Lighten Up… Your Horse’s Life
The condition of the front limbs reflects your horse’s body mechanics, work and way of life.
“Expressive” is the word for the front limbs* of the horse. It isn’t too big a stretch to compare the horse’s forequarters to the arms of a human. Even though the horse does need them during locomotion, the front limbs also are used for communication (such as pawing impatiently), manipulation (such as uncovering the best hay in the flake, or loosening up the soil before lying down), and during play or defense such as when resting the hooves on a playmate’s back, or striking at a threat.
A horse’s forequarters are strongly affected by almost every aspect of her life including how she lives, the rider’s balance and actions, tack and training devices, nutrition and old injuries. In this article we’ll look at how the forequarters are made, how to recognize early problems before they result in weight-bearing lameness, and some ways to help keep your horse’s front end aligned, comfortable and functional.
*(Note: In this article “front limb” refers to the forequarter from the top of the shoulder blade to the bottom of the hoof; “leg” refers to the lower part of the limb.
Photo 1. This thoroughbred, an eventer in training, like any healthy horse, is naturally powerful and light. He needs no artificial help to lift and extend his front limbs.
A Healthy Horse is a Balanced Horse
A “barn myth” often stated as fact is that horses carry 2/3 of their weight on their front legs. This may be true for many horses, but it is not a healthy condition. Occasionally a horse may need to temporarily carry more of its weight there. However, a horse that is consistently “heavy on the forehand” is a horse on the way to lameness or breakdown.
Imagine the thrill of feeling your horse carry you forward lightly and safely, experiencing the upward float of his chest, seeing the proud arch of his neck and looking ahead between the pricked ears of a horse with perfect balance and coordination and a free spirit. It’s a gift you can give to yourself as well as your horse.
Figure 1: Basic anatomy of the forelimb. The numbers are for muscles mentioned in the text, in order from text. Muscles: 1. Pectorals; 2. Trapezius; 3. Triceps; 4. Spinalis; 5. Rhomboid; 6.Brachiocephalicus; 7. Flexor muscles and tendons; 8. Extensor muscle and tendon. The unlabeled muscle is the Latissimus dorsi, which is not specifically mentioned in the text but its presence in the drawing gives the idea of the connection to the back.
The horse’s limbs have most of the same bones as ours, but they are highly specialized to allow the horse to graze, rest while standing, and move off suddenly. In the forelimb, the most remarkable adaptation to this way of life appears from the “knee” (carpus, analogous to our wrist) down. Instead of having five digits (fingers) the horse walks on just one. The cannon, pastern and hoof are adapted from the center digit; the splint bones are vestigial digits on either side.
Leg bones are piled on each other like a stack of blocks; they depend on tough ligaments and balanced muscle tension to stay in proper alignment. Normally, actions of the leg joints are limited to closing (flexing) and opening (extending) like hinges. The elbow joint likewise is limited to opening and closing by being set firmly into a deep groove on top of the forearm bone (radius/ulna).
On the other hand, the shoulder joint is an open ball-and-socket type which is able to move in a complete circle. This is the joint that allows the forelimb to move inward and outward, to perform sideways or rotational movements. If this joint is restricted by tension or scar tissue in local muscles or ligaments, any sideways or twisting action will be passed on down the leg to the knee or pastern joints, which are not designed for such a challenge.
No Collar Bone
The horse’s forelimb is not attached to the body by a collar bone (clavicle) as with humans. Instead, it’s connected and supported entirely by connective tissues and muscles. This allows the horse to stretch the fore limb far forward and back, letting him have a long, free reach whether he needs to gallop full out, or stretch his back like a cat after a nap.
The downside of this immense flexibility is that effects of bodily crookedness or weakness are magnified in forelimb posture and performance. On the other hand, soft tissue therapy is highly effective in correcting shoulder and front leg problems.
