Locking Stifle Syndrome in the Gaited Horse Part 2

In my last article, Locking Stifle Syndrome in the Gaited Horse Part I, I described the causes and symptoms of this frustrating disorder (upward fixated patella), and explained why it tends to crop out in gaited horses more frequently than in their non-gaited counterparts. On rare occasions a horse may be inherently so prone to locking stifles that it becomes necessary to resort to a surgical solution. I’ll mention a few of the options on these at the end of this article, and reference some useful online articles that you can print out, study, and offer to your vet as you evaluate surgical procedures, should that become necessary.
Fortunately, surgery is seldom required. The most common and effective way to deal with a horse who exhibits locking stifle  syndrome is to keep the muscles and ligaments surrounding the stifle joint in strong, dense condition. This can be accomplished through a program of regular exercise, and by adding an appropriate supplement to the horse’s diet. While I’m not generally a proponent of doing a great deal of supplementation for horses, this is one scenario where there is a specific need that can be met by a specific type of product – I prefer Hyalun Hyaluronic Acid, but this is something you should always discuss with your veterinarian.

Exercises for the Stifle Challenged Gaited Horse

If you ride in an area with hills, then you can use these to good effect while strengthening  the supportive tissues surrounding your horse’s stifle joint. If the problem isn’t so severe that it keeps you entirely out of the saddle, then saddle up and ride your horse up and down hills, making sure that he keeps his back end well underneath his body going both ways. You can do this by stopping and asking for a rein back (back up) as you approach a downhill slope, then maintaining moderate contact on the reins as your horse negotiates down the hill. However, you should avoid pulling the reins so hard that he actually lifts his head. His neck should be arched and his head slightly telescoped downward. If your horse begins to straddle out and ‘fall’ downhill, stop and ask for another rein back. While challenging, this is always a good idea in any case, as it helps the horse to properly balance its own and its rider’s weight properly on tricky downhill terrain.

Maintaining balance and form is easier when the horse climbs uphill, as gravity tends to pull its weight back over the haunches naturally. Your job then is to insist on a very active, strong walk – do not permit your gaited horse to slip into a canter or slow, lazy walk when riding uphill. The horse is being exercised for its own long term welfare. Cantering is easier than active walking uphill, and dog walking offers no appreciable benefits.

All reconditioning work should be planned with your horse’s current condition in mind. Those with only slight, intermittent stifle problems may be expected to negotiate frequent, fairly steep inclines for a relatively long period of time – perhaps as long as an hour. Animals that evidence stronger symptoms should be kept to lower climbs for shorter periods of time. A half hour of light to moderate hill work might be the most such a horse should be expected to handle, until the condition starts to improve. For some horses, ten minutes of work might be a good start. You’ll be walking a fine line between doing so little as to be ineffective, or so much as to be damaging. If in doubt about how much exercise is appropriate, don’t hesitate to consult with your vet.

A severely compromised horse should not be ridden until you’ve improved the condition to some degree through ground exercises and supplementation. With such a horse, you can position your round pen on a spot where the ground has a slight uphill elevation, and simply do your usual round pen exercises so that he is forced to balance his weight properly. In this case, do not work the animal more than five minutes to either side, and make sure the circumference of the round pen is at least 60 feet, as working on a tight circle is stressful on the horse’s legs. If you have no round pen, working on a very long lunge line is also acceptable. One rule: insist on an engaged, active walk.

Ground poles are an excellent device for improving balance, form and condition. They should be integrated into the routine of all stifled gaited horses, but are especially useful for those so severely afflicted that any kind of work on a circle or steep incline is not in order. To start, get lay ground poles that are 10’ long and 6” high out on the ground at 10 foot intervals. If your horse cannot be ridden, walk him over these by hand. Work at this for at least ten minutes to start. Stop often and ask the horse to back up, to keep his weight over his haunches (which will help strengthen the muscles and ligaments in the rear legs).

