By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation

News about the malformation of the C6 and C7 vertebrae has understandably raised a lot of concern. There are major implications for both buyers and breeders of TB and TB-derived breed horses, as outlined in the original article, All You Need to Know About the Hidden C6-C7 Malformation That’s Bringing Horses Down. In response, Sharon May-Davis has very kindly provided us with the English version of a paper she published in the Journal of Japanese Local Government Racing, outlining a preliminary protocol for radiographing this area of the neck and identifying the malformation. (Yes, a single racing authority has taken this issue on board!)

So without further ado, here is the paper in its entirety, the only adaptations being the positioning of images to better fit this site’s blog format.

 © All text copyright of the published authors. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Preliminary Radiographic Protocols for Identifying Congenital Malformations of the Caudal Cervical Vertebrae

Authors: May-Davis SER, Minowa F, Monoe S



In 2014, a published study based on dissections and skeletal examinations noted that 19:50 Thoroughbred horses had a congenital malformation of the 6th cervical vertebra (C6). In addition, it was found that in those 19 Thoroughbred horses expressing a congenital malformation of C6, 9 displayed a concurrent congenital alformation of the 7th cervical vertebra (C7). In this study, 3 Thoroughbred horses and 1 Thoroughbred type were clinically examined; 3 were radiographed for limb abnormalities and 2:3 radiographed for the congenital malformation of C6 and C7 prior to euthanasia. Upon dissection, 3:4 expressed a congenital malformation of C6 with 2:3 displaying a concurrent CM of C7. These 2 horses were positively radiographed for the CM of C6 and C7 prior to dissection. The radiographs of C6 were taken in direct lateral orientation with 0 degree of elevation and revealed the absence of the caudal ventral tubercle (CVT) of C6. Re-positioning the horse’s forelimbs caudally with an outstretched neck, C7 was radiographed at a 30° oblique lateral angle in a cranial to caudal direction with 0 degree of elevation; the transverse process of C5 remained cranial to the beam. The caudal aspect of the plate was positioned medial the Cranial deep pectoral and rotated vertically to expand the field of view of the cervical vertebrae, whilst remaining perpendicular to the beam



In recent times, 3 Australian studies reported congenital malformations of C6, C7, the 1st sternal rib, along with their associative soft tissue structures. Furthermore, it was noted that these congenital malformations were predominantly breed related and more specifically, to Thoroughbred horses or derivatives thereof. In addition, reports of forelimb proprioceptive dysfunction, neurological impediment and gait deficits were concurrently noted (May-Davis [a,b], May-Davis and Walker). The congenital malformations of C6 appeared as either a left or right unilateral absence of the caudal ventral tubercle (CVT) or as a bilateral absence of the CVT (Figure 1).


Left: Normal. Centre: Absent right CVT. Right: Bilaterally absent CVT

Figure 1. View of the ventral aspect of C6, cranial aspect top. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis


The congenital malformation of C7 appeared with either a fully transposed CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7 or a partial transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7 (Figure 2) (May-Davis [a]).


Left: Normal. Centre: Transposed right CVT. Right: Bilaterally transposed CVT

Figure 2. View of the ventral aspect of C7, cranial aspect top. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis


The congenital malformation of the 1st sternal rib appeared in multiple presentations with gross anatomic variations including; an absent 1st sternal rib; bifid Tuberculum costae (Figure 3); bifid Sternochondral articulation onto the sternum; flared shaft; normal 1st sternal rib inserting onto the cranial branch of a bifid Sternochondral articulating 2nd sternal rib; straight costal shaft and an articulating rudimentary Tuberculum costae with a ligamentous extension replacing the bony shaft and attaching to a rudimentary Sternochondral articulation onto the sternum (May-Davis [b]).

Figure 3. Left costal bifid Tuberculum costae. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis

Associative soft tissue structures varied according to the presentation of the congenital malformation with the most noted being, the Longus colli muscle, Scalene muscles and neural vessels such as the Phrenic nerve and Brachial plexus (May-Davis [b], May-Davis and Walker).

The congenital malformations noted in these 3 studies were determined via dissection and skeletal examination. They were based on 2 specific skeletal variations in C6 and C7 plus any variation to normal of the 1st sternal rib.

The congenital malformations could appear in C6 as a singular expression with no other anomalies, however, the congenital malformation of C7 only occurred when the CVT was absent on C6. The congenital malformations of the 1st sternal rib only occurred in the presence of the congenital malformation of C6 and C7 (Table 1) (May-Davis [b]).

With this in mind, the premise that if a congenital malformation exists in C6 then there is a 50% chance that transposition will occur on C7. In this format, it would stand to reason that there could also be an anomalous rib. Therefore, this study is designed to identify the absent CVT on C6 and investigate its transposition onto C7.


Table 1. Noted observations of 151 horses of mixed gender aged between 0 (stillborn) and 30, exhibiting a congenital malformation of C6, C7 and the 1st sternal rib.


Materials and Methods

After evaluation and clinical examination, the 2 horses (1 Thoroughbred and 1 Thoroughbred type) were restrained in cross ties. Detomidine Hydrochloride (Detomovet CEVA Animal Health Pty Ltd) was administered via left jugular vein venepuncture. The dosage was determined by the clinician’s experience and in consideration of the individual’s current health status.

The radiographs were obtained by utilising a Porta 100 HF High Frequency portable x-ray unit (7.8kgs). The kV range was 40-100kV with an mA range of 20-30 mA and a mAs range of 0.3 – 20 mAs. The images were captured on a wireless Rayence 1012WCA Medical Image processing unit (26cm x 32.5cm) and computerised with Vetview Digital Diagnostic Imaging software.

The radiographic angles were obtained with the horse’s neck in full extension and the forelimbs behind the vertical in standing position. With the clinician standing with the x-ray unit on the left side of the neck and the plate positioned on the right side of the neck, the distance between the x-ray unit and plate was 80cms. The x-ray unit and plate remained lateral to the cervical vertebrae determined by the transverse processes of C5.

The first view is a direct lateral at 90 degrees, with 0 degree of elevation whilst maintaining the transverse process of C5 to the left of the beam. 

Remaining lateral to the cervical vertebrae with a 0 degree of elevation, the second view is taken with the x-ray unit positioned at a 30° oblique lateral angle in a cranial to caudal direction with the transverse process of C5 cranial to the beam. The caudal aspect of the plate is positioned medial the Cranial deep pectoral and rotated vertically to expand the field of view of the cervical vertebrae, whilst remaining perpendicular to the beam.

Upon the radiographic evaluation of C6, radiographs of C7 are obtained. The 4 horses were then euthanized and dissected so to verify the radiographic findings. Only those pertaining to the congenital malformation of C6 and C7 are reported in this study.



Figure 4. A compressed trachea (white arrow) in Thoroughbred No. 2 at C6 / C7. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis

Upon euthanasia of the 4 horses, Thoroughbred No.1 was normal. Thoroughbred No.2 presented with an absent CVT in C6 and trachea compression (Figure 4).

Thoroughbred No. 3, presented with a C6 and C7 congenital malformation and a malformed 1st sternal rib. The Thoroughbred type also presented with a congenital malformation of C6 and C7 (Table 2).



Table 2. Noted observations via dissection of the congenital malformation of C6, C7 and the 1st sternal rib.


Left: Radiographic view of C6. Centre: The white line denotes a normal CVT. Right: The white denotes an absent CVT.

Figure 5. The radiographic lateral view of C6 depicting a unilaterally absent CVT in C6. Image credit: Sharon May-Davis


Thoroughbred No. 3 C7 radiograph (Figure 6) clearly presents the observer with a transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7, furthermore it denotes a reciprocal deviation in the trachea at the point of this transposition.


Left: Radiographic view of C7. Centre: The white line denotes the unilateral transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7. Right: The white line denotes the deviation in the trachea.

Figure 6. The radiographic view of C7 depicting a unilaterally transposition of the CVT from C6. Image credit: Sharon May-Davis


The Thoroughbred type (Figure 7) exhibits the absent CVT in C6. The radiograph clearly indicates an absent CVT that is unilateral in its presentation.


Left: Radiographic view of C6. Centre: The white line denotes a normal CVT. Right: The white denotes an absent CVT.

Figure 7. The radiographic lateral view of C6 depicting a unilaterally absent CVT in C6. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis.


The Thoroughbred type C7 radiograph (Figure 8) clearly presents the observer with a transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7, furthermore it denotes a reciprocal deviation in the trachea at the point of this transposition.


Left: Radiographic view of C7. Centre: The white line denotes the unilateral transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7. Right: The white line denotes the deviation in the trachea.

Figure 8. The radiographic view of C7 depicting a unilaterally transposition of the CVT from C6. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis.


Figure 9. Right: Absent CVT on C6 (white arrow) and transposed CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis

Upon dissection, the Thoroughbred type displayed identical congenital malformations of C6 and C7 as depicted in the radiographs (Figure 9).







This study was conducted with the view to obtain specific radiographic evidence of the congenital malformation of C6 and C7. Radiographic views of the 1st sternal rib were not possible due to thick and dense musculature in the region. The views obtained of C6 and C7 with exact radiographic angles proved that this region can be radiographed with precision so that the practitioner can make a clear diagnosis should a horse present with a neurological deficit, as previously published (May-Davis

[a, b], May-Davis and Walker]). Furthermore, the asymmetry of the cervical vertebra could exacerbate arthritis in the articular process joints as previously noted (May-Davis [a]). In addition, the incidental finding of the compression of the trachea is an important factor to consider when Thoroughbred racehorses present with compromised airways. An explanation for this occurring is that the Longus colli muscle hypertrophies in support of the weakened structures and due to its proximity to the Trachea, it impinges upon its dorsal surface. This impingement is further exacerbated by the ventral projection from C7 of the transposed CVT from C6.

Since the first publication in 2014, retrospective studies were conducted that added another dimension to the current research. Italian and American studies noted that Warmbloods, Quarter Horses and Arabs were also afflicted with this condition (Santinelli et. al 2016 and DeRouen 2016). It is significant to note that these breeds present the majority of the ridden horse population in Japan extending from Racing, Showjumping, Dressage to Eventing and Endurance. However, a specific Dutch Warmblood study was conducted with fresh cadaver’s that were portioned and CT scanned (Veraa 2016), this also included Oldenburg horses. The congenital malformation of C6 and C7 was present in both breeds with a noted malformed 1st sternal rib in a Dutch Warmblood. Combined percentages of these 3 studies in conjunction with the 3 Australian studies and the current study has the congenital malformation of C6 at; Warmbloods 30%, Quarter Horses 16% and Thoroughbred horses over 40%. 

Aside from the Arabian who is an ancestor to the Thoroughbred, the Warmblood breeds and Quarter Horses all have Thoroughbred lineage in the back line of their breeding. Thus, implying that this condition is heritable as noted by May-Davis [b] and more systemic than just one breed. With this in mind, all critical events should be assessed with the knowledge that a potential congenital malformation could exist in C6, C7 and the 1st sternal rib, as previously noted. With the largest population of horses in Japan being Thoroughbreds, it would be a recommendation to note the studies of several countries including Japan and the severity in percentage of this systemic congenital malformation. Especially in relation to Thoroughbred’ racehorses racing and cornering at speed.



This study showed that of the 4 horses investigated, 3:4 horses displayed a CM of C6, 2:3 displayed the congenital malformation in C6 and C7, and 1:2 a congenital malformation of the 1st sternal rib. Even with a small sample of Thoroughbreds, studies from other countries must be measured and it would therefore be a recommendation to radiograph for this condition in the caudal cervical vertebrae in a pre-purchase examination. The purpose of which would be to eliminate this condition so that riders and handlers are not put at risk.


Author contributions

Sharon May-Davis, Fumiko Minowa and Sadae Monoe wrote and reviewed this article.


