Goat on a Rock
Equine performance (or human performance for that matter) is dependent on a properly functioning body. Each body has its unique conformation, i.e. the bony structure it was born with, some that are more naturally athletic than others. Yet, time and again, we see horses with good conformation not living up to their athletic potential. This is often caused by a postural problem. By posture, we mean the how the soft tissues of the body support the bony structures underneath in relationship to gravity. Posture can change for a variety of reasons—mechanical, physiological or emotional. For example, imagine a 13-year-old kid, full of confidence, running around upright and erect. His body is relatively symmetrical (evenly developed) and in balance with gravity. Now imagine this same kid as a sullen 15-year-old, slumping, with rounded shoulders, and head hanging down. This person’s bones (read: conformation) haven’t changed, but his posture has. By practicing a sullen, slumped posture, he became “crooked” and is no longer in balance. And the slumping body is not going to be as athletic as the upright one.
A horse’s posture can change with work or with physical or mental pain just as a human’s can. But it is also dependent on the proprioceptors located in its feet and its mouth. A proprioceptor is a microscopic little gizmo that tells a body where its parts are in space, and where upright is. If the proprioceptors receive inaccurate information, the brain doesn’t perceive upright correctly and the body’s posture will not be correct; it becomes crooked just like the 15-year-old boy. In order not to fall down, the body will compensate in all sorts of ways, adding increased stress to joints and overworking muscles. Any compensation will have a negative effect on performance. “Fortunately posture is dynamic and can be improved. All horses are naturally crooked. The goal of Postural Rehabilitation is to ‘straighten’ the horse by improving core strength, joint and spinal flexibility and making both sides equally strong. Horses with good posture look proud and move with power and grace.”—Gloria Verrecchio, DVM, CERP
If you look at photos of wild horses, you will see that, in relatively dry environments, they stand up correctly in relationship to gravity. Take a look at their front legs. In standing postures, they will be perpendicular to the ground most of the time, which allows the soft tissue to be in a relaxed state because they are not fighting gravity. Now take a look at a lot of domestic horses—from those in people’s backyards, to those in the show ring. Notice how often the front legs seem to not be perpendicular to the ground (they’re usually angled slightly back.) If the front legs are not perpendicular to the ground, there is added stress on all of the soft tissue and joints of the front legs in an effort to maintain balance and not fall forward. And these compensations work their way throughout the whole body, often leading to inefficient movement patterns and eventually a deterioration of performance or actual lameness.
Original Photography by Jennifer Malott Kotylo, formatted for site by Robert Van Demark
Notice how often the front legs seem to not be perpendicular to the ground (they’re usually angled slightly back.) If the front legs are not perpendicular to the ground, there is added stress on all of the soft tissue and joints of the front legs in
Wild horses in a dry environment wear their hooves down naturally to a shape that enables them to find this symbiotic relationship with gravity; this allows the proprioceptors in the hooves and legs to transmit the proper signals to the brain. If, in our efforts to shoe or trim our horses properly, we don’t mimic a natural wear pattern, the brain, with inaccurate information, tells the body to assume what it perceives to be a good postural relationship with the ground, and then has to compensate when that posture fails and the animal loses its balance. This whole compensation pattern rapidly begins to negatively impact function and performance. If you see that your horse stands with his front legs a bit in front or a bit behind straight up and down, discuss this with your farrier. Your horse is showing you that he has a postural problem possibly stemming from his feet.
“As they say, “No foot, no horse.” The foot is the foundation for good posture. Any imbalance here will affect joints up the leg and the associated muscles. Discomfort also causes compensation. Compensation results in stress to other joints and muscles possibly far distant from the original source of pain. Pain causes mental and emotional tension. These factors combine to create an unhappy horse and lead to poor performance and poor posture.” Gloria Verrecchio DVM, CERP
Not only are the horse’s hooves filled with proprioceptors, so too are his mouth and temporomandibular joint. Take a look at your horse’s front teeth while standing directly in front of him. The bite line (where the front teeth meet the bottom teeth) should be horizontal to the ground and parallel with his eyes. It is almost as if this line were the horse’s own internal gyroscope helping him orientate himself to gravity. He is going to try to keep this line parallel to the ground to help him so that his TMJ joint receives the proper input. If for whatever reason, this line has a slant to it, the horse may tilt his head ever so slightly in an attempt to get it parallel to the ground. (Please note that this tilt is not the
same as a head tilt used to avoid work. That type of head tilt is usually associated with a rider imbalance or a muscular imbalance in the horse.) This slight tilt (which may not even be noticeable to the casual observer) will cause tension in the poll muscles causing a cascade through the body creating torques and tightness almost anywhere. That tight hamstring may be a result of a crooked jaw! Bottom line: good dentistry is also paramount to good posture. Not only must hooks and sharp edges be managed, but the balance of the overall mouth must be maintained in order for the horse to receive the correct proprioceptive impulses, without which performance will be compromised.