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Equine Posture and Health: Why Your Horse’s Posture Matters

Stand up straight, shoulders back, keep your head level, and don’t slouch -- we all understand the basics of good posture for ourselves. But have we ever considered the equivalent for our horses? Horses spend over 20 hours a day standing, which means their posture has much more of an effect on their athleticism than we realize.


Equine Physiotherapist



Dr. Shoemaker, Dr. Gellman and Dr. Ruina's work found that “canted in stance” is maladaptive to the equine musculoskeletal system. The neuromuscular effort of maintaining a stable posture increases the closer the legs are together. This means that a canted-in (camped in) posture *costs* twice as much to maintain as a vertical leg posture. Karen Gellman, Andy Ruina; Standing horse posture: a longer stance is more stable. Biol Open 15 April 2022; 11 (4): bio059139. doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.059139

I've grown to appreciate the silent language a horse speaks through its stance, carriage, and overall body language. It has become increasingly clear that one often overlooked factor contributing to recurring pain in horses is their habitual posture. Take a moment to observe your horse when at rest in the paddock or field. Is it standing canted in? Extending one leg? Constantly shifting? Is the weight evenly distributed between the legs? These seemingly subtle cues are your horse's way of communicating potential issues like misalignment, imbalance, numbness, inflammation, or pain.


Your horse’s habitual posture says a lot about its general health, and paying more attention can help achieve a more accurate diagnosis of injuries and lameness before they become more significant. 


What is Posture?

Posture refers to how your horse positions its body while standing or in motion. An ideal posture is achieved through a harmonious balance between muscles and skeletal structure, ensuring each joint is correctly aligned and every muscle operates efficiently.


Therefore, a horse with good posture has a musculoskeletal system that allows for optimal balance, easy self-carriage, and efficient muscle movement. Regardless of your horse's breed, conformation, or type, good posture will enhance its performance.


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Why does a Horse’s Posture Matter?

Posture tells us how well a horse’s complex neuro-musculoskeletal system is working. That simple. Posture dictates comfort and function. Consistently bad posture can lead to musculoskeletal problems like kissing spines, degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, and obscure lameness conditions.


We generally categorize equine posture under different headings:

NNP (Normal Neutral Posture)

NCP (Normal Compensatory Posture) and 

ACP (Abnormal Compensatory Posture)


When a horse experiences discomfort, it adapts by restricting its movement or moving abnormally, resulting in stiff motion. Factors like uneven terrain or an ill-fitting tack can trigger tension, which evolves into chronic problems when not quickly addressed. 


I place significant emphasis on observing a horse's stationary stance. A healthy horse exhibits a balanced, relaxed posture with a lowered neck, a naturally curved and flexible back, and engaged hindquarters. Any deviation from this norm, such as a dipped or roached back, may signal underlying problems. Warning signs like uneven hoof wear, stiffness, reluctance to move, or an abnormal gait shouldn’t be ignored. 


NNP

NNP, or Normal Neutral Posture, represents a horse's natural and default stance at rest. In NNP, the horse assumes a square stance- think of the table's four legs. When standing on level terrain, all four cannon bones (MC3) should be perpendicular to the ground. The body weight is fairly distributed between the front and hind legs, with the horse slightly resting more on the front legs.


NNP stabilizes the horse's body, conserves energy, and allows the horse to react to external stimuli easily. It strengthens the bones, muscles, and ligaments and clearly indicates that your horse is healthy and emotionally balanced.



NCP

A normal compensatory posture (NCP) is a horse's natural stance when dealing with injuries or discomfort. The horse still maintains a good balance in this posture, using minimal energy and maximizing stability. Unlike NNP, where the horse maintains a square and balanced stance, NCP involves slight alterations in the horse's posture to reduce discomfort and encourage healing. Usually, three out of four legs are close to vertical with the injured limb off-loaded. A horse standing frequently with more than one leg camped in from the vertical could indicate an abnormal compensatory posture (ACP). 



Horse standing with a "camped in" Abnormal Compensatory Posture (ACP)

ACP

Abnormal Compensatory Posture (ACP) is an unnatural horse position often associated with lameness, impaired proprioception, poor gait timing, and emotional issues like stress, anxiety, and depression.


A horse with ACP is in a bad cycle. It must stand and move in a compensatory pattern, which requires more energy and causes tension and discomfort. The unhealthy posture then causes further imbalances in the hooves and limbs that affect the entire musculoskeletal system. Breaking this cycle requires a basic understanding of equine physiotherapy to help your horse escape the rut.


Hoof imbalances and dental malocclusions are common causes of ACP. It can also be caused by horses being exposed to ineffective training methods that alter their musculature over time.

Recent studies have revealed that a horse needs to exert twice the amount of neuromuscular effort to maintain stability in a canted-in stance compared to a square stance. Considering that horses stand nearly all day, you can see how this increased effort quickly becomes a problem. Adopting a canted-in stance also places abnormal stresses on limb joints, muscles, hoof structures, and the back.


Some of the warning signs of ACP might be subtle, so you need to be watchful. They include

  • Canted-in stance.

  • Legs not perpendicular when the horse stands on a flat surface.

  • Uneven muscle build-up or muscle atrophy.

  • Asymmetrical weight bearing, evidenced by differences in hoof size.

  • Distorted spinal contour.

  • Asymmetrical head and neck positions.

  • Chronic or recurrent lameness with no other identified cause.

  • Constant fidgeting

  • Bubble butt (Overdeveloped gluteal muscles)


Andria teaching a young sport horse how to relax and release muscular/fascial tension to improve posture

Promoting Good EQUINE Posture

The subject of equine posture is big, and there's so much you can do to help your horse. In line with my approach to treating the whole horse holistically, restoring the NNP of a horse involves a combination of behavioral conditioning, rehabilitation, farriery, dentistry, and equine physiotherapy. 


I have used physiotherapy techniques like manual therapy, massage, fascial release, kinesiology taping, laser targeted acupuncture, classical in hand work, theraplate and physical therapy to good effect in correcting the musculoskeletal changes in horses. A combination of these therapies treats the horse's underlying cause rather than treating recurring symptoms.


Correct training is also important. Use training methods that encourage proper self-carriage, keep your horse flexible with gymnastic work, and use a mounting block when climbing to prevent back problems for the horse. Carrot stretches, classical in hand work, pole work, and lateral work are great exercises that can correct poor posture. I can develop a comprehensive plan to help your horse return to postural soundness.


Conclusion

A horse’s posture should become the concern of every rider. Maintaining a Normal Neutral Posture in your horse cannot be overstated.


The more observant you are about the subtle cues of your horse’s habitual postures, the better you can diagnose musculoskeletal and physiological issues. One key takeaway from this article is that your horse’s wellbeing very much includes their posture. And as their owner, it is your responsibility. Would you love to know more about maintaining a proper equine posture? Contact me.



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