Mystery Lameness?: exploring rein lameness

I call it the lameness that is not really lameness. Sometimes, a horse develops an unexplainable hitch in his movement that leads to much head scratching from vets who, after an array of diagnostics, find no clear answers. The horse is described as being “not quite right,” but beyond that, there is no reason or treatment.

This mystery lameness that produces an inconsistent limp during one or more gaits is often what we call “Rein Lameness.” It is a disrupted gait pattern owing to muscular tension or imbalances that have reached a point of negatively affecting motion through the spine. The term ‘rein lameness’ originated from the frequent occurrence of horses made sore from riders with too much rein pressure. It does not, however, only originate from tight reins. In fact, I observe it most often in recreational riders’ horses ridden on loose or inconsistent rein contact.

The following is a simplified description of the development of this condition. In good healthy movement, the horse’s torso channels energy forward from the hind legs. It both creates and stabilizes the force of the hind limbs swinging forward each stride. Tension in the back or abdominals disrupts the synergy needed between these two muscle groups in order to play this role. The disruption in their interplay due to this tension and imbalance causes the horse to short-stride with one hind leg. This causes his trot rhythm to be noticeably uneven, or it may cause an actual limp. While it can sometimes be observed in other gaits, rein lameness is usually most notable when trotting.

Rein lame horses rarely show gait patterns that are explained through the typical diagnostic veterinary exam. They can be intermittent, or the soreness might appear in the front limbs one day but the hind limbs the following day. Sometimes they appear sound on the longe line but start limping when a rider gets on.

In the past year, I have become increasingly vocal about drawing riders’ attention to the fact that muscle tension patterns can indeed be the source of ‘lameness.’ Initially, this can sound too simplistic; riders assume that something on their horse must be broken, pulled, or otherwise very wrong if the horse is moving “not quite right.” But let’s stop and think about this.

To make a human comparison, consider how altered your own gait becomes following even a mild exertion. If you have ever used your body in an asymmetrical fashion (worn shoes with uneven soles, for example, or sat in a twisted position on an airplane), you have experienced a mild lameness without breaking or tearing anything. In order to resolve your disrupted gait, you must loosen up your muscles and rid them of the tension that is causing the limp. These occurrences are quite frequent over the course of our lives. For many horses, it is the same.

Of course, plenty of horses can be exercised in all manner of incorrect postures and states of tension, and yet they do not develop rein lameness. Others, however, are very susceptible. In my own experience, I believe some horses are just naturally more negatively affected by muscle tension and imbalance. Perhaps it is because of a less than ideal conformation or metabolism, or a delicate constitution. The good news is that despite having a slight limp in their gait, many rein lame horses are not in pain. Remember, the limp comes from a mechanical glitch, not necessarily from a glaring soreness

The answer that many vets do not provide is that the problem must be fixed with good, correct gymnastic exercise. The horse must be ridden in a basic dressage balance and required to stabilize his core for short, rhythmic bouts of exercise.

Resting a rein lame horse does not usually resolve the problem. Chances are high that once he is put back in a training routine the underlying gait patterns will show up again after a week or two. In order to resolve the problem, the horse must be exercised with his body in an ideal balance and engagement. On several occasions, I have seen the disrupted gait pattern disappear immediately once a skilled rider gets on and asks the horse to carry his body with correct posture. Other times, it might take a day or two, but it rarely takes longer than one week.

It is too tempting for modern riders to think they can resolve any abnormality in their horse’s movement with an injection or medicines or costly layups. My plea is to do our horses well by treating dysfunctional movement with a protocol of good, functional movement. This should be our first plan before taking more drastic actions.


** If you would like to read and learn more about rein lameness, I recommend Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s book “Balancing Act.” It contains a very informative section about this disorder.

How did your Ride ‘Feel’?

How did your ride “feel”?

Over the past few decades in the horse world, I have watched practices become more sophisticated, and mostly these are positive advances: trainers gaining business skills, veterinary science making huge gains, our training methods evolving and expanding. But in one improvement of modern horsemanship, I miss the past. If I could un-do one small advancement of tools and resources, I might erase the invention of G.P.S. devices and gadgets.

Before G.P.S. was available on every phone and most watches, we had to guess the mileage of our conditioning rides by how they felt underneath us. Then, we verified them by the odometer in the truck. I remember experiencing the miles as we rode, knowing how to estimate based on the effort in my knees, or my horse’s energy level. I knew how long it took on average to cover four miles on trail, eight on gravel roads.

Our regular outings I knew by heart. When we added a side loop or altered our route, we guessed the length by comparing it to what we knew. Did that stretch of trotting feel like the two miles of Rainbow Ridge that started at a pond ringed by cattails and ended at the view down White Valley? Or was it more like the flat half- mile path through wildflowers in Mr. Bradshaw’s meadow?

