The horse’s back (part 2 of 3): Some of the most common causes of back problems in horses

If you read The Horse’s Back (part 1)How to detect back problems in your horse”, you already know whether you suspect your horse to suffer from discomfort in the back. And you already know that symptoms may be anything from an unwillingness/inability to step under to bucking and rearing, in extreme cases.

So now that you know how to spot some back issues, you will want to know what to do about them. We could now get into gymnasticizing, horse massage, equine bodywork, liniments, supplements, Jägermeister or Guinness in horse feed (;-)… But whoa! First let’s look at possible causes. Only if we identify possible causes will we be able to address them effectively—not just tinker around with the symptoms.

According to my experience, the following are the three major root causes for back discomfort in horses:

SADDLE FIT

Saddle fit is the number one concern when we look at a horse’s back health. Here, we need to consider two equally important aspects:

1)      How does the saddle fit the horse?

2)      How does the saddle fit the rider?

If the saddle fits your horse but not you, you will be unbalanced in the saddle, which is just as uncomfortable to the horse as an ill-fitting saddle. A saddle that is comfortable for you but doesn’t fit the horse is a torture instrument for the horse.
Tree size, length, ‘rock’, balance, rigging, all these are elements that need to be considered in Western and English saddles.

a bridging dressage saddle
Looks nice, but doesn't fit. This saddle bridges and slides back under the rider. A torture instrument for the horse.

Tree size

Too small – pinches around the area of upper edge of scapular cartilage (the soft cartilage around your horse’s shoulder blade) RESULT: restricted range of motion, ‘laziness’, stumbling, falling

Too large – saddle sits too low on the withers, saddle tilts forward, takes rider out of balance (pain in the withers) RESULT: ‘laziness’, reluctance to being saddled, doesn’t want to trot or canter, rushing, rearing

You say: “No problem, my horse’s saddle does not have a tree!” Please recheck the fit: Treeless saddles are the perfect solution for some breeds or horse/rider combinations, but NOT for all.

Length

Too short – only if the saddle is too small for the rider RESULT: rider gets out of balance, uncomfortable for the horse, horse holds his back tight and doesn’t round

Too longHea ye, hear ye! This is THE main cause of saddle related back problems I see in my practice. The weight bearing area of the horse’s back ENDS with the last rib. Anything beyond that causes a myriad of problems RESULT: not stepping under, tightness in lumbar, not taking left/ride canter leads, hops during transitions, goes against the bit, grinds teeth, sweats quickly under the rider but not on the lunge line…. The list goes on.

‘Rock’

Too much rock – pressure points due to unevenly distributed weight and rider’s imbalance in the seat RESULT: rushing, flighty and nervous behavior, hollows back, lifts head

Not enough rock – saddle is too straight and ‘bridges’. This is a problem often found in modern Western saddles. Not sure, who designs these saddles, but a horse’s back is NOT straight like a workbench. The result is pressure in the front of the saddle and in the back, with no or insufficient contact in the middle. RESULT: hollows back, lifts head, rushes, bucks or in more agreeable types: gets lazy or collapses. Main cause of ‘cold back’.

Rigging

A very important, often overlooked element. Here, you will need to differentiate between English and Western saddles and the respective various types (dressage or jumping, reining or trail, for example). This discussion would go too far here, please see this article for resources.

If you feel this is an old hat and you got it all covered, please make sure that this is really the case. Regrettably, we sometimes get advice from ‘subject matter experts’ that steer us in the wrong direction, even those that are certified and especially those, who’d like to sell us a saddle. I would like to encourage you to do your own research.
Here some resources:

Article: “How saddle fit contributes to your horse’s soundness”. This article contains a number of videos about English saddle fit, presented by Jochen Schleese. These contain good basic information about saddle fit and are not a sales pitch, worth watching. In this article, you will also find some links to recommended books and videos.

Here a word about “Mismatched” equipment: The horse does not care whether you ride in a brown bridle and a black saddle. But he does care whether you want to ride dressage in a jumping saddle, for instance, or do endurance in a dressage saddle. Your saddle has to fit the purpose. One example I encounter frequently: A rider has a multi-purpose saddle with focus on jumping, such as the good old Stubben Siegfried VSS I learned to ride on.

a multi purpose jumping saddle
This saddle is ideal for jumping, hacking out, hunting, rising trot and two-point seat.

This is an excellent saddle if you… hack out a lot in the two-point seat, hunt, jump, if you post the trot and ride the canter in two-point. This saddle is NOT suitable for dressage or for any rider, who would like to actually sit in the saddle most of the time. It is not designed to distribute the weight accordingly and will make your horse’s back hurt, if you use it as it was not intended. Please take your time to research this further by means of the resources mentioned in my article above.

THE RIDER

Yes, this is a touchy topic. Imbalance, heavy hands, hollowed backs, bracing, using stirrups incorrectly, using the dressage whip incorrectly (giving impulses at the wrong time), sitting heavy during the down-phase of the rising trot, imbalances in the rider’s anatomy, an unfit or overweight rider, all can contribute to a horse’s back discomfort. Rider fitness, confidence, riding technique and balance are important factors that all influence the horse’s back health. It is hard to take a good look at yourself. I know that from experience. However, you will reap the rewards if you do and so will your horse. Identify your goal, whether it’s getting in shape, overcoming some confidence challenges, losing a few pounds or brushing up on your riding skill and find a knowledgeable coach to take you to the next level.

THE HORSE’S MOVEMENT HABITS

We all have movement habits, and so do our horses. Your horse may have learned a certain inefficient self-carriage at some point in his life, either during early training or being ridden by a former owner, as a result of an old injury or a formerly ill-fitting saddle etc. This movement habit now needs to be identified and then actively ‘unlearned’ or rather replaced with a better, more efficient and more comfortable self-carriage. Recognizing a movement habit is a bit tricky. This involved a few steps from ruling out all other possible causes to seeing the horse is motion and under saddle. Postural re-education is a process that takes patience and knowledge and should be done with the help of a skilled equine professional or trainer.

And then there is also

  • Compensation – for pain/discomfort/restriction in other areas of the horse’
  • Conformation – not all horses are created equal!
  • And the ‘Fear Factors’ – pain, worry, anxiety manifest as back problems.

If you read to this point, you almost read a novel about ‘back problems’ and I thank you for your interest. There is a lot to consider and ponder, to learn and to evaluate. If you need help thinking things through or if you’d like someone to help you sort through some of these questions, please drop me a line stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com

Until next time, when we will take a look at “How to help your horse overcome back problems”.

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

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One thought on “The horse’s back (part 2 of 3): Some of the most common causes of back problems in horses

  1. Thank you for this great article! There’s a huge obesity problem in this country and it’s my belief that many horses are suffering because of it. Horses may be strong animals (some stronger than others) but there’s a limit to how much weight they can carry on their suspension bridge backs, especially the heaviness of a fat rider. Someone who is overweight simply is not strong enough and cannot carry their own body enough to help the horse do his job…they become the proverbial “sack of potatoes” or in other words, DEAD WEIGHT! Thank you for mentioning this problem in your article.

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