Observing Your Horse at a Walk
The next step in our series on observing your horse is to watching your horse as it moves. This doesn't have to be in a trot up or on the lunge but generally observing their habits and behaviour. Starting at a walk, there are every day things that you can start to observe.
It is important to know how your horse moves when it is feeling good so it becomes more obvious when they aren't feeling good and you can start to recognise problems before they become too much of an issue.
When observing the walk we are thinking about how they move freely with no human interaction as well as in-hand and when ridden. We need to start trusting our instincts when it comes to our horses and that starts with forming a baseline of observation.
For this we need to engage our senses. Obviously we can see how our horses are moving but we can also hear their foot fall as they walk along. So as well as observing their action, make sure that you have your ears open. Listen for lighter steps, or heavier steps as well as the rhythm of their movement.
Back to using our eyes. Before we break it down by body part watching the horse leave the stable or go to move off after being tied up for a while is very important. Do they always catch one foot on the stable door as they cross the threshold? Can you hear a a disjointed rhythm? What does their face say when they first move off? Do they want to come out of the stable - are they eager or super careful? Are they happy to interact with you? All of these observations can give us an indication of how the horse is feeling inside.
The Body Parts:
Head and neck - is it held to one side? Is it held with the nose straight or does it poke to one side more than the other? Does the neck look concave on one side more than the other? When riding does your horse find it easier to bend one way or the other? Does the neck look tense? Before you have even moved do they start to head shake just having the head collar put on? All the above could suggest pain through the neck, poll and even the TMJ (jaw).
Does your horse throw its head up as you get on? This could suggest poor saddle fit, whither or scapula pain. The same if the horse swags its neck from side to side when walking off - it should be able to keep it straight.
Shoulder - When walking the scapula moves back and forth to allow the legs to move. They should move evenly each side, with each leg travelling the same distance.
When on top look down at the withers and shoulders. Do they move equally? Does one side look bigger than the other? Many horses are one sided with one shoulder bigger. This is something we need to be aware of when working with them and asking them to move equally both sides. Without addressing the imbalance they wont move evenly both sides.
Back and Pelvis - Most important thing to look for are muscular lines along their top-line. It should look nice and smooth and flowing at a walk with no ridging or tension through the muscles. Look at the pelvis - does one side drop further than the other? Does one limb swing through more smoothly than the other? Do the haunches seem fixed to one side?
When riding a normal back should feel stable and comfortable at the same time. If you feel tension, hollowing or resistance to bending it may indicate back pain. Try walking with your feet out of the stirrups and pay attention to the sway of your own pelvis as the horse walks along. Can you feel how your pelvis rotates and does it move evenly? Does one side drop more than the other? This can indicate on whats moving and what isn't through their back. Back pain in horses is extremely common. Sadly many of them are very good at hiding it. Pay attention to their movement and how they look to catch it before it becomes a problem.
Rib cage and sternum - When looking at this area we are focusing mainly on how the horse is breathing. If we are in pain our breathing alters. We often take shallower breaths and horses are the same. Observe how they breathe as you ask them move off.
When tacking up are they girthy? This could suggest sternal or rib pain (it could also indicate more internal issues such as ulcers). It could be that your girthing system isn't appropriate for your horse or that your saddle isn't fitting or there is back pain - remember as we synch up the girth you are pulling the saddle down onto the horse's back.
The Tail - When the horse is walking is the tail relaxed? It should just gently flow back and forth. If it is tail swishing, holding its tail clamped down or to one side it could indicate pelvic and sacral pain.
The front limbs - They should happily walk forward confidently placing their feet down evenly, not too narrow and not too wide. Does you horse walk toe first instead of placing their foot down flat? This could indicate tendon or ligament pain. Pay attention to the fetlocks here too, does one extend more than the other? Do they have a wide stance or a narrow stance?
Does the horses walk change once they are under saddle? Maybe they walk beautifully in hand but once tacked up with a rider their stride shortens and they become choppy - check your saddle and be mindful that your horse may have pain through it back.
The hind limbs - Similar to above but also pay attention to whether the legs move in and out as they go up and down. Do they brush their legs together? Do they drag their toes? These could be indicators or pelvic and back pain not just lower limb issues - it is the muscles high up that help to lift the leg so up high must be looked at. The same for plaiting.
Under saddle go back to feeling how your pelvis is moving as it will reflect issues in the horse's body.
So above are lots of different things to look for. If you spot any of them and you are concerned drop me message for a chat or why not get your horse booked in for an MOT? Some of the movements identified above will be due to your horse's confirmation. But why not get them check out to make sure there is nothing else going on.
Thank you as always to Laura Fiddaman Photography for her wonderful photos!