After our rides, we cooled down the horses and gave them a scoop of grain before piling in the truck to drive our route with the odometer twirling up from zero. Since most of these outings followed the gravel back roads around our farm, we could access the majority by vehicle. Only a few sections of marshy woods did we have to leave to guesswork. I never tired of those post-ride excursions. Sitting on the bench seat of the old Dodge, often with my helmet still on, I relaxed in to this second perspective of the miles we just trotted and cantered. There was the neighbor’s barking dog that spooked my pony; there were the dwarf apple trees where I liked to pick her a treat; there was the tractor working harrows in a new cornfield. My dad drove the truck like a meditation, as if any wavering or quickness might miscalculate the measurement.

We did not particularly need to measure distances, but mostly it satisfied our curiosity. Also, when it came to our horses’ weekly training, we were devout record keepers. We logged length and intensity of every session from dressage lessons to 15-mile trail rides. Later, I could see how much this habit instilled in me a stewardship of my horse’s physical condition. Back then, it left me with an equally worthy sense. It tied me to the landscape. Our methodical drives in the truck taught me to pay attention and study the terrain. They revealed how the same section of trail, through different perspectives, unfolds uniquely. I learned to take note of landmarks, how each segment of road had distinct features.

All these years later, when we finish a ride we can look immediately at our wrists or the phone in our pocket for detailed specifications on our efforts. The feedback is not only instant but likely tons more accurate than any car odometer. To think such data would be gathered by a tiny wearable device was inconceivable in the days of my parents’ training logs. While the technology still seems futuristic to my old-fashioned sensibilities, I’m grateful for the accuracy and the other data besides mileage that gets collected: pace, elevation, heart rate stats. No matter how meditatively dad drove the truck, we never could have calibrated those.

Inarguably, my weekly training logs benefit from these advances. But I cannot help missing those old days which marked me with a spirit of observation, not to mention allowed me to savor a second indulgence of trails I just enjoyed moments earlier. I’ll admit that many times I would not mind the excuse to go right back out after a ride and re-experience the section of serenity and beauty we just traversed whether by car or bike or even another horse.

Alas, though, our modern gadgets prevent the need. Regardless, I do try to keep my spirit of observations strong. As we ride through the forests and coastal bluffs, I keep an informal tally of the miles I think we have covered, from daffodil clusters to vernal pools, from eucalyptus groves to sand dunes. It’s not that I intend to second- guess my G.P.S. data or that I hope to achieve a specific mileage. It is just that I try to stay rooted in the past by doing so. Feeling a ride this way is the surest way I know to absorb every mile fully.

50 Miles of… um… Fun on Horseback

At about the time my right hamstring seared with a pain that knifed into the deepest nerve bundles, I began to ponder whether this was actually any fun. I inventoried the tacky roof of my mouth—dry and dust-coated—my twanging hip flexors, and a back spasm that started pulsing two hours ago, now worsening. The numbers 38 kept rising through my thoughts like the blurry waves of heat that lift from hot roads, turning scenery into drugged-like hallucinations. I pictured the “3” flopped over in the middle, the “8” vibrating side to side as though it meant to taunt me. It occurred to me that maybe 38 miles was my limit. Maybe I could ride a horse for 38 miles and no further.

We dressage riders tend to consider anything over an hour a long ride. Anything over 3 is pretty inconceivable. Hence, my pitiful state at mile 38 of a 50-mile endurance race aboard my student’s Arabian gelding. We pressed on, hurtling across a flat ridge top with an oven-like wind in my face. Under me, Louie had plenty of pep and offered to surge faster, a fact that I realized with gratitude might get us to the finish line—and a cold beer—quicker. His hooves smacked the hard ground, his body leaned to the left as he gained speed. Our gait was now not only sloppy but bordering out of control.

A few miles back, my thoughts headed for a negative tailspin, cataloging an ache that ran from elbow to sacrum to knees. Right about then, I asked myself what the heck I was doing out there, a dressage rider pounding the trails at warp speed. I assessed the enjoyment in this moment, admitting that the fun might have dropped off at mile 30. I felt a knick of something like defeat, or maybe it was surrender. Whatever its precise term, it was the humble acknowledgement that this event felt a lot larger than myself right then. I was tired and hot and dirty. Louie, meanwhile, fared much better. He looked ahead to the next steep climb, a runway of gravel up a dry hillside, which he attacked with a strong trot and then a canter. He swept down the trail as though his legs had not just crossed nearly 40 miles. From here out, I allowed him to choose our pace. He rated himself down hills, climbed up them with measured steps, and trotted like the wind across flat ground. I became a mostly passive member of our team. And right then I recalled why the challenge of long distance riding beckons me periodically, especially on a horse like Louie.

