Recognizing compensatory postures that horses take on, and their related performance and behavioural effects is important to being able to keep horses physically and mentally healthy. A horse’s posture will frequently indicate what area of their body is sore, crooked, or compensating. They also assume abnormal postures when they are mentally compromised due to trauma or stress.
One of the core skills in a horse person’s “toolbox” is the ability to recognize when a horse is uneven or uncomfortable. The horse can then be addressed with the appropriate methods: if mild, often a change in gymnasticizing exercises, or an adjustment to foot balance or saddle fit; if severe, veterinary intervention plus all of the above may be required. The standing posture is a valuable assessment tool, and is something that all horse people can learn.
Before exploring what abnormal postures are, it is important to define what normal equine posture is. When standing in neutral posture, all four cannon bones are perpendicular to the ground. The horse’s centre of gravity and body weight is thus stabilized and able to move with the most ease. The head and neck will be lowered, and the muscles will appear rounded and relaxed.
However, a horse will choose to stand in the way that is the most efficient and comfortable for his body at the time. So, if an area of his body is uncomfortable, he will choose to compensate for it by modifying the neutral posture. It is interesting to observe a horse’s chosen stance in various situations: in the stall, field, or when tied before and after work. There are usually patterns which can be used to help identify and correct the horse’s weak areas.
Of particular note: posture and conformation are not the same! Conformation refers to the skeletal structure of the horse, which forms the basis of functional movement and support. Posture refers to the stance that the body adopts as a result of muscle development, injury, and habit. However, many of the things commonly identified as conformational may in fact be related to posture. Posture can be changed; conformation cannot. For example, a ewe neck or cow hocks are considered to be conformation faults. However, the ewe neck may be the result of neck muscles that are short and tight, while the appearance of cow hocks may be the effect of underdeveloped hindquarters. With changes in exercise, hoof balance, and bodywork, these faults may appear lessened or disappear altogether.
To accurately assess all of the abnormal postures, we assume that the horse has been asked to stand squarely, with front feet and hind feet even with each other, and with limbs as close to perpendicular to the ground as the horse will permit. Taking photographs will often assist in assessing the posture, as it allows for a closer analysis of the details than is possible in the moment.
Abnormal posture 1: Limbs are not perpendicular to the ground
In this position, the horse’s limbs will appear to be held either closer to the centre of gravity (camped under), or in front of/behind the shoulders/hindquarters (camped out). These horses will have difficulty carrying a rider in balance, and may be inverted, behind the leg, or one-sided.
Quite commonly, a horse that is camped under in front or behind is demonstrating discomfort in response to imbalanced feet, particularly long toes and low heels. The lack of heel support places additional tension on the suspensory ligaments, which in turn strains the muscles of the limbs and torso. Typically, the head and neck will be raised in order to counterbalance the displacement of the limbs. Dysfunction may then be noted in the muscles or movement.
Abnormal posture 2: Unwilling to stand with legs square.
When a horse is asked to stand squarely, how quickly does the horse comply? Can he do it at all? Horses that are uncomfortable or unable to stand squarely will typically evade by engaging in a back-and-forth dance, resulting in: inability to square up front feet and hind feet simultaneously; repeatedly resting a hind foot even if encouraged to put weight on both limbs by gently pushing the hip or pulling the tail; or, taking uneven steps that result in the pairs of feet being placed out of alignment.
The inability to stand squarely is a clear indicator of significant imbalances. Common limb positions include: one leg that is positioned further underneath or behind the body, feet that are positioned very closely together, or feet placed very widely apart. A leg that is in front of or behind the other will be carrying more weight than the others, which, when observed while moving or under saddle, will translate to a restricted range of motion. The horse will be stiffer on one side, and have difficulty with lateral work. Limbs that are held very closely or very widely apart will affect the horse’s balance and ability to move freely.
Abnormal posture 3: Spinal curvature or twisting
To determine if spinal asymmetries exist it is necessary to check from two main viewpoints: from above and in front of the horse. If safe to do so, stand on a stool behind the horse and observe the entire length of the spine (pictures are helpful here). Look for a curve in the midsection to see if the ribcage appears larger on one side. Also check whether the neck and/or hindquarters are in alignment. For the second angle, stand in front of the horse, several feet away. Examine whether the horse’s eyes and ears are level. Then crouch down and assess whether the neck or ribcage is shifted.
Spinal asymmetry will affect the entire body, but the rider may specifically notice that they feel as though they are leaning to one side in the saddle, or that the horse leans into or falls out of corners and turns. The horse’s balance will feel compromised.
Abnormal posture 4: “hunter/jumper’s bump”
In this posture, the horse appears to have a large “bump” along the spine where it joins with the pelvis through the sacroiliac joint. Frequently described as a conformational fault, “hunter’s bump” or “jumper’s bump” is actually an abnormal posture adopted in response to discomfort in the hind limbs or pelvis. One or both of the tuber sacrale of the pelvis appears very prominent, indicating that the ligaments are strained or torn, and the joint may be damaged. There may be swelling and the muscles surrounding the bump may be atrophied.
Long toes and low heels behind will frequently be the cause of this posture. Horses with hunter’s bump will typically struggle with engaging the hind end and being able to demonstrate self-carriage. Under saddle they will feel heavy and uncoordinated. One hind leg will stride shorter than the other, and may swing towards the midline of the body when walking. The tail will often be held to one side.
Common Causes of Imbalance
Other than acute injury, there are several major causes of postural compensations:
- Imbalanced hooves, especially long toes and low heels. This issue can affect both the front and the hind limbs.
To detect long toes, run a finger down the coronet band and along the hoof wall to the ground. Compare the angle of the new growth at the coronet band to the older growth lower down: if the hoof wall begins to angle outward, this is an indicator that the toe has flared and there is too much hoof in front of the hoof’s centre balance point. Seedy toe is also an indicator of long toes.
Under-run heels can be identified by comparing the angle of the heel growth to that of the toe: under-run heels show an angle that is less than that of the toe. Under-run heels are compromised in their ability to support the horse’s body weight, which then increases the amount of concussion incurred by the rest of the skeleton and soft tissue.
- Crooked saddle and/or rider. Repetitive exercise with an imbalanced saddle or rider will create asymmetrical muscle or movement patterns that exacerbate existing conformational or soundness issues.
- Imbalanced dentition. Uneven teeth will cause the temporomandibular (jaw) joint to be misaligned, which causes significant discomfort. Horses experiencing dental problems and TMJ dysfunction will have difficulty accepting the bridle, shake or toss their heads, or exhibit behavioural problems. Due to the way the TMJ interacts with the surrounding neck muscles and the anatomy of the ear, a TMJ issue may translate into a balance issue or gait abnormality as well.
Major effects of postural imbalance
Although horses can demonstrate their discomfort in many ways, postures that restrict the body’s athletic ability will have two main effects. First, the posture will reduce the body’s functionality to the point that the horse demonstrates resistance under saddle. What appears to be “this horse won’t try” may actually be “this horse physically can’t”. Second, the postural restrictions become severe enough that the horse appears lame. Gait abnormalities such as rein lameness, cross-cantering, or rope-walking appear and the horse is unable to perform to its full potential.
Fortunately, bodies are remarkably resilient, and when imbalances are corrected, the body is able to restore normal functional movement and posture. Horse owners can work with their horse care professionals to address hoof imbalances, saddle fit, and bodywork needs. They can also help the process enormously by tailoring their horse’s fitness program to incorporate poles and cavaletti patterns, hill work, core strengthening exercises, and gentle stretching.
For any further questions on posture and how to correct it, contact Julia directly below!