When your usually healthy, sound horse appears to be lame from one day to another , you might quickly run through all the possible events that could have happened to him in order to determine any possible injuries.
What if there are no signs of any trauma, no scrapes, no wounds, no lost shoes, no seen kicking matches at turn out time…? Lameness can sneak in on any horse in form of repetitive strain injury and that’s indeed were it often brews disguised as tendency to cut the corners on one rein, feeling heavy in rider’s hands, one stirrup that always seem to be a little longer than the other, “funny” walk to trot transitions with bunny hops, squealing in canter transitions, saddle that always seems to slip to one side etc etc
The everyday schooling challenges are where every rider needs to seek potential areas to work on to keep the horse healthy, happy and sound.Let’s look at several very common issues experienced by many riders out there and why they shouldn’t be ignored.
Before we start, it’s useful to remember how much rider’s body affects the natural way of going of the horse. The moment we sit in the saddle we change the horse’s balance as he knows it. If you ride a horse that is very much an asymmetrical animal favouring strong muscles on one side of his body to maintain motion, and you do not correct that tendency to some extent, you are bound to end up with a horse whose one set of legs/muscle chains/joints work much harder than the other set…and while this might not be an issue for a horse in the field it certainly is one for the ridden horse.
The most crooked horses I have personally ridden have been those often described as “happy hackers” possibly due to them never or rarely having any symmetry/straightness focused schooling sessions. If all they do is walking around the countryside, they are likely to be just fine as they are. However, it is always worth adding some gymnastic training into any ridden horse’s life – it simply helps them to “wake up” the structures that do a little less than they should.
FALLING IN or OUT THROUGH THE SHOULDER
Pretty much all horses will favour one foot over another when distributing weight in their bodies. This applies to both front and hind feet. If you watch 100 different people walking by, you can see that similar pattern applies to us too. We tend to drop more weight on one limb than the other, drop one shoulder a little lower than the other, swing one hip a little more than the other…you get the idea 🙂 There are not that many people walking with absolutely even weight distribution through both sides of their bodies.
You probably also know that your horse’s left hoof is a little different than his right hoof – perhaps one is more upright and the other flatter…the shape of the hooves reflect the body use and vice-versa, the way the horse uses his body will be reflected in the shapes of his feet (which by the way, is hugely dynamic and can change from month to month, year to year depending on work the horse is doing, feed he is on, illnesses he went through etc).
Why shouldn’t we ignore the “falling in through the shoulder” then? Every time this happens your horse is overloading the inside foot potentially micro-straining the structures in that foot with every unbalanced step. This is especially important for anyone riding in the arena as the boundaries given by the fence will automatically encourage the horse to “guess” the turning and therefore arrange their body into leaning in posture.
Similar situation applies when we experience “falling out through the shoulder” – that’s when the horse’s favoured foot as far as weight load goes, is on the outside of our turn or circle or even straight line.
Good schooling plan aimed at teaching the horse to use both limbs with more even weight load will go a long way towards his soundness.
Ignoring the tripping is another easy journey to potentially serious limb issues. Many shod horses do trip due to decreased proprioception (“the ability to sense the position and location and orientation and movement of the body and its parts”) in the their feet (equine hooves naturally work like “ground feelers” so if we take that function away there are bound to be come problems) but unless you hack over hundreds of craters and rough ground, the noticeable tripping needs to draw your attention pronto.
Shoulder or neck pain (for example due to ill fitting saddle, use of gadgets that dictate neck posture, rider’s position issues, tense hands on the reins) can also lead to tripping as can riding the horse out of balance (letting it move with most weight on the forehand).
Tripping tells the rider that horse’s motor skills are compromised and need attention. At times, riders tell me their horses “have always tripped”as if that’s some kind of endearing feature that’s there to stay. If you have control over the horse’s management (i.e. it’s not a riding school horse or someone else’s horse you have no say over) I would really encourage you to address the issue.
Start with hoofcare – check feet balance and how correctly the horse is using himself as far as biomechanics of movement goes (very useful articles on this here, just scroll a little to the list of articles on Hoof balance, conformation and symmetry); try chatting with your farrier or trimmer about the issue.
If you use training aids like pessoa, chambon, side – reins and your horse trips you might need to closely observe how the “aids” actually aid the horse’s balance and whether they help or hinder the development of it.
The glorious array of various pads available that lift here, hold there and offer non-slip areas yet somewhere else do make it seem like wondrous saddle just needs some help staying put.
There is now, however, quite a bit of research available on correlation between saddle slipping and hind limb lameness (which when low grade can be difficult to spot). Below are a couple of articles worth looking at:
LEANING “ON RIDER’S HANDS”
Many horses learn to use muscles around the poll and within the length of their neck in a way that functions like a barrier for rein aids preventing the latter to reach the mouth. What feels like the horse leaning on the reins or having “wooden/dead” mouth is in fact a combination of muscular effort and ability to set a joint (poll) against the traction of the reins.
Ignoring or fighting the “heavy head” can again lead to various soundness related surprises. In fact, it can be a symptom of them too. Some examples of issues can include: back pain, neck and poll pain, hind limb lameness, poor overall balance and inability to move freely with rider on board.
Providing there is no underlying health problem present already, improving horse’s general balance (i.e. ability to transfer weight laterally and front to back in a way that allows movement similar to one without rider on board) can immediately improve many “contact issues”.
OUR OWN “BODY USE”
If a horse has only one rider responsible for his well being then that rider’s issues, smaller or bigger, sooner or later, will be very likely reflected in that horse. If you ride for recreation or sport it’s important that you do look into your own postural habits and reflect upon their influence on your horse’s soundness. There is a reason why riding school horses often end up with various physical problems – every month they deal and cope with hundreds of different postural issues in riders who learn on them. Just 15-20 minutes once a week of some form of awareness enhancing exercise (like Pilates, Yoga, martial arts, dance) can make a huge difference to working comfort and soundness of a riding horse.
It’s impossible to correct something we don’t feel so even if we receive fantastic instruction from a trainer who sees what needs changing, we first need to be aware of when something happens and how it feels to us personally. Many a time, a position that is even to us, is crooked in reality. Awareness and visual feedback (mirrors, videos, photos) are a great and very important addition to any rider’s education (unless you only sit on a horse in order to travel from A to B on a holiday trip then I guess you don’t need to build your awareness too much 😉
Do you have any experiences with seemingly unrelated aspects of how we ride and use our horses that led to unsoundness? Please share in the comments below!