Stumbling: The Trip You Don’t Want to Take With Your Horse

If your horse frequently stumbles, you need to put on your detective hat because it doesn’t happen without reason.
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If your horse frequently stumbles, you need to put on your detective hat because it doesn’t happen without reason.

It’s probably happened to you: you and your horse have just finished a good workout and you’re headed back to the barn on a loose rein full of love for all mankind. Suddenly your horse catches a toe, and in a nanosecond you’re lying flat on your back looking at the sky or the quizzical expression on your horse’s face. Download a PDF of this article here.

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Was it a rare event, or is this happening more and more? When does that “bad step” become a problem? How do we even define stumbling? Mason’s Farrier, published in 1889, states, “All horses stumble, but there is a very wide distinction between a light tip or touch, and a stumble that will bring a horse and sometimes his rider flat in the dirt.”

Whatever that distinction might be, we’re going to investigate those missteps, and we’ll call it “stumbling” if it happens to either such a degree or with enough frequency to set off alarms. The problem should not to be ignored; some of our best riders have suffered permanent disability and even death from a seemingly innocent bobble.

Have you read much about stumbling? There’s very little out there.

So we queried our team here at Horse Journal Online, asking them to weigh in on the subject. We especially wanted to know what, in their diverse and lengthy horse histories, they felt were the major causes of stumbling. We’ve included their responses; you might agree, or you may be surprised.

FOOTING

Let’s start with the easy one. There’s little debate rough-going is a contributing factor to stumbling. Even a change of footing from gravel to sand will take a few strides of adjustment. Any deep, rocky or irregular surface can trip up even the most agile horse if he’s had no previous experience with the footing. A coddled performance horse never worked in anything but perfectly groomed and level conditions is ripe for a stumble when he’s asked to traverse novel grounds.

Performance Editor John Strassburger claims to have the least amount of experience with stumblers, in spite of the number of horses he’s ridden and trained over the years. He attributes this to his insistence on fitness and his use of natural, hilly turnout to familiarize all his mounts to uneven terrain.

Clearly there’s a trade-off between acclimating your horse to all commonly encountered ground conditions versus the risk of injury. Associate Editor Margaret Freeman feels restricting your riding to only manicured footing does nothing to develop familiarity with less-than-ideal surfaces when they unexpectedly appear – and they will.

Get out of that ring and slowly introduce your horse to mud, slopes, natural pasture and trails. You’ll both be more confident if you take the time to accustom yourselves to any terrain you could possibly encounter.

Download a PDF of the before-after hooves here.

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CONFORMATION

A normal stride involves planting a balanced hoof with the heel striking just prior to the rest of the hoof, and the horse’s mass then swinging forward over that hoof. The foot is then quickly lifted and swung forward in preparation for the next weight-bearing stride. When the “quickly lifted” part is delayed, stumbling becomes a possibility as the horse scrambles to catch up with his body.

In addition to the hoof and veterinary issues we’ve addressed in side bars, the horse’s natural stance and stature can negatively affect break over.

Stop and consider how each of the following might delay a well-timed step:

  • downhill conformation
  • a low-set, heavy neck
  • obesity: horse AND/OR rider
  • back-at-the-knee (calf-kneed)
  • a hindquarters-only growth spurt.

Not only will a low, heavy and/or short neck contribute to stumbling, but because the neck is used to regain balance, horses with these faults are less likely to be able to recover from even a mild misstep.

Assuming an equal level of alertness, short-gaited horses are less likely to stumble than those with long, reachy strides. (Think how you alter your own walk when you encounter an icy patch.) Ground-covering “daisy cutters” are especially vulnerable. You’d expect warmbloods to be more susceptible due to their extravagant trots, but they normally show a marked period of suspension at that gait, which allows those feet to lift and swing through easily.

balance

Download a PDF of the balance sidebar here.

TYPE A’S VS TYPE L’S

We probably all associate hot, uber-alert horses with agility. They seem catlike in their movement and have an uncanny sense of the location of every part of their body, including their hooves. Contributing Writer Beth Hyman runs the Squirrelwood Equine Sanctuary, a rescue facility in New York. However, she has mileage in many disciplines from hunters to polo, feels there are just some horses with enhanced proprioception. “They are naturally handy and surefooted,” as well as being ���engaged” with their environment, she said.

Download a PDF of "Two Horses" here.

Download a PDF of "Two Horses" here.

How can we help our less-reactive horses develop more body awareness? Ground poles and cavaletti are the classical answers. Linda Tellington-Jones and her TTEAM method describe many exercises that she feels activate unused neural pathways, teaching the horse to listen to signals from previously ignored areas of his body. Several approaches involving the lower leg and hind end could be very relevant. You can give the techniques a try without becoming a disciple.

