Why Horses Stumble

Stumbling can be caused by a number of things, including long toes, hoof imbalance, laziness or boredom, or a number of serious medical conditions.

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Some horses stumble or stub their front toes frequently, with the toe hitting the ground while the knee is still bent and the leg collapses instead of taking weight. The horse's head and neck drop down, but he usually catches himself by rapidly extending the other leg. Most of these horses are not lame, yet might occasionally fall to their knees or go down with a rider. The habitual stumbler might manage fine when running free, but tends to trip and stumble when being ridden or led. The stumbling horse is frustrating to ride, and he can be dangerous.

Stumbling can be caused by a number of things, including long toes, long feet, hoof imbalance, laziness or boredom, and in some instances devious behavior--a few horses learn they can get out of work if they stumble because a concerned rider thinks there is something wrong and ends the ride. Stumbling can also be due to inadequate conditioning (such as a young horse unaccustomed to carrying a rider, or a horse whose muscles are out of shape), poor conformation, incoordination, joint problems, chronic foot pain, damage to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), brain disorders such as narcolepsy (sudden attacks of sleep), or weakness due to fatigue or illness.

A Veterinarian/Farrier's View on Stumbling

Tia Nelson, DVM, a farrier/veterinarian from Helena, Mont., says the first thing she does with a stumbling horse is make sure the animal is not ill. She begins by ruling out EPM, West Nile virus, other encephalitides, or some sort of spinal trauma that would make him uncoordinated. "I have seen horses with concussions, for instance, that could not even stand up when blindfolded, but could do pretty well as long as they could get a visual image of where they are," she says.

Stumbling can be a serious issue if a horse falls and the rider gets hurt, so it is important to rule out certain problems. "Assuming the horse's neurologic examination is fine and he is not infected with something that could cause dysfunction, then I do a thorough lameness exam," says Nelson. "It is not at all uncommon for a horse to function reasonably well with a lameness, just because he is tough or has a lot of heart. As soon as you address the lameness, the stumbling stops. It's like having a rock in your shoe; you are not able to move as well as you would without it. Stumbling can be the first sign of something not right before the horse actually becomes lame, so it's good to check him out.

"Usually the stumblers I see have heel soreness that is often associated with toes too long and heels starting to run under," says Nelson.

After shoeing horses professionally for eight years, she spent six years prior to vet school observing a group of barefoot horses in hard use. "I'd started patterning my trimming and shoeing after what the wild horse foot looks like, trying to understand the four-point trim and a more square (and shorter) toe," says Nelson. "The results I had were very positive when I mimicked this, so I studied 25 horses belonging to various clients who were interested in what I was doing.

"The 25 horses did very well barefoot in hard use on some pretty rough ground. The horses ridden on hard to dry rocky soils tended to do better than horses kept in soft, irrigated pasture."

Horses with much shorter toes than we are accustomed to seeing, and heels pulled back farther (better base of support under the horse) do very well, she says. There are two ways you can shorten the hoof, says Nelson. You can cut it with nippers from the bottom (shortening the entire hoof wall), or functionally shorten it by backing up the base of support (shortening the toe), changing the angle of the foot. The feet that are thus shortened (with a shorter toe) rarely stumble.

"All the horses I shoe are shod to a specific pattern, yet each gets a custom shoeing job to suit the foot--which means I use a proportional guideline when trimming," says Nelson. "The number is phi (a Greek number) which is 1.618, a proportionality that works. About two-fifths to one-third of the hoof is ahead of Duckett's dot on the bottom of the foot, and three-fifths to two-thirds of the hoof is behind that dot," she says.

This landmark on the bottom of the foot is a spot on the prepared frog (smoothed up and trimmed) near the point of the frog. On the average-size hoof for a 1,000- to 1,200-pound horse, this spot is about 1/4-3/8 inch behind the point of the prepared frog.

"From that point forward to the breakover point (the breakover point is the most forward point of weight bearing when the horse is standing with his foot flat on the ground) is about two-fifths to one-third of the bearing length of the foot from front to back," says Nelson. "Behind Duckett's dot (to the back of the foot) is three-fifths to two-thirds of the bearing length (more than half)," she says. If a horse is allowed to wear his hoof naturally, the breakover point is not very far back from where the foot ends, because he has a short toe and a steeper hoof angle--and he rarely stumbles. A long toe makes the hoof angle more sloped; a short toe makes it steeper. If we put a shoe on that foot, the toe will not be worn off, the foot will be longer from front to back (creating a more sloped angle) and the breakover point will be farther forward. The length from Duckett's dot to the breakover point will be too long (approaching half or more of the bearing surface) and the foot will be unbalanced.

The actual length (from Duckett's dot to the breakover point) varies with each horse, because a steeper-angled horse with a more upright hoof and pastern (and steeper hoof angle) will have different measurements than a horse with less steep angles, but it is always proportional for that particular horse. The wild horse feet Nelson has been able to observe had the same proportions as the domestic barefoot horses in hard use, so Nelson feels comfortable in following these guidelines. She uses this when trimming and shoeing, and works on lame horses all over the country and finds that proportionality helps them become sound.

