Horse Problem: Bridle Lame
Your horse is perfectly sound in the pasture, when you lead him - then you get on and suddenly his gait's all funky and you're sure he's lame.
You check him over. There's nothing wrong. You even have the chiropractor take a look. Nothing.
It feels very awkward and hitchy and as if all of your horse has fallen back behind you and he feels - and looks - lame. But there's no reason for it.
Most likely, your horse is "bridle lame."
What does that mean?
So, what does it mean to say a horse is "bridle lame?"
A bridle lame horse looks and feels unsound when ridden, but shows no heat, no skeletal-muscular symptoms, nothing that could possibly cause the lameness. The saddle fits fine. The horse lunges sound. The lameness shows up only when ridden and appears to be somewhere in the front end of the horse.
Often, the horse will feel as if he is "curling up" behind the rider. The horse isn't unwilling to go forward, as a truly lame horse would be. In fact, the opposite is often the case, with the animal rushing or surging forward when the reins are released. The horse generally carries its head higher than it should and the back is hollow.
But there's nothing to be found physically - because there's nothing physically wrong. The clue is in the term itself: "bridle" lame. Bridle lameness is apparent lameness caused by the use of the rein.
What causes it?
Bridle lameness is caused by a combination of factors, but what it actually is is an inability to properly balance between the rider's hand and leg. It is sometimes created when an impatient trainer tries to ask a green horse to take up more contact than they are ready for. It can also be caused by the wrong bit or by a rider with heavy hands. The final factor that causes bridle lameness is the horse being out of condition/out of shape.
Individual horses are also often prone to bridle lameness. I know one little mare who goes bridle lame every time she's had so much as a few days off, not because she's out of condition, but because she gets so enthusiastic about finally being back to work that she stops thinking and just wants to rush around. An experienced rider getting on her and cantering her full speed around the arena on a loose rein fixes it every time.
The final, and sadly most common, cause of bridle lameness is trainers who work a horse in a "head set" without paying any attention to the rest of the horse. The excessive use of draw reins and German martingales can cause it.
How to fix it?
The first step is to isolate the cause.
If a horse goes bridle lame under a specific rider, then the cause is obvious: The rider. A few sessions with a good instructor to isolate what the rider is doing and get them to change should fix it. If your horse is bridle lame, getting your trainer to hop on and see if he still does it for her is often a good idea.
A horse that is bridle lame after extended periods off is probably just out of shape - hillwork, transitions, and flexibility exercises are indicated to build the animal's core strength and topline.
Excessive energy can cause bridle lameness in animals that are prone to it - burning off the energy with fast work, jumping, or similar is usually the best solution.
Failing any of those, the issue is either past (or current) training or the bit. The horse needs to be worked strongly off the inside leg and sent forward constantly on a lighter-than-normal contact. Consider dropping the bit down to a milder one. If the horse is in a single-jointed bit try a French link or other double-jointed bit. If working in a curb or full bridle, you probably want to go back to a snaffle for a while - sometimes bridle lameness can indicate that the horse is not ready for the curb.
Fixing a horse that has been "head set" or, worse, rollkeured, takes time and expertise. If you think that has happened, you should seek the advice of a trainer who can give you specific exercises to help your horse.
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