Armchair vets: guess the diagnosis

Full disclosure, vet doesn’t come for 10 days so going to list the symptoms, then will list the diagnosis when the vet sees him.

19 year old career 1.30 jumper I purchased 2 1/2 years ago. He immediately went down to a 2’9"-3’3" jumper as I am an eventer, not a 1.30 jumper. No prepurchase was done as I had ridden him for 2 moths and he could turn and burn with the best. Last year he was ridden very tactfully for the last 6 months of the year by the barn owners and did well showing.

I started riding him again mostly dressage with minimal jumping due to weather and the symptoms went like this:

Not wanting to hold a 20 meter canter circle, especially to the left. A lot of diving down. head twisting, better to the right . This had gone from fine in Jan to current list of symptoms.

Stopping 4-6 strides in during a canter and refusing to move forward.

Head slinging straight up in the air with any contact

Rubs head on leg a lot when bridled up (changed bridle from a figure 8 to a regular hunt bridle with an easy snaffle and it was a little bit better)

Will trot lovely and push from behind, nice extended trot and will go in contact then but not the canter.

When asked to go forward once he has stopped and is “done”, will give a small buck or my fav, will rear but can easily sit there for a few seconds in a lovely “elevade”.

Will push from behind in the canter on a lunge line with a little head twisting on the right lead and a lot of head down and neck twisting on the left lead and is reluctant to continue. His hind end is well muscled. No one, including the vet, thinks he is 19.

My thoughts: neck arthritis, cracked tooth (he was floated in Dec) trigeminal neuralgia although he doesn’t head shake, something in the poll. He does not exhibit soreness when palpated down his back thru his SI. There is no swelling or heat anywhere.

Do not say he is 19. He has this ridiculous floaty trot and was flexed on a whim 1.5 years ago and they found nothing. He is on MWF Previcox just because and a heaping scoop of Cosiquin ASU Plus.

Hmm definitely seems like something nerve related in the front end.

Of your pretty thorough multiple choice, I’d go with neck arthritis.


Does he do these things when jumping, or just when flatting?

How is his chewing (carrots, hay or grain)?

This will sound odd, but does he lunge different/better with a girth vs untacked? (this seems common with neurological issues/broken necks). Sounds a lot like my broken necked gelding. The break didn’t affect him, but a year + later as calcification started to irritate his spinal cord and he showed obscure symptoms.

Similar to above my older horse w/ Cervical arthritis had canter issues. Not holding a lead on circles, stifle dropping away in corners, etc. remove rider and tack, free longe in round pen, he looked just fine. Spinal compression

When you started riding him after the pros rode him, what changed? Tack? Farriery? Turnout schedule?

Wanting to rub his face while bitted, is his noseband more snug than before? Less? I’ve had horses with hock and stifle soreness have that as one of their odd symptoms that disappeared after injections and rehab.

It does read as a classical physical discomfort but without a video of the horse in motion it could be tough to say.

Fingers crossed whatever it is is easily fixable.

You may have my guys mixed up. I have 2. My 12 year old Holsteiner went to Aiken to the trainer and just got home today and looks fabulous. It is my other Holsteiner that is having issues.

He flats fine until you ask for the canter then it falls apart. We tried cross rails today to see if possibly this upper level career jumper was simply protesting flatting for 4 months. We actually were doing fine figurer 8ing the cross rails as long as I kept the contact to a bare minimum. Until we had done that for about 15 min with frequent rest periods and then he refused to move forward and protested with a small buck and rear while standing in place.

I agree with you all as I think it is cervical arthritis also. I don’t know the prognosis on this.

My gelding has cervical arthritis (left side, C6/C7, C7/T1). He looks pretty good on the lunge, not perfect, but definitely serviceably sound. Under saddle it falls apart. He’s a head rubber. And his main symptoms are that he doesn’t fully extend / lock his LF knee at the walk or when standing square - this causes a strange stumble at the walk, worse with a rider on board. When his stifles were bothering him I experienced more of the resistance / canter issues you’re describing.

He’s now retired.

Gotcha. I should have been more clear (sorry!), I was responding about this line: “Last year he was ridden very tactfully for the last 6 months of the year by the barn owners and did well showing.”

Neck issues are so tough and varied in their symptoms. My personal horse with cervical arthritis and subsequent compression had zero symptoms until one day he was completely neurological and sidewinding at 22. The only ‘symptom’ I can think of that predated his sudden ataxia was he historically found dressage difficult. I attributed that to his 70+ starts and 10 years on the track, but it could very well have been a neck issue all along. He was a fantastic eventer and the safest horse I ever rode.

