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Clicking stifle

From: Barbara

Dear Jessica, my four year old Tennessee Walking Horse mare (barefoot, don't worry, she's not even plain shod) makes a weird clicking noise, almost like a popping sound but more like a clicking sound with her hindquarters when she moves. It's definitely not coming from her feet, I'm sure it's coming from her stifle? or else her hips? anyway something in that area. Not the hocks either.

My vet isn't worried about it because it goes away after I ride her for awhile. She moves well at dog walk, flatfoot walk, trot (yes she has a real trot!) and running walk and canter. Even when we first start our ride and she is making the noise she is level and not ever lame.

I don't want to be a worry wart and I trust my vet implicitly. He said that if it ever becomes a problem there is a surgery he can do but I shouldn't even consider that unless Belle starts to go lame. But I also trust you, and it would make me feel much better if you told me that I am just worrying about nothing. And if you can tell me a little about the surgery and also about why some horses "grow out" of this, that would be great. My vet is a wonderful man but he doesn't talk much, he usually just raises one eyebrow and says "Turn her out for a month." It took a long time to convince him that I was an okay person even though I had a TWH, and I didn't do any soreing. I don't blame him for being prejudiced, I don't want to have anything to do with those kinds of TWH people either. Barbara

Hi Barbara! You're probably worrying about nothing. Do you feel better now? Remember, I'm not a vet and I don't even play a vet on the 'Net, but I'll be happy to tell you what I know about clicking stifles. I expect it's very much what your vet would tell you if he were a more communicative sort. But do please run this by him - ask him to read this letter - and keep in mind that your vet should have the final word here. If anything I suggest clashes with anything he tells you, follow HIS advice.

The noise coming from her stifle isn't dangerous. In some horses - often the young, growthy ones, or in older ones that are out of shape and just being put back into work - you may hear that clicking noise when a (slightly too loose) patellar ligament slips around. In extreme cases, yes, there IS a surgery, just as your vet told you. It involves creating scar tissue that will stablize the ligament and keep it from slipping. But in many cases, it's just not necessary - as the horse is worked more and develops bigger, stronger muscles, the slipping and clicking and popping simply stop by themselves.

Given the choice between a free, noninvasive treatment (turn your mare out 24/7, preferably in a hilly pasture, and put her on a riding schedule designed to build up her hindquarters and strengthen her overall musculature) and a surgical procedure, I'd always prefer to choose what's behind door number one.

Since your mare trots, you have the option of working her at the trot - another good way to build up those muscles. If there are no hills in your pasture, and no hills where you ride, use ground poles or cavalletti (on the lowest setting, please) to encourage your mare to pick up her feet, bend all of her leg joints, use her belly, lift her back, and round. All of this will happen naturally if you set the poles at a comfortable trot-stride distance for her and then work her through them on a long rein or even a loose rein, so that she can reach forward and down with her neck whilst pushing off from behind. If you DO have hilly pastures and hills to ride on, so much the better - you can still do some work with poles or cavalletti, and your mare should eventually end up with strong, silent stifles and a lovely topline.

And while we're on that subject, here are a few more things to think about:

If you set trot poles for her, and she's a typical healthy, growthy 4-year-old TWH, don't be surprised if you need to set the poles 5' or even 5'6" apart to accomodate her normal trot stride. In my experience, horses like this usually cover a lot of ground at the trot. When my now 30-year-old TWH mare was young and frisky, I could set trot poles at 6' and she would trot through them very happily - and she is not quite 16hh. ;-)

Watch for any tendency to work high-headed or inverted - this won't develop the muscles she needs. It's unlikely that she will do this unless she is sore or trying to trot too fast. However, if she begins to drop her back and lift her head and neck, have your vet look her over - and check her saddle fit.

When a well-built horse is worked consistently and well, it will develop muscle. When a well-built TWH is worked consistently and well, it is likely to develop quite a lot of muscle. Your mare may be lanky and growthy at four, but after a year or two of good, muscle-building work, she may very well be MASSIVE. The combination of a wide ribcage, good muscling, and a long, mobile shoulder can make saddle-searching quite challenging. Some saddles come in models specifically designed for gaited horses, and featuring bars that are angled to accomodate this sort of conformation. So keep a very close eye on saddle fit, and start thinking about the next (wider) saddle that you'll need... and quite possibly about the one you'll need after that. I know that saddles aren't cheap, but you'll be able to comfort yourself by thinking how much more fun it is to spend money on wider saddles for your beautiful horse than on surgery for your clicking, popping horse. ;-)


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