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Understanding Swayback: Curved Back Horses Examined

Last updated: February 22, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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I recently went to a local rodeo and saw something interesting—a horse with a curved back racing around barrels and winning. This got me thinking: Why do some horses have curved backs, and is there a way to prevent it?

Some horses have backs that curve, which is also known as “lordosis.” This can happen for a few reasons. One reason is genetics, meaning that it’s something passed down from its parents. Another reason might be carrying too much weight before they are fully grown. Also, sometimes older horses with longer backs slowly get a curve in their back as they age, and their muscles get weaker.

Even though some horse owners might be a little unsure about swayback horses, these horses are not that different from normal horses. We just need to understand them better and learn more about how to take care of them.

picture of a gray horse with a curved back.
Curved back horse.

Understanding Swayback (Lordosis)

Have you ever seen a horse with a back that curves down instead of being straight? This condition is called “swayback,” but scientists and vets sometimes call it “lordosis.” Just like people can have backs that are shaped differently, horses can, too.

A swayback horse has a back that sort of sags or curves downward in the middle. It’s not a disease or something that can spread from horse to horse. It’s just the way some horses are built.

How Common is Swayback (curved back) in Horses?

Swayback isn’t super common, but it’s not super rare, either. You might see one swayback horse at the rodeo, like I did, or on a farm, but most horses you meet will likely have straight backs. Some breeds of horses might have swayback more often than others. The reason it’s not very common is that it can come from a special combination of genes, old age, or other factors we will learn about soon.

Causes of Swayback in Horses

Genetic Factors

Just like you might have the same eye color as your mom or dad, horses can get traits from their parents, too. In some situations, swayback, or lordosis, can be linked to genes. Sometimes, a horse can carry a gene for swayback even if its back is straight and normal.

If both parent horses (the mom horse or dam and the dad horse or sire) carry the gene, their foal might have a swayback. But it’s a bit tricky because horses can also get a swayback as they get older or if they carry heavy loads too early in life.

While it’s true that swayback isn’t super common and trying not to breed two horses with swaybacks might reduce the chances of having a foal with a swayback, it doesn’t completely prevent it because of these other factors. So, caring for all horses in a way that helps keep their back healthy is super important, too.

Environmental Factors

  1. Early-Age Loading: The Impact of Carrying Heavy Loads at a Young Age

Imagine carrying a super heavy backpack when you were just a toddler. It would have been tough, right? Horses can face a similar problem. If young horses carry too much weight or are ridden too hard when they’re still growing, it can affect their backs. Their back might start to sag down because of the pressure and weight, and eventually, become swayback as they grow up.

  1. Aging: How Aging and Muscle Tone Loss Can Contribute to Swayback

As horses get older, just like people, their muscles can get a bit weaker. This includes the muscles along the back. When those muscles aren’t as strong, the back might start to droop a bit, creating a swayback. Sometimes, even if a horse didn’t have a curved back when they were younger, they might develop one as they get older because their muscles change.

Other Possible Causes

  1. Injury

Sometimes, if a horse gets hurt, it can lead to a swayback. An injury to their back or spine might make it hard for them to keep their back straight and strong. The healing process might cause their back to curve down a bit, especially if the muscles get weaker or they have to move differently because of the injury.

  1. Nutritional Deficiencies

Eating a healthy diet is important for horses to grow strong bones and muscles. If a horse doesn’t get the right nutrients, especially when it’s growing, its body might not develop properly. This could mean that its back doesn’t get strong enough to stay straight and might curve downwards. A good diet is super important to keep a horse healthy and strong.

Abilities and Limitations of Swayback Horses

Living as a swayback horse is kind of like living as any other horse but with a few differences. Swayback horses can run, play, and even be ridden, but they need some extra attention to make sure they’re comfy and happy.

While they can do many things that horses with straight backs can, it’s crucial for their owners to make sure that they have the right saddle to keep them from feeling pain. However, sometimes, if their swayback is very curved, it might limit the amount of weight they can carry or the activities they can do.

Myths vs. Facts: Correcting Common Misconceptions about Swayback Horses

Myth: Swayback horses are always in pain. Fact: This isn’t true. Swayback horses aren’t always in pain or uncomfortable. With the right care, like a well-fitting saddle and regular check-ups, they can lead happy, pain-free lives.

Myth: You can’t ride a swayback horse. Fact: Yes, you can. While some swayback horses may have limitations, many can still be ridden. The key is to make sure they have the right equipment and aren’t carrying too much weight.