Conflict of Interest

The authors have no conflict of interest in the preparation or presentation of this original research article.



The author wishes to thank Christine Gee for her professional advice on the manuscript. The Nippon Veterinary and Life Sciences University for the use of their facilities and to those authors / editors/ publishers of those articles, journals and books cited in this manuscript.



Derouen A, Spriet M, Aleman M. Prevalance of anatomical of the sixth cervical vertebra and association with vertebral canal stenosis and articular process osteoarthritis in the horse. Vet Radiol Ultrasound, Vol. 00, 2016, pp 1–5.

May-Davis SER. The Occurrence of a Congenital Malformation in the Sixth and Seventh Cervical Vertebrae Predominantly Observed in Thoroughbred Horses. J Equine Vet Sc 2014; 34:1313-17.

May-Davis SER. The Congenital Malformation of the 1st Sternal Rib. J Equine Vet Sc 2014; 34:1313-17.

May-Davis SER, Walker C. Variations and implications of the gross morphology in the Longus colli muscle in Thoroughbred and Thoroughbred derivative horses presenting with a congenital malformation of the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. J Equine Vet Sc 2015; 35:560-8.

Santinelli I, Beccati F, Pepe M. Anatomical variation of the spinous and transverse processes in the caudal cervical vertebrae and the first thoracic vertebra in horses. EVJ 48 (2016) 45–49.

Veraa S, Bergmann W, van den Belt A-J, Wijnberg I, Back W. Ex vivo computed tomographic evaluation of morphology variations in equine cervical vertebrae. Vet Radiol Ultrasound, Vol. 00, 1–7.




All You Need to Know About the Hidden C6-C7 Malformation That’s Bringing Horses Down

What if you were to learn that your horse is living with a hidden malformation? A skeletal abnormality that could be affecting it every day, changing the way it moves, creating a string of other physical problems, and possibly underlying the hard-to-pinpoint problems you’ve been noticing for months or even years ?

And that might even be causing a level of inherent instability that could be putting the rider in danger?

Sadly, this isn’t a hypothetical question. Instead it’s a reality that is only now being slowly uncovered.

And like the proverbial stone rolling down a mountain, the issue is gathering momentum as the equine industry, owners, breeders and researchers learn about it.

  • It’s a skeletal malformation and it can’t be corrected.
  • It’s congenital, ie inherited, so is present from birth.
  • It has been in some lines of TBs for hundreds of years.
  • It creates biomechanical issues due to asymmetry and lack of anchor points for key muscles.
  • At its worst, it can contribute to neurological issues such as Wobbler syndrome.
  • Some horses are so unstable, they are more prone to falling (not good news for jockeys).
  • It can cause constant pain and associated behavioural changes.
  • It’s primarily found in Thoroughbreds, Thoroughbred crosses and Warmbloods, but has also been identified in European breeds, Quarter Horses, Arabs and Australian Stock Horses.


The problem behind this is a congenital malformation of the C6 and C7 cervical vertebrae (ie, base of neck) – and it’s pretty nasty.

I’ve written about the work of Sharon May-Davis on this blog before and here I’m going to do so again. Through her many dissections per year, gross anatomist Sharon has become the first person to comprehensively document and quantify this problem. 

In doing so, and publishing her findings in peer-reviewed journals, she has triggered a minor research avalanche as others take up the subject.


Those of us fortunate to attend Sharon’s many equine dissections in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Europe have been learning about this for some time. For bodyworkers and hoof trimmers, it has dramatically changed our work. I believe I’ve worked on several horses with this problem, including an eventing horse, a dressage prospect, and a TB intended for a child.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an extremely serious problem that is in some cases grave for the horse concerned and can potentially cause injury or loss of life for the rider.


The following is an amended version of an article that I wrote for the Winter 2017 edition of Equine News, a NSW, Australia print magazine that sponsored one of Sharon’s series of public lectures on this issue.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


A hidden problem: this OTTB had the C6-C7 malformation but presented few outward signs.


Twenty years of research

Sharon May-Davis’s path with this research began some 20 years ago. In February 1996, a Thoroughbred called Presley came down unimpeded in a race in Grafton, NSW, fracturing his pelvis, a hock bone, and right front fetlock.

Three years later, Sharon examined his bones, and saw something strange in his last two cervical vertebrae and his first ribs.

Fast forward to 2014, when Sharon published the first of her four peer-reviewed papers in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, concerning a congenital malformation in the sixth and seventh cervical (neck) vertebrae.

Although the problem had been mentioned briefly in papers, this was the first time that a researcher had accurately described and quantified the problem in its various forms.

Sharon’s unique perspective, gained as an anatomist who dissects between 15 and 20 horses per year, had certainly placed her in a position to do so.


The horse’s seven cervical vertebrae – made simple

Horses have seven vertebrae in their necks, labelled C1 to C7. Of these, four have unique shapes. Most horse people are familiar with C1, the first vertebrae known as the atlas, as it can be both seen and felt by hand with its distinctive ‘wing’ at the top of the neck.

Cervical vertebrae from C1 (top) to C7 (bottom), view from above (L) and below (R).

Almost as well-known is C2, the second vertebrae, known as the axis.

Both atlas and axis have unique shapes for a special reason: they support the heavy skull and anchor the muscles that control the head’s movement.

Heading down the neck, C3, C4 and C5 are broadly similar in shape, with each being a bit shorter and blockier than the one above.

However, C6 and C7 are both slightly different on the ventral (lower) side, for here they provide insertion points for muscles arising from the chest.


  • C6 has transverse processes (the protrusions extending outwards) that are different to those of neighbouring bones, with two distinctive ridges running the vertebrae’s length. C6 also has two large transverse foramen, the openings that the arteries pass through.
  • C7 is the shortest and squattest cervical vertebrae of all. Its transverse processes are shorter, while there are also two facets that articulate with the first ribs. C7 has no transverse foramen.


At least, that’s how the vertebrae should be in a normal horse.


So, what is wrong with the malformed C6 and C7 vertebrae?

In certain horses, these last two vertebrae are rather different, being malformed.

Sharon has identified the manifestations of this problem as a congenital (inherited) malformation affecting some Thoroughbred horses, and horses with Thoroughbred blood in their ancestry.

In C6, there is a problem with the two ridges of the transverse processes, as one or both can be partially absent.

When both are partially missing, it is common for one or two ridges (ie, parts of the transverse processes) to appear on C7 instead.

Also, the articular processes (the oval surfaces on the upper side, where each vertebrae links to its neighbours) can be radically different sizes. There can also be an additional arterial foramen or two.

The level of asymmetry can be radical.



The secondary problems this malformation causes

Being at the base of the neck, the asymmetry of C6 and C7 can cause alignment problems all the way up the vertebral column, leading to osteoarthritis of the articular facets.

It can also contribute to Wobbler Syndrome (Cervical Vertebral Stenotic Myelopathy), due to narrowing and/or malalignment of the vertebral foramen/canal, the opening through which the spinal cord passes. Not all Wobbler cases have this particular malformation, though.

A further problem is that the lower part of the longus colli muscle, which is involved in flexing the neck, would normally insert on the transverse processes of C6 and C7. When these processes are malformed, the normal insertions are not possible.

This means there is a serious symmetry problem in the junction of the thorax and neck, which can have a deeper effect on the horse’s neurology and proprioception, as well as respiration.


Asymmetry and narrowed vertebral foramen (canal) contribute to DJD and Wobbler Syndrome.


In a few cases, horses with both the C6 and C7 problem also have malformations of the first sternal rib, on one or both sides. This can cause problems beneath the scapular and further issues with muscular attachments.

Associated stability problems can have far-reaching consequences for the horse, not to mention some serious safety issues for the rider. The safety issue can’t be stated often enough.

(Add to this the fact that the horse’s nuchal ligament lamellar does not attach to C6 and C7, and often only feebly to C5, then you can see that this is a high level of instability in a critical area. Read more about Sharon’s findings on the nuchal ligament here – How the Anatomy Books Unintentionally Fail us Over the Nuchal Ligament.) 

Read on for information on for signs that this problem may be present in the living horse…


© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Why isn’t the C6-C7 problem more widely known ?

Why hasn’t this problem been noticed in regular veterinary interventions?

The answer is quite simple. While neurological issues may have been diagnosed, the exact cause has often remained hidden. 

Both Thoroughbred horses and Warmbloods are known to have higher incidences of Wobbler Syndrome than other breeds, and while this is certainly not always due to C6-C7 malformation, the malformation has been found in some when dissected.

For example, the following dissection image appears in a veterinary account of large animal spinal cord diseases. It clearly shows a malformed C7 vertebrae, very similar to the one in the above image, but without giving any further categorisation.

The difficulty lies in the deep location of the lower cervical vertebrae. While normal radiographs can show all or some of C6, they are unable to penetrate the deeper tissues beneath the shoulder to image C7.


Photo from another online article: the familiar asymmetry of a malformed C7 is clearly visible in a dissected set of vertebrae.  (c) (click image to access full article.)


Nevertheless, the malformation can be identified in radiographs of C6, once you know where to look.

Since Sharon’s first paper appeared, the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, has reviewed its history of radiographs from horses with Wobbler Syndrome.

Researchers found that 24 cases out of 100 (close to 25%) showed malformation of one or both C6 transverse processes. This study also clarified how to identify the problem on standard radiographs of C6.

In another study, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, completed CT scans on horses’ necks and found the various forms of the malformation in 26 horses out of 78 (33%). Unlike radiographs, the CT scans enabled identification of the C7 and first rib issues, although of course this imaging was conducted post mortem.


Is this rare, or are many horses affected?

While the problem has been identified primarily in TBs, it affects most breeds with TB blood in the ancestry to some degree.

Sharon May-Davis reports that to date, published, peer-reviewed journal papers have tallied 136 out of 471 horses as exhibiting congenital malformation of C6.

These have been in a range of breeds including Thoroughbreds (39%), Thoroughbred crosses (27%), Warmbloods and European breeds (30%), Quarter Horses (11%), and Arabs (11%). Standardbreds have also shown the problem, although the numbers included in studies are very small.

A common question is whether it’s known which TB lines predominantly carry this problem. The answer is: Yes. However, it is now so disseminated amongst the modern equine population beyond TBs, that it is of little help to identify them.


“Eight Belles… might have been genetically predisposed to breaking down.” 

Exploring the views of a TB lineage expert, this American article from 2009 asks why certain TB lines were prone to breaking down on the track – Eight Belles Breakdown: A Predictable Tragedy


It must be remembered that these horses are those already brought to veterinary attention and/or euthanized for a related or unrelated reason, so the percentages may be higher than those for the general horse population. At the same time, the malformation might have played a major part in the horses’ decline, due to the many locomotory and postural problems it can lead to.

 Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


‘Gift Horse’, the Trafalgar Square sculpture by Hans Haacke, displayed the malformation, presumably having been modelled on a modern-day skeleton. The George Stubbs anatomical drawing on which it was styled did not. Image (c)


How do we identify these horses in life?

It’s all very well looking at these bones post mortem, you might say. Yet how can I tell if my horse has this problem? Or a horse that I might want to buy?

Some answers are forthcoming. As Sharon has frequently assessed horses before dissecting them – usually from video – she has been able to observe that many of these horses lack stability. (Indeed, in many cases, it is this very instability has directly led to the horse being euthanized, and ending up on the dissection table.)

As her research has progressed, she has also been able to identify many biomechanical and locomotion traits that make these horses ‘suspicious’ or at least ‘of interest’. Unsurprisingly, these problems have been particularly noticeable in horses with both a malformed C6 and C7.

For owners and equine professionals, here are some signs that can raise initial suspicions. All can also be caused by other problems, so a group of signs is more common than an individual indication.

