Taking a Good Look at Your Horse - Standing
When was the last time that you stood back and looked at your horse? Often we are caught up in just getting the chores done - especially at this time of year. But I want to urge you to take a good a look at your horse. To be able to notice subtle changes when they occur in order to help you help them keep their body in tip top condition. These animals aren't machines. They aren't robots with a fixed structure but are living breathing creatures that evolve daily. Young horses growth and evolve constantly, older horses also change daily as age starts to take its toll. Often we don't actually start 'seeing' them until there is a problem - lameness, drastic weight change, behaviour change - so lets start seeing the problem before it fixates.
Starting with looking at the horse standing I aim to give you the tools to truly observe your horse and his movement over the next few weeks.
When looking at a horse even at a standstill one of the most important things that I look for as a professional is asymmetry. Just like humans, ideally horses would be symmetrical from left to right. Also just like humans they very often aren't! These asymmetries can be attributed to similar reason we aren't symmetrical - one sided dominance, previous injury, habit, rider influence (yes we can be the problem not the horse!) - but where we are generally aware of our wonkiness are we aware of our horse's and how it can effect their way of going? Even the smallest thing such as white hair can suggest an asymmetry and its the little things that are important to notice.
So where to begin?
Start by simply looking at your horse's body - head, neck, back, pelvis. This is important as we tend to just look at the limb especially when it comes to lameness. However we need to look at the horse as a whole as, just like us, its all connected.
Hair coat quality - is it dull or shiny? Do they have sweat patches consistently in certain areas? Are there any white patches?
Muscle development - Is it equal both sides? Is there signs of muscle atrophy (wasting)? Can you see ridging or areas of tightness?
Scars and scar tissue
Boney asymmetry - observe the pelvis and the shoulders from behind (at a safe distance). Is one side higher than the other? Does one shoulder stick out more?
Next we can break down the individual parts and take a closer look.
Firstly is the head on straight! Yep by observing the horse's head we can see if there is possible poll issues leading the horse to hold their head to one side or the other.
The eyes - are they bright? Are they curious? A dull eyed, non-interactive horse could possibly be feeling pain or under the weather.
The ears - They should be forwards or relaxed, not pinned back. They should stay this way when we touch them. A horse that flattens its ears as we approach is not normal. Horses shouldn't want to not be touched by a human especially working horses. If they are pinning their ears back and nashing teeth they are trying to tell you something. Speaking of teeth...
The jaw muscles - are they developed? Do they move properly? Does the horse happily open its mouth? Is the jaw straight or held to one side? The jaw being held to one side could indicate a TMJ problem and atrophy of the jaw muscles could suggest nerve damage.
The nostrils - Are they soft? Wrinkled? Is the breathing rate normal - deep and slow? Horses breathing quickly or with screwed up nostrils can suggest something is wrong and there is pain there.
Does the musculature look tense?
Is the neck upside down with more musculature at the bottom of the neck than the top? This could suggest that the horse cant use his back.
Do any muscles bulge or hollow? Bulging at the poll or a hollow in front of the should could suggest that the horses is bracing and not using their back.
Does your horses have a crest? If it does then it might be worth checking for a metabolic disorder such a cushings.
Is one side bigger than the other? No muscle on one side and too much on the other? Usually the under developed side is the side they aren't using as well.
Is the shoulder complex over developed compared to the hind end due to not being able to use its back end?
Looking from the front do they look symmetrical? Do the pec muscles look equal?
Are they prominent? Are they flat? Are they even?
Is the muscle each side even? Wither issues generally arise due to trauma - flipping over.
Can you see the back of the scapula where the saddle sits?
Can you see the spine?
Is there good musculature along the full length? Do the muscles look tense? Are they ridged? Ridging and tension can suggest protection of that particular area due to pain. It may not be there each day which is why we should make these observations regularly. The muscles should look soft like butter.
Atrophy - wasting on one side compared to the other suggests the horses cant develop the top line in that area, they can use those muscles. In this scenario saddle fit would be my first port of call.
Is there roaching in the lumbar spine? It could be that the stabilisers of the lower back aren't working.
The Rib Cage:
Does one side hollow or bulge?
Is there any swelling around where the girth goes?
The Flank or Abdomen:
Is it tucked up? Is it tucked up on one side more than the other? Being tucked is not something to ignore. Acute tucking up could be a sign of colic. Chronic tucking up or asymmetrical tucking up could be due to ulcers or worms.
Can you seeing it heaving as it breathed?
Is there atrophy? Is there one side bigger than the other?
Is the musculature of the pelvis less than that of the shoulder?
Is one side higher than the other?
Can you see the hunter's bump?
Are the haunches fixed to one side?
Is it fixed to one side?
Is it clamped down? or held far away from its body?
Does it swish for no reason? Does it swish more when asked to do something?
The Front Limbs:
Does your horse stand narrow or wide based?
Does it stand with his front feet out in front of him or jacked up underneath?
Does your horse shift from right to left?
Does one toe constantly point out?
Do your horse's knees wobble?
Do the elbows point out or are they tucked right into the side of the horse?
Are their bulges or swellings around the joints? Do the fetlocks drop evenly or is one side dropping more than the other?
The Hind Limbs:
Does the horse stand narrow behind?
Are they cow hocked?
Are the hind limbs tucked under the horse to relieve its back? Or are they held out behind which could be due to iliopsoas or abdominal pain caused by ulcers.
Do they rest on just one leg or do they constantly shift?
Do their toes face forward or stick out?
Are there bulges or swellings around the joints? Do the fetlocks drop evenly or is one side dropping on one side than the other?
Is the toe wear even? Toes wear can show that the horse can't pick up his hind limbs properly.
Is the shoe wear even? Does the hoof flare to one side? Where there is low weight bearing it can lead to the hoof no wearing.
Are there obvious rings around the hoof wall?
Do their tendons look tight?
Is there chronic swelling?
Do the tendons bulge on one side?
Is it swollen?
Is there obvious discharge?
All of the signs above are important to be able to observe. As an osteopath they are all things that I am looking at. As an owner being able to recognise them and being aware of them can really help you to help your horse. They aren't necessarily reasons to panic but they can be indicators of something causing them discomfort and effecting their performance. The more you do it the better you will become at noticing these changes so use the lists above to really observe you horse.
Thank you as always to the wonderful Laura Fiddaman Photography for my lovely images!