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The Crooked Horse

The Crooked Horse
Is training or lameness to blame?
There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
So goes the traditional English nursery rhyme. But what if the equine science world added one more couplet?
He rode a crooked saddle strapped on his crooked horse,
And together all the crookedness made the crookedness worse.
The crookedness we see in horses isn’t exactly the same as that of the crooked man and the crooked cat, of course. While some forms of crookedness are conformational, usually when we speak of crookedness we’re talking about the horse’s movement. Ideally, say veterinarians, horses should move in a straight line in a straight axis. It makes them better athletes and sounder horses.
Like the crooked man, we might accentuate our horses’ natural crookedness with our own—or by riding in ill-fitting saddles. But we can also improve it with good posture, tack, awareness, training, exercises, and veterinary care.
The Many Facets of Crookedness
What is a crooked horse? Our sources describe several kinds:
Some foals are born with or develop angular limb deformities, such as valgus (knock knees) and varus (bow-legged) carpal joints, or rotational deformities, in which the toes point in or out. Rotational deformities can occur in technically straight, albeit twisting, legs and are often ­associated with a narrow stance, says Valerie Moorman, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS-LA, assistant professor of equine surgery and lameness at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, in Fort Collins.
Horses lacking conformational straightness tend to have side-to-side imbalances, she says. Or they might move in a straight line but show “winging” (outward limb swing, also called “paddling”) or “dishing” (inward limb swing) during movement. Corrective shoeing, physical therapy, and, more rarely, surgery can usually correct these kinds of ­crookedness in the first few months of life.
Uneven rein contact
Horses can take asymmetrical rein contact, leaning more on one side than the other, says Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVSMR, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England. This usually reflects underlying musculoskeletal pain, often hind-limb lameness. She says it might result in the bit pulling through the horse’s mouth more on one side than the other. The horse might be more difficult to turn one direction. The rider might say the horse simply “feels different” on one rein than the other. This might be most obvious at the trot and can be influenced by the diagonal on which the rider sits. A horse might be adapting his movement to avoid discomfort when the rider sits on one diagonal.
“You can get the impression of crookedness in your horse if you rise up on one diagonal and then switch to the other and notice that the horse feels very different,” Dyson says.
Veterinarians have shown that in association with hind-limb lameness, there’s also asymmetrical movement of the horse’s back. Not surprisingly, some riders can feel this change. It might result in the saddle slipping consistently to one side, which can induce crookedness in a rider that normally sits straight.
But some people naturally ride with slightly uneven rein tension—often due to their own laterality. They might inadvertently carry one hand higher or rotate one hand more than the other.
Crooked movement
Horses might adapt to musculoskeletal pain by moving on three tracks, instead of two, with the inside hind limb not following the inside forelimb, for example, causing the rider to feel that the horse is crooked. “If the horse has overtly got one or both hind limbs on a different track to the forelimbs, then it’s moving on three (or possibly four) tracks, and that’s not correct,” Dyson says. It can occur at the trot, canter, or both.
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