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Growing withers at age 10?

From: Lucie

Dear Jessica, I can't find any mention of this matter in your archives. My vet can't help me either, or my horse's breeder, or other breeders. In the last six months I have talked to them all. My question is, Is it possible for a horse to be growing withers at age 10?

My horse is a ten-year-old gelding. I have owned him for three years. I rode him very lightly the first year as he was not very fit, then the second year I got a new instructor and we began serious dressage and jumping work. My horse got very fit and strong, with a lot of muscle. Last year he worked very well but I noticed in October that he seemed to be growing more wither. I thought I was imagining this and I rode him this winter outdoors because he has a heavy coat. Now that spring is here and he is shedding his winter coat, I can clearly see that he is growing his withers, they are taller and more pointy than they were last year. I am very confused about this for two reasons, one is that he should not grow any more at his age, should he? The other reason is that I have measured him three times in the last few years and he is always just the same, 15.3, sometimes a little bit taller if the farrier is a week or too late in coming, but never any taller. He has been that same height since I bought him, and according to his breeder he has been the same height since he was six, when the breeder said he had reached his full height. But I can clearly see that his withers have grown. This is very perplexing. Can you help figure out what is happening here?

Thank you for helping us! Lucie

Hi Lucie! I agree with you that your horse has been full-grown for several years now, and is not actually growing taller. That being the case, his withers are obviously not growing - and you've already proved this by measuring your horse. All other things remaining the same, your horse would have to become taller if the height of his withers were actually increasing.

There are two possibilities that come to mind - consider them both, for your horse's sake. The first is that as your horse has become more fit through good training, his muscles have become stronger and better-defined, and his withers are now more visible because he has lost some fat and replaced it with muscle.

The second possibility - and I see this quite often - is that your horse has begun to show some muscle atrophy on either side of the withers. This happens frequently when a horse is becoming fit, strong, and wider in the back, and the saddle no longer fits well. Pressure on the sides of the withers, and on the area just behind the withers, can produce muscle atrophy which in turn will create hollows by the wither. This makes the withers appear more prominent, but in fact it's not the wither rising but the muscle around the wither sinking that creates this appearance.

It was very sensible of you to measure your horse and to check with your vet and with the horse's breeders. Now that you know that growth isn't the cause of your horse's newly-prominent withers, it's time to turn your attention to the saddle. A well-fed, unfit horse may appear to have very little in the way of withers. As the horse becomes fit, and as the fat disappears and muscle takes its place, the horse's back will first become slightly more narrow, then begin to widen as the back muscles develop. This is the point at which saddles can become too tight and begin to interfere with muscle development. Get some help evaluating your saddle fit - for a fully-grown horse at a good weight and at an unchanged height, the sudden appearance of withers, or the apparent "growth" of withers is very often due to too much pressure from a newly-tight saddle.


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