Just like people, horses can trip over their feet from time to time with no real cause or reason. It may be that the ground is slippery or even or that your horse just wasn’t paying attention. As with us this is perfectly normal and happens to all creatures that walk. If, however, your horse is tripping much more than occasionally it needs to be investigated further.
What’s causing my horse to keep tripping?
There’s no simple ‘one answer fits all’ solution to the question of why your horse is tripping. As I say it can be just a case of them misstepping on loose or uneven ground, but there are many other reasons why a horse could trip. It’s important to get to the bottom of why your horse is tripping or stumbling before you can decide the cause of action.
Is your horse paying attention?
This might sound like a silly question but horses who aren’t paying attention have a much higher risk of tripping. If your horse is mostly stumbling on is forefeet while you’re walking and sometimes at a trot but never while cantering or galloping it could be he’s either being lazy and doesn’t really want to do anything or because he’s not paying attention to what you’re doing. Horses who stumble due to being inattentive will usually carry their heads low.
The good news is that if this is the cause for your horse stumbling it’s pretty easy to cure, although can also be an easy habit to get into. Keeping your horse’s routine as varied as possible will not only stop him tripping due to boredom but will also prevent it from starting in the first place. If you keep to the same routine whenever you ride he’ll get bored and switch off and stop paying attention to what’s going on around him. He knows the routine so in his mind doesn’t need to pay attention. You’ll probably find that he never trips when he’s cantering or galloping, this is because he naturally pays more attention the faster he’s going so won’t trip at faster speeds.
Is your horse inexperienced?
You might think that a horse (or any animal for that matter) doesn’t need to be experienced to be able to walk without tripping and while that is definitely true they do need to be experienced in carrying a rider. While being ridden a horse needs to learn to carry the weight differently so that he’s not unbalanced. This can also happen if your horse has been rested for a long period of time.
While it usually just takes a bit of time for a horse’s muscles to become conditioned to carrying a rider you can use rolled toe shoes to help him. These special shoes are designed to help horses who put their toes down before the rest of their feet, they have a very slight upwards curve at the front that makes it much harder for their toes to hit the ground first.
Does your horse have a problem with his conformation or coordination?
The conformation of some horses can make it harder for them to pick their feet up properly especially when they’re on uneven ground. They may appear to just be clumsy but are actually, due to their conformation, predisposed to tripping. Sadly this predisposition can make them difficult to ride at faster speeds because although they can stumble at any pace, stumbling at faster paces can not only result in the horse falling but also in serious injury to both horse and rider.
You might be surprised to know that, although uncommon, some horses just have poor coordination that in extreme cases can cause the horse to trip. Much the same as horses who have a problem with their conformation this can make them problematic to ride at faster speeds.
It’s not possible to correct the conformation or coordination of a horse but you can, nevertheless, help to prevent them from tripping by training and by keeping them collected while ridden. This won’t stop him from tripping completely but it’ll help to keep him alert and therefore less likely to actually fall when he does trip.
Are your horse’s toes too long?
Horses whose feet aren’t trimmed properly or not often enough can suffer when their toes are too long. This is because if the toes are too long it can alter when the horse puts it’s foot down, this, in turn, alters the gait slightly which can cause stumbling. It’s not quite the same but it’s a bit like trying to walk when you’ve got really bad pins and needles in your foot – you try but because you put the ‘problem’ foot down earlier than you’re brain expects you stumble.
Making sure that your horse’s hooves are trimmed regularly and by a proper farrier can help to prevent this happening. This is even more important if your horse is a daisy cutter. As with inexperienced horses, you can use rolled toe shoes but you can also use rocker toe shoes. These are similar to rolled toe shoes but instead of curving up they have much more of a ramp and allow your horse to pick his hooves up with much less effort.
Does your horse have problems with his joints?
Like people, horses can suffer from joint pains such as arthritis as they get older. This can restructure the movement of their joints and make it harder for them to bring their hooves down evenly.
While a vet can prescribe pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs to help with the pain (and in turn making it easier for the horse to move more freely) having the right shoes can also help your horse. Both rolled or rocker shoes will help stop him from stumbling so much. A recent study has also found that, in some horses, a pad or bar under the heel will change the angle of the hoof enough to overcome the lack of movement in the joint. It’s not clear yet exactly how this works but it’s thought that by tilting the fetlock it elevates the pain enough to allow for better movement.
