Can Riding your Horse cause Lameness?


The whole controversy of whether a horse wants to be, or if a horse should be ridden, is a large discussion but today I would like to look at just one aspect of it.

Does riding a horse cause lameness, or sore back issues, and actually hurt horses?

When a horse shows lameness there can be many different reasons but I read a study, (Buckley 2009), that stated that owners diagnosed lameness in only 23 out of 202 horses. Meaning that out of 202 lame horses only 23 of their owners noticed.

The study also showed that out of 236 horses that had sore backs, only 11 owners noticed.

That’s 404 horses that would not have received care for injuries their owners didn’t notice.

For sure, this shows that it is important not only to do some research on this topic, but also to have a good vet that can spot these injuries and is able to help.

This study also shows how little we notice sometimes and how strong our horses are that we don’t even notice when they are hurting at times.

Lameness has been widely documented as one of the most common health problems in domestic horses and sore backs has been reported as the most commonly diagnosed disease.

Research has even linked these two saying that lameness is often mediated through problems originating in the horse’s back. (Landmann 2004)

I always say, “the little things make a big difference.” In this case, it means that we need to really observe our horses every time we are with them and really look at the little things and take notice.

Of course, as horsewomen and horse enthusiasts, we always notice their body for cuts or injuries as well as noticing the condition of their feces.


-Do you let your horse out in the arena at liberty just to watch his gate before you get on?
-Do you let him get his “spit and vinegar” out before you start to tack him up for a ride?
-Do you spend any quality time together before you go for a ride to reconnect with your horse?
-Do you allow your horse to stretch before you get on?
-Do you ask your horse if he even wants to go out for a ride…and then wait for an answer?

There are a few elements of riding and working a horse that we can look at closer. Some things which may expose our horses to injury or even hurt their overall wellbeing are far more common and less obvious than we think.

These are things that we should take into consideration when riding or working horses.

Like all animals, horses learn most effectively when training methods are appropriately aligned with their learning processes and their abilities.

Research has shown that ineffective training techniques and inappropriate training practices can have a negative impact on a horse’s welfare and can lead to bad behaviors such as bucking, kicking, rearing, bolting, spooking, and biting.

All of these not only can put a horse in jeopardy, but definitely are not safe for the riders and owners.

In my research in equitation science, the study of horse training and riding which gives us a way to measure and interpret interactions between horses and riders, I read that poor equitation can actually affect not only a horse’s behavior but it can also affect a horse’s musculoskeletal health and gait biomechanics. (McGreevy 2007)

Further significant risk factors in an epidemiological study (Buckley 2009) of sore backs included exercise frequency, confinement (stabling), conformation, body condition, and breed.

Horses that spend most of their day with their heads down grazing in a pasture and moving around demonstrate less frequency of a sore back than horses that are stabled for long periods of time.

According to research by Goodship and Birch in 2001, while grazing, lowering the head results in stretching the soft tissues along the horse’s dorsum and helps lower the risk of a sore back when riding.

And conversely, when a horse is stabled for extended periods of time, this shortens the soft tissues in the tendons and ligaments which can compromise effective conditions and lead to a greater risk of injury when riding.

Research shows that there is a definite correlation between intermittent exercise and the incidence of sore backs in horses which may result in horses being physically underprepared for riding and subsequently at higher risk of orthopedic injury.

Just by being ridden, horses are challenged to perform at a higher or more sustained level than their wild counterparts.

Tips on how to keep your horse healthy

The good news is that …

While lameness and sore backs among ridden horses are common, they are also largely avoidable.

In a study by Denoixand Pailloux 1997, they found that a horse that is appropriately conditioned and trained to carry riders correctly is likely to avoid many of these injuries and may otherwise be sustained. He suggested the need for more education of owners in appropriate musculoskeletal and behavioral conditioning.

Many issues can also be complicated or caused by gear that is compromising the horse’s back, neck, mouth, and body positioning.

A horse’s welfare can be compromised by the restriction of his natural movement and excessive pressure from tack. Any piece of tack can be harmful if used incorrectly or excessively.

However, in general, the broader the area that makes contact with the horse, the less discomfort it causes. But, this issue can be corrected with appropriate education.

