A man examining a horse

Fistulous withers can be a painful and potentially fatal condition caused by the rubbing and irritation of poorly fitted equipment against a horse’s sensitive shoulders. Read about the challenges to treating the condition and how SPANA vets are working to prevent the chronic problem before it even starts.

For horse, donkey, and mule owners, finding the right fit for a saddle or harness for their animal can be a process of trial and error. One of the challenges to this is fitting equipment comfortably around an animal’s withers, the highest point between the shoulder blades where equines are measured. For animals with naturally high withers, the slope of their shoulders is especially steep, improving their stride and speed but making it tough to find a saddle that doesn’t pinch the highest point of their back.

a-spana-vet-examines-harness-wounds-in-tunisiaIn Western countries, high withers are most commonly seen in thoroughbreds, saddlebreds, and warmblood horses and made-to-measure saddles can be ordered to conform to each animal’s specific conformation. However, throughout the world, many working animal owners cannot afford to provide the specialized saddles and soft saddle pads needed to make their high withered animals more comfortable. When working horses are fit with rough harnesses and saddles made of rope, plastic, untreated wood or even metal, the constant rubbing and pressing against the withers can lead to very serious medical problems including a condition called fistulous withers and even death.

Fistulous withers, also known as ‘saddle sore” is a painful condition that is caused when open wounds along the spine are infected. It’s often the cause of something as simple as the constant rubbing or a saddle or harness which eventually leads to the introduction of a bacteria called Brucella around the sensitive tissue of the animal’s shoulders. Left untreated this can develop in to chronic infection of the area and swelling, pain, fever, and lameness. Horses, mules, and donkeys who suffer from fistulous withers are brought to our SPANA centres lethargic and in intense discomfort, often with open wounds along their back. Vets can reduce the swelling and discomfort with cold packs, non steroidals, systemic antibiotics and at times surgery, but if the animal continues to be worked with uncomfortable and unsuitable equipment, the problem will just persist or return.

One of the biggest challenges for our vets is that the bacteria causing the infection can lie dormant, undetected in horses, mules, and donkeys for as long as two years before developing in to the condition making it very hard to manage. In some cases, by the time the condition has been identified, it’s too late to do anything but surgically remove the tissue around the withers – a painful and stressful procedure for the animal. What’s worse, the infection can be transmitted from and to cattle and can be deadly to other livestock as well as the livelihoods of the people who depend on their herds for survival.

A SPANA vet treats wounds caused by poorly fitted equipment Farmer Laghribi Atef relies on his small six-year-old horse Kais to help him plough the land of his small plot near El Faouar, Tunisia. Laghribi uses a homemade harness of rope and metal to attach Kais to the plough used to till the soil and the small cart he uses to bring goods to market. Laghribi had become concerned when he noticed that Kais’ shoulder area had begun to swell, becoming hot and painful to the touch. His usually spirited animal was lethargic and clearly in a lot of pain. SPANA vets immediately recognised the cause of the problem as they showed Laghribi that the angry swollen wounds around Kais’ shoulder had become infected and he was showing signs of fistulous withers. After disinfecting and treating the wound, our vets gave Laghribi some simple doughnut shaped padding to ease the pressure put on the animal’s shoulders and explained the importance of giving the hard working horse regular breaks.

a-spana-vet-examines-a-horse-in-botswanaThe solution to this serious problem is a simple one – comfortable and fitting equipment can stop the problem before it starts as well as proper cleaning of any wounds around the withers to make sure a simple cut doesn’t develop in to something more serious. SPANA vets work with communities around the world to teach people how to best fit saddles, harnesses, and saddle pads to guard against infections like fistulous withers and make the lives of their working animals more comfortable. By adjusting the shape and using cheap and easy to find materials like cotton or wool to pad and reduce the rubbing of harnesses and saddles, vets can stop the problem before it starts.

Read more about how you can support the work of SPANA vets in educating owners about the importance of using the right equipment. Simple equipment can make all the difference for the comfort and wellbeing of these hardworking animals and SPANA is working to make sure that conditions like fistulous withers are not only treated, but also prevented. Learn how you can be part of the solution for working animals.