Asymmetry in Horses: Or The mystery of the “Mini-Shank”!

We all know as human beings and bipeds, that we are not completely symmetrical. One foot may be larger than another, one leg shorter, one body side stronger or one knee weaker. Our eye-glass prescription is different for each eye, we tend to have a leg that we prefer to jump on and tend to be left- or right-handed. We accept this as a given and work around it.

senior draft horse
Visual symmetry check on a senior draft horse

In horses, however, many of us don’t give symmetry a lot of thought. Yes, we know we should ‘straighten the crooked horse’ and that our horse has one ‘good side’ and a ‘bad side’, but are we really paying enough attention to the implications of asymmetry in horses in our everyday activities? Let’s take a closer look.

Asymmetry as a CAUSE for performance issues in horses: As the horse is a quadruped, we need to look at asymmetry in consideration of the nature of the biomechanics of a quadruped.  Generally speaking, this means that any irregularity I find, I will want to connect with anything I find in the diagonal. Example: A horse has difficulty picking up the right lead. Due to the fact that the vet issues a clean bill of health, I suspect the horse has a biomechanical issue, an asymmetry or muscular tension that prevent him from using himself efficiently. During the course of several bodywork sessions (Masterson Method™), I discover that my horse’s spine seems permanently bent slightly more to the left. The right shoulder is bigger and the right hind is restricted. Through bodywork and proper gymnasticizing, the horse soon gains muscular comfort and starts picking up the right lead without further ado. However, since I became aware of my horse’s limitations, I now know what type of maintenance he needs in order to stay sound and performing at his best. This is a typical case for asymmetry as the CAUSE for performance issues. These types of issues are often addressed as training problems, causing the horse suffering and grief and the owner and trainer a never ending source of frustration.

Asymmetries as secondary issues, caused by other physical irregularities: This is a very familiar topic for many folks who have an anatomical asymmetry, which then leads to other issues. Example (human): A person with one shorter leg (physical irregularity), who  is unaware that one leg is shorter, may try to alleviate a crooked, painful back (asymmetry as secondary issue) for years, until the underlying issue – a slightly shorter leg – is discovered and treated. The same thing applies to horses: Horses can display asymmetries that are noticeable to the beholder that are not the root cause of their performance issues, but rather a symptom for another underlying problem.

shoulder release on a quarter horse
Bodywork can often provide clues regarding a horse's asymmetry

This is where the example of the “Mini-Shank” comes in! No, I don’t eat Minis, any horse meat at all, actually, and not much meat in general, but I had so much fun handling this Minis leg, that I could not simply call it a ‘leg’, it became a ‘shank’.

The Mystery of the “Mini-Shank”

A few months ago I was up in Rosholt, working on horses at St. Francis Horse Rescue and Retirement home. Mary Hetzel, Director and full-time ‘Mom’ to over 30 horses, introduced me to Rosie, a 12-year old Mini mare, who was in foal with her 10th foal and had recently been rescued out of a less than ideal situation. The mare showed an irregular gate and hopped a bit when speeding up, which had led the vet to suspect a locking stifle, at first glance. Rosie’s hip on the left was severely dropped (asymmetry) and her spine looked torqued. Her left gluteals were rock-hard and smaller than the right (asymmetry) and she looked quite ‘crooked’ in the hind end.

I embarked on my first Masterson Method™ bodywork session with a Mini ever and soon came to the conclusion (during the exercise ‘pelvic drop to the front’) that her left hind leg must be shorter than her right hind leg (underlying cause for the symptom of asymmetry). Mary soon after measured the legs hip to toe and found the left hind to be an entire inch shorter than the right! For a mini with leg length of under 30” that’s quite a bit!

You can see a short video of this exploration here: WATCH VIDEO “DISCOVERING ASYMMETRY IN A MINI HORSE”

What’s my point?

Asymmetry, whether as a cause for secondary issues or as a symptom of other underlying problems, must be assessed on an individual horse by horse (or mini…) basis. EVERY human and EVERY horse is slightly asymmetrical. Exploring and knowing your horse’s body like ‘the back of your hand’ will help you help him along, whatever his situation, physical make-up or training level.

Just like you know which is your weaker or stronger eye, bigger or smaller foot or longer or shorter leg, you should know your horse’s asymmetries. It will help you do the right thing for your horse and help you help him stay well.

One way to get in tune with your horse’s body and help him feel and perform his best, is to practice Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork™ (Masterson Method™), which is also a great ‘fact finding’ tool when it comes to your horse’s anatomical asymmetry. For a class schedule and more information (also about hosting a weekend seminar) please visit Jim Masterson’s website.

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold