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ASSESSING THE HORSE -
Posture and Movement
What is Good Posture?
Good body posture is as important for a horse as it is for a human. The way a horse chooses to stand can tell us a lot about how he is feeling in both body and mind, and how comfortable are his feet. The difficulty can be to determine which comes first. Is the horse standing with a braced posture because his feet hurt? Or does he use his feet inappropriately because his body is braced?
Here are some clues to look for. The three horses on the left below all show the same signs of body bracing due to inadequate dietary magnesium. The photos on the the right are of the same horses just a few months after changing diet to optimise magnesium intake.
It is not possible for a horse to use his feet correctly if his body is braced. It is also not possible for a horse to build core strength if his body is braced. Muscle relaxation is vital to enable the horse to be the best he can be, in mind, body and hoof.
MUSCLE BRACING = POSTURAL CHANGE = USE OF HOOF CHANGE
BEFORE diet change:
* Withers appear 'long'
* Sharp 'V' at base of withers
* Sloping croup
* Straight hind leg
* Leaning over front feet
AFTER diet change:
* Withers appear shorter
* Smooth withers/back junction
* Rounded croup
* Angulated hind leg
* Upright over front feet
(Click on any image to see a larger version)
What is Good Movement?
Horses are unable to use words to convey what they are feeling, so their body language and manner of movement is the only way they can draw attention to anything that may be amiss. Their overall body posture, pattern of footfalls in movement and facial expression all having meaning.
In order to interpret that body language correctly, we first have to know what is normal. If a horse is feeling pain in his feet, it will be reflected elsewhere in his body even if he is not obviously lame. If his body is braced for some reason, that will affect the way he uses his feet, and may make him appear footsore. The challenge is to understand which is the originating, primary problem - feet or body.
For the sake of clarity, it is preferable to assess the horse when he is moving completely freely, with no influence from a rider or rope, as shown in the example below.
This horse is 'saying' loud and clear that he is relaxed
and feeling good:
The ears are relaxed
The mouth and jaw are relaxed
The eye has a soft expression
The tail is swinging loosely with the movement
The muscles of his topline are soft
The stride has even footfalls
The hoof impacts the ground heel-first with each step
He is moving willingly, without the need to be driven
For reasons discussed on the HOOF assessment page, it is expected that a horse should move mostly with a heel-first landing. There are, however, a number of situations in which a temporary toe-first landing is appropriate and should not be taken as evidence of a weak or sore foot.
Here are some examples:
The gradient of the slope prevents the horse from protracting the foot far enough forward to enable the heel to be placed on the ground first. The toe gives the horse purchase on soft ground, minimising slipping.
Highly collected movement
In collected gaits such as piaffe, the step-length is too short to enable the foot to strike the ground heel-first so the hoof lands flat or even toe-first.
Lateral movements such as halfpass or sidepass can temporarily shorten the overall step-length so the heel is unable to reach the ground first. The hoof is likely to land flat or on the medial or lateral quarter.
If the horse is moving slowly with low energy, the step-length will be short with insufficient time to protract the limb far enough forward to enable a heel-strike.
Stress or anxiety can easily cause a horse to move with a hollow back and short step-length.
The important matter for assessment is to verify that the horse is able to land on his heels when it is appropriate, for example when moving with some speed and energy. The faster the pace, the greater the need to land on the heels where the shock forces of impact can be best absorbed.
See examples below of various appropriate toe-first and heel-first landing.
(Click on any image to see a larger version)
1. Same horse, same day . . .
. . . toe-strike at trot and heel-strike at canter just a few seconds later. Why?
Step-length has shortened because the horse has lowered his energy and is slowing from trot to walk, resulting in a toe-first landing.
The horse has raised his energy, increasing his step-length in the canter, resulting in a heel-first landing.
2. Same horse, same day . . .
. . . toe-strike while turning and heel-strike at trot just a few seconds later. Why?
The horse is turning on the haunches while in a highly collected body posture. The two offside feet will land flat or toe-first because of the very short step-length.
Moments later the horse has extended his trot step-length which enables the heel to strike the ground first. In this instance, the pinned ears are part of a strong dialogue with another horse cropped out of the picture, not a sign of pain.