Locomotion: The Way a Horse Moves (Book Excerpt)

This is an excerpt from Understanding Basic Horse Health Care by Michael A. Ball, DVM. This book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

Locomotion is at the very heart of what most domesticated horses do for a living.  The way a horse moves (specifically) often is taken for granted.  Locomotion is directly linked to conformation as it dictates "the way a horse moves."  Again, there are differences depending on the type.  For example, the Morgan horse will have a different nature to a particular gait than a Thoroughbred.  The Morgan will have higher "action" (raise its legs higher) than the Thoroughbred, but the basic principles of locomotion will be the same. 

The horse's legs should move in a straight line when watched from behind--the leg should track straight and be perpendicular to the ground.  The foot should hit the ground evenly and in a slight heel-to-toe manner.  When viewed from the side, the length of stride should be equal from side to side and all of the angles of flexion (the fetlocks, carpus, hocks, etc.) equal when compared from side to side.  If the stride length is shorter on one side or the degree of movement of a particular joint is different, this could signal a lameness problem.  Stride length is typically shortened on the lame leg.  In addition, changes in stride length or joint movement trigger changes in weight distribution and balance throughout the body.  For example, when a lame foreleg becomes weight bearing, the horse usually moves its head and neck upward and slightly away from the lame leg.  These movements further shift weight off of the painful limb.  A similar movement occurs in the pelvis in a hind leg lameness. 

It is important to understand the basic gaits.  The four basic gaits are the walk, trot, canter, and gallop.  The walk is what is known as a "four-beat gait" and two feet always maintain contact with the ground.  The gait is from side to side as both feet on one side of the horse (e.g., right front and right hind) hit the ground before the two feet on the opposite do. The average stride length of the walk is 5.5 to 6.5 feet. 

The trot is considered to be a "two-beat gait" in which the opposite hind foot and fore foot hit the ground simultaneously, e.g., the right forelimb and the left hindlimb move together.  The average stride length of the trot is nine to 17 feet.   The pace is a two-beat gait in which the hind foot and fore foot on the same side hit the ground simultaneously.
The canter has three beats in which the non-leading forelimb and the opposite hindlimb strike the ground at the same time. For example, if the horse is cantering on the left lead, the right forelimb and the left hindlimb strike the ground simultaneously.  The gallop is a fully extended "four-beat gait" in which the stride length approaches its maximum of 15 to 22 feet or greater.  The gait is similar to the canter except that the non-leading forelimb and the opposite hindlimb do not strike the ground together.  In this gait there is a period of "suspension" in which all four feet are off the ground at the same time.

Examples of Deviations in the Way of Going:

Winging--The flight of the foot goes through an inner arc when advancing and might cause interference with the opposite forelimb (usually seen with a horse that toes out whether it is base-narrow or base-wide).

Plaiting--The foot travels an inward arc and lands more or less directly in front of the opposite forefoot.  (Usually seen with base narrow, toed-out conformation.)

Paddling--An outward deviation of the foot during flight (usually seen with a horse that toes in whether he is base-narrow or base-wide).

Scalping--The toe of the front foot hits the hairline at the coronary band or above on the hind foot of the same side.  Generally a fault of the trotting horse.

Forging--The toe of the hind foot hits the sole area of the forefoot on the same side.

Over-reaching--The toe of the hind foot catches the forefoot on the same side, usually on the heel (may cause shoe pulling).

Cross-firing--Generally confined to pacers and consists of contact on the inside of the diagonal fore and hind feet.

Interfering--Occurs both in front and hind feet.  It is a striking, anywhere between the coronary band and the cannon, by the opposite foot which is in motion.

Speedy cutting--Any type of limb interference in the fast gait.

Brushing--A general term for light striking, especially as in forging or interfering.

Elbow hitting--When the horse hits the elbow with the shoe of the same limb (especially with weighted shoes).

Knee hitting--A case of high interference, generally seen in Standardbreds.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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