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The importance of physical maturity in the horse

A horse with a club foot.

A horse with a club foot.

And why we wait to ride

One of the core principles in Natural Horse Care is allowing a horse to physically develop before mounting them. Little is known or respected in this regard as, all too often, horses are worked and competed at a very young age.

It is common practice for racehorses to begin their training and even competition before reaching three years old. The quarter horse has been bred in such a way that they look fully grown, but are actually a long way away. Unfortunately this breed is among the earliest to be worked and competed.

In the Natural Hoof Care paradigm, we often see horses that are off the track, and even horses that were never competed, but were worked and ridden at a young age, and have developed a club foot.  See, contrary to popular belief, we (those in the AANHCP – the Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices) do not believe that the clubfoot is a genetic predisposition, but rather is an adaptive response to an injury occurring somewhere above the hoof.  The clubfoot is what the body produces to cope with this trauma, and it acts similarly to a crutch.

This clubfoot and subsequent lameness is practically irreversible. Although rare, amputation is an option, and has been the fate of such unfortunate horses. What is commonly understood as navicular syndrome actually has nothing to do with the hoof, but again, an upper body injury that manifests as a clubfoot.

Potential for Healing

Now I say “practically” irreversible because there is the potential for it to be corrected, the clubfoot to be reversed, and the horse to be sound again, as seen in the miraculous healing that Jaime Jackson and Jill Willis have facilitated for their mare that lives in the AANHCP Paddock Paradise in Lompoc, California.  She had a 16 degree difference in the toe angle of her front hooves, but after one year, the angles were one degree apart.

This healing is attributed to her living in the rugged, natural environment she calls home.  She came to Jill and Jaime with “navicular,” and Jill and Jaime wasted no time in applying a natural trim and getting her out into the natural environment with the other four horses who live there.  This healing represents maybe the most profound news for natural horse people and for all horse people alike, if they can be open to the possibilities and ramifications of natural boarding. It is the power of herd dynamics and consistent movement over varied terrain that helped her body heal. This story is the subject of Jaime Jackson’s new book The Healing Angle.

A Horse’s Natural Development

Dr Deb Bennett PhD is a 1984 graduate of the University of Kansas, and until 1992 was with the Smithsonian Institution, and is internationally known for her scientific conformation analysis. In her groundbreaking article called “About Maturity and Growth Plates,” she gives a very detailed analysis of the skeletal formation and maturity of the equine. This information has profound implications!

Skeletal-SystemAccording to Deb, there is a definitive schedule for bone formation, and this schedule is what needs to be followed, not the appearance of the horse. The order of fusion and development of the equine skeletal structure begins from the bottom up.  This, of course, results in the spine being the last to develop and fully fuse.

“The spine does not fuse until the horse is at least 5-1/2 years old. This figure applies to all horses, small scrubby, range raised horses to huge Warmbloods. The taller your horse and the longer its neck, the later full fusion occurs. For a male (is this a surprise?) you add six months. So, for example, a 17-hand TB or Saddlebred or WB gelding may not be fully mature until his 8th year. Something that owners of such individuals have often told me that they ‘suspected’,” she writes.

Also noted by Deb is that the vertebrae at the base of the neck are the very last to fuse, and she states that it is imperative to not yank on a horse’s head during this developmental stage (or ever for that matter!).  Along with riding in harmony with your horse’s natural gaits, respecting your horse’s timeline for skeletal development is perhaps the greatest preventative for navicular.

By naturalizing your horse’s boarding environment, as Jill and Jaime have done for theirs, your horse can develop a strong and sound body and subsequent carrying shape. By living in a simple, natural boarding situation, your horse will flex to each side and move through the natural gaits regularly as they travel through your paddock together. Their bodies and feet will change dramatically for the better, and will lessen the frequency your trimmer must come out, saving you money on top of the money you save from not having potentially sick horses from living unnaturally.

Three Steps To Ensure Your Horse’s Protection

girl-horse1. Be Patient

Enjoy your time on the ground with each other. Take the time to know and understand each other. The greatest trust and bond is built on the ground, long before you mount their back. The longer you spend on the ground and the more connected the two of you are, the more solid your horse will be when mounted.

