Help, my Horse is Stumbling!
Help, my Horse is Stumbling!
The most obvious place to look when a horse begins to stumble regularly is his feet because they are after all what he is tripping over, right? While he might be stubbing them, his toes are infrequently the source of this problem. In fact, a tripping problem that shows up acutely often has nothing to do with his feet. Before you call your farrier, rule out faulty mechanics in the rest of the body.
Tripping and stumbling often develops from poor movement patterns that restrict the front limbs, progressing sometimes to the extent that a horse will fall all the way to his knees. Riding a horse that is scrambling like this can be unnerving, and it also causes a fair bit of worry for owners. They want to know what is going wrong. Why is their horse suddenly tripping and falling?
It is natural to look at the horse’s front end for blame. But I have more often found the problem in these horses to be in the HIND end. When a horse stiffens through his lower back during motion, it pushes his stifle joints out behind him, essentially blocking the hind legs from swinging forward each stride. In the absence of flexion in his pelvis and hind limb joints, the horse’s spine becomes like a rigid piston that shoves motion forward on to the forelimbs. Overburdened, these limbs lose their smoothness of movement. The result? A horse will catch his toe instead of rolling over smoothly to the next stride. Plus, the hind legs are no longer participating to catch his balance.
Until the lower back and hindquarter stiffness is resolved, the horse is likely to continue tripping. A deeper problem arises once he has tripped enough times to not be worried about it anymore. Once this occurs, he no longer hurries to get his balance. He submits to a persistent lack of coordination. The primary nerves that generate forelimb movement gradually deactivate, the horse’s whole movement pattern alters. Smoothness of movement begins to disappear.
When caught early, many tripping problems can be corrected. The most beneficial place to begin your inspection is the horse’s hind-end, unless there is a clear reason to suspect the feet as the primary problem such as the case of a new and dramatically different hoof trim. Assess the following: dorsal flexion and overall state of the back muscles (are they normal temperature and pliable? Or are they ropey, hot, tense?), stifle flexion and perceived comfort, hamstring tension. Studying your horse’s natural standing posture will factor in your inspection of these as will your hands-on touch. Once you locate what you suspect as the source of restriction, you can begin to treat it. Generally, I recommend a Masterson Method practitioner but other good body-workers can also help.
Once the body-work therapies are administered, I have found certain corrective exercises to be especially beneficial. These include: Long and Low Transitions (Ex. # 27); Figure-Eight bars (Ex. #18); Lateral Pelvic Flexion (Ex. #31); Giravolta (Ex. #46). In addition to a good amount of backing the horse up daily, these exercises will help restore equilibrium between forehand and hindquarters, which will help you on your way to overcoming a stumbling issue that seems to show up out of nowhere.
As you work through these corrective exercises and body therapies for a focused two-week period, avoid riding at speed or on hard surfaces. Both increase the likelihood for tripping.
Round Pens: training for good posture…or bad?
Believe me when I tell you that I love freedom as much as anyone. I love trimming away boundaries, living widely in each moment. And, yes, I love to watch a beautiful horse running free across a meadow with his legs surging and his expression content. That, to me, is a wonderful sight. On the other hand, a horse careening around a round pen with his neck twisted sideways and his body misaligned disgruntles me.
The reason it disgruntles me is that this practice forms—and strengthens—poor movement mechanics that can have pretty significant consequences. Primarily, when a horse travels around the round pen with his head turned slightly to the outside of the circle, he ends up catching his balance every stride by planting his inside foreleg harder. This tightens and strengthens his shoulder girdle on that side, embeds crookedness in addition to limited range of motion in the scapula.
When a horse has spent a fair amount of time in this incorrect balance, a few of the results can include: chronically cross-cantering, balky behavior under saddle, stiffness and lack of responsiveness to the rider’s leg cues when ridden. The problem is that the undesirably tight scapula muscles contributing to these problems have been made stronger by the round pen work.
I absolutely believe that round pen work has a valuable place in every horse’s training life. Much of the value comes from body alignment. The round pen is not a place to chase around a loose horse while ingraining poor habits. Unless you can 100-percent affirm that your horse’s ENTIRE spine (head to tail) follows the curve of the circle prescribed by your round pen, then you are far better off to have a line attached to his halter/cavesson/bridle.
Any exercise undertaken without a complete inwards arc of the horse’s spine to match his line of travel creates postural imbalances that become stronger each session. These imbalances are manmade and easily avoided.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have become besotted with liberty work, or exercising the horse without any reins, longe lines, etc. Liberty work IS a delightful concept, but it often comes with irony. The irony appears when students wish to change a particular movement pattern (i.e. fix a canter lead, solve a persistent crookedness) without realizing that their liberty work has contributed greatly to the problem they wish to resolve.
