My horse is stumbling. What could be the cause?

horse falling from stumblingQuestion: I have a mare I have been riding since July. She was out of shape when I started riding her and I built her up by riding just a little bit more each time. In the past couple months she keeps falling on her knees at a walk for no reason. What would cause a horse to do this? It’s very dangerous so I am not riding her any more until I find out what is wrong with her. I don’t know much of her history but I really love this horse. What can I do for her?

Answer from April Reeves: Many things come to mind for this symptom.

Firstly, any pressure on the brain can cause these symptoms. Only a vet could discover whether or not the mare may have a tumor or some reason for any pressure. I hope this is not the case, but only a vet can diagnose this.

Or: is the mare part Quarter horse? Even if one of her parents were part quarter horse, your mare may have been passed on the HYPP gene. While stumbling is not a prominent sign of HYPP, it has shown up to be one of the symptoms.

Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis – an inherited disease of the muscle caused by a genetic defect, characterized by intermittent episodes of muscle tremors, shaking, trembling, weakness, collapse, and stumbling.

It began from the Quarter Horse stallion ‘Impressive’, where all tests for HYPP done on various lineages traced back to Impressive lines only. If your mare has any trace back to Impressive, regardless of how far back, this gene can carry forward. Being farther back on the breeding line does not dilute this disease, as the gene is dominant.

You would only know if your mare has this gene through a blood test.

Horses tend to begin stumbling when arthritis attacks the knee joints, but this was so sudden I don’t feel it could be a possibility.

This is when the shoulder muscles begin to atrophy die to nerve damage. Again, it would be a slow gradual build to the stumbling, not a sudden onset.

Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis
EPM – this is a neurological disease from Opossums (not all opossums carry this). Their feces may contain sporocysts (cysts that contain spores) that can be ingested by the horse through grazing and feeds. The horse begins to stumble or show signs of lameness. If it’s untreated, the horse may be unable to stand or swallow. It is fatal. If treated late, the horse could suffer permanent damage.

Your mare may be suffering from azutoria or tying-up. I would like to know what you feed her on a daily basis, if you don’t mind sending me that information, along with amounts and times. She may be on too high a phosphorus to calcium ratio, or on too high a potassium feed like alfalfa. Do you feed her oils, soybean meal or molasses? Some horses are affected by feeds more than others, just like people.

Have her eyes checked. Cataracts and infections could cause her to lose sight, which could make her stumble.

The navicular bone is a small bone in the hoof area. It is held in place by ligaments and dense connective tissues. The deep digital flexor tendon glides against the navicular bone, on it’s way down to connect to the coffin bone. Between the flexor tendon and navicular bone is a lubricant substance (bursa) that guards against damage and wear. Although navicular disease is tough to diagnose, aging horses (who have been worked hard in their lifetimes) tend to come up lame mysteriously, as often the bursa simply wears out.

This can be a lengthy and expensive diagnosis, involving x-rays and nerve blocking.

Some horses are more prone to navicular disease, due to breeding and genetic makeup. You can treat the symptoms of the disease with Bute and other drugs, but you can’t change the underlying pathology. Corrective shoeing has also helped alleviate the pain.

As far as training goes, in all my years and thousands of horses, I have never had a horse fall to its knees consistently. This alone suggests your problem is internal, and not an issue of training. I hesitate to recommend any new training regime for her.

Some of the gaited horses can have a tendency to stumble, especially those that are high headed and tend to ‘crack’ or hollow their backs while riding. Sudden consistent stumbling does not fit this explanation though.

Saddle & Cinch – she may have a pinched nerve from an improper saddle fit. Check your fit by referring to the Western Saddle Fitting article on the blog. Another problem could be your choice of cinch or girth, and how tight it is. You should also check your saddle pad for wear or bumps, and make sure you buy a good one.

Who to Call
Canada has a great health and nutrition specialist, Marijke van de Water, founder of Riva’s Remedies. You may call her toll free at 1-800-405-6643. She may have encountered this problem in her many years of diagnosing problems, and you may find it is just a feed problem. She has helped thousands of horses all over the world.

All of these above may only be possible problems, not definite. Without really knowing the horse’s history, or knowing her daily care routine, it is very difficult for me to make any accurate statements. It would be my strong recommendation that you call a vet.

I suggest calling a vet immediately for any circumstance that is life threatening, dangerous, unusual, or untreatable by the owner. Most owners can deal with scratches and light cuts and abrasions, so keep a good first aid kit around at all times.

I would also like to know what you feed her and her schedule, and any photos you may have of her.

Response from Owner:I have a scheduled visit from my vet on the 15th. It’s not an emergency so I just asked her to check her thoroughly when she does the shots for the other horses. She is a Missouri Fox Trotter and such a wonderful riding horse. She is so willing and will do anything for me. I have papers on her so doubt she has any quarter horse in her.

