How to Fit a Saddle for Swayback Horses

Swayback (equine lordosis) is a common condition that horses and horse people will face together.

When horses have swayback, ensuring saddle fitting for swayback horses fits properly is key to ensuring their comfort and preventing it from worsening.

This article will cover everything you need to know about saddle fit for swayback horses, including the causes of the condition, and why a well-fitting saddle is important for these horses.

It’ll also explain why saddle fitting for these horses is something that’s best left to the professionals and not really something you can do at home yourself.

Check: Best Horse Saddle Pads

What Causes Swayback in Horses?

a swayback horse in a ground

Swayback or equine lordosis is when the horse’s back dips into a smooth curve instead of being straight.

It affects all horse breeds and can be early onset or develop later, and is genetic and or occurs naturally through age and use.

What’s more, performance horses with swayback can compete. These are some of the most common causes of the incidence of lordosis or swayback in horses.

Equine Genetics 

A study of the genetics of swayback in American Saddlebred Horses found that there is a yet to be identified gene that lies in either the specific gene itself or in the gene regulatory regions outside of gene exons.

Identifying the gene would help horse breeders selectively eliminate or reduce swayback in their gene pools.

A later study found that there is a genetic marker on chromosome 20 that can lead to swayback. The marker is recessive, which means that both parents have to carry a copy of it for the swayback trait to appear in the offspring.

However, not all horses who have two copies of the marker have swayback, so the gene cannot be a direct cause of the condition.

Swayback can also occur congenitally if the upper thoracic vertebrae in the horse’s back do not develop properly.

As a result, the other vertebral joints in that area have to overextend themselves to compensate for this loss, and thus swayback develops.

Aging

This is the most common cause of swayback. As horses get older, their body condition decreases and the soft tissue connections in their back weaken.

Furthermore, they lose muscle tone in between the vertebrae and in the stomach muscles. This causes the sagging that leads to swayback.

Serving as a Broodmare 

Broodmares are prone to displaying signs of swayback or equine lordosis because they have spent many months carrying the weight of a foal, which places extra strain on their back muscles.

They may also be more unfit horses due to time away from work to foal and thus have weaker belly muscles and dorsal muscles contributing to swayback.

High Workload and Constant Riding 

If a horse is worked and made to carry weight on their back in a strenuous fashion every day, their back and abdominal muscles will deteriorate faster and they are more prone to developing swayback. 

Although there is a horse for riders of every size, the reason why many riding schools do not allow their horses to carry more than 20% of their weight in the rider and saddle is to protect the horse’s back and prevent muscle atrophy.

READ MORE: How to Clean a Wool Saddle Pad

Importance of Proper Saddle Fitting for Swayback Horses 

Saddle Fitting for Swayback Horses 

Since swayback horses have a weaker spinal cord and lack of muscle in the top line, the right saddle is crucial.

This section will go into all the reasons why saddle fitting for swayback horses is a must.

As mentioned earlier, if you’re here looking for a step-by-step guide to fitting your swayback horse for a saddle, you’ll be a bit disappointed. It would be very irresponsible of me to tell you how to do it yourself.

It is vital to schedule an appointment with a saddle fitter to make a careful saddle selection and ensure proper fit.

An Ill-Fitting Saddle Causes Saddle Sores 

Saddle sores are pressure sores or lesions caused by tack rubbing against the horse’s skin for long periods of time. Poor saddle fit is the main cause of this.

The girth can also be too tight or loose and rub against their skin and create sore sores. If there is incorrect saddle placement or the rider is off from their center of balance, friction and rubbing will happen too

Bridging in Saddles Can Aggravate Swayback 

Saddle bridging is when the center saddle panel, the saddle tree, or other parts of the saddle do not connect with the horse’s back.

So, the weight of the rider is only on the front and back of the saddle as their body moves. When the center portion of the horse’s back is not supported, it can make swayback worse since more pressure is placed on it.

There are saddle pads for swayback horses made to address the bridging problem, and some owners also use half pads for horses. Saddle pads should fill in the curve and even out the pressure on the horse’s back.

A saddle pad with shims can relieve the pressure from bridging issues and poor-fitting saddles.

The best saddle pad for swayback horses or one of the best is the Reinsman Contour Swayback Saddle Pad which is specifically designed for swayback and closing the gap between the saddle and the curvature.

