Many riders are aware of when their horse is feeling a little under the weather. The obvious signs can be easy to see, but I am going to outline a few simple, perhaps less obvious factors that I keep in mind when I assess a horse before deciding to train or ride each day.
I take a mental note of three aspects of the horse’s health, and my goal is to bring these three pieces into balance early on in our relationship. Their present posture (standing and during movement), their diet, and the condition of their hooves all have major influence over the horse’s mental, emotional and physical well being – and trainability. All three directly affect one another, and therefore can be influenced to turn out a sound and comfortable horse. When any or all three of these aspects are neglected or misunderstood, the horse is most definitely going to find difficulty carrying a rider. Let’s buckle down and take a closer look.
One way to determine the condition of a horse’s posture is by assessing their neck. The underside of the neck should be loose and relaxed whether the horse is standing or moving for the most part. It will also be “shorter” than the topline of the neck. The topline of a horse with good posture is “longer” than the underside, which means that the horse is ultimately stretching forward through his back as he moves. On the other hand, if the underside of the neck has tight and “bulging” muscles, or appears to be “longer,” the horse is most likely using these muscles instead of using his topline. When this is the case, a skinny neck or hollowing of the muscles in front of the wither develops.
NOTE: Be careful not to confuse fatty deposits along the top of the neck with well-developed muscle! Fat deposits in the form of “cresting” along the neck are not healthy, and are not a contribution to good posture.
After assessing the neck, I take a look at how the horse uses his back. Does his back swing in cadence with his ribs as he moves? OR does his back drop down between the wither and hind quarters? Determining how he carries his back can give us great insight for his saddle fit, athletic abilities, habits, and overall health. For a closer look you can rub your fingers down either side of the horse’s spine. Any flinching or dipping away from your hand is a sign that there may be pain that needs to be addressed via bodywork or saddle fit.
A horse with good posture will stand fairly square, with his hind feet underneath his hips. Hind legs that either “hide” in the tail or tuck forward under his belly are signs of either conformation challenge, or more likely poor posture caused by lack of education/injury. When he stands and moves this way, the lumbar area of his back will be tight, along with most other areas of the body. Assess the length of stride and reach in their hind legs. An equal reach in stride from both hind legs is ideal, although if one hind leg does have a shorter stride then it is time to look closer at why. Perhaps he needs a chiropractic adjustment, or some consistent stretching exercises before each ride to help balance him out. Regardless, take some extra care when working with your horse in this area.
Horses are asymmetrical, just as we are left or right handed. A “left-handed” horse will usually choose to travel to the left, take his left lead, and find bending to the left more comfortable. Our responsibility to this horse will be to help him develop more balance, flexibility, and strength on both sides. The ambidextrous horse will feel relaxed and confident whether he is moving to the left or right. In order to get a good look at the horse’s symmetry I like to lunge both directions, walk behind him on straight lines, and stand above him from behind to look down over his back. This way I can get a clear visual of his muscle development and posture.
An often overlooked influence on the horse’s present condition is his diet. What, how much, and how often is your horse being fed daily?
What kind of access does the horse have to forage (hay, grass)? Does he have a round bale in the paddock that he can eat from all hours of the day? OR does he get a set ration of hay (ie. two flakes three times daily)? Both feeding practises can potentially throw off the balance in the horse’s digestive system by either constantly overloading it, or by allowing the active digestive tract to sit empty for periods of time and then fill up too quickly when the hungry horse is fed. Horses who are constantly overeating can struggle with bloat and obesity. Horses who go long periods (longer than two hours) without forage can suffer from ulcers in the digestive system caused by the acidic environment designed to thrive on consistent small amounts of roughage. Access to small amounts of forage constantly (slow feeders/hay nets) and lots of room to roam and exercise with herd mates contributes to his healthy posture and hooves! Click here for more information on natural horsekeeping.
Grains – excess carbohydrates and sugars
What does the horse eat besides roughage? Hopefully not much! Nutrition is directly linked to the condition of your horse’s feet and his posture. Horses are foragers – designed to eat small amounts of grasses and plants. When a horse is fed pounds of grain daily, I always ask, “Why”? Usually an owner with good intentions feeds grain because someone else told them they should, OR the horse is growing, OR the horse is a “hard keeper” (thin). A horse who eats more protein, fat and carbohydrates than his body can process will struggle with blood sugar imbalances, obesity, lack of motivation or attention, leaky bowels, laminitis, etc. Horses are designed to thrive on fibre, so if your horse is struggling to keep weight on with a quality hay-based diet then his digestive system needs to be “tuned up.” Here is a great link on ways to improve your horse’s digestion and nutrient absorption.
Does your horse receive supplements? There are so many to choose from on the market. The purpose of a supplement should be to balance the horse’s diet in consideration of his roughage, lifestyle and workload. It is easier to determine his needs if you have his hay analysed, and then find a supplement that compliments the hay. Try to find supplements that are completely plant based (horses are vegans) and that do not use starchy binders (corn, oats, wheat, soy). Everything from joint health and muscle development, to brain function are supported by good nutrition.
The Hoof Walls
A healthy hoof will have a tight connection between the wall (the outside of the foot) and the coffin bone (internal structure of the foot). You can figure out if your horse has a good wall connection by placing a straight edge at the top of the hoof at the coronet band. The top inch of the hoof will usually grow from the cornet band with good connection to the coffin bone. The rest of hoof will either follow this angle (good wall connection), or the wall will begin to change angle away from the top inch of wall. This is considered “Flaring”.Why does this matter to me for training my horse? When the wall flares away from the coffin bone this is a result of stretching or disconnection of the laminae. In minor cases this can cause your horse discomfort in some footing (ie hard ground), but in more severe cases this can cause lameness. For more information about flares and wall cracks, and how to address them, click here.
The Health of the Heels
The back third of the hoof is designed to be a tremendous shock absorber for the horse. The frog and soft tissues at the back of the foot are directly beneath the lateral cartilages within the hoof capsule (which are located behind the coffin bone). Check to see that your horse’s frogs are robust and callused, from repeated wear and impact on the ground. The internal structures above the frog are therefore supported and strong. A weak frog and heel will appear to be thin, squishy, and often stinky with bacteria or fungus (thrush). When the frogs are in good condition, then the horse is far more likely to move comfortably and bravely. More great insight on frog maintenance can be found here.
The sole is the window to your horse’s health. It has a very important job, as it is responsible for keeping a safe distance between the coffin bone and the ground. A healthy, thick sole is concave, like a bowl.
NOTE: Carving concavity into the sole during a trim imitates the natural shape of a healthy foot, but cutting into the sole will cause thinning and weakness of the whole structure. A thin sole can appear to be flat, shallow or lumpy. Sole thickness can be developed with proper hoof care and lifestyle. I’m not a hoof expert, but I believe every horse owner should understand their horse’s hoof health and development. More information on how to assess your horse’s sole here.
Working with our horses is always so interesting! They each have their own natural abilities and unique requirements. I feel that it is my responsibility to support all of these key areas (posture, nutrition and hoof health), and in doing so I can develop a successful training program for a horse who is happy and comfortable. Feel free to contact me if you would like more information or resources on any of the topics I outlined within this post.