Horse Care Riding Tips

Swayback Horses: Ride or Retire? It Depends.

Swayback horse in field
Written by Kim H.

It’s Not as Bad as it Looks (Usually)

As horse people, we have all come across a swayback horse at some point and probably had the same thought. Can you ride that? It’s essential to understand what workload a swayback horse can safely handle. Better yet? Knowing how to prevent a horse from becoming swaybacked in the first place.

Although it can appear alarming, a swayback horse can live a normal life, including being ridden, shown, and birthing a foal. It is important to gain knowledge about this condition, especially if you plan to ride a swayback horse. You want to do everything you can to keep the horse happy and comfortable for years to come.

Swayback chestnut

Photo Cred: Unsplash

Swayback Horse Facts

The clinical term for a swayback horse is lordosis. It’s not very common—only 1% of the equine population is considered to be swaybacked.

A horse develops this condition when muscles across the back and abdomen weaken.

Ligaments can also weaken and stretch, creating a visible curvature to the spine—it can make almost a “U” shape. This condition is usually quite noticeable, even to the untrained eye.

Although the swayback condition may look alarming, it does not typically cause pain in a horse. In most cases, the swayback will develop over time and a horse is not particularly bothered by it.

A horse with a swayback will *typically* not be in any more pain than a normal horse, unless it is forced to carry a heavy weight-bearing load on its back. If a swayback horse has been out of work for a while, however, it may experience some muscle soreness as it gets back into proper riding shape.

Always ask your vet for an evaluation!

While there is no cure for swayback in horses, there are certain exercises that can be done to help strengthen the back and keep their ligaments comfortable.

These exercises include:

  • Proper lunging to encourage a horse to use their back and abdominal muscles to carry themselves
  • Carrot stretches to keep their muscles from getting too tight
  • Work over ground poles or cavaletti, which encourages the use of the back and hind end
  • Ground driving

Ground driving is done using side reins and can be just as effective as riding your horse, but you will not be putting weight on their back. You can do lots of slow work at the walk and trot to encourage your horse to stretch down and use their body properly as they move.

It may take some time for them to build strength, but this is an important part of a swayback horse living a happy and healthy life.

Swayback horse

Photo Cred: Canva

Swayback Causes

Swayback can be caused by a number of reasons, some of which may be genetic. It can affect all breeds and ages, but is more common in older horses.

There are some considerations you can take to lessen the chances of swayback happening. It is important to keep your horse in good health overall.

This means annual veterinarian exams to make sure there are no pain points or indicators of a developing problem.

If your horse is experiencing pain, then they may compensate by carrying themselves improperly. Long-term, this poor posture can cause swayback.

It is also critical to ensure that your horse has good strength through their back and abdominals so they carry themselves properly and use their back muscles as they should. You can work on your horse’s self-carriage by making sure that when they are ridden they are not leaning on your hands and pushing through their hind end.

Beware of a horse that moves too heavily on the forehand—that is a sign they are not utilizing their back and abdominal muscles. Don’t hesitate to work with a trainer to help develop correct movement.

But Can You Ride A Swayback Horse?

Swayback horses can usually be ridden. Before riding a swayback horse, however, it is a good idea to have your veterinarian out for an examination. They can rule out any back pain or underlying conditions that may make riding infeasible.

The horse may need some conditioning such as lunging and/or groundwork to build up muscle strength prior to putting a rider on their back.

When it comes to riding a swayback horse, saddle fit is crucial.

If a saddle is pushing down on the wrong points on the horse’s back, it could cause additional issues. It is a good idea to have a saddle fitter out (if at all possible!) to ensure that the saddle you plan to use will fit the swayback horse properly. Sometimes, saddle pads can help ensure weight and pressure are evenly distributed across the horse’s back.

Saddle with riser pad

Photo Cred: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can you tell if your horse is swayback?

You can typically tell if your horse is swayback just by looking at them. A swayback horse is fairly noticeable by a “U” shape of the spine. It is very different from a horse that is just lacking muscle tone.

Researchers measure the contour of a horse’s back to determine what is considered to be a normal curvature and at what point a horse is considered swayback. According to a study at the University of Kentucky, swayback horses have contours measuring 2 ½ inches or more.

Here is a video showing a severe case of swayback—but the horse is happy and otherwise healthy!

Q: Are certain breeds of horses more prone to becoming swayback?

Swayback can affect horses of any breed and has been found in a wide range of different breeds of horses. There has been recent research, however, that has found that the Saddlebred breed may have some genetic markers that make swayback more common.

Scientists are continuing to do research to understand why it seems to be more common within the particular breed.

Q: Can young horses become swayback, too?

Young horses will typically not become swayback unless there is something genetic going on, which although rare, is certainly possible. In most cases, swayback happens in older horses that are in their 20s and 30s as muscles and ligaments stretch and deteriorate.

Parting Thoughts

Swayback horses can still be able-bodied—they just require a little extra time and consideration to ensure they can perform their jobs comfortably!

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About the author


Kim H.

She began riding at eight years old and now has over twenty years of horse experience. She grew up showing at local horse shows and moved on to riding and showing paint horses on the paint horse show circuit throughout the state of California. She then went on to show at the APHA World Show. She has two OTTBs and is training them for hunter/jumper shows.