Meanwhile, I have another horse with bone spurs in his neck and he finds dressage incredibly easy – just don’t put him on the lunge with side-reins. He is maintained with injections and supplements, but realistically speaking this clinical finding will likely one day force his retirement. He passes a neurological exam, interestingly, very strong tail pull response – in his case, this bone-spur finding was incidental but I never forgot about it.

Slipping stifles in downward transitions can sometimes be an early sign of compression issues. They don’t always show up ataxic - they can have subtle neurological deficits too. Something as small as a toe drag, or abnormal tail posture, to having difficulty bending their neck to one side or even behaving demonstrably worse once contact picks up and the frame is shortened… But then again, these are also symptoms of other unrelated pathologies like bilateral suspensory issues, backsoreness from a bad saddle fit, kissing spine… if only they could talk, right?


Almost sounds like nerve pain. Has this horse had any bodywork recently? I am wondering if the back is sore or tight causing pinched nerves. Also don’t rule out ulcers or saddle fit. I see you mentioned teeth also, a dentist to x ray the head rather than just do a float might also be a good idea.

Can you lunge and video for us?

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I’m suspicious of neck, but have you tried a different saddle? It’s relatively easy, and some horses can be really difficult when something doesn’t feel right. I know one that will act quite like this (standing up when asked to canter) in a saddle that is too snug in the shoulder.

Is this the same one that has explosive tendencies otherwise? bolting from handlers even with a shank on and/or the unresolved severe water phobia?


Not trying to derail - but those of you with confirmed cervical arthritis horses, what were their symptoms? I know they can be super vague and present the same as KS/Suspensory/etc etc. Just curious for my own education and have a wonky horse I’m still trying to make comfortable!

I’d start with getting some video lunging and under saddle for the vet, then schedule a full lameness and neuro exam. I’d flex all four legs, possibly look at blocking feet, and do basic neuro evaluations. I’d also show the vet the videos.

My friend’s horse this winter started tossing his head and really trying to star gaze all of the sudden one day. It was mostly under saddle but a little bit on the lunge line. Mouth and teeth looked fine but back was pretty tight. He got some acupuncture and a few weeks off and then a few weeks of mostly walking and a bit of loose rein trot. He’s totally back to normal now - no idea but I wonder if he tweaked something nerve or muscular in his neck or back that just took a while to settle.

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Cervical arthritis can respond well to injections. It is apparently not an uncommon injury in certain western disciplines.


Seems like pretty nonspecific signs of pain, going to be process of elimination - saddle, teeth, lameness anywhere, back and neck, ulcers, then other weird stuff.
Order of operations may vary.

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That is my next thing to try before the vet comes out.

Mine was pretty obvious in that he started having incidents of being absolutely three legged - holding his LF in the air for a few minutes and then walking off. I saw it happen at the gallup in the pasture a few times and then once on the lunge. Diagnosed with x-rays and US. Tried adequan injections and then IRAP and rest. I got 18 months out of the first rounds of IRAP. 60 days out of the second. Then he was retired. He’s now 13, retired at 9.

Looking back, he was always a bit funny about that LF. He never fully extended it, but it was REALLY slight. He tends to very upright front feet and it was chalked up to hoof imbalances for a while until the above incidents presented themselves. Further investigation revealed scar tissue in his shoulder and the assumption is some sort of pasture incident when he was young. I’ve known him since he was a long yearling so it happened before then.


Goodness these symptoms sound so similar to my horse. Gorgeous floaty trot and has decided he can’t canter, especially around a turn and absolutely not with any contact. Weird dropping of head and pumping his head when he does canter on the straightaway. Canters on the lunge but it’s hard to keep him going, under saddle it’s impossible. Big time vet is scheduled for a workup, my regular vet has already xrayed everything except the neck and spine. Horse is only seven. Fingers crossed.

In my experience when a horse will not canter and/ or will not lift the back at the canter often the saddle is sitting on the withers. It doesn’t hurt or push much at the trot but pinches badly at the canter due to the movement of the shoulders/ spine and your seat coming more forward in a jumping canter. Sit on the horse and put your finger under the pommel then trot and canter. If your finger is pinched at the canter, or pinched only when you ask him to lift his back, that can very well be the problem.