Horses with Locking Stifles
(Upward Fixation of the Patella)
How to help your horse overcome a locking stifle
A locking stifle, in vet-speak called 'upward fixation of the patella' (UFP), is a rather common problem in horses, and one that is often not recognized, misdiagnosed as general hind leg lameness or overlooked altogether. While the causes are not always understood, it's possible to help your horse overcome a locking stifle with time, patience and exercise. This article provides some pointers on how to detect and overcome the problem. Also click cover on the right to read my article on pages 32 and 33 of the
Oct/2010 issue >>>.
What does a locking stifle look like?
In severe cases, the horse will be unable to flex the respective hind leg and drag the extended leg behind him. The leg looks 'locked' and the horse may have to kick out or move oddly to unlock his leg. In this case, a locking stifle is hard to miss.
In milder cases, however, the affliction may not be as obvious. The horse may simply appear slightly lame, have hesitant or short stepping strides, kick out during movement or hop, lose his stride, cross canter or change gaits for no appearant reason or seemingly halfway 'collapse' in the hind end, mostly in the canter.
These cases of 'catching stifle' are often overlooked and sometimes interpreted as training or behavior issues.
What makes a stifle lock or catch?
First it's important to understand the function of the locking patella in unafflicted horses. The patella corresponds to the human knee-cap. In order for a horse to stand and doze off, sleep standing up and taking weight of another leg, it's important that the weight bearing leg 'locks' and becomes a sturdy pillar, such the leg of chair, to support the resting horse. It's the patella's job to secure the leg by locking in an upward position (for more detailed explanation of the anatomical elements involved, please see an antomy book such as Horse Anatomy: A Pictorial Approach to Equine Structure).
An excellent article from the veterinarian perspective can be found here.
Things start going wrong when the the patella does not unlock when the horse wants to flex the leg. Depending on horse and severity, this can lead to panicked attempts to unlock the stifle or to a slight hop or kick.
How do I know if my horse's stifle is locking?
Get your vet involved. Only a vet can make a determination whether any of the following signs can point to a locking stifle:
horse drags hind feet (maybe even shows wear on toe), reluctant to pick up feet
horse resists moving on a circle
horse kicks out for no apparent reason or hops (often misunderstood as behavior problems)
horse resists cantering or cross canters
horse swings hindlegs to the outside while moving
horse tends to stumble a lot or even fall for no apparent reason
What to do to help your horse overcome a locking stifle:
Once your vet makes the determination that your horse is indeed suffering from an upward fixation of the patella, there are several things you can do to help your horse overcome this problem:
Create trust and keep your horse supple
This is an important factor. Your horse may already be insecure and confused, you - or a former owner - may have misunderstood his antics for behavior problems and you will want to pave the way for a new way of working together. A good way to strengthen the trusting bond between you and your horse while creating supple musculature is bodywork for horses. Engage a knowledgable bodyworker or learn some of the basic techniques yourself. A good resource is the book Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension.
Develop a gymnasticizing program and stop 'training' for a while
Until your horse is physically completely fit for his job, you are best advised to stop trainng. For example, while he is still dealing with a catching stifle, he doesn't need to learn how to sidepass. You can pick this up later, once he's completely sound. Instead, develop a gymnasticizing program for your horse. The absolute minimum is 3 x 1 hour per week of targeted gymnastic exercises. You may want to use a book to help you along, such as Equine Fitness: A Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse or take one of my "Basic Horse Mechanics II" seminars. Note: The trot is your friend! Skip the canter for a while.
Get out of the stall!
If at all possible, get your horse out of the stall and into an outdoor environment 24/7. This will make him move about on his own and every step taken will strengthen his quadruceps and the ligaments around the patella.
Get moving - on a hill!
Incorporate hillwork into your gymnasticizing routine. Look for a hill or an incline where you can lunge your horse in both directions in a good working trot.
Cavaletti and Co.
Use caveletti and ground poles to get your horse to lift his legs and strengthen the quadruceps. You don't need proper equestrian equipment. PVC pipe from the hardware store does nicely or one of the old beams that's sitting in your barn. Anything that's safe and has the right dimensions will do. A great resource is Ingrid Klimke's book Cavaletti: The Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Poles.
Create forward movement
Your horse will most likely move slightly on the slow and inhibited side. He may be weary of the fact that his stifle could lock at any moment. He has every right to be worried, but at the same time, he needs to move energetically, if the gymnastic exercises are to have any effect. Encourage forward movement and work at a good working pace. Give the horse a break when he is physically or emotionally strained. Watch for changes in breathing or worried facial expression.
Yes, this is easier said than done, I'm still looking for a good place to water-tread my horse in South Central Wisconsin... However, if you do have the ocean or an accessible lake or stream nearby, please feel encouraged to explore water-treading with your horse. This is an excellent exercise to strengthen all muscles without impact. Water-treading is not swimming, which is harder on the horse. Simply walk you horse through knee-high water. Most horses find it fun!
Most of all, don't give up on your horse! A horse with a tendency to have locking or catching stifles will need constant maintenance to remain sound and fit for riding, but chances for recovery are very good.
Alternative treatments include several forms of surgery, which you may want to discuss with your vet.
*) Please note: Equine massage and bodywork is a non-invasive, gentle wellness modality aimed at enhancing performance in the healthy horse and never replaces proper veterinary care. If in doubt regarding the physical health of your horse please consult your veterinarian.