My sister in law, in experiencing old age, remarked that she was glad that no one was around to watch her get out of bed in the morning and take the first few steps to the bathroom. She said, “It’s not a pretty picture.” After a horse has been standing in his stall all night, it’s not always a pretty picture either. But those first few steps are full of information for someone who is observing closely. I have had several mentors in my lameness education. The good ones have each said that watching a horse walk can often give you as much information as watching them work at the faster gaits. Doubly true when they first come out after being stalled overnight or for just a few hours.
Here is a recent example. I was asked to look at a gelding that the owner said had a front end lameness that he seemed to warm out of. I told her that I’d like to examine him before he worked, preferably first thing in the morning. I asked her not to take him out of the stall until I got there. When the day came, I stood far back from his stall door and kept my eyes on his feet when he was brought out. As each foot hit the barn floor, he literally tip toed. That is to say, the toe of each front foot hit the ground first, and then the heel dropped down. This is totally abnormal. Horses should land just about flat. Actually, recent super slow videos reveal that normal horses at work do hit their heels first, just a split second before the rest of the foot lands. However, in a normal horse, what we see with the naked eye is a horse landing flat.
When this gelding was turned as he came out the stall, he was obviously favoring the leg on the inside of the circle. I asked the owner to turn him in the other direction, and when she did, he was off on that inside leg. At this stage my thought process was: “OK. This gelding is lame in both fore. He’s landing hard on his toes probably because the back part of his foot hurts.” I had the owner take the horse into the indoor and free lunge him, and sure enough, within a few minutes, he started to warm out of his lameness and land more normally. His gait was still somewhat stilted, but definitely better. Five minutes later he was able to turn fairly comfortably. I suspected that he might have early navicular disease, and subsequent nerve blocks and X-rays revealed that to be the case. First clue? It was the way he landed toe first coming out of his stall.
Unfortunately, when the grass is richest in the spring we always have some horses that get laminitis. This extremely painful disease affects the toe of the foot. As a result these horses tend to land heel first, and then the toe flops down. Once you see one with this “heel toe” gait, you never forget it. If you are standing well in front of them, you actually see the bottom of the sole for a split second. Again, the horse with navicular or other heel lameness tends to land toe first. The horse with laminitis lands heel first. Each is landing in the way that causes the least discomfort. Imagine a thumb tack in your shoe at the toe or at the heel. You would naturally walk to avoid the pain of stepping on the tack. Horses mildly affected with laminitis or navicular disease will tend to improve after several steps and often really do “warm out” of the lameness. Again, it is that first look, when the horse is “cold” that is so revealing.
At few times a year I will see a horse that strikes the outside of the front foot when he lands and then eases down onto the inside. If you walk this way for a few steps, you will feel how this strains the lower joints in your own leg. I see this most often on horses that have a tendency to toe out. Farriers often trim feet to achieve symmetry and balance of the foot, which is usually not what these horses need. The tendency to toe out comes from higher up in the leg. In my opinion, feet should be trimmed so that they land flat, regardless of how balanced the foot looks when you are holding it between your knees. These horses often need to have the outside wall lowered so that they land flatter. This will make them toe out more, but this is what the upper leg is dictating anyway, and in a mature horse you have to go with it to some extent. I wish every farrier would take the time to really watch all horses walk and trim accordingly. Farriers are a critical piece in keeping horses sound.
The landing of the foot is also something to be aware of in the hind end. Watching a horse walk away from you can prove helpful in deciding if a horse has a stifle or a hock problem. Horses with stifle joint issues tend to swing the leg wide. Inertia then carries the foot through that outside arc and a little bit toward the midline. The result is that they tend to land a little bit on the inside of the foot. If this has been an issue for some time, there will be wear of the inside wall if they are bare footed, or a shine to the inside branch of the shoe if they are shod. If the horse has a hock problem, the tendency is for the leg to swing in, and then land a little bit on the outside of the foot with subsequent wear on that side of the foot or branch of the shoe. Again, the landing is best observed when the horse has not been exercised.
There are other things to look for as a horse lands, but these basics are a good start. If practiced regularly, your observations will increase your awareness of your animal’s bio mechanics and their well-being. My suggestion is for you to get in the habit of watching how those feet land on every horse you see for the next month as they come out of the stall in the morning. You will have gained an important skill.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM