Working Horses in Circles – Part 1 – Effects on Limbs and Hooves

I remember when I first started questioning the use of round pens and lungelines in horsemanship. It started by learning about the “flight zone” of the horse, the exact distance of which is debated – suffice to say that when a horse runs away from you in a confined space (whether it’s a fence, walls, or a line attached to his face that’s confining him), he can’t actually get away, which leads one to wonder if it isn’t actually a rather stressful experience for the horse.

But the psychology of circle work and confinement, as well as questionable methods like “join-up”, is a whole other discussion, and today I want to talk more about the physical effects of these practices. Recently I came across an article that pointed out the anatomical questionability of chronically working horses in circles, including arena work. Danvers Child of Foxtail Forge & Farriery is a farrier working out in Indiana, and he posted an article called “Going in Circles” on his Facebook page. He pointed out some key points that I’ve long been pondering in my vague, noncommittal way, and brought some ideas into sharp focus.

Here’s the thing – horses were built to travel in straight lines and, for most of history, that’s exactly what they’ve done, even since their involvement with our opportunistic species. From their natural roaming tendencies, walking and grazing across the plains, to plow, wagon, and carriage work, ranching, trekking, and hunting, they were, for the most part, working in straight lines. Of course, with military and cow work, as well as sporting activities like jumping and polo, they also performed complex and powerful lateral movements and transitions. Even in racing, as Child points out, the size of the ovals allowed for mostly straight movement.

“As they transitioned into show and competition arenas, however, they shifted away from straight line activity. We changed the game and asked them to become focused athletes and runway models. In doing so, we put them into smaller and smaller spaces and asked them to perform more and more patterned behaviors. Basically, we put them into patterned, repetitive movements—mostly in circles… little, tight circles. And they started to fall apart, experiencing more and more issues with joint problems, soft tissue injuries, and general lameness concerns.”

As a barefoot trimmer, I have recently been fascinated by the intelligence of the hoof, which, when you leave it be, often puts out seemingly imbalanced or bizarre growth that is all too satisfying to hack off and shape into a human concept of perfection. But as I trace those imbalances up, I almost never find a problem in the hoof.  What I find is crookedness or imbalances in the limbs that the hoof is valiantly compensating for – that is, until a human “corrects” that hoof every 4 to 6 weeks.

Feet I’d trimmed to LOOK balanced – but can you see how her legs tell a different story? And maybe you guessed – she grew back the “imbalance” as quickly as she could, because it was there for a reason and I was messing with the system!

So my own horses, who have thoroughly whupped my philosophical ass over the time I’ve known them, essentially cut circles out of our routines years ago. In fact, they cut routine out of our routines! Since committing to allowing them to express themselves (and listening when they do), I’ve stopped doing all kinds of things that I simply couldn’t justify. Lunge work and round penning are some of them (I also stopped riding, first in arenas, then completely, just to see what would happen – cool stuff happened!) so, suffice to say, they haven’t run in circles, at least in any significant amount, in a long while.

I started to notice that, while my own horses hooves have come straight over the years (despite the steep learning curve I’ve been on with trimming, many apologies to my unwitting guineapigs), many of the other horses I trim have persistent imbalance (extra growth or uneven wear) on either the outsides or insides of their fronts, and often have hinds that are turned out. It would be easy to blame myself, and I did for a while, until I started looking into the Hoof Guided Method and Rockley Farm, which brought up the consideration that the hoof might actually know what it is doing, and I was getting in the way in that arrogant human manner by trying to correct it.

You get used to staring at the distal limb as a trimmer. The hoof in itself is so bloody fascinating, there’s enough learning there to fill a lifetime. But I say I’m about holistic care, so how could I limit myself to one single phalange of the horse’s complex anatomy? When I started thinking further up the horses’ legs, and then beyond that to the why of imbalance, I started to see some answers. A lot of the flare I was seeing was the hoof making up for awkwardness in the anatomy – but how much could be blamed on conformation? Maybe the way we’re working our horses is actually causing lasting damage, even as we believe we’re strengthening them. The weird hoof growth is like a print-out of that damage. It’s a by-product, or a symptom, or a clue. Could it be that my horses’ legs had straightened when taken off routines that may have been incongruent with their anatomical structures? Was I seeing that result in their hooves? Does running in circles for hours every week damage horses to an extent that could explain the common imbalances I am seeing in my clients’ hooves?

Good stuff to ponder, and I haven’t reached any conclusions yet. But that’s not all I had to think about – Check out Part 2 for some revelations concerning collection.

Working Horses in Circles – Part 1 – Effects on Limbs and Hooves

One thought on “Working Horses in Circles – Part 1 – Effects on Limbs and Hooves

  • May 17, 2015 at 4:41 am

    That article from Rockley Farm is CRAZY!! And I love that he’s illustrated the whole thing with great photos.


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