Factors That Affect Your Horse’s Back Function

Conformation, saddle fit, rider body weight, and training practices can all influence your horse’s topline. Learn more in this article from The Horse‘s Winter 2023 issue.
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Conformation, saddle fit, rider body weight, and training practices can all influence your equine athlete’s topline

Even without a rider, a horse’s back must support the weight of the thoracic and abdominal organs, as well as ingesta. | iStock

An equestrian who sees a lame horse often has an instinctive, knee-jerk reaction to blame the limbs. “Which leg is it?” often precedes the bigger question of, “Is it a leg?” That’s understandable, considering the most common causes of lameness do originate from the limbs, with arthritis, tendon and ligament injuries, hoof abscesses, and podotrochlosis (navicular disease) being some of the most frequently diagnosed. In reality, however, legs are not always the sole culprit. Many cases of equine pain, lameness, and poor performance stem from a problem higher up. And because the spine is at the center of the horse’s locomotion, any problem that originates in the back or sacroiliac (SI) region can have repercussions throughout the body, legs included.

“As a sports medicine veterinarian, I am asked to evaluate a fair number of performance and lameness problems,” says Cooper Williams, VMD, Dipl. ACVSMR, Certified ISELP Instructor, owner of Equine Sports Medicine of Maryland, based in Hampstead. “A large percentage of these performance problems can be attributed to conditions involving the axial skeleton—neck, back, and pelvis.” In this article we’ll look at the factors that affect function—and dysfunction—in your horse’s topline.

The Ridden Horse’s Challenge

The equine species was not designed to carry humans, much less perform athletically while doing so. The horse’s back is made up of 18 thoracic and six lumbar vertebrae, and it is the rigidity of these sections of the spine that makes riding possible. Nonetheless, some ridden horses experience dysfunction, injury, and pain despite our best efforts to provide proper care and maintenance. 

“Preventing back pain in horses is challenging,” says Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, associate professor at the Orthopaedic Research Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomechanical Sciences at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. “As we’ll discuss, many factors can increase the risk of back pain; it is difficult to adequately manage them all, especially as we push horses to perform at their highest possible athletic potential.”

Does Conformation Really Matter?

Think of the horse’s back like a suspension bridge anchored by the pillars of the front and hind limbs connecting at the shoulder and sacroiliac joints, respectively.

Let’s start with an analogy. Williams encourages us to think of the horse’s back as a suspension bridge. This bridge consists of the main structural element—the spinal column’s vertebrae—and support struts: muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The front and hind limbs are the pillars that anchor the bridge into the ground, connecting via those soft tissue struts at the shoulder and the sacroiliac joint, respectively. “Even without a rider, this living bridge is being asked to support a significant amount of weight because of the sheer mass of thoracic and abdominal organs, as well as ingesta,” Williams says.

Riders often believe horses with long backs are more prone to back pain than those with short backs. That’s because physics tells us the greater the space between the pillars of a two-pillar suspension bridge, the weaker the bridge. But our sources are hesitant to jump to conclusions regarding back conformation. “There isn’t currently good scientific evidence to support this claim,” says Haussler. “A measurably longer distance between the withers and pelvis does not automatically mean that the back is weaker or more prone to injury. That’s mainly because muscles play a vital role in providing strength, support, and movement of the back. The horse’s ability to comfortably carry a rider depends more on proper muscle function than on isolated conformational features such as back length.” This is promising because while you can’t change conformation, you can improve fitness.

The same goes for horses with swayed backs, a condition known as lordosis. “Conformation relates to structural features such as size, shape, and contours,” explains Haussler. “However, posture is just as important when we discuss back pain and dysfunction from long or swayed backs. We will never be able to change the relative length or angle of the horse’s back, but we can improve function by building muscle strength and core stability with tailored exercises.”

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.

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Written by:

Lucile Vigouroux holds a master’s degree in Equine Performance, Health, and Welfare from Nottingham Trent University (UK) and an equine veterinary assistant certification from AAEVT. She is a New-York-based freelance author with a passion for equine health and veterinary care. A Magnawave-certified practitioner, Lucile also runs a small equine PEMF therapy business. Her lifelong love of horses motivated her to adopt her college care horse, Claire, upon graduation.

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