How to Manage a Cold-Backed Horse.


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How to Manage a Cold-Backed Horse.

Morgan Murphy

How to Manage a Cold-Backed Horse.

“Cold backed” is the horseman’s term for a horse with an overly sensitive back. The term can be used to describe anything from mild symptoms, such as discomfort when the girth is tightened, through to longer-lasting effects where the horse becomes difficult and tense when mounted and such discomfort lasts until the horse is sufficiently warmed up and relaxed.

Why might a horse be cold backed?

When a horse is cold backed he is either experiencing pain or anticipating suffering, based upon past experience.  It is generally thought that one of the main reasons for horses acquiring a cold back is the evolution of the spine; it was not designed to carry a rider and so the horse must compensate for the extra weight. This can result in nerve endings becoming sensitive and misalignment of the vertebrae, which is aggravated when a rider has a poor position, compromising the distribution of the weight and triggering pressure points. Other causes include a poorly fitting saddle or girth, an underlying injury and liver or kidney problems.  If you suspect your horse is cold backed you are encouraged to consult both your veterinarian and a back specialist, who can advise on the cause and best treatment.

What are the signs that my horse is cold backed?

A cold-backed horse will display very clear signs of discomfort, including, but not limited to:

  • discomfort when the girth is tightened – the horse may stamp, try to bite or show signs of pain
  • reacting to the saddle being put on – this may be demonstrated by kicking out, arching the back or turning to bite you
  • sensitivity when grooming the back
  • reluctance to allow the rider to mount
  • stiffness and inability to focus during work until the muscles have warmed up
  • bucking during exercise.

How can I my cold-backed horse’s discomfort?

It is often a good idea to start a course of periodic equine physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment – this can increase blood flow to the muscles and realign the spine, if required.  There is also a host of management ideas that can help your horse on a day-to-day basis:

  • Tighten the girth gradually. Do not make any sudden movements and if the horse shows signs of discomfort, stop for a moment, allow him to relax and then start again.
  • If you horse is particularly sensitive once he is tacked up, walk him around or lunge him before mounting to allow his muscles to soften.
  • Always use a mounting block and do not mount from the ground - this puts unnecessary pressure on the horse’s back.
  • Always keep a blanket on your horse in colder weather. If he is clipped out use an exercise rug so he is never without a cover on his back. Consider using a magnetic rug in the stall, as they have been shown to be beneficial for horses with back issues.
  • When training always work on both reins equally – this will ensure the whole body gets a thorough work out and there is not an uneven distribution of muscles.
  • Keep a check on your riding position– take regular lessons from trainers to ensure you are not hindering your horse through a poor seat.
  • Do not ride a horse for which you are too heavy.
  • Have your saddle checked annually for fit and wear and tear. The horse’s body changes regularly with changing workloads, seasons and nutrition and the saddle must be refitted regularly to accommodate this.

Having a horse with a cold back is not a reason to stop riding - in fact, exercise will ensure he maintains the muscle tone he needs to support and strengthen his back. Observing the simple measures outlined above will minimize your horse’s discomfort and support his overall wellbeing, keeping him active for years to come. 

  • What a great article Morgan! Thanks, I never knew how to deal with this before