Your horse suddenly pitches forward and drops out from under you. For a split second, his balance and yours teeter on the brink. Few things are more alarming than a horse stumbling, even for an experienced rider: Will he go down and take you with him?
Horses usually manage to stay upright when they trip, and (after you catch your breath) it's tempting to quickly laugh these incidents off. Even when a horse stumbles repeatedly, you'll hear people dismiss it: "He's just lazy," or "That's just him."
Yet it takes only one misstep for Twinkletoes to go down and flip over, with results that we'd all rather not contemplate. But let's, briefly, contemplate them: You could be killed. So could your horse.
This is a problem you can't ignore.
Stumbling in horses can be a training issue, but it can also have physical causes. We asked equine veterinarian Duncan Peters of Lexington, Kentucky, to explain those causes and what you can do to correct them. For the training angle, we went to longtime Massachusetts eventer Mark Weissbecker; you'll find his advice in "Riding a Stumble" on the next page.
Anatomy of a Stumble
When your horse takes a good step forward, he brings his foreleg out in front of his body and sets his foot down squarely, the heel landing a split second before the toe sets down. He shifts his weight onto the bony column of the leg as his body passes over it, stabilizing the limb with ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Then the heel lifts, and the foot breaks over at the toe to come up and move forward again.
When he trips, it's usually because he catches a toe. This can happen if he takes a short stride, puts his foot down toe first, or just fails to clear a tree root or some other obstacle in his path. The leg knuckles over instead of landing squarely, and suddenly it isn't there to support his weight. He tips forward. Maybe it's a momentary bobble and he quickly regains his footing. Maybe he scrambles to get his feet back under himself. Or maybe he goes down.
Fatigue, speed, and deep or uneven footing increase the risk of stumbling. In fact, given the right circumstances, any horse can stumble: He's distracted—he looks off to the side to check out his buddies in the pasture or a person standing at the rail—and forgets to think about how and where he's putting his feet down.
Inattentiveness is probably the most common cause of stumbling, especially for young horses, Dr. Peters says. This is a training and riding issue; it's up to you, the rider, to keep your horse balanced, attentive to your aids, and thinking about where he's going.
When do you know you have a more serious problem? Here are two red flags:
- Your horse stumbles or trips frequently or predictably. "When you begin to anticipate that your horse will trip in a given situation, such as going downhill or landing from a fence," says Dr. Peters, "you need to find out what's going on."
- Your horse has trouble recovering his balance. He catches a toe, a problem that should be minor, but then scrambles to get his feet back under himself—or even goes down on his knees.
In many cases, getting to the bottom of a stumbling problem calls for a team effort, involving your vet, your farrier, and your trainer. Whoever you're working with has to want to figure out the problem, not brush it off. Here, we'll cover five common causes.
It's His Build
Some conformation faults increase the risk of stumbling. The most common, Dr. Peters says, is a "downhill" build.
What happens: Horses typically carry 60 percent of their weight on their forelimbs. A horse that's built downhill, with his hindquarters higher than his withers, carries extra weight on his forehand. The additional weight can make it harder for him to get his legs out in front of himself. He takes choppy strides as he puts his front feet down to catch himself, and thus is more likely to hook a toe and stumble—especially at speed.
Many young horses go through phases in which their hindquarters briefly outgrow their withers. In most of these cases, the horses' withers eventually catch up. But some horses mature with this conformation, which a low head carriage will exacerbate.
On the other hand, some conformation faults that would seem most likely to cause stumbling may not, Dr. Peters says. In his experience, a horse that is over at the knee (knees cocked forward) is not more likely to stumble—as long as the lower-leg conformation is normal. But if the same horse also has very steep pasterns, he could be in trouble.