16. Back pain
The withers are the highest part of a horse’s back and are located at the front between the shoulder blades. If the withers are high, then the shoulder blades are long and are in a slanted position against the body of the horse. This enables the horse to stretch its front legs far forward. Such large, extended movements are particularly desirable in a dressage horse. It has been a selection criterion in breeding dressage horses for decades, which explains why the height of the withers of riding horses has constantly increased throughout the years.
horse with high withers
A consequence of high withers is that commonly used riding saddles are positioned too far back and/or that they rest backwards. As a result, the weight of the rider presses nearly on the middle of the horse’s back. Which causes the horse to have back pain. This can manifest itself in various ways: the horse may stretch its head upward (keeping its back stiff) and it may resist when the rider attempts to bring its head down. The horse may proceed to shake its head or bite its bit. Or the animal may refuse to jump because the weight of the rider presses down on its painful back when landing on the ground. In extreme cases, the horse may even try to throw the rider from its back.
Far-reaching measures are needed to correct the position of a saddle that has tilted and slid backward. A saddle cushion or saddle pad are mere makeshift measures and do not suffice. The rear of the saddle must often be raised more than ten centimetres. Saddles with an adjustable or exchangeable tree can be adapted because you can then lower the front of the saddle. But the front should not press on the withers of the horse. A saddle with a ‘wide gullet channel’ can offer advantages as it can be slid further forward on the horse’s back. All of this is saddle technology, but it is essential in detecting and correcting back pain in horses. Or even better: preventing such pain.
“My horse shakes its head and pulls the reins from my hands. Lately, Napoleon has been so recalcitrant.” Madam is on the verge of despair. The horse dentist has already pulled two wolf teeth and filed away some hooks on the molars. Without any improvement. As recommended by her instructor, she subsequently placed a gel pad under the saddlecloth and she replaced the bit on the headpiece. But that did not help either. Napoleon became increasingly resistant during riding. He bucked so hard that she fell of the horse! Fortunately, only her pride was hurt. She is quite the sportswoman, but she is not eighteen anymore. She has lost her nerve and no longer rides. She has cancelled the services of her instructor for the time being to allow herself some breathing space. Napoleon has been passing time idly in the stable for three weeks. No, her husband has no interest for horses. He likes golf.
Napoleon turns out to be a gelding with long lines and high withers. His teeth and molars are normal. I stroke both flat hands along its back; from the front to the back; left first, then right. I find no bumps or scabs, no bald or warm spots. I then press my thumbs firmly on the spine; from the front to the back, one vertebra at a time. I am one hand-width behind the withers when the horse suddenly arches its back: it pushes its belly far down. The pain is local: one more hand-width to the rear and the spine is no longer sensitive to pressure.
The saddle is lovely: it is made of black leather and the saddlecloth is made a of white sheep-skin. But it is a traditional saddle type: quite level and the seat is not very deep. Ideal for a Frisian or Gelder horse. They have low withers. I place the saddle on Napoleon’s back as far to the front as possible. The rear of the saddle is now much lower than the front. I then draw the girth tight. It should run from behind the front leg straight up to the saddle. But in this case the girth is slanted because the saddle is positioned too far to the rear. I lift the rear end 15 centimetres: “This is how the saddle should be positioned. And it needs to be moved forward. This saddle is not suitable for your horse.”
correct positioning of the saddle,
the rear is higher and the girth runs vertically
How it ends
Madam is shocked. This was the most expensive saddle in the equestrian sports shop. Including all of the accessories, it cost her four thousand euros. She will have to discuss the matter with her husband. But she never did exchange the saddle: she stopped riding altogether: the saddle and Napoleon were sold. When I drive by some time later, I see that the outdoor house with the pool and the horse stables are under renovation: the villa too has been sold. Life in the country: ‘Well, it is much closer to nature, with a sense of freedom. But it also comes with so many worries!’
© Leo Rogier Verberne