  • Some of these horses have a problem with standing square in front, and will always keep one foot further forward. This can persist despite all attempts to improve the horse’s body and to train the horse to halt squarely.
  • Horses with the more serious malformations will often stand base-wide. Such horses can become very unbalanced on uneven ground, and sometimes in work. They easily become unbalanced when a hoof practitioner works on a forefoot. 


A bilateral C6 – unilateral C7 horse showing a toe-out stance and hoof distortion. The ventral part of the transverse process was transposed onto the left side of C7.


  • With such asymmetry in the skeletal structure, these horses have serious lateral flexion issues that can’t be overcome. When required to elevate the forehand, many will experience difficulties, due to the absence of correctly inserted musculature and incorrect articulation through the joints of the lower neck. 


The horse may have one very prominent, widely positioned scapula.


  • A high level of asymmetry may be seen in the shoulders, with one scapula sometimes positioned very wide, with no improvement after chiro, osteopathy or bodywork. This is particularly so with the C6-C7 problem and associated first sternal rib abnormalities.
  • The ventral aspect of the neck may show some scoliosis.

    There may be scoliosis along the entire spine.

  • There may be an obvious scoliosis to the underside of the neck.
  • The problem may lead to heavily asymmetric loading of the forefeet, so may be accompanied by a severe high foot/low foot issue (this is not in itself a sign of the C6-C7 problem).






If you suspect your horse has the C6-C7 issue

First, note that many horses do just fine with a C6 problem. It is those with the bilateral C6 and unilateral/bilateral C7 issue that tend to show the more worrying problems.

If your horse is showing ongoing signs of instability, it’s important to seek veterinary advice, so that neurological issues can be ruled out. (As this a recently recognised problem, it may be worth printing out the abstracts from the journal articles listed at the end of this page and handing them over.)

If the more severe malformations are identified by radiograph, it is important to remember that in some cases this can cause discomfort and pain to the horse, and it is not going to improve over time. 

Since this article was published, Sharon has allowed me to publish her paper with a preliminary protocol for radioagraphing for this issue. Read it here: By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation.

On the contrary, the cervical vertebrae of some older horses with the C6 and C7 malformations often display advanced osteoarthritis of the articular processes, as shown in the header image of a 19-year-old Thoroughbred’s malformed C7.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


Where does this knowledge take us?

At the moment, that question is wide open. The findings published by Sharon May-Davis have triggered ongoing research on an international level. There are certainly ramifications for breeders in more than one equine sporting industry.

Connections have been made with a number of falls on the racetrack that have caused injury, and worse, to both horse and jockey, as well as other runners. Similar things can be said for the sport of eventing, where unforced errors can have equally catastrophic effects.

It is entirely possible that at higher levels, pre-purchase examination radiographs will come to include a check on C6. While it’s not possible to radiograph the deeply positioned C7, we do at least know that this will only be present if the C6 anomaly exists.

Vets in some countries are proving faster at picking this up than others. While papers are being published, it clearly takes some time for information to filter down.

And until more is known, this problem is being unknowingly propagated every breeding season.

Of course, many horses harbouring the milder manifestations of this problem at C6 level are functioning very well. All horse owners can do is be aware that this issue exists, make use of this information if a problem arises, and await further research findings.


Since this article was published, Sharon has allowed me to publish her paper with a preliminary protocol for radioagraphing for this issue. Read it here: By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Sharon May-Davis’s research includes the rarely documented arthritis affecting the elbow joint of ridden and driven horses – Revealed: the Common Equine Arthritis You Won’t Read About in Textbooks.

Plus, read about the effects of hard race training on Thoroughbreds – Buying an Ex-Racehorse: Can You Spot the Major Physical Issues? – and advice from a seasoned trainer on rehabbing your horse once it’s arrived at your stable – 8 Golden Rules for Helping Your Thoroughbred Get Right Off the Track.


Literature on the malformation


Peer reviewed journal articles on the C6-C7 and related first sternal rib issues.


Meet Spinalis, the Forgotten Muscle in Saddle Fitting

Spinalis Header

It’s barely mentioned in saddle fit or anatomy books, yet  M. spinalis cevicis can hugely impact on the spinal health and movement of the horse, particularly with poor tack fit.

Meet M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis, a far more important muscle than is generally realized. As a deep muscle, it’s influential in mobilizing and stabilizing that hidden area of the spine at the base of the neck, the cervico-thoracic junction, deep between the scapulae.


Where to Find this Muscle

As part of the deeper musculature, M. spinalis is as hidden in books as it is in life. Usually, it’s a single entry in the index.

Spinalis StandardAt best, it has no more than a bit part in anatomical illustrations,  usually as a small triangular area at the base of the withers. This is also where we can palpate it.

The reality is quite a bit more interesting. It’s actually a muscle of three parts – dorsalis, thoracis and cervicis. These names denote its many insertions,
for it links the spinous processes of the lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae.

  • Bradley_2.1Further back along the spine, it lies medially to the M. longissimus dorsi, and in fact integrates with this larger, better known muscle, attaching to the processes of the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae.
  • When it reaches the withers, it becomes more independent, attaching to the processes of the first half dozen thoracic vertebrae (T1-T6). Here, the cervical and thoracic portions overlap and integrate to share a common attachment. (The part we palpate, at the base of the withers, is the thoracic section.)
  • Heading into the neck, as M. spinalis cervicis, it attches to the last 4 or 5 cervical vertebrae (C3/C4-C7). Only the lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament runs deeper than this muscle.

Dissection 2Its integration with other muscles is complex, and its close relationship with M. longissimus dorsi partially explains why it doesn’t get much consideration as a muscle in its own right.

It is the more independent section, M. spinalis cervicis, between withers and neck, that we are interested in, although its influence is present along the entire spine.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


What Does Spinalis Do? 

In his 1980s’ Guide to Lameness videos, Dr. James Rooney, first director of the Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky, referred to M. spinalis as part of the suspension bridge of muscles supporting the spine (M. longissimus dorsi achoring from the lumbosacral vertebrae, M. spinalis thoracis et dorsalis from the upper thoracics). He also refers to this extensively in The Lame Horse (1988).

In fact, the suspension bridge analogy only really makes sense if M. spinalis dorsi is considered.

M. spinalis cervicis is usually credited with a role in turning the head to left to right, and raising the head.

Bradley Spinalis-1Older texts, such as Bradley’s 1922 veterinary dissection guide, Topographical Anatomy of the Horse, mention its role in stabilizing the spine.

This creates a point of interest. Given that the nuchal ligament (lamellar portion) doesn’t attach to C6 and frequently only weakly with C5 (see the findings of anatomist Sharon May-Davis, in this earlier article ), M. spinalis cervicis suddenly appears pretty important in stabilizing and lifting the base of the neck, particularly as it does so at the point of greatest lateral bending.

ETA: Having now talked to Sharon, it appears that in her dissections, she has made a finding about an association between the lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament and M. spinalis. I’ll be writing an update article on this in February. [added 3 Jan 2017]


Spinalis and Poor Saddle Fit

Anyone who has been involved in close examination of the horse’s back will recognize M. spinalis thoracis where it surfaces close to the skin, on either side of the withers.

When a horse has been ridden in an overly tight saddle, this small area of muscle can become pretty hypertrophic – raised and hardened. Typically, the neighbouring muscles are atrophied. When M. spinalis is palpated, the horse often gives an intense pain response, flinching down and raising the head.

GerdHeuschmanWhat often happens is this. An overtight saddle fits over the base of the withers like a clothes peg, pinching M. trapezius thoracis and  M. longissimus dorsi. However, it frequently misses M. spinalis thoracis where it surfaces, wholly or partially within the gullet space. Often, the muscle is partially affected.

It’s as if the neighbouring muscles are under lockdown. Free movement of the shoulder is restricted and the horse’s ability to bear weight efficiently while moving is impeded. In response to the surrounding restriction and its own limitation, this muscle starts to overwork.

Result? The horse, which was probably already moving with an incorrect posture, hollows its back even further, shortening the neck and raising its head.  As this becomes even more of a biomechanical necessity, all the muscles work even harder to maintain this ability to move, despite the compromised biomechanics.

Working harder and compensating for its neighbours, M. spinalis becomes hypertrophic. It is doing what it was designed to do, but it’s now overdoing it and failing to release. We now have a rather nasty vicious circle.


Spinalis photo



Here, M. spinalis thoracis stands out due to atrophy of the surrounding musculature. In this TB, a clearly audible adjustment occurred in the C4-C5 area after M. spinalis was addressed. 




Vicious CircleThe Inverted Posture and Asymmetry

Of course, saddle fit is not the only cause of an inverted posture. However, any horse that holds its head and neck high for natural or unnatural reasons is more vulnerable to saddle fit issues, thus starting a cascade effect of problems.

Are there further effects of this hypertrophy? Consider the connections.

  • When saddles are too tight, they’re often tighter on one side than the other. This can be due to existing asymmetry in the horse, such as uneven shoulders, uneven hindquarters, scoliosis, etc.
  • On the side with greater restriction, the muscle becomes more more hypertrophic.
  • With its attachment to the spinous processes of the lower cervical vertebrae, there is an unequal muscular tension affecting the spine.
  • Without inherent stability, the neck and head are constantly being pulled more to one side than the other, with the lower curve of the spine also affected.
  • Base of neck asymmetry affects the rest of the spine in both directions and compromises the horses ability to work with straightness or elevation.
  • There is also asymmetric loading into the forefeet.
  • We haven’t even started looking at neurological effects…

This isn’t speculation. I have seen this pattern in horses I’ve worked on, many times over.







So, How Do We Help?

In working with saddle fit problems, the saddle refit may be enough to help the horse, if the riding is appropriate to restoring correct carriage and movement. Obviously, the horse’s musculoskeletal system is complex and no muscle can be considered in isolation. As other muscles are addressed through therapeutic training approaches, with correct lateral and vertical flexion achieved, M. spinalis will be lengthened along with the surrounding musculature.

I hold with a restorative approach:

  1. Refit the saddle, preferably with the help of a trained professional,
  2. Remedial bodywork, to support recovery from the physical damage,
  3. Rest the horse, to enable healing of damaged tissue and lowering of inflammation, and
  4. Rehabilitate the horse, through the appropriate correct training that elevates the upper thoracics while improving lateral mobility.

This is particularly important where saddle fit has been a major contributor to the problem. I have frequently found that in these cases,correction will take longer to achieve, as the debilitating effects of poor saddle fit (especially long-standing issues) can long outlast the change to a new, better-fitting saddle. In bodywork terms, the hypertrophic M. spinalis cervicis is often the last affected muscle to let go.

It’s as if M. spinalis cervicis is the emergency worker who will not leave until everyone else is safe.


Bodywork Notes

I am fortunate, in that my modalities enable the gentle release of joints through a non-invasive, neuromuscular approach.  The responses I’ve had from horses when M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis has been addressed in isolation have been hugely informative.



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Appendix: Spinalis in the Textbooks

I’m going to add Spinalis references to this post on a regular basis, as I come across them. It’s interesting to see how much, or how little, the muscle is referenced in various textbooks.