Another good option is the ThinLine Standard Trimmed Basic Pad or any model of ThinLine Pad

The Right Saddle Prevents Dry Spots

Dry spots occur because there is excess pressure on one part of the back of a lack of pressure. In any saddle, the pressure should be evenly distributed along the back, and sweat should be present down the whole back after a workout.

If your swaybacked horse has dry spots where its back dips, the saddle is not fitting correctly.

Too Much Weight Can Cause Pain and More Discomfort

little bird on top of a swayback horse

Swaybacked horses cannot carry an excess of weight because it will weaken their back muscles even further and make the curvature worse.

When saddle fitting a swaybacked horse, the lighter the saddle, the better. Treeless saddles are some of the most beneficial.

Swaybacked horses cannot carry an excess of weight because it will weaken their back muscles even further and make the curvature worse.

When saddle fitting a swaybacked horse, the lighter the saddle, the better. Treeless saddles are some of the most beneficial.

This way, they can participate in ridden work for a longer period of time. In general, horses with swayback are used for light riding to protect them from long-term damage.

READ MORE: Getting the Right Saddle Pad Measurements

FAQs

Can swayback in horses be corrected?

The swayback condition cannot be permanently corrected, but there is a multitude of exercises you can do with your horse to strengthen their back and reduce the degree of curvature such as lunging, ground driving, carrot stretches, and doing work over cabalettas.
If you choose to do any of these exercises with your horse, they must be done consistently for the effects to last. They are not a permanent solution.

Is it safe to ride a swayback horse?

a child riding swayback horse

This depends on how severe the lordosis case is for each horse. If the case is mild and appropriate precautions are taken, a horse can still be ridden, although its performance potential may be impacted. If the curvature is more severe, riding and carrying weight may lead to pain and worsening of their condition. Bareback riding is ideal for swayback horses 

Is a swayback horse in pain?

Swaybacked horses in general do not experience pain. They can frolic and play in the pasture just like unaffected horses. However, if they have an ill-fitting saddle on, they will be in pain because the saddle they are wearing does not provide the support they need. The wrong saddle can also give a rider balance issues and lead to poor riding.

Conclusion

There are many reasons why swayback occurs in horses, whether it is passed down through the family, brought on by aging, or manifested in mares after years of carrying the extra weight of a foal.

Saddle fit is even more important for swaybacked horses than the average horse because their back needs support and they can suffer the pain they wouldn’t otherwise feel in the wrong saddle.

Even though horses with swayback require more attention, they can still live happy, full, and productive lives.

References

  • Boldt, Ed. 2016. “Swayback in a Young Horse – the Horse.” The Horse. March 16, 2016. https://thehorse.com/125867/swayback-in-a-young-horse/.
  • Cook, D., P. C. Gallagher, and E. Bailey. 2010. “Genetics of Swayback in American Saddlebred Horses.” Animal Genetics 41 (November): 64–71. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2052.2010.02108.x.
  • “Dealing with ‘Swayback’ in Horses. – Morgan Murphy’s Blog – Community – Spalding Labs.” 2015. Spalding-Labs.com. 2015. https://spalding-labs.com/community/b/morgan_murphy/archive/2015/03/24/dealing-with-quot-swayback-quot-in-horses.aspx.
  • KER. 2011. “Genetics of Swayback Investigated in Saddlebred Horses – Kentucky Equine Research.” Kentucky Equine Research. May 6, 2011. https://ker.com/equinews/genetics-swayback-investigated-saddlebred-horses/.
  • Kilby, Emily. 2005. “The Truth about Swaybacks.” The Horse Owner’s Resource. The Horse Owner’s Resource. August 12, 2005. https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/swayback-in-horses-8221.
a saddle pad fitted on swayback horse

Did you ever fit saddle pads on a swayback horse? Let us know about your experience below!

Bryanna Tanase
Bryanna Tanase

Bryanna is a 23-year-old Florida-based Grade 1 Para-dressage rider based in Florida and she has been riding for 5 years. Horses are her passion and her ultimate goal is to be selected for the US Para-Equestrian Team and represent the US at the Paralympics. She rides at Quantum Leap Farm and Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center and her equine partners are Shane, an American Paint Horse, and Cappy a Welsh x Thoroughbred. When she is not helping at the barn, riding, or training, she is learning about horses, writing articles about them, and using her social media platforms to raise awareness for therapeutic riding and para-equestrianism, shares her journey, and advocates for greater inclusion of para-equestrian in the media and equestrian sport at large.
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