Roach Back in Horses: Causes, Treatment & More Facts

What is a roach back horse? What is roach back in horses?

Roach backed horse, how is it caused and can you treat it?

I put together this guide to help you learn everything you need to know about this unusual and uncommon equine back problem.

Let’s get started!

What is Roach Back (Kyphosis) in Horses?

Roach back in horses is easy to spot and is a conformation issue with the spine. It is when part of the spine curves upwards instead of evenly. It is basically the opposite of a sway back (Lordosis).

Scarsdale Equine Vets define it as “a dorsal deviation of the spine. This is usually a

developmental defect and can occasionally occur as a result of limb deformities in foals.” [1]

Some people might refer to it as a humpback. It is unusual to see a horse roach back as thankfully it isn’t that common. Sometimes the horse might only have a slight roach.

The bump is caused by longer than normal lumbar vertebrae dorsal processes. The majority of horses that develop kyphosis show signs when they are weanlings up until a year old.

Roached back horses have a weaker back are difficult to build the correct muscle. These horses have trouble with lateral bend work, shorter strides, back stiffness, and engaging their hind ends.

Because of this dressage and lots of jumping are not possible for these horses. That’s not to say they can’t do these activities at a lower level. How much will depend on how severe their spine curve is.

Ideally, these horses are suited to a less intensive riding life that doesn’t require them to bend, collect, or jump very much. 

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Is a Roach Back Genetic In Horses?

Kyphosis in horses can be both genetic (congenital) or a musculoskeletal disfunction. It is important to determine what type the horse has as musculoskeletal disfunction can be improved with the correct rehab from a physio.

However, with a congenital roach back, you can’t make improvements to the back’s concave conformation. 

According to Kentucky Equine Research “Some researchers believe both lordosis and kyphosis are the result of fetal malpositioning.” [2] This would imply that sometimes it is not genetic but due to a problem with how the foal is positioned in utero.

For a roach back horse, you will want to use the best saddle pad.

Here’s a video for more information.

What Causes Roach Back in Horses?

There are only a few causes of roach back in horses. Let’s take a look at them. Thankfully, it is fairly rare. Many horses will a mild roach back can still be ridden but the activities they can do will be more limited.

Congenital

This type of roach back is triggered or develops in utero. You will start to see signs of the back curving up after the foal is weaned during its first year of life.

It often appears at this stage due to a growth spurt and changes in limb conformation as the foal develops.

Pain or Trauma

Another cause of kyphosis in horses is pain in another part of the body of trauma. This can cause the horse to compensate for the pain and adopt a position that is more comfortable for it.

Sometimes this means they start over flexing their lumber spine, creating the roach. This also involves the straining of the lumbar and other back muscles. Thus restricting movement. 

The pain or trauma that can lead to this can come from a poorly fitting saddle, incorrect or lack of hoof care, or an accident such as a fall. It can originate as limb pain or distal pain.

When riding a roach back horse, it is important the saddle fits well and you use a good pain relief saddle pad. It takes a little more care, just like choosing saddle pads for swayback horses.

Can You Ride a Horse With Kyphosis?

Many horses with kyphosis can be ridden. However, there are some instances when the case is severe where you should not ride the horse and just give it a happy life as a pet.

a child riding swayback horse

Also, horses with kyphosis will need more management to help them develop muscles, reduce pain and treat any issues that could be causing it if it is not congenital.

Can Roach Back Be Corrected?

You cannot fully correct a roach back and you can only improve the problem if it is not genetic. However, proper rehab exercises and treatment from a vet and physio can improve the horse’s well-being.

If you are dealing with pain or trauma caused roach back, you first need to uncover the cause. To do this you will need a thorough examination by a good equine vet.

The cause can be anything from a soft tissue injury within the back to problems with your horse’s feet.

You will also have to look at saddle fit which I will talk about more in the treatments section next.

How To Treat a Roach Back Horse?

There are a number of treatments that can help improve a nongenetic roach back and help the comfort of a horse born with it.

It is important to remember that you will make no progress if you don’t address the primary cause.

Saddle Fit

A poorly fitted saddle can sometimes be the cause of roach back in horses. It can cause pain and strain to the lumbar area of the spine.

rider showing How To Fit a Saddle Pad For Older Horses

Regardless of if your saddle is the cause or not, get it evaluated, adjusted, or even if necessary replace it for a saddle that fits well. This will benefit any horse with kyphosis.

Veterinary Examination

Take your horse to a horse vet the specializes in lameness or tricky cases. This is if it is not a congenital case. The vet can try and pinpoint the source of the pain that has caused your horse to over flex its spine.

You can then treat the source of the pain while working on the next treatment.

Equine Physio

In conjunction with your vet use a qualified equine physiotherapist. They will work on helping your horse release the flexion and give you exercises to work on.

The goal will be to reduce the restriction the muscles are having on the lumbar spine and to improve muscle strength. They will also show you exercises that can help improve suppleness.

You will want the horse to work stretch out and low, not with its head up and back hollow.

Each rehab program will be slightly different as it will depend on your horse’s specific case and cause. An equine massage therapist might also be helpful but most physios should have good massage techniques.

Here is a video that shows you some exercises you can do to strengthen your horse’s back. Just ask your physio or vet first to make sure they are suitable for your horse.

Corticosteroids

Some vets might opt to try injecting the back with Corticosteroids (steroids). These injections are commonly used for a variety of issues. 

Rossdales equine vet hospital says “Corticosteroids (‘steroids’) are a group of powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that are used frequently to treat lameness problems.” [3]

While this won’t cure your horse, it can help manage pain and inflammation. There is no guarantee they will work but it is worth discussing their use with a vet.

Don’t forget to also check out my article on “dressage girth” for more information and options when it comes to selecting the perfect girth for your horse.

FAQs

Can you jump a horse with a roach back?

Yes, you can jump some horses with a roach back. Not every horse will be able to but some manage fine. But it is likely that they will be limited in how high they can jump.

Should you buy a horse with a roach back?

Buying a horse with a roach back depends on what you want to do with the horse. If it is very severe and the horse should not be ridden, then you shouldn’t buy the horse unless you just want a pet. 
If you want a jumping, reining, cutting, or a horse that can do similar activities then it is best to avoid a roach back. However, if you want a horse for trail rides or light arena riding it is probably ok.

Conclusion

I hope this has helped you better understand what a roach back horse is and whether or not they make suitable riding horses.

I like to hope that there is the right home and job out there for every horse regardless of its imperfections.

roach back horse

Resources

  • 1. Available from: https://www.scarsdalevets.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/The-Equine-Back.pdf
  • 2. Ony EE. Roach and Sway: Problems of the Horse’s Back [Internet]. Kentucky Equine Research. 2014 [cited 2022 Aug 17]. Available from: https://ker.com/equinews/roach-and-sway-problems-horses-back/#:~:text=Roach%20back%2C%20known%20also%20as
  • 3. Surgeons RV. Corticosteroids [Internet]. Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons. 2020. Available from: https://www.rossdales.com/referrals/treatments-and-therapeutics/joints-tendons-ligaments/corticosteroids
Siun L
Siun L

Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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