There are two definitions to the word surefooted, each of which contributes to a superior riding horse. The first is confidence, not prone to errors in judgment or action. Owners of Icelandic Horses, Mountain Horses, Tennessee Walking Horses, Mangalarga Marchadors, Gaited Morgans, and Missouri Fox Trotters, among others, comment regularly on their horses’ tendency to instinctively choose the best path. The other meaning, not likely to stumble, a result of that good judgment, requires the physical ability to carry it out.
You might be surprised to know how many factors affect your gaited horse’s surefootedness and just exactly what you can do to preserve it.
By Virtue of Gait
Back when gaited horses were first being selectively bred, the advantage of a smooth ride was instantly evident. But breeders in regions with, shall we say, challenging terrain — the volcanic interior of Iceland, the rugged Appalachian Mountains, or the swamps and slopes of South America — noticed something else those extra gaits afforded.
A horse with a range of gaits negotiated hazardous footing more easily and effectively than one with limited "gears." Having an extra foot or two on the ground not only improved the gait’s smoothness, it also provided more stability. In short, horses bred for saddle gaits have the added advantage of being born to a legacy of surefootedness.
Of course, as always, where a little is good, way too much isn’t better. Lee Ziegler, the late noted gaited-horse clinician and author of Easy Gaited Horses, offered this caveat: "Avoid extremes," she warned. "Extreme overstride (running walk comes to mind) can make a horse less surefooted, extreme reach in front (long, but very low step) also can lead to stumbling."
Sadly, what often wins in the show ring can literally lead to your downfall on the trail. "A really long-strided and ‘loose hocked’ ex-Big Lick horse is going to have a lot more trouble negotiating up, and especially down, hills in rough terrain, than a more moderately endowed individual who has maybe a foot or so over stride," Ziegler explained. "Likewise, a very fast moving largo horse with tons of reach is also going to have more trouble in rough ground than a moderately slower horse with shorter stride."
For most gaited horses, anything more than rare missteps to occasional stumbling should be taken as a signal that something is wrong, physically or mentally. After all, your horse wants to keep on his feet. Falling down is one of his worst fears. In his 57-million-year evolutionary memory, hitting the ground is synonymous with being eaten.
So what does it take for your horse to be surefooted, even in treacherous terrain? Here’s a rundown.
A calm, observant mind. Your horse’s mind directs his foot placement. If he’s anxious or distracted, he’s likely to forget what’s happening at the end of his legs. A horse that fights his rider is also likely to misstep, especially a young, green horse unfamiliar with trails and other horses. But a mentally focused horse will watch his footing intently when the going gets rough, nose nearly to the ground, if necessary.
Soundness and condition. These attributes are especially important while crossing demanding terrain.
Balanced conformation. A surefooted horse has straight, sturdy legs of sufficient bone, and tough, well-shaped hooves. His soles are concave, and his frogs are fleshy and healthy. He’ll have a medium to short, strong back and a medium to slightly narrow chest to balance his load while controlling footfalls. Good bone structure is the framework over which all muscle and condition is built, and a horse can only excel within the limits of that framework.
Good vision. Your horse’s vision guides his steps. "Good eyesight is a must," explains high-country rider and Tennessee Walking Horse breeder William J. Erickson. "A horse with vision problems can easily misjudge where he places his feet. Floaters or other eye problems can cause a horse to ignore things he should see or react to things that aren’t even there."
Best Foot Forward
The steps your horse takes are only as solid as the hooves that support him. Absorbing as much as 310,000 pounds of pressure per hoof (according to www.horseshoes.com, as measured in galloping racehorses), they’d better be as structurally sound and healthy as possible.
To improve your horse’s hoof health, apply hoof moisturizers in dry weather, feed biotin and calcium supplements, and schedule regular farrier care.