Some dressage riders like myself share a guilty confession: that we crave moments like this where we can turn off our brains and our constant quality control over the horse’s gaits. Sometimes in order to refresh our commitment to such a skillfully dense pursuit like dressage, we occasionally need to experience the raw pleasure of sitting atop a horse and moving in freedom. We might not sit perfectly aligned in these moments and we may ride miles without thinking about a half-halt. But we ride with ease and abandon, qualities I argue dressage riders must re-discover from time to time.

Louie knows—and loves—his job as completely as we know how to breathe and blink our eyes. He allows the rider to simply be along for the ride. He crosses rivers without complaint, bounds up hills without fatigue, maintains composure as frantic fellow racers bolt past him. His ears stay perked forward down the trail focused on the horizon ahead, never startling at a herd of wild turkeys or loose cows or leaping deer. A horse like this, one in total command of his task, needs little to no input from his rider. He allowed me to resemble again the 10-year old girl galloping through our Vermont pastures holding on to a clump of mane without a care on the world.
He reminded me that when we as riders get such opportunities to feel this state of freedom we must take them… twangy hamstring, ailing groin, and dehydration included.

Where’s the Waiver?

“Did you sign the waiver?” I chortled at Siobhan, a sarcastic reference to the way horse business is done here in Brazil, as in the fact that these cowboys in flip flops have never even heard words like liability or lawsuit. So far in our travels, nobody has bothered to ask about previous riding experience, let alone fathom any repercussion resulting from injuries acquired aboard their very casually trained steeds. It is a land where, in lieu of “Inherent Danger” placards posted in the barnyard, I expect to see signs that read: Want to risk life and limb? Follow me!

One summer while working in England, I listened to pub-goers remind me day after day how serious and uptight Americans were. I took offense. After all, I could have as much fun as the next bloke. Heck, I exceled at fun. All these years later, I am guessing that the uptightness referenced other things, like all our protocols and rules, and liability worries. An equine professional in the U.S. could make herself neurotic trying to prevent a student mishap. Some days seem more about damage control than horseback instruction. Until now, in the brown and chestnut blur formed by our excessive speed, I didn’t understand what those Brits meant.

We had been on our steeds just long enough to get our stirrup lengths sorted out when our guide mumbles something Portuguese towards us and then takes off at a hoof-pounding run across Praia do Rosa beach, which at this point extended as far as my watering eyes could see. I yank in the reins, shove my butt in the saddle, and stifle a few expletives. Let me clarify that we were not just cantering along a sun-soaked beach in an idyllic postcard sort of way; we were charging like the Preakness, moving so wildly across uneven sand that I stopped wondering if it was safe. I knew it was not. The insanity would end in a few kilometers as the horses fatigued. My first miscalculation.

We race three abreast, almost trampling a surfer carrying his board home, then dodge a woman with a small child carrying a beach chair. Our horses streak sideways towards the water to find packed sand underfoot but then dart back the other direction shying away from a wave crashing. I look over at our guide—a stoned looking gaucho with sweatpants that have “gangster” embroidered across the backside and rubber boots—for some sense of where or how long we will run like this. Marcio is hunched happily on his sheepskin pad, feet shoved forward towards his horse’s chest. He flops and bounces in disorganized harmony with his crazed steed. He is 100 percent relaxation and zero percent equitation.

I try to steer my steed around a bikini clad sunbather, which presents me with the evidence that I have lost all communication with her. She will not deviate from her line. She runs with tunnel focus as if there are big stakes to claim at the end of this race, except in this case there is a towering cliff at the end. We are gunning towards the south end of Praia do Rosa beach where it runs in to a rock wall. Obviously we will slow down there and regain control of our mounts, I hypothesize through clenched teeth. My second miscalculation. Due to our blinding speed, I failed to identify a goat trail straight up the rocks behind a sign that I couldn’t read but probably said Danger, Keep Out.
We hit the trail at a gait best described as a tr-anter and, after a brief climb up, level out on a clay road where we shift back up to galloping. By now we have covered so much distance without any sign of the horses fading that I begin wondering if I will ever regain the ability to steer this runaway mare under me. She feels now like one those exhilarating rides at the amusement park that you’re pretty sure will last a lot longer than you need or want it to.

We blur past oxen tethered beside the road, past cars coming the other direction, then dart sideways into the tall reeds covering the dunes. We are still running when we reach an inland lagoon and scramble in chest-high. By now I have surrendered to the insanity, my form resembling Marcio’s except for my proper paddock boots and breeches. I am a lawless, ragged yahoo breaking every rule I have ever known or taught about trail riding. We run down hills, slam in to each other, gallop all the way back to the barn.

It has been ages since I have galloped for so long over such distance. Oh, wait. I have never known enough lunacy nor ridden a horse with enough of it to consider the kid of ride that we are break-necking through. That I was as cautious or uptight as my fellow Americans? The final miscalculation.

