There has been an insidiously growing trend to label certain observations as indicators of a disease/disorder when actually they are really almost universal aspects of normal equine behavior. If you are trying to convince an owner to buy a product or service based on these observations you are set to make a killing. If you are the owner being targeted, you could be wasting a lot of worrying – and money – for nothing.
Girthiness: Resistance to having the girth tightened, or even reaction to pressure along the midline of the lower abdomen, is typically blamed on gastric ulcers. This makes no sense anatomically since the stomach sits high in the midline of the abdomen with colon between stomach and lower abdominal wall. Higher up it is flanked on either side by the spleen and the liver.
Furthermore, you have to search far and wide to find any horse that does not react in some way to having the girth tightened. Some just pin their ears. Some take a deep breath and hold it. Others actually kick or snap. In short, horses don’t like having the girth tightened.
Flank sensitivity to touch: Sensitivity to touch in the flank is similarly blamed on a gut problem, typically hind gut “ulcers” or “leaky gut”, sometimes ovarian issues, but once again this is a very common reaction even in normal horses. The flanks are a vulnerable area. They lack the thick skin and dense fat layer that protects the hind quarters and without the ribs are a direct portal to internal organs for a predator. All horses are protective of their flanks and reactive to touch here, especially if they do not know it is coming.
Weak going to the right: Weakness traveling to the right or trouble holding the right canter lead, falling to the inside on the right lead have been blamed on a problem with the cecum (usually acidity) or even neurological disorder. Horses, like people, have a strong and a weak side. The vast majority of horses are stronger going to the left and similarly most riders are better going to the left.
Kidney pain: Sensitivity to pressure along the topline of the back is sometimes said to indicate kidney disease. However, the kidneys are well protected underneath the ribs/spine and with a layer of encompassing fat. Kidney disease is extremely rare in horses. When it does occur, pain on pressure in this area is not a part of the picture. With back pain look for bone or muscle disorders as the cause.
What if these findings appear suddenly; are a change from the horse’s normal behavior? Those are valid observations, and important ones, but it’s also important to remember that increased sensitivity to touch/not wanting to be touched is a common and very nonspecific indicator that the horse is in pain or does not feel well. It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about why. Poor concentration and resistance to cues under saddle are also common nonspecific changes.
With any question about how the horse is moving you should start with a good old-fashioned thorough lameness and neurological examination. Always rule out a training or musculoskeletal issue before buying into more esoteric explanations.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD