Why Does My Horse Stumble After Jumping?

Find out what a veterinarian might look for when examining a horse that loses his balance after jumping a fence.
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horse stumbling
A horse with neurologic issues might not know where his feet are upon landing from a jump. | Photo: iStock

Q.I own a 9-year-old Belgian jumper who is starting to lose his balance frequently after jumping. When he lands, he seems to lose his strength on the forehand and looks like he’s stumbling. His jumping technique is also becoming worse. This has been happening for a while now; what kind of exams can I do to be sure everything is okay?

A.There are many potential causes of stumbling and decreased performance over fences, and I do think it’s a reason to call your vet for an evaluation. There may be a musculoskeletal cause, such as sore front feet or a sore low neck (sometimes associated with osteoarthritis), which are frequently found in jumpers. Your veterinarian will likely start with a thorough soundness exam, including flexion tests of the limbs and range-of-motion tests of the neck, to look for any signs of lameness or discomfort. Sometimes diagnostic imaging and targeted therapy, such as a joint injection, may be all that is necessary to resolve the problem. If anything seems out of the ordinary, your vet may want to start with radiographs of any areas of concern. Another diagnostic option for decreased performance that isn’t easily localized is nuclear scintigraphy, commonly referred to as a bone scan. Areas of inflammation appear as “hot spots” that can then be assessed once localized.

Whenever I hear “stumbling” in a horse’s history, however, that raises the question of a potential neurologic abnormality, where your horse may legitimately not quite know where his front feet are upon landing. Neurologic cases can be difficult to diagnose, as some horses only show symptoms while performing specific activities and only on occasion. Again, your veterinarian will perform a thorough exam and some additional tests that are specific to assessing your horse’s neurologic status.

There are many potential causes, including infectious causes such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) or West Nile virus, congenital causes like wobbler syndrome (cervical stenotic myelopathy), or traumatic causes sustained in an accident (if your horse ever flipped over, struggled while cast in a stall, fell in the trailer, etc.). Based on your veterinarian’s assessment, there are different diagnostic tests to rule out various causes.

Regardless of the cause, I would stress that stumbling is a safety concern for the rider, and I would encourage you to call your veterinarian to get to the root of the problem.

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Written by:

Rachel Gottlieb, DVM, is an associate veterinarian at Northwest Equine Performance in Mulino, Oregon, a practice that focuses exclusively on lameness and performance horse issues. She’s also an associate team veterinarian for the United States Eventing Team. Gottlieb is a graduate of the University of California-Davis, where she also completed the Large Animal Ultrasound Fellowship. Gottlieb’s professional interests include sports medicine, musculoskeletal ultrasound, and regenerative therapy.

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