Why I Now Believe My Warmblood Gelding Had the C6-C7 Problem – Reader Story

“I went through three years of horror…”

So speaks a Warmblood owner, reflecting upon a truly dreadful period in her life. Like many other owners, she has gained belated understanding of her horse’s problems after reading about research findings into the C6-C7 malformation (article) led by Australian gross anatomist, Sharon May-Davis.

Sadly, this is a bittersweet moment: there is a temporary relief as everything finally makes sense, yet with it comes the realisation that there is nothing that can be, or could have been, done for a treasured horse bearing the more extreme version of this malformation.

Here, Diana from Michigan, USA, gives her story of the desperation and – ultimately – heartache she experienced when trying to find out what was wrong with her horse of a lifetime, a young Oldenburg gelding, “the kindest horse I ever had”.

Note: We are not identifying the lines of the individual horse in this story. If you’re thinking we should, perhaps remember that it’s a litigious world out there.

But for now, over to Diana.

© All text copyright of Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Diana’s Story

I purchased a stunning 3-year-old Oldenburg to fulfill my dream of developing a young horse through the upper levels in dressage. I cashed in the 401K [retirement savings plan] for the horse and bought a Schleese saddle.

For the first two years (ages 3 and 4) we were champion every time out.

At age 5, however, my trainer noticed he began to drag his left hind toe. Then his impulsion began to deteriorate, and months later he became too unstable to safely handle. He was euthanized at 7 years old.

Looking back, I now believe that all his quirks were directly related to this problem. I am going to briefly list the oddities I experienced with this wonderful horse.

I am not a vet or tech, and am only sharing my experiences in the event that it may help someone else, because my journey was one of the most emotionally draining experiences in my life.


Possible Signs of this Warmblood’s C6-C7 Problem

I purchased my gelding on his 3rd birthday and he’d had 30 days under saddle. The oddities of my gelding: he was extremely sweet and willing – the kindest horse I ever had.

He required a tremendous amount of leg every step. Although there seemed to be no ‘self-carriage’, I attributed this to his being green and still learning.

He would buck EVERY TIME he was saddled (I was very conscientious about slowly tightening the girth, tried every type of girth, pads, had adjustable saddle, etc).

Again, I attributed the bucking to youthfulness, and would let him buck out for a few laps, and then wondered if I had created a habit, because this occurred every schooling.

  • If he wasn’t lunged first, he would explode into a non-rideable rodeo with absolutely no warning.
  • He had a very difficult time bending to the left – he would try, but would drift.
  • Two separate times after mounting at the block, he felt like he arched or sucked his back up about 3 inches before walking off.
  • After 25 mins of schooling he would start rooting at the reins, or if the lesson was a short one, as soon as I’d give him his head to cool out.
  • He was a stumbler – not often – again, I attributed it to youth.
  • He could not be shod or trimmed without being sedated.
  • Once, a friend said it looked like he couldn’t put his head down to reach hay. Of course, I thought she was nuts until I witnessed it first hand.

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Investigating the C6-C7 Problem

During my discovery phase, he was diagnosed with moderate PSSM. So, he and I spent 9 months testing sugar levels in hay, with turnout in a dry lot.

There were periods he would barely walk forward when leading, and at the time I thought he was tying up, but it didn’t seem like what I had read, and I have never witnessed a horse tying up.

Then in his latter days, his neurological issues became more obvious with each passing day.

I did have a myelogram done on him, and it revealed compression of the spinal cord at C3 and C4.

Vets at Michigan State University did finally identify malformations of both C6 and C7 through radiographs. Their report stated:

“The intervertebral foramen is severely reduced at C6-C7. A minimal amount of osseous proliferation is noted along the dorsal aspect of the articular processes at C5-C6.

“Interpretation: Multifocal cervical articular degenerative joint disease (C4-T1), most severe at C6-7.”

I had a very difficult time with the decision to euthanize him, because his neurological issues would fluctuate. Some days, no evidence all. On other days, he would fall against the stall wall when turning him around in the stall.

In any event, I euthanized him, believing that he was experiencing severe pain from the narrowed foramen at C6 and C7.

I believe they were the reasons for the bucking, for needing to be sedated for the farrier, for not being able to lower his head, for rooting on the reins, for barely walking forward when I thought he was tying up, and the bizarre lifting of his back. He also had a very difficult time holding his right lead, and would swap unless you really held him.

I am so, so glad I ran across this website and article because I will go to sleep tonight knowing that euthanizing was for sure the right thing to do. Thank you!



If you’re about to purchase a horse that falls into the ‘at risk’ category for this malformation, do your due diligence as a buyer, and have the caudal cervical vertebrae radiographed as part of your pre-purchase examination. A protocol for radiographing for the malformation is on this site.

The following papers also cover radiographs and CT imaging of the C6 malformation:

Ex Vivo Computated Tomographic Evaluation of Morphology Variations in Equine Cervical Vertebrae, Veraa, S. et al,  Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound, Vol. 57, Issue 5

Prevalence of Anatomical Variation of the Sixth Cervical Vertebra and Association with Vertebral Canal Stenosis and Articular Process Arthritis in the Horse,
Spriet, M. and M Aleman, Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound, Vol. 57, Issue 3


If you wish to comment, please feel free to do so below, but please do so with respect for an owner who found herself in a nightmare situation. Alternatively, come over the blog’s discussion group on Facebook.





By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation

News about the malformation of the C6 and C7 vertebrae has understandably raised a lot of concern. There are major implications for both buyers and breeders of TB and TB-derived breed horses, as outlined in the original article, All You Need to Know About the Hidden C6-C7 Malformation That’s Bringing Horses Down. In response, Sharon May-Davis has very kindly provided us with the English version of a paper she published in the Journal of Japanese Local Government Racing, outlining a preliminary protocol for radiographing this area of the neck and identifying the malformation. (Yes, a single racing authority has taken this issue on board!)

So without further ado, here is the paper in its entirety, the only adaptations being the positioning of images to better fit this site’s blog format.

 © All text copyright of the published authors. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Preliminary Radiographic Protocols for Identifying Congenital Malformations of the Caudal Cervical Vertebrae

Authors: May-Davis SER, Minowa F, Monoe S



In 2014, a published study based on dissections and skeletal examinations noted that 19:50 Thoroughbred horses had a congenital malformation of the 6th cervical vertebra (C6). In addition, it was found that in those 19 Thoroughbred horses expressing a congenital malformation of C6, 9 displayed a concurrent congenital alformation of the 7th cervical vertebra (C7). In this study, 3 Thoroughbred horses and 1 Thoroughbred type were clinically examined; 3 were radiographed for limb abnormalities and 2:3 radiographed for the congenital malformation of C6 and C7 prior to euthanasia. Upon dissection, 3:4 expressed a congenital malformation of C6 with 2:3 displaying a concurrent CM of C7. These 2 horses were positively radiographed for the CM of C6 and C7 prior to dissection. The radiographs of C6 were taken in direct lateral orientation with 0 degree of elevation and revealed the absence of the caudal ventral tubercle (CVT) of C6. Re-positioning the horse’s forelimbs caudally with an outstretched neck, C7 was radiographed at a 30° oblique lateral angle in a cranial to caudal direction with 0 degree of elevation; the transverse process of C5 remained cranial to the beam. The caudal aspect of the plate was positioned medial the Cranial deep pectoral and rotated vertically to expand the field of view of the cervical vertebrae, whilst remaining perpendicular to the beam



In recent times, 3 Australian studies reported congenital malformations of C6, C7, the 1st sternal rib, along with their associative soft tissue structures. Furthermore, it was noted that these congenital malformations were predominantly breed related and more specifically, to Thoroughbred horses or derivatives thereof. In addition, reports of forelimb proprioceptive dysfunction, neurological impediment and gait deficits were concurrently noted (May-Davis [a,b], May-Davis and Walker). The congenital malformations of C6 appeared as either a left or right unilateral absence of the caudal ventral tubercle (CVT) or as a bilateral absence of the CVT (Figure 1).


Left: Normal. Centre: Absent right CVT. Right: Bilaterally absent CVT

Figure 1. View of the ventral aspect of C6, cranial aspect top. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis


The congenital malformation of C7 appeared with either a fully transposed CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7 or a partial transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7 (Figure 2) (May-Davis [a]).


Left: Normal. Centre: Transposed right CVT. Right: Bilaterally transposed CVT

Figure 2. View of the ventral aspect of C7, cranial aspect top. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis


The congenital malformation of the 1st sternal rib appeared in multiple presentations with gross anatomic variations including; an absent 1st sternal rib; bifid Tuberculum costae (Figure 3); bifid Sternochondral articulation onto the sternum; flared shaft; normal 1st sternal rib inserting onto the cranial branch of a bifid Sternochondral articulating 2nd sternal rib; straight costal shaft and an articulating rudimentary Tuberculum costae with a ligamentous extension replacing the bony shaft and attaching to a rudimentary Sternochondral articulation onto the sternum (May-Davis [b]).

Figure 3. Left costal bifid Tuberculum costae. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis

Associative soft tissue structures varied according to the presentation of the congenital malformation with the most noted being, the Longus colli muscle, Scalene muscles and neural vessels such as the Phrenic nerve and Brachial plexus (May-Davis [b], May-Davis and Walker).

The congenital malformations noted in these 3 studies were determined via dissection and skeletal examination. They were based on 2 specific skeletal variations in C6 and C7 plus any variation to normal of the 1st sternal rib.

The congenital malformations could appear in C6 as a singular expression with no other anomalies, however, the congenital malformation of C7 only occurred when the CVT was absent on C6. The congenital malformations of the 1st sternal rib only occurred in the presence of the congenital malformation of C6 and C7 (Table 1) (May-Davis [b]).

With this in mind, the premise that if a congenital malformation exists in C6 then there is a 50% chance that transposition will occur on C7. In this format, it would stand to reason that there could also be an anomalous rib. Therefore, this study is designed to identify the absent CVT on C6 and investigate its transposition onto C7.


Table 1. Noted observations of 151 horses of mixed gender aged between 0 (stillborn) and 30, exhibiting a congenital malformation of C6, C7 and the 1st sternal rib.


Materials and Methods

After evaluation and clinical examination, the 2 horses (1 Thoroughbred and 1 Thoroughbred type) were restrained in cross ties. Detomidine Hydrochloride (Detomovet CEVA Animal Health Pty Ltd) was administered via left jugular vein venepuncture. The dosage was determined by the clinician’s experience and in consideration of the individual’s current health status.

The radiographs were obtained by utilising a Porta 100 HF High Frequency portable x-ray unit (7.8kgs). The kV range was 40-100kV with an mA range of 20-30 mA and a mAs range of 0.3 – 20 mAs. The images were captured on a wireless Rayence 1012WCA Medical Image processing unit (26cm x 32.5cm) and computerised with Vetview Digital Diagnostic Imaging software.

The radiographic angles were obtained with the horse’s neck in full extension and the forelimbs behind the vertical in standing position. With the clinician standing with the x-ray unit on the left side of the neck and the plate positioned on the right side of the neck, the distance between the x-ray unit and plate was 80cms. The x-ray unit and plate remained lateral to the cervical vertebrae determined by the transverse processes of C5.

