“My horse won’t go forward,” she says. Are you sure he isn’t in pain?
“No, he’s fine. No signs of lameness.” Not going forward is a sign of lameness.
When is a horse trainer an amateur veterinarian? Every day. Soundness must be the first question when we start anything with a horse. We all acknowledge it’s true, we love horses, after all. It’s an intellectual awareness that can be hard to remember in an emotional moment.
Head-bobbing lameness is obvious, by that time the pain is front and center. An injury can show up undeniably, but subtle lameness is harder to recognize. If there’s resistance where there usually isn’t any, have a closer “feel.” Perhaps the horse’s transitions up or down are a little sticky. He might be reluctant to canter or have an unwillingness to come to the mounting block. Perhaps, you think you imagine a slight unevenness, not limping but a subtle weakness or tension. Or maybe not.
Instead, we think it’s a training issue. It’s a flash of ego or some dark Neanderthal warning that we can’t let our horse win. He needs to respect us. Usually, we just want to ride, that’s all.
It doesn’t go well so we start by asking a barn friend or for online advice. It explodes and everyone has an opinion. Suddenly, it’s an information runaway. You have training techniques to get a horse forward coming out of your ears, and as you jump from one to another, the more confused you get, and the worse your horse is. It really feels like a training issue now.
Back to square one: The only way a horse has to tell us he’s in pain is through his behavior. We can misread that, decide the behavior needs to be corrected, and train him it’s not safe to show his vulnerability.
An example: A horse doesn’t want to canter because his back is sore. So, the rider canters the horse another ten minutes, to get him over his disobedience. Or we think girthiness is just normal. Or we don’t notice when his eyes go very still and dark.
I don’t blame you for hoping for anything but a nebulous lameness. Fixing a canter is easy in comparison.
Perhaps you’re at the other end of the continuum. You know your horse is acting strangely but he looks okay. It’s something you almost feel more than see, but you’re sure something’s not right. So, you call your vet for a lameness check. Maybe an ultrasound, radiographs, and a decent sized check written.
“Nothing I can find,” your vet says
They might literally teach that sentence in vet school. It took me a while to hear it literally. It doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong, it means just what is said. The vet found nothing. Beyond that, it says something about science, as well. We’ve come so far, but sometimes the source of pain can’t be found. The horse can’t say, and vet science is still an art. Is there anything more crazy-making than a nebulous lameness?
Back near the dawn of time, I had a young horse who was being very “rebellious”, and my trainer and I were working him through it. During one ride, his poll was so tense that he whacked me in the skull. I guess it knocked sense into me, I didn’t recognize my good boy. Finally, I called the vet, almost secretly, telling her that I thought something was wrong and was ready to be embarrassed when she told me I was being a ninny.
My vet was the kind who thought her clients knew their horses and she had a suggestion. She asked me to leave him in a stall and she came in about forty-eight hours. He was dead lame when I led him out. It was a suspensory injury that took a year and a half to heal. In hindsight, easy to diagnose and not nebulous at all. Since I prided myself on our miraculously profound and deep connection, I felt both guilty of neglect and mad that he didn’t tell me. Silly me.
He’s a horse and being stoic is smart. A prey animal who shows weakness attracts predators, but it can be an issue in his own herd as well. It’s common-horse-sense to hide vulnerabilities, a matter of life and death for him. Being stoic is actually a strength when you see it from his side.
When someone tells me they know their horse is sound, it gives me a bittersweet feeling. Part nostalgia for the last time I had the confidence to think soundness was a finite, knowable thing, and part sad begrudging respect for the horse’s ability to endure.
For all their strength and beauty, horses are also badly designed. They have tiny feet and large bodies. Their digestive system is very particular. I can’t help but think that the stifle is like a personal Bermuda Triangle.
Most of us are taught to push through riding challenges, but we must learn to recognize pain as well. Minor lameness needs time to heal. If we don’t pay attention or send the horse back to work too soon, minor issues become chronic lameness and we damage the horse’s willing good temperament as well as destroying his physical strength.
About now, a cynic should chime in that they don’t feel great either. Pain is how you can tell you’re alive. “It’s a long way from his heart, get to work.” Maybe the ultimate insult, “You’re babying your horse!”
Fine. More bad advice from railbirds. Why do humans value suffering so much?
Talking about lameness is the most depressing thing. Healing can be elusive, and years can be lost. There is no guarantee that by owning a horse that you will also be riding one. Horses are heartbreakers, but we aren’t quitters.
Wouldn’t it be great if hindsight could work in our favor for once?
This is a longwinded way to remind riders that the warm-up is the most crucial part of the ride. It takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm the joints of a young, sound horse. Twenty minutes feels like forever, but a slow, thorough warm-up is insurance for a horse’s longevity, the only forever that matters. Strength and suppleness must be the priority because soundness is the first requirement for any training.
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