Pain in horses- an unaddressed common denominator
Let me preface this blog by saying I am NOT any of the following: veterinarian, equine nutritionist, equine dentist, farrier, equine chiropractor, equine naturopath or any other medical related equine professional.
What I am is an equine professional who sees/handles hundreds of horses a year of varying ages and breeds, with differing degrees of training and exposure/experience in both competitive and pleasure disciplines.
I am continually learning from every horse I encounter; when I think back to years ago to what I’ll call during my initial 14 years of learning in the “traditional” riding lessons and clinics stage, I can only clearly twice remember two instances of professionals looking at my equipment and asking me why I was using what I was using on my horse. One instructor suggested a stronger more severe bit for “control” (later I learned this was a standard suggestion and not a personalized nor appropriate suggestion for my ability nor the horse I was riding at the time) and the other was from a Dutch clinician who suggested the KK Herm Sprenger bit, (which to this day I still use,) if I’m introducing or using a bit on a horse.
I have found that commonly at traditional boarding facilities the students all used the same farrier, the same vet, fed the same feed, etc. and no one ever questioned if those practices were appropriate for their individual horse. Why? I’m guessing out of convenience, but also because students were/are often taught “this is how you do it, this is who you use” and the unspoken “don’t question the ‘system’ ” is loud and clear.
Nowadays I find that as I approach a horse for the first time, whether one that has arrived for a seasonal clinic, weekly lesson or initial training, I tend to automatically start visually scanning the horse physically.
Things such as the direction and reaction of the ears, worried lines or tension peaks above the eyes, emptiness/brightness in the eye, busy-ness in the lips/lines/tension in the mouth/odd jaw movement, tension in the poll/withers, lack of mobility/range in the neck/shoulder, uneven muscle development from one side of the horse to the other along the top-line, continual tightness along the rib cage parallel to the ground, hindquarters sunken in or tail held tight against rump, inconsistent breathing, shortness of step, foot/heel placement as the hoof touches the ground, etc. are just a few things I look at.
I look at the overall “balance” of physical development of the horse, his coat, etc. as I ask about what feed/frequency and any health issues. Then I move on to what equipment has been used and why; probing about issues, changes, resistance, problems, etc. with tack and equipment.
This is all BEFORE we’ve actually done anything. At all. And I LISTEN to what is and perhaps isn’t being said by the owner.
Then I start to assess the general behavior of the horse (i.e. totally oblivious he is attached to other end of the lead rope and is dragging the owner around in search of grass or staring at new setting, defensive when touched by owner, worried/concerned behavior just as we are standing- or attempting to stand, etc.) If inclined I will start to run my hands over/around/near certain parts of the body that seem to “jump out” as uncomfortable or hypersensitive areas based on how I read the horse’s body language.
Why do I do all of this? It gives me a starting point. Clients come to me for help. Often, though they may have good intentions or think they are clear on what they want help with or want to work on with their horse, the owner may be focusing on a symptom of the “issue(s)” rather than understanding the root cause.
In many cases I’m playing detective and trying to connect the dots between unwanted obvious behaviors (symptoms), and searching for contributing factors creating the undesired outcome in the horse. And yes, realistically multiple issues, experiences, anticipation/lack of understanding/ill-fitting equipment/miscommunication all contribute to the “problems” with the horse.
To put things into perspective, I ask folks, “How receptive would you be to learning or trying something new if you were in a constant state of pain?” They tend to admit that they’d probably be unable to focus, be patient, try the unknown or trust someone new. The same goes for their horses.
So if it is obvious something is physically bothering the horse, I need to respectfully attempt to address that first, BEFORE I move on to “training”, with or without the owner. Obviously there’ll be a wide pendulum between easier things such as digestion issues, compared to long term corrective dental or farrier care whose results will take longer to see/make a difference. With that in mind, I will adjust how much I ask of the horse in a session.
Things like maturity, experience, confidence will all factor in to how much I ask a horse to mentally engage and participate. But first I need the horse to be as comfortable as possible. I have seen drastic differences while experimenting in making small changes for horses with an array of ailments including things such as inappropriate feed program with either too much sugar or protein content, sleep deprivation issues, ulcer/hind gut issues, idealistic angles in farrier care vs. appropriate shoeing for their individual build- therefor causing more damage than good, rehabilitating old physical injuries/atrophied muscles from things like pulling back when tied/severe training methods/ill-fitting saddles, teeth/jaw/poll issues that create dramatic reactions in how they respond/use/carry their head, and much more.
Sometimes having a horse for a long time causes a familiarity that can mask an owner’s clarity in literally seeing if there may be physical/emotional/behavioral issues occurring with their horse. It is always good to keep a calendar of any changes made in diet/lifestyle/work/veterinary care/farrier care/tack to allow yourself to keep track of any “new” behaviors that occur afterwards. With the craziness of “life” owners sometimes lose perspective of how long/when a behavior or change happens in the horse (good or bad) therefor causing a lack of understanding that a change in one area caused “results” in another seemingly unrelated area.
If you have a trusted equine professional, have your horse at least once a year evaluated for overall health; you do not need to “wait” until something is glaringly wrong before asking for another opinion. Or take pictures and measurements every two months of your horse from both sides, front, behind, measurements of weight, hoof size, etc. You’ll be amazed how much your horse’s body can change seasonally between the Spring and the Fall. Often these physical changes will require a change in the feed regiment and the tack used.
If you don’t understand why you’re feeding what you are, why you are using the tack that “came with the horse” or what your equine professional is doing with/to your horse, ASK QUESTIONS! It is your responsibility as the owner to understand, think, question and do what is in the horse’s best interest. Please do not just follow the latest “trend” in the equine world, as often by doing so, can lead to more long term damage than good.
If I had to put a percentile to the number of horses that I see that are physically in pain or discomfort it would be in the high 80s. That are a lot of uncomfortable horses, and often with a little investigative, proactive detective work, experimentation and follow through, folks can eliminate unnecessary stress, agitation, pain, and distraction, allowing the opportunity for a quality partnership.
Don’t beat yourself up if after an honest assessment you realize your horse is in pain; the good news is you are now becoming aware and more sensitive in your horse management. The knowledge gained by honestly evaluating your horse will allow you more “information” in order to make better informed decisions for improving the comfort of your horse. Remember, your horse only has so many ways of asking for help, and often the most dramatic behaviors are seen in the horses that need the most mental, emotional and physical help.