altered behaviours that were previously thought of simply as ‘bad habits’ are in fact symptoms of physical problems and not psychological.

In addition, they are in the main treatable.. but ...NO MAGIC! & NO 5 MINUTE FIXES!

However the vast majority of these abnormal & often irritating behaviours / problems can be eliminated or at least significantly reduced with ‘treatment’.

2 QUESTIONS to ask your professional advisor .

NOTE-The appropriate person should be an equine veterinarian who has had enough experience dealing with problems in these specific areas. Because of the increasing complexity of different areas of veterinary medicine and surgery we are seeing more and more veterinarians concentrating on specific areas. Find these people and then ask appropriate questions about his / her previous experience and results. As with all services these days it is up to you to explore and investigate the possibilities.


 Is my peculiar, touchy, lame... etc. ..... horse....... suffering from a form of

                                         NEUROPATHIC PAIN ( NP)???


 Is my nervous, angry, ‘non trying’ , under -performing .... etc. , horse suffering from a


‘Silent’ of course assumes that the more obvious ‘noisy’ conditions have been dealt with. Many horses with breathing problems DON'T MAKE NOISES and SCOPE NORMALLY’ ( standing scope). Treadmill scoping ( at exercise) will expose more of these silent breathing problems BUT NOT ALL! ... a treadmill is not a race track! and in addition some horses that won’t try on the racetrack will also not try on a treadmill.

In conclusion - there are some abnormal behaviours which are purely environmental but the vast majority have physical abnormalities triggering them. These physical problems are in the main treatable.

Horsemanship is the ability to understand the animal. A horseman's approach to training is along the lines of the better the horse feels the better it will run.  Horsemen believe that altered behaviour is the horses means of communicating concern. They listen to this. Thence a horse that ‘isn't trying’ is not a ‘dog’ but a horse with a problem.

An often overheard remark these days is that there are few horsemen left. Personally I have found that they are out there but are usually quiet individuals who don’t seek the attention of the press. They prefer to be with their animals.

Any other annoying habits you have encountered.. please write...... I’m all ears.