By Christa Lesté-Lasserre
Is your horse’s clumsiness a simple matter of long toes and uneven ground, or is a career-limiting condition to blame?
It happens every now and then: A careless misstep or an unexpected surface change causes your horse to crumble a little under you, before he catches himself and keeps going. If you both recover just fine from the blunder, you might laugh and call him clumsy.
That’s when stumbling is okay. “It’s like a human missing a step over a sidewalk crack—it’s not really a big deal in cases like that,” says Amy Johnson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (Large Animal and Neurology), assistant professor of large animal medicine and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square.
But when it happens again and again, or when it leads to serious falls, stumbling becomes not okay. Often the sign of an underlying orthopedic or neurologic problem, repetitive or severe stumbling can be dangerous for both horse and rider.
Every Horse Stumbles
Musculoskeletal movement is never completely without error. Just like humans, horses can misjudge a step, overlook an obstacle, or simply have a clumsy moment out of distraction or fatigue.
“As the limb should be advanced forward, the toe catches the ground, and the horse often knuckles over a bit toward the fetlock on that foot and quickly has to advance the other front foot to catch its weight,” Johnson says.
While this might sound dramatic, it’s usually nothing to worry about, says Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, head of clinical orthopedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K.
“The occasional stumble is not unusual, particularly on uneven ground,” she says. “For example, if it only happens two or three times individually over the course of a month, then that may not be a cause for concern.”
Horses are good at catching themselves—probably better than humans, partly due to the fact they have four feet instead of two, Dyson says. And they rarely injure themselves during those missteps. Unless the horse is showing signs of pain or irregular movement, there’s no reason to dismount and give him a once-over after the random stumble.
But when stumbling becomes more common or dangerous, it’s time for some scrutiny.
“If it’s happening over and over again, that’s certainly not normal,” Dyson says. “Stumbling two or three times with every ride, for example, merits veterinary investigation.”
Bad recoveries should also raise concern, Johnson says. “If the horse goes down to its knees or seems to lose its balance and have difficulty regaining it, then it’s absolutely something that the rider should bring to the attention of the horse’s veterinarian,” she says.
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