Horses in training and competition take a daily load on their muscles, joints, and bones. Each competition is different on what area of the horse’s body takes the impact or largest workload. For Western Pleasure horses the impact and lameness are typically seen in their hind end, feet, and knees. Western Pleasure is a sport judged on a western horse’s ability to perform three gaits going to the left and right while looking pleasurable and moving elegantly. Horse and rider work together to perfect the horse’s gait at the walk, jog, and lope. The class is first judged on the overall picture. Does the horse appear to be moving with ease? Does it look challenging or natural? Next it is judged on the horse’s ability to perform the three gaits well. Dellin (2014) explains a good walk is uniform and square underneath the horse. The jog is a two-beat diagonal gait where the diagonal pairs of legs move forward at the same time. Lastly, the lope is judged on both the right and left lead. It is judged on a straight lead leg and smooth gap between the hocks with every stride. This keeps the horse moving slow and fluid. The more hock a horse has the slower and more elongate they will be able to move.
Figure 1: Western Pleasure Horse performing jog at AQHA World Show. This photo Is by an unknown author and licensed under GoHorseShow.
This event is judged on what horse can do all three gaits the best while being pleasurable to watch. There are typically two to four judges in the middle. Theses judges place their card from first to tenth depending on show rules and class size. Horses start competing around age two and can compete up until senior status at six years of age and above. These competitions are frequently most weekends and serious competitors compete at least once a month. This sport is unique because it is performed on a loose rein with little contact between rider and horse through the bit. The visual figure 1, is an example of a Western Pleasure horse performing the jog. It is also unique because it is not judged on speed, the horse moves as slow as possible while still doing the gaits correctly. Each class is generally worked for about fifteen minutes and the shows last anywhere from four days to upwards of weeks long with multiple circuits at the same location. Western Pleasure is a class that is hard to perfect and requires numerous hours spent in the saddle training. As the rider it is your responsibility to keep the horse’s best interest in mind. A common injury that horses training for Western Pleasure competition undergo is a torn suspensory in the hind end due to tension on hocks, turning on the hocks, and the constant motion of rocking back to sit on their hocks and throw their front leg.
Training a Western Pleasure horse starts with repetition. From the moment a horse enters the training program to the day they hit the area gait the horse and rider work on similar maneuvers over and over again trying to achieve perfection. A normal day in the barn of a Western Pleasure trainer could start with lounging or round pen work where the horse is constantly working on the side of their hoof. Then they move to under saddle, they practice all three gaits going both directions and work on shoulder and hip placement. Trainers teach a horse to move their hips toward the center and shoulders to be square not leaning one way or another. They do this by practicing pivots where a horse has to keep their hips underneath them and maneuver their shoulders around. This maneuver is very affective in teaching a horse the desired “shape” however it puts tremendous pressure on the hocks and suspensory in the hind end. The daily maneuvers can lead to a torn suspensory along with normal turn out that can lead to tweaking the hocks when short burst of energy and fast stopping and turning take place.
Figure 2: Anatomy of Suspensory Ligament. This photo is by unknown author. Licensed under Tufts Hospital for Large Animals.
When a horse tears their suspensory it can be in either the front or hind-end. In Western Pleasure competition horses, it is more likely to occur in the hind-end. The injury is not affected by age as it occurs in both seasoned and young show horses. It is simply possible in all horses due to their movement and body position. The anatomy of this injury consists of the ligament that attaches to the back of the upper cannon bone. It runs downward, close to back of the cannon bone and then divides into two branches which attach to the sesamoid bones at the back of the fetlock. There are fibers that continue and attach to the upper pastern area that run alongside the suspensory. Figure 2 shows a visual representation and anatomy of where the suspensory ligament is located. The example of a Western Pleasure horse tearing their suspensory above shows that hock tension, is the major cause of the injury. Another mechanism and cause of this injury is when horses get sore hocks from work overload. Boatwright (2012) explained that suspensory injuries have been occurring for decades, but we are just recently gaining the knowledge and equipment to treat the problem and not just put a band aid on it. Hock soreness comes with being worked on compacted surfaces, for example an undug area at a horse show. Many equestrians will see lameness in the hind end and instantly inject the hocks. However, now with more knowledge and ultrasound machines available veterinarians are able to diagnose suspensory lameness that could be the underlying problem.