Horses that can be ridden also benefit greatly from work over ground poles, and from doing correct rein backs – “correct” being the key word. For the ground pole work, simply ask your horse for a consistent, fast walk over a series of poles – eight at minimum. This encourages him to lean back and look down (to see where he’s setting his feet), while lifting his feet higher than usual to clear the poles. All of this is beneficial.  Break up the pole conditioning with occasional work on the straightaway, and introduce rein backs into this portion of your exercise routine

The Correct Halt, Rein Back, and Half Halt

Once the horse is moving forward loosely and comfortably, request a correct halt. This requires that you push your horse forward with your seat and legs while you take evenly on both reins. In effect, you’re driving your horse’s body up to the bit, which acts as a sort of wall. It is imperative, therefore, that the bit be smooth and comfortable, so that the horse doesn’t anticipate or experience discomfort. If he does, he will stiffen up through the body, completely defeating your purpose. I highly recommend our 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit .

The driving with your seat/legs must come ahead of the pulling on the reins, in order to be effective. The purpose here is to get your horse pushing with the hind legs and rounding up through the back when he hits the ‘wall.’ You do not want to pull on the reins so hard that the horse stiffens up, raises its head, and hollows its back, as this will cause him to string out and place additional stress on those compromised stifle joints. We are also not suggesting—as it too often is—that you ride with ‘one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake.’ If you do this with a motor vehicle, you’ll wear out the brakes. If you do this with a horse, you’ll wear out the back, hocks and stifles – to say nothing of the horse’s patience. A correct halt is as much an art as it is a science–but an extremely important art that most horsemen can and should master.

A correct rein back comes directly out of a correct halt, and is equally important. When your gaited horse begins to halt in response to your riding aids, lean your upper body forward, keep pushing with your legs, and pull your rein farther back toward your pelvis while giving the verbal cue to “back.” (It helps if you’ve previously taught the horse to back from the ground.) As soon as the horse even leans backward half a step, give back slightly more rein and ask for a halt while giving a nice ‘attaboy’ rub on the withers. Ask for more steps back as you progress, and after backing always ask the horse to step forward into the bridle for a well balanced, correctly executed halt.

All of this helps your gaited horse to keep his weight well balanced over his legs – thereby strengthening those rear leg supportive tissues surrounding the stifle joint while teaching him how to carry himself in a healthier, more functional manner. The stifle is especially stressed when the hind legs are allowed to drift too far behind the horse’s center of gravity, forcing them to carry a higher percentage of weight, poorly centered, with each stride.

Once the horse has halted, maintain moderate contact on the bit (again, don’t let him/her stiffen or brace up on it), and ask him to immediately move off again at an active walk. Now, every 10-15 strides, repeat this halt/rein back/walk sequence. At first the horse may appear confused. Don’t worry, but remain consistent with your cues, and attentive to your horse. If the horse begins to brace against the bit, then lessen the contact until you hit an active and relaxed response to these exercises.

Now that you’ve perfected the halt, let’s go on to the half halt. This is exactly like the halt, except that after you’ve cued for the halt, when you feel the horse hesitate before he has actually stopped, you immediately push the horse forward with the slightly shortened rein. Remember: slightly shortened. If you ride with too much contact, too soon, the horse will certainly brace against the bit and go into a stiff, hollowed out form. Old habits, to say nothing of muscle memory, will be working against you, especially for the first few sessions. You need to be acutely aware of your horse’s responses, and teach him how to move forward, rein back, and halt, all actively and in good form.

Soon your horse will become adept at working over ground poles and performing correct halts, rein backs, and half halts. Now it’s time to raise the poles about 4” off the ground, forcing him to raise his legs even more. This will help tremendously in your effort to strengthen those all important back leg supportive ligaments and muscles. It’s likely that just a few weeks of this work will help you see improvement in your gaited horse’s stifle condition.

“Does my Horse Need Surgery?”

There are a number of surgical procedures employed to relieve the severely stifled horse. I encourage my readers not to progress to this step too soon, as there may be long-term repercussions. While some horses respond to surgery and are returned to full soundness and usefulness, others can only be used moderately – or not at all.

The most common procedure for upward fixated patella involves cutting the medial patellar ligament. In many instances there is a dramatic improvement in the horse’s condition, but this operation may result in limited usefulness or other complications in the future.  A more recent surgical process that apparently has better results is that of splitting the upper portion of the medial patellar ligament. Some vets report success by merely injecting a harmless irritant (such as iodine) into the joint. These last two procedures causes thickened scar tissue, which prevents the otherwise narrow ligament from fitting over and ‘hooking’ on the lower hook of the thigh bone.


Watch my video about locking stifle in the gaited horse below.