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Body Type and Proper Movement
By Carla Huston BES

The horse world, like many other industries, has its own language that the uninitiated often find mystifying. Unfortunately many people involved with horses still make mistakes with terms, perpetuating confusion and misunderstandings between people. It is very difficult to convey ideas and conditions to another when uncertainty of the language exists.

One of the most common areas where people err with the terminology is with conformation and movement. Not only is one term mistaken for another, but misconceptions abound over what is actually the proper word for the situation. An understanding is essential to speak knowledgeably about horses and comprehend how professionals handle faults and accentuate virtues in conformation and movement.

Many faults related to conformation are not necessarily problematic in themselves, but become so when paired with another defect. Base-narrow and base-wide are two of the basic forelimb problems. A base-narrow horse is one in which the center line of the hooves on the ground is closer together than at the origin of the limbs at the chest. Horses with wide chests and well-developed pectoral muscles most often show this stance. The distribution of weight falls then to the outside of the foot causing the outside to land first; consequently, the outside of the foot and limb bear more strain. Base-wide is simply the opposite - the legs are further apart at the hoof than the chest. This condition is most commonly found in narrow chested horses such as the Saddlebred and Tennessee Walker. More weight is borne on the inside of the foot and limb.

Toed-in is the position in which the feet point toward one another, also called pigeon-toed. Generally this condition arises from deviations in the bone column higher on the leg, not from the hoof. The affected horse usually paddles when moving. This is an outward deviation of the foot during flight; the breakover point is on the outside toe and landing is on the outside wall.

With the toed-out or splay-footed horse the feet point away from one another. This condition usually results from limbs that are crooked from the origin down. A horse that toes-out will often wing, a foot movement where the hoof follows an inner arc.

Another conformation fault of the forelimb is bench or offset knees. The cannon bone is offset to the outside and does not follow a straight line from the forearm. This definitely causes weakness, with the inside splint bone particularly under stress. Splints are a common result.

In the hindlimb a common fault is cow-hocks. The horse stands base-narrow to the hock and base-wide from the hock to the feet. The hocks point toward one another, and the feet are widely separated. Along with being a common conformation defect it is also one of the worst. There is excessive stress on the inside of the hock joint and many times bone spavin a result.

Gait abnormalities may arise from many different sources. Conformation defects will affect the horse's ability to move in a smooth regular gait because the footfalls are affected. Age of the horse is also an incriminating factor when problems develop in movement. Young horses need time to develop their bodies and learn how to carry the tack and rider. As they grow, they will go through periods of clumsiness that must be tolerated and understood by the trainer until he once again rebalances. Older horses will experience changes in their joints and muscles that may alter his way of going. Arthritis may start causing pain that affects the gait. Again the rider must be understanding of what the horse is experiencing. A third culprit of gait problems is rider error. An unbalanced seat, heavy hands or insecure leg could interfere with how the horse moves. A lack of communication may also cause the horse to take missteps, as he does not understand what the rider is asking. In this situation it is critical for the rider to evaluate his own ability in the saddle and take the lessons necessary to polish his skills.

Forging and over-reaching are common complaints during gait analysis. They are often confused and are similar in overview, but closer examination shows a distinct difference. Horses that forge hit the toe of the hind foot against the sole of the fore on the same side. Usually owners of shod horses complain of this most since the colliding shoes make a sharp clicking noise. Barefoot horses can forge too, it just isn't so obvious to the ear. Over-reaching occurs when the toe of the hind foot extends forward and strikes the heel, coronary band, fetlock or flexor tendon of the forefoot on the same side. Usually the repeated knocking will leave open sores on the back the leg. Forging and over-reaching are indications that the horse is moving out of balance, either in the foot specifically or in the entire body. If the medial/lateral (inside/outside) balance of the hoof is off or that from heel to toe, the footfalls and breakover will be altered. When the hind leg is longer than the fore or the stride is extended behind the back foot may hit the front. this also may occur with "downhill" horses, those that are taller at the hip than at the withers. Laziness, tiredness and inexperience may also result in forging or over-reaching. A conscientious rider will evaluate the horse's movement and responses to determine the most likely cause of the problem and begin finding a solution if possible.

Interfering, or brushing, is a lateral gait defect. The limb swings sideways and connects with the opposite leg. The speed and energy level of the horse affects the tendency to interfere. For example, one horse may interfere at the jog, but not the extended trot; another may move with clearance at the jog but not an energetic trot. On the front limbs interference may occur from the knee to the hoof, on the hind usually from the fetlock to the hoof. Pain, heat or swelling are normally the first signs and may continue to hair loss on the affected area, cuts and perhaps underlying bone damage. Interfering is generally a result of poor conformation, frequently animals with narrow chests, and/or toed-out horses. Care should be taken when using the horse that he is worked in activities that will keep injury at a minimum.

Plaiting or rope-walking is a gait abnormality that may occur with the front or hind limbs. This is a bad fault in which the front or hind feet travel in an inward arc and land more or less directly in front of the opposite front or hind foot. The horse that plaits has a very distinctive movement and has a high possibility for injury. Not only may the horse knock himself, but there is also a good chance of stumbling or tripping, thereby injuring the rider also. This type of movement is often associated with base-narrow, toe-out conformation.

Problems with movement can almost always be related to a defect in conformation. With proper riding and training these problems can often be overcome. It is also essential to employ a qualified farrier who is experienced in dealing with gait abnormalities and can keep the feet properly balanced. Finally, the owner must realize the limitations that conformation or movement place on the horse's ability to perform certain activities. Find those events that the animal is comfortable with and hold limited risk of injury.

 

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