Signs Of Neurological Problems In Horses

There is a lot more to owning a horse than what meets the eye. Horse owners must know how to properly care and feed their horse and also become familiar with what behavioral changes are considered normal to be able to detect signs of neurological problems in horses or when a veterinarian should be called out for an examination.

Many times when a horse shows signs of a simple ailment such as a lack of coordination, stumbling when being ridden, or tripping a few times while out on the trail many horse owners won’t give it a second thought, but should. 

Neurological Disorders – Is this Behavior Common?

Neurological disorders are more common in horses than one would think. Many neurological disorders are hard to diagnose. They have similar symptoms or mimic symptoms of another bacterial or viral disease. When a horse begins to show abnormal behavior, signs of lameness, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, paralysis, fever, abnormal head carriage, a change in appetite, sudden weight loss, along with others should cause some concern and a call to the veterinarian is highly recommended. 

Evaluation of Possible Neurological Disorder

A physical examination of your horse from a veterinarian is essential when trying to determine if a neurological disorder is present. Taking your horse’s temperature and evaluating the horse’s limbs can be helpful for the diagnosis. A horse’s temperature will fluctuate differently with a bacterial infection, than a viral one, as goes the same for neurological disorders. A horse’s gait may show abnormalities that are common with neurological issues and show up differently than those associated with soreness from hard work or injury. The information being gathered is very helpful in properly diagnosing your horse. 

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Most Common Neurological Diseases in Horses

Taking the time to become familiar with the most common neurological disorders will alert you to any changes that may need veterinary attention. It’s very common for diseases to affect a horse’s central nervous system. The most common disorders are Cervical Vertebral Stenotic Myelopathy (CSM). The four most common are Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), Equine Motor Neuron Disease (EMND), and Equine Herpesvirus-1 Myeloencephalopathy (EHM). 

Common Neurological Disorders Explained

CSM – also called wobbler syndrome, is compression of the spinal cord. CSM primarily affects young horses three months to a year old. This is a multifactorial disease where the cervical vertebrae have bony growth malformations and narrowing of the vertebral canal. If CSM occurs in older horses it is generally secondary to osteoarthritis in the spine. Surgery is currently the most effective option for treatment. 

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EPM – Horses that are under the age of five and over the age of thirteen have a higher risk of becoming infected with EPM. Sarcocystis neurona is the most common cause of EPM. It creates motor neuron damage and muscle atrophy. Horses become infected if they accidentally ingested Opossum feces during feeding or by consuming contaminated feed. EPM is treatable if diagnosed early on, otherwise, the only definitive test for EPM is with a post-mortem examination. 

EMND – This disease affects the nerves supplying all muscles. Horses suffering from a Vitamin E deficiency for a minimum of 18 months will need to be evaluated by a veterinarian. The affected horses must take Vitamin E Supplements to slow the advancement of the disease. There is no treatment for EMND but with a proper diet and regular blood test to assess vitamin E levels you can slow the progression of the disease. 

EHM – This virus has the ability to replicate rapidly creating a higher frequency of neurologic disease. It damages the blood vessels of the nervous system and causes “stroke-like” episodes. EHM is a part of the equine herpes virus, initially appearing in a viral stage and advancing into the respiratory tract and peripheral blood mononuclear cells. EPH  is highly uncommon but is very serious if contracted.

Currently, there is no vaccine available, and is highly contagious between horses. Isolation outbreaks and a quarantine period is advised if horses are frequently in common areas. 

Other Diseases

Other neurological diseases to become familiar with would be Lyme Disease, Rabies, West Nile Virus, Botulism, and Tetanus. These diseases are also common among humans and currently, Rabies is the only one that is transmittable between humans and horses and vise versa. 

Other Diseases


Neurological diseases need to be addressed as soon as possible. In many cases the longer the disease goes untreated, the risk of death increases significantly. Symptoms that occur with these diseases have multiple signs of a disorder, only in rare instances has only one symptom at the time of diagnosis. Taking the horse’s history and breed into account can also be very helpful when beginning to diagnose. 

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