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Why Do Some Horses Have Curved Backs? A Look at Swaybacks

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I was recently at a local rodeo, and I noticed a horse competing in barrel racing with a slight but noticeable curved back capture third place. It made me wonder why some horses have curved backs and whether you can do things to prevent it from occurring.

Some horses have curved backs or “lordosis” because of genetics. It can also be caused by carrying excessive loads before a horse matures, and in horses with longer backs, it can gradually appear as they age and lose their muscle tone.

Most horse owners shy away from swayback horses, but surprisingly, swaybacks are pretty similar to normal horses. People just need to learn more about this condition.

Why horses have curved backs.

Curved backs in horses are typically the result of genetics or caused by regularly carrying heavy loads at a young age before it has time to develop sufficient back strength to bear the load.

picture of a gray horse with a curved back.

Horses with unusually long backs are susceptible to developing swayback. As a horse grows older, the connective tissues and tendons in its back and belly may start to soften.

It causes their back to lose its structural integrity and slowly starts to sag. This effect continues over multiple years, and ultimately, the horse’s back becomes unnaturally curved.

With young swayback horses, the spine itself might be abnormal. The spine consists of multiple bones connecting to form a long chain. These bones are called vertebrae (plural).

In horses with curved backs, it has been shown that some of the vertebrae are shaped abnormally. It’s theorized that because these vertebrae can’t develop fully, they cause a section of the spine to curve and damage other nearby vertebrae.

Can you prevent swayback in horses?

In some cases, swayback is a genetic condition created by a recessive gene, which means that both the sire and dam have to have swaybacks to pass the trait to their offspring.

This genetic component of swayback horses is probably why there are so few, less than 1%. So one way to prevent swayback in horses is to avoid breeding two swaybacks.

If you have a swayback foal, potentially, you may be able to delay the onset of the condition by not overburdening the young horse, ensuring it gets the proper vitamins and nutrients in his diet and avoiding excessive physical exertion.

Can you fix a swayback horse?

You might like a horse and its performance but just can’t get around its swayback. So, can you somehow change its topline to return back to a normal shape?

Currently, there is no way you can correct a swayback horse to a standard shape. It’s because swayback is caused by irreversible changes in the horse’s body muscles and connective tissues.

Whether your horse shows a swayback in youth or adulthood, it’s not possible to “fix” in most cases. There are exercises to strengthen the topline to prevent it from getting worse, but it’s not practical to expect the condition to return to normal.

picture of an appaloosa horse with a slight swayback,

However, the upside of the situation is that horses with curved backs are almost always as efficient as regular horses.

Swayback doesn’t usually affect the horse’s performance.

Typically, in other animals like dogs, goats, and even humans experiencing a swayback, the spine can show extreme curves. In such cases, they are susceptible to severe conditions like paralysis, impaired body movement, or even death.

In horses, however, even the most prominent swaybacks follow an even and stable curve. Most importantly, the horse spine is incredibly rigid. So, the abnormality in a few vertebrae and muscle connectivity loss isn’t significant enough to threaten a horse’s physical integrity.

With an adequate diet and exercise, a swayback can perform in almost all competitive equine activities. What’s more, swayback is more common in horses with long backs. And from my experience, longer backs provide a better, more ordered gait.

Does swayback hurt a horse?

I remember seeing a swayback for the first time and just feeling sympathy at the shape of the horse’s back. I thought that the horse must feel uncomfortable all the time, but that is probably not true.

A swayback does not appear to cause horses any pain. Since it’s a long-term and often an innate condition, rather than developing suddenly, the horse’s body learns to gradually “grow into it.”

However, a swayback may be caused by regularly carrying an excessive load, especially by immature horses or those with long backs. If a swayback is carrying an excessive amount of weight, it is painful. But of course, any horse overloaded will show clear signs of pain and fatigue.

If a rider is too large for a horse and hurts its back, couldn’t it just refuse to be ridden? Because horses carry painfully heavy riders without objection, it makes me wonder why horses let humans ride them at all.

picture of an old horse with a curved back that looks undernurished,

Should you ride a swayback horse?

There are very few swayback horses globally, which adds to our lack of knowledge about them. Because of the way their back curves downward, I was concerned that a rider’s weight could injure the animal.

It seems reasonable that riding a swayback would cause the horse to be uncomfortable. Many people are hesitant to ride or put any substantial load on swaybacks for this reason.

However, it’s ok to ride a swayback as long as the saddle fits the horse correctly. A saddle for normal horses usually doesn’t sit well on swaybacks, and if you use an ill-fitting saddle, it causes significant pain at the withers and loin.

When you use a standard saddle on a horse with a curved back, only the saddle’s front and back touch the horse’s back. Because swaybacks have unusually large contours, the middle of the saddle will not sit correctly around the center surface (also known as “bridging”).

As a result, all the weight is borne on the saddle’s front and rear, and the horse experiences excessive pressure behind its shoulder blades and around the loins.

Over time, the muscles can atrophy, and the horse will experience permanent back problems.

A correctly fitting saddle is essential to distribute a rider’s weight evenly across a horse’s back. Weight distribution is critical to preventing injury to your horse, and it’s also easier to maintain balance when sitting in a saddle that fits your horse correctly. 

Picture of a western saddle.

What kind of saddle fits a swayback?

There are many types of saddles on the market, and riding a horse with a curved back is only a matter of finding a good fit. However, there are different ways you can go about ensuring your horse’s comfort.

If your horse’s contour is not too prominent, it might not need a new saddle. This is mostly true for horses that develop curved backs slowly over the years. Often, a continuously used saddle will adapt and mold to the abnormal shape of the horse.

But this is only true in some cases, and for a horse with a notable swayback, having a custom saddle built is the safest course of action. Making customs can be tricky, and it’s best to get one made after the horse has fully grown.

The first two years in a swayback’s life are usually when the abnormal curve is evolving. As with normal horses’ growth, when a swayback becomes mature, its muscle growth stabilizes and doesn’t require a new saddle as often.

Still, it is necessary to understand how a saddle is supposed to fit your horses. For instance, I usually take off the saddle and look at the sweat patterns.

The entire back should display consistent dampness. If you notice large dry areas in the middle of the horse’s back, this typically means that the saddle doesn’t align with the back’s curvature and is causing painful pressure on the horse’s front and back’s topline.

You can also check the clearance offered by the saddle at the top and the sides of the withers. For horses with average withers, there should be about two fingers of free space. The width would decrease towards the center of the saddle, which should be parallel to the floor.

If you observe swelling or lumps around where you sit on a horse’s back, the saddle is definitely not fitting correctly. These lumps are caused by damaged muscle tissues and are a serious cause of concern.

You can also use saddle pads to accommodate the dead space created by horses with curved backs. My personal favorite western saddle pads fill in the gaps left by some saddles and also provide ample cushioning to counteract any discomfort the horse may feel on its back.

There are many different shapes and sizes of saddle pads, and the wrong one can make things worse. In general, you should continue to try various saddle and saddle pads until you find the combination that allows you to ride your horse safely and pain-free.

You can click here to check out various saddles and saddle pads offered for sale on Amazon.

Swayback as a whole is not too bad of a condition. Though swayback horses might not be the best at competitive sports, they can perform excellently with training and care.

Below is a YouTube video wherein a vet answers the question, “what causes swayback in horses?”

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