Seeing a horse with swayback has the power to make anyone who has worked with horses feel down. Most caretakers and riders know that a swayback or “kissing spine”, as some may call it, is painful for a horse to endure.
Swayback is usually seen in older horses. As the term “kissing spine” suggests, swayback looks like that—the spine is deeply curved, looking like the back is about to kiss. The condition, clinically called equine lordosis, happens when the horse loses muscle tone in the back and abdominal area, along with the ligaments stretching out and getting weaker over time. Needless to say, this happens when the horse’s back is not properly cared for.
You might be thinking: Is swayback inevitable in all horses? My riding partner is showing signs of having it, is there a cure? Can it be cured completely? To help answer these questions, we spoke to Dr. Angelique Barbara of Holistic Animal Studies about all things swayback. Read more below.
In this article, we will talk about:
- What is swayback and why it happens
- Signs that your horse is developing swayback
- Pain relief and treatment plans for lordosis
- Prevention of further worsening swayback
- How a proper tack will help prevent symptomatic lordosis
- Gel pads and how these may help lessen the effects of kissing spine
- Can you ride a horse with a swayback?
What is swayback?
Dr. Barbara specializes in conducting online holistic animal courses for professionals and owners worldwide. She has seen swayback happen to many horses due to improper care. She describes swayback as “extreme lordosis,” saying, “Lordosis refers to the curvature of the horse’s back. Swayback is an extreme lordosis that results in a visual ‘dipping’ of the back of the horse. The dipping or sway can be mild or severe and usually progresses as the horse ages.”
The term “kissing spine” is also commonly heard when referring to swayback, and Dr. Barbara explains that it’s because “the spinous processes in a region of the horse’s back begin to touch or ‘kiss’ each other.”
Is your horse experiencing an early onset of lordosis?
Dr. Barbara says that the exact reason behind severe lordosis is still unknown. Some experts state that some horses are genetically inclined to have swayback, especially those with longer backs. Horses who were made to carry heavy loads before they could fully develop could also get it. She does point out a few likely suspects: poor saddle fit and the natural conformation of the horse. “I feel that saddle fit plays a big role in the progression of kissing spine,” she says, “When a saddle does not fit correctly, it can cause atrophy along the paraspinal muscle and will also change the way the horse moves as they are compensating for the pain and discomfort. This change in gait over time will lead to degenerative changes in the horse's spine.”
She adds that some horses who suffer from swayback may be asymptomatic, and their kissing spine is not seen by the naked eye. So, what is a horse lover to do?
- Get a diagnosis through an x-ray. Dr. Barbara states that since many horses don’t feel the pain of already suffering from severe lordosis, or the swayback is not visible to caretakers, kissing spine can only be known for sure through your equine partner undergoing an x-ray.
- Watch out for telltale signs. If you suspect that your riding pal has swayback but can’t visually see a kissing spine, observe any changes in their demeanor and behavior. Dr. Barbara suggests looking out for these signs:
- Horse is sore while being saddled
- Reluctant to bend in one direction
- Reluctant to change gaits and collect
- A horse who is usually easygoing will be cranky and unresponsive
Pain remedies and relief for mild lordosis
If your horse has been diagnosed with lordosis, that’s not the end of the road for them. While “kissing spine” cannot be completely healed, what can be done is to prevent it from worsening and from your horse feeling any pain.
Dr. Barbara, a Doctor of Chiropractic who holds additional degrees in Veterinary Science, Equine Science, and Veterinary Pathobiology, says that through her extensive work and years of experience with dealing with swayback horses, pain relief is possible through these treatments. “In my experience, horses with newly diagnosed cases of kissing spine respond very well to bodywork. A combination of massage, body alignment and kinesiology taping can decrease or eliminate symptoms.”
She was one of the first practitioners to use kinesiology tape on animals, and after seeing the results, decided to craft a seminar on the taping applications she learned. She has since created online animal bodywork courses for equines at holisticanimalstudies.org.
While bodywork is highly needed for horses with swayback, she stresses the importance of using the right tack. “Checking and correcting saddle fit will aid in preventing a recurrence of pain and progression of symptoms,” she shares.
Can swayback be avoided?
Due to the way horses are formed, Dr. Barbara feels that getting lordosis cannot be completely prevented. All movements done by your equine come from the spine, much like adults. She says, “I do feel that the horse's conformation plays a role in the development of kissing spine, so it may not be completely avoidable, but there are things an owner can do to decrease the progression of it and decrease the chances of the horse becoming symptomatic.”
She goes on to explain that when routine bodywork is done by your equine partner, it will help them move correctly, have a proper range of motion, keeping their body in good form. She also mentions that since a horse’s topline changes as they train and develop muscle, a saddle that fits properly is important. “Having their saddles fitted and checked regularly by a saddle fitter is essential.”
How proper tack may help prevent further swayback
When a horse has the right tack with a well-fitting saddle, it allows your four-legged friend to move with comfort and ease. “Proper tack is essential to ensure that the horse can move pain-free and have full range of motion. No matter how much bodywork is performed, you will not have lasting and or optimal results if the tack is not ideal for the horse.”
When fitting a saddle for a swayback horse, it’s important that the weight of the rider is properly and evenly distributed, because the less weight that is put on your horse, the less pain they will feel.
How gel pads are the best fighter against kissing spine
Saddle pads are used primarily to protect your riding partner’s back from the saddle rubbing against the skin or hair of your horse and to absorb the sweat and moisture of your horse.
Specialty saddle pads, specifically gel pads, are made to help prevent sore backs by distributing the weight of the rider on their riding partner, lessening the pressure on the back. It also matches the contours of your horse’s back and effectively absorbs the impact of any activity that happens when you’re on your four-legged friend.
Dr. Barbara agrees with the benefits that equines can get from gel pads. She says, “The proper saddle pad is also very important for the comfort of the horse. I feel that all horses, both English and Western, can benefit from the shock absorption that the gel pads provide. I recommend them often to clients, especially those with horses who suffer from a swayback or kissing spine.”
Another specialty saddle pad that works well with swayback horses, according to Dr. Barbara, is the different kinds of riser pads. Riser pads balance a saddle that is either tilting forward or backward, reducing shock on the back of the horse by distributing the pressure equally through alleviating the part where the sway is found.
Dr. Barbara says, “Depending on the location of the kissing spine and if there is also a sway involved, I will either recommend the middle or rear-riser pad. The Middle Riser pad works very well with swayback horses because it provides extra cushioning over the area of the horse's spine where it dips down which helps to take the pressure off the front and back of the saddle,” Riser pads are also used to solve small issues with saddle fit, such as filling the empty space caused by the curved or hollow back of the horse, but pads shouldn’t be used as the long-term solution to an ill-fitting saddle.
If your riding partner does not suffer from swayback or any known back problems, protect their back and spine while you can with a seat saver pad. The Kavallerie Seat Saver Anti-Slip Gel Pad is designed with shock-absorbing gel tech, providing better saddle fit and less pressure on your equine’s back.
Can you ride a horse with a swayback?
Yes, as long as the necessary safety precautions are in place, such as a proper tack with a fit saddle, and with the corresponding specialty saddle pad. Daily care for your equine partner must be done by you or a caretaker, such as a good diet that is focused on muscle and bone-building, as well as daily exercises and specialized bodywork.
It’s natural to feel worried over the possibility of your horse having lordosis. Now that you’re aware of its possible causes, you can readily take the steps to lessen the possibility of it severely happening to your equine. Get your riding partner checked as soon as you can, and depending on the results, get him or her on the right diet and exercise routines, and find the proper tack for them. Happy riding!