Towards a Postural Indicator of Back Pain in Horses (Equus caballus)
Postures have long been used and proved useful to describe animals’ behaviours and emotional states, but remains difficult to assess objectively in field conditions. A recent study performed on horses using geometric morphometrics revealed important postural differences between 2 horse populations differing in management conditions (leisure horses living in social groups used for occasional “relaxed” riding/riding school horses living in individual boxes used in daily riding lessons with more constraining techniques). It was suggested that these postural differences may reflect chronic effects of riding techniques on the horses’ kinematics and muscular development. In the present study, we tried to evaluate the interest of postural measures to assess welfare in horses. This study was separated into 2 parts. First, 18 horses coming from these 2 types of populations (leisure/riding school horses) were submitted to 2 back evaluations by 1) manual examination (experienced practitioner) and 2) sEMG measures along the spine. We then measured neck roundness on 16 of these 18 horses. The results highlighted high correlations between manual and sEMG examinations over the spine. sEMG measures at the different locations were strongly correlated all over the spine. Moreover, neck postures and muscular activities were strongly correlated, horses with concave necks having higher sEMG measures both at precise locations (i.e. cervical sites) but also when comparing neck postures to the whole spine muscular activity highlighting the functioning of horses’ back as a whole. Lastly, strong differences appeared between the populations, leisure horses being evaluated as having sounder spines, exhibiting lower sEMG measures and rounder neck than the riding school horses. sEMG measures and neck “roundness” seemed therefore to be reliable indicators of back disorders, easy to evaluate in field conditions. This highlights the accuracy of using postural elements to evaluate the animals’ general state and has important implications for animals’ welfare evaluations.