Icelandic Horse Connection

The Flipping Up of the Front Foot

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The flipping up of the front foot goes by several names, i.e. foot flicking, toe flipping, flippy wink, or combinations thereof. (The sole of the horse's foot is more visible, from the front, than in normal use.)

This is a fault caused by a loss of correct connection from back to front. It is usually the result of tension somewhere in the topline. It can occur when the horse is held BTV (behind the vertical) or when his head is held up, such as in star-gazing. The loss of freedom to stretch the neck makes the horse hollow at the base of the neck or back and the resulting tension tightens the underneck muscles which continues down the front of the leg, therefore there is little bend in the knee resulting in the toe flick.

foot flicking    foot flicking    foot flicking

Lendon Gray says that horses that flick their toes often have tightness in their body somewhere and more extravagant movement in front (than behind) to start with. It can be an indication that the horse has been pushed for a greater lengthening than he is capable of giving.

Foot Flicking is described by the following in their books and / or articles:

Dr. Deb Bennet, Principles of Conformation Analysis

Dr. Hilary Clayton, "Hot To Trot", USDF Connection: "The front limb should move freely from the scapula, and the elbow joint should be well flexed to raise the knee and the lower part of the limb as it reaches its most forward position. The movements should be controlled, keeping the knee and fetlock slightly flexed at maximal protraction. If the movements are not controlled, you may see the horse fling the limb forward and flip up or "flick" his toe. Don't be overly swayed by an expressive front limb; remember the importance of the hind limb in creating impulsion. A powerful motor is ultimately more useful."

From "Dressage in Harmony", Zettl: (From a section discussing the extended trot) "Because we are asking the horse to extend the gait beyond what he is used to, it is essential to maintain the horse's balance through the gait. The balance is disturbed when the rider holds the front too much, or when he drops the reins. If the hand holds the nose behind the vertical, the action of the hind leg is stopped, and the front hoof will end up coming down backwards, no matter how far forward and upward it might reach. The balance is all disturbed when the front legs extend too far, but the hind legs remain short. This results from the horse hollowing the back, and he has to step shorter behind to keep himself in balance. The profile of the horse's face should stay a little in front of the vertical. The power should come from the hind leg and needs to be metered out through the hand with the shoulder swinging freely forward to make room for the hind leg to step up and under the center of the horse."

And further: "The horse whose pairs are incorrect, is a leg mover. This horse throws his front leg much higher than the diagonal hind leg can reach. He does not use his back, but actually drops his back. The hindquarters and forehand are divided and work separately. The front hoof does not land where it points. These horses are tight and cramped and travel wide behind as they throw their front ankles and hoofs in the air. This goes against nature. Col. Aust always described these horses as "A General out in front, but with no army following behind." This happens because the horse is forced too much with driving aids and holding aids. The driving aid sends the foreleg forward, but the holding hands limit his forward movement. With so much holding, the back is hollow, the shoulder is restricted and the hind leg can not follow enough and has to take a much shorter step than the front legs are showing."

From de Kunffy's "Dressage Questions Answered": "There are two common faults seen at the extended trot. The first is when the horse is held too tight on the rein he will be crowded, cramped and restrained in the front. In such a case the horse cannot use his back to develop and communicate (transfer) the locomotion of the hindquarters with a swinging back to the forelegs. Consequently, the front feet will step on the ground behind the point indicated while in the air. The effect will be similar to boxing or "goose stepping."

From a dressage enthusiast: About the exaggerated flip of the toe seen in horses during "extension": People often think it's a fine, flashy extended trot. Associated with "a stiff, hollow back, a retracted neck and incorrect "push back engagement" according to Susan Harris' excellent book "Horse Gaits Balance and Movement". It is caused by insufficient engagement of hind end, and lack of impulsion, often linked with horse "driven strongly forward into a forcibly restraining hand".

Basically, the hoof should land where the toe points. If the foot has to land behind where the toe points (draw a line down hoof wall to ground) it means the hind end isn't able to propel the horse forward as far as the toe indicates it should go. The foot flips upwards.

It is a sign of a style or method of riding that can have bad effects. The tense, inverted back and neck can lead to numerous problems including hock problems, tightness and pain behind the withers, and the usual problems associated with false collection / extension and hand riding.

Theresa Sandin, "True Collection, What is it?": Flipping toes is something the "ignorant" seem to appreciate. This adds to the "big-gaited" appearance of the trot or passage, but it does not belong there. As long as the horse's front leg is bent, the last phalanx of the limb is supposed to be curled in. This, because the whole bending of the leg depends on the wire-like tendon at the back of the leg, that attaches at the back of the hoof. As this curling tension is released as the horse's leg straightens to prepare for landing and impact of the body weight, the back side of the leg lets go gradually as the front muscles take over. At the landing moment, the horse tends to brace and fix the front leg in all the angles, just as when landing from a jump. This will produce a straightening of the fetlock just before landing, and not a wink. The flippy wink that one sees comes from the legs being thrown forcefully forward to catch the forward falling weight, much like yourself when running down a hill. Your legs tend to get all floppy, and to be thrown forward just to catch your falling. The same happens when the horse extends by throwing himself forward. All effort is put in getting the legs to the front, and the controlled release of the back side muscles is replaced by an immediate slackening. So flippy toes mean imbalance and discoordination. And near all of the times, this goes together with non-parallel hind cannon and front forearm in a snapshot.

