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Riding through a Cold Back

Scottie all tacked up

Many horses suffer from being ‘cold backed’ and it can really make owning and riding horses challenging. In this post I will help you understand the term ‘cold backed’, the symptoms and possible causes as well as my top tips for riding through a cold back.

So what does is mean when a horse is cold backed?

A horse who is cold backed is showing symptoms of pain or discomfort in their back before their muscles are warmed up. They may show these symptoms every time, at certain times of the year or just every now and then.

What are the symptoms?

Being cold backed is a complex condition and each horse can show very different symptoms from mild to dangerous. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • grumpiness about saddle being put on/girth being done up
  • back dipping/hollowing when saddle put on
  • sensitivity grooming back
  • not wanting to let you get on
  • tense when you first get on
  • not wanting to go forwards once on or not wanting to stand still
  • back hollowing/hind end lifting when you get on
  • bucking/bolting once on
  • taking a long warm up to relax the back

But there could be many other symptoms individual horses display and typically all these symptoms/behaviours could be caused by multiple things.

What can cause a horse to be cold backed?

There are so many things which can cause a horse to become cold backed from the horse just being a bit sensitive, to sore muscles, to memory of pain. In some cases you may never discover the cause of a horses cold back. But here are some common causes:

  • Extra sensitive nerve ending
  • Poor posture, perhaps caused by physical issue elsewhere in the body
  • Poor rider posture
  • Tweaked muscle
  • Poor saddle fit
  • Misalignment in the spine/pelvis
  • Previous injury
  • Memory of pain
  • Kissing spines

Can you treat a cold back?

Yes and no. If you can discover the cause of the horses cold back you can potentially treat/remove the cause. For example a sore back from a poor fitting saddle could be cured by getting a fitted saddle and having a back specialist work on the horses back to relieve any physical issues there. However, if the horse has sensitivity in their back but no real cause, you can’t treat this. Instead you have to manage the condition.

How can you manage a cold backed horse?

  • First things first, has the horse always displayed this behaviour or is it new? This is important as if it has started suddenly there is more likely to be an issue somewhere.
  • Regular back and saddle checks.
    While there may not be an obvious cause to the horses behaviour, I would think about having their back and saddle checked more often if they tend to be cold backed. And if is a new behaviour in the horse, my first port of call would be get everything checked out.
  • Talk to your saddler before using a half pad.
    While saddle pads can be a fantastic tool to help relieve some of the horses discomfort, they can alter the fit of your saddle which can lead to more problems. So always talk to your saddler first as they may be able to alter the saddle slightly to allow for the extra padding.
  • Always mount from a mounting block
    Mounting from the ground puts extra strain on the horses back than mounting from a block.
  • Rugging for rain and cold weather.
    Keeping the rain off the horses back and keeping the back warm during colder weather can help keep the muscles relaxed and warm.
  • Massage pads and hot water bottles
    Lot’s of people swear by using massage pads or hot water bottles on the horses back for half an hour before getting on as this warms the muscles up before you get on, so the horse has less of a reaction.
  • Saddle up early.
    Don’t get on straight after putting the saddle on. Leave it on for a few minutes and give the horse a short walk in hand tacked up before getting on to help warm the muscles up.
  • Keep in regular work
    From my own personal experience, I have found that riding the horse regularly is better than giving them time off.
  • Lunging before riding
    This is one of the oldest go to solutions. However, after talking to a saddler, I am unsure if this is something I would recommend unless the horse was particularly dangerous. This is because saddles are designed to have weight in them and don’t fit as well without this weight. Therefore when lunging before you get on, the saddle moves around and could potentially cause a problem.

My experience with Scottie’s cold back

Scottie can occasionally be cold backed. I think this is due to damage from his racing career and never having his own saddle before I got him. He is prone to back pain, but as he builds up more muscle, the better his back gets and on his last visit from the back lady, despite a small sore patch under my right bum cheek, probably caused by my knee injury, his back was the best it has ever been. So I think it is a case of the nerve endings in his back have been damaged in the past, making them more sensitive to pressure.

We first thought he was cold backed when I bought him home and had a saddler out to fit some saddles to him. Despite one saddle fitting really well, when I got on he spun round in a circle thinking about bucking. It was then that i mentioned that each time I had tried him, he had a half pad with the saddle. So I got off and tried again in a different saddle with a half pad underneath and we had no reaction at all. Next time it came to getting a new saddle, we tried a perfect fit saddle without a half pad, which resulted in a two steps in handstand and me possibly cracking a rib. While I have occasionally ridden him without a half pad, he has made it quite clear that he is happier with one and I always tell my saddler so that they can fit the saddle to include a half pad. It is just what keeps us both happy.

Because it is so rare we have a problem, I don’t really do anything too special in managing Scottie back. In heavy rain or really cold days I keep his back covered by rugs. When tacking up I always put my saddle on first and then go and get myself ready before putting his bridle on and getting on. When I am getting on, I stand on the mounting block and push some weight into the saddle before getting on. I do this so I can see any obvious signs of discomfort. I know him and its in the first few steps that we will have an issue. So once I am on we stand for a few seconds before I quietly ask him to walk on. If he is feeling really tense and bum high we do one step at a time praying that there won’t be an explosion. However, over time I have started to realise that a lot of this tension is down to me worrying about there being an issue as once we have done a few steps I relax and he relaxes. It has got to the point when I think my worrying is often the cause!

If we have an issue as a bit of a one off, I don’t think a huge amount of it. But if he is cold backed for a while or if he is taking a bit longer than normal to relax, then I always get someone out to come and have a look at his back as he isn’t showing his normal behaviour. And usually, if I have called the back lady out, there is usually something small going on which needs correcting. I personally think it is one of those conditions when you just need to know your horse and learn their signs and what works best for them.

Do any of you have cold backed horses? How do you manage them?

Last Updated on 14/01/2022

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