The body and forelimb are intimately connected. Forequarter muscles form an integrated system that supports the core of the body, helping it remain upright and centered. Leg muscles also help move the horse’s body forward, backward or sideways when needed. Muscles attached to the shoulder (scapula) and upper arm (humerus) are connected to mouth, throat and ear; to the skull and upper neck; to the back and chest. Locomotor muscles flex and extend the leg joints, and bring the limb forward and backward. Connector muscles tie the forelimb to the head and the torso. They assist in locomotion, and laterally flex the neck and torso. 'Sling’ muscles form a muscular ‘hammock’ between the forelimbs, where the rib cage rests. Abductors and adductors provide lateral stability during rest or trailering, and allow the horse to confidently rotate the shoulder joint or step sideways.
Horses are able to nap standing up; part of the secret lies in the stay system of the front limbs. There is a dynamic balance of tension between bones, connective tissues and muscles, much like that between the parts of a tent. In the horse, muscles and specialized tendons (the ends of muscles) run from the upper neck, withers and ribs to fasten on the scapula, forearm and other points all the way down to the bottom of the hoof.
For the stay system to do its job, it’s important to balance tension
in muscles above and below the spine, inside and outside the shoulder, and
on the front and back of the leg itself. When this system is out of balance
the horse may not only spend more energy staying upright, but also stand
and move crookedly, leading to performance difficulties, increased injuries
and lameness, and even behavior problems related to confidence and stability.
The Brachial Plexus
A vital player in front leg health, the brachial plexus lies just inside the shoulder joint. Just as in humans, it resembles an electrical and circulatory substation where nerves coming out of the spine of the neck, torso and upper chest, as well as life-sustaining blood vessels, mingle before running downward to serve the forelimb with fresh blood and healthy nerve impulses. In humans, chronic muscle tension in this area often causes numbness, tingling, and weakness in the arm and hand. In my experience, freeing chronically tight shoulders, thus increasing freedom in the shoulder joint and elbow area, results in improved circulation, stance and movement in the leg and hooves.
HEALTHY OR NOT?
How can you tell if your horse is living or traveling on the forehand? The evidence can be seen in body details and posture, felt by your hands, and experienced in the saddle.
Photo 2. Trainer with a new client
TAKE A LOOK
A healthy horse’s shoulders are aligned parallel to the body, able to swing freely forward and back as the limb moves. The outline of the shoulder blade is clear, and the neck and back sweep smoothly away from it. There is a space between the withers and the top of the shoulder blade resembling a shelf.
Many horses instead exhibit leaning or twisted shoulder blades that not only are uncomfortable and restrictive, but create crookedness lower in the limb. Bunchy, congested muscles keep the shoulders trapped instead of allowing free movement.
Turning can be an effort for a horse with sore shoulders, shoulder blades that are tilted inward or outward, or shoulder blades that are clamped to the vertebral spines that form the withers.
Tack and Clothing
Saddles placed on or directly behind the shoulder blade interfere with movement as the edge of the saddle pinches the muscles and nerves of the shoulder.
Girth, breast collar and other devices can interfere with vital shoulder muscles that lift the shoulders, move the shoulder back and forth, and bring the foreleg forward or backward.
Western, endurance and trail saddles with front bars that are built straight ahead or even turned inward cause pain and restriction when the horse attempts to turn and the shoulder blade presses into the saddle.
Tight throat latches, or other devices that close the throat, make it difficult or impossible for the horse to arch the neck and lighten the forehand as power from the hindquarters travels up through the back. Cribbing collars create chronic bracing and extension of the poll joint, stiffening the neck and restricting shoulder movement.
Blankets and sheets that drag or pull on the withers, top of the shoulder blade or point of shoulder (shoulder joint) are a prime cause of shoulder pain, short strides and lack of extension.
Trembling or always-flexed knees (“over at the knees”) are the result of chronic tension in the flexors of the knee and pastern. When the muscle tension is released, these horses regain a healthy, natural stance in front.
A horse with the fault of “straight shoulders” often is simply the victim of chronic muscle tension in the shoulder and leg muscles. When this is relieved, the shoulders can return to their healthy, normal resting flexion.
Upright pasterns and sagging pasterns also are correctible conditions directly related to muscle dysfunction.