"A lot of people use terms like 'level,' 'flat,' and 'balanced' as if they were interchangeable, and they are not. We should not confuse symmetry with balance," she says. "Symmetry and balance are two sides of the same coin but they aren't the same thing."

You can roll the toe of a shoe to keep the horse from tripping, but Nelson says what you do to the foot in trimming is more important than the shoe you put on. Much of the "corrective" shoeing done in the past was just a band-aid job. "I almost never use egg bar shoes or wedge pads; 99% of the horses I shoe get shod with regular shoes out of a box," she continues. "I do stick the shoe in the forge just to square and roll the toe. Some people prefer rocker shoes; biomechanically it has the same effect. But it's easier for me to square and roll the toe than rocker it, and some horses get bruises on their toe if the shoe is rockered."

"Trimming is most important," Nelson notes. "The shoe should just be the icing on the cake. The shoe should look good, but no amount of shoeing will make a better foot if it's not trimmed properly. I also use shoes to enhance whatever job the horse is doing. A reining horse needs to be able to slide on his hind feet and needs skidders on the back. A barrel horse needs more traction. I'm in favor of horses being kept barefoot, if possible, but shoeing for protection or for a specialized task is perfectly reasonable. If a horse is shod properly, with the right proportionality for his feet, most of the time he will not stumble," says Nelson. "He can travel naturally and will not be hindered by his shoes."

Heather Smith Thomas

The Inattentive Horse

A few horses stumble just because they are lazy or not paying attention to the rider. These horses are often plodding along, not caring where they are going, not picking up their feet, thus stubbing their front feet over any irregularity or rock on the ground. This type of stumbler usually trips on his front toes, and does it most at a walk, less at a trot (hardly ever at a fast trot), and never at a canter or gallop, when he is truly alert. Often the lazy stumbler carries his head low, nose out, traveling lazily and heavily on his front legs.

The best remedy to keep such a horse from stumbling is to work on ways to eliminate his boredom (vary his routine, make the rides more interesting, don't repeat the same patterns all the time--keep him guessing), and work on getting him more collected. He needs to keep his head up and his weight carried back farther (more on his hindquarters) so he will be better balanced and more alert.

The Inexperienced/Unconditioned Horse

A young or green horse might stumble more frequently than a well-trained, well-conditioned horse accustomed to carrying a rider. It takes time and training to condition a horse's muscles and develop coordination at various gaits while being ridden.

If a rider's weight causes the horse's stride to change or the horse to be less balanced, his toes might occasionally strike the ground too soon and trip him. For the young horse which tends to stumble, lightweight shoes could help. Green horses under saddle are better off shod with light plates than heavy shoes or toe grabs until they learn to collect and handle themselves with a rider. Aluminum shoes with rolled or rocker toes can reduce stumbling (see next section).

A horse might stumble a little when you first start riding him after a long lay-off just because of poor muscle tone. Like a human athlete, he has lost his "edge" and might be a bit clumsy until he regains fitness.

Long Toes

If long toes (a sign of poor or infrequent trimming) are the problem, consult with your farrier about the stumbling. The horse's movements must be fine-tuned to avoid gait problems, with the feet breaking over at exactly the right instant and each foot landing properly on the ground. If feet are not balanced and the horse has long toes and low heels, breakover time might be slightly delayed and the gait altered, which can cause stumbling, although several research studies have indicated that horses can compensate for most breakover problems during the swing phase and make contact normally. If that horse has to work in deep footing or loose gravel, he might stumble more frequently.

Some horses need their feet and toes kept very short, especially if they are "daisy cutters," traveling with a low arc of foot flight. If the feet get very long, these horses tend to trip. They need to be trimmed and shod more frequently. Rolling the toe (beveling and rounding the toes' ground surface) also can help reduce stumbling.

A rolled toe shoe enables a foot to break over more easily, allowing it to be picked up a bit more quickly.

Another type of shoe that's often used for stumblers is one with a rocker toe (similar to a rolled toe, but ramped instead of rounded). The ground surface at the toe angles upward in front, enabling the horse to pick up the foot with minimal effort. A good farrier can watch how the horse travels (since every horse is different) and shoe the feet at the proper angle and length to help the horse's gait and minimize stumbling.

Conformation and Coordination

Stumbling is occasionally due to conformational problems that hinder agility and or make it harder for the horse to collect himself or to pick up his feet properly when traveling over uneven ground and rocks. Conformational flaws that make a horse less agile or more clumsy may lead to stumbling or falling--making the horse less safe to ride at fast gaits over questionable footing, or more prone to stumble even when traveling at slow gaits. Some horses, due to the way they are constructed, are far less agile than others. Front-end conformation that hinders a horse's ability to pick up his feet adequately or that creates excessive deviation in foot flight (such as the horse having too much width through the shoulders and chest--which always cuts down on agility and is often accompanied by base narrow conformation or pigeon toes) might predispose some individuals to stumbling. A wide-breasted horse, with too much space between his front legs, often travels heavy on the front legs and lacks agility. Many of these horses paddle outward with the front feet as they travel and are not very coordinated. As the old horseman's saying goes: "Bad hind legs may hurt the horse, but bad front legs can kill the rider."