In summary, it is reasonable for riders to get help from well informed trainers and veterinarians when needed as well as being educated on understanding a horse’s conformation, saddle fit, equitation skills, and musculoskeletal and behavioral conditioning.

Yes, there is a lot to learn when you have a horse in order to make sure they are well taken care of, happy and healthy. But there are many places to learn these and lots of people that will gladly help you and share their experiences with you.

My expertise is in behavioral conditioning and groundwork and I love to help people and their horses by sharing my experiences with them.

I believe that we all have a responsibility to our horses to minimize stress and conflict in their lives and during their care. That means owners, riders, trainers, veterinarians, dentists, etc…

Research has shown that training techniques, both in-hand, on the ground, and under-saddle have a significant effect on a horse’s life during and after training sessions. (McGreevy and McLean 2010)

I’m sure you know that inappropriate techniques in any aspect of a horse’s life causes confusion, conflict, and flight responses.

But did you know that it also causes musculoskeletal degeneration?

Equine Confusion and Equine Stress can not only cause bad behavior but it can also physically affect your horse’s welfare…sore back and lameness. It’s all connected.

Even the way you handle your horse in-hand and during groundwork relates and has repercussions to how your horse handles under-saddle. (McGreevy 2009)

Good ground work improves trained responses under-saddle!

Integrating behavioral conditioning and a firm base of trust reaffirming ground work in my online programs, I also apply the principles of learning theory to minimize the incidence of welfare issues and help ensure ethical equitation.

Here are the 8 principles of best practice in horse training, according to studies by McGreevy and McLean in 2007:

1. Use learning theory appropriately

2. Train easy to discriminate signal to avoid confusion

3. Train and shape responses singly to avoid confusion

4. Train only one response per signal to avoid confusion

5. Responses should be completed within a consistent structure to facilitate habit formations

6. Train persistence of responses (self-carriage ensures the absence of over signaling)

7. Avoid and dissociate a flight response because of its resistance to extinction and interference with learning

8. Benchmark relaxation to ensure the absence of conflict

Using these principles in any training approach ensures that a horse is more likely to listen to the handler/rider and it helps prevent dangerous responses from the horse, especially when there are external distractions.

The long and the short of this blog is that I want you to think about the “ROOT CAUSE” of any issues you are having with your horse, not the issue itself. Look beyond your horse’s bucking or spooking and try to find the real cause.

So, when there are issues under-saddle, backtrack …

-Look at the saddle fit or the tack you are using. Is it fitting appropriately without causing pain? Then back it up…

-Look at if your horse has a sore back or possibly lame issues. Has his gait changed? Then back it up…

-Call in an expert to look at why your horse has a sore back. What does the vet say? Then back it up more…

-Look at your training approach. Are you using the 8 principles of best practice? Then back it up again…

-Look at your groundwork. Do you have the connection, communication, and companionship that you want and need? Start there because you have at last found your root cause.

That’s where it all starts! Get to the root cause and fix that and everything else will fall into place naturally and simply.

Stop fixing this problem, and then that problem, and then oh that problem just showed up too.

Once you find and fix the “ROOT CAUSE”, you and your horse will be happier and healthier.

If you would like to discuss any issues or problems that you are having with your horse and would like help finding the Root Cause, I am always here to help.

For a limited time, me and my team are available to discuss these issues with you for free and will try to help you find a solution.

Plus, if we can’t help, we will gladly send you in the direction of someone else we feel can help you.

Here is a link to set up a “Triage call” with me or someone on my team so we can chat and discuss possible solutions for you and your horse.

Till next time. Happy horses!



Please Share

  • Great info…. Have had my horse over a year and communication and groundwork is imperative to keep her sane… saddle bred/Tennessee Walker and spookiness is in her and just working with her to overcome.

    • Thank you Terri. It took me a number of years to finally realize how important ground work really is to riding, working, and even being around horses.

  • Yes i do as ill fitting equipment causes soreness as well as improper fitting shoes or badly trimmed hooves. I cetainly do not like clothing nor my shoes to not fit right so I try and do the same for any horse I might ride

  • Yes it can as not having the proper shoes or not checking the horses hoofs for wedged stones. Even loose shoes .I learned to take horse shoe nails small hammer or clippers to remove loose shoe Also not checking the hoofs for slight cracks ,not cleaning out around the frog

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