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Narrow at the withers

From: Bob

Dear Jessica, I hope you publish this question because I've never heard anyone talk about this before and I really want to know the answer. I'm a HORSE SENSE subscriber from way back when you first started this, and I have to say "Kudos to you, gal!" for your work. You're the first and the last place I look for answers - the first because it'll be right and make sense, and the last because when I've gotten weird or dumb or conflicting advice everywhere else, I just go to HORSE SENSE to find out what I need to know. Thanks!

Okay, my question at last (ha). I just bought a horse at a sale. He's a four-year-old QH that kind of got left in the barn and didn't do a lot of training as a two-year-old, it sounds like he might have been difficult and since he was too growthy to be show material (it was a WP barn), he just got shut in a stall most of the time. He got worked for about three months before he went to the sale, so I guess you could say he's got at least 90 days on him. The problem is that he looks like he ought to be a good moving horse, with a pretty good length of stride, but he moves short. The problem is that he doesn't just move short in back, there's lots of information in your archives about what to do about that, but he moves short in front too. I mean really short! He is also real narrow through the withers. My old trainer dropped by yesterday, just after I brought this horse home, and he looked at him and said "Uh-oh, narrow in the withers." He doesn't talk much, and I was putting a horse away, and when I came back he was gone, but I called him later and what I got from him is that this horse will probably never move well. I know it's not fair to put you on the spot when you haven't seen the horse, but I'd like your take on this issue. I'm willing to put some time into this horse, but I'm not a fancy rider, so if he needs special handling or some kind of therapy or something, I'll probably have to let him go. If a whole lot of wet saddle blankets will fix him, then that's no problem. I have the time to do that. What do you think?


Hi Bob! Thanks for the kind words, I'm glad you're enjoying HORSE-SENSE.

I'm going to guess that this horse must have something to recommend him - good conformation, good angles? - or you wouldn't have bought him in the first place. You can probably trust your initial impression. A tall, "growthy" QH would be very much out of place at most WP-oriented show barns, as you guessed. I think you're probably right about him spending a lot of time in a stall. As for the 90 days of training, who knows what sort of work he was doing? If he was being worked by the same people who did the show training at that barn, there's every chance that he spent three months learning to shorten his stride, and what you're seeing right now is the result of the horse having learned his lesson well - he may well have cut his natural range of motion by half or more. Since range of motion falls into the "use it or lose it" category, you are safe to assume that he has lost it. But don't give up on the horse - the loss doesn't have to be permanent! Right now, he may not have the range of motion that he ought to have, but you can almost certainly get it back for him if you're willing to take the time.

I would recommend a lot of time on the trails, and some passive stretching exercises (check the archives for references to Nancy Spencer's excellent videotape, "Basic Equine Stretching"). Be very careful to monitor saddle fit on a daily basis - and monitor saddle position, too. Use a saddle that doesn't cover the horse from shoulder to hip. It's all too easy to restrict a horse's range of motion by making movement uncomfortable, and a too-long saddle will make movement uncomfortable and even painful, by blocking the horse's shoulderblades (keeping the horse from swinging its front legs forward) and by rubbing against the horse's hips (preventing the horse from using its hind legs effectively). If you have something like an endurance saddle or even an old barrel saddle, use that - find something with short, rounded skirts that won't get in the horse's way.

At that point, you'll be ready to start building up that collection of wet saddle blankets. Focus on time and mileage - think LSD (long slow distance) for the first few months at least. Keep monitoring the fit of your saddle, and keep an eye on your horse's shoulders and withers. As he becomes more fit, develops some "using" muscles, and is able to swing and extend his legs more actively, start adding some lateral work - and watch his development. As his shoulders become looser and more mobile, he'll be able to move and work better, with his back and withers lifted and flexible. As he builds flexibility and strength, he should get steadily wider in the area of the withers and shoulders.

If a horse is otherwise well-built, "narrow in the withers" is very likely to mean "poorly trained and poorly ridden". Horses that have learned to move with stiff backs, short strides, and necks hanging low - all of which, sadly, is rewarded by most Western Pleasure judges - will often be far too narrow in the withers and tight in the shoulders, but it's not their fault and it's not their natural conformation. Good training and good riding, and good attention from an intelligent rider who cares whether the horse is comfortable and whether the tack fits well and is adjusted correctly, can change a horse's shape dramatically over a few months' time. Your old trainer was right to be concerned, but what he saw doesn't have to be a permanent condition. As your horse develops good muscles and good movement, his ability to carry himself and the rider should improve steadily.

Good luck!


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