Equine Back Pathology

This image, from Equine Back Pathology, ed. F Henson 2009, shows acute atrophy of M. longissimus dorsi due to neurological damage. It’s still possible to see the raised attachment/origin of M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis – the highlighting is mine. Spinalis does not appear in the book’s index. (added 23 Dec 2016)


nuchal and spinousI have also altered this image, in order to show M. spinalis cervicis more clearly. This is Fig 2.16 from Colour Atlas of Veterinary Anatomy Vol 2, The Horse, R Ashdown and S Done. Spinalis cervicis is within the bounded area and it’s possible to see how it overlies the lamellar part of the nuchal ligament, lamellar portion. (added 23 Dec 2016)


S&GThe muscle is tinted green in this image from Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of Domestic Animals, Volume 1, fifth edition 1975.  Here, it is labelled Spinalis et semi-spinalis cervicis. This anatomical figure is credited to an earlier text, Ellenberger and Baum, 1908. (added 23 Dec 2016)




James Roony dedicates two pages to the ‘suspension bridge’ theory of the vertebral column in The Lame Horse (1988). His interest is in M. spinalis dorsii section of the muscle and its effect behind the withers, in conjunction with M. longissimus dorsii. (added 4 Jan 2017)






Schleese diagramMaster Saddler Jochen Schleese refers to M. spinalis dorsi and its function in stabilizing the withers in Suffering in Silence, his passionate book about saddle fitting from 2014. “This muscle area is especially prone to significant development – especially with jumpers – because it is continually contracted to accommodate the shock of landing”. The surface area of the muscle is indicated in the anatomical figure, reproduced here. (added 23 Dec 2016)





In his seminal text addressing issues of modern dressage training, Tug of War, 2007, Gerd Heuschmann includes M. spinalis cervicis in the triangle formed by the rear of the rear of the cervical spine, the withers, and the shoulder blades, “… an extensive connection between the head-neck axis and the truck… it explains how the position and length of the horse’s neck directly affects the biomechanics of the back.” (added 31 Dec 2016)



Debunked: The Lie That’s Told About Adjustable Gullet Saddles


One of the best innovations in the world of saddle making has been the interchangeable gullet plate in the synthetic saddle tree. I mean, there’s no getting away from it, it’s brilliant. With the removal of a few screws, every horse owner can adjust their own saddle in minutes. Easy.

saddleWhy so good? Well, they can be fitted to a lot of horses. They can accommodate the changing shape of a growing young horse, as well as seasonal weight gain and loss, or the development of back muscle through training.

So what’s my problem with them?

Unfortunately, such saddles are often accompanied by extra inventions,
this time originating in the marketing department.

Before I go on, I must declare an interest here. I fit saddles. What’s more, I fit saddles with interchangeable gullet plates. I’m not going to say which brand, because that’s not what this post is about. I say this simply to demonstrate that I’m not against adjustable saddles.

My problem is very much with the misleading statements that are made in order to sell them, and in particular the notion that these saddles can be adjusted to fit any horse. Not just a single weight-changing or shape-changing horse, or a few horses in the same yard, but any horse.

They can’t. It’s not true. They simply can’t.


Back to the horse’s back

XchangeLet there be no doubt that many horses experience a lot of pain from ill-fitting saddles that are too tight, or too wide, at the front of the tree. Most people are familiar with the sight of horses with white hair behind the shoulder blade, and areas of mild to profound muscle wastage.

The so-called wither profile is incredibly important for this reason. Gaining a correct fit across the gullet (and I mean gullet in the Australian sense – referring to the front of the saddle tree only, rather than the entire channel) is a highly important aspect of saddle fitting.

Yet it isn’t the only aspect. Astonishing as it may seem, horses are 3-dimensional organic structures. Yes! And they have many profiles in that area where the saddle sits.


S/W Ver: 96.66.76RThink about horses’ backs. The gullet plate matches the profile across the withers. But what about the profile along the withers, as well? Withers have different heights and lengths…

There are other profiles, too. There’s along the spine. There’s across the back at the rear of the saddle area, close to the last ribs. All of these profiles have both lengths and angles.


This is one of the reasons why many experts in the world of saddle making and fitting refer to the 9 points of saddle fitting. Several of these points involve the length and angle of the profiles I’ve just mentioned.

genesisGoing back a few years, the common view was that there are 5 points. Times have moved on, anatomy and biomechanics are better understood, and saddle design has evolved dramatically to reflect more recent ideas about how a saddle should interact with the horse’s body and movement, as well as the rider’s. And yet…



Fitting saddles isn’t like buying a pair of socks

Going by a single measurement might be OK for some things, but it isn’t for saddles. There’s more than one measurement involved, and I’m not just talking about the rider’s seat size. Think again about horses’ backs.

  • We have high withers, middling withers and rangy tabletops. High withers can extend way back into the area of the saddle.
  • Looking along the spine, we can see dippy backs, straight backs and bumpy backs.
  • Looking across the spine, we can spot angular A-frame backs and smooth, flat and pudgy backs.
  • It’s easy to spot uphill and downhill backs.
  • Not to mention short backs and long backs (or, to be more accurate with saddle fitting, rib cages).
  • And spines may have wide spinal processes or narrow ones.
  • And how about round rib cages that spring out nearer the spine, or narrow, flat-sided rib cages that drop sharply away, and everything in between?
  • This is before we even look at damaged backs, uneven shoulders, laterally curved spines, and all manner of physical issues affecting the horse, rider and the saddle in between.

Horses have a combination of these features. Many horses have one or two that can make saddle fitting a bit tricky.  Some have combinations that make saddle fitting an utter nightmare.

The saddle’s tree must reflect all those variations. It’s what makes saddle fitting such an interesting challenge, and occasionally a very hard one.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!



But what about adjusting the flocking?

Well, what about it? Adjusting flocking is the saddle fit version of fine-tuning. It is not changing the overall fit of the saddle.

Adjusting the flocking when the tree is the wrong shape is like (ahem) whistling in the wind.

It’s like adding an extra hole to your belt in an attempt to make a pair of jeans fit, despite the fact that the waist is a size too narrow and the legs 6  inches too short.

Adjusting the flocking only works when the tree is already a fundamentally good fit. The same goes for any flocking substitute, such as risers or wedges inserted into the panels. It is not enough to make a saddle fit the horse, when the tree is the wrong shape.


screwdriverThe message is being massaged

Adjustable gullet plates are now free of the original designer’s patent restrictions and a number of companies are now using them.

As already said, that’s great, providing the saddles are fitted well.

And who determines that? It can be hard to be sure when certain departments continue to make this ongoing, inaccurate claim about their brand of saddles being adjustable to all horses.

It’s marketing at its worst. It’s not just misleading, it’s plain untrue. Worse, it’s willful mis-education that leads horse owners into the mistaken belief that because they have the right gullet plate, then their saddle fits and their horse can’t possibly be in any pain. 

It bugs me that people are being misled. It bugs me far more that horses end up being the silent incumbents of a problem with so much potential to lead to back pain. (And I have worked with the results first-hand.)

As I said earlier, when the saddle fits, FANTASTIC. In fact, FANTASTIC with bells on.

And when it doesn’t, it’s the horse who suffers, no matter how many professionals are saying that black is in fact white, and that with the right ‘system’, an adjustable saddle can be made to fit any horse.

It can’t.


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The Worm That Kills – And Why Only Two Worming Chemicals Can Stop It


Guest Post: After worming with standard wormers, some horses become critically ill with colic. Some even die. This post by Ann Nyland explains why this can happen in horses that haven’t received chemical wormers for a long time. 


New guy in town: the encysted small strongyle

The old idea of worming in rotation lingers on from the early days, when it was first put forward in 1966. In the 1960s, the dangerous worm was the large strongyle (Strongylus vulgaris) and worming treatment in the 1980s and 1990s targeted this worm.

Yet today, the problem worm is the small strongyle (cyathostome).

Rotation is no longer advocated by equine parasitologists. At any rate, no amount of rotating will help against encysted cyathostomes.

Unfortunately, most advice given today is, sad to say, still aimed at the old way designed to  eradicate the large strongyle – even though this worm is no longer the biggest problem.


Too much information – and it’s often wrong

Misinformation about equine worms is all over the net, from natural therapists to chemical companies. Horses have died because of this misinformation.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if something is said about a product, even on companies’ advertising or seminars, it must be true.

It isn’t. On the contrary, It’s common to find statements on ads about wormers such as:

  • “100% effective against all worms of horses and bots.”
  • “(Non-moxidectin, Non-fenbendazole product) safely and effectively rids horses of all major internal parasites, including tapeworms, in a single dose.”
  • “(Chemical) eliminates all common horse worms and bots.”
  • “(Non moxidectin, Non fenbendazole product) has the capacity to treat all common types of parasitic worms (including tapeworms) and bots.”
  • “(Non moxidectin, Non fenbendazole product) has the best combined efficacy and the broadest spectrum of activity of any wormer.”
  • “(Product) completely protects young horses from ascarids, as well as all other worms.”

All of the above statements are misleading.  There is no one product on the market that can be 100% effective against all worms.

In fact, only moxidectin or a single dose of fenbendazole for five consecutive days are effective against this encysted parasite.

So, moxidectin in Equest / Quest / Farnam ComboCare, and fenbendazole in Panacur 100 (or WSB Fenbendazole in Australia), will do the job. If in the US, you need to double the dose of WSB Fenbendazole.


Exactly why are encysted small strongyles so deadly?

Firstly, only two chemicals of all the available wormers out there can kill them. No other wormers will have any effect whatsoever.

What’s more, these encysted worms can stay encysted for years. (Encysted means that it is enclosed in a cyst in your horse’s intestine, after the larvae have burrowed into the intestinal wall.)

Now, encysted worms are normal part of the small strongyles’ life cycle. It’s a normal stage for them. When they finally develop into 4th stage larvae, they emerge from the cyst and enter the large colon. They then become adults, and the cycle starts again.

Now we come to the problem with them: the process of emerging. If there’s a huge number of them, the process of emerging may kill a horse. Even if there are fewer, but still a lot, the horse is likely get colic and/or scour and/or get edema. Or, they may be found dead in the paddock. In Australia, the owner usually assumes it is a snakebite.

The reason for this is that when they emerge, they release toxins from accumulated larval waste products.


What happens if a different wormer is used instead?

When a horse who has a lot of encysted small strongyles is wormed with a standard wormer (in other words, a wormer that isn’t moxidectin or fenbendazole based), the small strongyles encysted in the lumen (lining) of the intestine aren’t affected. Instead, the standard wormer kills the worms that are not encysted.

These worms then die and are passed out of the horse in manure.

This isn’t too bad if the horse doesn’t have many of them. However, if the horse has a lot, this is what happens next.

Because a lot of small strongyles have been killed in one go, those nasty encysted small strongyles, who have been sitting safety inside the horse untouched by the standard wormer, are given the signal to emerge all at once. They do so in big numbers, ready to replace the ones that the standard wormer has killed.

In emerging, they come right through the wall of the horse’s large intestine. They bring with them a large amount of toxins. This is what can kill your horse or give it colic.

If instead you worm with moxidectin (Equest) or a five-day dose of fenbendazole (Panacur 100 or WSD Fenbendazole), not only are the non-encysted adult small strongyles killed, but you will also kill a whole bunch of the encysted ones who were waiting to replace them. There will be no mass emergence of strongyles and no release of toxins.

These wormers are the only safe ones to use on horses with a suspected heavy worm burden.

To recap:

1) Moxidectin and fenbendazole wormers are the only ones that can kill the encysted small strongyles.

2) With other wormers, horses with a heavy worm burden can get sick or die when the encysted strongyles, which haven’t been killed, emerge through the colon wall to replace the non-encysted strongyles that have been killed.

This process is called Larval Cyathostomosis and it is damaging to your horse. The symptoms are colic, weight loss, diarrhea and/or subcutaneous odema. In the worst cases, the outcome is death.


How can you tell if your horse has encysted small strongyles?

Answer: you can’t. Horses can look very well and still be full of encysted worms.

Just imagine that encysted worms have been sitting there, possibly for up to three years. You can be worming regularly with standard wormers and they’re not affected in the slightest. What’s more, your horse can be looking and even performing very well.

Your standard wormer does nothing against the encysted small strongyles, so just ignore advertising claims that these wormers ‘kill all worms’.

If you have never given moxidectin, or fenbendazole for five consecutive days, well, that could be a cause for concern, depending on your geographical location and your horse’s individual circumstances.