When it comes with the outcome of developing comfortable and functional posture for your horse, attaching a line is a gift we can offer him. It allows you to guide the horse to correct posture inside the round pen, enabling his inside scapula to rotate upwards and back each stride, which in turn allows his topline to lift and swing.
Sure, there are a small percentage of horses with fine training and balance that are able to work at liberty in a round pen while maintaining correct posture and bend. In these wonderful cases, there may be no need whatsoever to have the horse on a line. But let’s not be overly generous in our self-assessments. Far fewer of us are in this camp than we might wish to accept. A closer look at most round pens reveals the horse’s head turned slightly outside the circle, and to that I say put on a line. Allow your horse to experience his freedom in other ways, but not at the expense of solidifying poor balance.
Are the Hind Legs Pushing Equally?
Equal Forces Makes Correct Movement
Challenges when a horse cannot collect or extend his stride with ease, not to mention travel in truly straight alignment, most often arise from unequal use of his hind legs. In other words, he pushes harder off one hind leg than the other. This is akin to we humans using one of our hands more to accomplish tasks (in my case, I’m right-handed). We end up stronger, more confident, and coordinated with that limb.
I mention this comparison to illustrate the prevalence of limb dominance. It is far more present in our quadruped companions than most of us realize. It is a normal, natural thing. Unfortunately, though, it creates problems when we ask the horse to engage his hindquarters and carry more weight on his hind legs. Minor asymmetries suddenly become major impediments, and the horse most commonly develops compromised ways of moving. These creative workarounds put strain on his joints and increase tension in muscle groups that make him even more asymmetrical.
Sometimes we inadvertently contribute to unequal use of the hind legs by over-schooling certain exercises or riding the horse past the point of muscular fatigue. Other times, horses mature on their own learning to push off the ground more forcefully with a preferred hind leg. In either case, good training ensures week to week that the horse is developing equal force and power in both hind legs.
So how do we go about this? My books offer several helpful exercises to assist. The first step, however, is that the rider learns to feel if and when the horse is not flexing and pushing off both hind legs with the same force while traveling in a particular gait.
Here is an effective way to do that. We dressage trainers usually refer to this exercise as asking the horse to travel “fore and aft.” That describes how you will be dialing your horse’s energy up and down. The exercise is as simple as that. You will practice in all three gaits (or four, for gaited horses) asking the horse to travel in three distinct speeds: very slowly, moderately, and briskly. I always suggest that students think of these speeds as the gear on their cars, shifting smoothly between each gear.
For instance, begin in a slow jog with your horse. Ask him to jog as slowly as he can while maintaining the gait and not stuttering to the walk. Proceed like this for about 40 strides and then shift up one gear, adding about 2mph to your speed. Ride another 40 strides and then shift up one more gear, again adding 2mph. Then begin shifting back down through the gears, dialing the speed down the same way you added it on.
After you have practiced that a few times in the different gaits, begin to note if/how your horse changed his posture moving between these speeds. Did he become wobbly and disorganized through his body? Did he stagger off your intended line of travel? Did he lean or drift sideways with one of his shoulders? What about the quality of his strides underneath you?—at any point did they feel choppy or stilted, or tight like they were a struggle for your horse?
Taking inventory like this while practicing the Fore and Aft exercise will provide you valuable clues about whether or not your horse is using his hind legs equally and, if not, which leg he might prefer. With this information, we can then devise specific exercises to help him find symmetry. The first step is learning through feel where we need to improve him, and the tools I’ve offered above will help you do this.
Not Enough Time for Ground Poles? Think again.
Following the past several years of traveling around giving clinics in which I teach riders to use ground poles in their regular schooling,I have arrived at a fact: most riders quickly understand the gymnastic benefits of group poles, but they will not incorporate them on a consistent basis. It is not because they are rebelling against my advice but because poles can be a hassle to drag out and set up every day.
Honestly, though, a decent ground pole lesson does not need to be elaborate or complicated. In many cases, you can even forego using bulky risers to elevate them off the ground but still make fitness gains. This makes the set-up much easier, especially when using just four poles which I will offer suggestions for in the next few months. In following blog posts, I will recommend and explain the most effective exercises using just four poles that are quick and easy to set up. Some of these are found in my books, others are new bonus routines appearing only on this blog.
