Horses who work for their oats have accidents, they overstress their moving parts, they grow creakier with age. Lameness in horses seems an almost inevitable side-effect of use, so the only way to keep lame limps out of your life is to store your unmarred gems in protective wrappers and bring them forth for occasional showings, but never hard work. Right? Wrong! The pampered, protected, overfed horses develop lamenesses from underuse. How can you win, then?
When it comes to keeping sound horses sound and making the most of the already lame, living within limits is the answer. And the limits are defined by the horse himself, not by dreams the owner expects him to fulfill. A horse can’t will himself to go beyond his current physical capabilities without paying a price, and neither can you. There may be crookedness in his frame that he has to accommodate, a lack of muscular fitness, poor-quality hooves, performance demands that prey on a flaw, weaknesses created by nutrition or accident. Cross too far over the individual’s limits or stay there too long, and you’ve kissed soundness goodbye–maybe for a short time, maybe for the life of the horse.
You want to keep lameness out of your stable?
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Don’t buy it or breed it. If you go for style, spirit or a pretty face and ignore the construction of the posts and springs that move the horse along, you’re building your castle on sand. Sound plainness is a lot more useful in the long run than limping prettiness. Consider the conformation of any prospective additions in light of what they’re going to be doing.
For hanging around the backyard eating grass, most any structure will do (but beware the cresty-necked pony who can eat himself to crippling founder). If, in the more demanding occupations, the front legs are heavily taxed, be especially concerned with buying/breeding the truest forelegs available. If the work involves a lot of hock and hip action, evaluate how the angles of the structure will meet the challenge.
Naturally, a set of four legs that are perfect in stance and stride is the ideal, but variations in the basic design appropriate for a draft horse (whose hind legs are obligated to propel heavy loads at slow speeds) are quite different from those appropriate for a high-speed galloper (whose front legs take a pounding). It’s not too hard to figure out which structures are most stressed by which lines of work, so choose your conformation accordingly. And don’t forget the feet: too small, too soft, too brittle, too upright, too mushrooming and the perfect conformation travels on shifting sands.
When you examine a prospective purchase, look at him with the same dispassionate eye you would use to go through a lameness examination. If you want a horse for fun and mild work, you can probably let that mismatch in the size of the front feet pass or that slight stiffness in the ankles go or that knot on the heel slide by. But attend to the problem closely before you lay down the money for a horse you’re planning to put to hard work, or else you’ll find yourself begrudging the time it’ll be taking from you after the purchase.
Don’t feed it. Many of the nutritionally associated lamenesses remain mysterious in origin. No one knows precisely why some heavy, fast-growing young horses develop contracted tendons and joint and bone deterioration such as epiphysitis and osteochondritis dissecans. But pumping weanlings and yearlings full of high-protein, heavily concentrated diets apparently sets them up as very plump sitting ducks for this kind of irreversible damage.
Excess weight alone stresses the still-soft growing bone and accentuates the damage encouraged by any conformational crookedness. Fat is not the only dietary culprit in lameness; mineral imbalances from oversupplementation, or calcium- or phosphorus-heavy rations, destroy the integrity of bone. Avoid the temptation to pile on the goodies for your horses, especially the young ones whose tolerance for nutritional error is much lower than that of the adults who are more set in their ways.
Don’t train for it. Keep an eye on the limits in all your training and work routines. Horses aren’t fragile creatures to be protected from every environmental hazard. They can trot through rocky terrain, bound down sunbaked tracks, wallow through muck. They can pull and carry heavy loads. But, just like people who take up wood chopping or long-distance running after years of desk work, they need physical readiness for the tougher tasks. Hop on a pasture-fat horse, gallop him for three miles on a cinder track every day for a week, and you’re riding toward trouble. Go gradually into new activities. And recognize that each horse has his own gauge of gradual: The young, the less perfectly made and the more elderly take longer than the sturdy, mature types who already have a work history behind them.
Don’t aid and abet it. The world is already full of plenty of snares without adding to them through carelessness. Sharp metal, deep holes, wire, nails, broken fence boards and other instruments of accident left strewn about pastures and stalls invite crippling injury. Misguided farrier work is a less obvious agent of traumatic and degenerative lameness. “Corrective” trimming and shoeing become destructive trimming and shoeing when they attempt to reshape a skeleton or remake a gait without considering the horse’s innate limits. Think of hoof care as a way to help the horse move as best he can with the equipment he has, not as a converter of plow horses to prancing stallions.
What about the cripples you already have in your stable? Too often, chronically lame horses have so many other redeeming features – they’re great school horses, extremely talented campaigners, trusted old companions or breeding bonanzas – that you want to keep them around, as useful and comfortable as possible. With the already lame, you’re working in a much smaller box, and the boundaries have to be observed with respect. You can rarely sneak across them without getting caught.
Since gait compensation usually doesn’t result from a conscious awareness of pain on the horse’s part, you’re not being inhumane when you use a chronically sore horse within the limits of his capabilities. Going out on trail rides on a horse with arthritically stiff joints is probably okay; playing pony express and jumping outside courses with him may be cruel. Painkilling medication will ease his aches and, even more, your conscience, but it doesn’t cure anything. Let his response to work dictate his use. If, during an activity, the gait asymmetry grows worse, back off on your demands; if he’s sorer the day after work, don’t use him quite so long or so hard the next time.
While it’s sometimes difficult to accept the finite nature of a horse’s physical capabilities, especially when you know how much he was once able to do, it’s the only attitude that will allow both you and him to live comfortably within the limits. The equine locomotor system is a marvelous machine but as subject to failure as any conveyance that’s overused, misused or abused. There’s a logic to the perfect functioning of the system as well as to its failure and repairs. Understand that logic, accept and work with it, and you will have pushed back the boundaries of each horse’s potential for soundness as far as they will go.
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