The first view is a direct lateral at 90 degrees, with 0 degree of elevation whilst maintaining the transverse process of C5 to the left of the beam. 

Remaining lateral to the cervical vertebrae with a 0 degree of elevation, the second view is taken with the x-ray unit positioned at a 30° oblique lateral angle in a cranial to caudal direction with the transverse process of C5 cranial to the beam. The caudal aspect of the plate is positioned medial the Cranial deep pectoral and rotated vertically to expand the field of view of the cervical vertebrae, whilst remaining perpendicular to the beam.

Upon the radiographic evaluation of C6, radiographs of C7 are obtained. The 4 horses were then euthanized and dissected so to verify the radiographic findings. Only those pertaining to the congenital malformation of C6 and C7 are reported in this study.



Figure 4. A compressed trachea (white arrow) in Thoroughbred No. 2 at C6 / C7. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis

Upon euthanasia of the 4 horses, Thoroughbred No.1 was normal. Thoroughbred No.2 presented with an absent CVT in C6 and trachea compression (Figure 4).

Thoroughbred No. 3, presented with a C6 and C7 congenital malformation and a malformed 1st sternal rib. The Thoroughbred type also presented with a congenital malformation of C6 and C7 (Table 2).



Table 2. Noted observations via dissection of the congenital malformation of C6, C7 and the 1st sternal rib.


Left: Radiographic view of C6. Centre: The white line denotes a normal CVT. Right: The white denotes an absent CVT.

Figure 5. The radiographic lateral view of C6 depicting a unilaterally absent CVT in C6. Image credit: Sharon May-Davis


Thoroughbred No. 3 C7 radiograph (Figure 6) clearly presents the observer with a transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7, furthermore it denotes a reciprocal deviation in the trachea at the point of this transposition.


Left: Radiographic view of C7. Centre: The white line denotes the unilateral transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7. Right: The white line denotes the deviation in the trachea.

Figure 6. The radiographic view of C7 depicting a unilaterally transposition of the CVT from C6. Image credit: Sharon May-Davis


The Thoroughbred type (Figure 7) exhibits the absent CVT in C6. The radiograph clearly indicates an absent CVT that is unilateral in its presentation.


Left: Radiographic view of C6. Centre: The white line denotes a normal CVT. Right: The white denotes an absent CVT.

Figure 7. The radiographic lateral view of C6 depicting a unilaterally absent CVT in C6. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis.


The Thoroughbred type C7 radiograph (Figure 8) clearly presents the observer with a transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7, furthermore it denotes a reciprocal deviation in the trachea at the point of this transposition.


Left: Radiographic view of C7. Centre: The white line denotes the unilateral transposition of the CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7. Right: The white line denotes the deviation in the trachea.

Figure 8. The radiographic view of C7 depicting a unilaterally transposition of the CVT from C6. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis.


Figure 9. Right: Absent CVT on C6 (white arrow) and transposed CVT from C6 onto the ventral surface of C7. Photo credit: Sharon May-Davis

Upon dissection, the Thoroughbred type displayed identical congenital malformations of C6 and C7 as depicted in the radiographs (Figure 9).







This study was conducted with the view to obtain specific radiographic evidence of the congenital malformation of C6 and C7. Radiographic views of the 1st sternal rib were not possible due to thick and dense musculature in the region. The views obtained of C6 and C7 with exact radiographic angles proved that this region can be radiographed with precision so that the practitioner can make a clear diagnosis should a horse present with a neurological deficit, as previously published (May-Davis

[a, b], May-Davis and Walker]). Furthermore, the asymmetry of the cervical vertebra could exacerbate arthritis in the articular process joints as previously noted (May-Davis [a]). In addition, the incidental finding of the compression of the trachea is an important factor to consider when Thoroughbred racehorses present with compromised airways. An explanation for this occurring is that the Longus colli muscle hypertrophies in support of the weakened structures and due to its proximity to the Trachea, it impinges upon its dorsal surface. This impingement is further exacerbated by the ventral projection from C7 of the transposed CVT from C6.

Since the first publication in 2014, retrospective studies were conducted that added another dimension to the current research. Italian and American studies noted that Warmbloods, Quarter Horses and Arabs were also afflicted with this condition (Santinelli et. al 2016 and DeRouen et.al 2016). It is significant to note that these breeds present the majority of the ridden horse population in Japan extending from Racing, Showjumping, Dressage to Eventing and Endurance. However, a specific Dutch Warmblood study was conducted with fresh cadaver’s that were portioned and CT scanned (Veraa et.al 2016), this also included Oldenburg horses. The congenital malformation of C6 and C7 was present in both breeds with a noted malformed 1st sternal rib in a Dutch Warmblood. Combined percentages of these 3 studies in conjunction with the 3 Australian studies and the current study has the congenital malformation of C6 at; Warmbloods 30%, Quarter Horses 16% and Thoroughbred horses over 40%. 

Aside from the Arabian who is an ancestor to the Thoroughbred, the Warmblood breeds and Quarter Horses all have Thoroughbred lineage in the back line of their breeding. Thus, implying that this condition is heritable as noted by May-Davis [b] and more systemic than just one breed. With this in mind, all critical events should be assessed with the knowledge that a potential congenital malformation could exist in C6, C7 and the 1st sternal rib, as previously noted. With the largest population of horses in Japan being Thoroughbreds, it would be a recommendation to note the studies of several countries including Japan and the severity in percentage of this systemic congenital malformation. Especially in relation to Thoroughbred’ racehorses racing and cornering at speed.



This study showed that of the 4 horses investigated, 3:4 horses displayed a CM of C6, 2:3 displayed the congenital malformation in C6 and C7, and 1:2 a congenital malformation of the 1st sternal rib. Even with a small sample of Thoroughbreds, studies from other countries must be measured and it would therefore be a recommendation to radiograph for this condition in the caudal cervical vertebrae in a pre-purchase examination. The purpose of which would be to eliminate this condition so that riders and handlers are not put at risk.


Author contributions

Sharon May-Davis, Fumiko Minowa and Sadae Monoe wrote and reviewed this article.


Conflict of Interest

The authors have no conflict of interest in the preparation or presentation of this original research article.



The author wishes to thank Christine Gee for her professional advice on the manuscript. The Nippon Veterinary and Life Sciences University for the use of their facilities and to those authors / editors/ publishers of those articles, journals and books cited in this manuscript.



Derouen A, Spriet M, Aleman M. Prevalance of anatomical of the sixth cervical vertebra and association with vertebral canal stenosis and articular process osteoarthritis in the horse. Vet Radiol Ultrasound, Vol. 00, 2016, pp 1–5.

May-Davis SER. The Occurrence of a Congenital Malformation in the Sixth and Seventh Cervical Vertebrae Predominantly Observed in Thoroughbred Horses. J Equine Vet Sc 2014; 34:1313-17.

May-Davis SER. The Congenital Malformation of the 1st Sternal Rib. J Equine Vet Sc 2014; 34:1313-17.

May-Davis SER, Walker C. Variations and implications of the gross morphology in the Longus colli muscle in Thoroughbred and Thoroughbred derivative horses presenting with a congenital malformation of the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. J Equine Vet Sc 2015; 35:560-8.

Santinelli I, Beccati F, Pepe M. Anatomical variation of the spinous and transverse processes in the caudal cervical vertebrae and the first thoracic vertebra in horses. EVJ 48 (2016) 45–49.

Veraa S, Bergmann W, van den Belt A-J, Wijnberg I, Back W. Ex vivo computed tomographic evaluation of morphology variations in equine cervical vertebrae. Vet Radiol Ultrasound, Vol. 00, 1–7.




All You Need to Know About the Hidden C6-C7 Malformation That’s Bringing Horses Down

What if you were to learn that your horse is living with a hidden malformation? A skeletal abnormality that could be affecting it every day, changing the way it moves, creating a string of other physical problems, and possibly underlying the hard-to-pinpoint problems you’ve been noticing for months or even years ?

And that might even be causing a level of inherent instability that could be putting the rider in danger?

Sadly, this isn’t a hypothetical question. Instead it’s a reality that is only now being slowly uncovered.

And like the proverbial stone rolling down a mountain, the issue is gathering momentum as the equine industry, owners, breeders and researchers learn about it.

  • It’s a skeletal malformation and it can’t be corrected.
  • It’s congenital, ie inherited, so is present from birth.
  • It has been in some lines of TBs for hundreds of years.
  • It creates biomechanical issues due to asymmetry and lack of anchor points for key muscles.
  • At its worst, it can contribute to neurological issues such as Wobbler syndrome.
  • Some horses are so unstable, they are more prone to falling (not good news for jockeys).
  • It can cause constant pain and associated behavioural changes.
  • It’s primarily found in Thoroughbreds, Thoroughbred crosses and Warmbloods, but has also been identified in European breeds, Quarter Horses, Arabs and Australian Stock Horses.


The problem behind this is a congenital malformation of the C6 and C7 cervical vertebrae (ie, base of neck) – and it’s pretty nasty.

I’ve written about the work of Sharon May-Davis on this blog before and here I’m going to do so again. Through her many dissections per year, gross anatomist Sharon has become the first person to comprehensively document and quantify this problem. 

In doing so, and publishing her findings in peer-reviewed journals, she has triggered a minor research avalanche as others take up the subject.


Those of us fortunate to attend Sharon’s many equine dissections in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Europe have been learning about this for some time. For bodyworkers and hoof trimmers, it has dramatically changed our work. I believe I’ve worked on several horses with this problem, including an eventing horse, a dressage prospect, and a TB intended for a child.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an extremely serious problem that is in some cases grave for the horse concerned and can potentially cause injury or loss of life for the rider.


The following is an amended version of an article that I wrote for the Winter 2017 edition of Equine News, a NSW, Australia print magazine that sponsored one of Sharon’s series of public lectures on this issue.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


A hidden problem: this OTTB had the C6-C7 malformation but presented few outward signs.


Twenty years of research

Sharon May-Davis’s path with this research began some 20 years ago. In February 1996, a Thoroughbred called Presley came down unimpeded in a race in Grafton, NSW, fracturing his pelvis, a hock bone, and right front fetlock.

Three years later, Sharon examined his bones, and saw something strange in his last two cervical vertebrae and his first ribs.

Fast forward to 2014, when Sharon published the first of her four peer-reviewed papers in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, concerning a congenital malformation in the sixth and seventh cervical (neck) vertebrae.

Although the problem had been mentioned briefly in papers, this was the first time that a researcher had accurately described and quantified the problem in its various forms.

Sharon’s unique perspective, gained as an anatomist who dissects between 15 and 20 horses per year, had certainly placed her in a position to do so.


The horse’s seven cervical vertebrae – made simple

Horses have seven vertebrae in their necks, labelled C1 to C7. Of these, four have unique shapes. Most horse people are familiar with C1, the first vertebrae known as the atlas, as it can be both seen and felt by hand with its distinctive ‘wing’ at the top of the neck.

Cervical vertebrae from C1 (top) to C7 (bottom), view from above (L) and below (R).

Almost as well-known is C2, the second vertebrae, known as the axis.

Both atlas and axis have unique shapes for a special reason: they support the heavy skull and anchor the muscles that control the head’s movement.

Heading down the neck, C3, C4 and C5 are broadly similar in shape, with each being a bit shorter and blockier than the one above.