If I could release the death grip on my horse’s mane, I would raise a glass to my British friends. How’s THIS for uptight? Ha!


Of Horses, Beaches, and Good Thoughts

In countless ways, it was a night like none other. A massive full moon overhead illuminating miles of sand dunes in iridescent peaks on Florianopolis Island in southern Brazil would have been enough for weeks of inspired musing. But then add to this the eagerness turned terror that had become my state of being as a hyper Brazilian guy in flip flops prepared the horse I had rented for the evening.

Neither of us spoke one word of shared language, which left our communication relying on hand gestures and eyebrow twitches. My girlfriend, using some broken Spanish and even more broken Portuguese, conveyed to this man in cut off sweatpants and flip flops whose name had too many syllables for us to pronounce that I wanted to ride his horses. On my morning run, I spotted them in a small field heading out to Joaquina beach. In fact, these three grey geldings were so impressively muscled and fit that I could not stop thinking about them. Their hindquarters were toned and supple, their necks arched and well developed. This led to the dispatch of Siobhan to see what we could do about my yearning.

Not only was the guy in flip flops amenable to renting us a couple of horses, he told us to take them out under the full moon for a good romp on the dunes and the wide flat 8 kilometer beach. It was our lucky day. Right as he cinched a bundle of sheepskin in place of a saddle, though, my luck ran out. This little guy with wild green eyes started pointing at me, then back at the horse, then back at me. He was speaking quickly now, his eyes getting wide. He began making quick movements with his hands and arms. Siobhan figured out that he was saying something about my skills, or the horse’s need for a mucho, moito good rider. I then hear him say the word “rapido” a few times and it hit me that I was in for one crazy ride. In any language, frantic hand gestures and words like rapido are bad omens.

I was now fully occupied holding my breath and watching the guy tie a rope from underneath the horse’s rawhide halter down between his legs to the girth, which I guessed was supposed to prevent him from rearing or bolting. Siobhan kept chatting in her Spangalese, asking the name of each horse. The grey that I would be riding– the rapido one who had now begun snorting and grinding his teeth – was named Mal. I flashed through a quick list of other mal- words: malicious, malcontent, malfunction.

Our guide arrived on a handsome coppery Criollo and motioned for us to follow but I was reluctant to mount my steed that now flung his head around, agitated. His eyes tightened at the corners, he pulled against the rope that was supposed to keep his head down. Seeing my wariness, the guy with flip flops got on Mal, intending either to reassure me or to bronc around the barbed wire enclosure until his spunk ran out. Mal’s tail swished, his body darted left and right, the way I imagine a gorilla might when it got pissed off. The guy hops back off, indicating everything is good, bon. Now it was my turn.

Right then, one short second before telling this guy that I actually had no interest whatsoever in riding his crazy rapido horse, a critical element of horsemanship happened. I changed my thoughts. And thus, gentle reader, changed the entire potential outcome of the evening. Much as I would like to claim mind control, it was more a matter of sheer distraction. By now, the moon was so wide and bright, the tropical breezes so warm and sensuous on my bare arms that I was inebriated by the whole scene. Fast powerful waves from Joaquina beach crashed between the hoots of birds deep in the jungle. My insides puddled with relaxation and inspiration.

I vault up on Mal, who got squirrely under me, threatening to explode. By now, though, I was drunk with the moon, the fizzy ocean surf, the moist lush smell of dune vegetation. I melted in to Mal’s back rather than tightening the reins. My legs went loose, the corners of my mouth rose. And just like that, the feisty grey horse settled right down under me. He blew out a little sigh, returned his tail to a normal posture, and off we trekked into the night. Mal’s owner looked at me impressed. He lifted his eyebrows high as if puzzling over my rare composure on a horse that has probably terrified every rider before me.

Here it was, that old horsemanship adage: if you relax, your horse will relax, too.

We entered a tunnel of rubber plants and palm fronds that climbed up a steep pitch before exiting on the shifting ridge of a mountainous dune. All around us for miles, fine white sand rose in peaks and sunk in valleys. We carried on over several rises to the beach, hooves squeeking in the sand under us. Mal’s body warmed from the effort and I gave his withers a rub. He slowly turned an ear back to me and then lowered his neck, relaxing more. The moon now cast our shadows on the white ground ahead and I caught Mal’s image: refined Arabian head poised with erect ears, nose forward, ready for my cue to run rapido with the wind. But he waited like a gentleman for my wish.
A sultry breeze swirled around us. Time seemed to rush forward and march backwards and stand still all at once. Waves clapped, the moon rose higher. Magic pulsed through the night, the kind only found on horseback.

I ran my hand the length of Mal’s neck. Thank you, thank you for this.