Paul* had great expectations for his part-Friesian filly, Gemma*. She was the daughter of his beloved mare and he had lovingly cared for the foal since her birth on his ranch. He had dreams of Gemma becoming an powerful sport horse. As time went on, though, Paul became concerned about how Gemma was developing. At six months of age, the filly was clearly more upright or “clubby” on her right front. Veterinarians and farriers were consulted. The vets strongly recommended surgery, but Paul wished to avoid that. He was cautioned that without surgery, the filly would develop a permanently upright “clubby” foot, even with the best farrier care.
A friend suggested that Paul contact me to see if the SENSE Method could help the filly. When I arrived at the ranch, I saw a stunningly beautiful young horse. Since Paul had so expertly handled her, she was very friendly and easy to work with. With my hand lightly on her withers, I delicately rocked Gemma a tiny bit from side-to-side. I Wanted to feel how she distributed her weight over her legs, how she “loaded her limbs”. I could immediately tell that Gemma was weight-bearing heavier on the left front. The vet had found no injury on the right front leg and there was no current reason why she couldn’t bear an equal amount of weight there. It was likely that sometime in her young life she had a minor strain or pain in the right front and had developed the habit of protecting it. This is not an uncommon occurrence.
When a horse doesn’t bear weight fully on a limb, the flexor tendons may exert an unnatural upward pull on the structures of the foot. With this upward pull, the foot tends to develop the characteristic “clubby” appearance. (The proposed surgery would have cut some of the soft tissue structures of the leg in an effort to allow the foot to grow normally). If I was to help Gemma, I had to teach her how to load her limbs in a more symmetrical manner. Her nervous system had to be convinced that not only was it okay to do so, but it would be actually more comfortable that way.
Gently holding her withers, I began move Gemma in a very light, somewhat circular direction. I say “somewhat circular” since I emphasized what she did habitually, which was to take most of her weight onto her left front leg. I merely hinted at taking the weight onto the right front leg. If I made the mistake of pushing weight onto her right front leg, it would likely cause her to brace and protect her leg even more. I always respect that the horse had a good reason originally for adopting a movement pattern and I’m careful not to contradict it. Changes must be introduced gradually and without anxiety for them to be integrated. I did, however, also take the weight front and back, creating this “somewhat circular” pattern of shifting weight. She had no resistance to taking her weight front and back, and this gave me an opportunity to teach the filly about weight shifting.
I then went to Gemma’s ribcage, and began working with her sternum and ribs. When a horse weight bears asymmetrically, there is usually a shift in the sternum and ribs. Often the surrounding musculature begins to develop unevenly as well. Try it yourself: get down on all fours and shift more weight onto your left “fore leg” (left hand). Can you feel how your ribcage shifts? Imagine walking around all day like that. Can you feel how your right fore leg is actually freer, and your left has to work harder? How would your muscles develop if you continued moving like that? What would your back feel like after a while? And can you sense how this would affect your “hind legs”? And neck? Would it be easier to bend one way more than the other? Would it be difficult to hold your feet up for trimming?
I worked with the soft tissue around Gemma’s sternum and ribs, letting her feel that she was no longer stuck in her habitual pattern. Then I gently moved her sternum around, again in this “somewhat circular” direction. As the sternum and ribs moved more freely, I could gradually expand the sternal movements until we eventually created a truly circular pattern of movement. Paul could see how Gemma had learned to shift her weight from one foot to the other, going to all four feet equally, all without any hesitation or resistance.
I worked with Gemma’s head, neck, back and hind end too, giving her the sensation that all the parts could work together harmoniously in this new way. In addition, I worked with the filly when she was walking, to ensure that her learning was fully integrated into her nervous system and that it didn’t just apply when she was standing still. She gained greater awareness and use of her right front leg.
I taught Paul some SENSE Method movements he could do to support his filly’s progress. It was important that he do these SENSE movements to remind Gemma that her right front leg was perfectly capable of supporting weight, and that it wouldn’t hurt to do so. In fact, it would be more comfortable. As Gemma continued to use her limbs symmetrically, her right front developed normally and no longer showed any trace of a club foot. She grew into the active, happy, athletic mare that Paul dreamed of.
While it was clear that Gemma had a problem, many other horses have asymmetrical weight bearing that is not so obvious. It can develop after an injury, and begin at any age. It does not always result in a clubby foot, especially if the horse is older. Symptoms of asymmetrical weight bearing include: difficulty bending to one side, tripping, uneven hoof growth or wear, uneven muscle development, discomfort in the back or neck, difficulty picking up one lead, reluctance to hold up a leg for trimming and slow healing of soft tissue injuries, such as suspensory ligament injuries.
In summary, it’s important to remember that while proper hoof balance is essential, it is not the only thing that influences hoof development. The way a horse carries him/herself affects hoof health and overall athletic performance, and there is much we can do to support our horses in achieving their potential.
*Names have been changed.