A Weighty Subject
I’ve had some folks e-mail to tell me that they’ve gone to a trainer or clinician who used light weights and other gait training devices to seemingly good effect. They became convinced that such artificial training aids are effective, and harmless.
I beg to disagree.
There's much to-do made about the fact that the devices used in these instances may be very light weight. What most people don't understand is that, unlike humans, horses have no muscle in their lower limbs to lift weight. This means that a horse uses a finely tuned leverage system based on soft tissue – tendons and ligaments – to lift its legs. Adding weight will therefore easily cause exaggerated motion in the leg, which quickly 'enhances' the gait. It also places incredible stress on those vulnerable soft tissue structures.
Also, because there is no muscle in the lower leg, the strain on the knee and shoulder (or hock and stifle) is phenomenal. Only 6 oz.? Think about that being equivalent to 6 pounds by the time the torque reaches the shoulder (or hock). Then imagine that action being repeated 60 times every minute. The horse's leg has effectually lifted 360 lbs. during that one minute. Weights on two legs? 720 lbs. a minute. A fifteen minute workout is equivalent to a marathon! Sorrier still, a weighted shoe is a permanently installed device, so the horse has no opportunity to get relief from all that heavy lifting. It would be tantamount to our asking a person with an above-the-knee prosthetic to wear heavy shoes – except, of course, human legs carry much less body weight than do horses’.
The next point generally made is that these devices help young horses learn to gait, and can be removed once 'muscle memory' has been established.
This is also untrue. Muscle memory can and will be forgotten within a relatively short time after the action devices are removed. Have you ever been roller or ice skating for a couple of hours, and noticed upon taking off your skates that your ‘muscle memory’ was dictating that you move as though you still wore skates? How long did this effect last? Since the training devices on gaited horses are left on for a lot longer than a few hours, the muscle memory will last longer than this – but in the same way, the effect will eventually be lost. In addition to this, the young horse who hasn't yet developed muscle memory is the one whose finely balanced, vulnerable structures should especially not be subject to weights, chains, or badly conceived trimming angles.
From a trainers’ point of view, these techniques work very well. The horse proves his or her ability to provide a dramatic improvement in gait. Then the horse (hopefully!) has the action/training devices removed. . .goes home. . .loses the gait. . .and comes back for retraining later in the year. The poor owners generally assume the problem is all their fault. After all, the trainer can get the horse to gait!
About training chains. They chaffe, and the horse will quickly lift its leg to try to rid it of an irritant, thus changing the timing of the gait and giving more lift in front. It's an instinctual action brought on by the horse's sense that anything interfering with its lower legs puts it at risk, and should be shaken off. As usual, the horse is right in regard to understanding what constitutes a danger to itself. The horse will suffer physical strain if the amount of lift with each stride is greater than that for which it is conformed. Once again, the trainer is depending on an instinctual avoidance response, as opposed to gradually and logically bringing the horse to a place where reason and sound riding techniques prevail. Also again, any muscle memory developed in response to the artificial device is eventually forgotten once the device is removed.
Folks: make sure your horse is comfortable, and then work the walk. It's easy, long lasting, great exercise for you and your horse, a good relationship builder - and guaranteed not to cause any of these all-too-common physical or mental problems on down the road.