Can horses really move symmetrically?

Horses, just like people are more dominant on one side than another. This is often exacerbated by many owners and riders only working from the left hand side, particularly when leading and getting on and off. Symmetry can be described as parallel foot placement between the left and right side and in-line foot placement of the hind and front foot on the same side. 

Recent studies have suggested that the human eye can only detect lameness if the horse is over 25% lame and there is often some discrepancy over which leg until the lameness gets to about 50%. Lameness is linked to riders who are asymmetric, but is also associated with non specific issues such as saddle slip, reluctant to go forward, etc etc. Unsurprisingly, 70% of horses with back problems are lame and 32% of lamenesses also present with back problems.

Further studies have identified that over 50% of horses which the owners thought were sound actually had a significant asymmetry which could have been classed as a lameness. Riders should think about how likely it is that your horse is asymmetric and possibly in the under 25% lame category. Things to think about: 

  • Is your horse always reluctant to move/yield in one direction, e.g. Left shoulder in, left canter?
  • Does your horse box walk in one direction?
  • Do you always tack up and get on the same way or are you good at switching your stirrup leathers and using a mounting block?
  • Does your horse lack impulsion on one hind leg more than the other?
  • How balanced and symmetrical are you? How dominant are you on your strong side? (Click here to find out how well you do on my 3-Part Rider Self Assessment)

Current lameness assessments by a vet will comprise of watching, feeling, stress testing, scanning and nerve blocking, as necessary.

Force plates are now being trailed in assessing lameness and have shown consistent findings:

  • Less force can be produced by the affected leg which is shown by reduced power output and reduced peak force on that limb. This is identified as a lower spike on the y axis of a graph.
  • Lameness/asymmetry will always cause compensations at the other end, e.g hind limb lameness will always cause a forelimb or neck asymmetry and forelimb lameness will always cause hind limb or sacrum asymmetry. This has been quantified by surface markers and video analysis.
  •  Trotting on the lunge will cause asymmetric force production due to centripetal forces (leaning in). The inner hip will move more but have reduced vertical movement during stance phase and reduced force production. This will look like an inside hip hike. Head movement varies between horses and can be greater during inside or outside forelimb stance. This is important because it would be easy to assume that all horses are now "asymmetric" when tested on the lunge, but it is merely how to horse has to carry himself to deal with the speed and radius of circle.

Thus, previously relying on only visual feedback to see if a horse is lame is becoming a thing of the past. Force plates, pressure mats and 3D optic systems as part of an Objective Locomotion Analysis are now able to act as a tool to contribute to a vet’s assessment.

However, riders need to vigilant in making sure that they are balanced and symmetrical as failure to do so is now scientifically linked to equine lameness. This is something, anecdotally, I have frequently found when treating horses. Several the patterns of tension and resistance in the horse is due to the rider. Having an MOT for you and your horse will provide greater insight into how you are both moving and influencing each other. For more information, please click on equine osteopathy or rider osteopathy, or have a look at some of the packages which I offer.

Should I do stretches with my horse?

I recently shared an article on my Facebook Page about Hilary Clayton and her recommendation of doing carrot stretches and using them to activate your horse's core.

Carrot stretches are used by many horse owners to increase their horse's flexibility. I often give them to clients to make the horse more willing to go left and right, but are they actually any use?

When you ask your horse to reach for a carrot and stretch he is actively contracting his muscles in the direction he is bending and reflexively relaxing the muscles on the other side. This is useful in encouraging movement both ways but is restricted if there is an underlying issue. For example if the horse's lower cervicals are stiff (the vertebrae towards the base of his neck), then he is likely to rotate and twist through the poll and upper vertebrae rather than truly moving evenly though his entire neck. 

Passive movement is the extra movement available at a joint or within a muscle when the horse is moved by someone else. Passive movement can help to create new movement or restore lost movement in a restricted or stiff area. An example of this would be a cervical spine manipulation. 

Whilst it is very important for riders and owners to maintain movement in their horse, it is also essential that movement is created or restored in your horse once in a while, so that you are able to continue his work without restrictions. Often when people come to see me to have an MOT Osteopathy Treatment, they leave with several problems to work on which they didn't know they had. Whilst this is surprising to them, it it rarely surprising to me. Pain is the tip of the iceberg and so it is vital to 'treat' the rest of the iceberg regularly - which can be done with or without the presence of pain.

Carrot stretches are a great way to keep you aware of your horse's movements and assessing his willingness to bend. If he is repeatedly stiff to one side, or suddenly becomes stiffer one way, then he may have a restriction which needs more than just stretching to resolve. Stretching is also good to do after riding to help your horse relax and reset his muscles if he gets very tense and tight when you ride.

What would you like know more about with your horse's movements? 

If you have any questions please email me or send me a message via my Facebook page (and of course, give it a like!)

Castration Scars and how they can make your horse lame

Recently I was told a story from a fellow Equine and Canine Osteopath about a horse which she was asked to treat. He was 8 years old and had not be sound for more than 8 weeks at any time during his 'working' life. He had been treated by osteopaths, physios and vets, all who were good, experienced people, but to no avail. The horse remained lame behind. 

So my friend had to think outside the box. Luckily, the horse had been owned by the same person since they were a foal and were still registered with the same vet. After some questioning, it was relayed that the horse's brother had been very difficult to castrate and, as a result, the castration to this horse was done quite tentatively. 

We often think of the body as being made up of separate compartments of tissues - organs in one place, muscles in another and they just simply exist next to each other. In reality, they are all connected and joined by fascia. This is a connective tissue which covers every cell, muscle, bone, joint and connects everything together. The testes are suspended from the abdomen by the spermatic cord. Thus, when the testes are removed, the scar tissue can can extend (in terms of influence rather than presence) to the abdomen and hind limbs up between the back legs. 

This was then the area which my friend focused her treatment. 

After two sessions of about 20 minutes of working through the scar tissue and fibrous adhesions to release some of the tension extending towards the back and hind legs the horse was sound, and has been since, now 12 weeks in work. 

I think this is a great example of how important it is to think laterally about a problem, to ask extended questions or to dig deep into the case history of an animal - if possible. Nearly everything will have a cause and it is up to us to think outside the box, beit anatomically, emotionally or environmentally to help each horse (or rider) be the best that they can be.