A Comprehensive Guide To Horse Withers And Problems

March 29, 2021 7 min read

A Comprehensive Guide To Horse Withers And Problems

Did you know that the conformation of the neck, back, and shoulder of a horse are not what only defines the shape of its withers, but it also defines every movement it makes?

It’s vital that you prime yourself on the different types of withers on a horse and the specific tack they will need as doing so can definitely benefit your horse in the long run. This can prevent back problems from ever occurring, and even help them find better enjoyment in life. After all, massaging a horse’s withers have been found to be relaxing for them.

To help you out, we’ve put together an extensive guide on back-related problems your equine friend may encounter and how you can prevent them from ever happening. Read on below:

In this article, we will talk about:

  • Normal Withers
  • High Withers
  • Low Withers
  • Kissing Spine
  • Saddle Bridging
  • Long-Term Effects of Ill-Fitting Tack
  • How To Choose Great Tack

Normal Withers

A normal-withered horse should have withers that are well-defined and well-muscled, blending smoothly into its neck and back. Their withers may also be set well behind the point of the shoulder, so the top line of the horse’s neck is about twice as long as the underline. The shoulders then run forward from the withers at an angle that allows a full range of motion.

Horses with normal withers are much easier to fit a saddle and saddle pad on. These horses will usually fit a medium, regular, or semi-Quarter tree, and their withers are prominent enough to hold a saddle well without much problems. They do not need many adjustments in the way of tack other than following the basics of saddle and pad fitting.

High Withers

Commonly found in thoroughbreds, saddlebreds, and warmbloods, a high-withered horse has withers that are particularly long and angle backward, creating a steep ridge towards its back. The bump where its shoulder blades meet between the neck and the back is taller than average, causing a sharp angle from the tip of its withers to its shoulders. A high-withered horse also has a slightly narrower back compared to a horse with normal withers.

While these features can make it difficult to find the perfect saddle and pad fit for your horse, high withers can improve their performance. Thanks to its conformation, the horse may have an increased ability to lengthen its stride, therefore being able to run faster or jump higher.

For tack, a high-withered horse will need a saddle that has good clearance, such as a saddle with a high pommel design. This will offer more room for the shoulder and the withers to move around while reducing the chance of friction. If your horse has narrow shoulders and a wide back as well, consider a gaited horse saddle such as a cutback saddle as its design features a narrow front and wide back, giving your horse the support it needs.  

Next, if you choose to get a saddle pad along with your saddle, wither relief pads can help lift the saddle off the horse’s withers to prevent injuries and reinforcing saddle balance. There are also cutback pads to go along with your cutback saddle; these pads have openings that can provide wither relief as it allows the withers to come through without the intrusion of extra padding. Another alternative would be half pads, which can be therapeutic for your horse’s back while still giving it the protection it needs.

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Middle Riser Anti-Slip Gel Pad - Kavallerie

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Rear Riser Anti-Slip Gel Pad - Kavallerie

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Some of the saddle pads mentioned are available at Kavallerie! We utilize cutting-edge technology to provide all horses of various wither shapes the best protection.

Low Withers

Also known as mutton-withered horses, this kind of horse has a gradual slope towards its rear and lacks shoulder definition. It may also have a rounder and/or flatter back. Sometimes, a horse may have no withers at all. Low withers are common among American Quarter horses, ponies, and Arabians. Due to its conformation, your horse may have a decreased range of motion compared to those with normal or higher withers. The horse may also have choppy strides, but it can still perform just as well.

You may want a saddle designed for haflingers for your low-withered horse, as these have flat top-lines and shorter backs, accommodating the shape of your horse’s withers. For saddle pads, a straight back pad can be helpful as it has openings at the spine to allow ventilation for your horse’s back. Another option would be a front-riser pad, as it will help balance out the ride by providing extra padding on the front.

Kissing Spine

Kissing spine is the colloquial term for overriding dorsal spinous processes (ORDSP). This occurs when two or more bony projections at the top of a horse’s vertebrae (the dorsal spinous processes) are too close to each other, thus “kissing.”

The exact cause of kissing spines is still unknown. While it can develop in any horse, this condition is more likely to occur in high-withered horses such as thoroughbreds and warmbloods. It is most commonly diagnosed in horses around 5 to 10 years of age, and occurs in the area where a saddle and rider would sit along a horse’s back.

The condition reduces back mobility and causes pain for your horse during movement as bones of its spine are interfering with each other. It may struggle to flex or extend its back, which can negatively impact its performance.

If your horse has a kissing spine, take them to a veterinarian so they can prescribe you the best treatment options. They may include muscle relaxants, chiropractic and acupuncture therapy, shock wave, or corticosteroid injections. Exercises to stretch and lengthen its back may also help. If all of these do not work, your horse may need surgery.

Since kissing spines occur on the area where a saddle and rider would sit, this highlights the importance of finding the perfect tackfor your horse.

Saddle Bridging

Saddle bridging occurs when the bars only make contact with the front and rear of the saddle, applying excessive pressure and causing friction that may be uncomfortable or even painful for the horse. This happens because either the saddle tree is too straight for the horse’s back, or the horse may be showing signs of a swayback if the saddle is a proper fit. Swayback, also known as lordosis, is when the supporting ligaments of a horse’s spine weaken and cause a hollow or sway back posture. Most saddles will bridge on a swayback horse so it is important to examine your horse regularly and carefully if their spine or the saddle is the problem.

While you can still ride a horse with swayback, its range of motion is greatly reduced. Still, proper horse training can be done to help correct it—cavaletti work (riding the horse over ground poles) and correctly longeing your horse at a working walk or trot are some examples of exercises that you can do.

However, if your horse does not have swayback but is in pain from saddle bridging anyway, this will make it harder for them to move, and may lead to back problems if left untreated. A poorly fitting saddle may lead to swayback too, so getting the perfect fit is crucial.

Saddle bridging can be hard to notice because you won’t have any idea it is happening until you notice that the horse is already in pain. After a ride, check your horse’s back for dry spots on its withers and on the lumbar area. You can also feel under the center of the saddle once it is fully girthed. If there is more contact under the front and back compared to the center, your saddle may be bridging.

If so, you may place a shim under the center third of the saddle to fill in the space and allow even contact of the panels. A saddle pad specifically designed for saddle bridging may also help to cushion the middle area and provide a better saddle fit.

Long-Term Effects of Ill-Fitting Tack

Not using the right tack may lead to back problems for your horse, or worse, conditions like kissing spine. Using the wrong tack (whether they’re the wrong size or they do not conform to your horse’s withers) may also lead to injuries such as bruising, sore muscles, or skin irritation. They may also aggravate any underlying issues your horse may already have.

Using the right tack can lengthen your horse’s performance career and lifespan, saving them from having to go through long periods of rest and rehabilitation. Though the average lifespan of a domestic horse is 20 to 30 years, they can go even longer than that if you take good care of them. This will also save you from having to spend thousands on vet bills.

How To Choose Great Tack

Any saddle pad will work for a normal-withered horse so long as one follows sizing guidelines and they consider the discipline they will be partaking in. Half pads are great for a high-withered horse as they can support or correct their back problems while still serving their other important purposes such as wicking moisture and providing extra protection. However, one should also take note of the material used; a gel padis perhaps the best type out of any other materials you can find on the market. They can even have front risers which can help ease low-withered horses’ back pain.

Hopefully, this guide has enlightened you on how to best protect your equine friend from suffering any back-related injury. Having a good grasp of your horse’s anatomy can do wonders for its life, and for your riding experience in the long-run too. Remember, wearing proper gear and equipping your four-legged friend with the best accessories can go a long way!