Lack of Coordination (Ataxia) in Horses

Key Takeaways

Lack of coordination, or ataxia, results from damage to the brain or spinal cord causing erratic and unstable movements. 

• Ataxia presents as an instability in the gait which can appear to switch affected limbs

• Uncommon in horses, but a cause for serious concern and requires immediate vet attention

• Ataxic horses are uncoordinated, fall-risks, and can react unpredictably

• Ataxia is often a sign of neurologic disorders or infections

• Physical exam as well as specific blood and urine testing allows for diagnosis of the underlying condition

• Ataxic horses often require supportive care during diagnosis and treatment

• Treatments depend on the underlying condition

• The sooner intervention begins, the better the prognosis for the affected horse

A Closer Look: What is Ataxia in Horses?

The severity of ataxia can increase with the progression of the underlying condition. Vets use a grading system 0-5 to determine the severity of ataxia progression. Horses with mild ataxia may only show symptoms under certain situations, such as turning in tight circles. The most severe form of ataxia results in a complete inability to stand or sit up.

Possible Causes

Ataxia ultimately results from dysfunction or damage to the brain or spinal cord. Potential causes in horses include:  

• Parasitic infections, such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis

• Degenerative conditions, such as equine degenerative myelopathy and Wobblers syndrome

• Injuries, including head trauma

• Viral infections such as equine encephalitis viruses, West Nile virus, Equine herpesvirus, and rabies

• Toxicities • Liver disease • Kidney disease • Brain malformation

Risk Factors

Ataxia is uncommon in horses but is always an emergency. Ataxic horses are prone to falling down unexpectedly and require caution when handled by their owners. Although rare, rabies is a potential cause of ataxia so it is advisable to keep away from the horse’s mouth and minimize the number of people interacting with the horse until an assessment can be completed.

Testing and Diagnosis

A physical examination is the first step in diagnosis. As part of the physical examination, the vet conducts specific tests designed to distinguish between ataxia and lameness. These tests examine: 

• Limb control • Function of the cranial nerves • Gait while walking on sloped surfaces

• Ability to recover from unusual situations, such as having their tail pulled to the side while walking or backing up with their head raised

• Ability to identify the placement of the hooves

Once ataxia is confirmed, the specific condition is diagnosed through:

• Urinalysis • Blood work • Imaging (MRI, CT, X ray) • Cerebrospinal fluid analysis (spinal tap)

• Physical challenges that identify the function of certain areas of the spinal cord or brain 

Treatment of ataxia depends on the underlying condition diagnosed. Many horses require supportive care during diagnostics and treatment, which may include:

• Maintaining dietary requirements • Manual removal of feces from the rectum

• Urinary catheterization

• Moving recumbent horses every 3-4 hours or keeping them in a sling to prevent pressure sores

Similar symptoms

Lameness: A lame horse has an unusual but consistent change in gait, while ataxia is an inconsistent change in gait which can also change affected limb in some cases. Horses with ataxia also appear uncoordinated or unbalanced, which is not true of lame horses.

Associated Symptoms

• Fever • Weakness • Difficulty rising • Loss of muscle mass • Difficulty swallowing

• Seizures • Nasal discharge

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