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.

horse biomechanics

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.

Greener Pastures, Part 2

I visited my hometown in Vermont last week and was immediately reminded that traveling to the Northeast from California means boarding a plane in flip-flops and shorts and then six hours later trying while deplaning to stuff myself into five sweaters… at once. By the time I left the airport terminal, I was wearing everything I packed in my suitcase. And I was wishing for one more scarf to cover the drafty parts on my neck not yet fully mummified.

My father, meanwhile, pointed out that it was a lovely Autumn day with “balmy” temperatures well into the 40’s. I begged him to roll up his window and stop trying to tell me that the biting air outside was “warm” by any one’s definition. It has been only six years since I left Vermont for California, but apparently one can soften up quickly. I used to laugh at Californians during January wearing their Ugg boots and woolen scarves as if it were actually ‘winter’ outside rather than a mid-60 degree day with light breezes. But now I have become one of them. I wrap scarves around myself as soon as the temperature dips below the high 60’s, I use the word “storm” to describe a light rain shower, and I talk about winter as if it’s actually a season here (which it isn’t).

While visiting Vermont, I realized just how soft I’ve become. Back when I lived in New England, I often taught riding lessons until I was frozen solid. Then I would call it a day, rubbing icicles out of my eyelashes. One year, I got frostbite in all ten toes and instated a policy that from then on, I would teach only in temperatures above 10-degrees Fahrenheit. The following year, though, I got frostbite in all ten fingers, and I raised the temperature minimum to 20-degrees. However, a horse trainer in Vermont cannot survive with such a policy as I soon found out. You see, during the months of January and February, the temperature sometimes sits below 20-degrees for weeks at a time. This meant my prospective income-earning days reduced from 30 per month to zero. Thus, I moved to California.

Last week’s visit home coincided with my birthday, and so my friend Sarah took me to her favorite tack and saddle shop. The idea was to buy me a gift. Not being a great shopper, I asked Sarah to help me choose a pair of riding pants. Next thing I know, she’s holding up something that looks like a uniform for ski patrol in Alaska.

“What about these?” she asked, obviously pleased with whatever it was that she found.

“Um… well what are those, exactly?” I asked as politely as possible.

Her brow pushed together. She looked at me like a stranger, or someone who had gravely disappointed her.

“What? You don’t remember these?” she finally mumbled, looking off into space now. I could sense an odd tension in the room, as if she’d asked me if I remembered my own father’s name. I tried to ease the growing alienation I sensed between us. Clearly, I should have recognized whatever she held in her hands. And honestly, to me, it looked like a cross between a bathrobe and a sleeping bag.

“Fleece riding pants? Don’t you remember? Do people in California not wear these?” asked Sarah, trying to fathom how anyone could survive in winter without insulating herself in four inches of unflattering fabrics.

Upon closer inspection, and a very chilly recollection of my former life, I did remember the fleece riding pants. I remember owning an entire drawer of them. They were thick and fuzzy and added at least three inches of bulk to each thigh. Well, I should say they would have added three inches of bulk… if worn alone. But a rider would perish in Vermont’s winter trying to wear only fleece pants. One also needed 1.) silk long underwear 2.) thermal undergarments 3.) heated socks and 4.) an external waterproof shell of some sort. In that order. All told, when I got dressed to ride in Vermont, I inflated from a size four to a size 10.

With so many layers of clothes, it’s almost impossible to ride a horse. I mean, you are so padded and insulated that you can barely move, let alone feel anything like a horse moving under you. Giving lessons always highlighted this challenge. Riders would ask me about their form, their position in the saddle, etc. “Is my leg in the right place?” they would ask. “Is my back straight?” And I would stand in the middle of the arena staring at them, trying to see them through all those layers. Sometimes, I had to admit, “You know, I can’t even see your back.” A person could be entirely slouched over or slumped down in the saddle, and I would never be able to tell under all the jackets and flannel.

But the beauty of life in the Northeast is that riders there assume that equestrians across the country suffer through the same winter experiences. They think the sunny portrayals of California are just a fabrication of Hollywood. Shivering with their frostbitten fingers frozen around a pair of reins, they believe we Californians are donning fleece riding pants and sniffling through riding lessons, too. Not so, dear New Englanders! I will always remain a Vermont native at heart and I do harbor a fierce pride in that frigid northeastern United States. But I have to admit that I don’t miss fleece riding pants, no matter how sexy this year’s color selection might be. I’ll stick to riding in shirt sleeves and everyday breeches.

For now, I need to get going. Tomorrow is forecast for light rain showers and I need to go prepare the barn for a “storm.”