Is pain causing your horse to trip?
If your horse is suffering from any sort of pain in his feet (or just one foot) it can easily affect his ability to keep his footing. If he’s lame in one foot he won’t want to put pressure on it so he will shift his weight away from at foot which can result in him tripping. While a horse who’s lame in both forefeet won’t show any signs of limping you may notice that he’s started to trip when he didn’t before.
If you suspect this is the cause of your horse stumbling then you’ll need to have a vet check your horse. He’ll assess your horse and provide the best course of action for him.
Is your horse suffering from sleep deprivation?
If a horse isn’t able to lie down and get 30 to 60 minutes of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep a night for a week or more then he could be suffering from sleep deprivation. Horses that do suffer from this will experience bouts of ‘sleep attack’ which can occur when the horse isn’t concentrating. During these attacks the horse will start to fall asleep but before they do they’ll feel drowsy and their legs will buckle. This can, and often does, cause them to trip and is sadly a lot more common than you might think.
Before you can treat this you need to understand what’s preventing your horse from being able to lie down and enter the REM phase of sleep, is it physical or psychological?
- Physical – There can be a number of reasons why a horse isn’t able to lie down and you need to address the root cause of this. For example, if your horse is kept in overnight then it’s important to ensure that he has enough space to allow him to do so. If, however, he’s suffering from any sort of pain it may be too difficult for him to lie down. In the case of horses suffering from pain the first thing it to speak to the vet who may be able to suggest a treatment plan for your horse that will allow him to sleep properly. You can also look at changing your horse’s bedding to something that is softer, it won’t help him actually lie down but it will help make it more comfortable when he does. If you’re not sure what the best type of bedding to use is then you might want to read this article I wrote on bedding.
- Psychology – Some horses suffer from sleep deprivation because they’re not able to relax and don’t feel safe. If your horse is turned out overnight but doesn’t have a herd mate that he feels will keep watch then he won’t want to lie down and sleep, this often happens when horses are separated. This type of sleep deprivation can be harder to overcome but it’s still possible to do so. The ideal solution is to not separate horses in the first place but this isn’t always possible. It can be a slow process but bonding with your horse will help to build his relationship with you but will also help to measure him that he’s safe. This article I wrote on bond with your horse may help.
Does your horse have ringbone?
Ringbone is a growth of the bone in the pastern or coffin joint and can be extremely painful for horses, it normally occurs in the forelegs but on rare occasions can happen in the hindlegs too. There are two areas where this can occur, on the lower part of the large pastern bone or upper area of the small pastern bone (referred to as high ringbone) or in the lower region of the small pastern or upper area of the coffin bone (lower ringbone). In some serious cases, a bump or ‘ring’ may be visible but in most cases a vet is needed to confirm the diagnosis. Ringbone is more common in older horses but in terms of the effect it has on a horse its similar to arthritis.
If your horse suffers from ringbone then you need to speak to your farrier as he will be able to help your horse with his hoof balance. In some cases, your vet may prescribe a course of anti-inflammatory drugs or joint injections. Sadly though there’s no cure for ringbone.
Does your horse suffer from navicular syndrome?
Once thought of as a career-ending problem and referred to as a disease, navicular syndrome (or palmer foot pain as it’s sometimes known), is a term used to cover a range of hoof problems. Whatever the cause of the pain horses will often trip because they’re trying to reduce the pressure on the painful area and are overcompensating for it by overreaching with the other legs. Horses suffering from navicular syndrome are more likely to trip going uphill than they are going downwards. This is because of the area of the hoof that is causing the horse pain and discomfort.
Recent breakthroughs in medicine have meant that today around 90% of all horses suffering from navicular syndrome in one or both forefeet will make a marked improvement with correct shoeing. That’s not to say they’ll be 100% better but they’ll be comfortable and able to move much more freely.
Is your horse suffering from nerve damage?
Horses that have suffered from neck or back injuries may have damage to a nerve or their spinal cord which can result in them tripping much more, the signal from the brain telling the hoof to move isn’t getting through. This doesn’t mean that the horse is unable to move it just means that his balance and coordination aren’t quite there. Horses that trip due to nerve damage are far more likely to do so on one hoof rather than multiple hooves, this is because each leg and hoof will have its own set of nerves.
