Morgan Murphy

Dealing With "Swayback" In Horses.

When you’ve been around horses for some time, you start to get an eye for how their conformation, and any abnormalities can be cause for concern. This is especially true for the shape of the back, as lordosis — or “swayback” — is a condition that affects around 1 percent of the equine population.

What is Swayback?

This older horse has a significant swayback*

Lordosis, or swayback, is when the top line of the horse sags deeply. As the horse ages, their muscles and ligaments across the back are subjected to continued use. As a result, the supporting ligaments and top line muscles are susceptible to weakness and loss of bulk and tone, resulting in this condition.

Even if horses haven’t been subject to any additional strain or situations, many will still develop swayback through the normal aging process and the natural deterioration of muscles and ligaments.

Risk Factors

Due to the force of gravity building up over many years, this is particularly common in the spine as a result of the chest and abdominal contents causing pressure across the region. Broodmares are more prone to a swayback than geldings because the weight of carrying a foal will put extra strain on the back.

Additional environmental factors that will increase the likelihood that the horse will develop a swayback can include:

  • Equine obesity – the additional weight places a strain on the spine
  • Carrying heavy tack or a heavier rider for a prolonged period of time
  • Frequent jumping, particularly show jumping
  • Trauma to the back
  • Lack of exercise
  • Loss of tone due to disease

Anatomical abnormalities, congenital and acquired, will also be a factor in the likelihood of a horse developing a swayback, and horses with long backs are at greater risk of developing a range of back problems. Similarly, if the horse has a high-set neck and high head carriage, they may be at greater risk of swayback due to the tendency to hollow the back in their movement.

What are the Effects?

Because the swayback appears as a deep dip in the back of the horse, it can be quite unsightly to the eye. Unfortunately it is not well understood how the change affects the horse in terms of levels of pain or comfort. Many horses do not show obvious signs of discomfort, as the majority of horses suffering from swayback are at an age where they are no longer being ridden at a high level and may even be retired. Some limited research has been carried out in horses with the condition, and the results demonstrated they showed no sensitivity across the back when brushed or palpated.

However, it is obvious that the back is no longer as strong as it once was and that the structures are weakened, and as such, it is unrealistic to expect that a horse could carry weight or strain on an already stretched spine.

Prevention of Swayback

If you’re considering buying a horse with mild swayback, this should not be a deterrent to your purchase, but it’s important to ensure they will be able to meet your needs. If you’re looking for a horse to spend weekends doing advanced reining patterns, this may not be a horse for you. But should you want a leisure hack, it could be the ideal choice.

However, it’s important to take preventative measures to support the back and try to stop deterioration of the spine ligaments and muscles. These measures that can be extended to every horse.

  • Keep your horse at a safe weight to prevent stress on the spine
  • Ensure the saddle fit is perfect and padded to correctly support the weight of the rider and keep pressure off the spine
  • Keep the horse fit and in regular work
  • Ensure the horse does not carry more than 20% of their weight in the weight of the saddle plus rider
  • Monitor the horse’s heath regularly – check for any signs of pain or discomfort in the back, and should you notice any issues, check with your physiotherapist or veterinarian

A swayback does not have to mean a horse is in pain and suffering. With proper management, care and attention, they can continue to live a quiet and happy life.

*Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commmons