Myth: Swayback is caused by bad care. Fact: Not necessarily. While some causes are related to the environment, as we learned, swayback can also be genetic or due to other factors that are not related to how the horse is cared for.

picture of an appaloosa horse with a slight swayback,
Appaloosa with a slightly curved back.

Caring for Swayback Horses

Appropriate Saddling and Riding: Ensuring Comfort and Health

Taking a ride on a swayback horse? Be sure you’re making it as comfy as possible for them! For horses with a curved back, using a special saddle that fits them well is super important. This helps to spread the weight of the rider evenly so that it doesn’t hurt the horse’s back.

When riding, it’s also vital to pay attention to how the horse is moving and acting – if they seem unhappy or uncomfortable, it might be time to take a break.

Exercise and Diet: Maintaining Muscle Tone and Overall Health

Just like people, horses need to move their bodies and eat well to stay healthy! Swayback horses should get regular, gentle exercise to help keep their back muscles as strong as possible. This might mean going for leisurely walks, doing some light trotting, or even performing gentle stretches (with the help of a vet or horse trainer).

A well-balanced diet that’s right for their age and size will help keep their bones and muscles strong. Sometimes, vets might recommend special foods or supplements to make sure they’re getting everything they need.

Regular Check-Ups: Monitoring for Any Related Health Issues

Visiting the vet isn’t just for cats and dogs – horses need check-ups, too. Swayback horses should see the vet regularly to make sure their back isn’t causing them any trouble and to check on their overall health.

The vet might look at their posture, see how they walk, and check that their spine and muscles are okay. Regular check-ups help spot any potential issues early so that the horse can get help if needed and continue living a happy, active life.

Remember: caring for a swayback horse might require a bit of extra attention, but with the right care, they can gallop, play, and enjoy life just like any other horse.

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

Managing Swayback: Is Prevention Possible?

Can we stop swayback from happening in the first place? Well, it’s a bit tricky. Some horses have a higher chance of developing swayback because of their genes. That means they’re born with a possibility of having a curved back because their parent horses had similar traits.

Scientists can sometimes use something called “genetic testing” to see what genes a horse has. This helps horse breeders choose horses to be parents in a way that might lower the chances of their baby horses having swayback. But remember, because swayback can also come from other causes like aging or injury, it can’t always be prevented.

Management Strategies

Managing swayback involves helping the horse to live a comfy and happy life, even with a curved back. Here’s how caretakers can do that:

  1. Physical Therapy and Exercises

Imagine doing exercises to get stronger – horses can do that, too. Physical therapy for horses, often helped by a veterinarian or a horse therapist, includes special exercises that keep their back muscles strong and flexible. This helps to support their curved back and keeps them as healthy and pain-free as possible. For example, walking up and down gentle slopes or stretching exercises can be very helpful.

  1. Appropriate Gear and Care Practices

Using the right gear and taking care of swayback horses in a way that keeps them comfortable is key. For riding, it’s super important to use a saddle that fits their curved back well to avoid any pain. Also, creating a living environment that supports their condition, like providing a soft place to lie down and making sure they don’t have to stand on hard surfaces for too long, is part of good care.

Even with a swayback, horses can lead joyful and active lives when their caretakers understand how to manage their condition effectively. While preventing swayback isn’t always possible, understanding its causes and how to manage it provides horses with the best chance to prance happily through life!

Swayback Doesn’t Typically Affect a 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’s 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 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 a western saddle.
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 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.

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

Below is a YouTube video about saddles for swayback horses.


So, why do some horses have that unique curve in their back? Remember, swayback, or “lordosis,” can be because of different reasons like their genes (the information passed down from parent horses), carrying heavy loads at too young an age, aging, or even other factors like injuries or not getting the right nutrients. It’s not just one thing, and every swayback horse might have a slightly different story.

Horses, whether they have straight backs or swaybacks, are amazing creatures that bring a lot of joy and adventure into our lives. Every horse, with a curved back or not, deserves to be treated with love, kindness, and respect.

They should live happily with proper care, comfy saddles, and gentle exercises to keep them healthy and happy. Remember, a swayback horse can do many wonderful things, just like any other horse, when given the chance and the right care!

And now, let’s spur into action, horse lovers. There’s always more to learn about our four-legged friends. By understanding more about swayback, we can help create better lives for them. If you’re curious, why not learn even more?

You could read books, talk to a veterinarian, or even meet with horse trainers and breeders to deepen your understanding. And remember, spreading the word about how special and capable swayback horses are is also super important. Let’s all gallop towards a future where every horse, no matter its back shape, is understood, loved, and well cared for!

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