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


Wound to Withers


The withers are made up of the spines of the thoracic vertebrae, ligament and connective tissue. Simple skin wounds of this area may heal well, but the area is well known for complicated and slow wound healing.

Wounds involving the withers can be traumatic (from running under a tree for instance or from bites from other horses). They are often accompanied by pain, swelling and chronic drainage. This complex of problems can also be part of a condition known as fistulous withers, an infection casused by Brucella bacteria. This condition is rare, but still occasionally seen today.

This is an area commonly traumatized by ill-fitting or poorly positioned saddles. When the withers is traumatized by saddle pressure, it often swells severely, become extremely painful to the touch for a time and then ruptures, draining reddish or pus-like drainage for a variable period of time. In more severe cases, the underlying bony spines of the vertebrae can even become infected. In these cases, there may or may not be obvious saddle sores visible. These injuries can be very painful and can take a long time to heal.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If wounds appear serious or accompanied by swelling or drainage.
    • 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 Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

your role


What To Do

Recognize the complicated nature of withers wounds, and be on the lookout for seemingly increased pain, swelling, and drainage. Assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to rectal temperature, general attitude and appetite, and the appearance and feel of the affected area.

Until your vet has evaluated the horse, consider any drainage potentially infectious. Wear gloves when cleaning the area and isolate the horse.

Share your findings and concerns with your vet.

What Not To Do

Simply applying topical ointments to these wounds will not help deeper wound healing.

your vet's role

Your vet will assess the area and determine treatment options. If there is no evidence of trauma, they may consider and rule out the possibility of a Brucella infection as cause. Some chronic or more complicated wounds of the withers require surgical debridement (removal of infected and dead tissue, and encouragement of increased drainage).
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Have you given any medications to the horse, what and when?
  • Does the area seem painful when pressure is applied to it?
  • When did you first notice the wound?
  • Was the horse ridden recently?
  • Has the saddle or pad changed?
  • How is your horse's attitude and appetite?
  • Is the drainage pus or blood?
  • Did you notice swelling in this area prior to the drainage?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • In what geographical regions has the horse lived in the last several years?

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP