Team ropers have developed a liking for a very specific body-conformation style of horse for both head and heel horses. Those conformations can come with their own sets of challenges, and vets like Dr. Chris Morrow of Mobile Veterinary Practice in Amarillo, Texas, address those needs every day. Here are five areas of concern that Dr. Morrow sees in rope horses that come through his practice regularly.
Both headers and heelers generally are looking for short-strided horses. That short stride makes them easier for the bulk of ropers to catch on—just like long-strided horses make it easier to win races on the flat.
What Makes a Horse Short-Strided?
Shorter strides are generally caused by a steeper shoulder angle. The steeper shoulder angle is created by the scapula tying into the horse’s spine more vertically than horizontally.
Steep shoulder angles and withers lower than the hips are conformational attributes that will contribute to shorter stride length. The angle of the shoulder is determined by the intersection of a line parallel to the spine of the scapula and a line perpendicular to the ground—usually between 40-60 degrees. This causes them to land heavier on their front legs.
Soundness Issues Caused by Steeper Shoulder Angles
Steeper shoulder angles cause horses front feet to hit the ground harder. With the ideal equine foot fall a tick heel-to-toe, the steeper the shoulder angle the more likely the horse’s foot will land toe-first especially if the heel is sore. That repetitive motion causes wear and tear on the foot, particularly in the navicular region. These horses’ genetics and conformation predispose them to a higher instance of navicular or caudal heel syndrome. And it’s not just the bone it’s the deep flexor tendon and all associated tissues. The harder they land on the heel, the more likely they are to get sore and transfer to the toe. We see a predictable set of lesions on the navicular bone of many rope horses because of this. Rarely do we look at a finished horse, even if they’re not lame, be it 4 years old and older, that we don’t find some degree of navicular change. These radiographic changes need to be interpreted carefully with regard to history of use, soundness, previous lameness/treatment, and most importantly the short- and long-term goals we have for that horse. The horse’s conformation affects how the foot lands on the ground, responsible for the trauma inside the foot.
The treatment on horses with navicular changes varies based on the client’s goals. On the veterinary side, we have to know if the goal is to have a comfortable horse that lasts as long as it can, versus ‘This is what I do for a living, and I need him competing as a part of my team to make a living, within reason.’ Having that communication makes it easier. We are not trying to run the wheels off these horses—we simply need to understand the goals.
For the standard weekend roper, most want their horses to let them go and be competitive and last.
- If a horse is sore on the front end, but there’s no obvious culprit like an abscess or the shoeing isn’t good, we change the horse’s exercise to stay out of circles—like in the round pen or on the hot walker—because circles cause stress on joints by loading them asymmetrically.
- Make sure the horse stays fit. Start with exercise programs that to the horse and is appropriate for the athletic endeavors of horse and rider. Simple things like stepping over poles and walking up and down embankments help keep our horses fit. That changes the way they have to manipulate their limbs, stretching their pelvis.
- Prescribe NSAIDs like Bute and Equioxx.
- If we’re not getting where we want, we do joint injections. We do a lot of joint injections because it’s a cost-efficient and effective way to treat these horses. All of my joint injections use Polyglycan as a carrier to get the kenalog or other corticosteroids into the synovial fluid.
For decades, many ropers looked toward ex-cutters, reiners and cow horses some of whom were bred with a bull-dog type build. That build gave us smaller horses with smaller feet and stockier, shorter-backed, heavy-muscled bodies.
What problems do smaller feet cause?
The mechanics catch up to a smaller foot on a larger horse, or a smaller horse under a larger person because there is more force per square inch on the foot. Smaller, more oval-shaped feet can lead to navicular changes, as well as arthritic changes through the leg.
There’ve been studies out of Europe about how much weight a horse can carry in proportion to their bodies, and the ideal range is generally between 10% and 20% of horse body weight. Once you get past the 25% mark, the problems that come with those horses start to rise. Rider ability also can have a lot to do with how a horse carries a larger rider. A larger rider can ride a smaller horse with fewer problems, while an unskilled rider doing those things on the same horse can create unsoundness.
