Q: My horse is about to turn 16, and I’ve noticed that he will trip or miss a step in his back end. It started about a month and a half ago and has been happening more and more often. Should I be concerned?
A: Slight clumsiness in an older horse can mean a plethora of things, but if this is occurring at an increasing rate, consider having your vet out to conduct a thorough lameness and neurological exam on your horse.
A common cause of tripping or stumbling is as simple as laziness or reluctance to engage with the rider. Does your horse exhibit any other recent behavioral changes that would indicate he is turning “barn sour”? Consider changes in herd dynamics, different tack, or different riders that have used your horse.
If there have been no changes in environment and the rest of his behavior has remained congenial, then it’s time to consider more insidious changes in his health.
Arthritic changes in the spine, hips, or hind legs can leave a horse less flexible and appear more clumsy, as reduced range of motion leaves him more prone to stumble. Does your horse stumble more often on one side versus the other?
Also consider your horse’s feet. Is he wearing shoes? If so, what condition are they in? When was the last time your farrier visited? Long hooves in need of a trim, and brittle, flaky feet can predispose a horse to an uneven gait as he struggles to navigate terrain with improperly balanced feet.
Neurologic conditions are also a cause of vague and progressive deterioration in a horse’s gait. Your veterinarian will ask your horse to perform some simple maneuvers to assess his gait and conscious proprioception, or the sense of knowing where his feet are. These tests include making him walk in tight circles, backing up, and maneuvering up and down inclines. Simple tests such as these can exasperate a minor deficiency, helping your vet narrow down if there is truly a problem and if so, where it is.
In the mean time, use extreme caution when riding, or even consider resting your horse until the vet arrives.