However, C6 and C7 are both slightly different on the ventral (lower) side, for here they provide insertion points for muscles arising from the chest.


  • C6 has transverse processes (the protrusions extending outwards) that are different to those of neighbouring bones, with two distinctive ridges running the vertebrae’s length. C6 also has two large transverse foramen, the openings that the arteries pass through.
  • C7 is the shortest and squattest cervical vertebrae of all. Its transverse processes are shorter, while there are also two facets that articulate with the first ribs. C7 has no transverse foramen.


At least, that’s how the vertebrae should be in a normal horse.


So, what is wrong with the malformed C6 and C7 vertebrae?

In certain horses, these last two vertebrae are rather different, being malformed.

Sharon has identified the manifestations of this problem as a congenital (inherited) malformation affecting some Thoroughbred horses, and horses with Thoroughbred blood in their ancestry.

In C6, there is a problem with the two ridges of the transverse processes, as one or both can be partially absent.

When both are partially missing, it is common for one or two ridges (ie, parts of the transverse processes) to appear on C7 instead.

Also, the articular processes (the oval surfaces on the upper side, where each vertebrae links to its neighbours) can be radically different sizes. There can also be an additional arterial foramen or two.

The level of asymmetry can be radical.



The secondary problems this malformation causes

Being at the base of the neck, the asymmetry of C6 and C7 can cause alignment problems all the way up the vertebral column, leading to osteoarthritis of the articular facets.

It can also contribute to Wobbler Syndrome (Cervical Vertebral Stenotic Myelopathy), due to narrowing and/or malalignment of the vertebral foramen/canal, the opening through which the spinal cord passes. Not all Wobbler cases have this particular malformation, though.

A further problem is that the lower part of the longus colli muscle, which is involved in flexing the neck, would normally insert on the transverse processes of C6 and C7. When these processes are malformed, the normal insertions are not possible.

This means there is a serious symmetry problem in the junction of the thorax and neck, which can have a deeper effect on the horse’s neurology and proprioception, as well as respiration.


Asymmetry and narrowed vertebral foramen (canal) contribute to DJD and Wobbler Syndrome.


In a few cases, horses with both the C6 and C7 problem also have malformations of the first sternal rib, on one or both sides. This can cause problems beneath the scapular and further issues with muscular attachments.

Associated stability problems can have far-reaching consequences for the horse, not to mention some serious safety issues for the rider. The safety issue can’t be stated often enough.

(Add to this the fact that the horse’s nuchal ligament lamellar does not attach to C6 and C7, and often only feebly to C5, then you can see that this is a high level of instability in a critical area. Read more about Sharon’s findings on the nuchal ligament here – How the Anatomy Books Unintentionally Fail us Over the Nuchal Ligament.) 

Read on for information on for signs that this problem may be present in the living horse…


© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Why isn’t the C6-C7 problem more widely known ?

Why hasn’t this problem been noticed in regular veterinary interventions?

The answer is quite simple. While neurological issues may have been diagnosed, the exact cause has often remained hidden. 

Both Thoroughbred horses and Warmbloods are known to have higher incidences of Wobbler Syndrome than other breeds, and while this is certainly not always due to C6-C7 malformation, the malformation has been found in some when dissected.

For example, the following dissection image appears in a veterinary account of large animal spinal cord diseases. It clearly shows a malformed C7 vertebrae, very similar to the one in the above image, but without giving any further categorisation.

The difficulty lies in the deep location of the lower cervical vertebrae. While normal radiographs can show all or some of C6, they are unable to penetrate the deeper tissues beneath the shoulder to image C7.


Photo from another online article: the familiar asymmetry of a malformed C7 is clearly visible in a dissected set of vertebrae.  (c) veteriankey.com (click image to access full article.)


Nevertheless, the malformation can be identified in radiographs of C6, once you know where to look.

Since Sharon’s first paper appeared, the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, has reviewed its history of radiographs from horses with Wobbler Syndrome.

Researchers found that 24 cases out of 100 (close to 25%) showed malformation of one or both C6 transverse processes. This study also clarified how to identify the problem on standard radiographs of C6.

In another study, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, completed CT scans on horses’ necks and found the various forms of the malformation in 26 horses out of 78 (33%). Unlike radiographs, the CT scans enabled identification of the C7 and first rib issues, although of course this imaging was conducted post mortem.


Is this rare, or are many horses affected?

While the problem has been identified primarily in TBs, it affects most breeds with TB blood in the ancestry to some degree.

Sharon May-Davis reports that to date, published, peer-reviewed journal papers have tallied 136 out of 471 horses as exhibiting congenital malformation of C6.

These have been in a range of breeds including Thoroughbreds (39%), Thoroughbred crosses (27%), Warmbloods and European breeds (30%), Quarter Horses (11%), and Arabs (11%). Standardbreds have also shown the problem, although the numbers included in studies are very small.

A common question is whether it’s known which TB lines predominantly carry this problem. The answer is: Yes. However, it is now so disseminated amongst the modern equine population beyond TBs, that it is of little help to identify them.


“Eight Belles… might have been genetically predisposed to breaking down.” 

Exploring the views of a TB lineage expert, this American article from 2009 asks why certain TB lines were prone to breaking down on the track – Eight Belles Breakdown: A Predictable Tragedy


It must be remembered that these horses are those already brought to veterinary attention and/or euthanized for a related or unrelated reason, so the percentages may be higher than those for the general horse population. At the same time, the malformation might have played a major part in the horses’ decline, due to the many locomotory and postural problems it can lead to.

 Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


‘Gift Horse’, the Trafalgar Square sculpture by Hans Haacke, displayed the malformation, presumably having been modelled on a modern-day skeleton. The George Stubbs anatomical drawing on which it was styled did not. Image (c) bowlofchalk.net


How do we identify these horses in life?

It’s all very well looking at these bones post mortem, you might say. Yet how can I tell if my horse has this problem? Or a horse that I might want to buy?

Some answers are forthcoming. As Sharon has frequently assessed horses before dissecting them – usually from video – she has been able to observe that many of these horses lack stability. (Indeed, in many cases, it is this very instability has directly led to the horse being euthanized, and ending up on the dissection table.)

As her research has progressed, she has also been able to identify many biomechanical and locomotion traits that make these horses ‘suspicious’ or at least ‘of interest’. Unsurprisingly, these problems have been particularly noticeable in horses with both a malformed C6 and C7.

For owners and equine professionals, here are some signs that can raise initial suspicions. All can also be caused by other problems, so a group of signs is more common than an individual indication.

  • Some of these horses have a problem with standing square in front, and will always keep one foot further forward. This can persist despite all attempts to improve the horse’s body and to train the horse to halt squarely.
  • Horses with the more serious malformations will often stand base-wide. Such horses can become very unbalanced on uneven ground, and sometimes in work. They easily become unbalanced when a hoof practitioner works on a forefoot. 


A bilateral C6 – unilateral C7 horse showing a toe-out stance and hoof distortion. The ventral part of the transverse process was transposed onto the left side of C7.


  • With such asymmetry in the skeletal structure, these horses have serious lateral flexion issues that can’t be overcome. When required to elevate the forehand, many will experience difficulties, due to the absence of correctly inserted musculature and incorrect articulation through the joints of the lower neck. 


The horse may have one very prominent, widely positioned scapula.


  • A high level of asymmetry may be seen in the shoulders, with one scapula sometimes positioned very wide, with no improvement after chiro, osteopathy or bodywork. This is particularly so with the C6-C7 problem and associated first sternal rib abnormalities.
  • The ventral aspect of the neck may show some scoliosis.

    There may be scoliosis along the entire spine.

  • There may be an obvious scoliosis to the underside of the neck.
  • The problem may lead to heavily asymmetric loading of the forefeet, so may be accompanied by a severe high foot/low foot issue (this is not in itself a sign of the C6-C7 problem).






If you suspect your horse has the C6-C7 issue

First, note that many horses do just fine with a C6 problem. It is those with the bilateral C6 and unilateral/bilateral C7 issue that tend to show the more worrying problems.

If your horse is showing ongoing signs of instability, it’s important to seek veterinary advice, so that neurological issues can be ruled out. (As this a recently recognised problem, it may be worth printing out the abstracts from the journal articles listed at the end of this page and handing them over.)

If the more severe malformations are identified by radiograph, it is important to remember that in some cases this can cause discomfort and pain to the horse, and it is not going to improve over time. 

Since this article was published, Sharon has allowed me to publish her paper with a preliminary protocol for radioagraphing for this issue. Read it here: By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation.

On the contrary, the cervical vertebrae of some older horses with the C6 and C7 malformations often display advanced osteoarthritis of the articular processes, as shown in the header image of a 19-year-old Thoroughbred’s malformed C7.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


Where does this knowledge take us?

At the moment, that question is wide open. The findings published by Sharon May-Davis have triggered ongoing research on an international level. There are certainly ramifications for breeders in more than one equine sporting industry.

Connections have been made with a number of falls on the racetrack that have caused injury, and worse, to both horse and jockey, as well as other runners. Similar things can be said for the sport of eventing, where unforced errors can have equally catastrophic effects.

It is entirely possible that at higher levels, pre-purchase examination radiographs will come to include a check on C6. While it’s not possible to radiograph the deeply positioned C7, we do at least know that this will only be present if the C6 anomaly exists.

Vets in some countries are proving faster at picking this up than others. While papers are being published, it clearly takes some time for information to filter down.

And until more is known, this problem is being unknowingly propagated every breeding season.

Of course, many horses harbouring the milder manifestations of this problem at C6 level are functioning very well. All horse owners can do is be aware that this issue exists, make use of this information if a problem arises, and await further research findings.


Since this article was published, Sharon has allowed me to publish her paper with a preliminary protocol for radioagraphing for this issue. Read it here: By Popular Demand: Here’s How You X-Ray for the C6-C7 Malformation.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


Sharon May-Davis’s research includes the rarely documented arthritis affecting the elbow joint of ridden and driven horses – Revealed: the Common Equine Arthritis You Won’t Read About in Textbooks.

Plus, read about the effects of hard race training on Thoroughbreds – Buying an Ex-Racehorse: Can You Spot the Major Physical Issues? – and advice from a seasoned trainer on rehabbing your horse once it’s arrived at your stable – 8 Golden Rules for Helping Your Thoroughbred Get Right Off the Track.


Literature on the malformation


Peer reviewed journal articles on the C6-C7 and related first sternal rib issues.


How Much Do You CAIR What’s Inside Your Saddle? (Includes Pictures of the Secret ‘Flock Sock’)

How curious are you as a horse owner? Do you want to know how things work, what they look on the inside, and if they’re as good as the makers say – right the way through?

The guts of any piece of equipment are usually less pretty than the exterior, but nevertheless, we’re often happy to take the manufacturer’s word on trust.

Yet when the marketing message is that a particular brand is actually healthier for the horse’s back on account of its inbuilt ‘systems’, it’s definitely time to take a closer look. Consider a message such as this:

“Naturally, horses will demonstrate a marked improvement in performance when changed to a saddle featuring CAIR®.”

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/saddle_brands/wintec-saddles.html (13/3/2017)

That’s pretty grand, isn’t it? How wonderful if it were only true. But working in Australia, birthplace of Weatherbeeta, Bates and Wintec, and a chain of saddlery stores that sells and fits these saddles, which is owned by that same company, I do find much evidence that persuades me otherwise.

