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The Truth About Swayback And Lordosis

Apr 12, 2008
As horse people, we're familiar with the idea of a swaybacked horse. You know, the old school horse that's retired out in the field, skinny and with a long, drooping back. Or the broodmare who looks like she carried one too many foals, her pendulous abdomen swaying as she walks, back dipping low below her withers.

As stark as the images are, swayback, or the medical term, lordosis, is not only an affliction of the older horse. Also contrary to popular belief, most horses with lordosis can continue to live productive, active lives- many continuing to be ridden and have normal life spans.

The most commonly seen type of swayback is that of older horses, often retired broodmares or horses ridden extensively for most of their lives. While these horses may have a downward deviation in the spine, their condition is not caused by a genetic defect or true spinal deviation. As a natural part of aging, the muscles in the body begin to weaken and waste away. It is the wasting of the muscles holding up the abdomen and supporting the topline that causes the horse's midsection to sink, leading to the commonly seen swaybacked look.

It is estimated that less than 1% of the horse population is affected by true lordosis, a genetic disease causing spinal deviations and curvature. Studies have shown that lordosis is an inheritable defect, seen most commonly in the Saddlebred, but any breed can be affected.

In affected horses, an incomplete development of the upper thoracic vertebrae is the culprit of lordosis. As a result, overextension of the joints leads to a growth and conformation defect. Horses can have a 5" or greater drop in their spine below the withers, and often the most obviously affected horses developed the condition very early in life.

Affected horses are generally appear "normal" at birth, but the defect develops between 1 year and 18 months of age. Once the process of spinal realignment begins, it progresses quickly, with a massive curvature in the spine able to develop in a relatively short amount of time. In contrast, late-onset lordosis can occur later in life, but is less commonly appreciated, and harder to differentiate between a true spinal problem, and the aforementioned muscle-induced swayback of older horses.

Despite the often startling appearance of a lordosis affected horses, it is remarkable to find that the horses with this defect function almost completely normally, and can leave productive, useful lives. Similar conditions in humans and small animals are usually synonymous with neurological dysfunctions, such as a lack of coordination and paralysis. However in horses, lordosis does not appear to affect any part of a horse's neurologic or physical well-being.

Studies have shown that the one difference between lordosis in horses and other species. In horses, despite the deformity in the spine, the vertebrae follow a smooth curved path, still in alignment despite their odd appearance. In contrast, "kinks" in the spine of other species causes pressure on the spinal cord, leading to an array of neurological complications.

Amazingly, aside from the extreme appearance, lordosis has no direct influence on horses health or soundness. Swaybacked broodmares are able to carry and deliver foals normally, though the genetic component of lordosis makes breeding such mares a potential concern. Amazingly, even severely affected horses can carry a rider and a saddle, and can be ridden and even shown competitively.

The most important issue in riding a horse with lordosis, or any type of back issue, is saddle fit. Careful attention to saddle fit is necessary to ensure that the swaybacked horse is provided with a comfortable and well-balanced saddle. In many cases, a custom-made saddle may be the only way to avoid pressure points and back soreness, helping the lordosis-affected horse to live a long and pain-free life.
About the Author
Ron Petracek was raised in southern Idaho with horses and the great outdoors. With this continued passion He now shares through a a vast equine network. Learn more by clicking the links below. Amazing Equine Network System - Buy Sell or trade anything equine related. Get More Horse Classified coverage and distribution with less cost and work. Hot Equine Social Community
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