Swayback in Horses: Causes and Exercises to Strengthen the Back
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Jan 05, 2022
Equine Lordosis, commonly known as swayback in horses, is a relatively rare condition where the ligaments around the horse’s vertebrae start to slacken, causing a noticeable dip right behind their withers. While the condition looks severe, it is usually not painful, and there are things you can do to help strengthen the swaybacked horse’s back.
Common Causes of Swayback in Horses
For how well known the condition is, swayback in horses only occurs in about 1% of the equine population. Therefore, there is little research around the condition’s origins. Many people think that it has to do with injury, lack of care, or serious malformity. Rarely, though, are any of these the case.
Researchers think that swayback is rooted in genetics as a recessive gene that both the sire and dam must carry. It is especially common in the American Saddlebred breed, likely because similar positive genes connected to the recessive swayback gene have been selectively chosen for the breed over the years.
Most cases of swayback in equines happen as they age. However, mares that must carry foals are slightly more prone to seeing this condition earlier in their lives because of the work of gravity, but it’s not pathological to broodmares.
It’s extremely uncommon to see this in younger horses, but sometimes an abnormality of the thoracic vertebrae occurs in utero, causing early-onset lordosis.
Is Swayback Painful for Horses?
Unlike other animals that suffer from lordosis, swayback does not expose or cause injury to the vertebrae themselves. Due to the rigidity of the equine spine, horses are not prone to the same vulnerabilities as animals with more flexible spines. Except for the rare cases of early-onset swayback, the condition is not generally painful and does not affect the horse’s quality of life.
Can You Ride a Swaybacked Horse?
You can! While the condition itself is not painful, you do want to consider how the horse’s pitched withers could be affected by the saddle. Fitting the saddle incorrectly could cause pain and impingement, so be sure to allow plenty of room for the withers and follow general saddle fitting guides to find the proper saddle and pad combo for your horse. And keep in mind that your horse’s back is prone to change, so if you notice any saddle-sourness, it might be time to schedule another fitting.
How to Strengthen a Swaybacked Horse
Since swayback simply looks like an extreme case of no-topline, many horse owners wonder if it can be reversed with proper conditioning. Unfortunately, swayback cannot be reversed, but there are things that you can do to help strengthen your horse’s back for overall body comfort and ease of movement:
- Stretches: Carrot stretches are a great way to get your horse stronger and more limber throughout his body. Start with lateral, bowing, and extension exercises for 10-15 second durations, then build on it as your horse gets better at them. (See more)
- The Circle Game: The Circling Game, both on the line and at liberty, will help strengthen your horse’s core and lateral muscles while also keeping him relaxed, which will help his muscles develop more naturally.
- Ground Driving: Ground driving is a non-riding method of encouraging your horse to engage his core and hindquarters and lift his back, therefore strengthening his abdominal and back muscles.
- Cavaletti & Pole Work: Poles and Cavaletti are great exercises to work on in the saddle for a swaybacked horse. These obstacles will make your horse engage his hind end, lift up his core muscles, and teach him to engage his core while carrying himself.
- Weight Management: While lordosis is not reversible, the condition will be less prone to worsen by not adding more weight. If your horse seems to be growing a large “pasture belly”, check with your vet to rule out Cushing’s Disease.
How to Improve Your Swaybacked Horse’s Life
Thankfully, lordosis is not a diagnosis that has to stop your horse’s life. By staying active and engaged through the Seven Games and harmonious riding (with proper saddle fit), your horse can enjoy just as many joy-filled years with you as a horse without swayback. Learn more about how to develop a deeper partnership with your horse through the Savvy Club Membership.