At this point, I must make my usual disclaimer: I have no problem with any saddle that genuinely fits the horse. I do have a problem with misleading claims, intentional or otherwise, as expressed in my earlier article, Debunked: The Lie That’s Told About Adjustable Saddles.


CAIR for the Horse – or EASY-Marketing?


Easy flock? More details below…

Google CAIR and you’ll find it described as the “revolutionary CAIR® Cushion System for the ultimate performance panel”.

Navigating a range of websites, you might also discover that it is accompanied in saddles by the EASY-CHANGE® Gullet System and the EASY-CHANGE® Riser system.

Together, these three comprise the EASY-CHANGE® Fit Solution.

Confused yet? No matter, as you can read all about it on the EASY-CHANGE® website

Crazy as I find the labelling, and let’s be honest, the brand marketing department has gone a bit nuts, what really bothers me is that these much vaunted systems are not doing what it says on the packet. Nowhere near.


The Problem with Systems…


In my view, systems often evolve to the benefit of the people who operate them. That is fine: they make problems easier to understand and easier to navigate – and saddle fitting is certainly a problem when you can’t find the right fit for your horse.

So if a system results in a better saddle fit and, as the website suggests “your horse’s absolute comfort and your peace of mind”, all well and good.

But where systems go wrong is when the function of making life easier for people is given more importance than the problem they were originally intended to resolve.

Or, indeed, when they become an effective way of achieving increased sales through the handy marketing push they make possible.

And this bugs me because the horse’s much vaunted comfort is usually by this stage sliding further and further down the importance pile. Like a growing number of equine professionals, I’ve taken a look inside these saddles, and something simply isn’t adding up between the message and the reality.

At this point, I will say no more, but instead present some of the website content I’ve been reading this month. Alongside it, you’ll find some photos that I and others have taken.

Beyond the photo captions, I’ve made no comment until the last section on flocking. I found that had no choice, because the ‘secret flock sock’ is so secret, I can find no website content about it… Let’s just say that seems a little unusual.


 © All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


“The CAIR® Cushion System”


CAIR panels removed from a Wintec, 5 years ago. Manufacturer’s own parcel tape.

“Fluidly working with your horse’s muscles, the revolutionary CAIR® Cushion System replaces traditional fillings in your saddle with air. The cushioning nature of air encourages your horse to soften, relax and engage. Seated closer to your horse, you become simply an extension of one another. Transcend into a new world of opportunities through the power of true connection. Empower your horse with the ultimate in comfort, and explore your true potential together with the CAIR® Cushion System. ”

http://caircushionsystem.com/noflash.htm  (13/3/2017)

“CAIR: The Power of True Connection”


CAIR panel on original board backing, sliced to show open cell foam inside. 

“Finally a panel system that understands the mechanics of the equine back and the impact saddles have on horse and rider performance. The revolutionary CAIR® Cushion System replaces the traditional fillings in your saddle panel with air. There are two independently sealed Air Cushions within each Saddle Panel. The concept of air, as the ultimate in cushioning for the horse is simple.”

http://caircushionsystem.com/whatIsCAIR/index.htm (13/3/2017)



Vinyl sleeve and parcel tape – the tape affected by Australian heat.

“Air being a fluid medium will constantly adapt to the horse’s working muscles. This means that your weight will be distributed evenly across the entire length of the cushion, virtually eliminating pressure points. This extraordinary comfort results in freer movement, better carriage and a happier horse. For such a simple concept the dramatic difference the CAIR® Cushion System makes to a horse’s comfort and performance is profound.”

http://caircushionsystem.com/whatIsCAIR/index.htm (13/3/2017)



Foam panel insert, now renamed the EASY-Change Riser System. 

“The award winning CAIR® Panel Insert System was launched to retailers and saddle fitters around the world. Together with the tree adjustability of the EASY-CHANGE® Gullet System, this delivered a whole new level of adjustability in saddles. The insert system enabled retailers and saddle fitters to make adjustments within the panel effectively, efficiently and to the highest professional standards.”

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/easy-change-story.html (13/3/2017)




More recent CAIR panel – outer sleeve and foam insert. (Note: panels are opened, so no air is present in these images.)

“The challenge lies in developing an air system that limits any opportunity for human interference on the performance of the panels.

“The cutting edge Research and Development Team at Bates Australia have spent many years refining and perfecting techniques for incorporating an air cushion into a saddle panel, before reaching a breakthrough in manufacturing method.

The CAIR® Air Cushions are shaped and refined at the point of manufacture to provide an even thickness throughout the panel….”

whatIsCAIR/evolution.htm (13/3/2017)




Another close up of that foam.

“What is Inside an Air Panel?”

Air is captured at atmospheric pressure in an open-celled foam and sealed in the Air Panel. Once the air panel is welded the open-celled foam becomes irrelevant, as it is the air trapped in the panel, which is doing the work.

Furthermore, the balance of saddles with the CAIR® Cushion System is easily altered without compromise to the performance of the air panels.”

http://www.caircushionsystem.com/faqs/index.htm (13/3/2017)


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“How adaptable are the saddles for achieving an optimal fit?”

The riser/shim, board, and CAIR panel combination.

“Extremely, Saddles that feature both the CAIR® Cushion System and EASY-CHANGE Gullet System are unsurpassed in the flexibility they offer for achieving an optimal fit.

Once you have selected the correct gullet size for your horse, the CAIR® Panel Insert System enables you to alter the balance of your saddle without compromising the performance of the Air Panels.”



“Official Fit Disclaimer”

The riser/shims, used to add depth to flat panels (between 2 and 12 have been found in saddles).

N.B whilst the innovative EASY-CHANGE® Fit Solution offers unsurpassed flexibility in achieving an optimal fit, no one saddle can claim to fit every horse. It is always recommended ongoing professional advice is sought on the fit and in meeting the unique needs of each horse/rider combination. Global patents and design registrations apply.

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/easy-change_fit_solution/index.html (20 Sept 2015)



Newer CAIR panel.

“The Current Day…”

“Bates Australia has now developed a means of offering these saddle fitting systems in both saddles featuring high performance CAIR® panels, as well as traditional flocked panels.”

http://www.easychangefitsolution.com/easy-change-story.html (13/3/2017)



But Hang On… “Traditional flocked panels”… What are they talking about?


The current ‘flocking’.

OK, this is where I break my silence. This is where I introduce the flock panel insert.

The thing is that for the past 2-3 years, other company saddlers have been finding these rather strange, stuffed fabric panels inside Wintec and Bates saddles brought in by customers requesting reflocking.

These fabric sleeves, which are the same shape as the vinyl CAIR sleeve, are packed hard and tight, meaning that the usual benefit offered by flocking – ie, ability to mould to the horse’s shape – is lost altogether. You won’t hear about that though, because this is a manufacturer’s secret (shhhh).







Where Can We Find the Flocking Info?


The flock sock is well-packed with balls of  synthetic flocking. 

Oddly, and strangely given all the Easy web pages, this ‘flock sock’ doesn’t have its own page and isn’t photographed on any of the Wintec, Bates and EASY-whatever websites.

Why? I’d speculate that the sock removes considerable time and dollars off the manufacturing cost of flocked saddles, without adding much that’s positive at the horse end of the equation.


[ed note. I’ve removed the detail about pricing here, because I made a mistake with it. That obviously isn’t good enough. I’m sorry about that.]

So, why is nobody hearing about this little innovation? The company don’t want to add flocking to saddles as it’s less profitable, but is offering ‘flocking’ (or their own version of it) simply to satisfy customer demand. Unfortunately, with this inner working of the saddles kept out of sight, the customer simply doesn’t know what they’re paying for.

And how good is that for the horse’s interests, we must ask?




** Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 


5 Ways Your Seat Can Screw Up Your Horse Without You Even Noticing

Something that saddle fitters know but that’s often the last thing riders think of: it’s the riding position as much as the saddle fit that’s affecting their horse’s back and movement. In this Guest Post, ‘Classical Seat’ trainer Heather Moffett looks at how the rider’s seat can make movement harder for the horse.


We all keep hearing about ‘connection’.  It’s a current buzzword and usually means connecting with your horse on the ground, either through loose or in-hand work.

Many riders assume this will enable them to achieve the same connection once mounted.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, they often then wonder why they lose that connection – sometimes literally, complete with the saddle(!) – once they start riding. The fact is that they are, in ignorant bliss, impeding the horse!

The UK’s Heather Moffett has over 40 years’ instruction experience. Chiefly following the French school of classical equitation, which focuses on dressage as an art form rather than competition, she is best known as an authority on the Classical Seat. Recently, she launched The Online Riding School, a library of videos suitable for everyone from complete beginners to advanced riders – visit now to benefit from the introductory offers.

Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 



The Disconnected Seat

If the rider is out of sync with the horse’s movement, the flow and harmony will always be disrupted as the horse struggles to balance the rider as well as himself.

Or, he endures the discomfort of a rider sitting like a lump of lead, driving with the seat against his sensitive back, or bouncing stiffly in the saddle.

The horse has only one way to show his discomfort or pain, as he is mute, and that is by behaviour that is then construed as ‘misbehaviour’.

I often ask riders who kick and hit their horses if they would do the same to their dog. The dog is able to cry out in pain. The horse cannot, and it is his muteness, throughout history, that has led to his downfall and still does to this day.


What Gets My Goat is This

I’ve been a specialist trainer/teacher of the Classical seat for 46 years. In that time, there has been little interest in increasing knowledge of the seat and refinement of the aids.

So many teachers and trainers say that it is necessary to ignore imperfections in the seat until “the horse is going well”. Then they wonder why the horse never progresses, or why force must be resorted to, in order to make the horse submit!

Yes, there is that word submit (or submission) that’s a requirement in a dressage test.

My own teachers soon found that it worked far better to encourage my cooperation in school rather than forcing me into submission! And a horse is no different.

I would like to see the word submission in tests replaced with willing cooperation.

How different would the expression be on many a horse’s face, if he were trained as a partner, and not as an adversary?


So, are you screwing up your horse with your seat, without even noticing? Here are the 5 top points I’d like you to think about.


1. Saddle Fit Woes (Yes, Again)

Poor saddle fit can cause the seat to tip back.

No surprises for this one. Saddle fit is probably the most obvious thing that needs to be right, but many saddles are a long way from perfect. That’s true even in my home of the UK, where saddles are most often professionally fitted.

But, what amazes me is the number of saddles I see with clients coming to me for lessons that have faults that make it damn near impossible for the rider to sit either straight or in balance!

Here are the worst offenders.

The saddle is too narrow. This is still one of the most common faults – it pinches the horse and tips the rider’s pelvis backward, aiding a chair seat rather than the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line which is the only position of balance.

Try walking with your butt stuck out behind you and knees up, as though sitting on a chair! It’s hard enough to even remain upright! Your weight will be over the cantle region, making it difficult for the horse to lift and round his back, and causing him to go hollow.

Stirrup bars are, almost without exception, even on many dressage saddles, too far forwards. This is why the rider is constantly being nagged by instructors to “get that lower leg back”!

