More frequently than ever, we are called out to treat horses who have hit the end of the line. They are fearful, bad tempered, bossy, and some even downright vicious. Are they badly behaved…or are they in pain?
When we start to take a history, we commonly hear something along the lines of:
‘Well, it started when he wouldn’t pick up his leads properly. My trainer said I should start using spurs on him because he was ‘lazy’. Then he started to drop his shoulder all the time. My trainer said I had to use ‘more leg’ to make him do it.
It was getting harder to catch him every day too…unless I had a bucket, he didn’t want to know me. He hated being saddled up, he shuffled around when I lifted the saddle on and he even tried to bite me when I did up the girth. The head tossing became more frequent but now he just carries his head up all the time and I have trouble controlling him. My trainer said I should use running reins to keep his head in the correct position, but that didn’t seem to help much.
Actually, since he started bucking and rearing, I don’t really ride him anymore. He used to be so beautiful and he would do anything for me but now I’d be better off selling him.’
Is it pain or training?
The horse we purchase, isn’t the finished product. Not only can and does his behaviour develop according to the ability of the owner/rider, but his body is constantly evolving as well.
His muscle tone will alter with consistency of work, feed and seasonal conditions; his body balance will alter with the quality of the farriers work (or lack thereof). Unseen injuries from one of those flat strap, rainy day gallops around the paddock will change how he uses his body. These subtle changes in his body dynamics affect the way his saddle fits.
Chain of events
If for example, he slightly compromised a hamstring muscle during one of those playful gallops, the opposite hind will work slightly harder to compensate movement and relieve pain. This can cause altered movement on the opposite diagonal to the original injury.
Because the shoulders are now working unevenly, the muscles on one side will atrophy slightly. This will mean that the saddle cannot fit properly on the now asymmetric shoulders. Pain will result from the saddle pressure combine with the riders weight. Mounting from the ground creates excessive saddle pressure on the already painful area.
As the pain increases, the behaviour will start to change. He probably couldn’t pick up his leads because of the compromised hamstring. Putting a set of spurs on and saying ‘you will’ causes him to use his body differently to compensate. This challenges the shoulder muscles, working harder on one side. ‘More leg’ might work for a little while until the saddle pressure at the shoulders becomes too much. He lifts his head to get some relief which hollows his back and effectively shuts down all drive from behind. In desperation (exasperation?) running reins are applied to ‘get him back into a frame’.
Your horse no longer wants to be caught….people are not much value anymore unless they have food. Where does he go from here? The only way left to go – UP! He wants to relieve his hindquarters so he starts to pig-root and buck. The first time he unseats his rider, he has learn’t pain relief.
When he wants to relieve his shoulder pain but is unable to lift his head, he lifts the whole front of his body instead (often removing the rider again and learning a new effective way to escape the torture).
The horse is a labelled a rouge. His behaviour has become dangerous. All because of a simple paddock injury, and we missed it.
Where to from here?
If your horse suddenly refuses to do things that you know he has done easily, have him checked out by a professional equine bodyworker. If there is a sudden aversion to being saddled, find out why. He is telling you, the only way he can, that he has a problem.
Booking regular bodywork ensures issues are resolved before they become extreme.
How often do I book?
Does it have to be weekly? Not at all, unless you are competing heavily at the top of your game, every weekend. If that’s the case, I’d guess you would already have someone working with you.
If you are competing lightly and working your horse every day, then once a month would probably be realistic. Only riding every Sunday? Then have him checked over every six months unless he begins to tell you something is wrong.
Your Equine Bodyworker may not be a trained saddle fitter, but they are trained to uncover saddle fit issues, (and hoof and teeth issues). Sure it may cost a few dollars, but it’s really inexpensive when you understand what the final outcome could be: whether it costs his life, or yours.
You can learn to do the basics yourself, between professional visits. You will learn to pick up on anything unusual and then call your equine bodyworker before it becomes an issue.
Interested? Check out the link below for more information.