Poor coordination can be another cause of stumbling. Some horses are awkward, stiff, and poor athletes regardless of conformation due to incoordination and poor reflexes (just like some humans!). Usually it is the horse with poor conformation which tends to be awkward and incoordinated, but not always. Sometimes even a good-looking, well-built horse will be a disappointment in his perceived athletic ability.

You can't change a horse's conformation or innate lack of ability, but you can help him by keeping him more collected when ridden. It is more imperative to have a clumsy horse well-trained and collected than an agile horse with natural ability. The naturally agile horse is more apt to catch himself and not trip or fall if he takes a misstep, even if he is not collected. But the clumsy horse is almost certain to trip or fall down if he hits a spot of rough ground unless you have him alert and collected.

Joint Problems

Some horses stumble because of a joint problem. For example, the knee joint might suddenly "give" and buckle forward, and unless the horse can catch himself with his other leg, he could go down in front. This might happen at any gait, making the horse dangerous to ride. Some horses--due to poor conformation, joint injuries, or arthritis--stumble more as they get older. The knee might give way for no apparent reason as the horse is traveling along or going down a hill.

Some horses have inadequate motion in leg joints. Stiffening and fusion of a knee, hock, fetlock, pastern, or coffin joint might be due to arthritis or some other condition. Full or partial fusion of a joint will hinder the action of the leg and could cause the toe to make contact with the ground too early in the stride. The joint isn't painful, and the horse is not lame. For this type of problem, shoeing that makes breakover easier (light shoes with rolled or rocker toes) might keep the horse from stumbling as much.

In some cases, a raised heel will help (such as wedge pads, bar wedges, or swelled-heel shoes), changing the hoof angle to facilitate easier breakover at the toe and compensating for lack of action in a joint (especially the fetlock joint).

Chronic Pain

Some horses stumble because of chronic foot pain. It might be hard to detect lameness (since he is not favoring one foot more than the other), but he might travel stiff and short-strided on his front legs. If both front feet hurt equally, the horse will not show an obvious limp, but might tend to stub his toes as he carries himself with guarded movement.

A horse with navicular disease in both front feet, for instance, will have a shuffling, stumbling gait. Both front feet hurt in the heel area, so he tries to land on his toes, keeping as much weight off the heels as possible. He travels awkwardly and tends to stab his toes into the ground. About 85-90% of horses diagnosed with navicular syndrome improve to comfortable levels (if not complete soundness) with correct shoeing, according to Tia Nelson, DVM, a farrier/veterinarian near Helena, Mont.

Some of the other causes of soreness in both front feet are laminitis, ringbone, thin soles that bruise easily, and inflammation of the coffin bone. A horse which begins stumbling should be checked by a veterinarian.

Stumbling is often the first sign of an obscure lameness affecting the heel area of one or both front feet. In an attempt to avoid the discomfort of landing heel first, the horse shortens his stride and tries to land on the toe. Soon the lameness becomes more noticeable, but some horses will stumble for a year or more before lameness becomes obvious. A good farrier or veterinarian can recognize this kind of stumbling as the first sign of navicular disease. Use of a hoof tester might not reveal pain in the heel area at this early stage, but nerve blocks (one foot at a time) can be revealing. When one foot is deadened, the horse will generally show a distinct lameness in the opposite foot. With both feet deadened, the horse has a natural gait with no stumbling.

Shoulder lameness can be another cause of stumbling; the pain in the shoulder makes it hard for the horse to fully extend his forearm. Consequently, he takes a short stride to try and protect himself from pain, and the resultant choppy stride makes him more apt to stub his toes.

Brain Damage/Nervous Disorders

Stumbling can also be caused by damage to the brain or spinal cord from a neck or back injury, or from illness such as sleeping sickness (encephalomyelitis), equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), West Nile virus, or certain poisons. However, these problems usually cause more trouble than just stumbling. The horse will travel quite awkwardly and is noticeably uncoordinated.

Another cause of stumbling in horses is equine narcolepsy, a brain disorder that is characterized by sudden attacks of deep sleep. The affected horse might stumble and go down at unpredictable moments when he is ridden, grazing, or standing in a stall. In a typical episode, the horse's knees suddenly buckle and he begins to go down. He might then catch himself just as his nose starts to hit the ground. His sudden bouts of deep sleep overcome his consciousness and normal body posture control for an instant.

Take-Home Message

There are many reasons a horse might stumble occasionally, or frequently. This can be due to simple foot problems, or can be the bellwether of neurologic disease. Work with your veterinarian and farrier to determine the cause, since the onset of stumbling might indicate a shoeing/trimming problem, or could be a warning of serious health problems.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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