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Strengthening Stifles in Horses

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

A horse with weakness in their stifles and those with already diagnosed dysfunction are going to struggle with performance and every day movement. 

Why is this? 

The stifle is largest joint in the horse's body, located between the femur and the tibia (see image 1 below) and analogous to the human knee joint. Its primary role is flexion and extension and it has a supportive role in lateral movements due to the ligaments and muscular connections (Lateral movement is from the coxofemeral joint and muscles it’s surrounding soft tissue attachments). 

Image 1: The Stifle

The stifle plays an important part in two systems required and adapted for movement and survival:

  1. Stay apparatus 

  2. Reciprocal system

(I will do another post explaining the function of these two systems soon!) 

When it comes to treating and supporting horses with weak stifles, I see a similar pattern despite their breed and discipline;

  1. Foot balance 

  2. Age and training demand 

  3. Lack of team work - open communication 

No foot no horse! 

We have all heard this saying and when it comes to strengthening your horse’s stifles, we need to make sure that their foot balance is carefully monitored and correct for the age and conformation of your horse. Long toes will hamper your best conditioning efforts! Speak to your farrier, vet and therapist about your horse’s foot balance. 

Thankfully we have more research in support of skeletal growth and maturity (past the distal limb!). Breed, age and training demand are key factors that must be carefully assessed and adapted when it comes to your horse’s stifle strength and development. I see a common pattern in young horses (under the age of 7), especially in mares (between the age of 4-6 years) that haven’t yet fully matured and are competing at high levels being diagnosed with various forms of stifle instability/ dysfunction. 

Why is this? 

I believe this is because we are not allowing them to fully mature throughout their entire skeleton, which put excess strain and stress on young immature joints and their surrounding structures. Nowadays, we seem to be breeding bigger horse’s with “more movement”, which isn’t a problem when you are carefully monitoring their posture and conformation change as they mature. Training adaption exercises like static, isometric stable based exercises are a great way to ensure your horse is not only stabilising the stifle area, but recutting the surrounding muscles without actually moving the stifle joint itself. 

The goal of stable based exercises is to ACTIVATE MOTOR UNITS without sloppy movement through the stifle joints. 

When it comes to activating muscles, the key is to perform the isometric movement for 6-10 seconds (no longer), as this time period is enough for the muscle fibres to recognise and adapt to the effort. 

The most common stifle activation exercises include: 

  • 3 leg stand (this can be progressed) 

  • Caudal pelvic tuck - hold 

  • Tail traction left and right  

Depending on your horse, their posture, age, breed and current training will determine which exercises are relevant for them, If you seek further help and advice; please contact me on:

Following a period of static isometric exercises, I would recommend a progressive plan of flat groundwork poles. Progressive, again will depend on your horse’s history and current fitness level. 

If you have any questions, please reach out!

Thanks for reading,

Nika x

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