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Caring For A “Swaybacked” Horse

Caring For A “Swaybacked” Horse

23/10/2011 @ 6:00 am

Equine Lordosis or “Swayback”



A severe case of lordosis

Equine Lordosis or “swayback” is commonly seen in older horses or broodmares. However, relatively few horses have the genetic form of lordosis which causes spinal deviations and curvature.

The most commonly seen type of swayback is that seen in older horses, and often retired broodmares of horses ridden extensively over many years. While these horses may have a downward deviation in the spine, their condition is not caused by a genetic defect or true spinal deviation. What actually  happens as a natural part of  aging, is that the horse’s muscles in the body start to weaken and waste away.

It’s this wasting of the muscles supporting both the abdomen and the topline that causes the horse’s midsection to sink. And this leads to the often seen swaybacked appearance.

Lordosis is quite common in aged broodmares due to their having to carry the added weight of a pregnancy and so stressing their back..

Allowing a horse to get overweight also obviously contributes to strain on the a horse’s back. Similarly, having to cope with a heavy rider for many years can increase the risk of lordosis developing

It’s significant that conformation also plays a role in the lordosis condition.. Those horses with overly long backs are inclined to be more prone to back problems which, of course, includes lordosis.

Horses with high-set necks and a high head carriage may be at higher risk of be affected by lordosis due to the way of moving which tends to hollow the horse’s back.

In general, age-related weakness of ligaments, along with loss of muscular tone, bulk related to aging, and lack of proper and regular exercise can eventually lead to lordosis becoming apparent.

Surprisingly, aside from the horse’s swayback appearance, lordosis has no direct influence on a horse’s health or overall soundness. Also swaybacked broodmares are able to carry and deliver foals in a normal fashion, although the genetic component of lordosis makes breeding of these mares a potential concern.

Additionally, swaybacked riding horses , even those severely affected, are able to be be ridden and even shown competitively.

Importance of saddle fit for lordosis affected horses.

The main issue and importantly, is that when a riding horse with lordosis is saddled up it can be difficult to fit the saddle correctly and with the horse’s comfort in mind.

It’s therefore essential that careful attention is given to saddle fit and ensuring good balance.

You’ll find that quite frequently horse owners decide that a custom-made saddle is the only way to avoid pressure points and back soreness.

It’s interesting to note that lordosis is not only an affliction of the older horse and that, in spite of what is a popular belief, most horses with lordosis can go on to active and productive lives well into their senior years.

Can you predict the development of lordosis?

There’s really no way one can predict whether your horse will become swaybacked. However, the more risk factors involved, including age, long back, multiple pregnancies, the greater the likelihood of lordosis devloping.

As complete prevention of the development of lordosis may not be possible, if you aren’t able to regularly ride your older horse, it’s important that you are least keep up with light regular groundwork such as gentle lunging.

Should there be signs of lordosis developing, along with a big belly, and general  loss of muscle size, this would be a good time for you to have a chat with your vet to get professional advice.


 Dr. Patrick Gallagher

When I was preparing this article I noticed that many horse-related blogs and sites had the identical articles on lordosis. They all included the same text about Dr. Gallagher so I felt I should at least include an abbreviation of the text in my article for the sake of completeness.

“While he was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky Dr. Patrick Gallagher noticed something interesting about horses who had equine lordosis. Humans and dogs that were diagnosed with lordosis were severely disabled while horses with the same condition where able to be worked and trained.

“It is estimated that only approximately one percent of the worlds horse population is diagnosed with equine lordosis. Because so few horses suffer from the condition very few researchers are willing to take the time to study it, preferring to spend their time on things like founder and colic. Dr. Gallagher became interested in the condition when he noticed that his father’s Saddlebreds seemed to run a higher risk of developing equine lordosis then other breeds.

“During his graduate studies Dr. Gallhager started to notice that there was a direct correlation between a young horses skeletal structure and the chances of them developing lordosis. Although the dip in the spine was not normally obvious when the foal was born. As the foal grew and developed the back started to sway. The inverted curve of the spine normally stabilized when the foal finished growing. .

“The next thing Dr. Gallagher looked at was the foals pedigree and genetic make-up. He noticed that certain family trees did have a greater chance of developing lordosis then others but was unable to isolate the exact gene responsible.

“Perhaps the most important thing Dr. Gallaghers research proved was … that he back does not affect their work habits. Swaybacked broodmares have no trouble carrying a foal to term, while racehorses with lordosis are not typically as fast as their straight backed counterparts the average performance of the lordosis affected horse appears to be unhampered by the inverted spine”.

In conclusion, I hope that this article on lordosis is helpful to those with a horse affected by this condition.


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