Brian Massingham is an avid trail rider and a farrier with more than 25 years’ experience shoeing all kinds of horses, including those for the United States Forest Service in the Cascade Mountains of Western Washington. He stresses the importance of regular trimming and shoeing. "Keep your horse’s hooves trimmed every six to eight weeks, and think ahead," he says. "That means if you have a trail ride planned five weeks into your trimming/shoeing schedule, have the farrier out earlier, rather than later. The longer a horse’s toes grow, the more apt they are to cause him to stumble. Long toes with low heels are a common cause of stumbling."
Trim to what’s natural for your horse, he maintains, although he notes that slightly higher heels generally enhance agility. "How much is enough and how much is too much depend on [the opinion of] an experienced farrier and the needs of your individual horse," he cautions.
Massingham also notes that long toes on the hind feet can affect overreach, which some may find desirable in the quest to manufacture gait, but that can lead to the horse striking his forelegs with his hind feet. "They can also cause a horse to drag his toes, and that can make him stumbly," he says.
Many stumbling problems are caused by improper shoeing, Massingham explains. He sometimes recommends rolling the toes or rocking them for easier breakover. And while not every horse needs shoes, he cautions that "heels wear down so much faster without shoes that most horses, especially regularly ridden gaited horses, need shoes for protection.
"It’s a red flag when a horse’s hooves land toe-to-heel," he continues. "It’s a sign the horse is hurting somewhere. And even if he’s not lame or stumbling yet, he will be. The time to get him checked out is before a slight problem becomes a big one."
Finally, have a qualified farrier evaluate any sources of foot soreness, such as an unbalanced trim job, a too-close trim, or early signs of laminitis or navicular disease. Back that up with a visit to your veterinarian. Look carefully for abscesses and stones lodged in the hoof, which are sometimes difficult to detect right away. A sore-footed horse is unlikely to remain a surefooted horse.
Even with proper hoof care, a myriad of sneaky little complications can erode your horse’s footwork. Conformational defects are the easiest to spot and avoid. Depending on their severity, they can cause strain on joints, tendons, and muscles, leading to weakness, injury, lameness, or just a lousy attitude, due to pain.
When shopping for a gaited horse, avoid hoof deformities, such as clubfeet, flat soles, toed-out (splayed) feet, toed-in (pigeon-toed) feet, which is even worse, or feet too small for the horse’s body.
A clubfoot, with a front slope more than 60 degrees, causes a horse to land "toe first," making him prone to bruising, injury, and even laminitis. Flat soles are also prone to bruises and don’t provide the traction concave soles do.
Splayfooted horses (think "duck-footed") tend to "wing in," flinging the hoof to the inside of each stride, sometimes banging into the opposite front leg. Such horses can literally trip over their own feet.
Pigeon-toed horses paddle, or "wing out," causing the hoof and lower legs to suffer extra, unbalanced stresses, which can lead to soreness, fatigue, and stumbling.
Undersized feet tend to become sore, due to their lack of concussion absorption, which can make a horse tender-footed.
On the other hand, white hooves don’t affect surefootedness, and mule-footed horses — those with narrow, ovoid-shaped hooves with steep hoof walls, fairly common among American gaited breeds — are often quite hardy and surefooted.
Avoid such leg defects as long pasterns, crooked legs, post legs, camped-out hind legs, and legs that are too close together. Long pasterns, common in some gaited breeds, are an invitation to breakdown, especially when the horse is ridden on steep or deep, strenuous footing.
Pasterns more than three-quarters the length of the cannon bone risk injury, arthritis, and ligament breakdown. Crooked legs sustain uneven stresses on the limb structures, which lead to fatigue and pain, serious sabotage for surefooted steps.
Post-legged horses are quite susceptible to hock problems and can have a tough time on steep trails, as it’s difficult for them to bring their hind legs underneath themselves.
Camped-out hind legs, which set back behind the point of the buttocks when the horse is standing square, are subject to high impact in the joints, tendons, and hoof structure, plus muscle fatigue. These stresses often result in quarter cracks in the hoof, arthritis in the hocks, and sore, tired muscles. Legs set too closely together can lead to interference, when the legs bang into each other.
