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Handedness (or rather, hoofedness) in horses...

From: Susan_Peters

One thing I always appreciate about horse people is how willing they are to share their knowledge with others. Thank you for being so generous with your time, and supportive to all of us who turn to you for assistance.

Now my question. In all the equine studies that have been undertaken, has anyone ever discovered whether horses are born with a genetic preference to use one side of their bodies? Or does this all come about from the way we train and/or ride them?


Hi Susan! This is an interesting question, and in fact there have been some studies, and a lot of informal investigation, plus observations by horsemen over literally hundreds of years. The results all seem to say that YES there is an inborn preference, and, also, YES the way we train and ride also helps establish a preference. My own feeling is that both factors contribute to a horse's one-sidedness.

Some people have theorized that horses are simply naturally one-sided in the same way that humans have a dominant side: you will always, for instance, climb or descend stairs by putting a particular foot FIRST, and if you make yourself begin with the other foot, it feels "wrong." If you fold your hands together with fingers interlaced, you will always put the same thumb on top -- if you make yourself do it the other way, with the other thumb on top, it will be difficult and feel "wrong." And we all know what happens when we try to write or use a screwdriver with our "other" hand... but how much of this is genetically-determined, and how much is a matter of practice that began when we were born?

Horses probably have a genetic tendency to be one-sided, and it may be exacerbated by the position they assume in the last month before birth. Some breeders have theorized that in that last month, when large foals (in comparison to uterine size) have little or no room to move about in the mare's uterus, they "fold" into a position and hold that position until they are preparing to pass through the birth canal. Thus, they would be born favouring one side or the other. It's an interesting thought -- I'm not convinced that it's accurate, though. Most of the (minor, temporary) angular leg deformities that are DEFINITELY the result of limited movement in utero will fix themselves (literally "straighten themselves out") within a few days or weeks of birth. (N.B.: Not all such problems are minor: more serious or extreme cases may require bandaging, casting or surgery before they can be put right.)

HOWEVER, there is another factor to consider: as soon as a foal is born, in some cases, and certainly as soon as foals and humans encounter one another, the process of training begins, and that process involves handling foals from the LEFT side.

I've made my own small experiment over the years, by handling my horses from both sides at all times. They are surprisingly flexible in both directions!

Handling horses from the left side only (leading, tacking up, mounting and dismounting, administering medications,. etc., etc.) does more, IMO, than create a set of expectations in the horse. It also creates a physical change -- the horse is constantly being asked to bend and stretch slightly to the left, and in the case of mounting and dismounting, learns to brace and stand in a particular way.

Horses that have never been mounted from the right often stagger away from the rider the first few times that this is performed; obviously the horse is quite accustomed to carrying the rider's weight, and is quite accustomed to being mounted, but has not developed the habit, and perhaps even the ability, to stand and balance while the rider's weight is on the RIGHT side. This can be changed through training and practice, just as the rider's ability to mount from the right can be developed through training and practice.

So, I suppose I'm saying that although some degree of "handedness" or "hoofedness" may be genetic, we can create it ourselves, or at least make it much more pronounced, by the ways in which we handle and ride our horses.

If we try to be very balanced ourselves (and this isn't an easy task either!), and we pay attention to the uneven things we do with our horses, and try to do what we can to make them less crooked by handling them from both sides, working them carefully to develop both sides, and being very aware of our OWN imbalances when we ride, we can make an enormous difference to the degree of "hoofedness" that our horses demonstrate.


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