This month’s exercise is the Adjustability Circle. It improves your horse’s balance and quality of movement in a few ways. First, crossing over the poles causes him to fire up the muscles that form the hammock of his thoracic sling. This helps cushion and elasticize his strides, which translates to smoother, more graceful movement. Second, the prescribed quadrants of the circle in this pattern help get both horses and riders locked in to a very steady rhythm of gait. Rhythm, as we have all experienced, forms a primary organizing effect in the body. In other words, it cleans up sloppy, wobbly motions.
Finally, by having to step over a pole occasionally– but not in a predictable sequence– you override the horse’s central pattern generator, which interrupts him from blundering along in a gait pattern without brain-to-hoof communication. Think of it as re-booting his computer every dozen or strides. There are several ways to vary the following routine. You can ride it at different gaits and speeds. You can throw in some transitions between gaits at random points. As-is, the exercise will offer plenty of benefits on its own, so don’t feel like you need to get too creative. Just know that if this routine becomes one you do frequently, you can add variety to keep things fresh.
- Envision your 20-meter circle as a clock face and place a ground pole at 12noon, 3pm, 6pm, and 9pm.
- Now ride your horse in a lively working trot around your circle, crossing over the middle of each pole as you come to it.
- Count your strides between each pole; you should have the same stride count if you are riding correctly in rhythm.
- Be sure to keep your horse bent around your inside leg for the duration of the circle, even when crossing poles.
- Look ahead, keep a light contact with the reins, and smile.
For further description about the physical benefits of exercises like this one, check out my books. Meantime, stay tuned for the next post about ground pole patterns that are easy to set up.
Wobbling to Better Movement
(periods of instability can lead to better proprioception, even in Terriers!)
Wobbling to Better Movement
Out of necessity my horses have become lighter and balanced in their movement over the past two years since moving to a new facility. I say out of necessity because this facility, while ideal in almost every way, lacks an ideal arena. What this means is that we do our schooling in a variety of places: the field, a track, the small sand arena, trails. This variety, plus less than perfect surfaces translates to the horses needing to recruit their stabilizing and postural muscles more than if they worked solely in groomed arenas.
This appreciation of mine for varied surfaces is not new; you’ve read it before in my posts. For those without access to so much variety, or with horses aboard which they prefer not to wander around outside, I’ve become increasingly compelled lately by a useful tool in the form of a squishy mat. Basically, the mat provides a slightly unstable surface that when stood upon the horse needs to fire up his postural muscles.
Now, I am not one for gimmicky toys and definitely would not suggest anyone is going to get ‘fit’ by wobbling around a foam mat for five minutes a day. But plenty of athletic outcomes do seem to come as a result of this tool, again especially for those that do not have regular access to naturally unstable surfaces (trails/hills, mud, cavalletti patterns, and so on).
I have repeatedly observed horses becoming incredibly relaxed as soon as they stop swaying from side to side on the mat, which is usually within 90 seconds. Some yawn and get sleepy, others lick and chew a lot; unanimously they appear very content. What this owes to, as I see it, is the large gymnastic muscles relaxing as their small postural muscles engage to find balance on the mat.
As the tension and tightness held in these big surface muscles releases, it turns down the level of involvement of a horse’s sympathetic nervous system. This system controls flight-or-fight response, heart rate, and tone in large locomotion muscles. When this quiets down, an animal’s parasympathetic system can play a larger role. This is often called the rest-and-digest system. Placing horses on mats or similarly unstable surfaces appears to trigger this system.
A horse in this state can gain quick access to his postural muscles, which, like his human companions, are often the weak links in his performance. When his gymnastic muscles are for the most part turned off and he is asked to make small movements, or to simply stand and find his balance amidst the wobbling, he engages those smaller muscles. The more frequently they are engaged, the more they become habitual.
Some trainers attest to seeing completely different movement as soon as the horse leaves the mat. I have not observed that myself, but I can report that most horses do FEEL differently to ride when they have stood immediately beforehand on the mat. I also ask them to do some small calisthenics on the mat, which for reasons of brevity, I won’t go in to with this post. Basically, I ask them to make small achievable movements that cause them to engage the trunk and hip stabilizers.
Again, these movements are not necessarily ones that could not be replicated by calisthenics with cavalletti poles, or varied riding surfaces. For riders without access to those tools, though, something like a big foam mat might be a useful alternative, so I wanted to share my experience and feedback with it. You can buy fancy horse-specific mats and pads on-line, or you can make your own semblance of one with a big piece of foam, a futon, etc. I am currently using a children’s gymnastic tumbling mat that works well.