What Is Your Horse Hiding From You?
Understanding why we have so many chronic physical problems with our horses
Every horse owner out there has been in the situation of having a lame or injured horse. Physical problems in horses are all too common, and have kept many a rider from getting to or finishing an event, or perhaps just impaired the horse enough to not do well in the event. Horse owners everywhere struggle with the problem of really knowing the physical condition of their horse! The amount of time, money and energy spent trying to determine what is really wrong with horses, in the U.S. alone, could support a small country! Horses are at the same time, powerful and tough, yet so fragile.
In addition, consider the all too common occurrence where a horse is resisting doing something the people want him to do, (even something he has been doing in the past) because there is something physically bothering him. If that physical issue is not apparent to the handler, the horse may be subjected to repeated training work (for something the horse already knows how to do) and even disciplined for his lack of cooperation. Several factors contribute to this situation, but a primary cause is a common misunderstanding of how horses think. As prey animals, horses know predators seek out prey that is showing weakness or injury. In other words when hurt or injured, the horse knows that he will attract every predator out there. Therefore the horse will compensate and try to hide his physical problems! Something as simple as a minor fall or a missed step, while playing in the pasture, or while being ridden, might cause a few sore muscles. So can competition that the horse has been trained for! The horse will compensate and try to keep going as usual. That compensation is altering the natural pattern of movement in the horse and will begin to create un-natural stress in other parts of the horse’s body. In a short period of time these other parts will begin to get sore and now the horse will compensate further to protect those painful areas. It becomes apparent to see that in short order, the horse’s way of moving will be quite compromised from his natural way. The horse tries to appear normal while more and more physical problems evolve!
Let me offer an example to illustrate how this occurs. As a therapist, I have seen this situation hundreds of times and it is not uncommon in competition or just normal riding. A horse misses a step making a turn and pulls a few muscles in the right shoulder. Nothing critical, but the shoulder is now sore. As he tries to hide his injury and avoid hurting the sore shoulder muscles further, he will begin to put extra stress on the left front leg and shoulder during some movements and on the left rear (diagonal) during others. He will over extend his left rear at times to help compensate for the right front problem and this will begin to create soreness in the left hock, stifle, back, or other muscle areas. He will very likely begin to carry his head and neck to one side in order to retain his balance during this altered way of moving. As the rider sees the head carried to one side, she will pull it back to the center. This will create an unnatural curve in the neck as it tries to go to the side, but is forced back straight. Several places in the neck will begin to get sore and since the head and neck is the horse’s primary balance tool, every movement the horse makes will be even further compromised. Eventually these escalating problems in the horse will reach the point where the rider says, “This horse is not right.” The more aware the rider, the sooner this ‘not right’ will be noticed. Some people notice minute changes in their horse’s movement, but unfortunately, other riders are not as aware. Shortly, you can see how this horse is dealing with numerous physical problems and things are getting worse with each ride!
Have you ever seen several people watch a lame horse trot out as they argue over what’s wrong? The horse described above will be changing his gait as he moves and compensates from one area to another! This makes it difficult to define any one problem, but the way we have been conditioned to think is going to really limit our ability to help this horse! We are looking for THE PROBLEM! In several thousand horses I have worked with, therapeutically, I have never found a horse with only one problem! In the example above, most people would be looking for THE PROBLEM!
Suppose the horse was displaying an obviously sore hock which was noticed. Injecting the hock (a common practice but not the optimum choice) would provide a temporary improvement in the horse’s movement. However, since all the other physical problems had NOT been addressed, (which caused the hock problem in the first place) the hock problem would return! This is called “treating referred pain”. The hock might be re-injected, since the first injection did offer an improvement, or the focus may turn to the stifle or other area, assuming it to be THE PROBLEM! I have seen this situation play out as the horse gets injection after injection, and eventually the horse is retired with “Bad Hocks”. Our error in the way we think, is the true culprit here. Finding a problem, is not doing enough. We need to evaluate the WHOLE HORSE since each problem causes compensation, creating additional problems. How do we evaluate? We can consult our whole-istic veterinarian, and employ hands-on forms of bodywork - or technologies - that consider the whole horse and naturally elicit/acknowledge feedback - and some of these you can learn to do safely and effectively yourself.
There is also another common mistake that can be quite serious. Often a horse will go lame, making it very obvious that something is wrong. Unfortunately too many horse owners have been conditioned to associate a horse being ‘not lame’ with a horse that is fine. I have often asked, “How’s your horse doing?” with the reply of something like, “He’s just fine, hasn’t taken a lame step in months!” The assumption being, if he’s not lame he’s fine. Just because a horse is not limping, does NOT mean the horse is OK. Far from it! To better understand this, consider that you could be suffering from cancer, tuberculosis, heart problems, or hundreds of other serious conditions. Any of these could be life threatening, yet none of those problems would cause you to limp! We need to focus on more than the lameness of our horses. Again, we need to evaluate the whole horse! Many of the horses I have worked with were in terrible physical condition and yet not at all lame! In fact, many of the lameness problems, (especially the chronic long-term problems), became serious ongoing issues as the result of the numerous other physical problems that created that lameness in the first place! These were often minor problems that the horse was able to hide from us!
Our horses endure the same minor aches and pains that any human athlete goes through. The fact that horses instinctively hide those problems keeps us from easily addressing them before they become serious issues. Once you understand that, then it is your responsibility to look beyond the obvious and evaluate the whole horse. The natural methods and technology to accurately evaluate the whole horse are readily available, but we must first realize why we need them. Once we become more aware of the horse’s physical condition, we will be better prepared to acknowledge and deal with any problems when they arise.