It’s quite a common term that you’ll hear, especially around young or excitable horses – “oh they’ve got their back up today!”
It’s not a positive thing, even though a horse working correctly is lifting through their back (that engagement is a different feeling altogether). A horse who has their back up feels very tense and feels like they could buck at any moment. Some horses do this the first time that they’ve been ridden after a holiday, other’s do it in response to a badly fitting saddle. And some do it when they’re feeling fresh and excitable. Others can have the tendency to do it all the time, and this is often referred to as being cold backed. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
When you’re working with young horses, perhaps backing them, or highly strung and fit horses, you start to learn the warning signs of a horse who has their back up. When you first put the saddle on they can sometimes react by tensing, and shortening their body. You can often physically see the back lift up. Knowing the horse; whether they’ve been out of work, or if they are sensitive over the back will help you prepare them. Some horses can put their backs up in bad weather, because they’ve gotten cold and wet. The best thing here is to leave them in to warm up before you ride, and use an exercise sheet to protect their quarters, which will make them much happier and more relaxed.
Sensible safety precautions should mean that you place the saddle on, do the girth up gradually over a few minutes so that they get used to it, and then lead them round, and lunge them until they relax. When you mount, use a mounting block and have assistance so that you can put your right foot into the stirrup without sitting down onto their back and then you can gently lower yourself into the saddle over a couple of walk strides. While you’re lowering yourself into the saddle, be led, so that you don’t need to apply the leg as this could trigger an explosion of bucks; have the leader reassure the horse as you walk, while you can scratch their wither and praise them. Once you feel the horse relax you can begin to take control and the leader becomes redundant.
Let’s return to the term “cold backed”. Traditionally, this referred to a horse who was always sensitive to the saddle and mounting procedure. Usually when the saddle is put on they dip away from the pressure of the saddle, but when you mount they’re on the defensive with their back arched ready to dispose of what they perceive as a threat. Once their muscles warm up and they become accustomed to the saddle and rider they will work normally.
One of my old ponies was cold backed and we just used to put the saddle on, girth loose, for fifteen minutes before I rode, slowly tightening it a notch every couple of minutes. Then I’d just walk her across the yard before mounting and she was perfectly behaved. It was a fairly easy management accommodation to make.
Nowadays of course, we have more knowledge as to why a horse is cold backed. Some horses are cold backed because they have negative associations with the saddle and being ridden (perhaps a badly fitting saddle and heavy, unbalanced rider in the past, or they suffered from kissing spines) so only be building their trust and retraining them can you overcome this behaviour. Most others are cold backed because they have a degree of pain.
The cold backed response is due to very sensitive nerve endings around the back being stimulated. These nerves could be sensitive due to pressure from the saddle or damage to the muscles, perhaps an old injury which has left the muscles tight and immobile. An old wound may have affected the nerves in a particular area on the skin of the back, making them more sensitive in that area. A cold backed horse may have back pain, either from bad posture or from an underlying lameness.
Ultimately, a horse who puts their back up when you ride, or regularly exhibits cold backed behaviour, shouldn’t be ignored. If it’s due to excitability and freshness then it can be dangerous to the unsuspecting, and if it’s due to pain then that needs alleviating.
If a horse suddenly starts putting their back up when you ride then do an assessment of that day – was it windy or wet? Had the horse been off work for a significant period? Have they been on box rest or limited turn out? Are they being over fed? Any of these could contribute to poor one-off behaviour. If a horse I rode was normally perfectly behaved but one day had their back up when I mounted, I’d run through in my head what they’d done over the last week and today’s environment to see if there was a cause. It could be that they wind and rain blew under their rug and their muscles are physically cold and tight, or the fact they’ve had limited turn out because of the bad weather and their bucket feed not being reduced. In which I’d change the management (thicker rug, more turnout, less hard feed) and hope their behaviour returns to normal. If not, into step two.
Once you’ve established that there’s no problem from the management side of things, then begin searching for a physical problem. Have the saddle checked, have a vet assessment, book a physio session, and keep on top of any issues and get to learn your horse’s signals that he’s starting to feel uncomfortable so you can treat him early. They may need management techniques such as a massage pad used before working, or going in a solarium or horse walker if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.
If the horse is chronically showing cold backed symptoms and no specific cause has been found my next step would be to work to improve their posture and strengthen their muscles. Lunging and riding in a long and low frame to increase their topline muscles and improve their posture and way of going; and seeking help from an instructor to correct the rider so that they aren’t inhibiting the horse’s ability to work correctly. Then over time you’ll improve the horse’s strength and ability to carry a rider which will hopefully reduce their tendency to be defensive and put their back up when mounted.