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Swayback Horse

The Condition

In most developed nations horses are employed primarily in sport or leisure activities rather than strenuous labor, so it has become rather rare to see an advanced case of "sway back". (Also called: Lordosis).

Swayback occurs with animals that have been ridden a lot, carried heavily loads, or from multiple pregnancies. It may occur during pregnancy and can contribute to complications such as pre-pubic tendon rupture.

Sway back is more likely to develop in horses with a long back and high head carriage and may be exacerbated by diseases like Cushings. Advanced cases are typically quite elderly animals. However it is also possible for congenital lordosis to be present at birth.

Also known as: hollow back, lowback, saddle back, soft back.

An unmarked picture showing a man in uniform holding the tail of a grazing horse. I would estimate this picture to date from the 1930s. Can anyone identify the uniform?

An unmarked picture showing a man in uniform holding the tail of a grazing horse. I would estimate this picture to date from the 1930s. Can anyone identify the uniform?

The Role of Breed

Saddlebred horses seem to be more prone to lordosis. Around 7% of American Saddlebreds will exhibit swayback, compared to around 1% in other breeds. They also tend to show this condition at an earlier age. The particular gene or genes responsible for this condition in Saddlebreds have not been identified.

Swayback has also been found to be common in the modern Karakachan breed in Bulgaria. This trait was no common in the breed previously but is now typical to some extent in most individuals.


Essentially the soft tissues have stretched and relaxed allowing a spinal deformity that can look quite alarming. however in most cases the animal is functioning quite normally and not in distress. Swayback in young horses is more likely to reflect poor breeding, overly severe use or over-training.

Congenital Lordosis

In a small number of cases foals are born already exhibiting swayback. These cases are consider likely to have a genetic cause, possibly via a recessive trait. As such they are more likely to occur pedigree lines with a high degree of inbreeding.

Examples have been described in the American Saddlebred, Halflinger, Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, and mixed-breed foals.

Secondary Lordosis

Swayback may also occur as a consequence of another disease process, such as the lung disease silicosis.

Use of Saddle Pads

If a swaybacked horse is still suitable for riding a good saddle fit should be assured by using a saddle pad.

Other Examples:


Other Species

Lordosis can also occur in other species such as cattle and guinea pigs. It is often see as a sign of poor breeding in these animals as they are not subject to mechanical causes like riding or load carrying. In cattle it can also be caused by toxins sich as tree tobacco.

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  • Coates, J. W., & McFee, R. C. (1993). Congenital lordosis in three Haflinger foals. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 34(8), 496.
  • Cook, D., Gallagher, P. C., & Bailey, E. (2010). Genetics of swayback in American Saddlebred horses. Animal genetics, 41, 64-71.
  • Plumlee, K. H., Holstege, D. M., Blanchard, P. C., Fiser, K. M., & Galey, F. D. (1993). Nicotiana glauca toxicosis of cattle. Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 5(3), 498-499.
  • POPOVA, M., NIKOLOV, V., KRASTEV, N., & GRADEV, G. (2018). STUDIES OF THE EXTERIOR OF THE KARAKACHAN HORSE BREED. Bulgarian Journal of Agricultural Science, 24(2), 290-295.
  • Rooney, J. R. (1969). 3 Congenital Equine Scoliosis and Lordosis. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research®, 62, 25-30.
  • Seyrek-Intas, K., Kumru, I. H., & Seyrek-Intas, D. (2011). Rupture of the prepubic tendon in a congenitally lordotic mare. Tierärztl Prax Großtiere, 39, 46-48.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Penny Skinner (author) on September 30, 2013:

There seems to be a real art to fitting a saddle to a dipped back. I don't know if any particular product that is recommended. Perhaps try the dailyequine forums?

Tere on September 29, 2013:

My 22yo Twh maiden mare is beginning to get a dipped back . I'm looking for best combo of saddle and blanket to keep her comfortable and still gaining . I use a contour blanket ad an endurance saddle by National bide . Any ideas . I am getting a bridging . Just tried Cashels swayback pad . With my saddle it made her sore . Too thick . Not enough count our .

Moo on December 08, 2012:

I have a horse that is very sway back. I've had him for nearly 10 years and was like it when I got him as a 6 year old, but he has a massive jump and great paces and been very successful competing at international eventing!

Penny Skinner (author) on June 23, 2012:

Thanks for asking :)

SD on June 22, 2012:

My dad said the uniform is Army but can't say beyond that

Becky Bruce from San Diego, CA on April 30, 2012:

Interesting. One of my older horses has developed a very slight sway back with age, he also has a very long back.

Momstalk from Rock springs Wy on December 11, 2011:

Interesting. It looks like they'd be in pain.

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