Of course, some horses are more prone to worm infestation than others – the old saying “Some of the horses have most of the worms” is correct. In any group of horses, 20% will carry 80% of the worm burden. Many healthy horses have an effective immune response to worms, which keeps the numbers low.

That is, until the horse becomes sick, is badly fed or gets a large number of worms.


But don’t encysted small strongyles show up in fecals?

Now here’s a problem: encysted small strongyles don’t lay eggs.

Repeat: they do not lay eggs.

If you have an egg count done on your horse’s manure, it will not show how badly your horse is infested with encysted small strongyles. This means the egg count could be zero, but your horse could still be infested with these worms. It’s simply impossible for fecals to show how many encysted small strongyles are encysted within your horse’s intestine.

Your horse may not even look ‘poor’. In fact, your horse could appear to be in glowing health and still have a heavy worm infestation. Fat, shiny horses have died from worms. Don’t be fooled into thinking a horse is not heavily infested with these worms just by appearance.

Encysted small strongyles can’t be seen by the naked eye. You won’t see them, ever.

So, if your horse has ever had colic, has scoured or has been ‘off’ after worming, consider treating for encysted strongyles.

Here’s how to put together a program of treatment for your horse with neck threadworms (and maybe the Itch) that includes treatment for encysted small strongyles as well as the ivermectin treatment – How to Fight the Big Fight Against Neck Threadworms

Using moxidectin or fenbendazole for encysted small strongyles

Equest (moxidectin) is perfectly safe for horses, despite the scare-mongering and other such utter nonsense to be found on the net. Trials have been conducted where foals were highly overdosed (details and references are in my book – see below.)

If you have minis or small ponies and don’t have an accurate knowledge of their weight, you can use Panacur 100 (fenbendazole) for five consecutive days.

I immediately worm all rescue horses arriving here with the full dose of Equest for their weight, and then follow up at two weeks, and then again two weeks later. I don’t wait for the horse to gain weight until I worm – that road is paved with dead horses. And nor do I give them half a dose – again, that is a serious mistake.


Ann Nyland lives in New South Wales, Australia. With a PhD in equine physiology, she has published several books on worming for horses.


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Buying an Ex-Racehorse: Can You Spot the Major Physical Issues?


The ex-racehorse: a huge heart, a strong work ethic, great athleticism, wonderful sensitivity… and, potentially, a host of physical issues. Are you able to identify the problems so often present in these superb equine athletes?

A sports career can be tough on the body, as any committed athlete will admit. No matter how successful the athlete, the wear and tear and dings and dents will just keep on coming. It’s an inevitable consequence of making the body work at its outer limits of strength, speed and endurance: there are going to be times when the body just can’t make it or just can’t take the pressure. And that doesn’t count the spills and collisions that happen along the way. The same is as true for any top athlete as for any trainee who doesn’t make it past the foothills of success. And the same is definitely as true for racehorses as for any human Olympiad.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!

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The damage carried by ex-racehorses

racehorseJust how much damage an ex-racehorse displays in its physique depends on several things:

  1. the methods of training used,
  2. the speed with which the training was introduced and stepped up,
  3. the athletic qualities of that horse’s body – conformation, maturity and sheer unquantifiable athleticism,
  4. the treatment given and recovery time allowed for injuries at the time they occurred – assuming all were recognized (not all are visible or obvious),
  5. the demands placed on the horse in terms of number of races and recovery time between races,
  6. the length of time spent in racing, enabling the above to occur,
  7. the horse’s mental and emotional ability to cope with physical problems (it varies enormously).

exracer1As in any sport, there are things that are done well, and things that are not done so well. Informed training and misinformed. Well judged and misjudged. Just as in the rest of the equine world.

Some thoroughbreds come out of the racing industry in fine fettle and have splendid second athletic careers in high end competition. Many have lower level issues that come right with some rehabilitation, leaving them suited to successful but less demanding careers. Others may be more suited to recreational homes, where life is one long pleasurable trail ride.

Unfortunately, many thoroughbreds with moderate problems land up in homes with people who are quite unaware of their horses’ issues.


What would you look for when buying an ex-racehorse?

pleasurehorseWhen working with clients, I see a range of issues that come up again and again in ex-racehorses. I also see plenty of unsuspecting owners who didn’t know what they were buying at the time.

There’s a huge amount of love around, but the horse is often showing discomfort or pain, and the owner is only just realizing that (a) their horse may not be able to participate in the activities they’d hoped to experience together, and (b) getting the horse to a point when they can deal with these issues may cost considerably more than the horse did upon purchase.

It’s a sad situation. I believe that when looking at ex-racehorses, even those that have already had a couple of non-racing owners, you could do a lot worse than check for the physical issues listed here. Even better, get a vet to check the horse… but even then, you could run through this checklist before getting the vet in.

Don’t forget to read this guest post: 8 Golden Rules for Helping Your Thoroughbred Get Right Off The Track

There’s functional and not-so-functional when it comes to ex-racehorses

Not all the physical issues are deal-breakers, of course. A horse can have one or two and still be able to function perfectly well (although if it’s straight out of racing, some rehabilitative work is going to be necessary). A big part of your buying decision will come down to:

  • the number of issues you can identify,
  • the severity of those issues,
  • what has already been done to assist the horse with those issues,
  • how much they will affect the kind of riding you wish to do, and
  • whether YOU are capable of providing the rehabilitation and retraining needed to support the horse through those problems – or if not, whether you can afford to pay somebody else who can.

The list that follows is by no means exhaustive – there are always more problems, especially as a combination of different problems can throw up further secondary issues. And I don’t go into hoofcare, which is worthy of another introductory article in its own right. However, it’s a major issue, so I’d recommend learning more about that too.

What I’ve decided to focus on here are problems that you can identify quickly and relatively easily. Most are visually identifiable. You can then get a more knowledgeable person to help you assess the horse or get a vetting completed before making a decision. Better still, do both.


Don’t forget to read about the congenital skeletal anomaly that’s affecting TBs and TB-derived breed horses the world over: All You  Need to Know Abut the Hidden C6-C7 Malformation That’s Bringing Horses Down.

1. Sacroiliac Damage – Not Whether it’s There, but is it Sl
ight, Bad or Appalling?

This problem really is the number one, as every ex-racehorse has damage to the ligaments in this area. Depending on severity, there can be lesions that have healed, or lesions that have resulted in lasting weakness.

Frequently, when damage to the ligaments is  severe, there’ll be further changes to the pelvis that are also visible. These may may or may not have the same root cause (see 2, below). One general rule, though, is that the horse won’t be symmetrical.

SAMSUNGMajor damage can rule out a future athletic career, while moderate damage may require rehabilitative work to strengthen the back and prepare the horse for future work. Minor damage isn’t necessarily an issue once the ligaments have healed.

Check for: asymmetry of the tuber sacrales (the two bony ‘pins’ of the croup), with one side being more than 5mm higher than the other. The horse may walk with one side of the pelvis lifting higher than the other – a hip ‘hike’. The muscle development over the glutes on top of the hindquarters may be uneven. These horse are nearly always cagey about picking up a back foot – they’ll swiftly lift it really high and then lower it into position. The horse can also find it hard to stand square, instead standing with hind feet close together – one toe may be angled outwards. Always look for problems with the lumbar spine as well (see 3, below).

Click to Tweet this important point: “The Ex-Racehorse and Sacroiliac Damage – Not whether it’s there, but is it slight, bad or appalling?”


Sacroiliac dysfunction2. The Pelvis Can Be Equine Ground Zero

As well as sacroiliac problems, ex-racehorses can have other structural damage to the pelvis. Some of it you can see, some of it you can’t. The most important thing to do is check the pelvis for overall symmetry. What you’re checking for isn’t just pelvic rotation, ie. one side being higher or further forward than the other, but also distortion.

Distorted PelvisIn horses that have had heavy accidents at a young age, the pubic symphysis (the lower cartilaginous join between the pelvic halves, directly between the legs) hasn’t formed properly. The pelvis may be forced wider due to impact or stress, and this part never joins.

What problems does this cause? With a severely distorted pelvis, a horse can’t work equally well on both reins and may not be able to canter at all on one rein. These horses also have a higher risk of having hidden stress fractures – hairline fractures that can worsen after a further fall or trauma later in life.

Indeed, make sure that all the pelvic ‘bony landmarks’ – the point of hip, point of buttock, croup – are actually present. Sometimes fractures lead to ‘knocked down hips’ or one tuber sacral may have dropped due to a fracture of the pelvic wing.

Check for: Pelvic symmetry, by checking the positions of the bony landmarks. If you know the horse and it’s safe, stand on a box a few feet behind to take a look down the back of the squared up horse (if it can square up, that is). Otherwise, hold a mobile phone directly overhead to get a straight-down-the-back photo, ensuring it’s dead center. ALWAYS STAY IN A SAFE POSITION – CLIMB ON A FENCE TO LOOK, WHATEVER. JUST STAY SAFE.


© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact contact me for more information. Thank you!

3. Heading North, South, East or West… the Lumbar Spine

If you’ve found any sacroiliac or pelvic issues, you’ll probably find problems in the lumbar spine too. Lateral imbalance in the pelvis will, more often than not, rotate the lumbar spine to one side or the other. Lumbar issues can also be found all on their own.

Lumbar 1A long-term rotated lumbar spine will usually have some fusion between the vertebrae, and/or overriding dorsal processes (the part of the vertebrae you can feel). Fused areas are painful for the horse while they’re happening, and OK once the fusion is complete. But if fusion cracks, it can once more be extremely painful. Many horses compete just fine with some fusion, but if it’s severe, there’ll be problems with flexion, both vertical and lateral.

Check for: Use your hand to check the lumbar spine for the ‘lumps and bumps’ that can indicate overriding processes. Looking from the side, is the lumbar spine raised – ie, a roached back? This will usually tilt the pelvis back if it’s a longer term problem. If the pelvis is tilted forward, you’ll find there’s often a longer dip in front of the croup – the sacrolumbar gap is larger than normal.


knees4. Knee Bones: Take a Bag of Chicklets and Shake Them Up

Or so said Tom Ivers, one of the original equine sports therapy experts and a racing trainer to boot. Equine knees are delicate and complex, with many small bones (carpals), and undergo a lot of stress in a racing career.

Problems such as slab fractures and bone chips in the carpal bones happen due to over-extension (when the joint is bent back slightly) at high speed, or from constant loading on the same bend. Then there are more complex fractures, when the carpal bones break into more than two segments.

Check for: Puffiness around the joint, especially in front, due to previous swelling in the joint capsule. Old bone chips and slab fractures may have been dealt with at the time, but there can be lasting damage within the joint that leads to osteoarthritis (carpitis) later on.


buckedshins-15. The Stresses Left by Sore Shins

An ex-racehorse may have had an episode of sore shins in its early career. This is stress to the periosteum (the soft surface layer over the bone) caused by concussion – the body’s response is to lay down extra calcium to strengthen the bone. The bone recovers, but anywhere there’s been remodeling, there’s weakness in the bone.

If it’s severe, there may be an undiagnosed stress fracture that can go catastrophic under high pressure at a future date.

Check for: a curvature on the front of the cannon, which indicates that the problem was bad for heavy remodeling to occur.


bowed tendon6. Tendons, Tendons and More Damaged Tendons

Injuries to flexor tendons are extremely common amongst racehorses, with the deep digital flexor tendon and superficial digital flexor tendon being the most affected. These can be relatively minor lesions, which heal up quite nicely, to more serious ruptures that end a racing career.

There is always a risk of re-injury due to the weakness, and in serious cases, a second rupture could be catastrophic. It often depends on the quality of treatment and length of rest given at the time, as well as re-conditioning before returning to work.

