Most horses have a small to medium-sized, well-defined, bump located at the top of their shoulders between the base of their neck and their backs. This feature is called the withers and it is the ridge that is located between his shoulder bones. All horses have withers, but the actual shape of the withers is affected by the conformation of the horse. Horses can have high, pronounced withers, normal withers or almost nonexistent withers, a condition known as being mutton-withered.
Identifying a Mutton-Withered Horse
Mutton-withered horses have very little to no identifiable withers when you are looking at them from the side. If you are looking at a horse and its back appears to slope down from his neck towards his hind end without any noticeable shoulder definition affecting the shape of his top-line, he is mutton-withered.
Any horse can have mutton-withers, but it is most likely to occur in horses who have American Quarter Horse lineage. Arabians and pony breeds also are prone to this conformational trait. A mutton wither is caused by shortened thoracic vertebrae in the shoulder. The thoracic vertebrae are responsible for creating additional shoulder definition in horses. Breeds that typically have high withers, such as the thoroughbred, are unlikely to produce mutton-withered animals.
The mutton-withered horse is not handicapped significantly by his flat withers. Some mutton-withered horses may have a slightly shorter range of motion in the shoulder due to the thoracic vertebrae of a mutton-withered horse being shorter than is normal for most horses. Combined with other conformational flaws, this could contribute to a less athletically capable equine, but the mutton wither will not be the characteristic that is responsible for the horse being significantly performance challenged or unable to perform in some way.
Most horse saddles are designed to use the withers for stabilization. Finding a saddle that will fit your mutton-withered horse correctly can be a bit of a challenge because many saddles will either slip, rub or pinch your mutton-withered horse's back, making him very uncomfortable. Some owners have saddles custom made to fit their mutton-withered horses, while others purchase saddles marketed specifically to fit mutton-withered equines, such as Big Horn's Haflinger or Mutton-Withered short back western saddle.
Jen Davis has been writing since 2004. She has served as a newspaper reporter and her freelance articles have appeared in magazines such as "Horses Incorporated," "The Paisley Pony" and "Alabama Living." Davis earned her Bachelor of Arts in communication with a concentration in journalism from Berry College in Rome, Ga.