Fill In That Swayback

Lordosis, or ?swayback,? is a change in the conformation of the horse’s back that makes it sag or dip down much more than normal. While the change in the horse’s appearance is striking, it’s not the end of the world.

Most horses with lordosis are seniors, particularly broodmares. Age and the increased weight of the foal and pregnant uterus put excessive strain on the ligaments hold the mare?s spine in alignment, eventually causing them to weaken and stretch. The abdominal muscles and connective tissue fascia can also weaken.

Of course, older horses other than broodmares may also develop lordosis, especially those with uncontrolled Cushing?s disease. High levels of the hormone cortisol weaken muscles and connective tissues by blocking normal repair processes and even encouraging the body to break down its own proteins.

This Cashel pad resembles a traditional pad, but its cushioning is designed for the swayback horse.

However, you may not know that lordosis can also occur at a much earlier age, sometimes as early as 18 months of age. This is likely a genetic condition and can occur in any breed, but it’s more common in Saddlebreds. Limited information in Saddlebreds has found the bones of the spine/vertebrae are in wedge shape (called hemivertebrae) rather than the normal square to rectangular. This changes the fit of the bones from one that is straight to one that has more of a curve. Also reported in other breeds is a lack of, or a greatly decreased size of, the projections of bone that form a joint between vertebrae, the facet joints.

In other species, lordosis is a serious condition that eventually causes neurological disease or even death. However, in the horse the spine manages to stay in good alignment despite the change in shape and pressure on the spinal cord is avoided. Most horses with lordosis have little-to-no pain and minimal, if any, changes in gait.

In fact, horses with lordosis can continue to live productive lives. Broodmares can safely and comfortably carry foals.

Lordotic horses can also be ridden. They may not be suitable for high performance but otherwise can work within the limitations of their fitness level.

That said, we would still be cautious and stay below the 20% rider/tack weight limitation rule-of-thumb (a horse shouldn?t be asked to carry more than 20% of its own bodyweight). A lighter rider is definitely better.

Pain may be indicated as an exaggerated dropping away from the pressure, a tensing up against the pressure, or trembling. Ear pinning, raising the neck or unusual elevating of the tail may also be an indication that the horse hurts.

Saddle Fit.

With lordosis, ?bridging? of the saddle occurs. Weight becomes concentrated at the withers and back of the saddle, with the central portion suspended off the horse’s back.

Riding bareback or with a bareback pad is often ideal for the horse with lordosis, although some horses will do well with treeless saddles or treed saddles with flexible panels. it’s an individual thing, though, so meticulous saddle fit is still important.

Many people find the most economical solution is to invest in a swayback saddle pad. The goal here is to use a pad that is thicker in its center portion than at the ends, to fill in the gap from the dropped top line. These saddle pads are designed to allow you to use a regular saddle on the lordotic horse.

Bottom Line.Although less expensive than the saddles, these pads are still expensive compared to an everyday pad, and you will want to check the one you select for proper fit, just as you would with a new saddle. There is no one-size-fits-all swayback pad. Use a light piece of sheeting or pad underneath the swayback pad to keep it clean, then check your pad(s) and saddle combination for fit.


The goal is to see the horse move as freely and comfortably in the rider-saddle-pad combination as he does on a longe line and with a rider bareback or with a bareback pad.

Article by Dr. Eleanor Kellon, our Veterinary Editor.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!