Archive for the ‘gaits’ Category

We have a bit of the ice crust going here with the recent bout of snow followed by a warming sun. I had fun watching my corgi/beagle mix as she would trot happily on top of the crust only to have a hind leg or two slip down into the snow on occasion. Slowed her pace and brought my attention to her hind feet.

A dewclaw long over due

“Damn, I forgot to trim her dewclaws again.”  TC has big, prominent dewclaws. I remember reading that high-speed video has shown the dog’s dewclaw comes into action when it is running at top speeds. The theory is that the claw helps grab the ground for increased traction or helps stabilizes the ankle.

Relating everything to the horse is an easy leap for me. Naturally, I started wondering about ergots. I think of them as the dewclaw of the horse. Ergots are described as just a vestige of a finger no longer used­­–– or is it? Does the ergot play a part in stabilizing an ankle in snow, muck or deep footing? Does a jumper with an ergot (because the flexion is going to take that ergot all the way to the ground) have less or more injury then a jumper without one. Does an ergot have any impact on the speed going around a jump course? How does the ergot affect a horse sliding? It might slow it in competition, but in real life, would it help the animal navigate a slippery slope? Here are some high-speed videos of a race horse, polo field and sliding cow pony. As you watch the flexion think about what a prominent little nub at the back of the ankle might do.

These polo ponies don’t have ergots, but what if they did, how would it affect their movement when their fetlock is touching the ground? Would it have any affect on the hind foot hitting the front pastern?

And what about the effect of the foot sliding, would an ergot dig in and slow the action down?

We don’t work with our animals the way we did a hundred years ago so attributes that we don’t see come into play we don’t see a function for. These little dried up twigs at the back of the horse’s ankle aren’t particularly attractive either.

The Ergot is "B"

The majority of horses entering a show ring will have the ergots removed. My own two boys have feathers that cover the ergots so I’m pretty much oblivious to them. But I do wonder about them and if they still might not have an effect on the horse’s movement. Ergots have become very curious things for me.


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We still have snow on the ground here, the days are above freezing and the nights dip below the ice mark. Perfect weather for the sap to run for maple syrup. Perfect weather for putting a nice crust of ice on the snow. For those of you who don’t live in a snowy climate, think of the chocolate “dip” on a soft ice cream cone: it hardens over the soft sweetness underneath.

This environmental condition makes it tough on walking for man or beast. In fact, with a lot of snow on the ground and multiple warm/cold cycles you can end up with a half-an-inch or more of ice on top of the snow. That amount of ice supports the weight of a human and resists the initial weight of a horse. The result is an ice rink where everyone starts flying. The danger to us is often after the snow and hard cold of winter, it rests in the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of spring.

During one particularly bad year I had an “ah-ha” moment while walking my Icelandic across his paddock. Those little short-strided, up-and-down steps had him crashing through the ice crust in complete safety. In fact, I found myself following behind to walk in his footsteps. My Thoroughbred, with the beautiful flick of her foot couldn’t go out until the paths were totally cleared and sanded, and then it was walking around the prepared trail, not at liberty in the “ice field.”  She would place her foot down and then start to load the shoulder over it. The lag of the shoulder weight over the hoof allowed the lightly weighted foot enough time to slide forward on the ice and, well, you don’t want to be watching a horse do a split on ice. It stood as an excellent reminder to me to appreciate the aspects of each individual breed instead of trying to make my breed fit a cog in a discipline wheel. He may not be that lovely gaited horse in a show ring, but he doesn’t slip and slide on a trail. I contend that a good part of that trail stability is due to his short, up-and-down stride. The “sewing machine”  action is very stable on ice; also, these horses have “ice studs” on as well.

It is interesting to look at the shift of weight and leg movements on different breeds and even the horses within those breeds. The length of stride; foot, knee and shoulder action; even the set of the neck and the use of the head will interact with the way the horse moves. And what it does. Great game for young 4-H and Pony Club members: show a photo or video of a horse breed and ask what type of terrain, climate, job the horse would be good for. Check out this slow-mo video of racing.

We forget, it was less than 100 years ago when we needed horses to be more work-functional than beautiful. Even today a lot of  “cart” horses have an up-and-down leg action where as the racehorse has a forward-and-out leg action. Each animal needs to be respected for its breed’s original characteristics, but each should be used appropriately. It saddens me to see breeds who brought in the harvest, got it to market, worked cattle on hot plains and dragged logs through granite trails filled with snow- that these animals are dismissed in today’s general society. Today’s vogue is for flash and fancy footwork, that holds up only under very expensive prepared, ground conditions. Here’s a look at how we used to get wood for our houses.

Oh, back to the snow. Some of you may be wondering about the ice crust scratching the pasterns of the animals. Absolutely happens. Which is why you might see an old gum bell boot around a horse in snow, flipped up like a flower opening to the sun. It offers some practical protection, as does the natural feathers of many cold climate breeds.

flipped up and ready to protect the pastern against ice

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