In shoeing these horses, the goal is to maximize the feet to create big, round front feet and shovel-shaped back feet that land heel-toe. You want symmetrical, round, appropriately large feet. For example, horses that come out of sand with splattered out feet and low soles are not supported, while horses that come out of more abrasive environments have the feet we look for, because that’s how horses evolved: in rocky, desert-like environments. These horses may also require joint injections, in which I pair Polyglycan as a carrier to get the kenalog or other corticosteroids into the synovial fluid.
Pigeon Toe-ed or Toe-ed Out Horses
Plenty of horses either toe out or are pigeon-toed, and these two conditions are not created equal, especially in rope horses that see a lot of torque on their joints.
Pigeon-toed horses (horses that toe inward at the fetlock) are easier to get by than horses that are toe-ed out at the fetlock. The stress placed on their joints by this conformation defect is less than that of horses that toe out because of how the horse’s weight is borne toward the medial (inside) side of the leg. Pigeon-toe-ed horses tend to last longer than their toe-ed out counterparts.
Horses that toe out do not have their line of force supported by their feet. That means gravity is pulling their body weight (and the weight of the roper and the steer) to the ground in a way that’s stressing their joints and tendons and ligaments abnormally because their feet are not supporting their limbs. If the toes are out, the foot and body are trying to accommodate for it by how the foot grows and lands, but that generally creates knee and ankle problems in the horse. They tend to interfere, and those horses paddle their feet during the swing phase.
We manipulate their feet. The foot is the only part we can make better for his life, because we can’t straighten the legs of adults once their growth plates are closed. We can control how we shoe them and what we get done with the hoof if the shoeing is done appropriately and on a regular schedule. The goal is to support what’s not being supported. If they’re crushing one heel or the other, we can use different shoes or techniques to level out their feet and help them hit the ground evenly. When we’ve managed their shoeing, we use joint injections as the mainstay of our therapy. It’s the most cost-effective and efficient way to keep rope horses like this comfortable and working. If we can break the inflammatory cycle, we can limit the effects on the cartilage bone and synovial fluid. The corticosteroids we use now are the same ones we put in people. They improve cartilage health. And when Polyglycan is used as a carrier, the injections last longer.
Head horses in this era need speed. And the more race-influence in some horses, the flatter their croups typically are. That flatter croup increases the bolster between the hind limbs and the lumbar spine, adding flat speed and power like you see on the racetrack.
That flat speed is awesome for bull dogging horses, and they last forever just running in a straight line down the arena. But head and heel horses have to make that left-hand turn in every run. To make that left-hand turn correctly, they need to get their shoulders lifted, their rumps underneath them and their rib cages bent to shape the steer through the corner and not whip him down the arena.
Ultimately, the need for a fast head horse can create a double-edged sword, because you’ve got to have one that can run but also one that can bend—and those two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. The stronger that bolster is and the flatter that croup is, the less flexible that will be it’s harder for the horse to shape the steers. Especially when you’re having to rope 20 steers in a day.
Soundness Issues Caused by Flatter Croups
The bending required of head and heel horses can cause stress on their backs and lumbar spine. They’ll be more likely to be sore backed. These days, everyone has videos of their horses working, so I spend a lot of time looking at videos and watching horses work to help diagnose them. If a horse is not engaging their pelvis, which can be a flexibility or pain issue that we see in rope horses, we’ll see that whole set of issues going all the way from their foot through their pelvis and their back. A back can be muscle, ligamentous, bone or joint sore. A sore pelvis is a sore SI or the muscles associated with the pelvis. Hamstrings can become remarkably sore coming off the pelvis. People run their finger down the horse’s pelvis, and they think lack of reaction is positive, but the lack of reaction caused by the inability to move the pelvis is actually a problem. They don’t react because it hurts and is so painful that they don’t want to move.
