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Positional Dysfunction (Lameness) identifying the pattern


Can you relate?

Have you come across a horse that holds their tail to the right or left under saddle, but not in-hand? Or when ridden, a horse that feels supple, mobile and balanced on the right rein but then the left rein feels like the tyres have fallen off? Like you are sat on two different horses stuck together with super glue? The horse becomes stiff and it feels like you are turning an ironing board on the left rein; but the moment you change direction they feel balanced and supple again. Most of you would now say, “Take them to the Vet.”, and I completely agree, but what happens when your vet gives you the clear and confirms there is no “lameness” there? (I am putting “lameness” in inverted commas because most of us refer to lameness as limb lameness, not body lameness). The situation that I am describing is termed ‘positional dysfunction’ (lameness). I am not a veterinarian, hence why I am using the term dysfunction. Identifying this form of dysfunction requires a collaborative approach of troubleshooting; by assessing the horse in a variety of different positions, terrains and gaits.

Clarifying positional dysfunction:

Positional Dysfunction refers to when you encourage your horse into a specific position and they show irregular changes in their posture. For example, on the lunge you recognise that your horse holds their body in a particular position for a period of time. Another example is when your horse is reluctant to relax and open their frame on the lunge because the lameness will come out, so they end up compensating and holding the position to avoid being uncomfortable.

I often assess horses on the lunge before their treatment and have noticed that, for example, on the left rein they are balanced and remain in a rhythm; however when we switch directions onto the right rein, their whole body position changes and they hold their head to the outside (counter flexion) and refuse to lower their head and neck, usually also showing changes in the gait by rushing and falling into the circle. This can be described as positional dysfunction.

Case study - from owner Liana Upton.

Millie is a 12 year old gypsy cob who I’ve owned for nearly 4 years. I train Millie following the systematic approach of the School of Legerete. She is just starting more collected work and is established in her lateral work in both walk and trot. It’s been tricky to encourage her to stretch correctly with her nose forwards in a nice long neck, instead of coming behind the vertical and dropping more on the forehand. Since I bought Millie, she has always favoured her off fore, her near hind was consequently weak. Her right canter has always been very difficult. She was quite lordotic and hasn’t found it easy to lift her back or shift her balance to her quarters.

Nika has been treating Millie for around 2 years. With Millie working to a more advanced level and not being naturally built for this type of work, it doesn’t come easily! I’ve been unpicking Millie’s asymmetries over time and gradually changing her body to a more athletic one, so she can move more easily leading to a happier horse.

During the process, I feel it’s important to have a body worker to notice any changes along the way and assist in releasing tight muscles and blockages. Nika has always been astute in picking up the slightest changes in Millie’s body and helpful in prescribing exercises for me to do to help her between treatments. Nika noticed an old injury to Millies near fore pectoral muscle. Once found, it was hard to believe I hadn’t noticed it before, over an inch wide and even deeper than that; it became clear why Millie favoured her off fore! As such we are now investing ways to help her further. With Nika being an experienced rider as well as a chiropractor, I can explain what I’m feeling in the saddle and Nika can relate that to what she feels as a body worker which is invaluable to me.

From the practitioner perspective:

Maintenance treatments with Mille allowed me to understand and identify the patterns of compensation through her body. The recurring symptoms are listed below:

Symptoms presented:

  • On the forehand in the canter on the right rein.

  • On the lunge intermittently lame left fore on the right rein in trot, but not under saddle. Left to her own devices on the lunge on the right rein, lame and counter flexing left.

  • Falling in on the right shoulder during shoulder-in.

  • Rushing on the lunge on the right rein in trot.

  • Canter right was getting worse when the rider tried counter flexing her left, the canter started to get quicker and heavier losing the rhythm, relaxation and balance - asking the left side to take all the load.

With careful observation, palpation and listening to her intuitive owner we highlighted the area of mechanical dysfunction in her thoracic sling area, specifically an injury to the left ascending pectoral. Although not reactive on palpation in this area, further joint mobilisation (image 1), observation during movement on the lunge and understanding the principle of form equals function we focused on how to heal this area and the surrounding muscles and ligaments.

Image 1: Retraction and Protraction of the forelimb. Image adapted by Denoix 2011.

The anatomy (form = function)

The ascending pectorals are part of the thoracic sling, which carries roughly 60% of the horse’s weight. The two shoulder joints of the horse are securely fastened onto the rib cage via the serratus and pectorals muscles, (image 2 below), and their role is to absorb pressure for the trunk when the front limbs land; therefore supporting the shoulder girdle. During extension of the forelimb, the pectoral muscles aid by adducting towards the median axis.

Image 2: Muscles of the Thoracic Sling

What happened next ?

A collaborative team approach is the key in identifying and treating positional dysfunction in horses. Specific exercises and subtle changes in training were given to Millie to help strengthen the surrounding the structures. Liana reported an improvement, however we decided to seek advice from another practitioner who specialises in healing deep tissue injuries with the use of an ultrasound. Millie is currently undergoing a course of regular treatment alongside her training. Stay tuned for the update.

Top tips for identifying positional dysfunction in your horse:

  • Be observant

  • Listen to your owner

  • Record the patterns

  • Reflect and identify the patterns

  • Work part of a team - communicate

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me at

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