2. When in Doubt, Wait

There is no rush. If naturally managed, your horse can likely live well up and into their 30s in good health. You have a companion for life, and rushing to ride and compromising their lifelong skeletal integrity would be a shame.

3. Ride in Harmony with Their Natural Gaits

Read The Natural Trim by Jaime Jackson to learn what the natural gaits are and how to ride in harmony with them. From personal and shared experience, I know that once you learn to sit the trot and ride in accordance with your horse’s movements, you will wonder how you or anyone rides any other way. It is a tremendous blending that occurs when synchronized and you are not coming up and out of the saddle with every lead change. Your horse will feel this too and their appreciation becomes obvious as they move with greater confidence and ease.

4. Create a Paddock Paradise

This is, in my opinion, the number one greatest defense of navicular, but also colic and other issues. Read Paddock Paradise by Jaime Jackson and make the simple applications in your paddock at home. Share the book with your neighboring horse friends and combine forces in creating an even better paddock. Through simple acts of using slow feeder hay nets and other stimulating things with a track paddock, your horses will get regular exercise and enjoyment in living an active life with their families. Paddock Paradise is also the best way to keep your horses off the dangerous lush, green, grass pasture, circumventing laminitis and founder.

Please share this important message with everyone you know, so that we may facilitate an end to the destructive practice of premature riding and training.

Narayan Khalsa

Narayan Khalsa

Narayan Khalsa is a co-founder of Effective Pet Wellness, a company specializing in horse wellness and clearing infectious disease is equines, cats, and dogs.  

Read more about Narayan

 

Narayan Khalsa

About the Author

Narayan Khalsa is a co-founder of Effective Pet Wellness, a company specializing in horse wellness and clearing infectious disease is equines, cats, and dogs.  - read more about Narayan

Comments (4)

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  1. Sonia says:

    I fully agree with the need for physical maturity before being ridden, however, a scientific approach, rather than rather dramatic rubbish such as “This clubfoot and subsequent lameness is practically irreversible and, through ignorance, it is not uncommon for the horse owner to have the hoof and lower leg amputated! Id like to see the evidence to back that sort of drivel. You have touched on an important subject, however need to keep it rational and show evidence for more people to take you up on this. Your claim regarding club feet occurring due to riding may also be pretty thin on the ground as far as evidence is concerned. This is heritable, able to be seen in X-rays of foals that have inherited it, and Id love to see the evidence to back your claim that club feet occur ‘as a crutch’. As someone who no longer competes quarter horses, and moved to endurance pretty much purely because of the age that horses are started at, you have a strong supporter in principle.

  2. Lisa says:

    Um, common for horses to have their lower limb or hoof amputated? I am flabbergasted at this statement. Are you talking about a neurectomy or possibly surgery of the check ligament? Because I don’t come across many vets who would amputate a horses lower limb. Pretty sure this is NOT common practice.

    Oh, and navicular having nothing to do with the hoof? Last time I checked, the navicular area is in the hoof. The cause may not have anything to do with the hoof, but the issue itself is concentrated in the hoof.

    I agree that the club foot is caused by something going on upstairs. I also don’t think (and would love to see some research into this) that it is a genetic thing. But you HAVE to work on your ridiculous claims and the language you use. I can not take this article seriously. And I’m a die hard professional barefoot trimmer. Articles like this make us all seem crazy. You aren’t doing the movement any favours.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I believe that club feet are both genetic and the result of something higher up. I had a TB for 21 years who came to me with a club foot that could have resulted in racing as a baby. I have a superb farrier who managed it so well and he passed away a sound, old boy. My current 18 hand warmblood was BORN with a club foot that the same farrier manages. Granted he needs to brace himself for every shoeing as the horse’s needs are complex, but he too is sound. Also, some of his siblings have been born with club feet.

  4. Fran says:

    Emotional drivel! My thoroughbred was born with a slightly club foot. With careful and regular trimming, by a farrier, his feet were soon normal. He was started before 2 years old, raced as a 4 year old for about a year and is still sound rising 6.

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