Feeding… I feed her twice a day about 2 cups of Purina Senior feed. She is 17 years old. I give her also a scoop of source in the morning and when I first got her I gave her beet pulp because she was very thin. She gets some alfalfa pellets for treats from time to time but not on a regular basis and is on regular coastal hay.

The fact that she didn’t do this when I first got her makes me think it’s something I have been doing. I have never had a horse that falls on their knees like this either. I switched to a Weaver Smart cinch so I could be cinching her tighter than I used to. I don’t have a lot of pictures but would send one if I knew how to attach a picture. Thanks so much. I appreciate any help I can get.

Response from April Reeves: I’m so glad you have a vet coming. Let me know what the results are.

I see no problem with your feeding regime. I think we can rule that out.

Sometimes these problems are solved by working through every angle we can find, eliminating each one until we find the source.

A poor fitting saddle will pinch nerves that could cause her to lose her balance or cut off circulation in the front end. How you could find out is to either ride her bareback for about 10 rides, or try a different saddle. Because she is older, she may have developed this nerve damage over time.

Your vet can discover this through nerve blocking, where they freeze each area of the suspected region, in this case the top of her front legs, up through her scapula and withers. Your vet will have other methods of diagnosing her as well, but you can talk to him/her about this.

To rule out the saddle, you can only test others and record the results. I never tighten a cinch very tight unless I am on a trail ride or jumping/reining/cutting. I can always get two fingers in the cinch and pull back the cinch about one inch. I also go through a process of stretching the front legs after the saddle is secured.

Missouri Fox Trotters are lovely horses. I have had the pleasure to ride one during a clinic in California, and she was just beautiful. Their personalities are sweet and they seem to be very curious. Our barn has a Tennessee Walking Horse, and she is very interested in everything around the barn, but not in a ‘hot’ way.

I have found that many of the older gaited breeds do show odd signs of lameness later in life, but a little extra care and TLC, they will last will into their late 20’s and 30’s. She may only be half way through life! I am glad she is with you now. She has found her home.

Response from owner: I do appreciate all your help. I will wait and see what the vet says before riding her again but will try a different saddle and a looser cinch. I may have been making it too tight. I really hope she is alright as she is my dream come true in a horse and I absolutly love her. You are awesome!!

8 responses to “My horse is stumbling. What could be the cause?

  1. My 26 + year old quarter horse is falling (not tripping). He just falls over from a standing position. He did it a few times this summer but last week, he fell over about 4 times within a few hours. He was not colicing. He looked disoriented and couldn’ chew his food from side to side, just kind of open/shut his mouth. He is arthritic and has a hard time keeping weight on in the winter. He is on equine senior,grain, selenium, minerals, MSM and hay. He just had his teeth done and he is wormed regularly and has his feet done every 2 months. Please help. I am afraid he will fall on my grandkids or fall somewhere that he cannot get up.

    • Hi Donna. It sounds like your Quarter Horse could be showing the early signs of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, or HYPP. If your horse has Impressive anywhere in his lineage, it’s likely that’s a good guess without seeing him. Look through his lineage and see if you can find Impressive: he lived 20+ years ago but the trait will go on possibly forever, unfortunately. The not-so-happy news is that HYPP is very quick once the symptoms show. Only a vet could diagnose this properly, but Quarter horses (and Impressive Paints and Appaloosas) that just “fall” without reason are 99.9% likely to have this. What I can say is that this horse is in danger of hurting someone as well as himself. Call a vet immediately. This is not a funny thing to let go or avoid. And please, DON’T ride him until then.

  2. I have a two year old MFT that I was told had Zane Grey in his line but I am not sure about this, as I have no papers or way of getting them. He just stumbles a great deal, and can be real interested and just stumble, at times to his knees, at others a bad trip that just shakes me and him. I make him go on regardless, so I am certain it is not training. I have had him fall with me, once he fell and landed on my leg, he stayed there till I got my breath and asked him to get up, he stood fine and looked all sorry. Another time he fell forward, but got back up, and it has not stopped. I am riding him a bit less now, just working on his backing, flexing, and bending. I am just not sure what this could be, his feet are in good condition, he does it barefoot, shod, and I’ve had a few bareback incidents where this happens, but I do not often ride without a saddle.

