Often the characteristic gait, lack of coordination and "wobbling" movement that suddenly occurs in horses is automatically assumed to be EPM or Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis. Since this is one of the most common neurological diseases found in horses in North American, it is often noted by equine specialists that the lack of coordination and irregular gait is a common misdiagnosis.
In reality the condition may be a compression of the vertebrae in the neck that is causing the horse's movement problems. Wobbler's syndrome is caused by either an injury or degeneration of the vertebrae that crushes them together, damaging the spinal cords ability to send impulses down the spinal column and to properly orchestrate movement. Narrowing of the spinal cord space in the vertebrae, known as stenosis, is also present in many affected horses. Often Wobbler's syndrome will only affect the front legs and may become progressively more pronounced over time. Vets agree the biggest symptom of Wobbler's syndrome is ataxia, or the horse's inability to know where its feet are moving, resulting in the wobbling or staggering type gait. In some horses the condition will progress to the point of the horse not being able to stand or randomly walking into objects, but usually this is uncommon.
The symptoms may gradually appear over time, or a healthy, coordinated horse will suddenly develop severe signs, often to the confusion and horror of the owner. In most cases the front legs will be most affected, but sometimes the hind legs will also appear to be uncoordinated and irregular in their movements.
Horses around the age of two are often more commonly diagnosed, and it is more prevalent in some breeds and lines than others. Horses that are very rapid in development such as Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds are more likely to develop the condition, as are some of the newer warmblood breeds that have been bred for competition horses in jumping and dressage. Males are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed as females, which has some researchers strongly favoring a genetic component to the condition. Feeds, exercise and conformation may all be contributing factors to the horse developing Wobbler's syndrome.
Treatment may be surgical or non-surgical, typically gauged by the severity of the condition. Changing the diet in young horses to slow growth, adding Vitamin E to the diet and treatment with corticosteriods may resulting in the condition being managed and even corrected.
In older horses where there is severe signs of the Wobbler's syndrome surgical procedures to fuse a metal rod into the affected area of the spine to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord is most recommended. This is not an immediate cure as the bone must decompress and grow to relieve the pressure with full recovery often taking several months to a year. Results have been very promising with the stabilization surgery, ranging around 75% success rate. Many horses that have the stabilization surgical procedure return to racing or jumping and have no long term problems after full recovery.