I know that nerve damage can sound like a serious problem and while it certainly is an issue it doesn’t have to be a big problem. As with horses who trip due to poor conformation, roller toe shoes can help as can regular steady exercise, especially on the ‘problem’ leg. Some studies have shown that hydrotherapy can help to alleviate this sort of tripping although, due to the costs involved, it’s obviously not available to everybody.
Does your horse suffer from narcolepsy?
This is a brain disorder where the horse will suddenly and without warning fall into a deep sleep. It may only be for a second or two but the horse will lose all control of his body and will stumble, often catching himself just before he falls completely. This can happen at any time regardless of whether the horse is being ridden or not.
Sadly it’s not possible to prevent, or reduce, the amount a horse with narcolepsy trips by shoeing or trimming their feet, instead your vet may try your horse on a course of drugs. At present, there’s no known cure but thankfully narcolepsy is extremely rare.
Does your horse trip when he’s traveling uphill or downhill?
If your horse trips while he’s traveling uphill then this can indicate he has a problem with his heel or flexor tendon. In some horses, it can be a symptom of navicular syndrome. Horses who stumble going downhill, on the other hand, are far more likely to have a problem with the stifle (knee) or lower back.
In both cases you should have a vet examine your horse, this will not only confirm the problem but the vet will also be able to prescribe the course of action and or treatment for your horse.
Does your horse trip on a particular terrain?
You might think it’s an odd question and although all horses will trip from time to time on slippery surfaces such as wet grass, some horses will only trip on certain surfaces. If your horse is doing this then the type of terrain he’s tripping on is a good indication of what the problem is.
- Sandy or snow – While inexperienced or unconditioned horses can trip on surfaces where their feet ’sink’ into the ground this can also be an indication of a problem with the hock(s).
- Gravely, rocky or stony – This is a sign that your horse has sensitive feet. There’s a wide range of boots and shoes to stop the large stones hurting your horse’s hooves.
- Tarmac/Asphalt – While tarmac and asphalt can sometimes be slippery which can obviously increase the risk of tripping, the harder ground can also cause horses with problems in the joints to trip more.
Is my horse tripping a temporary thing?
The short answer is yes it is possible that your horse will stop tripping. The longer answer though would be to say that it largely depends on the cause, if, for example, your horse is tripping because of a medical condition such as navicular syndrome or narcolepsy then yes he will always trip to some degree. So what could cause your horse to temporarily trip? Infections or injuries to the hoof or leg and can often cause a horse to trip, things like a foot abscess. Some cases of laminitis, especially those where the coffin has rotated, can result in a bout of tripping, this is because the coffin bone has changed its angle inside the hoof. You can read more about laminitis here.
I’m worried my horse will fall and hurt himself
When your horse trips he’s usually able to catch himself before he falls but on the occasions when he can’t he can hurt himself quite badly, especially if he’s fallen on loose stones or concrete. While you can’t stop your horse doing this you can lessen the chances of him doing any real damage by always riding him in exercise bandages (or brushing boots) and knee boots. They only take a minute to put on but can save your horse (and you) a lot of pain and sorrow. If you’re not sure how to apply bandages this guide will help.
I’m scared of falling when my horse trips
It’s perfectly normal to be worried that you might fall off when your horse trips. I’d like to say that this won’t happen to you but sadly I’d be lying if I did. While horses don’t often fall to the ground when they stumble it can, and does, happen. If you’re not ready for your horse to trip then although he hasn’t fallen completely you could still come off. Unfortunately, short of being prepared and having a good balance, there isn’t too much you can do about this. Instead, my advice would be to make sure you always ride with a body protector and a riding hat or skull cap, as I say this won’t prevent it from happening but will protect you if it does.
There are a number of reasons why a horse might trip a lot and while some of them are obvious and nothing to worry about it this may not always be the case. If you’ve noticed that your horse has started to stumble and aren’t sure why the first thing to do it check his feet and if necessary have a farrier check them. If his feet are okay then you should check his saddle (especially if he only trips when being ridden) and speak to your vet. The vet will be able to fully examine your horse and offer advice and treatment to help hopefully stop this happening in the future.
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