The Bridle Lame Horse

Before - note the skipping action in the hindquarter. See how much loadbearing is increased on the foreleg when this occurs.

by Sharon May-Davis

Even though a bridle lame horse does not exhibit the true characteristics associated with lameness such as heat, pain and swelling, he does however exhibit one or more symptoms that elicit concern. For example; the horse can be scratchy in front, short striding, skipping, hopping, stiff in the shoulders or unable to extend to its full potential. Furthermore, your horse may have a change in attitude, be sore around the poll, become reluctant to work, and, more notably, display a marked drop in performance.  

The term “Bridle Lameness” refers to the training techniques and riding posture that instigate this condition, namely, any item of tack or rider fault that induces the horse to consistently travel forward on the forehand and behind the bit, which ultimately results in gait abnormalities. However, in the majority of cases, it is the severity of the bit in unyielding hands that can be acknowledged as the main perpetrator.

Now, you may be wondering, how does this affect the horse’s gait?  Well, it actually stems from the unique biomechanical synchronisation that occurs in the foreleg, the ability of the foreleg to extend beyond the nose, but the placement of the foot is only ever directly beneath or behind it. Thus, when a horse is repeatedly asked to travel forward with its nose behind the vertical, its body must keep re-adjusting in order to maintain momentum whilst in an unnatural position. Subsequently, compensatory factors begin to occur throughout other regions of the body in an effort to maintain a balanced profile, while the weight-bearing load of the forelegs is increased. As a direct consequence, abnormal gaits begin to appear - hopping, skipping and so forth.

Over a period of time, the jarring, wear and tear start to take their toll, and the muscle groups around the shoulders, neck and back regions begin to seize up. Simultaneously, those muscles involved in the correct extension and placement of the foot begin to decrease in size due to lack of use. Naturally, the end result is a horse that displays any number of those characteristics mentioned earlier and for no apparent reason.

After - the foreleg extends nicely

The job of the equine therapist is to identify and release those muscles that require attention and to re-mobilise the legs with any feasible method available. This may be done through a series of techniques involving massage, stress point therapy and joint mobilisation. In the process, some good stretches will begin to acquire the normal range of motion that was once available.

Take for example the case history of Camira, a lovely, well-behaved part-Arabian mare (14.3hh) who was ridden by a young lady with limited experience. The lady was what is commonly termed in the industry as a ‘slightly nervous rider’ and she would keep an unnecessarily tight rein. This led to the very quiet Camira exhibiting an abnormal gait along with what appeared to be a reluctance to work. As her forehand became heavier, the young lady became worried that the quiet mare would buck and was subsequently wondering if she was sore somewhere.

I had a soft spot for this mare and her lovely disposition, and made time to observe both horse and rider to see what was concerning the owner. The potential bucking action was exactly that mentioned earlier - a skipping action in the hindquarter. I then felt along the shoulders and forelegs to look for the telltale signs of “Bridle Lameness” and there it was - the characteristic tightness with a stressed poll region. It helped that I knew this mare previously to note any changes.

I first started to work on all the muscles around the mare’s face and then checked the Temporal Mandibular Joint along with the Coronoid process. The owner was very efficient when it came to dental management and there was no concern there. However, the same could not be said for the occipital-atlanto junction of the poll, which was under considerable stress along with the regions between the Wing of Atlas and Ramus of the Mandible. Both areas required release along with both shoulders and forelegs. Camira exhibited the “that feels wonderful” look you expect to see when the release is effective, followed by a few large yawns and a superb sinus releasing snort. The latter happened all over the owner, much to her surprise.

Afterward, it was tactfully recommended that the young lady take riding lessons to improve her seat and contact with her horse. This proved most beneficial for both horse and rider as Camira began to extend once more to her full potential.

About the author:

Sharon May-Davis, B.App.Sc. Equine, ACHM, EBW, AESM, is an Equine Therapist who has a particular interest in the skeletal system. She frequently can be found down a hole digging up a skeleton, or examining horses before they are euthanised. Her intention is to learn as much as she can from the dead so she can help the living, and the horse's well-being is her ultimate goal. Her work on the living has led her to horses from virtually all disciplines, including Australian Champions, and to be the Equine Therapist for the Modern Pentathlon Horses and the Australian Reining Team at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. She also conducts clinics and seminars related to her research in skeletal anomalies, and is involved in helping to establish reputable and accredited Equine Therapy Courses in Australia. In her youth, she competed in both saddle and in-hand up to Royal standard, and as a result of her early competition years, she is a qualified Judge for the Show Horse Council of Australia.