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A healthy back indicates a sound horse

Early care A horse’s spine is just not sufficiently developed 
to withstand heavy weight bearing until it is fully mature

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Horses were not naturally created to bear the weight of a rider, so conscious effort needs to be taken to develop and condition a horse’s back. This conditioning will then allow it to successfully and comfortably carry a rider without sustaining long-term damage.

Seen from the side, the horse’s top line begins from the poll and ends at the base of the tail. A healthy top line is even, smooth, and continuous with no breaks, unnatural kinks, peaks, valleys, or indentations in front of or behind the withers. There is a tendency to roundness, and when seen from above healthy backs are symmetrical with smoothly contouring muscling mirroring one another on either side of the spine.

The horse must develop the correct muscles which properly engage his back and hindquarters. Horses with poor carriage, such as hollow backs or inverted frames, place themselves in anatomical and bio-mechanical disadvantaged positions with far-reaching consequences. Damage befalls not only the back itself, but over time hocks, front heels, dental arcades, and soft tissues throughout the body are also affected .

Growth plates in the back of a horse do not fuse until the horse is five to six years of age, so when weighted prematurely the responsibility for supporting the weight of a rider is placed upon the connecting musculature of the back. Unnatural strain sets the stage for hollow backs or inverted/upside-down horses.

Although young horses cope with physical weight bearing, they fail to flourish and fail to remain sound into their teen years. The horse’s spine is just not sufficiently developed to withstand heavy weight bearing until it is fully mature. Unfortunately for the horse, it looks mature far before they are mature.

A properly prepared riding horse understands how to carry himself. He must learn to coil his pelvis, step deeply underneath his mass with his hind legs, stretch his back, and telescope his neck. Once properly ground schooled he can learn to carry this feeling through while carrying the weight of a rider upon his back. Once schooling begins, development of a horse’s back takes time, a long time. It takes a year at least to establish a strong top line in a horse.

All tack used upon a horse effects his movement. The type of bit and nature of its use in the rider’s hands impacts how the horse carries his head, and so has the ability to shape the horse’s entire body and manner of movement.

Saddle fit

Saddle fit is critical to healthy movement of a horse’s back. A rider sits on layers of living tissue nourished by blood circulation. Saddle pressure drives blood circulation out of tissues, depriving them of nourishment. The tiny nerves that pass out of the spinal column innervating the back muscles are damaged greatly with unforgiving pressure. The muscles of the equine back are activated by electrical impulses which reach the individual cells through this network of tiny nerves. Without electrical impulses the muscles of the back wither, waste and sink away from the spine, leaving a weak back. Over time the horse loses its healthy top line, developing deep holes behind the withers.

Healthy backs feel warm, soft, and supple. They are quiet and resilient. Signs of early damage to a horse’s back include heat bumps, uneven sweat patterns, and flickering and flinching upon touch once the saddle is removed. Over time white patches of hair along the back are testimony to damaged tissues as pressure harms the hair follicles, resulting in a visible scar. Most often these white patches are partnered with the visible hollowing of top-line musculature.

Saddles are a bit like shoes. When they do not fit they can be uncomfortable or painful causing other physical problems as well. So, when saddles are not a good fit horses will communicate such with unhappy body language, often increasing volume with increasing discomfort.

Signs of pain caused by ill saddle fit include, but are not limited to, resistance to touch, pinning ears, head tossing, lack of focus, spooking, swishing or wringing tail, grinding teeth, stiffness, reluctance to stride out, unusual posturing, lameness, cold-backed behavior, rearing and bucking.

No amount of training or discipline will ever overcome pain. Adaptations for the pain under saddle can create habitually poor patterns of movement that may remain long after the saddle as been removed.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.



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