While the causes are not always understood, it's possible to help your horse overcome a locking stifle with time, patience and exercise.
A locking stifle (in vet-speak an 'upward fixation of the patella' or UFP) is a common problem in horses, often unrecognized, misdiagnosed as general hind leg lameness or overlooked altogether.
WHAT DOES A LOCKING STIFLE LOOK LIKE?
In severe cases, the horse will be unable to flex the affected hind leg and may even drag it behind him. The leg looks 'locked' and the horse may have to kick out or move oddly to unlock his leg. In these cases, a locking stifle is hard to miss. In milder cases, however, the affliction may not be as obvious. The horse may simply appear slightly lame, have hesitant or short stepping strides, kick out during movement, hop, lose his stride, cross canter or change gaits for no apparent reason or frequently stumble or even fall. These cases of 'catching stifle' are often overlooked and sometimes interpreted as training or behavior issues.
WHAT MAKES A STIFLE LOCK OR CATCH?
It's important to understand the function of the locking patella in the healthy horse. For a horse to doze off while standing or simply to take weight off another leg, the weight-bearing leg 'locks' and becomes a sturdy pillar to support the resting horse. The patella's job is to secure the leg by locking in an upward position.
Things start going wrong when the patella fails to unlock when the horse wants to flex the leg. Depending on the horse and on the severity of the condition, this can range from a slight hop or kick to panicked attempts to unlock the stifle.
IS MY HORSE'S STIFLE LOCKING?
Your vet can help you determine if any of the following signs indicate a locking stifle:
- dragging hind feet (maybe showing wear on toe)
- reluctance to pick up feet
- resistance to moving on a circle
- kicking out for no apparent reason
- resistance to cantering or cross canters
- swinging hind-leg to the outside while moving
- frequent stumbling or even falling
Once your vet makes the determination that your horse is indeed suffering from an upward fixation of the patella, you can do several things to help your horse overcome this problem:
Create trust and keep your horse supple - This is an important factor. Your horse may already be insecure and confused if you or a former owner misunderstood his antics for behavior problems. You’ll want to pave the way for a new way of working together. Equine Bodywork is a good way to strengthen the trusting bond between you and your horse while creating supple musculature. Engage a knowledgeable bodyworker or learn some of the basic techniques yourself.
Replace ‘training’ with gymnastics - Until your horse is physically fit for his job, stop training. While he is dealing with a catching stifle, he doesn't need to learn how to side-pass. You can pick this up later, once he's completely sound. Develop a gymnastics program of targeted exercises and engage your horse in a daily fitness routine, if possible. Minimum program: 1 hour, 3 times a week.
Get out of the stall - If at all possible, get your horse out of the stall and into an outdoor environment 24/7. This will make him move about on his own and every step taken will strengthen his quadriceps (the largest muscle in the stifle apparatus) and the ligaments around the patella.
Get moving - Incorporate hill work into your gymnastics routine. Look for a hill or an incline where you can lunge your horse in both directions at a good working trot (when the hind legs step somewhat beyond the footprints of the front legs).
Pick up those feet - Use cavaletti and ground poles to get your horse to lift his legs and strengthen the quadriceps. PVC pipe from the hardware store works nicely, as do old beams from your house or barn.
Create forward movement - Your horse may be wary of the fact that his stifle could lock at any moment. He has every right to be worried, but he needs to move energetically if the gymnastic exercises are to have any effect. Encourage forward movement and work at a good working pace. Give the horse a break when he is physically or emotionally strained. Watch for changes in breathing or a worried facial expression.
Go swimming - This may be easier said than done ... if you do have the ocean or an accessible lake or stream nearby, explore swimming with your horse. This is an excellent exercise to strengthen all muscles without impact.
Most of all, don't give up on your horse! A horse with a tendency to have locking or catching stifles will need constant maintenance to remain sound and fit for riding, but chances for recovery are very good.
Stefanie Reinhold is a certified Masterson Method(TM) practitioner and instructor in Madison WI. She is co-authoring a book about the Masterson Method™ with Jim Masterson (Trafalgar Publishing, release date Summer 2011). Contact Stefanie at www.reinholdshorsewellness.com
DVD of “Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork™ - The Masterson Method™” is available at www.mastersonmethod.com.
For more detailed explanation of the anatomical elements involved in Locking Stifles, see an equine anatomy book such as Horse Anatomy: A Pictorial Approach to Equine Structure, by Peter Goody
For gymnastic tips, a great resource is Ingrid Klimke's Cavaletti: The Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Poles.
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