A horse that has a tendency to trip or stumble can potentially cause safety concerns for their rider. And tripping in the middle of a dressage test or showjumping round could be disastrous for their competitive chances! While the occasional trip on uneven ground is probably nothing to be concerned about, if it happens with any regularity then it is definitely worth looking into a bit more closely.

Why is my horse tripping all the time?

There are quite a few reasons why your horse might be tripping or stumbling:

  • There are several conditions of bones and joints that can cause tripping (along with other symptoms). Additionally, there are some neurological conditions that may be to blame. We will go into these in a bit more detail later.
  • The old adage ‘no foot, no horse’ still rings true. Problems with your horse’s feet may result in tripping or falling. If your horse tends to trip when he is due to be trimmed or shod, perhaps his feet are getting overly long or unbalanced, resulting in tripping. In this case the problem may be solved by more frequent attention from your farrier.
  • If your horse is unfit (or at least not fit enough for the work that you are asking of him), then his muscles and joints may be struggling to cope with exercise demands. This will result in weakness and stumbling. This may be especially relevant to youngsters which have not yet built up the muscle strength and endurance needed for ridden exercise.
  • Issues with tack fit, such as a saddle that pinches, may cause discomfort to your horse, affecting his ability to move freely.
  • Sometimes tripping is simply due to a lack of attention on your horse’s part. He may be getting distracted by what’s going on in the environment. Or he may be bored by the same schooling routine! In these cases, different locations or ridden techniques to keep his attention, such as half halts, may make a difference.

How do I investigate why my horse is tripping?

Firstly, it makes sense to think about when the tripping usually happens. Is it towards the end of a long hack or schooling session when your horse is tired? Is it when he is overdue to be shod? Or does it happen anytime? It’s also worth noting where it happens. Is it only when he is ridden or does it happen in the field? Does it happen on uneven ground, on the flat, uphill or downhill, on soft or hard surfaces?

Armed with the above information, the first port of call is to book a visit with your vet. They will discuss how and when the tripping happens. They can then assess your horse on the flat and ideally under saddle to look for any lameness or other signs of pain. Lameness may not always be obvious to the rider but even so can cause the horse discomfort and affect his gait. Your vet will check for any lameness. And if found, will be able to investigate this further to come to a diagnosis of the problem. This will often require techniques such as local anaesthesia (‘nerve blocks’) to more accurately determine the site of the lameness, and imaging such as ultrasound scans and radiographs (x-rays).  

What medical conditions can cause tripping?

One example of a condition that causes tripping is navicular syndrome. This term describes any condition that causes pain in the bones, joints or soft tissues in the rear part of your horse’s feet. It is more common in the front feet and in certain breeds. If your vet diagnoses navicular syndrome, there are various treatment methods that can be used by your vet and farrier to reduce the impact of the disease and improve your horse’s comfort and way of going.

Other causes of discomfort in your horse’s limbs and joints that can result in tripping include arthritis and tendon injuries. Conditions that result in back or neck pain, such as arthritis, could also cause tripping. 

Neurological conditions can manifest as tripping or falling. For example, ‘wobbler syndrome’ (cervical vertebrae stenotic myelopathy to give it its technical name) is a condition where the bony vertebrae of the neck are too narrow, impinging on the spinal cord. This results in a range of problems with movement and balance. It often becomes apparent in young horses once they start ridden work. Unfortunately, this condition often means that a horse is not safe to ride, due to an unacceptably high risk that they might fall and injure themselves or their rider.

All of these conditions will be considered by your vet as part of their assessment.

What about foot issues?

If an issue with your horse’s feet is suspected as the cause of the tripping, your vet may recommend that your farrier assesses your horse’s foot balance. Your vet and your farrier can work together to amend your horse’s trimming regime. This may involve your vet taking foot x-rays to provide more information for the farrier. Remember that a horse’s feet grow slowly, so any changes to trimming or shoeing must be done gradually and it can take some time before you start seeing obvious results.

If none of the above physical problems can be identified, and you have had your horse’s tack fit checked, then factors such as fitness may come into play. A riding instructor may be able to advise you on techniques that can increase muscle strength. Aswell as keep your horse’s attention ‘on the job’ during ridden work.

So if you are concerned about your horse tripping up frequently, contact your vet in the first instance. They will be able to work with you and your farrier to get to the root of the problem.

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