No doubt you've seen it hundreds of times: After a roll in the mud or a flat-out nap, your horse props himself up on his forelegs and lurches back to his feet. Rising from the ground may be a commonplace activity for horses, but it's still one of the most complex, athletic feats they perform. Lying down is nothing in comparison: All a horse needs to do is flex his front and hind legs and let gravity pull him to earth with a thump. Getting up again demands strength, coordination and well-timed physics.
A horse rises by first rolling onto his breastbone with his legs tucked beneath him. He then raises his head high, which lifts his chest slightly and allows him to begin unfolding his legs. Straightening his forelegs in front of him, the horse lifts himself into a sitting position, almost like a dog. He may remain in this position only briefly, or he may pause to collect himself for the final, most strenuous move. Finally, the horse swiftly and forcefully throws his head down and forward: the extreme weight of his front end (20 percent of his entire body weight) acts like a counterbalance to lift his hindquarters into the standing position.
The following disorders can affect a horse's ability to get to his feet:
- Neck injuries or soreness can cause the horse to restrict his front-end movements, thus reducing the lift to his hindquarters.
- Neuromuscular disorders diminish the strength and coordination necessary to defy gravity while rising; if the condition is progressive, the horse becomes increasingly wobbly and weakened in his efforts to stand.
- Arthritis or other painful joint conditions can interfere with full extension of the joints necessary when rising from recumbency.A disabled horse who has gotten halfway up on his own before getting stuck may be able to make it up all the way with a little help from you. Grasp the base of the tail and pull directly upward as the horse attempts to get up on his hind legs. Your extra "lift" may be just enough to do the trick.
Do not resort to any sort of mechanical device in raising the hindquarters, pull on his halter or try to lift his head. These actions can, in the least, further unbalance the horse; at worst, they can do irreparable spinal damage.
A horse who cannot move from a flat-out position or who is unable to get his front legs propped under him needs immediate veterinary attention. If your horse makes a couple failed attempts to rise with your help, leave him undisturbed in his recumbency until medical help arrives.
This article first appeared in the July 1999 issue of EQUUS magazine.