5 ways to know if your horse isn’t sound

It’s easy to tell if your horse isn’t sound..right? He’s going to be hopping on 3 legs and if he isn’t doing that, then that means he’s ok?

Well no, I’m afraid not.  It can be surprisingly difficult to tell if your horse is “off” or not. Not only do horses often use different signals than we would, but as a horse has 4 limbs they can compensate for minor ailments so well that they can look completely sound…even when they’re not. In this article, which is part one of a two part series, our equine rehabilitation specialist Catherine McCourt MRCVS explores…

So, what does “sound” mean?

Technically, sound defines a normal healthy state in a horse, free of all disease and physical defect. However, when you are hanging over the side of the ring at a show and someone says to you that the horse in the arena isn’t sound…then what they are saying is that the horse is actually lame, and this is the definition that we will examine in this article.

Lameness can arise anywhere from the foot up to the back and neck and generally the higher the problem is, the harder it is to diagnose and the more vague and general the symptoms are.

If your horse shows any of the behaviours in the tips below, you should examine your horse further and possibly seek veterinary advice.

Sometimes the problem may be as simple as a pulled muscle or minor strain, but if left untreated this might set the horse on a path of crookedness and avoidance, which can lead to more serious issues further down the line.

  1. Displaced Aggression.

If your normally pleasant horse pulls faces and snaps at the dog, or the next door horse, or even the wheelbarrow or closest inanimate object when he is being groomed, girthed or shod, this is a mannerly horse’s way of telling you that something hurts. He would love to bite and snap at you or the farrier to demonstrate his discomfort, but he knows that’s not allowed. This is more than stress at the procedure, this can indicate low grade pain.

If this happens during a farrier visit, check the joints that are being flexed at that time – it could indicate the start of arthritis.

If it happens with girthing, check for ulcers, saddle fitting issues, rib issues or possibly even kissing spines.

  1. Distraction technique.

This is most noticeable when ridden. A normally sensible horse starts spooking at things that previously wouldn’t have bothered him at all. This can be a deliberate way by the horse to try to interrupt a training session or ride. It could also be due to a horse favouring one particular side and as a result not noticing something in its environment until it’s right upon it. Naturally first eliminate changes of diet, reduced turnout etc. as a possible cause, but if nothing else has changed except the horse has started to be spooky, then check the horse over for pain.

  1. Extended warm up

You used to tack up your horse and after a 10 minute warm up you were into your groove and your horse would perform reasonably for the rest of the session. Now, however, you find that you are spending the entire ride just trying to get the horse to accept the bit, to keep a reasonable pace, to stay straight or to keep a rhythm while jumping. Eventually you may get the horse to ride sufficiently well at the end of a long session, but the next day it’s back to square one.

This is a classical sign of an underlying problem and the most common issues here tend to be one or more of the unholy trinity of back, hocks or suspensory injuries.

  1. One sidedness.

All horses will favour one side and so will have a stiffer and a softer side. However, rein contact should be as even as possible and asking the horse to move on forwards should even up this contact. If a horse is persistently heavy on one side then a closer examination is needed. The sore area will usually be on the side of the heavier rein contact.

  1. Downright bad behavior.

This is a no-brainer. A horse doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to be difficult or dangerous.  Any onset of dangerous behavior for no obvious reason is always an indicator of pain somewhere. Bucking is often associated with back or sacro-iliac pain, neck pain can result in a reluctance to go forward, or even rearing.

But that’s not it… read on for some more ways to know if your horse isn’t sound


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