The Equine Back: Conformation and Injuries

Horses have been carrying burdens on their backs since man discovered that he could cover more ground faster while riding a horse as opposed to striding along on his own two legs. Man also discovered that it was far less strenuous to pack a load on a horse's back rather than on his own.

Equine spine  
The horse's spinal column starts at the poll and goes to the end of the tail (see areas defined above).

As use of the horse increased, so did problems with the equine back. Some of them are the result of conformation. It takes a strong, well-conformed back to handle the rigors of trail riding, performing, and packing. Other problems have been man-made. Even a horse with excellent conformation can wind up with back problems if ridden by a rider out of balance or if outfitted with inappropriate tack.

In this article, we'll take a look at the equine back--how it is structured, proper conformation, and some of the problems than can afflict it.

As usual, there are many sources, but we will draw heavily on two individuals who have authored papers and presided over discussions on the equine back. One is Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, a licensed veterinary chiropractor who teaches at Cornell University's School of Veterinary Medicine. Information from Haussler stems from interviews and presentations at AAEP conventions. The other source is Doyle Meadows, PhD, a professor in the Animal Science Department at the University of Tennessee. One of Doyle's papers on equine conformation was included in the Horse Industry Handbook published by the American Youth Horse Council. In addition, we will draw on information included in anatomy textbooks.

The key component in a horse's back is his spine. It begins at the head and travels along the neck, withers, back, loin, and croup, and it ends in the tail. How this spinal column is conformed can have a great deal to do with the horse staying sound, healthy, and free of back pain even when involved in arduous pursuits.

Anatomy of the Spine

Generally speaking, the horse has 54 vertebrae in this spinal or vertebral column (vertebra is singular, vertebrae is plural). We say "generally speaking" because the number of vertebrae in a horse's tail can vary. Haussler tells us that there can be as few as 51 total vertebrae and as many as 57. Using 54 as our average total for this discussion, we find that there are seven cervical or neck vertebrae; 18 dorsal or thoracic vertebrae; six lumbar or loin vertebrae; five sacral or croup vertebrae; and 18 coccygeal or tail vertebrae.

The vertebrae are identified by clinicians and researchers by number from head to tail. For example, the first cervical vertebra is identified as C1 and the last one is C7. The thoracic vertebrae are prefaced by T and a number. T1 is the first thoracic vertebra and is located at the point of the shoulder where the thoracic column begins. The thoracic vertebrae end where the last rib attaches to the vertebral column.

The thoracic vertebrae closer to the neck have prominent dorsal spinal processes for a particular reason. The processes or projections provide the site for attachment of muscles that support the head, neck and front legs. In like manner, the vertebrae of the sacral area help support the hind legs and the vertebral ligaments form broad attachments to the bones and muscles of the pelvis.

The Vertebrae

Now, with Haussler's help, along with textbook information, we'll take a look at the individual bones in the spine.

The typical vertebra consists of a vertebral body (the main bulk of the bone) and several vertebral or spinal processes (smaller wings projecting off the vertebral body). The length of an individual vertebra can vary from one horse to another.

There is a strong correlation between vertebral length and the length of various component parts. For example, a horse with long vertebrae will tend to have a long neck, back, loin, croup, and tail. Again, more is not necessarily better. Yes, we want a horse to have a long neck, but no, we don't want it to be overly long and unwieldy. The same is true of the other areas of equine anatomy involved--back, loin, croup, and tail.

When discussing the properly conformed horse, we noted that the highest point of the back is at the withers, with a slight decline where the saddle rests, then an upward sweep at the croup. This does not mean that the spine itself is much higher or lower at any point along the back. Instead, the dorsal spinal process on the vertebrae's upper surfaces are involved. These bony, finlike projections are at their longest at the withers and at their shortest under the saddle, then project upward a bit more in the hip area. The spine itself runs in pretty much a straight line all along the back.

A significant characteristic of the spine is its rigidity. There is some movement from side to side and up and down along the back, but not a great deal.

In contrast, the vertebrae in the neck and in the tail are much more flexible, allowing the horse to raise and lower its head and move it from side to side. The flexibility of the tail provides the horse with a strong weapon against attacking insects. The amount and direction of flexibility is determined mostly by joint size and shape.

The joints that connect the vertebrae are known as cartilaginous joints. These are joints that are slightly movable or immovable, depending on the bones involved. Cartilaginous joints are united by fibrocartilage, hyaline cartilage, or both. The connective tissue between two vertebrae is comprised of both types of cartilage. Cartilage and soft tissue form discs between individual vertebrae to absorb the shock and concussion produced by movement.

Back Conformation

Now we turn to Meadows for assistance in describing proper equine back conformation. Once we have this picture in mind, it will be easier to understand form and function of the back.

When considering a properly conformed horse, the withers will be the highest point of the back. A prominent withers ensures that the saddle will stay in place without excessive cinching. The equine backbone, overall, is arched slightly upward, thus helping provide strength and durability. However, it also is a case where more is not better. If the back is arched too much, the horse is said to be roach backed, a condition that can be the source of soreness and a limitation of performance capability. On the other hand, if the back sags markedly, we say the horse is sway-backed or suffering from lordosis. This, too, is a condition that will cause a saddle to fit poorly and can be the source of soreness and a wide variety of other back problems.

