Setting the Pivot Foot — What is all this fuss about?

            Recently I was asked to study up on scientific research relating to the “damaging effects” of setting a pivot foot in some of the western riding disciplines.  The goal of this article is to share information so that horseman and horsewoman can engage in further conversation and thought about this topic.

            Often times when questions arise, it is because someone does not fully comprehend the terms in use or what actually happens.  First, we should refresh everyone’s memory as to what we mean by “setting a pivot foot” in the western disciplines.  Setting a pivot foot has become synonymous (incorrectly so) with a turn on the haunches (TOH) of up to 360 degrees where the horse has to keep a rear pivot foot “stationary.”  In truth, keeping the foot stationary is anatomically impossible for a complete 360-degree turn.  Truthfully, what happens in good western horsemanship is that the hind pivot foot remains in “essentially the same location” throughout the turn, and the horse will pick it up and put it down in almost the same location as it turns on the haunches.  Western riders know that the pick up and put back down is to reposition the foot and leg/joints to eliminate potential strain/stress.

While continuing on this path of trying to find answers about injuries related to setting a pivot foot, some conversations led me to ask — why do people believe this is detrimental (in fact some people have uttered the words — do that once and you have ruined the horse).  How does the Western Turn on Haunches differ from the Classical Dressage TOH?  It depends on who you might ask…some will say, not much difference while others will say it is a huge difference. So we continue on with the question of whether or not the Western TOH with a pivot foot, that lifts and repositions in nearly the same location, causes everlasting damage.

Where to begin.  After a search of numerous online databases including PubMed, Agricola, and Google Scholar with a variety of search terms I was unable to find scientific papers discussing injury in relation to setting a pivot foot.  From the literature search I went on to ask numerous veterinarians, University Professors, and conduct a broader online search.

Dennis Sigler from Texas A&M University responded to my request for further information “Michael:  Dr. Gibbs has forwarded your request for information concerning rate of injury due to setting a pivot foot during a turn around.  I am not aware, nor is any of the other faculty in the Horse Section in Animal Science aware of any scientific studies in regard to this subject.  My general observation is that turns on the inside pivot foot as in many of our classes such as western horsemanship are mild in comparison to the stops and turns that  cutting and reining horses are exposed to.  There is no doubt that these types of repetitive activities are extremely hard on the joints, especially the hock joint.  However, many other factors also contribute to the rate of injury including conformation of the horse and the type of ground or footing they are working on.  The reason there are few controlled studies on this subject is that this would be very tedious long-term (several years) study and funding for this type of horse research is seldom available.”

If we take a moment to think about the conformation of the horse, we might be able to better understand the concern about “proper execution of a TOH”.  Horses with long cannon bones (when I say long, I am referring to long with repect to the rest of the leg, in other words not proportioned optimally) are not as suited for rollbacks and getting low in the rear.  These horses can succeed, but there is an added degree of strain on the joints of this type of horse.  These horses with long cannon bones will have some difficulty staying balanced when asked to do a pivot/rollback at higher speeds.  Many (but not all) of today’s modern/successful western performance horses do have correctly proportioned cannon bones for the work/competition they are being asked to perform.  So conformation is something we seriously need to consider BEFORE we ask a horse to perform.  There is no shame in not doing something if you and the horse are not emotionally, physically, and mentally prepared.

Dr. Sigler shared some good information about why these studies have not been conducted and what factors contribute to injuries associated with setting a pivot foot.  Dr. Rob Keene, veterinary consultant for the Equine Hydro-T gave a similar response.  Dr. Mandi Holland of Performance Equine Specialists could not immediately find any scientific studies on the effects of setting a pivot foot.

In answer to the question I was asked — at this time there does not appear to be any publicly available scientific evidence that proves setting a pivot foot has long lasting and damaging effects.

BUT WAIT — THERE IS MORE!

These experts I have mentioned, and a few others who asked not to be named, suggested that many of the activities we do with our horses these days can cause injury.  While conducting this research, I came across many articles and ideas that I think are very important to share with everyone concerned about performance horse activities.  Torzewski and Mihaly (2009) discussed the fact that “Distal tarsal joints (hocks and knees) are joints with a small range of movement” and these researchers went on to claim that with some western performance horses exposed to high torsion forces on joints it is not a question of “if it will happen” but rather “when injury/inflammation” will occur.  Veterinarians from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) have presented numerous papers on Lameness seen in a variety of western performance horses (cutting, reining, barrel racing, etc), Hunter/Jumper events, and Dressage … yes Dressage activities can cause equine leg injuries at the same rates as other disciplines.  Dr. Jackman presented a paper in 2001 on Common Lameness in the Cutting and Reining Horse.  Dr. Sue Dyson presented on Lameness and Performance in the Sport Horse: Dressage.