The symptoms of this injury in the hind end are the hocks exhibiting a significant change in movement and the hips tend to drop on the affected side of the horse. Boatwright (2012) explains, nerve blocking the horse around the affected area to specifically diagnose the direct cause of lameness is step one. Step two, ultra-sounding to find the exact tear. Figure 3 is a representation of an ultrasound image of a torn suspensory. The black space is the veterinarian’s indication a tear took place. If more analysis is needed step three is the horse undergoing an MRI.
After detecting the problem treatment is the next step to recovery. To treat a veterinarian can use stem cells which are taken from the horse and inserted back into the torn suspensory. Another form of treatment is PRP which stands for Platelet-Rich Plasma. PRP is also taken from the horse, it is taking their plasma out and injecting it into the torn suspensory. Both treatments are to add growth cells to the suspensory tear to see faster rates of recovery. With both forms of treatments an antibiotic is required for ten days post operation of stem cells or PRP and then approximately four months of stall rest and light hand walking for the horse. The reason no turnout or riding is permitted is because an instant burst of energy can split the tear more and set the horse back within the healing process. After this treatment and rehabilitation is completed the horse is ready to move back into work. Starting off with light five to ten-minute rides is recommended, slowly building up as weeks go on. By the fourth week of riding the horse should be strong enough to be at normal workload. A therapeutic process that can help increase blood flow and quicken healing time is shock waving the suspensory. Shock wave systems are set up to send acoustic waves of high energy to the affected area increasing blood flow to the tear. This would be an optional therapy an owner could choose if they wanted to have less time on stall rest or needed to attempt to reach a show date. This is a proven therapy to help in recovery of tears but can also be done to help avoid future injuries. If interested in prevention mechanisms, when a performance horse gets sore consider shock waving the sore area to stimulate blood flow and possibly aid in a future injury. Prevention is not always possible as repetition can sometimes cause this issue to occur but the number one way to prevent a suspensory tear is to pivot on the hocks slowly. Also, avoid letting the horse turn out while being extremely fresh where their first movement will be quick and not controlled. A light controlled lounge or hand walk before free turn out can sometimes avoid a quick jerky movement that would cause a tear.
Figure 3: Ultrasound of Suspensory Tear. This photo is by Deidre M. Carson and licensed under Suspensory Ligament Damage in Horses.
Western Pleasure horses are trained to produce the best movement while performing the walk, jog, and lope. These three gaits are to be performed with leisure on a full drape rein. This class is a trained sport that requires a lot of time in the saddle teaching the horse to place their hips and shoulders correctly to achieve the best movement without developing lameness. Injuries are not always avoidable and when one cannot be avoided proper veterinary care and rehabilitation is then put in place to get the horse back to performing. A common injury with Western Pleasure horses is a torn suspensory from tension on the hocks and the hind end of the horse. Through stem cell treatments, PRP, shockwave therapy and time off from work the horse can be brought back to a sound working condition. To avoid this injury, train the horse with limited quick jerky movements and when turned out keep them in a pen where they have plenty of space to turn so they are not tweaking their hocks and suspensory ligaments. Western Pleasure horses have become prestigious in quality and limited in high quantity. To keep this beautiful sport at the top of its game the equestrians who participate need to be knowledgeable about the injuries their horses are susceptible to and how to treat the problem.
- Boatwright, Abigail. “In Suspense.” EquineVeterinaryServices, Apr. 2012,
- Dellin, Dave. “Western Pleasure: First, Be Correct.” Horse&Rider, 29 Oct. 2014,
- “Fasciotomy and Neurectomy of the Deep Branch of the Lateral Plantar Nerve in Horses.” Edited by Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, Tufts Hospital for Large Animals,
- Horses, Suspensory Ligament Damage in, et al. “Suspensory Ligament Damage in Horses.” vca_corporate.
- Nsba. “View Slideshow: Rusty Green Reaches NSBA Million Dollar Milestone.” GoHorseShow, 1 Nov. 2016.
By Brooke Granzow and Peggy Auwerda.
The report is a project for ANS313 Exercise Physiology of Animals