Equine wobbler syndrome, also known as cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy (CVSM), is a devastating neurological syndrome resulting from damage to your horse’s spinal cord.

Horses with CVSM exhibit neurological symptoms such as poor balance and stumbling when walking. Wobblers horses can become dangerous to handle and ride if untreated.

An estimated 1.3% of horses are affected by CVSM, with male horses being more likely to have the condition. [1][2] This condition most commonly affects Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Warmbloods. [3]

Wobblers can be caused by spinal abnormalities, infection or injury. In certain cases, horses with wobblers respond well to treatment and can return to normal work.

However, other forms of wobblers can be permanent and progressive. Early detection and treatment are critical to avoid poor outcomes.

Equine Wobbler Syndrome

Wobblers or cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy is an umbrella term for many causes of spinal cord compression leading to an uncoordinated gait.

The primary sign of wobblers is ataxia, which is described as impaired coordination of voluntary muscle movement produced by a neurodegenerative disorder.

Wobblers can be caused by malformation, injury, or disease in any part of the spine, including the: [4]

  • Base of the skull
  • Cervical spine
  • Thoracic spine
  • Lumbar spine
  • Sacrum

Horse Cervical Spine

In most cases, CVSM is caused by cervical spinal cord damage. This part of the spine is more susceptible to damage because it is highly mobile.

Cervical Spine

The cervical spine is the area of the spinal cord that lies within your horse’s neck, extending through the seven cervical vertebrae (C1-C7). The spinal cord is the highway through which your horse’s brain sends signals to the rest of the body.

Nerves in the spinal cord transmit signals from the brain to your horse’s muscles to produce movement. Nerves also relay information back to the brain about where the limbs are in space (proprioception).

These nerves are susceptible to damage and do not heal well after injury. When the spinal cord is compressed or otherwise injured, this can interfere with the complex feedback loop that is required to produce movement.

Your horse’s movement may become uncoordinated or imbalanced, resulting in equine wobbler syndrome. [5]

An uncoordinated horse is a dangerous horse, so symptoms of equine wobbler syndrome need to be taken very seriously.

Types of Wobblers in Horses

There are two distinct types of CVSM: cervical vertebral instability and cervical static stenosis.

Cervical vertebral instability is posturally dependent – meaning compression of the cervical spine only occurs when the neck is in a flexed position. This condition is most often diagnosed in horses between 4 and 18 months old, with compression occurring somewhere between C3 and C5.

Cervical static stenosis is characterized by compression of the cervical spinal cord in all neck positions. It is commonly diagnosed in horses between 1 and 4 years old. Cervical spine compression is often seen between C5 and C7. [5][6]

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Causes of Wobblers Syndrome

Equine Wobbler Syndrome most commonly occurs due to:

Possible Genetic Link

Studies indicate that some horses may be genetically predisposed to developing equine wobbler syndrome.

Male horses develop wobbler symptoms 6 times more frequently than female horses. Faster growth rates and lower estrogen levels may result in cervical vertebral malformation. [6]

Equine wobbler syndrome is not breed-specific. However, studies show that Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds are more likely to develop this condition, possibly due to their fast growth rate. [5][6] Wobblers has not yet been identified in miniature horses, who have a slow growth rate.

Genetic traits can contribute to a vertebrae malformation, causing compression of the spinal cord. The spinal cord passes through very small openings in the vertebrae. Any misshaping or small outgrowths within the opening cause compression and impaired coordination.

Most likely, inherence is not based on a single gene but on the interaction between multiple genes (polygenic inheritance). [7]

When mares and stallions diagnosed with wobbler syndrome were bred together, the offspring did not display wobbler symptoms. However, the foals displayed other developmental orthopedic diseases such as osteochondrosis, physitis, and contracted tendons. [7]

Nutritional Causes

Studies on Thoroughbred and Warmblood foals indicate that too much protein and energy in the diet may contribute to equine wobbler syndrome. [8]

Diets that supply excess protein and energy are more likely to result in rapid growth and could lead to developmental issues and cervical vertebral abnormalities.

In one study, researchers fed foals with early signs of wobblers diets that were low in protein and energy, but with balanced vitamin and mineral levels.

Improvements were observed in spinal cord compression. These foals likely would have developed severe neurological symptoms if not for the dietary intervention. [8]

Developmental orthopedic diseases (DOD) are also more likely in horses with vitamin and mineral deficiencies or imbalanced nutrient levels. [8] Weanlings with reduced dietary intake of calcium, phosphorus, zinc and copper have higher rates of developmental disorders. [8][9]

The total intake of these minerals is important, but the ratios between these minerals is also important. For optimal development, horses should be fed zinc and copper in a ratio of between 4:1 and 3:1. The ideal ratio of calcium to phosphorous is 2:1. [10]

Work with a qualified nutritionist to formulate a diet for your growing foal. A nutritionist will help you design a feeding program with appropriate levels of energy, protein, vitamin and minerals to support proper bone development. [8]

Trauma to the Cervical Vertebrae

If your horse is showing signs of wobblers, the first question your veterinarian will ask is whether your horse has recently experienced trauma to their neck.

Physical trauma or injury can result in cervical vertebral instability, such as when a large force is directed on the neck in a twisting motion.

This can occur if your horse rears and flips over, possibly leading to inflammation of the neck, vertebral dislocation, or even vertebral fracture. Swelling and physical damage can interfere with the signal transmission in the spinal cord, producing wobblers’ symptoms. [11]

Infection of the Spinal Cord

Wobblers in horses can also be caused by inflammation of the spinal cord due to protozoal, viral, or bacterial infection.

Viral infection occurs when a virus passes through the protective tissue lining the cervical spinal cord, infiltrating the neurons, and causing swelling and nerve death. [5][6]

Bacterial infection occurs when your horse comes into contact with a pathogen. The most common bacterial infection that can produce wobbler symptoms is Lyme disease – a tick-borne illness that attacks the nervous system.

EPM, or Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, occurs when protozoal parasites attack your horse’s brain and spinal cord. This also results in cell death within the brain and spinal cord. [5][6]

Symptoms

The signs of equine wobbler syndrome are neurological, meaning they are caused by the disruption of signals between the brain, spinal cord and rest of the body. These symptoms include: [12]

  • Stumbling when walking
  • Bunny hopping at the canter – the inability to keep the correct lead behind
  • Dragging of the toes, resulting in abnormal wear on their hooves
  • Weakness in the hind end when their tail is pulled to the side
  • Tightrope walking – bringing the legs too close together when walking
  • Abnormal gait, such as over-e