I do wonder why instructors and even top dressage trainers, never seem to notice that all of their students are not anatomically challenged and there might just be something wrong with the saddle design and balance!! (Don’t get me started!!)


2. An Insecure Seat
Sucks (for Both Horse and Rider)

7yo Oldenburg x Irish Sport Horse. 1st day to 2nd day of HM course.

Here’s what I mean by insecure. Riders are not taught to absorb and sync with the horse’s movement.

We hear:

“Sit deeper!”

“Relax your back!”

“Go with the movement!”

“Follow the horse’s movement!”

Well, usually if you are following something you are behind it!

Is it any wonder beginners are confused and often never learn to move in sync with the horse?

If this describes you, fear not. I have had riders here on my horse movement simulator workshops who’ve been riding 10, 20 or more years, and still they have never learned to move in sync with the horse.


3. Saddle Seat Glue Hasn’t Been Invented Yet

Gripping the saddle blocks movement.

If you’re bouncing around, or driving with both seat bones to achieve some adhesion to the saddle, or sitting on your back pockets and collapsing the rib cage, you will be making your horse’s life more difficult.

It is so NOT rocket science to learn this!

But until teachers are trained to teach it, the situation will not improve!!

And it is not just novice riders who block their horse through incorrect adhesion to the saddle.

Look at the nodding head, flailing legs (usually with spurs attached) riders to be seen even in the Grand Prix dressage arena…


4. Horses Have the Low Down on Our Weight Issues…

How many times do you hear it said that a horse can feel a fly land on his back? So how much more can he feel his rider, whether good or bad?

For me, my aim – both as a rider myself and also as a trainer – is to be as little burden on the back of my horse as possible.

The horse copes with the crooked rider. Day 1 of HM course.

I aim to do this by sitting lightly, but deeply, in sync with his movement.

If the rider is crooked, possibly due to a problem with the saddle, or is asymmetric due to their own physical problem, the horse suffers.

He has to cope with this and compensate, usually by going crookedly himself.

And there’s more. The use of the rider’s body as a primary aid, is so rarely taught. Yet when utilised, it is the most invisible aid of all. Combined with the seat bones moving in sync with the horse’s back, it is the secret to an elegant harmonious seat, that appears to be doing nothing.

That’s when the horse and rider glide through all the movements as though they are one being – like a Centaur.


5. ‘Feel’ Begins in your Backside (I Mean It!)

Hanoverian X. 1st and 2nd day of HM course.

‘Connection’ means being able to feel, and not just when working from the ground. We all have nerve endings in our backsides – if you are taught what to feel and how to feel, it is within the grasp of any rider, even beginners.

And ‘aid’ really means ‘help’. If you learn to use aids that make biomechanical sense to the horse, they do become truly invisible as the horse becomes more and more sensitive with correct training.

BUT, if the horse hasn’t been schooled to respond to specific aids, then is it any wonder he is confused and ‘misbehaves’? It’s a bit like us lazy Brits here, shouting at foreigners in the hope they will understand English then getting annoyed when they don’t!

Your seat can genuinely aid (help) your horse. This happens when you’re taught not only the hand and leg aids, but also:

  • the weight aids for turning,
  • the seat aid for collecting and for downward transitions,
  • the precise positioning of the torso in lateral work and circles/ bends, etc.

At this point, riding becomes a whole language, which almost all horses quickly understand. Why? Because it is working with, not against, their own body.

Moving in sync with the horse allows the rider to learn ‘feel’, that term that often seems to imply that only a favoured few have the ability to learn it.



So in closing, if you wish to have true connection with your horse, you need to:

a) Absolutely not screw up either his back or his brain,

b) Learn to ride to the best of your ability, and

c) Treat your horse as a partner and friend, and not as a tool merely to win the next rosette.

If winning happens as a by-product of good riding, even better, but if your horse is not progressing, look to your own riding and equipment before you blame your horse. Get these 5 points sorted and you’ll be well on your way to true connection with your horse!



** Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group



Meet Spinalis, the Forgotten Muscle in Saddle Fitting

Spinalis Header

It’s barely mentioned in saddle fit or anatomy books, yet  M. spinalis cevicis can hugely impact on the spinal health and movement of the horse, particularly with poor tack fit.

Meet M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis, a far more important muscle than is generally realized. As a deep muscle, it’s influential in mobilizing and stabilizing that hidden area of the spine at the base of the neck, the cervico-thoracic junction, deep between the scapulae.


Where to Find this Muscle

As part of the deeper musculature, M. spinalis is as hidden in books as it is in life. Usually, it’s a single entry in the index.

Spinalis StandardAt best, it has no more than a bit part in anatomical illustrations,  usually as a small triangular area at the base of the withers. This is also where we can palpate it.

The reality is quite a bit more interesting. It’s actually a muscle of three parts – dorsalis, thoracis and cervicis. These names denote its many insertions,
for it links the spinous processes of the lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae.

  • Bradley_2.1Further back along the spine, it lies medially to the M. longissimus dorsi, and in fact integrates with this larger, better known muscle, attaching to the processes of the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae.
  • When it reaches the withers, it becomes more independent, attaching to the processes of the first half dozen thoracic vertebrae (T1-T6). Here, the cervical and thoracic portions overlap and integrate to share a common attachment. (The part we palpate, at the base of the withers, is the thoracic section.)
  • Heading into the neck, as M. spinalis cervicis, it attches to the last 4 or 5 cervical vertebrae (C3/C4-C7). Only the lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament runs deeper than this muscle.

Dissection 2Its integration with other muscles is complex, and its close relationship with M. longissimus dorsi partially explains why it doesn’t get much consideration as a muscle in its own right.

It is the more independent section, M. spinalis cervicis, between withers and neck, that we are interested in, although its influence is present along the entire spine.

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact me for more information. Thank you!


What Does Spinalis Do? 

In his 1980s’ Guide to Lameness videos, Dr. James Rooney, first director of the Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky, referred to M. spinalis as part of the suspension bridge of muscles supporting the spine (M. longissimus dorsi achoring from the lumbosacral vertebrae, M. spinalis thoracis et dorsalis from the upper thoracics). He also refers to this extensively in The Lame Horse (1988).

In fact, the suspension bridge analogy only really makes sense if M. spinalis dorsi is considered.

M. spinalis cervicis is usually credited with a role in turning the head to left to right, and raising the head.

Bradley Spinalis-1Older texts, such as Bradley’s 1922 veterinary dissection guide, Topographical Anatomy of the Horse, mention its role in stabilizing the spine.

This creates a point of interest. Given that the nuchal ligament (lamellar portion) doesn’t attach to C6 and frequently only weakly with C5 (see the findings of anatomist Sharon May-Davis, in this earlier article ), M. spinalis cervicis suddenly appears pretty important in stabilizing and lifting the base of the neck, particularly as it does so at the point of greatest lateral bending.

ETA: Having now talked to Sharon, it appears that in her dissections, she has made a finding about an association between the lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament and M. spinalis. I’ll be writing an update article on this in February. [added 3 Jan 2017]


Spinalis and Poor Saddle Fit

Anyone who has been involved in close examination of the horse’s back will recognize M. spinalis thoracis where it surfaces close to the skin, on either side of the withers.

When a horse has been ridden in an overly tight saddle, this small area of muscle can become pretty hypertrophic – raised and hardened. Typically, the neighbouring muscles are atrophied. When M. spinalis is palpated, the horse often gives an intense pain response, flinching down and raising the head.

GerdHeuschmanWhat often happens is this. An overtight saddle fits over the base of the withers like a clothes peg, pinching M. trapezius thoracis and  M. longissimus dorsi. However, it frequently misses M. spinalis thoracis where it surfaces, wholly or partially within the gullet space. Often, the muscle is partially affected.

It’s as if the neighbouring muscles are under lockdown. Free movement of the shoulder is restricted and the horse’s ability to bear weight efficiently while moving is impeded. In response to the surrounding restriction and its own limitation, this muscle starts to overwork.

Result? The horse, which was probably already moving with an incorrect posture, hollows its back even further, shortening the neck and raising its head.  As this becomes even more of a biomechanical necessity, all the muscles work even harder to maintain this ability to move, despite the compromised biomechanics.

Working harder and compensating for its neighbours, M. spinalis becomes hypertrophic. It is doing what it was designed to do, but it’s now overdoing it and failing to release. We now have a rather nasty vicious circle.


Spinalis photo



Here, M. spinalis thoracis stands out due to atrophy of the surrounding musculature. In this TB, a clearly audible adjustment occurred in the C4-C5 area after M. spinalis was addressed. 




Vicious CircleThe Inverted Posture and Asymmetry

Of course, saddle fit is not the only cause of an inverted posture. However, any horse that holds its head and neck high for natural or unnatural reasons is more vulnerable to saddle fit issues, thus starting a cascade effect of problems.

Are there further effects of this hypertrophy? Consider the connections.

  • When saddles are too tight, they’re often tighter on one side than the other. This can be due to existing asymmetry in the horse, such as uneven shoulders, uneven hindquarters, scoliosis, etc.
  • On the side with greater restriction, the muscle becomes more more hypertrophic.
  • With its attachment to the spinous processes of the lower cervical vertebrae, there is an unequal muscular tension affecting the spine.
  • Without inherent stability, the neck and head are constantly being pulled more to one side than the other, with the lower curve of the spine also affected.
  • Base of neck asymmetry affects the rest of the spine in both directions and compromises the horses ability to work with straightness or elevation.
  • There is also asymmetric loading into the forefeet.
  • We haven’t even started looking at neurological effects…

This isn’t speculation. I have seen this pattern in horses I’ve worked on, many times over.







So, How Do We Help?

In working with saddle fit problems, the saddle refit may be enough to help the horse, if the riding is appropriate to restoring correct carriage and movement. Obviously, the horse’s musculoskeletal system is complex and no muscle can be considered in isolation. As other muscles are addressed through therapeutic training approaches, with correct lateral and vertical flexion achieved, M. spinalis will be lengthened along with the surrounding musculature.

I hold with a restorative approach:

  1. Refit the saddle, preferably with the help of a trained professional,
  2. Remedial bodywork, to support recovery from the physical damage,
  3. Rest the horse, to enable healing of damaged tissue and lowering of inflammation, and
  4. Rehabilitate the horse, through the appropriate correct training that elevates the upper thoracics while improving lateral mobility.

This is particularly important where saddle fit has been a major contributor to the problem. I have frequently found that in these cases,correction will take longer to achieve, as the debilitating effects of poor saddle fit (especially long-standing issues) can long outlast the change to a new, better-fitting saddle. In bodywork terms, the hypertrophic M. spinalis cervicis is often the last affected muscle to let go.

It’s as if M. spinalis cervicis is the emergency worker who will not leave until everyone else is safe.


Bodywork Notes

I am fortunate, in that my modalities enable the gentle release of joints through a non-invasive, neuromuscular approach.  The responses I’ve had from horses when M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis has been addressed in isolation have been hugely informative.



** Questions, thoughts or comments? Join us at The Horse’s Back Facebook Group. 



Appendix: Spinalis in the Textbooks

I’m going to add Spinalis references to this post on a regular basis, as I come across them. It’s interesting to see how much, or how little, the muscle is referenced in various textbooks.


