You know the scene: it is virtually impossible for you to figure out what is wrong. The horse has a mild gimp in his movement, but you cannot pinpoint where it is. He does not appear to be lame, but he isn't sound either.
Your friends watch you ride and they can see it - there is that mild head bobble, the lack of stride in the hind end. But no one agrees on one verdict. One friend says it is the left hind leg, another thinks it is the front right. While you ride, you think it is somewhere front and back but it really is hard to tell.
You go through all the tried and true solutions. You even bring the vet out, and she sees nothing. On the lunge line, your horse presents even striding and no head bob.
But you know it's there.
Or maybe, your vet does see something. After extensive (and expensive) radiographs, there is nothing to be found. There is no swelling, no irritation, no injury. You give your horse some time off (while he runs around the pasture in circles at a gallop, showing no sign of discomfort) but as soon as you start your regular riding routine again, the mystery lameness resurfaces.
Does this scenario have a familiar ring to it?
If so, you are not alone.
Mystery lamenesses come in all shapes and sizes, but the most common characteristic they share is that they are hard to identify, diagnose and pinpoint. They may come and go, or they may linger for weeks on end. The key is that the "lameness" is mild and generally unidentifiable.
First we must check every other possibility to ensure that all the bases are covered.
Then, it is time to consider the one thing we often fail to recognize as a possible source of discomfort for the horse: our own riding technique. It stands to reason that horses will reflect any stressors that are put on their bodies - and riding can be one factor that is demanding enough to become detrimental to the horse over time.
Most mystery lamenesses can be blamed on unreleased tension in the horse's body. This might occur during riding, while the rider is mounted. Often, the lameness is not evident when the horse is moving around freely in the paddock.
Some horses tighten behind the saddle in the lumbosacral region, where the lumbar vertebrae stop and the sacrum begins. This area tends to be a weak zone and prolonged tension in the area can translate into uneven steps and lame-like symptoms in either the front end or the hind end. Hip problems can also be connected to the l-s joint.
When you ride circles, does your horse have a habit of making small circles in one direction and large ones in the other direction? The size difference is likely due to shoulder tension (which goes hand-in-hand with lack of hind end engagement - see below). This type of front-end lameness comes and goes but is usually present in turns and corners (less obvious on straight lines). The root of this problem is that horses generally travel in a crooked manner. If action is not taken to address the crookedness in their movement, ligaments and tendons in the shoulders may become affected.
Finally, another type of mystery lameness can be due to lack of engagement of the hind end. If a horse is not taught early in his riding career to reach underneath the body with a deep, strong stride, the hind end development may suffer. Without a strong hind end action to support the weight of the horse and rider, you may find the horse falling heavily to the forehand. You might notice heavy sounding footfalls, tripping, inconsistent stride lengths, heavy contact, and a generally unhappy and unwilling attitude. Eventually, the wear and tear on the horse's front legs can lead to ligament and tendon damage that appears in the form of an on-again, off-again lameness.
Most of the time, regardless of how the lameness appears, the horse is not "forward" enough in all the gaits.
What to do?
1. Become very aware of tension during riding.
Some horses truck along calmly, willingly riding along even with tight muscular tension. It is easy to overlook the tightness of movement because of the horse's generous character. Learn how to spot the tension, or better yet, how to feel it. Identify where the horse is blocking the energy so that you can take steps to address it.
Find a good instructor who can teach you how to help the horse release tension - whether it is mental or physical - as much as possible during every ride. You can imagine that if the horse is moving in tension almost all the time, there will inevitably be painful repercussions in the long run. Finding techniques to release the topline of the horse and encourage strong, bold movement will help your horse let go of the blocks that are holding him back from completing his strides.
2. Check in to your own body.
If you are tense, your horse will likely be tense in exactly the same place! Invest in lessons, or get an educated eye on the ground to help identify your areas of tension and how to release (not "relax") the tightness out of your body. It is very common for riders to grip steadily through the reins to help maintain their own balance, ride with unforgiving elbows, or hold a tight lower back even while the horse is moving. The good thing about being the source of the problem is that you can fix yourself!
3. Keep your horse moving straight, even on circles and bends.
A horse can move crooked on a straight line or even on a circle. Often, a horse prefers one side to another, putting too much weight on one shoulder. It is the task of the rider to identify the strong (and tight) side of the horse and develop stretching techniques to encourage even development of the horse's muscling.
4. Help your horse find his "happy place" as often as possible through the ride.
As mentioned in this article, it is possible for a rider to teach her horse to enjoy being ridden. The better you know your horse, the more you will be able to "play" while you work. Horses that enjoy their rides are generally more willing, giving and supple in their movements.
5. Start with and end the ride with a balanced, rhythmical stretchy trot, canter and finally walk.
There is no replacement to the stretchy walk, trot and canter. It is a great way to loosen the horse during the warm-up, and the best way to wrap up the day's lessons. When the horse lifts his back and reaches down and out with the nose, the top line muscles have an opportunity to stretch and release. Since the neck is attached to the withers, and the withers to the large muscles over the top of the back, the stretch can reach far back toward the hips.
Once horses know how to stretch, they look forward to the release and often announce their pleasure through snorts and licking an chewing. The stretch is a way to consolidate all that was done during the ride and is an excellent way to come to a calm and relaxing end.
There are likely many more ways to teach a horse suppleness and release of the muscles. The key point is to become aware of the tension and learn how to address it. As you improve your riding skill, and learn more techniques (and "tools") to draw from, you will be able to pinpoint the cause of the lameness and then the solution.
If you want a more specific suggestion on how to improve rein lameness through riding, here is an exercise: Stepping Out of the Rein Lameness.
Do you have any other techniques to help the horse work with less tension?
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Read the following for more information:
The Dynamic Dependency of Horseback Riding: Why is it that riding can become so difficult at times? In riding, nothing can be done in isolation.
When Do You Start Riding Your Horse? This question was being posed to me by a very respected and horse-wise mentor one day long ago, early in my riding development.
How To Be An Active Horseback Rider (a.k.a. Riding With Intention): What do you do when your ride isn’t going as planned? How do you respond when your horse scoots out from under you, spooks at the horse-killing object, or flat out ignores you?
When “Good Enough” Just Isn’t Good Enough In Horseback Riding: We come up with all sorts of excuses to explain why we don’t want to or can’t get past the problem.