  3. Jessica – I have an MFT with Zane Grey in his line as well as other reputable lines (Southern Jazz, Missouri Traveler E, Golden Govenor, Mr. President). He stumbled repeatedly when I first got him. I was so concerned. When I acquired him I was instructed to have him shod with angles 54 in the front, and 58 in the rear. Leave some toe and take off some heel. My farrier said he thought that was quite drastic and began trimming him to his natural angles. He continued to stumbled a lot, to his knees at times. I purchased him in Feb 2011 and now almost a year later, I feel confident that I have resolved the stumbling. First, riding more often (I paid a professional rider to ride him 2X weekly while I was at work); second, the farrier continue to trim and shoe him to his proper ‘natural’ angles and the biggest improvement was when I had the farrier roll his toes. No more stumbling. Now we have to work on going down steep switchback trails. He doesn’t like it and his back feet would slide. A few weeks ago I was riding behind him on another horse and witnessed him buckling at the fetlock as he was going down. I immediately had the chiropractor out (who is very very reputable) and he resolved this problem with some adjustments.

    • I an unfamiliar with Missouri Fox Trotters (it’s a Canadian thing I guess). I have shown gaited Saddlebreds though, so I am familiar with shoeing and stumbling issues. It sounds as if your farrier did what I would have suggested: to get him back to natural angles and roll the toe.

      If you have the ability to do this, find a small rolling hill about 3-5 feet high and about 10-20 feet in diameter. Ask him to walk up and down the hill at first, getting his confidence up and learning to manipulate his feet so he doesn’t panic and make things worse. After a few days of this, back him up the hill to the top. This requires a different set of skills almost no horse has until he’s trained, but it really builds confidence and helps him acquire the right muscle to perform it. Don’t overdo it; no more than 3x per session, 3-4 sessions a week. It’s tough on back hocks. Once he’s use to that, back him up and onto and over the other side. This again will test his confidence, but I find the gaited horses are so ingrained in the patterns of gaits they are bred for, they panic twice as fast as an ungaited green horse. I did this with my Saddlebreds and found they were exceptionally sure-footed and confident.

      One thing I notice is that some MFT and TWH riders sit further back than conventional riders. Might be something to look at, maybe try a different position and see if it helps him. Sitting back on kidneys and organs can play a part in the horse buckling. I ride bareback once a week, not for my own balance but to receive information about the horse I may miss with a saddle. It’s wicked core training and you cannot ride poorly bareback and live to tell about it. At least not on the 17HH creatures I hang out with!

      Sounds like you should keep your farrier and chiropractor. It’s hard to find good people these days. Good luck!

  4. hello, i have a problem.. sorry for my english, i m italian. i own a 5 year old female horse… she stumble alot… really alot… few time she falled down in her knees while walking (one time even without me riding) alots of time she falled in her kness… and 2 time she really fall down without beein able to get up until i falled!!! last week she did that and her head went under her body and i falled during a trot…. she look alway like she is not in this world unless i come with food than she wakes up for few minutes… some times she get scared of stuff and she get back in this way to be…. i m scared she have some neurological problem… now i dont ride her i m scared… i must say that we did also jumping and thanks to the lord she didnt fall during the jumps… i dont understand help!!

    • What do her feet look like? Most stumbling is caused by poor hoof trimming. Next I would ask how well fed she is. Many horses that do not receive proper nutrition literally cannot walk well. Combine that with poor feet and you have the problems you have. Should she be in good weight and has good feet, it may be a neurological issue. But only a vet could diagnose that. I certainly would not be jumping the horse or riding her hard. Is there anyone with good quality knowledge that can look at her for you? Without photos it’s impossible for me to give you any good answers.

  5. Hello, I hope you can help, as I am desperate …………..My 9 yr old Morgan/Percheron/TB gelding whom I have had for 5 years and has been in training with qualified instructors has had now 3 stumbles to the ground with riders, in 2 years. The last time (2 weeks ago) was myself in the middle of a sand ring in a canter and just 3 months before that it was my instructor while cantering in a ring but at the corner where the sand is deeper and then 2 years before that it was in a sand ring in a trot cooling out long and low,with a good rider on him, she broke her ankle :-( I have had a very excellent Vet out and he did an exam including neurological but couldn’t find anything specific but said that 3 times and you are out! He said I could send a blood test to the US (I live in Canada) for EPM to rule it out etc. He didn’t take any X-rays or block any of his legs, (he goes down in the front) as he didn’t feel anything in his legs but when he returns I think I might ask him to take X-rays. The issue is that it is so sporadic and he falls to the ground, which is very dangerous, so now no one will ride him at the barn and I am healing my ribs from the fall and am not a very aggressive rider. Last week a different Vet looked at him and did Chiro on him and he found a few issues but it could be related to the fall and he is hurting like me. I also have spoken to my farrier, he wears front shoes and is on a regular 5-6 week schedule. He is now boarded at a very nice facility but I am thinking he has to become a pasture ornament, or worse, be euthanized, so he does not hurt someone else, or be neglected, or abused. I am an older rider and this is my first and I thought my last horse but I didn’t expect it to be so short term. He is lovely and gentle and it is breaking my heart but I am scared to get on him as I don’t want to have a tragically serious fall!!!! Please help

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