Is the rack harmful to the horse?
Hello again, I was hoping that someone who has experience with Icelandic Horses or one of the other Racking breeds might have some information about whether the rack gait is harmful to horses. Nobody’s said anything yet so I’ll offer what I’ve observed from my research for your consideration.
The English word “natural” means something that is hereditary, not taught or acquired. The rack is one of the 18 hereditary gaits of horses, but not all gaited horses inherit the rack. Some gaited horses cannot rack. So the critical question is, Did this particular horse inherit the rack? If the horse did not inherit the rack, trying to make it rack is harmful to the horse.
If the horse did inherit the rack riding the horse at its natural form of the rack some of the time will not harm the horse. Please notice that there are three conditions in the above statement. The first condition is that the rack must be inherited by that particular horse. Demanding rack from a horse that did not inherit the rack is abuse. The second condition is that the horse must be allowed to use the natural form of the rack. Too often the rack is exaggerated to extremes that harm the horse even if it did inherit the gait. The third condition is that the horse should also be ridden in other gaits, particularly the flat-foot walk, with its head low and back round. Riding a horse in one gait all the time as if it were a motorcycle will eventually harm the horse, no matter which gait it’s doing. The flat-foot walk is the only gait that horses are designed to do continuously in all conditions. Sandra posted an excellent article on this forum about how long a horse can be ridden in gait. If you haven’t read that article please do.
There are many people, some of them quite knowledgeable, who are convinced that the rack is always harmful to the horse even if the horse inherited it. These people believe that the rack should be used only very sparingly, or preferably never. Some of the objections to the rack are based on concerns about the posture most horses use when racking and the effect that posture has on the horse’s mental and physical health. Most horses rack with their head up in a high position and their back hollow, or ventroflexed. When racking, the horse also uses what Lee Ziegler described as “essential tension” in the neck and shoulders. But if horses naturally use this posture when racking, what’s wrong with the horse traveling in this position?
The first concern is the horse’s high head position. When a horse is frightened it throws its head up just before fleeing. After the horse has run far enough to feel safe it will lower its head, begin grazing and relax. The high head releases adrenaline in the horse, priming him for flight or fight. When the horse is in a familiar, comfortable environment simply raising its head extremely high still releases adrenaline, making the horse tense, nervous and spooky even when nothing is going on. Lowering the head releases endorphins that calm and relax the horse. The endorphins released by a low head position help the horse stay calm even in chaotic, stressful situations. The connection between the horse’s head position and its mental state is most obvious in horses that are more reactive by nature, but exists even in the most phlegmatic horses. Several of the natural horsemanship trainers here in the USA have developed various methods of teaching the horse to lower its head at the rider’s request as a way of calming the horse and making it safer to ride.
The rack is not the only gait that uses a high head position. When the horse travels in any high-headed gait the high head position makes it more likely that the horse will become so excited it gets out of control.
Some horses that are ridden at the rack for extended periods of time become speed crazy. A speed crazy horse has gotten so addicted to its own adrenaline it is out of control, refuses to calm down, and resorts to all sorts of dangerous behavior when the rider attempts to ride in a slower gait. Speed crazy horses are dangerous to ride and rehabilitating them is a very long, slow process, if it can be done at all. Some horses that have been ridden speed crazy cannot be rehabilitated and have been ruined as riding horses. Speed craziness can also occur in horses that compete frequently in speed events such as barrel racing and gymkhanas. Preventing speed craziness requires careful management specifically aimed at keeping the horse calm and obedient at all gaits.
The second concern about the rack is what the hollow or ventroflexed body position and tension in the neck and shoulders do to the horse’s spine. The rack is not the only gait that horses do in a ventroflexed position so the problem comes from working the horse in a hollow posture for extended periods of time, not just the rack gait. It is worth noting that there is documentation of spinal problems in non-gaited trotting horses that have been ridden in a ventroflexed or hollow body posture for extended periods of time.
