A horse in motion is the epitome of form and function, as its long legs bend, lift, and carry its powerful body. But when legs lack the ideal conformation necessary to achieve such natural grace, it can compromise their relationship with the equine pelvis and reverberate throughout the skeletal system.
Horses suffering from locking stifles and/or overly straight-legged conformation in the hindquarters (commonly referred to as post-legged) do not have an isolated problem. Straight-legged conformation can impact the relationship of the equine pelvis to the spine, inviting a host of compensatory behavior from the horse and its owner, who may turn to corrective shoeing or surgery in hopes of finding a suitable solution.
Instead, a holistic approach sees a locking stifle not as a singular problem of monumental difficulty, but as a symptom of body imbalance. Research by Pat Cleveland, and The Balanced Horse at Red Leaf Farm, Inc., introduces a new perspective on the relationship between locking stifles and a whole horse approach to wellness.
Her findings suggest that deviations of the lumbar (lower back, especially at Lumbar 4, 5, 6) influence twists and compressions along the length of the spine, and ultimately can manifest in problems of the legs and joints. Tracing the origin of these deviations, says Cleveland, may go as far back as the trauma of birth. “In 98% of the horses I have treated, problems, including locking stifles, trace back to alignment issues of the forehand, issues created from how they first emerged from the birth canal.”
To begin, assess how the horse’s pelvis, spine and withers line up. The primary concern, Cleveland cites, rests not in the joints of the hind legs but in the region between the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, where compression points can create muscle spasms and displace the weight-bearing ability of the joints. The tearing of connective tissue and/or joint cartilage, from displaced alignment, can further contribute to the generation of bone spurs, chips and similar stress-related issues. Like a domino effect, locked stifles or post-legs can impact wellbeing for the length of the spine.
Cleveland and her team seek to relax a horse’s muscles and free its joints by locking their arms and wrists together under the horse’s chest and literally lifting the front of the animal off the ground. She addresses tension and alignment around the breast bone and ribs, how the base of the neck fits into the body, and the angulation of the shoulders. Through her unique approach to decompressing the horse’s body, and easing/building muscle resistance, she says, “I can change shoulder angulation by as much as ten to twenty degrees. That effect can ricochet through the body to the pelvis, which can then, in relation to the shoulders, adjust accordingly the same number of degrees.”
Change the angle of the shoulder and, Cleveland believes, you can change the angle of the pelvis. “In approximately 40% of my equine clients, the result is dramatic. Fixing the original birthing trauma to the forehand is the first step to fixing a problem behind, like locking stifles. When you align a car,” she asks, “you align the front end, not the rear, right? I take the same approach with a horse.”
The alignment process itself she likens to twisting a towel. “Through a series of progressive motions, we seek to ‘roll’ or ‘twist’ the horse’s body. In chiropractic terms, it is a full ‘decompression’.”
Cleveland encourages owners to treat the horse’s body, and not just the legs, with holistic equine rehabilitation techniques. “The higher up you go tracing an existing problem, the more stress you will find. Locking stifles are not the problem. Nor does the problem stop in the top line. You have to follow that stress all the way back to the forehand, and consider that as the root of the problem.” Only by using a “whole approach,” tracing as far back as birth itself, might such problems be fully examined and the steps taken to return a horse to its original state of balance and grace.
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