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Horses with Uneven Shoulders
Problems, Causes, and Solutions
Uneven shoulders in horses are common and not always a problem. It may surprise you that in about 80 percent of all horses, the left shoulder bulges out more and is slightly set back while the right shoulder is flatter (Dr. Joyce Harman, DVM in her book The Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book). This often goes along with a flatter left foot and a slightly ‘clubbed’ or more upright right foot.
Neither horse nor human is ever 100% symmetrical. We humans are bipeds with a vertical spine. Our horses are quadrupeds with a horizontal spine. Both will have some inherent ‘crookedness’ individually. In combination, this can cause a few challenges and a lot of confusion...
This horse visibly shows a much more pronounced left shoulder >>>>>
Problems associated with uneven shoulders in horses
Depending on the individual horse’s general conformation, uneven shoulders can add to other existing problems or be an almost negligible issue. So let’s remember: Just because you observe a slight difference in your horse’s shoulders, there doesn’t have to be a problem.
If there is any of these listed problems, however, it is a good idea to examine the shoulders more closely:
Saddle slipping off to one side (most commonly the right side)
One foot considerably more upright than the other (usually the one on the ‘flatter’ shoulder side)
Uneven back muscle development (one side less muscles than the other)
One-sided dip or hollow behind the withers
Tendency to not want to bend into one direction (usually the lower, flatter shoulder
How to check your horse for an uneven shoulder
Have a friend hold the horse and stand him square on an even surface (barn aisle). Place a hay bale behind the horse and alert your horse in a calm and friendly way that you are behind him and are about to step on the bale. The bale will protect you from any quick kicks (just in case) and enable you to get a birds-eye view. Look straight forward/down towards the shoulders and compare size and shape as well as location of the upper edge of the shoulder blade. If one side bulges out more considerably, the other side will be flatter and lower.
Possible causes of uneven shoulders
The main cause in the majority of horses seems to be a genetic predisposition (such as right-handedness in humans). In some cases, the following aspects can add to the underlying predisposition and aggravate the asymmetry:
Ill-fitting saddles (compensation, avoiding pain)
Unbalanced riders (mirroring or compensating for the rider’s movement)
Tension in the shoulder/neck/neck-shoulder junction
Mental tension (humans often hold one shoulder higher when under stress)
Shoeing/trimming not optimal
Bad movement habits/posture
Tension in muscles and ligament as a compensation for all of the above
What to do to correct any of the associated problems
Again: If there is an uneven shoulder and no problem, do not worry! Is your horse comfortable, are you balanced when riding him? Then the uneven shoulder does not present an issue.
Rule #1: Any padding, especially one-sided padding, applied to a slipping saddle is a temporary solution! Saddles should also not be flocked asymmetrically, since you will want to help your horse get a little more symmetrical and an unsymmetrical saddle will prevent this. A good temporary solution is closed-cell foam to pad the lower side! (Cheap, available, discard when no longer needed.) See Dr. Joyce Harman’s The Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book
for more information on that topic Rule #2: In order to help your horse become more symmetrical in the shoulder, you will need to release tension first! Nothing - whether saddle corrections, gymnasticizing, change of rider posture or shoeing - will have optimum effect until the old tensions and restrictions are released. Think of these restrictions like rubber bands, always under tension, wanting to keep the structural elements (shoulder blades, bones, joints) in their habitual positions (crooked). Involve an equine massage/bodywork practitioner or learn some of the techniques yourself (Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension) Rule #3: Try to find the real underlying cause. This can be time-consuming and difficult. Get others involved, but make sure you are not tempted to listen to barn buddies and best friends, who are well-meaning but can add conflicting views. Instead, get experts involved! This can be in form of a book or DVD!
Quick Guide to overcoming crooked shoulders
Examine saddle fit, make changes if needed. Optimal saddle & temporary foam padding may be a solution. Also consider whether the saddle fits you and keeps you balanced!
Examine rider position. Horses mirror or compensate for our position. Make changes, if needed. Knowledgable instruction, stretching and soft exercises (light Yoga, Pilates, etc.) can work miracles.
Release tension in the horse’s body, especially the neck, shoulder, and neck/shoulder junction. I recommend the book/DVD “Beyond Horse Massage” by Jim Masterson & Stefanie Reinhold, available on Amazon. This is a great start and is easy to learn. Alternatively, engage the help of an equine massage or bodywork practitioner.
Strengthen and balance your horse through targeted gymnasticizing. This is a time-commitment and may not seem like fun at first. But it will not only help your horse become straighter & more balanced but will also lay the foundation for a great ride! To learn more about gymnasticizing, check out the book Equine Fitness: A Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse
by Jec Aristotle Ballou or take one of my “Basic Horse Mechanics II” seminars.
Last not least: Change takes time! In order to observe a change, take time and take notes & images! Estimate about 3 months to see results that are observable to the naked eye.
Enjoy your horse!
*) 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.