"Swayback" In a Young Horse

Q: I have a 3-year-old gelding. I bought him when he was almost 2, at which time he appeared somewhat swaybacked. He had, and still does have, very high withers. He was still growing, so I thought that as he aged and grew he would appear less swaybacked. On the contrary, the swayback has worsened as he's gotten older. I requested pictures of him as a weanling and yearling, and at that time his back was perfectly straight.

I asked my vet if I should be concerned. He told me he simply had bad conformation, there was nothing he could do about it, and I might not be able to ride him after he reached middle age due to the severity of the swayback.

I have tried to find information on the Internet, and there is very little out there on juvenile lordosis, which I'm assuming is his correct diagnosis. Do you know anything about this or have any suggestions for me? I'm very concerned. I want to make sure my horse isn't in any discomfort and that I'm not making things worse by riding him.

Gena S., via e-mail

A: You are correct; the proper term for "swayback" is lordosis. Congenital lordosis has been reported to be associated with incomplete development of the upper thoracic vertebrae in the area of T5-T10. This causes overextension of the vertebral joints in the area and leads to this conformational problem.

Radiographs of the area could confirm the diagnosis. While you state that you have pictures of your gelding as a weanling and yearling that show a "straight" back, it is possible that this is still the cause.

Lordosis can also be a response to pain in back musculature. Your horse should be examined to see if there is a pain component causing the problem. Removing this pain can often lead to correction of the "swayback" appearance. Also, there are some exercises that you can use to get your horse to raise and round his back, and to strengthen his abdominal muscles. One involves scratching him on his ventral midline under his abdomen to get him to raise his back. The other involves scratching or stimulating points on either side of the tailhead.

While horses with lordosis are more prone to back pain, many are able to be ridden, and some even compete. Saddle fit will be a very important issue with these horses. I have seen some horses being ridden into their 20s with significant lordosis and without pain.

About the Author

Ed Boldt, Jr., DVM

Ed Boldt, DVM, is the owner of Performance Horse Complementary Medicine Services in Fort Collins, Colo.

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