Don’t disparage the Type “L” – Lazies, though. From a survival aspect, the horse who spent his day conserving energy was not the one at the back of the pack when pursued by a predator over a long distance; the horse whose tank emptied first was lunch. (Contributing Writer Linda Layne claims to have owned a horse so lazy it would even stumble and fall to its knees in slow motion.)

FITNESS

Fatigue and injury go hand and hand. We can add stumbling to that duo. A tired horse is a careless horse. It’s the rider’s responsibility to assess when to call it a day. A wise horseman knows at what point an optimum amount of work has been done without unduly depleting the horse’s reserve. Stumbling occurs when “just one more flying change” or “one more shot at that oxer” drowns out the voice that says “enough is enough.”

Several widely-published injuries from stumbles have occurred in recent years to seasoned professionals who failed to consider the inexperience and/or lack of fitness in their young mounts. A horseman who retires on course or scratches a class earns our respect.

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REFERRED PAIN

Nearly all our experts listed “saddle pain” as a cause of stumbling. Once you’ve made sure your saddle fits your horse, make sure you fit your saddle. Attempting to squeeze a large behind into a tiny saddle is not only unsightly, but it intensifies the pounds of pressure the bars place on a too-small area of the horse’s back. If you can’t fit the width of your hand between your buttocks and your cantle or your thighs are obscuring your saddle flaps, you need a bigger saddle.

Clearly the back is a long way from the hoof, but pain in one area that presents in another is more common than you might suspect. In humans who have suffered blunt trauma to the abdomen, complaints of pain in the left shoulder signal a ruptured spleen almost 100% of the time. After over 40 years in an ER, I can tell you almost every patient with an isolated UPPER extremity injury will present to triage limping.

Our farrier editors – Steve Kraus and Lee Foley - were united in linking stifle pain to stumbling.

And, it’s not infrequent to find stories of frequent missteps finally diagnosed as equine dental pain.

Contributor Susan Quinn rode a “stumbling mare” for 15 years with some memorable over-the-head catapults and a spectacular down the centerline near-crash. Only when the mare became lame did radiographs reveal probably long-standing pedal osteitis.

What this all means is that you, the horse’s owner, have to become both a detective and an advocate. You need to marshal every resource to determine why your horse is stumbling: your vet, the farrier, and your instructor. If they are all stymied, you have to keep searching beyond the obvious.

THE RIDER

We’ve already given you some assignments: balanced shoeing, a comprehensive vet work-up, all-terrain schooling, cavaletti, TTEAM and a correctly-fitted saddle. Now it’s time to look in the mirror.

Get an honest evaluation of your riding skills from an experienced instructor, not necessarily your own. Are you allowing your horse to fall on his forehand? Are you actually teaching him that? Some hunter and western divisions now require horses to show with as little animation as possible, heads positioned at the level of their knees and feet dragging. Are you rebel enough to ignore the trend and ask your horse to engage his backend and lighten his front?

We’ve all been to clinics where a demo rider is trotting around the ring on a sleeping horse with little puffs of scuffed dust following. The clinician gets on, shifts the horse’s weight off his forehand and transforms the horse into an Olympic prospect. That’s your goal. Change those Type L’s into Type A’s, at least for the duration of your work session.

Even during walk breaks, your horse should be alert and working.

Sing “Seventy-Six Trombones” or something by Sousa, and keep that horse marching. (I whistle the piccolo part to “The Stars and Stripes,” which all my horses find entertaining, since I can’t whistle.) An FEI rider friend confessed that every fall she’s ever had occurred on a loose rein at the walk when her horse caught a toe.

BOTTOM LINE

Don’t overlook the legal ramifications when buying or selling a horse with a significant history of stumbling. “Does he stumble?” or “Has he ever fallen to his knees?” should be a mandatory conversation. Our own editor Cindy Foley once tried a horse at an upscale barn. The mare was fine on the flat, but fell on landing after the second jump, tossing Cindy into the dirt. The owners “forgot” to tell her “the horse had been nerved and would sometimes stumble on uneven ground.”

It should be obvious by now that stumbling is a complex issue. Horses don’t want to stumble. (Except for those crafty guys who figure out stumbling makes you jump off and lead them back to the barn.) When they trip repeatedly, they’re trying to tell you the only way they know how that something is very wrong.

Hopefully we’ve given you much to think about and lots of ideas and approaches for your stumbling horse. Now you understand why one of the greatest epitaphs a horseman can give a beloved mount is: He never put a foot wrong.

Article by Contributing Writer Beth Benard.