Check for: a thicker area of the tendons indicates an old injury that has healed, while a curvature along the length of the tendon is a classic ‘bowed tendon’, sign of a far more serious injury.


S/W Ver: 96.66.76R7. Small but Vital: Fractures in the Fetlocks

Fetlocks are vulnerable due to hyper-extension, when the back of the fetlock comes too close to the ground when all the weight is borne on one foreleg at high speeds. Extremely high forces occur at the back of the fetlock and pastern as the horse lands the forefoot. Poor hoofcare, in the form of ‘low heel, long toe’ imbalance, also plays a significant part in this.

With fractures, the big, big issue is the type and location. A damaged sesamoid (the two small bones at the back of the fetlocks are the sesamoids)can play havoc with the vital suspensory ligament. So if you see signs of a problem, you’ll always need to know more, and that will usually mean involving a vet.

Check for: Sesamoid fractures will show up as ‘over-rounded’ or ‘apple shaped’ fetlocks, where swelling from an old injury has disrupted the joint capsule and/or extra calcium has formed around a restricted joint. Are the fetlocks of the forelegs the same size and shape? If one joint is larger and rounder, or if the ligament at the back of the foot feels thicker, with puffiness above the back of the fetlock, be suspicious.

Original article by Jane Clothier, posted 9 Feb 2014. All text and photographs (c) Jane Clothier. No reproduction without permission, sorry.


S/W Ver: 96.66.76R8. The Stifles Cop It, Nearly Every Time

There are numerous causes for stifle issues in ex-racehorses, but you can take the view that if there’s a problem anywhere in the hindquarters, the stifle usually suffers. This includes any pelvic imbalance that leads to unequal loading of the hind limbs, never mind the forces of running on a unilateral bend…

Then there are the rotational twists that can happen in collisions and on bad ground. There are so many ligaments around this complex double joint that it really isn’t hard for it to get compromised.

Check for: A regular click as a hind leg starts to swing forward. This is the patellar momentarily catching, which can happens due to the lateral imbalance (causing misalignment in the femeropatellar joint). Other signs are visual: distension (swelling) of the joint may be visible from the side-on view, or from the front looking back towards the tail, depending on which part of the joint has been affected (femeropatellar or femerotibial).


Hocks9. Bringing up the Rear: Hocks Are Vulnerable Too

The hock comes under major stress due to being so involved in providing propulsive power in the gallop. As a major hinge joint, it is central to jumping out of starting gates/barriers, when it’s subject to the load of almost the entire horse. In the gallop, it must alternate between being compressed to absorb concussion, being rigid to build energy, and then extending fully to dispel energy and move the horse forwards.

Frequently, it’s doing this while subject to uneven loading on a bend. Then there are the unplanned twists and traumas. Well-conformed hocks may deal with this pretty well, but over-straight hocks and ‘cow hocks’ mean that the joint is less able to withstand high levels of work. It’s common for DJD to develop in the lower bones of the joint, especially on the side that’s on the inside of the bend the horse raced in.

Check for: look for puffiness on the face of the joint. Also look for bog spavins – these are specific fluid bumps on the front of the joint, which indicate underlying issues. Bone spavins are their bony equivalents, being hard bumps lower on the face of the joint, which indicate the presence of established DJD (arthritis). Also, listen for a crunching noise or a crack when the hind foot is lifted.


S/W Ver: 96.66.76R10. A Crash and Bang on the Shoulder

Racehorses can experience awkward impacts at the base of the neck, above the point of the  shoulder. It can happen when bunched-up horses collide or run against railings, during a fall, or through everyday routine, such as a severe knock against a stable door. One outcome can be damage to the supraspinous nerve, which runs over the face of the shoulder blade (scapula).

When damaged, this can lead to wasting or even paralysis of the muscles over the shoulder blade itself, which is a problem, because these muscles stabilise the shoulder joint. This condition is known as ‘sweeney’. Mild cases usually recover, but more severe cases can be left with permanently wasted muscles. With reduced function in one shoulder and a shortened stride, the horse won’t be suited to demanding sports.

Check for: a lack of muscle over the shoulder blade itself. This is more than just tight muscles – the spine of the shoulder blade will be visually obvious and easy to identify through touch.


And There’s More… There’s Always More

S/W Ver: 96.66.76RIt’s hard to know where to stop with an article like this, but I hope this is a good start when it comes to assessing a horse. You may be thinking that many of the problems are those you should check for in any new horse purchase – and you’d be right. However, anyone who works regularly with ex-racehorses will recognize that there are certain sets of issues that come with these former athletes.

What I haven’t covered: neck issues are common (calcification at the top of the nuchal ligament, misshapen atlas and atlanto-occiptal junction, etc), hidden stress fractures (radius and tibia are most common, but also the scapula… and others), the fractured ribs that come with sideways impacts in a race, misalignment through C6-T4, and quite a few more… but all are harder for the non-professional to assess.

Other information is more of interest to people working in the field. For this reason, I’m adding some links below. Please feel free to mention your own in the Comments…

To finish off, here are two horses that raced in Australia, where it’s common to train horses at the very racetrack where they run most of their races. In the state of NSW, the horses run clockwise (the bay), while in the state of Victoria, they run anti-clockwise (the chestnut). A view straight down the ‘unstraight’ spine can tell you so much!





Now check out this article OTTB rehabilitation: 8 Golden Rules For Helping Your Thoroughbred Get Right Off The Track

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How to Fight the Big Fight against Neck Threadworms


This follow-up to ‘The Disturbing Truth About Neck Threadworms and your Itchy Horse’ discusses how to manage the parasites, once you know your horse has them.

The original article was aimed at my Australian bodywork clients here in NSW, yet it quickly worked its way through other networks – I haven’t a clue what or where, but it started running and it’s still running today.

Astonishingly, it’s now been read by over 28,000 people in 90 countries – and that’s in the first four months.

I make no claim to be the first to write about neck threadworms. For making it a more widely known issue, the forum members of The Chronicle of the Horse website must take credit (and I recommend anyone with specific questions about their horse to head over there). I guess my post succeeded in bringing the available information together in one place – in that it simply reflected my own experience of researching the subject on behalf of my newly itchy, increasingly unhappy horse.

‘The Disturbing Truth’ has certainly offered a possible answer to many owners whose horses are besieged by the living hell that is variously known as Sweet Itch, Summer Itch, or Queensland Itch. That’s because in a certain percentage of cases – not in all of them – the cause is onchercerciasis, a hypersensitive reaction to the larvae of the Onchercerca cervicalis parasite.

Ignore the nay-sayers – it’s an international battle

Imagine your itchy horse with a regrown mane...

Imagine your itchy horse with a regrown mane…

One thing that’s become really, really clear from responses to the first article is that onchercerciasis is a problem for horses worldwide. It’s obviously worse in some climatic areas than others, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in cooler zones.

Reading the comments triggered by the article tells us all we need to know. Horses travel within countries and internationally – the larvae can then be transmitted to new host horses in the destination region, providing there are enough local culicoid flies to transmit them. As another reader pointed out, warmer and wetter winter and summers are giving the flies a better hit at it than ever before.

Research has shown the presence of neck threadworms in horses in such non-tropical countries as Canada, the UK and Poland. In fact, the UK research was conducted in the early 1900s, showing that air transport of horses has little to do with it and that this parasite has been in cooler climes for a long time.


Dragging neck threadworms into the daylight

The comments at the bottom of ‘The Disturbing Truth’ are illuminating. Some people have battled their horses’ itch, often so bad that it prevents their horses from being ridden, for a decade or more. They have struggled with different diagnoses, with various medications, with investigations into suspected colon disorders and testing for allergen sensitivities, all to no avail. Everyone involved certainly meant well, but the problem still remained.

Astonishingly, more than one person has previously mentioned neck threadworms to their vet, only to have it dismissed out of hand, because “that’s not a problem around here”.

Despite this, some of those same horse owners have started treating their horses and are already some way down the road to reducing the larval population and are resolving the issue. Some are seeing manes grow back on their horses for the first time in years.

This isn’t to say that all itching is caused by the larval stages of Onchocerca cervicalis. I don’t want to be grandiose about this. But it’s certainly affecting enough horses for it to be worth ruling out. For the price of a couple of tubes of ivermectin wormer, why on earth not do just that?

Culicoid fly in close-up

Culicoid fly in close-up

It’s baffling that this problem has ceased being common knowledge and so often slips under the radar. It’s true that the companies producing wormers certainly know about neck threadworms, but quite naturally focus on promoting their products’ effectiveness against far more serious gastrointestinal worms. (And let’s be honest, many horse owners feel distrust towards drugs companies, whether involved in human or veterinary medicine.)

Even so, in regions such as the Australian tropical and subtropical zones, you’d think there’d be a bit more awareness, wouldn’t you? But then perhaps we’ve all been so hung up on Queensland Itch, we’ve been unable to see the wood for the gumtrees.


Down to business: How to win at worming

With your initial burst of worming, either on a fortnightly or monthly basis, single or double dose (as described in ‘The Disturbing Truth’), you’ll have established that your horse does indeed have neck threadworms. Using ivermectin, you’ll have seen a temporary worsening of the problem and, possibly, the increased itching and/or eruption of pus-filled lumps in the mane.

Moving on from that point , it’s important that you establish a strategy for dealing with the ongoing presence of the neck threadworms in future months and years.

Regretfully, when I say ‘win at worming’, what I actually mean is ‘win at managing the worms’. As we know, you can’t kill off the adults, only the microfilariae. Hence you can only strive to bring it all under control.

That’s why tackling neck threadworms in your horse is a numbers game. It’s safe to assume that most horses can deal with a relatively small number of microfilariae, so it follows that the more you can bring those numbers down – and keep them down – the more likely it is that your horse will be able to deal them without experiencing hypersensitivity.

In other words, the itching will ease.

A calcified lump in a dissected nuchal ligament

A calcified lump in a dissected nuchal ligament

Just to repeat: you can’t bump off the adults. Once they’re in your horse’s nuchal ligament, they’re there to stay for 10 years or more. And then even when they die, they remain present, entombed in a small calcified lump in the ligament. You can see one in the picture on the right. ‘M’ marks the center of a lump nearly 2x4cm in a veteran horse’s nuchal ligament.


How frequently should you worm?

At different times of the year, the microfilariae being introduced to your horse will vary in numbers, depending on the level of culicoid flies around. This means that with evenly spaced wormings, you’re going to have different results at different times.

As the warmer months are going to see faster increases of the population, it makes sense to worm more frequently in Spring and Summer. The microfilariae are picked up from a horse by the biting fly, after which they develop in the fly for 15-21 days (research seems to differ on this point). The flies are the vectors that take the larvae through an additional life stage. After this time period has lapsed, they deposit them back into a horse. This is going to happen faster with horses that live in herds within a kilometer or so of standing water.

  • Some owners feel that monthly worming during Spring and Summer is sufficient to interrupt the pre-adult lifecycle. Check with your equine vet if you’re not sure (although one reader’s vet suggested worming at 6-monthly intervals, for some mysterious reason).
  • Once the microfilariae numbers are down, possibly after the first year, some owners come down to 6-weekly and 8-weekly wormings.
  • Others prefer to leave the horse from mid-Autumn until mid-Spring, following only a ‘normal’ worming schedule during this time, before worming more frequently during the fly season.

In the end, it’s a matter of individual choice. All you can do is observe your horse and keep at it until you see a significantly reduced reaction in terms of itching.

The longer your horse has been living with neck threadworms, the longer it’s likely to take. And the more tropical and humid your regional climate, the more biting flies there are going to be. Even so, you might be pleasantly surprised by the speed of the positive change.