Why is the ventroflexed posture so bad for the horse’s spine? When the horse is ventroflexed the muscles of his top line are slack, while the muscles of the underline are taut allowing the horse’s spine to sag. If this muscular imbalance persists long enough the horse develops lordosis, or sway back. When the spine sags too far the processes of the vertebrae bump into each other. This interference between the vertebrae creates irritation and inflammation that becomes arthritis. Arthritis causes the horse pain. When abnormal bone growth resulting from the arthritis puts pressure on the spinal cord it causes nerve damage, numbness and incoordination of the hindlegs. The horse becomes lame, prone to stumbling and collapsing in the rear and in the worst case may become partially paralyzed. Some people also believe that the rack involves a twisting of the horse’s sacro-lumbar junction which increases the damage the hollow posture does to the spine. All of this sounds horrible, and it is bad for horses that develop this problem. However, asserting that horses should never rack because every horse that has ever been allowed to rack will have its back ruined is nonsense.
With good management it should be possible to ride the horse at a rack part of the time without destroying his spine. Warming the horse up and cooling it down at a walk with its head low and back up will go a long way toward protecting the spine. Lunging the horse at the trot can also be helpful in lifting and stretching the spine. Having the horse do belly lifts and other stretches as part of the grooming routine will also help the horse’s back. Most important is to ride the horse sensibly and responsibly. Care for the horse as the living, athletic animal it is. A horse is not a 4-legged motorcycle, so don’t ride it like a motorcycle.
The worries about the rack causing spinal damage are based on the assumption that all horses always rack in an extremely high-headed, hollow-backed posture. But is that really true? The problem is not the rack itself, but too much work in the extremely ventroflexed posture. What if a horse could rack with its head in a moderate position that did not release adrenaline and with its back in a neutral posture that kept the spinal vertebrae separated? Wouldn’t that make the rack harmless for horses that could do it? Yes, it would.
Are there horses that inherit the ability to rack in a neutral posture? Yes. Horses that inherit the ability to rack in a harmless moderate, neutral posture should be considered the ideal for the Racking Horse and Singlefooting Horse breeds. According to the original standards for the breed the rack is not an acceptable gait for Walking Horses, therefore these perfect natural Racking Horses are not Walking Horses and should not be classified as Walking Horses even though some of them can also running walk.
As you can see, there is no simple answer to the question, Does the rack harm the horse?
Another consideration is whether the rack is suitable for the activities the horse is being asked to do. The rack is usually the same speed range as the canter. Some horses that rack easily have difficulty cantering, other horses do both gaits easily. The canter is a more functional gait than the rack for sports that involve jumping, though there may be some horses that can jump out of the rack.
There are numerous sports and show events where flying lead changes at the canter, lope and gallop are a required part of the performance: reining, barrel racing, pole bending, western riding, equitation at most riding disciplines, and others. Flying lead changes can only be done at the canter, lope, or gallop. The rack has no leads and the horse always has one or two hooves on the ground so flying lead changes do not exist at the rack.
The rack is a lateral sequence gait, well suited for straight line travel on relatively smooth and open terrain. Some people have promoted the rack as the ideal trail riding gait. Some people use the rack for competitive trail riding and endurance racing. However, one of the most successful endurance TWH mares in the USA was ridden at the canter in her races because her owner/rider found that the canter was that mare’s most efficient gait. If you’re competing in Endurance with a horse that can both rack and canter it will be helpful to monitor the horse’s pulse and respiration rate to determine which gait is more efficient for that horse.
Whether racing or just trail riding for pleasure, there are some trails that are so narrow, winding, rocky, steep, or thickly forested any gait faster than a flat-foot walk is dangerous. This applies to all but very short sections of all the trails around where I live so for me the rack is a useless and potentially dangerous gait. This is why I personally prefer Walking Horses that inherit the running walk and cannot rack. When the horse can’t rack I don’t have to worry about a gait we can’t use. Obviously, if your trails are safe for faster gaits the rack is an option for horses that inherit it.
Racking Horses and Walking Horses were recognized as separate types 100 years before registries were created for them. Racking Horses and Walking Horses are two separate breeds. Neither breed is better than the other. Each breed of horse has its value and purpose. A great deal of controversy and confusion has been created by combining Racking Horses and Walking Horses. It would be best for both breeds if we recognize the differences between Racking Horses and Walking Horses. Choose and enjoy the breed that suits you. Whether your gait preference is rack, running walk, or a horse that can do both gaits, please respect the preferences of those who want a different breed or type of horse than you do.
I hope all of this will help you make an informed decision about riding your horse at the rack.