What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Swelling of Withers


Swelling of the withers usually is caused by trauma, usually from ill-fitting tack. Saddles that have a tree that is too wide, too narrow or broken may traumatize the withers. Direct trauma from the horse rearing and falling over backwards may fracture or otherwise injure the withers, which also can result in swelling.

Large and enlarging swellings of the withers may come to a head (infection may come to the surface) and finally drain. Infections of the withers do occur and can be difficult to treat. These infections often involve the bone of the spinous processes of the vertebrae that make up the crest of the withers.

  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If the area seems painful to the touch.
    • If the swelling is large, painful or growing rapidly.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • Code Yellow

    Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment
    • If the problem is subtle or slowly changing.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.
    • If the swelling is mild or moderate, and not increasing rapidly.

your role


What To Do

Assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to presence or absence of fever. Consider the history leading up to the swelling. Was the horse recently ridden? Was the saddle that was used the same as always?

Share your findings and concerns with your vet.

What Not To Do

Do not continue to ride a horse with an obvious swelling involving the withers. Always rest the horse until the swelling is resolved.

your vet's role

Your vet will assess the area visually and by palpation. They will assess the horse's overall health, paying particular attention to the presence or absence of fever. They may want to evaluate your saddle fit.

If there is no evidence of trauma and there is drainage, they may consider the possibility of a bacterial infection (fistulous withers). Radiographs and ultrasound provide additional diagnostic information.

Your vet may advise you to apply cold water to the area or suggest the use of anti-inflammatory medications for pain and swelling.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Does the horse have a history of accident or injury?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • When was the horse last ridden?
  • Has the saddle or pad changed?
  • Have you noticed the horse seeming uncomfortable under saddle?
  • Have you noticed sores or wounds associated with the saddle?
  • Have you noticed areas of white hair in the area under the saddle?
  • Have you noticed any behavioral changes under saddle?
  • To your knowledge, does the horse rear?
  • Does the horse have a fever?
  • Can you send a photo?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP