Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Do you have a horse that seems to regularly trip or stumble, either in the front or hind end?

The footing is good. The path is clear. There were no sudden changes to your direction.

The horse is sound and you know the tack fits well. His feet are trimmed. There are no other underlying physical issues that you are aware of.

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Yet your horse stumbles here, trips there, and as time goes on, you learn to just quietly ignore it. After all, the horse is trying his best and there's nothing you can do, right?


If you listen carefully, you might even discover that you are more a part of the equation than you give yourself credit for.

It might be something you are doing. Or it might be something you are NOT doing!

Be an active rider so you can help your horse through these moments. Your strong problem-solving skills are just the ticket to helping your horse develop better balance during riding.

Reasons for Stumbling

The root problem might be one, or a combination of these ideas.

1. Horse is heavy on the forehand.

We know the tell-tale signs for that. The horse is heavy on the bit. The front leg strides are bigger than the hind leg strides. The horse might even feel like he is on a downward slope, leaning in to the ground rather than up away from it.

2. Horse's outline is too long and low.

This might come hand-in-hand with #1. Often, we feel we are being "nice" to let a horse stretch his neck up and/or down, because we are taught that a longer rein leads to a softer, lighter contact that is kind. What we aren't always told is that the horse might have to brace his back and tense his muscles to hold a longer body position, especially in order to deal with the weight of a rider in the saddle.

Add to the "strung-out" outline - a hind end that is no longer able to support the weight (because the hind legs have stretched beyond the horse's croup, thereby not allowing for adequate weight carriage) - and there you have it folks - the stumble!

3. Horse speeds up faster and faster in the same gait.

A horse that tends to move his legs faster and faster when you ask for more impulsion or a gait change is a good candidate for a stumble. Again, his weight (and yours) falls forward and the front legs have to carry the majority of the impact.

4. Inadequate engagement.

The opposite can also be true. The horse that "sucks back" is bracing with his front end, effectively pushing backward or lacking enough energy to maintain balance while progressing forward in space. This active tension can be a cause for stumbling.

5. Horse needs extra help on one side.

A horse with a weak side (for example, a weak left stifle) could have trouble bringing that hind leg up with the same amount of strength and fluidity as the rest of the body. After the true source of the problem is identified and addressed (i.e. call a veterinarian!), you can support that side with more active riding aimed at building up the muscles around the joint.

6. Horse is overly crooked.

Some horses are particularly stiff to one side. This might be influenced by a natural cause (born that way), or from previous incorrect riding. In either case, much attention needs to be given to at least straightening the horse (even if it is too difficult to get a true bend) while he is moving.

7. You shift your weight to the horse's forehand.

Riders often lean forward in movement. As bi-peds, it is what we are naturally programmed to do! However, "listen" carefully to your horse when he stumbles. If he tends to trip when you lean forward, you know the reason why. In this case, you will need to hold your weight back, even if you want to ride in two-point or go over a jump. You can hold your weight and change your posture - just be aware!

4 Steps to Prevent Stumbling

1. Leg on for impulsion.

Even the fast-footed horse can be disengaged and needs to bring his hind end underneath him. So put your legs on and be ready for more movement! Lighten the contact as you apply the legs.

2. Commit your body to the energy surge.

The horse should lurch forward a bit. This is good. Go with him. Be sure you don't stop the forward inclination by pulling back on the bit.

3. Straighten the horse (if needed).

Use the energy surge to straighten the horse, left or right as needed. Just guide the energy into straightness, don't stifle it.

4. Half-halt.

This is key. Without the half-halt immediately after the energy surge, you tell the horse to run away. You don't want your horse to flee your aids, so within a moment after your legs and straightness, you half-halt should come on (brace your seat, back, arms momentarily) to control the energy you just created.

*Then release.

The idea is to re-balance that energy surge to the hind end rather than let it run out the front end. Think half-halts and use them as often as necessary to help your horse maintain balance. Constantly work on that re-balance - you may need to do the whole thing three, four, five times in a row, in rhythm with the horse's strides, to help the horse understand he needs to sift his weight backward.

This might be very difficult for a horse (and rider) that is not used to working from the hind end. But it is essential, first, to prevent the stumble, and second, to keep the horse sound long-term. Good luck!

Did you try this? Let us know how it worked out in the comments below.

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  1. This is a terrific article – my horse (a Belgian draft/QH X) consistently stumbled on the left fore. My new trainer (well, new then) said that it was because he was stiff to the left and naturally heavy in front and his muscles weren’t developed enough to get his shoulders up so he could get his front feet out in front to pick himself up. Once we had worked him consistently correctly for a year or so (he was 11 when I got him with basically no correct training before) he had developed his balance and musculature so that he hardly ever stumbles any more. Once in a while when he’s tired or particularly stiff but not like he used to. Without his insight, I never would have thought it had to do with his hindquarters & back – I would have just thought he had some kind of intermittant lameness. Isn’t it wonderful that there are people who are willing to educate others? Thanks, guys!

  2. Back in the 80’s I had a lovely mare that “stumbled” without reason. Shoes were fine. Riding was fine. She unfortunately collapsed and died at the end of a XC course due to a defect of her aorta. That stumbling was a sign of a physical condition that I had no idea about.

  3. Thank you for this informative article. I have a former harness racehorse that I’ve retrained, had for 10 years, and in the last 4 or so, he has started tripping up a storm. He is built VERY downhill and is naturally balanced to the forehand because of his previous life’s work. He also trips over things — we do mostly trail riding — and he tends to find every root, rock, and blade of grass to trip over. Anyway, off to the barn now, will do some ring work and try your techniques. I’ll let you know how we do. Again, thanks!

  4. my appendix tripped all the time. I thought it was due to all of the above as did my trainer however after my 28 year old mare died, he somehow came up dead lame three days afterwards while in his stall. long story short, he has severe arthritic changes in his c6 and c7 in his neck. the very first question dr. reed of rood and riddle asked was that if he tripped a lot. who knew? I never did much with him due to him having kissing spine which they thought was from genetics. and basically he was a pasture mate for my eventing mare since he was five years old. I do know that his life before me wasn’t the greatest as he ponied the tb’s in Columbus OH.

  5. Sad to say that for two years I thought this was the case for a horse a young student owns, we had a thorough prepurchase exam and mentioned it to the vet “oh he is just out of shape”. We conditioned him, trained him, had chiropractic, and had three different vets (all well respected) further eval him for the stumbling issue- some thought neurological but inconclusive and he would go months doing better and improving. We finally got the answer from the 4th vet – neurologicall issues most likely originating in neck, affecting both front and hind legs, a long standing issue (prior neck injury) that he had learned very well to compensate for. He never stumbled when I (the trainer) rode him, because I expertly did all the things mentioned in the article and he went beautifully. But put an inexperienced or immature rider on him and too much hand and not enough leg he just might stumble. Please if your horse stumbles get a vet who specializes in lameness to evaluate him for neurological issues. This horse will live out a pampered life in a lovely pasture but a very sad tale for the sixteen year old to tell about her lovely horse!

  6. Thanks for this great article with useful suggestions.

    Another cause of the horse tripping and the root of some of the problems you’ve mentioned is rider crookedness or misalignment. For example, if the rider tends to carry more weight in one side than the other the horse’s balance will be impacted and so will the rider’s ability to be supple.

    As a couple of other people have already mentioned, just because the horse isn’t ‘unsound’ or showing signs of lameness, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a physical problem. This is something that should be checked out, especially if the stumbling is a new behaviour.

  7. It was a good article. illustrations would have been much better if it was in a video format. Nevertheless good article.