From a dressage instructor: "This action is also inbred and very common in certain warmblood bloodlines. They often show themselves to be momentum-based like the end of a rope. The shoulder must fling the foreleg to be able to move it forwards at all when the shoulder is restricted either by genetics or by hand/leg co-ordination of the rider. In loose ligamented horses (a genetic condition leapt upon by the breeders) the momentum of this fling results in extreme reach forwards of the hoof, but also rapid collapse downwards because there is no muscle support for the movement. These horses have extreme tightness of the muscles along the front of the scapula line.This tightness of course means even less normal movement is possible which results in even more fling and the breeders or demonstrators are even more happy. The scapula muscle can be like chorded rope sometimes and take many months of physio to free.

The strain at the elbow is pretty clear in most photos and sometimes even looks like the limb is verging on dislocation.

The cycle looks like it's ending in warmbloods though, as several of the stallions who create this fling aren't being used very much because of it. Prevalence of suspensory ligament injuries rocketed during this fashion craze.

It's not something that's in-bred, as far as I can tell, unless selective breeding for the flinging foreleg has resulted in positive selection of shortened muscles into the scapula as an accidental selection. I don't have any evidence of that anywhere so would rule it unlikely for now.

The chord-like tightness occurs as result of the strain of trying to maintain balance over the forehand during the disruptive disconnection caused by the foreleg's movement. Kind of like bracing the shoulders in humans...same muscle groups.

Flashy extended-leg postures are different than physical muscle extension. Compare this to a person who has very loose ligaments and can bend in weird ways. You can always see the pressure that the muscle is under because the creation of the movement is not tone but slackness. The opposite is true of muscle extension. The stretch is throughout the musclature and no particular separate points of strain are visible. Up close photos of football players kicking at goal are good examples. You see massive muscle work but not tension."

What you need to look for in movement is rhythm, a horse that steps under with equal length strides behind as in front, no flicking of the front legs, that is a bad fault caused by a horse that is not reaching well enough behind therefore he cheats by throwing his front legs out far in front.

The horse doesn't use his shoulders the same way when he "flings" his front legs forward. When he flings, the top of the shoulder blades go back and the bottom of the shoulder blades come forward. But when the extension comes from true shoulder freedom, the whole of the shoulder blade advances - without the tipping seen in "flinging".

It's the foot-flipping false extension in the front that so impresses the neophytes. The horse, in my opinion, never delivers from behind what he promised in front--he is not truly engaged, or collected, or supple in the back, and if you watch his feet he only tracked up, not beyond, in the extended trot despite exaggerated front leg action.

We see alot of extensions in which the horse loses his posture and flings his front legs forward (with flat knees and sometimes toes flipping). In comparison to that kind of extension, though, a posturally correct extension is not nearly as dramatic! I call it the difference between the horse's movement coming "over his topline" as opposed to coming "under his topline". In incorrect (but visually spectacular) extensions, the horse throws his front legs forward from the elbow. Whereas in a correct extension he should advance the whole leg from the shoulder.

The horse cannot place his front foot on the ground beyond the point located vertically under his nose. Which means that in the spectacular, but incorrect, extensions the horse flings his foot well forward of that vertical line, but must then retract the foot in order to put it on the ground. In a more correct extension, the horse would show greater forward reach OF THE SHOULDER, but the foot and leg do not reach beyond the vertical line like they do when he flings them forward.

A good clue to the difference is whether or not the knee is flat during the forward swing phase of the stride. In a good extension, which in my opinion is really a matter of shoulder freedom vs. front leg reach, the knee is slightly rounded as the leg advances forward and straightens or flattens as the foot is coming down to impact the ground. Whereas in the "spectacular" extension, the knee is flat as the front leg swings forward of the vertical line and the knee stays flat as the leg is then retracted so the foot can impact the ground. In extreme cases, the toe flips forward at the most forward end of the swing phase.

Potential Consequences

It is our understanding that landing on the heel with so much concussion can crush the heels, push the heel capsule forward, and dish the foot. It can be quite painful to the horse and may result in long-term soundness issues.

The tense, inverted back and neck can lead to numerous problems including hock problems, tightness and pain behind the withers, and the usual problems associated with false collection / extension and hand riding.

Excessive heel-first landing indicates compensation for pain or dorsopalmar imbalance. Repeated impact inflames the laminae.

Prevalence of suspensory ligament injuries rocketed during this fashion craze (in warmbloods).

A sore horse will attempt to unload the foot prematurely simply because the longer it's loaded, the more it hurts. Because the horse unloads the hoof capsule prematurely, the phenomenon is characterized by an exaggerated motion of the carpus and a shortened anterior phase of stride: more knee, less extension.

foot flicking

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