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Include gastrointestinal worming in your plan

Once you’ve used an ivermectin wormer to identify the presence of neck threadworms in your horse (see ‘The Disturbing Truth‘), it’s sensible to also worm intermittently with moxidectin, found in Quest/Equest. The reason is that this is the only wormer to hit Onchocerca microfilariae AND encysted small strongyles.

Encysted small strongyles in the colon. (c)

Encysted small strongyles in the colon. (c)

While neck threadworms can make life highly unpleasant for your horse, encysted small strongyles can kill him or her if they suddenly erupt. They would have to build up to a high level first, but if your horse has been malnourished before coming to you, or is a rescue horse, or if you’ve only used ‘natural’ wormers for some years, you have the perfect conditions for such an event.

The best approach is to address the intestinal worms before moving onto the neck threadworms. So if it’s unlikely your horse has had Quest/Equest or Panacur for some years, use one of these first.

In my region, Strategy is also valuable in addressing pinworms, which are resistant to many other products.


Support your horse’s intestinal tract

Shop for the Best Discounted Pet, Equine, & Livestock Supplies!Worming for neck threadworms is always going to be a necessary evil. None of us would wish to be following such a rigorous worming schedule if we had the option, so we must do our best to mitigate any negative effects.

If you’re following a heavy worming schedule, you should also be supporting your horse’s gut, which is going to be taking a chemical hammering.

The best place to start is with probiotics, either added to the feed or administered through a plunger tube (although your horse may be a little off plungers at the moment…). The reason for using a probiotic, which is essentially a supply of beneficial flora for the hind gut, is that the existing ‘beneficial bacteria’ will have been reduced by the wormer. It’s then more likely that pathogens (‘bad bacteria’) will proliferate, potentially leading to intestinal inflammation and diarrhoea. This is not only uncomfortable and painful for your horse, but the affected digestive processes will reduce nutritional uptake, which in turn leads to an impaired immune system.

And what happens with an impaired immune system? The horse will be itchier.

Using probiotics means that in supporting your horse’s intestinal function during worming, you will also be supporting your horse’s immune system. It’s a double-win .

You can also help to restore damaged mucosal lining. Various plant sources are ‘mucilages’, meaning that when mixed with water, they form a slippery substance that lines and soothes the intestine. You can consider using aloe vera juice, slippery elm, marshmallow root, liquorice root and chia seeds.


Itching elsewhere on the body

Some owners are saying that their horses, which have had all the signs of neck threadworms, have also started itching on the tail head and along the back. This doesn’t fit with the usual oOnchocerciasis locations of head, neck, chest and ventral areas, and could be due to:

  • Pinworms, which lay eggs around the anus and cause itching of the tail head,
  • The horse reacting to dying microfilariae previously delivered by culicoid flies biting in ‘atypical’ areas of the body (it’s interesting to note that bite locations may vary according to the particular species of fly, which differ from country to country),
  • The horse reacting to the saliva of all culicoid flies, having become hypersensitive to microfilariae that have entered their current life stage within the flies’ saliva. In other words, the horse has developed the Itch.

It’s worth noting that there are two different types of Onchocerca worms also affecting horses and donkeys, and that these cause problems in other areas of the body.

  • Itching on the legs can be due to Onchocerca reticulata, as the adult worms are found in the connective tissue of the flexor tendons and suspensory ligament of the fetlock, mostly in the forelimbs.
  • In donkeys, Onchocerca raillieti are also found in the nuchal ligament but also, nastily, in subcutaneous cysts on the penis and in the perimuscular connective tissue. 


Can neck threadworms lead to the dreaded ‘Itch’?

Itching along the topline

Itching along the topline

Now, this is where things get a bit curly. Once your horse has started reacting to Onchocerca microfilariae, they may develop The Itch – aka Queensland, Summer or Sweet Itch (take your pick). If their system is reacting to the microscopic larvae carried in saliva, why not react to the saliva itself? The immune system is nothing if not intelligent: it learns and it acts on the information it receives.

I’ll be honest here. I’ve not read any research into this, but hooray for Dr Carl Eden BVM&S MRCVS of Virbac, who writes:


Internal parasites such as Onchocerca cervicalis… may also cause pruritus and in the case of O. cervicalis, its involvement in cases of Queensland itch must not be underestimated.

Let’s look at this for a moment.

The Itch is a clinical syndrome, being a hypersensitivity to certain allergens. When the allergen is the saliva of the culicoid flies, the outcome is an inflammatory response. This in turn leads to a pruritic (itching) skin condition. We’ve all seen its awful progression from hair loss, bumps and wheals, to alopecia, crusting, broken skin and worse.

So I’m speculating here: some of the horses with neck threadworm symptoms develop the Itch as they develop a heightening, acute sensitivity.

The thing is, whether this supposition is right or wrong, you can do no wrong by managing your horse as if it has both neck threadworms and the Itch.


Managing the itching side of neck threadworms

Furiously rubbing the tail head leads to hair loss (c)

Furiously rubbing the tail head leads to hair loss (c)

While you’re working on reducing the microfilariae numbers, there’s plenty you can do to make your horse more comfortable. There’s nothing worse than seeing your horse breaking his or her skin while rubbing an itch that won’t ease, whether it’s caused by neck threadworms alone, by the parasite and a developing itch problem, or by the parasite and a pre-existing itch problem.

I’m not going to go into lots of detail as to what you can do, but here, in no particular order, is a starter list.

  • At the heavier end, a short course of glucocorticoid therapy (ie, steroids) will reduce the inflammatory response. Some owners have used oral prednisolone – Preddy®-granules –  to support their horses during the initial stages of ivermectin worming. It’s not good for pregnant mares, suspected or actual laminitics (steroids can trigger an onset) and horses with internal issues.
  • Antihistamine preparations work on the chemical response, but may lead to occasional behavioral changes or even have a sedative effect.

There are changes you can make to your horses diet and nutrition:

  • Supplementing your horse’s diet with Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) – Omega 3s – has been shown to reduce insect hypersensitivity. This can be a shop-bought product, or cold pressed linseed oil, or cod liver oil added to the feed.
  • Improving mineral supplementation helps to boost the immune system. This doesn’t mean using an off-the-shelf standard product, although that is better than none. Ideally, identify the deficiencies or imbalances in your horse’s forage and diet, and then supplement accordingly.
  • Some people are using a combination of chondroitin sulphate, spirulina, and ground linseed (flax) in the daily diet, with some success.
  • Probiotics also help to boost the immune system by improving gut function, as we saw earlier.

There are also measures you can take to keep the culicoid flies away from your horse in the first place:

  • A fly rug keeps the carriers, the culicoid flies, away from the horse (c) sweetitchtreatments blog

    A fly rug keeps the carriers, the culicoid flies, away from the horse (c) sweetitchtreatments blog

    External and topical protection can help to keep the culicoid flies at bay: fly rugs, wipe-on insecticides, and oil-based creams and lotions, especially those containing camphor, menthol or thymol, act as barriers while providing relief and repelling flies.

  • If you stable your horse, try to do so between 4pm and 8am, when the biting flies are most active in subtropical and tropical zones. Fans will help circulate air and discourage flies, while mosquito netting on windows will also help.
  • Bathing in dermatological shampoos containing chlorhexidine gluconate bring relief while working against localized bacterial infection.


Do it your way: it’s an individual fight

Ultimately, the line you take when tackling neck threadworms in your horse is going to be an individual one. You’ll be taking into account the severity of your horse’s reaction to the microfilariae, the duration of the problem, and the intensity of the fly presence in your area. And in managing the itching side, different treatments will work with different horses.

Let’s not forget, there’s also the matter for what you can do in practical terms – eg, if you’re never home from work before 6pm, you’ll be unable to stable your horse from 4pm every day. And then there’s what you can afford to do on a financial level, especially if you have multiple horses affected (one reader of ‘The Disturbing Truth’ had four).

fight-header-2Please feel free to add your comments and share experiences below. We’re all learning and the contributions are fantastic. Meanwhile, if you’re after specific advice for your individual horse, I recommend talking to the guys over at the Chronicle of the Horse forum.


Queensland Itch, Dr Carl Eden BVM&S MRCVS

Studies on Onchocerca cervicalis Railliet and Henry 1910: I. Onchocerca cervicalis in British Horses* Philip S. Mellora1 p1 , J Helminthol. 1973;47(1):97-110.

Prevalence of Onchocerca cervicalis in equids in the Gulf Coast region. Klei TR, Torbert B, Chapman MR, Foil L.  1984 Aug;45(8):1646-7.


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The Disturbing Truth About Neck Threadworms and Your Itchy Horse


Look on any ivermectin or moxidectin-based wormer packet and you’ll see a long list of parasites. Tucked in neatly at the end – it’s nearly always at the end – you’ll see the words Onchocerca Microfilariae, otherwise known as neck threadworms.

Also known as neck threadworms, these critters vary in length from 6cm to 30cm (think the length of a regular ruler). Astonishingly, they live in the horse’s nuchal ligament.

Yes, the nuchal ligament. It runs the full length of the neck, from poll to withers, with a flat ligament part connecting with the cervical vertebrae.

Apparently, most horses have Onchocerca. For many they’re not a problem, but some horses develop a reaction to their microscopic larvae (the microfilariae). This is known as Onchocerciasis. The horses become itchy, mostly around the head, neck, chest, shoulders and underside of the belly. That’s why owners often make the understandable assumption that their horse has Queensland itch or sweet itch.

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A quick introduction to neck threadworms

Original article by Jane Clothier, posted on, June 2013. All text and photographs (c) Jane Clothier. No reproduction without permission. Links to this page are fine.

Onchocerca is what’s known as a parasitic filarial worm (nematode). One reason these worms get relatively little attention is that they never live in the intestines. The microscopic larval form live in the horse’s skin, mostly around the head, neck, shoulders, chest and underside of the belly. It is the adult worm that later makes its home in the nuchal ligament.

The problem is global and horses in most countries have been found to have this parasite. Unfortunately for those of us who keep horses in warmer, humid climates, it’s more frequent here. The biting insect that serves as a carrier is the Culicoides fly, which is also connected to Queensland Itch (aka Sweet Itch, Summer Itch, etc.).

It’s an unfortunate coincidence of environment that leads to many cases of neck threadworms being missed, because they’re assumed to be Itch.


Does your horse have “the itch” – or neck threadworms?

It’s a humdinger of a thought. If your horse is itchy, something different could be happening to what you think is happening.

  •  Your horse has the ‘regular’ itch (ie, Queensland, sweet, whatever it’s called in your region) and are reacting to midge spit – and nothing else. (The point of this article certainly isn’t to try and say that all itch cases are due to neck threadworms. Just some.)
  •  Your horse has neck threadworms and its inflammatory reaction to them has increased its sensitivity, so it’s now reacting to fly bites everywhere – in other words, Queensland/sweet itch has been triggered as a secondary response.
  • Your horse only has neck threadworms, in which case they’re probably rubbing along the mane and particularly the base of mane, around the neck and face, under the chest and down the ventral line (under the belly), but not on the tail head – or at least, relatively little.

Are you by any chance now thinking other horses you know? If so, they might be suffering from Onchocerciasis. There’s a lot of it about.


So how do we identify neck threadworms?

A pony with the Itch and neck threadworms. It's Autumn and she's stopped rubbing out her entire mane, but is still itching that tell-tale area in front of the withers. Her coat has raised in a temporary histamine reaction to the ivermectin wormer.

A pony with the Itch and neck threadworms. It’s Autumn and she’s stopped rubbing out her entire mane – it has grown back – but is still itching that tell-tale area in front of the withers. Her coat is raised in a temporary histamine reaction to the ivermectin wormer.

Neck threadworms have a distinctive life cycle, but as is so often the case, the problem presents in  different ways, depending on the individual.