Again, the hind feet are critical here in long-term success. I make sure that we don’t have those horse’s heels on the ground, and that the coronary band angle is toward the elbow or lower. Radiographs of hind feet help sort out the negative plantar angles, sole depth and mechanical balance of the hind feet. This is really important—hind foot radiographs are key to successful treatment of backs, stifles, hocks, suspensories—the whole thing.
Short-Backed vs. Long-Backed Horses
When we started judging horses, we selected for the bull-dog type horses: large horses on little feet, with short-backs, and you could drive a truck between their front legs, with a huge rump. They’re great for making statues that we win at Quarter Horse shows, but not great to ride all day. The longer, more angular horses will be better suited, although their back will be three fingers too long because of the standard we’ve been exposed to when judging. These horses will have a longer hip from the side view, but not massive hip from rear view. They’re more athletic. When you look at the influence of the best bloodlines, they’ll be plenty big and balanced. It’s easier for them to turn, with their narrower chest and rounder croup helping them perform better and last longer because they have less horse to move. Ultimately, a strong, flexible back matters more than a long or short back.
Some back issues have to do with rider skill and saddle fit. Backs take up maybe 5-10% of the horses I see, but I always start with the basics like checking the tree in the saddle to make sure it’s not the problem first.
Soundness Issues Related to Back Length
If we’re running into a sore back, it can be caused by a metabolic issue like tie-ups or mechanic issues like an imbalance in the lower-limbs or feet that we haven’t addressed properly. Typically, if we’ve got the rest of the horse right, the back shouldn’t be a problem.
We start looking for metabolic reasons. We’ll run basic bloodwork. Low-level tie-up creates a lot of those issues, and the only way to know is to diagnose that through a chemistry profile looking at AST and CK levels in the blood. Treatment often involves high-quality proteins in their feed to help strengthen the top line and vitamin E supplementation. Organic vitamin E is most effective because of the bioavailability.
- We also use chiropractic to manipulate and diagnose for treatment. My associate uses chiropractic manipulation to diagnose and treat problems in the neck, back and lower limbs.
- Regenerative therapeutic lasers are fantastic. We use them to treat backs and muscles, and once we know the back is responsive to lasers, some of my trainers will come in for that pre-emptively to prevent secondary issues such as pelvic soreness or lower-limb soreness. Therapeutic lasers allow for improved blood flow and function.
- I also use shockwave therapy on backs to get a different response if the laser isn’t being satisfactory.
- I’ll inject backs with short-acting steroids if I need to if they’re not responsive to the non-invasive therapies. Since we’ve started using regenerative laser, the number of backs I inject is 5-10% of the backs I used to. The laser is less expensive, less invasive and more effective for most horses.
1) Horses we make and we start from scratch, when they’re 4, 5 and 6 years old doing all these tricks we ask them to, and we can rope as many as we want, and the horse turns 8-9-10 and we start having problems, all that excess work at 4-5-6 is catching up to them. Training is about being responsible on young horses that are talented. Train them to do it, then let their body mature. We’re making younger and younger horses, but there’s a sense of responsibility that needs re-instilled in the group. Just because they can take it, they shouldn’t have to if we want them to last. Once their bones are fully developed, they are better prepared for a lot of work.
2) A low-grade of inflammation is helpful for tendons, ligaments and joints by improving the blood flow among other things. When the inflammation causes pain and affects performance, it needs to be addressed.
3) Be aware of the whole horse. Just saving the horse for the jackpots isn’t doing them any favors. They need ridden and they need to exercise regularly in the way they perform. We have to do things for them to allow for them to prepare for that unnatural thing—chasing down another animal, but only to the left. It’s fitness and not just doing left-hand maneuvers. We have to condition the horse to do all of these things at home and in the practice pen so their bodies are ready for competition. TRJ