When covering veterinary conferences, there's always that one presentation that stands out among the rest. At the 2014 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention held this past December, that presentation for me was one Dr. Rob van Wessum gave on detecting sacroiliac disease (SI) in horses. It was incredibly practical, presented in an easy-to-understand manner, and included lots of imagery and videos, yay!

If a horse's haunches make a smaller circle than the rest of the body when longed, he might be showing signs of SI disease.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/TheHorse.com

But above all that, it's a topic I'm genuinely interested in. My horse Hannah struggled with some hind-end lameness about two years ago, stemming from the SI region (where the spine meets the pelvis). I've been devouring any information I can find on the issue ever since.

What Dr. van Wessum described in his presentation was a "checklist" he's developed over the years to determine whether a horse has SI disease. It's comprised of six simple tests the veterinarian can perform during a standard lameness exam. If a horse shows at least three of the six indicators, chances are he has SI disease. And Dr. van Wessum is pretty confident in his method--he's looked for these signs in 2,467 lameness cases he's evaluated over the last 10 years and used them (along with advanced imaging techniques) to help diagnose 327 horses with the disease.

Without further ado, here are Dr. van Wessum's six indicators of SI disease:

  1. Tracking narrow behind. He said affected horses often look like they are "walking on a cord," placing their hind feet on the same line in front of each other at the walk and, even more so, the trot.
  2. A lateral walk. Upon walking an affected horse in a serpentine pattern, the front and hind limbs on the same side move forward at the same time, similar to a pacing gait.
  3. Haunches in/out. If you longe an affected horse in a circle, you'll notice that the hind limbs don't follow the same circle as the front limbs, with the haunches making a smaller circle than the rest of the body.
  4. Asymmetric tail position. When an affected horse walks in a serpentine, he will lock his tail to one side.
  5. A "bunny hop" canter. When affected horses canter, they lose their normal three-beat pattern, and the hind feet land together in a "bunny hop" motion. I distinctly remember Hannah bunny hopping when she first started showing signs of soreness!
  6. Reduced lumbrosacral flexibility. Place one hand on the point of the hip and pull the tail toward one side, then repeat this on the other side. Also make the horse "tuck under" by scratching each hamstring with a pointed object. A healthy horse's flexibility should be the same on each side.


[youtube url="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7DxGz0P_mg&feature=youtu.be"]

Walking horses in a simple serpentine pattern can sometimes reveal signs of SI disease.

While my own SI case study, Hannah, has been sound and symptom-free for more than a year and a half now, I decided to try a few of these tests on her just to see what I'd find. The results were pretty boring. We serpentined our way around the barn, Hannah cantered on the longe, and I pulled on her tail for a bit. She looked like your average, healthy horse and showed no signs of SI disease. She did, however, give me some very ugly mare faces when I accidently pulled her tail a bit harder than I should have.

As you can tell, these are all pretty do-it-yourself tests. But, still have your veterinarian perform a full lameness exam and some diagnostic imaging to confirm your horse has an issue. With appropriate treatment, says Dr. van Wessum, these signs can disappear over time.

Have you had a horse that's suffered from SI issues?