Equine Medical Service (EMS) of Northern Colorado was willing to direct me to their website and share information on what they find as the greatest causes of musculoskeletal stressers in the equine athlete.  EMS shared the following — The ten most common lameness conditions in the dressage horse (and by extension through the rest of the article, western performance horses as well) are as follows:

  • Proximal suspensory inflammation of the both fore and hind legs
  • Suspensory branch lesions
  • Joint problems of the two lowest joints in the fore legs
  • Inflammation of the accessory ligament of the deep flexor tendons on fore legs
  • Osteoarthritis of the two lower joints of the hock joints
  • Inflammation of the middle carpal (knee) joints
  • Joint problems in both fore and hind fetlocks
  • Inflammation of the ligaments surrounding the fetlocks and the tendons that are in that area
  • Stress fractures of the front cannon bones
  • Lower back pain.

During my studies, I had the privilege of speaking with Lester Sellnow who has written a few articles and books on Equine Lameness. While speaking with Lester he suggested that if we take some time to watch horse activities in the wild, we will not see very many horses try to jump a five-foot high obstacle, some will, but most will look for the easier way around unless forced over the object by a predator.  He reminded me that we often ask horses to accomplish tasks in the arena that are rather unnatural.  In 2001, Lester wrote an article for The Horse.com and as of our conversation in 2013, he felt the article was still accurate and relevant.  The article by Lester included information from a conversation he had with Jerry Black, DVM.  For those who do not know, Dr. Black has long been held in high regard by horsemen/women and veterinarians for his knowledge relating to equine legs/lameness and injury.

In the article, this discussion is very relevant to the topic at hand — “Causes of Joint Problems — ‘Horses have joint problems because we often ask them to do things they weren’t designed to do’, says Jerry Black, DVM, (former senior partner and past president of the Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., and former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners).  After domesticating the horse, man designed competitions for him that put a great deal of additional stress on his joints.  Think, for example, of the concussive force on joints of the front legs when a 1,200-pound horse sails over a six-foot jump and lands on his front feet.  … Dressage seems like a fairly benign competition as far as placing stress on joints is concerned, but that isn’t true.  The advanced dressage horse is required to move his center of gravity more to the rear, putting more stress on the hind limbs. Some of the lateral movements, such as the shoulder-in and half-pass, cause high joint stress particularly on the hock. The types of disease and injury that can afflict dressage horses include degenerative joint disease of the hocks, inflammation and degenerative joint disease of the front pasterns, inflammation of the middle knee joint, and degenerative joint disease and inflammation of the fetlock. … Western horses also are stressed with competition. There is a lot of torque on the rear joints when a cutting horse drops its hindquarters toward the ground and spins a split second before accelerating to stop the movement of the calf it is seeking to hold away from the herd. Some cutting horses are susceptible to injuries and disease involving the hock and stifle joints. … The reining horse is asked to run down an arena at speed, slide to a stop, and spin in a circle, with the rear end anchored in place. This produces a great deal of torque on the hind limbs, especially the hocks. … Western pleasure horses which travel sedately and slowly around the ring might also be prone to joint disease because of their conformation, Black explains. To accentuate a chosen way of going, he says, many Western pleasure horses have been bred and selected to have straighter shoulders and more upright pasterns than horses which perform at speed. This type of conformation can set the stage for poor shock absorption and thus joint disease.”

Much more was presented in the article by Lester Sellnow and I encourage you to follow the link and read the work in its entirety.  The take home message from this and many other sources I read for this article can simply be summed as follows — anything in excess, without balance of the horse and rider and done without preparation and attention to detail can lead to injury.

A colleague of mine, Nettie Barr of Canadian Natural Horsemanship, reminded me that there are so many things that influence the athletic capabilities of the horse.  These influences come from the horse, rider, and the environment.  Training, conformation, warm-up exercises, number of repetitive actions, rider balance, arena footing, hoof care, health care, and nutrition are all-important.  But maybe the most important is as Nettie says “When we are able to ride in harmony and balance with a horse and know the footfalls of the horse, we are able to ask at the correct time to set the horse up for success to plant the desired hind foot and to properly shift his/her weight to perform the maneuver in balance.  We must understand that in order to perform such maneuvers, a solid foundation of the basics need to be in place to build to refinement.”

Let us review the information presented in this article.  1) No scientific study available that proves “setting a pivot foot is detrimental/harmful”, 2) balance, balance, balance is the key to any discipline because a balanced horse and rider can perform some pretty amazing maneuvers, and finally the most important of all, 3) KNOWING, FEELING, AND CONTROLLING THE FOOTFALLS is the key to success and longevity of the horse and rider.

As classical/traditional dressage and western performance riders continue to dialog and the discipline of Western Dressage grows, let us hope we all take the opportunity to ask questions of one another, search for and provide proof of things we say, be open and receptive to new/different ideas, and always remember that the horse is what is important in this relationship.

Dr. Michael Guerini, author of this article holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Molecular Biology, taught numerous biotechnology students who have gone on to be successful equine veterinarians, published >30 scientific research papers on various topics, works with veterinarians on successful equine product designs, and coaches horsemanship (http://www.dunmovinranch.com).

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