Equine Back Pathology

This image, from Equine Back Pathology, ed. F Henson 2009, shows acute atrophy of M. longissimus dorsi due to neurological damage. It’s still possible to see the raised attachment/origin of M. spinalis cervicis et thoracis – the highlighting is mine. Spinalis does not appear in the book’s index. (added 23 Dec 2016)


nuchal and spinousI have also altered this image, in order to show M. spinalis cervicis more clearly. This is Fig 2.16 from Colour Atlas of Veterinary Anatomy Vol 2, The Horse, R Ashdown and S Done. Spinalis cervicis is within the bounded area and it’s possible to see how it overlies the lamellar part of the nuchal ligament, lamellar portion. (added 23 Dec 2016)


S&GThe muscle is tinted green in this image from Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of Domestic Animals, Volume 1, fifth edition 1975.  Here, it is labelled Spinalis et semi-spinalis cervicis. This anatomical figure is credited to an earlier text, Ellenberger and Baum, 1908. (added 23 Dec 2016)




James Roony dedicates two pages to the ‘suspension bridge’ theory of the vertebral column in The Lame Horse (1988). His interest is in M. spinalis dorsii section of the muscle and its effect behind the withers, in conjunction with M. longissimus dorsii. (added 4 Jan 2017)






Schleese diagramMaster Saddler Jochen Schleese refers to M. spinalis dorsi and its function in stabilizing the withers in Suffering in Silence, his passionate book about saddle fitting from 2014. “This muscle area is especially prone to significant development – especially with jumpers – because it is continually contracted to accommodate the shock of landing”. The surface area of the muscle is indicated in the anatomical figure, reproduced here. (added 23 Dec 2016)





In his seminal text addressing issues of modern dressage training, Tug of War, 2007, Gerd Heuschmann includes M. spinalis cervicis in the triangle formed by the rear of the rear of the cervical spine, the withers, and the shoulder blades, “… an extensive connection between the head-neck axis and the truck… it explains how the position and length of the horse’s neck directly affects the biomechanics of the back.” (added 31 Dec 2016)



How Well Are We Doing? Why Some Horses Thrive While Others Just Get By

Opportunities Header  Look at the horses around you. Do you believe that they’re thriving? Are their lives the healthiest, richest and most fulfilling they could be – from a horse’s point of view?

OK – so how would you know?

Recently, I heard something that shook up my notions of how we look after our horses – in a good way. It confirmed my thoughts on why some ideas around horse care are good, and equally strengthened my convictions about why some others are wrong.

To cut to the chase, I found myself at an animal behavior conference, listening to a remarkable talk. In just 12 short minutes, I experienced my own work and that of many others dedicated to improving horses’ lives placed in a strong and meaningful context.

The speaker identified just why the ‘5 Animal Freedoms’, commonly used in animal welfare advocacy, are no longer enough to guide us in how we treat our fellow creatures.

Being fundamental and broad, the freedoms – from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury or disease, to express normal behaviour, and from fear and distress – are today more associated with outright cruelty cases, rather than animals that are doing not so badly, but could maybe do better in our care.

Instead, this speaker offered a further 5 points to help us ensure that our animals – including our horses – not only avoid cruelty, but have the opportunity to positively thrive under our care.

Original article (c) Jane Clothier, Sept 2015. No reproduction without permission. 


The 5 Opportunities to Thrive

The talk, From Prevention of Cruelty to Optimizing Welfare, was presented by Greg Vicino, Head of Welfare at San Diego Zoo. More on Greg soon, but first, here are the five Opportunities to Thrive that he outlined.

1. Opportunity for a well-balanced diet Fresh water and a suitable, species specific diet will be provided in a way that ensures full health and vigor, both behaviorally and physically.

2. Opportunity to self-maintain An appropriate environment including shelter and species specific substrates that encourage opportunities to self-maintain.

3. Opportunity for optimal health Rapid diagnosis and treatment of injury or disease while providing supportive environments that increase the likelihood of healthy individuals.

4. Opportunity to express species-specific behavior Quality spaces and appropriate social groupings will be provided that encourage species specific behaviors at natural frequencies and of appropriate diversity while meeting social and developmental needs.

5. Opportunities for choice and control Providing conditions in which animals can exercise control and make choices to avoid suffering and distress, and make behavior meaningful.

 Vicino, G.A. and Miller, L.J. (In Prep).
From prevention of cruelty to optimizing welfare. 



How well are we doing with our horses?

Do those make you think at all? They do me… thoughts have flooded in and continue to do so, especially when I talk to other equine care professionals.

In some ways, our horses share more with captive animals than the agricultural livestock they live closely with. Retaining many powerful characteristics of the wild, our horses are kept in areas many times smaller than their previous wild habitats (in evolutionary terms), with the subsequent lack of behavioral freedoms that come with that.

“We use these guiding principles for assessment….   The Opportunities are a lens we look through when evaluating an animal group for optimal welfare.” Greg Vicino

OK. so let’s take a closer look.



The Horse’s Opportunity for a Well Balanced Diet

How about feeding in a way that ensures full heath and vigor, both behaviorally and physically? So many owners associate feeding with showing love, rather than respect for the needs of another species. We have feed that looks like muesli and makes us go ‘yummy’. We have baled forage that the horses gobble up, yet contributes to laminitis, because it’s so full of carbs.

"It's how you eat it... " Photo: J Clothier

“It’s how you eat it… “ Photo: J Clothier

And as Greg said, in a statement that made me sit right up, “It’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it”

Yes, we can take it still further. Small hole haynets moderate intake, while keeping the hind gut busy. What’s more, the weekend after the conference, I found myself listening again to Sharon May-Davis, as she described her ‘hay high’ practice of using haynet height to restore physical balance to the horse’s lower neck and forelimbs.



The Horse’s Opportunity to Self Maintain


Maintaining hooves. Photo: J Clothier

Some correlations are more obvious. You see, Greg Vicino’s full position is Associate Curator of Elephants and Welfare at San Diego Zoo. One example he gave is that of providing varied sub-strata (ground surfaces) for elephants, so that they can maintain the soles and nails of their feet.

I know so many horses owners who are doing just that for their horses in their paddocks, so that unshod hooves can develop strength and balance.

And what about over-rugging?




The Horse’s Opportunity for Optimal Health

As a bodyworker and researcher into equine development problems, my feelings are probably predictable, and they may well be similar to your own. We all want our horses healthy and in fine form.


Free movement.  Photo: J Clothier

But where we have a problem is not with what we do think about, so much as what so often is not thought about. Training methods, inappropriate riding style, too much exercise too soon… and I’m not talking about dressage, but everyday riders and owners here.

Thankfully, these subject areas that are so culturally entrenched are starting to open up more, particularly in areas such as saddle fit, head/neck position, and the ability of the horse to move in biomechanically sound ways.




The Horse’s Opportunity for Choice and Control

This I find quite moving… particularly the notion of making behavior meaningful. Think about it: what behavior may be meaningful to your horse? We are all curators of single or small groups of equines. It’s easy for us to over-manage and micro-manage our horses’ lives, to the point where are few decisions left to make. We have many institutionalized animals that are denied individual expression.


Acting on curiosity. Photo: J Clothier 

It goes without saying that we have to make decisions for our animals, and there are geographical, physical and financial limitations as to where and how they can be kept.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to make their lives interesting. In zoology, the term used is ‘enrichment’. It’s improving quality of life, beyond providing the essentials.

It’s about actively getting the most from life, not just avoiding negative states. So that’s different places to eat, finding different ways to eat. Having varied experiences. To express and act upon curiosity, Scope for play, scope for company. Places to scratch, places to roll. Other horses to touch.



The Horse’s Opportunity to Express Species-Specific Behavior

The preferred system of a boarding establishment may make for easy management, but your horse may be being denied this opportunity.

Herd bonding

Herd bonding. Photo: J Clothier

The horse kept in a small individual paddock is being denied self-expression, even when there’s an equine neighbor over the fence.

The constantly rugged horse is unable to roll and feel the texture of dirt in its coat. And what about ‘keep-em-clean’ hoods that hide the subtle facial expressions horses use to communicate with one another?




So, is your horse thriving?

We are all on a learning curve with this one. It’s true that many horses have it worse than our beloved animals at home, but that doesn’t mean that all our horses are getting enough of what they need for optimal quality of physical, mental and – yes – emotional life.

Physical, mental and - yes - emotional health. Photo: J Clothier

Thriving physically, mentally and – yes – emotionally. Photo: J Clothier

Likewise, the fact that other people are in a position to do it better than us – higher income and land ownership do open up more choices for animal management – doesn’t mean that we’re not getting a lot of it right (and, sometimes, better than those other owners).

So, let’s take this as encouragement to keep going and to keep striving, making improvements as we develop our understanding
of what it takes for our horses to thrive.


With thanks to Greg Vicino for allowing me to reproduce content from the forthcoming paper.

Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

The Opportunities to Thrive were created as part of a welfare management system at San Diego Zoo Global by Vicino and Miller, with the latter now at the Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo.

Greg A. Vicino, Associate Curator of Elephants and Animal Welfare, studied Biological Anthropology at UC Davis where he focused on non-human primate, husbandry, behavior, welfare, and socialization.   Previously, he held positions as an Animal Care Supervisor of Primates for the San Diego Zoo, and interim Animal Services Manager Al AIn Zoo.

Mr. Vicino focuses on integrated management strategies, in which all animals receive the benefit of every specialty at each facility. With a heavy emphasis on feeding strategies, behavioral diversity, and species specific social behavior, he has championed the idea that every animal in our care should be given an Opportunity to Thrive.

Lance J. Miller, Ph.D., Senior Director of Animal Welfare Research, received his graduate training in Experimental Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi.  Previously, he held positions as a Research Manager at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Dr. Miller focuses on animal welfare to help ensure that each individual animal within zoological facilities is thriving. He is currently a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Research and Technology Committee, Vice Chair of the AZA Animal Welfare Committee, and a steering committee member for the AZA Behavioral Scientific Advisory Group.

Why It Matters To 112 Million Working Equines That You Read This Post

Brooke Header

Most of us have a good idea of what animal welfare means and why it’s important. But in developing nations, cultural and economic concerns can prevail when it comes to issues such as ending a working equine’s pain. It is not so long ago that horses, donkeys and mules across Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were primarily working animals. For many equines in other nations, that is still the case.

This thoughtful and sensitive post by Melissa Liszewski, Animal Welfare & Community Engagement Advisor of the Brooke, an international animal welfare organisation, gives an insight into a difficult subject, and describes a compelling legal solution developed in Ethiopia. It was first published on the Brooke’s blog in January 2015.

“I myself have seen animals in the countries we work in and I don’t even know how they have managed to remain standing, let alone pull heavy loads day in and day out …”  

There are so many challenging aspects of the work we do here at the Brooke, but there is nothing like coming across an animal suffering from protracted or incurable disease, injury or debility to really put our animal-loving hearts and minds to the test.

Working Gharry horse abandoned when he became lame, with badly damaged right eye and very low body condition (c) the Brooke

Working Gharry horse abandoned when he became lame, with badly damaged right eye and very low body condition (c) the Brooke

We work hard to relieve hard working horses, donkeys and mules from their suffering.  But what happens when despite our best efforts, and the best efforts of local stakeholders, an animal’s illness, injury or overall condition means they have a poor outlook for a fit and pain free working life?