In my brumby Colo, it started with him scratching the underside of his neck on posts. That was about 3 months before I had an inkling it might be neck threadworms. How I wish I’d known  what it was at that point, so that I could have nipped the problem in the bud…

I’ve also seen it manifest as a new, previously unseen itchy and scurfy patch on the lower part of the neck of a horse who’d never been itchy. And I’ve heard of a local horse who suddenly started furiously itching his face, bang in the middle of the forehead, to the point that it bled. He had never been itchy before.

These are the classic early signs, usually recognised by the owner only through miserable hindsight. Other signs include small lumps forming along the underside of the horse and on its neck and face, weeping spots, and a scaly crest to an area of the mane through rubbing.

The base of the mane, just in front of the withers, seems to be party central where neck threadworms are concerned.



The real nastiness of neck threadworms

The microscopic larvae can travel to the eye, although this is rare.

The microscopic larvae can travel to the eye, although this is rare.

It just gets better: the larvae can travel to the horse’s eyes, where they can cause untold damage. This cheering sentence from Scott and Miller’s Equine Dermatology sums it up: “O. cervicalis microfilariae may also invade ocular tissues, where they may be associated with keratitis, uveitis, peripapillary choroidal sclerosis, and vitiligo of the bulbar conjunctiva of the lateral limbus.”

Oh heck. Nobody’s sure how common this is. All I know is that I don’t want to find out the hard way.

Consider this: in humans, a slightly different strain of Onchocerca infestation is known as River Blindness.

Please remember this detail when you’re deciding whether to worm for neck threadworms or not.

The very strange lifecycle of the neck threadworm

These worms have a complicated existence. They’re among the shapeshifters of the parasitic worm world, developing through several larval stages before reaching adulthood.

The first stage microfilariae live in the horse, close to the skin. Their numbers are highest in the spring and decrease to their lowest point in mid-winter. They live in clusters, which is why you may first notice patches of scurfy skin where the horse has started itching. This is a reaction to the dead or dying larvae.

Itching down the midline. Mine have itched neck and shoulders only - so far. (Photo courtesy of blog, Baba Yaga's Mirror)

Itching down the midline. Mine have itched neck and shoulders only – so far. (Photo courtesy of blog, Baba Yaga’s Mirror)

At this point, our good friends the culicoid flies make a contribution, by biting the horse and ingesting a good number of microfilariae along with blood. Within the fly, the larvae then develop through a further stage (or two). They are then deposited back into a horse when the flies bite. The flies can do this for an impressive 20 to 25 days after first hoovering up the larvae.

Back in a host horse, the larvae then make their way via the bloodstream to the connective tissue of the nuchal ligament, which runs along the crest of the neck. Here they moult and develop into adult worms. The adults live for around 10 years and in this time, the females release thousands of microfilariae (larvae) very year.

Original article by Jane Clothier, posted on, June 2013. All text and photographs (c) Jane Clothier. No reproduction without permission, sorry. Links to this page are fine.

No matter where the adult worms settle, the itchiness is caused by the microfilariae that aren’t lucky enough to be consumed by a fly and are instead left to die off.

The next part’s really not fair. The more the horse itches and breaks the skin, the more the flies will bite exactly where the microfilariae are located, before transporting them to the same or another horse, to start all over again.

Unsurprisingly, horses with most lesions have higher microfilariae counts – it’s a perfect ascending spiral of parasite-induced discomfort.

The Onchecerca life cycle lasts for 4 to 5 months.


Can we test for neck threadworms?

The microfilariae can be identified in the living horse through a biopsy of the nuchal ligament. Published veterinary research shows you won’t get any indication within 34 days of worming, so the timing is critical.

Worming with ivermectin can lead to weeping spots in the mane. This was after they'd cleared.

Worming with ivermectin can lead to weeping spots in the mane. These can be painful. This photo was taken after they’d cleared, leaving bald areas. Sometimes the hair grows back white.

A dose of ivermectin-based wormer is the quickest way to tell if your horse has them. If the microfilariae are present, the horse usually responds with intense itching – and I mean, manically intense, demented itching – around 48 to 72 hours after worming.

It may develop weeping, gunky spots at the base of the mane. (If you live in a paralysis tick area, it’s similar to the localised reaction you see in response to the ticks.) These are very specific spots around 1cm in diameter, with hair loss after they’ve erupted.

My brumby responded this way, rolling furiously and rubbing vigorously against posts. Unsurprisingly, he was also hard to handle for a few days. He was definitely sore at the base of the neck, where the weeping eruptions came out, and didn’t want to be touched there. I have to say that the scale of his reaction came as a shock to me, so take heed and be prepared with some soothing salves.


What can we do about adult neck threadworms?

Here’s the depressing answer: not much. But we can manage them.

The nuchal ligament runs from poll to wither and links with the vertebrae. Yellow = funicular part, home to neck threadworms.

The nuchal ligament runs from poll to wither and links with the vertebrae. Yellow = funicular part, home to neck threadworms. (Image copyright Sustainable Dressage.)

The adults live for 10-12 years and happily inhabit the nuchal ligament. What often happens is that the horse’s body throws down calcification around the adult worms in an attempt to isolate the foreign body. In some horses, you can feel a collection of  pea-like bumps in the nuchal ligament. In the ones that I’ve checked, this was just in front of the withers.

The slightly better news it that the worms are so fine and the lumps so small that it doesn’t seem to affect the function of the ligament, which is tough and fundamentally taut anyway. However, I’ve not yet knowingly seen a horse with a long history of neck threadworms – I’d be interested in doing so.

Heavier calcification is usually most prevalent in horses in their late teens. It figures, as the adult wormers are older, and longer. Apparently they intertwine and live in small clumps. Mid-aged horses have mainly shown inflamed tissue around live parasites.

In horses less than 5yo, the parasites can be present but there’s relatively little immunological response. So if your horse has suddenly developed itchiness at the age of 5 or 6, you could be looking at the presence of this parasite.

Original article by Jane Clothier, posted on, June 2013. All text and photographs (c) Jane Clothier. No reproduction without permission, sorry. Links to this page are fine.


Managing the initial outbreak

Do you worm your horses? Do you want to reduce the itching at the cost of having to worm more? I know I do, but I realise that some people can’t abide the thought of chemical wormers, or their increased use. But here’s what you can do if you want to reduce that dreadful itching and virtually eliminate the possibility of eye damage.

Unfortunately, there’s no single recommended protocol for worming against neck threadworms, so you’re in fairly uncharted territory.

  • wormerTo address the initial outbreak, the advice ‘out in the field’ is to use a regular dosage of an ivermectin-based wormer, multiple times until symptoms subside. The recommended interval I’ve seen is a week, but do check with your *equine* vet first.
  • I’ve also read forum posts by US horse owners stating that a double dosage at fortnightly intervals is the most effective treatment. It’s usually around three doses, or until symptoms subside. One reason is that lower doses do not kill off enough larvae, allowing resistance to develop amongst those that remain. Wormers are certainly tested as safe at higher dosages, but again, horses are individuals, so always check with your *equine* vet first.
  • I’ve read that an injection of ivermectin can be more effective, with off-label use of a product such as Dectomax being recommended as the heavy artillery when all else has failed. Again, do check with your *equine* vet.

Some say that an ivermectin and praziquantel wormer is more effective. One small comfort is that these wormers are available in the lower price ranges. It’s a consideration, because if you’re worming multiple horses, this won’t be a cheap time. It may even be worth looking at the large bottles of liquid wormer used by studs for greater economy.

Published research has shown that moxidectin-based wormers are equally as effective in addressing the microfilariae (but don’t double-dose with this one – only with ivermectin). That’s good, as it means you can address the neck threadworms, while covering your horse for encysted strongyles too (ivermectin wormers don’t).

Whichever option you follow, it’s worth following this worming protocol with prebiotics, probiotics and ‘buffers’ such as aloe vera to support a healthy gut lining.

More about Neck Threadworms

The questions we’re still asking about neck threadworms and how they make a horse itch – Why Thinking About Neck Threadworms Still Leaves Us Scratching Our Heads


Reducing the larval population

After the initial worming, it’s a matter of management. What you’re trying to do is keep the numbers of microfilaraie low, so that the horse’s itching is reduced. Remember, most horses show little reaction, although the parasites are present. The aim has to be to bring them down to levels the horses’ systems can deal with, while taking other measures to boost the horses’ immune system.

  • Some vets say a single dose every 6-8 weeks during the fly season.
  • Others say every 3 months, timed in accordance with the larval lifecycle, which is 4 to 5 months.
  • In humid sub-tropical zones, where all parasite burdens are dramatically higher, I’ve heard of people doing it as frequently as once a month.

Beyond that, you’re back to the barrier treatments – fly rugs, lotions and potions to deflect the flies and to insulate the skin, lotions to soften the skin and heal the lesions, fly screens on shelters during the day, etc. And don’t forget about boosting your horse’s immune system generally through sound nutritional approaches.

Why you should never use ONLY mectin wormers, even if your horse has neck threadworms, as here’s a particularly dangerous gastric worm – The Worm That Kills – And Why Only Two Worming Chemicals Can Stop It


And if we do nothing?

If we don’t address the problem one way or another, we have very itchy horses, for their entire lives.

Researchers say that the calcification in the ligaments has no effect, but you’ve got to wonder. There’s no guarantee that those scientists had a highly developed understanding of equine biomechanics. Maybe they did, but… who knows. A lot of the small amount of research available is over 20 years old and the knowledge base has since grown.

There’s a small but serious risk of damage to the eyes.

On the plus side, Onchocerciasis hasn’t been found to have any association with fistulous withers.

How to put together a program of treatment for your horse with neck threadworms (and maybe the Itch) – How to Fight the Big Fight against Neck Threadworms


To recap…

Onchocerciasis is so often masked by the itch that awareness, even in the regions where it’s rife, is low.

And in those same regions, there are so many highly prevalent and deadly parasites – the worms that cause colic, that drag down the horse’s condition, that can kill through spontaneous mass emergence from encysted larval stages – that the neck threadworm larvae simply doesn’t get much of a look-in.

To repeat, I’m not saying that all cases of itch are neck threadworms. Just that these parasites may be involved and can be a contributory factor in a heightened immunological response that leads to Queensland itch (or sweet itch, or whatever you know it as).

However, some horses definitely have neck threadworms. The earlier we can identify and manage it, the better.

We can’t eliminate the neck threadworms, but we can certainly manage the effects and make our horses’ lives more comfortable.

(c) Jane Clothier – no reproduction without permission –


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This is a blog, not an academic article, so I’ve not referenced the text. However, if you want to read more, here are some of the links I’ve been accessing.

Equine Onchocerciasis: Lesions in the Nuchal Ligament of Midwestern US Horses. G. M. Schmidt, J. D. Krehbiel, S. C. Coley and R. W. Leid. Vet Pathol 1982 19: 16.

Efficacy of ivermectin against Onchocerca cervicalis microfilarial dermatitis in horses. Herd RP, Donham JC, Am J Vet Res. 1983 Jun;44(6):1102-5.

Onchocerciasis, Submitted by EquiMed Staff.

Onchocerciasis, the Neck Thread Worms and Midline Dermatitis in Horses.

The Hypersensitivity of Horses to Culicoides Bites in British Columbia. Gail S. Anderson, Peter Belton and Nicholas Kleider.

Onchocerca in Horses from Western Canada and the Northwestern United States: An Abattoir Survey of the Prevalence of Infection, L Polley.

Research of skin microfilariae on 160 horses from Poland, France and Spain. M.T. FRANCK et al. Am J Vet Res. 1983 Jun;44(6):1102-5.

Efficacy of ivermectin against Onchocerca cervicalis microfilarial dermatitis in horses. Herd RP, Donham JC.

Equine Dermatology. By Danny W. Scott, William H. Miller Jr. via Google Books

Baba Yaga’s Mirror. Personal blog.

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