When viewed from the side, the topline--the distance between the withers and croup--should be less than the distance between front and rear legs along the belly, or underline. If the topline is longer, it is an indication that the horse's back is too long and that it will be weak and lacking in balance. There should be a slight dip behind the withers where the saddle rests and a gentle sweep upward over the loins and point of croup.

A key part of back conformation is the loin--the area between the last rib and the croup. The loin should be well-muscled, strong, and relatively short so that it can convey power from the rear legs forward.

The croup is the area that extends from the loins to the tailhead. It should be long and gently sloping, with the amount of slope varying from breed to breed and horse to horse. A long croup enables a horse to have a long stride as well as providing a setting for proper dimension and solid muscling in the hindquarters.

Strength and Flexibility

Strong muscles are needed to support the back. They are divided into two categories--superficial and deep.

The large, superficial back muscles span large regions of the spine and ensure coordinated back movements. Smaller, deep back muscles connect one or two vertebrae and act to move or stabilize each individual vertebra.

Spinal ligaments connect the individual vertebrae and provide joint support. In addition, the horse's spinal column is held under tension by the horse's belly muscles.

The relative rigidity of the back provides the strength needed to support a rider's weight. However, there are disciplines where at least some movement at the vertebral joints in the thoracic and lumbar areas is required. Perhaps the discipline that requires the greatest range of spinal movement and strength is dressage. Jumping high fences also requires movement in the form of rotation of the back and hind limbs.

One of the prime responsibilities of the vertebral column is to protect the spinal cord that runs through it and the complex nerve system that branches from the spinal cord at intervals all along the spine. As the nerve structure exits the spine, the nerves divide into various branches that fan out within the horse's body and go to the joints, muscles, internal organs, and skin.

Nerve impulses travel from the brain and spinal cord and out of the spinal nerves to all parts of the body. Similarly, nerve impulses travel back to the brain via the peripheral nerves and spinal cord. The horse's overall nerve structure serves as the message-carrying system between the brain and all areas of the body. Nerves also can sense pain and joint movement. Pain sensors are found in the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, and blood vessels of the back.

When joints or muscles don't function correctly or nerves are irritated, the message system falters.

The diameter of the spinal cord is at its greatest in the cervical and lumbar regions. These are the areas where nerve roots for the plexuses (a network of nerves) supplying the nerves of the limbs originate. These two areas are referred to as the cervical and lumbar enlargements.

When we consider that we are dealing with an area of equine anatomy with relatively small joints with little movement, it becomes apparent that there is potential for performance-limiting injuries if something happens to damage this relatively rigid structure.

Helping Injuries

In the past, when a back injury was suspected, about the only therapy utilized was rest. In more recent years, however, new weapons have been added to a veterinarians' arsenal, including chiropractic and acupuncture.

Back and neck injuries in the horse can involve a variety of causes. Often the injury stems from trauma, such as a fall or tipping over backward. Problems also can stem from poor conformation, poor saddle fit, over-exertion, and lack of fitness.

Haussler provides us with three classifications for spinal injuries:

  • Soft tissue injuries involving muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
  • Osseous injuries involving bones and joints; and
  • Neurological injuries involving the nervous system.

When dealing with chiropractic, one term is heard with frequency: Subluxation. Technically, subluxation means a partial dislocation of a joint. However, in chiropractic terminology, it describes the loss of normal motion due to pain, muscle spasms, or joint stiffness. With subluxation, the joint surfaces are almost, but not quite, in the correct position. The joint still functions, but not as well, and might be painful. There might also be an impingement of the spinal nerves that exit between the pairs of vertebrae.

Sometimes a subluxation problem is solved naturally, such as a horse rolling, bending, or stretching. At other times, however, the problem persists and calls for treatment. In many cases, the treatment protocol involves both a veterinarian and a chiropractor working under the auspices of the attending veterinarian. (Today, more and more veterinarians are adding chiropractic credentials to their portfolio.) The reason for the dual approach is that many back problems are secondary to a primary problem. When that is the case, the back problem won't be alleviated, no matter what treatment is used, until the primary cause is removed.

The chiropractic adjustment consists of a short, sharp thrust with the hands to a specific area of the back. The approach is designed to release muscle spasms, alleviate pain, and return the joint to its normal range of motion.

Normally, there are few side effects after chiropractic treatment, but a horse might occasionally become stiff and sore after being treated, especially if there is a lot of inflammation or bony pathology, such as acute or active arthritis.

Other back problems, such as those involving the discs between each pair of vertebrae, often are much more complicated--as is the case with humans--and could require a different approach.

Take-Home Message

The equine back is a well-designed structure in the properly conformed horse. However, when poor conformation is involved and/or inappropriate tack is used, serious problems can arise.


About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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