Question: I have a 4-year-old, 17HH Dutch Warmblood mare that’s got an odd angle to her back legs. When she stands, there is a straight line from hip to hock, but then it dives in. I want to use her for jumping, but something tells me (gut instinct) that those back legs may not take the work involved. Everyone at the barn tells me that her legs are big so there is no problem, and that I should be riding her by now. What do you think? Can I breed her?
Also, what exercises can I do to strengthen them without having to go over fences?
Answer from April Reeves: Good instincts. This appearance of a sharp angled hock is called ‘camped out’ or ‘sickle hocked’. If you were to stand the mare so that her back legs had a vertical line from top of hock to bottom of pastern, you would find that line would be pushed out behind the point of the hip. Some sickle hocked horses just stand with their back legs up and under, and some (camped out) stand with their back legs out. Sickle hocked horses tend to have too much angle to their hock joints, while ‘camped out’ back legs sit back from the hip line, with the angle more pronounced through the gaskin.
A good leg has a straight line from hip to hock to pastern. Although there is more to a back leg than the side view. How straight does the horse travel in the back? I have seen some nasty looking side views that traveled perfectly straight, and some perfect side views I would not have in my barn. In my years, I have seen straight travelers remain sounder than their counterparts.
It’s not something I would breed, unless you were dead sure the stallion threw perfect back legs, and even then it’s a crap shoot. Also, it’s cheaper to buy a three year old right now than to raise one of your own. The odds are better too.
When will people understand that more bone does not mean stronger legs? It just means that you have more bone to fix when something goes wrong. No breed or color of horse will grow and solidify their bones faster than another breed or color. None. But humans still live in the human mind, thinking that their ‘big’ horse can start earlier and do more. Nothing is further from the truth.
Yes, there are horses with crooked legs that have been started early and are still going sound at 20, but I prefer to call them lucky, not smart. Why risk doing that to a horse, when you can take an extra year or two and create better bone (through exercises I will list below) and a sound mind? If you have put all this time and energy and money into a horse, why blow it now?
Ever wonder why horses in the wild don’t suffer the same leg problems as their stalled cousins? When foals are born, they stand and go all day long. They move over rocky terrain and travel for miles, every day, all day long. Their bones develop strength and size. But we take foals and stick them into stalls and confined areas for several years. Then we take them, break them and ask that their bones remain strong and sound. It’s a fifty-fifty chance.
At 4, you should be able to start riding her, and with those legs, it’s not a bad idea, especially if she stands around in a stall and small paddock. Horses that are out running and playing all day long will have better, stronger bone, feet and organs. Through exercise, the bone has a chance to strengthen and thicken. As you slowly increase pressure by soft concussion, the cells tell the bone “hey, we had better react to this, so lets add more bone to compensate” (I’m keeping this example simple).
The same rule applies to blemishes and unsoundness, such as splints and bog spavins. They are simply a sign that there was an abundance of concussion at that particular point, and the cells reacted, creating the excess calcium build-up on the bone. Unfortunately, many bog spavins and bone injuries develop in joint areas, often rendering the horse useless for life.
When my Arabian stallion was weaned, I asked the vet what I could do to strengthen his bone and feet. He had the skinniest legs and tiniest feet I had ever seen. He told me to walk him, every day, down the road and back, and each month, increase the length of the walk. So I did. I walked the horse on the pavement until he was a yearling. Then we started to add jogging. When he was 2, I jogged him every day down the pavement, slowly (I’m a wimp of a jogger) and not only were his ground manners impeccable, his legs and feet were like iron. What was happening is that I had created a very soft impact every day, and as the bones grew, they responded. He had bigger feet than my quarter horse today, and through his entire life, he was never shod (other than back slider plates), reined and worked cattle for years, showed and went into the bush for days at a time. When he died, he still had perfect, unblemished legs.
The other advantage of this exercise is that the horse moved in a straight line during the exercise. I find too many owners take their horse out of the stalls and lunge them. The horse rarely knows the benefits of moving in a straight line for any distance, where his skeleton gets a chance to lengthen and ‘pull free’ from contracted, tight muscles. A horse must be able to move straight before he can perform good circles.
While you may find trotting your mare down the road for 10 minutes a day is time consuming, or you don’t have a safe road to do this, there is another way to train a horse on a lunge line to go straight. All my horses can do this exercise, and it’s a great workout for me too. It’s a good alternative if you don’t have driving equipment.
As the horse gets better at staying out while lunging, I slowly begin to take a few straight lines by bringing my leading hand up (encourages the horse to move forward) and walking (or jogging) a few strides straight. As the horse gets into this, you can add more length. Eventually, you can move around an entire arena, going straight down the sides. It has built up my stamina also to where I can now follow the horse at the canter down the long side – the ‘side’ benefits to this work, ha ha.
When you first begin, you may get tired quickly. If you do, just stop and ask the horse to keep moving in a circle around you until you catch your breath. Then move the horse back out on the straight line again. I use the intermittent circles to enhance the horse’s balance. Once you get into the swing of this exercise, you will find that the corners give you a resting place, as you can park yourself for a second while the horse finishes the corners.
I also find that this exercise really helps their minds, as they have to focus on the next move you make. Mix it up so they don’t get into a routine. Change directions and do transitions often. The two of you will be in fine shape by the spring!
One other side thought about lunging – when you ask for a circle, stand still. If you want perfect circles you have to quit moving around or your horse will only know the egg shaped circle. Perfect circles are created by you standing still. When you decide to come off the straight line into a circle, plant yourself. Grow roots.
You can add obstacles, Cavaletti and jumps to the mix. Have fun.
Once she is safe under saddle, Cavaletti are a great way to engage and strengthen legs, muscle and bone. Start with one until she gets the idea, and over the weeks, add one more until you can do a line of 4. Doing a line of 6 is for horses with lots of experience with Cavaletti. If you try using too many too soon, the horse can get tangled half way and scare itself. Let the horse adjust slowly and gain strength. Cavaletti takes strength and precision to do well. It’s also good for back muscles. If you have used them during lunging, the horse will have a head start, but still introduce them slowly, as she will be learning to balance you as well.
Word of caution: don’t use round poles on the ground for Cavaletti. If a horse misjudges and slips on one, they can damage shoulders and tendons. If they catch the pole as they are placing their feet, they will slide on that pole. Use square poles or build proper Cavaletti with the supports at each end. That way if the horse hits it, it won’t move. The proper Cavaletti has advantages – they can be raised or lowered. You can start at the lowest point and as the horse gets stronger, you can raise them. They also stack for jumping.
Cavaletti work should give you some indication as to whether those back legs will hold out. If you go slow and your horse still comes up unsound, it’s a good indication she may not be the world’s next big jumper. If she stays sound, she will build bone density and muscle strength to be able to perform the movements you ask of her in a year or two.