I have often pictured a lush green oasis where all those hard working horses, donkeys and mules can retire and live out the rest of their days pain free with all the care they need, full bellies and lots of space to just do whatever they please all day as thanks for their many hard years of service.

“The hard reality is that such a beautiful retirement for both the animals we serve and the communities they serve is just a picture in our heads.”

The truth is that there are an estimated 112 million working equines in this world and although we work tirelessly to help as many of them as possible in a meaningful way, we are still only able to reach about 2 million of them.

Much like the owners of the animals we serve, we do not have endless resources so we have to do the best we can for the animals with what we have.

At the Brooke, we accept that euthanasia is an effective way to alleviate suffering and prevent future suffering.  We have a Euthanasia Policy to ensure that when the practice is carried out by our staff or partners it is done with the utmost care and consideration of the animal’s experience.

(c) the Brooke. No  reproduction of partial or entire text without permission of the Brooke. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact jane@thehorsesback.com for more information. Thank you!

When euthanasia is the only option

When suffering cannot be alleviated by any other means, euthanasia is the only humane solution. However, there are many complexities surrounding the practice of euthanasia that must be considered:

  • Can euthanasia be done humanely?

The answer is yes, but in some countries we work in certain methods of euthanasia are not available, cannot be imported and/or are not legal. Our teams then have the difficult task of weighing out potential suffering at the point of death with potential suffering if the animal was not euthanized, in order to always aim for the best welfare outcome for the individual animal.

  •  Are there legal implications?
Abandoned for 3 months, this horse was blind and suffered from joint problems (c) the Brooke

Abandoned for 3 months, this horse was blind and suffered from joint problems (c) the Brooke

In Halaba, Ethiopia our local team worked hard to get by-laws in place that would allow abandoned animals to be euthanized without the legal risk of someone coming forward after the fact and claiming their animal was taken without consent.

Nationwide in Pakistan, our team is working tirelessly to overcome the challenge of carcass disposal due not only to environmental and practical concerns, but also the fact that illegal donkey meat is a rising problem that could be wrongfully attributed back to our organisation if a euthanized animal weren’t disposed of properly, allowing someone to eat it and get sick.

These are considerations we must keep at the forefront of our euthanasia decisions as the effects could be catastrophic to local initiatives benefiting whole communities of animals if our reputation became damaged or trust lost.

  • Is it culturally acceptable?

There are places where we work that euthanasia is not seen as an acceptable practice due to religious or cultural reasons, or because owners feel they are killing an animal that provided them with a service, and prefer a natural death for the animal. Our staff work sensitively with individual owners in such cases, trying to balance respect for cultural practice or religious beliefs with the welfare needs of the animal concerned.

  • Is it ethical for us to intervene?

It is crucial that euthanasia is not carried out without the owner’s permission, meaning our teams must always obtain informed consent. Our teams in the field strive to ensure owners do not feel coerced into the practice, but come to the decision based on the facts they have been given by medical professionals, and their own desire to do what is best for their animal.

Sometimes, euthanasia is refused because an owner has no other source of income to provide for their family. In some communities we work, for example in India, the Brooke has helped set up group savings funds and equine insurance schemes, which can help owners make the best decision for their animal without economics being a barrier.

When euthanasia simply isn’t possible

Despite our best efforts, for all of these reasons and more, euthanasia is simply not always an option, and we must be prepared to do whatever we can in such cases to work with owners to ensure the animal is well cared for, relieved of their pain and rested until the very end. This is a painful reality at times for our staff in the field.

I myself have seen animals in the countries we work in and I don’t even know how they have managed to remain standing, let alone pull heavy loads day in and day out; deformed and damaged limbs, debilitating disease, old, weak and worn down animals at the end of their working life. I have also seen and talked to owners with their own heart-breaking stories of survival, not knowing what the future holds for their family and how they will get by.

Abandoned for over 3 years before euthanasia, this gelding was suffering from severe knee and pastern joint damage. (c) the Brooke

Abandoned for over 3 years before euthanasia, this gelding was suffering from severe knee and pastern joint damage. (c) the Brooke

Most often, the owners of these animals are not intentionally cruel, and although it may be easy to judge from far away, we must put ourselves in their shoes, as they work hard every day to put food on the table for their family and provide a better life for their children than they had for themselves.

Making assumptions or judging others will not erase or improve the suffering of working horses, donkeys and mules but what may help is a good dose of compassion for both the animals and the humans who care for and depend on them.

Yes, I have seen debilitated working animals abandoned to fend for themselves against hungry hyenas in Ethiopia, but just a few kilometres away in the same country I have also seen poor owners steadfastly caring for animals that cannot work or contribute anything economically to their family, bringing them into their own homes at night to protect them from those very same hyenas.

There are many reasons and situations where euthanasia may be considered and it is always an emotional decision, both for our own staff and the local people we work with, but it is our duty to do what we can to provide comfort and relief to suffering animals who work so very hard for the people depending on them.

The success of the by-laws in Halaba, Ethiopia, along with training of local service providers to ensure humane euthanasia is possible for suffering animals, mixed with engaging local communities to improve preventive husbandry practices and ensure euthanasia is an acceptable option when required, is proof of what can be done to help hard working animals.


This is our mission and this is what we stand for at the Brooke – I hope that you will stand behind us.


The Brooke is an international animal welfare organisation dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules in some of the world’s poorest communities. The charity provides treatment, training and programmes around animal health and wellbeing, operating across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

You can follow the Brooke on Facebook, while more information on the organisation’s work is available on the website: www.thebrooke.org.


Is Your Mare Having a First or a Third World Pregnancy?

Pregnancy Header When foals are born prematurely, many people tend to think it’s just one of those things. Causes such as placentitis (inflammation of the uterus) are fairly well-known, although the causes behind many premature births remain a mystery.

What’s less recognised is that the mare’s general health is often a factor in prematurity, and that how we feed the mare can have a strong influence on this.

It’s easier to think that an underlying infection just happened anyway, or that some other external factor caused the premature birth.

Something toxic that was accidentally eaten by the mare, a traumatic event or an uncontrollable infection are far easier reasons to latch on to, rather than acknowledging that our own approach to feeding the mare may have contributed.

How Can Horses Have a First or Third World Pregnancy?

In horses as in humans, the diet of expectant mothers can have a huge effect on the outcome of the birth and the infant’s development. In humans, there are differences between the problems that occur in developed and under-developed countries.

Exmoor mare on her natural terrain (c) paul h - Fotolia.com

Exmoor mare on her natural terrain  (c) paul h – Fotolia.com

In poorer nations, bad nutrition due to lack of food is an issue, whereas in wealthier nations, the problems are often linked to obesity and eating too much of the wrong type of food.

It’s the same with horses. However, a mare experiencing a First World pregnancy can be in the same country, region or town as a mare experiencing a Third World pregnancy, because it all comes down to how the owner manages that horse. They could even be in neighbouring paddocks.

That’s not to say that regional issues such as drought or over-abundant rich grass don’t make a difference – of course they do. And it’s not being over dramatic to compare drought affected areas with famine zones.

Yet it’s how we respond to those challenges that marks out how they affect the mare. But can a mare’s feed affect the chances of a foal being born prematurely? Sometimes, but not always – but that’s no reason to overlook it. If we can tilt the odds towards a healthy outcome for a pregnant horse, then it’s up to us to do so.

And the great thing is that if we feed the mare properly and a foal is born after a full-term gestation, good nutrition will improve its chances of being born in great health and with a good start in life..

© All text copyright of the author, Jane Clothier, www.thehorsesback.com. No reproduction of partial or entire text without permission. Sharing the link back to this page is fine. Please contact jane@thehorsesback.com for more information. Thank you!

Nutrition, Placentitis and Premature Foals

Through good nutrition, we can influence the chances of our mares experiencing one of the biggest causes of equine prematurity – placentitis.

Placentitis accounts for around 1/3 of late abortions, premature births, and births of full-term but weakened (dysmature) foals. It can also lead to the foal’s death in the first day or two of life, as the foal can be infected in the uterus with the same bacteria that caused the problem.

The most common form is ascending placentitis, where the mare’s uterus is infected by bacteria (commonly a streptococcus species) via the reproductive tract. I won’t try to describe the process here – there are lots of descriptions online that do the job perfectly well and far better than I can, such as this excellent downloadable guide (PDF).

The premature birth occurs because the tissues in the reproductive tract become inflamed and the mucus layers that protect the uterus become compromised. Once the placenta itself is affected and damaged, the foetus can’t be supported. Without veterinary intervention, a premature birth can easily follow.

Why an Underweight Mare May Have a Premature Foal

Placentitis is a greater risk for underweight and undernourished mares.

Dry areas create different dietary requirements. © cratervalley - Fotolia.com

Dry areas create different dietary requirements. © cratervalley – Fotolia.com

First, they are likely to have a compromised immune system, as they haven’t received the correct nutrition for function of their organs. Second, in these mares, the anus can also become sunken and swollen, causing the vulva’s opening to widen, making it easier for faecal bacteria to enter. It’s then easier for the bacterial infection to break down the cervical mucus barriers and invade the uterus.

If the mare has a depleted immune system, she is more vulnerable to infections anyway. This is just one of many double whammys that accompany malnutrition.

Even if placentitis isn’t involved, plain old lack of food can still lead to prematurity. Research shows that if a pregnant mare is severely undernourished, the placenta compensates by becoming thicker. So while the foal may be smaller due to lack of nutrition, it also has less space within which to survive.

This again can make a premature birth more likely, with a greater chance of an underdeveloped foal that needs veterinary attention.

Another risk of an enlarged placenta is dystocia, or incorrect foetal positioning due to a restricted growth space in the uterus. This often leads to premature birth as well.

On top of that, when the mare is undernourished, her colostrum and milk production may be poor – even more so if the birth is also premature – reducing the foal’s chances of a healthy start even further. It’s another double or even triple whammy.

Why an Overweight Mare May Have a Premature Foal

Remember that a round and shiny mare is not necessarily a healthy round and shiny mare.

Aside: did you know that overweight pregnant women on a high sugar, high carbohydrate diet have a greater chance of having a premature birth than women with a healthy diet? (Cnattingius S, Villamor E, Johansson S, et al. Maternal Obesity and Risk of Preterm Delivery. JAMA. 2013;309(22):2362-2370. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.6295.)

If a mare is overweight with abundant grazing and low exercise levels, her obesity may be linked to sub-clinical laminitis – ie, the signs are not yet noticeable, as the hooves aren’t visibly showing the effects, although her metabolism is affected.

Condition score doesn't tell you if the nutrition is correct - or not. © cratervalley - Fotolia.com

Condition score doesn’t tell you whether the nutrition is correct. © cratervalley – Fotolia.com

Many so-called good-doers or easy-keepers are affected by Equine Metabolic Syndrome, previously known as insulin resistance, which also results in obesity and laminitic outbreaks. A mare that is already insulin resistant can abort or have a premature foal.

Here’s how. High insulin can cause inflammation in the reproductive tract, just as in the hooves. The inflammation leads to changes in the mucus production, and this can allow chronic uterine infections to happen. And here we are, back to risk of ascending placentitis.