Other conformational problems include long loins, mutton withers, and "downhill" conformation. The loins, that part of the back between the last rib and the point of the hip, shouldn’t be more than about three fingers in width. But longer loins are commonly found in gaited horses, due to the position of the lumbar-sacral juncture affecting the spinal flexibility required to execute four-beat gaits.
While a little extra length may be good, more isn’t better. Excess length tends toward weakness, instability, and ultimately soreness, as well as overreach in the hind legs and a rough gait.
Mutton withers are low and rounded, and affect surefootedness by allowing the saddle to slide forward when riding downhill, throwing your horse off balance. Use a breeching strap or crupper to hold your saddle in place.
Likewise, a horse "built downhill," in which the croup is higher than the withers, experiences excess pressure on his withers and shoulders even on level ground, resulting in soreness, restricted movement, and altered balance.
Early Warning System
If your otherwise trail-worthy mount changes his stride or begins to slip or stumble, take that as a signal to have him checked over by both vet and farrier. Early warning signs can include a lack of enthusiasm, lack of coordination, tenderness (walking on eggshells), a slight limp, and/or stumbling.
A sore back, withers, or shoulders can appear at first as short strides or stumbles. Hoof changes, whether by injury or trimming/shoeing alterations, can affect stride. Heel or sole bruises, abscesses, or a foreign body embedded ("graveled") in the hoof will show up first as tenderness and "off" steps.
Otherwise unnoticeable early stages of lameness may show up as short strides, general reluctance, tenderness, or stumbling. Footsteps that land toe-to-heel, "ouchiness," and stumbling can signal the first stages of navicular disease or laminitis.
A loss of coordination could be the first sign of a traumatic head injury or inflammation caused by such diseases as equine protozoal myelitis (EPM), West Nile Virus, or ataxia (wobbler syndrome). Ingestion of toxic plants can bring on similar symptoms.
Your horse might have vision problems if he steps into holes, doesn’t clear obstacles, or walks into things.
Your horse’s feet are trimmed, and he’s the robust image of good conformation, health, and soundness. But still you wonder whether there’s more you could do to ensure surefootedness. Too often, rider error jeopardizes a horse’s safe and certain path. Here’s how to help your horse stay steady.
Check tack fit. Ill-fitting tack can lead to soreness and compromise surefootedness.
Ride with a balanced seat. Listing to one side, or leaning forward or backward, can throw off your horse’s center of gravity and keep him constantly readjusting for balance instead of watching the trail ahead.
Trust your horse’s innate sense. When the going gets tough, give your horse his head, so he has the freedom to watch for obstacles and use his head and neck for balance.
Properly condition your horse. An out-of-shape, fatigued, muscle-sore horse is likely to drag his toes, avoid raising his feet high enough to clear obstacles, stumble, and be inattentive. Gradually build up to the amount of work you ask of your horse, especially a younger mount.
Avoid overriding. Because we love our horses’ smooth, speedy gaits, it can be tempting to override them. Prolonged riding in gait can lead to soreness and accompanying sourness, and the inevitable rough ride and stumbling that follow. Excess speed for conditions can compromise even the surest of fleet feet.
Immediately dismount a sore horse. Learn to recognize signs of soreness and pain, and dismount if you spot one. Such signs include lack of enthusiasm, toe dragging, and shortened or stumbled steps.
Keep your lazy horse alert. If your horse stumbles because of laziness, periodically wake him up with a simple maneuver on the trail, such as a stop, back, or turn on the haunches. Be sure to perk him up before heading over rough trails or down steep descents. Teach him to pick up his feet by working him in an arena over cavalletti at the walk, trot, or slowly in gait.
Lee Ziegler summed it up beautifully. "If you start with a horse that is well built for the athletic challenges of trail riding, keep him shod or trimmed to his natural angle, ride him sympathetically and sensibly, you can have the best of all worlds … a great, safe, sure footed ride in the wide open spaces in a smooth comfortable gait."
Adapted from The Gaited Horse, Fall 2005.
The former editor of The Gaited Horse, Rhonda Hart Poe is also the author of Trail Riding, Train, Prepare, Pack Up & Hit the Trail. She trail rides extensively around Washington State.