Leg Wraps: real need or fashion statement?
A legendary clinician, when asked why he didn’t wrap his horse’s legs, said, “My horses don’t step on their own feet.” I’ve found that balanced, coordinated horses indeed tend to be injury-free.
Leg wraps restrict circulation and mechanical freedom (ability to contract, relax and spring back to normal after stretching) in muscles, tendons and ligaments of the legs. The muscles that flex the leg cross seven joints from the upper arm above the elbow all the way to the bottom of the hoof! Constricting one end of this amazing structure will affect the health of the leg and hoof as well as long term soundness. Leg protection, even if necessary in dangerous sports (modern dressage doesn’t qualify), can interfere with the ability of these ligaments and muscles to function.
The rising epidemic in suspensory injuries may be directly related in some cases to leg wraps: when the muscles and tendons of the legs are prevented from fully supporting and moving the pastern joints, the suspensory ligament is exposed to more stress than it is designed for.
Because the hooves respond to changes in weight and pressure, they become wider and flatter as more weight is put on a particular hoof or pair of hooves. Horses who are on the forehand often have front hooves that are a size larger than the rear hooves. Or, in the case of a horse that leans more to one side than the other, one front hoof may be noticeably wider than the other.
Overall posture reflects the horse’s weight distribution. A horse with pain or stiffness in the hindquarters, especially in the hips, will lean more heavily on the front legs. A stiff, braced or painful back results in increased weight in front as well. A horse with a “sway” or lowered back (usually allied with a lowered or “ewe” neck) is forced to brace and weight the front limbs. These horses find it difficult to transfer power from the hindquarters through the back, and may have to pull themselves forward with the front legs.
Some horses look higher at the croup than at the withers. This posture is more likely to occur in a breed with a flatter topline, but I have seen it in a variety of breeds. A “downhill” stance can occur in any horse with stiffened hind legs, locked hips and sacroiliac joints, a lowered back, or hunched withers. In my experience these horses can regain their natural healthy balance with problem-solving bodywork and most important, thoughtful riding to enable power from functional hindquarters to lift and free the spine and shoulders.
TOUCH THE MUSCLES
Photo 3. Polo horse with rider/owner
Starting at the chest, feel the pectoral muscles that bulge on either side of the sternum, at the base of the neck. (See Figure 1 for muscle locations.) You may feel knots, ropes, strings or other signs of scar tissue from injuries. Its presence may result in restricted or uneven shoulder or leg movement.
Hunched withers are often accompanied by constant tension in the trapezius muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the crest of the neck, the withers and upper back.
Horses that are overworked (such as being jumped or worked in patterns for long periods without a break) or that habitually paw often have painfully knotted triceps muscles. Horses with chronically painful feet may tense the triceps as they try to lift some of the weight off their hooves.
The shoulder bed is the area where the middle of the neck meets the shoulder blade. Just in front of this area you can feel spinalis muscles, either stretched tight or chronically shortened, that run beneath the shoulder blade from withers to lower neck. The lower part of the neck is actually tied to the back by these powerful muscles anchored at the base of the withers, where the weight of the rider presses down. Like the string on a bow, when these muscles remain tense they force the spine downward into a “U” shape.
The rhomboid muscles along the topline of the neck connect shoulder and poll area, and are often stiffened and shortened. The brachiocephalicus muscles running along the spine in the neck, from skull to shoulder, may bulge downward when the rhomboids are too tense.
The flexor muscles of the leg run from above the elbow to the lowest level of the leg, on the coffin bone. Long periods of work with no relaxation or rest strongly affect these muscles. If they become tense and lose their elasticity, their very long tendons become stiff and unable to stabilize and flex the leg joints. The suspensory ligament may become over stressed and weak, resulting in sagging pasterns.
Choppy gaits are more likely to be from stiff shoulder muscles than from short, upright pasterns which in my experience are often the result, not the cause, of muscle problems up above.
SIT THE MOVEMENT
Horses are born to move with grace and lightness. Soft gaits and quick responses are hallmarks of a balanced riding horse.