On top of this, insulin levels normally rise during pregnancy, meaning that a mare with pre-existing high insulin levels may have serious issues that cause her to founder before foaling. (If she suffers a retained placenta, then the chances of toxic laminitis are even higher, with foundering happening quicker if the hooves are already compromised.)

Incidentally, over-feeding can lead to difficult births, with obese mares lacking the muscle tone for effective contractions. Links have also been established to over-long pregnancies that produce dysmature (under-developed although full-term) foals. Dysmature foals can have similar musculoskeletal issues to premature foals.

Remember that horses can be overweight without having Equine Metabolic Syndrome, simply because they’re being overfed and are getting too many calories. Good care does not equate to giving over-large feeds. There are kinder ways to show your horse that you love her.

Feeding to Reduce the Risk of a Premature Foal

Clearly, you can’t tell whether a mare has a healthy diet simply by looking at her, even though a condition score will indicate whether she’s too thin or too weight.

So play safe. Get her nutritional needs even half right and you’ll dramatically improve your mare’s chances of a problem-free pregnancy, and the newborn foal’s chances of healthy development in its first months of life.

If you can reduce the chances of a premature foal, it's worth doing

If you can reduce the chances of a premature foal, it’s worth doing

There are as many approaches to nutrition out there as there are approaches to other areas of horse care, but most agree on the general principles of feeding a pregnant mare. Look at the commercial feed companies’ advice pages and you’ll see the same points coming up again and again.

To repeat, there are many causes of prematurity. However, it makes sense to influence those that we can influence, even when it’s something as simple and easy as feeding the right stuff. This means avoiding those First and Third World pregnancy problems by feeding the mare for good nutritional health – for herself and the unborn foal.

I’ve listed the key points in this single page PDF: Feeding the Pregnant Mare


1. Energy intake

Most of the embryo’s growth occurs during the last stages, the so-called third trimester, of pregnancy. For this reason a mare in the last 3 to 4 months of pregnancy needs a higher energy intake, but without the calories. What she needs is more protein. What she doesn’t need is more carbohydrates.

Protein is used in the unborn foal’s development. 22 amino acids make up protein, but lysine is critical for development. If it is too low or missing, it will prevent the protein being utilised effectively in the foal’s growth in the uterus.

So while you’re upping the fiber available and mixing up extra feeds during these last months, it’s important not to rely on high levels of grains and mixed feeds containing molasses. Instead, if your grass is depleted or poor quality, you should focus on good quality hay, fed little and often (there won’t be space for large feeds in her gut due to the growing foal).


2. Roughage

Constant access to low-carb roughage will help to maintain the mare’s digestive functions. Why should you limit carbohydrate intake? Undigested carbohydrates add to the risks for horses with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, as mentioned earlier. In any horse, an overload can upset the gut’s microbial population, increasing colic risk.

Both conditions can cause pregnancy issues and premature birth. Colic can create unacceptable uterine conditions, leading to premature birth, while elevated insulin due to high carbohydrate levels can open the way for secondary uterine infections (as mentioned earlier).


3. Minerals – General Points

Angular limb deformities in foals are often linked to poor mineral intake © http://eswt.net

Angular limb deformities in foals are often linked to poor mineral intake © http://eswt.net

Ensuring an appropriate mineral intake is really important. It’s vital for the mare’s immune system, meaning she is at reduced risk of infections, including the bacterial infections that lead to ascending placentitis.

It’s reasonably well-known that macro minerals (including calcium and phosphorus) and trace minerals (including copper and zinc) are essential for the unborn foal’s health bone and joint growth. If you want to minimise the risk of angular limb deformities of any growing foal, be sure to get these right when you’re feeding the mare.

There’s something even more important. The mare’s milk is low on mineral content, so the unborn foal stores essential trace minerals (zinc, copper, selenium and manganese) in its liver for use during the first 3 months of its life. It’s not going to get them anywhere else once it’s born.


4. The Most Important Minerals

So, when it comes to minerals, if you deprive the mare, you’re also depriving the newborn foal.

Calcium is vital for the structure, mineralization and strengthening of the developing foal’s bones. It’s also crucial for milk production. Calcium deficiency has also been associated with dystocia (incorrect positioning of the foetus, leading to birth complications).

Flexural deformities can lead to premature birth and related complications © www.horseadvice.com

Flexural deformities can lead to premature birth and related complications © www.horseadvice.com

In combination with phosphorous, calcium also plays a role in brain and nerve function. Phosphorous must be present in the right proportion for calcium to be absorbed – most commonly quoted is 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorous (ie, 2:1 ratio).

Foals not receiving enough copper have more early osteopathic problems, including physitis and angular limb deformities (particularly flexural deformity – think club feet). You don’t want any of these problems in your foal, which needn’t be premature to have them.

Horses can’t get nutritional iron deficiency, despite the fact that foals do need more than adult horses. It’s not widely known, but excess iron can actually lead to a relative deficiency in copper and zinc, leading to joint issues – you can read more in this article by nutritionist, Dr Eleanor Kellon.

Selenium is hugely important. With too little, there’s a greatly heightened risk of a retained placenta, which, if not treated urgently, leads to toxicity and a critical laminitis episode in the mare. This could kill her.

It’s also true is that selenium is vital for functional immune and antioxidant systems, and therefore lower risk of infection. Low selenium can also lead to poor quality colostrum – this is a major issue for any foal, but massively so for a weakened premature foal. It’s another triple or even quadruple whammy.

Be careful. Many commercial supplements are high in iron, but low in selenium. You need to get the dosage right, as too much selenium can be fatal too. You can read more here.

Iodine requirements are also complicated. Either too little or too low can lead to a foal with incomplete development of the joints. Adding indiscriminate amounts of kelp to the mare’s feed isn’t a good idea.  


Think About Prematurity Before It Happens

The best time to start thinking about pregnancy issues in your mare is before you need to.

Rather than keep worrying about horror stories in social media, take a short while to get informed on the basics of feeding the pregnant mare.

It needn’t be complicated or expensive – if you get the above factors right, yet it could make a huge difference.

Nobody wants the trauma of a premature or under-developed foal, so it’s wise to do what you can to minimise the causes of that happening.

With good nutrition, you can aim for the best of a First World pregnancy by reducing the chances of problems, even though nobody can eliminate them all.


I intentionally haven’t gone into quantities or amounts in this article, with the exception of the calcium-phosphorous ratio. I recommend getting a hay or pasture test done before organising your mare’s feed, so that you know exactly what’s already going into her system already. Many major feed companies as well as government agriculture departments offer this service. In Australia, I recommend this service from Carol Layton of Balanced Equine: Why Test Your Pasture or Hay?


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What This Pony’s Tail Tells Us About Owners Who Abandon Their Horses


I’ve been thinking about horses and abandonment recently. By abandonment, I mean a situation where a treasured or most favored horse has suffered an irreparable  injury and has suddenly been dropped by the humans who previously lavished attention upon it. It happens quite a bit.

Do the horses know they’ve been abandoned?  Yes, I believe so.

Bob-againTake this pony, who currently goes by the name of Bob. His conformation speaks of Quarter Horse crossed with Welsh, with the Quarter Horse mainly walking behind the Welsh. Paddock condition doesn’t help on the looks front, as he’s obviously a ‘fat on fresh air’ type. But I’m putting that to one side, as it’s Bob himself that I’m interested in.

A power-packed pocket rocket, he’s one of those lovely straightforward guys that makes you smile almost as soon as you meet him. He gives every appearance of having been a true sports pony and, whatever his sport was (barrel racing?), he did it fast. The lad finds it hard to stand still in the paddock – he is wired to move.

And yet, with a damaged knee that tells of an unpleasant accident, he subsequently found himself at the sales.

At some point during this process, his tail was cut off. I somehow doubt that the person responsible did it to make memento jewelry. We have to assume that the hair was sold, as the owner at that time knew the pony was advancing on a one-way trip to the meat man (or to ‘the doggers’, to use Australia’s typically direct term).

How to get a few more bucks out of a horse

How to get a few more bucks out of a horse

In economic terms, this action could be called ‘asset stripping’ – ie, getting every last cent possible by breaking a possession down and selling the parts. There’s obviously no regard for preservation of the whole or what’s left at the end.

Now, I do realize that once a horse is slaughtered, its remains are subject to asset stripping. Indeed, there’s a company near here that collects tendons for use in research. I also realize that by the time a horse hits the slaughter house floor, its tail will be somewhat less than clean, for a variety of reasons. There are obvious practicalities involved. But what I’m concerned about here is what’s happening to a living horse. So, let’s return to Bob…

Clearly, he hit a remarkable upswing when he was bought from the sales by a good man with plenty of land. Thankfully, the new owner wasn’t concerned about lack of ridability due to the knee injury, and was happy just to watch Bob being a pony in the paddock. If the pony demonstrated that he could carry a toddler along on the lead rein, then that would be great. But if he couldn’t, that was fine too. He wouldn’t be required to earn his keep – he could just be Bob.

At this point, I was asked to come out and give the pony some bodywork, just to see whether it would help make him more comfortable.


Bob's knee

Advanced DJD due to injury

Now, during a bodywork session, it’s always apparent to me when a horse has lost its trust in people. I don’t mean a horse with so-called behavioral issues, although there are plenty of those, but a horse that knows its people have given up on it.

Such horses maintain a distance – not necessarily detaching themselves from what is happening, as they can be very physically cooperative. But they don’t come forward in an emotional sense. There’s a reserve that is incongruous to everything else that is going on.

It’s like being with a partner whose mind is partly on the football. Their presence is missing by, ooh let’s say 5-25%, depending on how much they support that team. No way can you  not be aware of it! (I’m trying desperately to think of the female partner equivalent and failing at the moment.)

I spent an hour working with this pony and yet he still maintained his not-quite-there reserve. That was the choice that felt best to him at the time, and that was OK with me. So I left, expecting that to be that.

Driving away, I thought more about that crudely chopped tail. The tail that somebody’s hands had once carefully groomed had, ultimately, been roughly removed. I had to wonder whether it was by the same or another pair of hands.

The next day, earlier than expected, I received a phone call from Bob’s owner.

“I went to the paddock today,” he said, “and that pony walked straight up to me for the first time, looking for a fuss. He’s not done that before.”

Now, this is the kind of thing I like to hear. It might sound a small thing, but as the owner recognized, the small thing was significant precisely because it had been absent before. Something important had changed for Bob during the intervening hours.

He felt physically better and had decided that it was OK to trust a person again.

Bob and a new friend

Bob and a new friend

I am so pleased that this outcome transpired for this particular pony. And I am grateful for meeting horses like this, for it’s their beautiful forgiving souls that prevent my anger from rising.

For the truth is that I quietly despise owners who will use such a willing horse or pony up, and then dump their injured animal at the sales, in full knowledge that it is only ever going to be slaughtered at the end of a few stress-inducing weeks or days. Very few share Bob’s luck at this stage.

I am certainly not misguided into thinking that there is a home for every broken and injured horse, or even that all horses can find a home, injured or not. Those who make it to companion or paddock ornament status are incredibly fortunate. And I recognize that not all horses are treated as I treat mine. People own horses for different reasons.

bob rollingBut I have to ask, what price a dignified end? It seems that the attraction of a couple of hundred bucks, symbolized by Bob’s severed tail, is simply too much for their owners to turn away.







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