When Jennifer’s mare came up lame, her veterinarian recommended rest and anti-inflammatory medication. After a few weeks, the horse seemed sound so Jennifer resumed riding. But a short while later, the lameness reappeared. Her vet ordered the same treatment protocol and again the mare recovered, only to come up lame again a couple of weeks later. Her vet couldn’t determine the cause of the chronic problem and suggested she stop riding the horse and make it a companion only. Jennifer was disappointed and felt bad for her horse, who now seemed to favor the leg even when she wasn’t riding. She reluctantly agreed with the vet’s decision, turned her mare out to pasture and started looking for a new horse.

Often, when postural faults and other ailments appear due to imbalance, the imbalance may elude conventional diagnosis entirely. The problem may be written off as minor, imaginary or characterized by practitioners as untreatable. Too many horses grimly live with very real pain that could easily be relieved if care providers acquired the appropriate knowledge, learned to “co-relate” and considered what the “whole horse” is communicating.

Thankfully, over the past ten years, some members of the equine community have become more aware of the function of the hooves and their relationship to a horse’s overall health. More people, including Jennifer, are asking questions and learning to read the signs of imbalance in their horses. Correcting the imbalance may require a multi-pronged approach, so getting your care providers to work together usually makes for the most harmonious outcome.

Build a strong foundation

To optimize your horse’s body mechanics for power, performance and function, you must first look at his foundation. After all, his foundation is his base of support for balance. If the hooves are not properly balanced, the rest of the body has to compensate, creating postural faults and other related ailments. In turn, imbalances in the body can then affect the shape, profile and overall health of the hooves.

Take the hind hooves, for instance. When a trimmer is right-handed and uneducated about medial-lateral hoof balance, his power stroke (when using the rasp) could make the right hind quarter and heel of the hoof lower on the outside and higher on the inside. This can cause problems with the hip and hock, due to the lengthening and shortening of the muscles. Could this be why we have seen such an epidemic of right hind lameness?

Improving the body mechanics and posture by properly adjusting the foundation helps prevent improper musculoskeletal reshaping, premature musculoskeletal aging, arthritis and related ailments. But it is sometimes necessary and always beneficial to balance hooves and body together. A hoof care provider cannot always rely on just balancing the hooves to rebalance the entire body. The horse’s soft tissue has cellular “memory” which could hold him in patterns of discomfort until the musculoskeletal issues are addressed.

A gentle approach is best There could be a multitude of reasons “why” he has adopted that posture in the first place: abscess, injury, bone alignment, ill fitting saddle, rider imbalance, or poor trimming methods. In some situations, if you come in and “take away” the support the horse has “created” himself, you could make him extremely uncomfortable, and possibly cause him to pull a tendon or even torque a ligament. When facilitating change, we should give the body the time it needs to rebalance, enabling a more natural transition to homeostasis (a stable internal environment).

Acquiring real “hoofsavvy” involves contemplating the big picture, looking at all the “whole horse” variables, inside and out. Getting the foundation right will result in a truly dependable structure which in turn becomes a wonderful investment in your horse’s health.

Bodywork for balance

Now that Randy has set a great “foundation” for you, let’s get more involved with the musculoskeletal system, which is basically comprised of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. Muscles create movement as well as provide structural support. Tendons attach muscles to bones, and ligaments attach bone to bone. If a muscle or muscles are overly tight or stretched, the joints (skeletal structure) are stressed, compromising the integrity of the connective tissue (tendons and ligaments).

Obviously, this creates abnormal skeletal alignment, resulting in weakened overall movement and health. It is a medical fact that imbalance of the musculoskeletal system has an adverse effect on the other systems of the body (circulatory, neurological, lymphatic, etc.) How do we address this system? Bodywork – it just makes sense.

Let’s start off by explaining how diverse the term “bodywork” can be. In my opinion, it involves utilizing one or more manual modalities to restore function and balance to the horse’s body. Massage, trigger points, myofascial release, joint mobilization, stretching and even skeletal alignment manipulations are just some examples of the techniques a qualified practitioner may incorporate. Again, we are talking about restoring and/or achieving full function and balance, the basic ingredients of optimum performance.

If the feet are overloaded in one area or another, the body creates muscular holding patterns to support itself. This in turn will create what most call “postural faults”: i.e. over at the knee or cow hocked. Muscle imbalance dictates poor posture which equals poor movement and performance. This creates a vicious cycle of the feet growing unbalanced and the musculoskeletal structures adapting to their foundation as they look for a place that’s comfortable. This occurs not only at rest but also, more importantly, during movement.

Essentially, we now have a “chicken and egg” question of which came first – imbalanced foot or body? In my opinion, when it comes to the horse, it doesn’t matter which came first. The bottom line is that “it is what it is” and now you have to treat it. Bodywork and hoofcare when addressed together can greatly increase the opportunity for homeostasis. By restoring equilibrium to the body, the horse is now ready to accept the newly restored balance of the feet. Providing the best balance possible and making the full range of motion available enables the horse to respond to the demands placed on him with excellence. The “co-relation” of the hoof and musculoskeletal system is obvious.

HINT: The proper balance of the horse’s mouth is often overlooked and is a major link to his health, attitude, and performance.

Horse’s attempt to self-balance

  • Repeated yawning could indicate attempts to adjust a temporomandibular joint (jaw) misalignment
  • Rolling and bucking may be attempts to adjust spinal subluxation
  • Rubbing, leaning and pushing on the neck or head could be attempts to correct cervical misalignments
  • Rubbing, leaning and pushing on the hindquarters may be attempt to correct pelvic rotation or hip subluxation

Pay attention to detail; your horses are an open book if you learn how to read them.

The hooves tell a story

In theory, the “hoofman’s” eye may be one of the most valuable tools he can possess, since hooves tell the story of the horse’s overall health. For instance, the hairline connects the hoof to the body. Knowing how to read the hairline can answer a multitude of questions about the horse’s health. Other examples: unhealthy, crumbly hooves may indicate a lack of nutrition, which might be related to poor chewing of food, while one hoof larger than the other could be due to a musculoskeletal imbalance (increasing the weight load on one side can stress the hoof, causing it to spread). This kind of “hoofsavvy” can only be realized by considering the interconnectedness of all the body’s systems.