A healthy, well-ridden horse lifts his back - and his rider - with each stride forward. One sign of this “throughness” is for the neck to arch from the chest, and the head to nod slightly downward with each stride of a hind leg. It’s the motion of a breaking wave. If instead the horse is being ridden on the forehand, he will pull himself forward with the front limbs and the head will swing upward with each stride, like the motion of a rocking horse. The base of the neck sinks lower as the muscles above the spine tighten, and the muscles beneath the neck and chest instead of supporting the base of the neck become ever weaker and more stretched.
Stumbling, interfering, forging, overstepping and other movement problems such as short or dragging strides (often labeled “laziness”) are usually linked to a stiff, sore back, painful hips and overloaded forequarters. To return to healthy movement, the horse needs to have a pain free back and engaged hindquarters. See Natural Horse May/June 2006, “Healthy to the Core”, for more information.
Leaning or pulling on the bit (this is the responsibility of the rider, not the horse!) creates a feeling of falling forward; automatic survival reflexes cause the horse to extend her head and stiffen the front legs. Rider balance is a major influence on the forehand. Placing the saddle on the withers or habitually leaning forward in a properly placed saddle can throw the horse on the forehand. Some riders attempt to create lightness by “lifting” the shoulders with the reins. In reality, lightness can only occur when power from the hindquarters comes through a supple, rounded back.
Horses (like humans) often move off as normally as possible after a fall or crash, flipping over backwards, or “doing the splits” on a slippery surface. It’s important to take these mishaps seriously. Check for pain, bruising, or unevenness as soon as you can. Muscle or other trauma is best treated soon after the incident. Otherwise chronic conditions such as knotted muscles or scar tissue will show up later as mysterious gait abnormalities, crookedness or training problems.
Shock or fear from an accident can produce rigid forelimbs or a braced neck and back. Rather than reprimanding a horse for clumsiness or disobedience, or ignoring the incident, acknowledge and treat (for example with quiet reassurance and relaxed forward movement) the emotional trauma. Flower essence formulas, essential oils or emergency homeopathic remedies are immensely helpful for a quick return to normal confidence for both horse and rider.
Rough trailering can create soreness in the stabilizing shoulder muscles as the horse struggles to balance during sudden starts, stops, or turns, or when riding in an unlevel trailer.
Confinement, the greatest challenge to a horse’s overall health, often is the result of human quirks. Maintaining an artificial level of cleanliness or saving a few moments fetching a horse from pasture puts apparent efficiency ahead of the horse’s (and ultimately the rider’s) best interests.
Confinement to a stall or small paddock results in long hours standing in the same position; at times a horse stands with his head lifted over a fence for hours. Solitary confinement of an active social animal like a horse can also create depression and dullness, or troubled behaviors such as cribbing, weaving, pawing or pacing.
Some horses are confined in a stressful environment. They may be unable to escape from loud, harsh noise or strong smells (such as ammonia, cleaners or fly-repellent misters), or prolonged lighting. Some horses must stand and watch other horses being treated roughly, or listen to the voices of combative people.
The body of a horse that lives with excess confinement, nervous tension or chronic fear tends to fold in on itself, resulting in a narrowed, tight chest, hunched withers and a crooked stance. A horse that paces, weaves or cribs due to internal pain or external stress typically has a chronically tight back and stiff forelegs.
FEEL THE HEART
A horse’s heart lives between the shoulders, and beneath your hands. A horse that lives or moves in fear or mistrust will have a closed chest and a hunched, pinched look beneath and just behind the shoulders. In rehabilitation or physical therapy this area can be the last to achieve freedom of movement, because a horse’s trust in people is so hard to regain once it’s lost.
If a horse you’re working with is heavy in the forehand, an essential part of relieving that heaviness is to make sure the horse can trust you to be fair and consistent. For a lasting change, make each request with love. Both you and the horse will be lighter and freer. Your partnership, whether for business or pleasure, short or long term, will reach the highest level of performance.