Working with Apollo inspires me to keep reminding folks: horses are masters at finding ways to move that diminish pain while maintaining the appearance of soundness. Apollo is a classic example of this. He seems pretty sound. He’s playful and loves to interact with humans and horses.
And yet he is not sound. So what do you do if you have a horse that passes lameness exams but isn’t sound? How do you know if they won’t show you?
A horse can look gorgeous and healthy, be well cared for, and still be compensating for undiagnosed pain. Unfortunately, horses like Apollo often don’t show up as clinically lame. I can remember working for a large animal vet and being called in to look at so many horses where the person felt something was ‘off’ but couldn’t put their finger on it. Most of the time, nothing showed up on the lunge, or flexion tests. The standard recommendation: keep riding him until he goes lame and then we can diagnosis and treat.
So why are horses so good at looking sound even when they are not?
It makes sense in the context of a predator rich environment that this might be a survival strategy. The weakest animal is the most vulnerable to predation, so hide that limp! In our domesticated world, horses may not be exposed to predators, but they are often expected to be obedient, and will work through pain because we ask them to, or because they don’t feel they have a choice.
They will continue to compensate and work for us until something gives, or until they can no longer be obedient in the face of pain. In Apollo’s case, he did a great job of seeming fine until he was asked to canter to the right under saddle. Sometimes he would give subtle signs of anxiety, like increased respiration, but other times, he would just blow up and start bucking. This kind of behavior is rarely a training issue. I always advise people to keep looking until they find someone who CAN find the source of a horse’s pain. In the absence of a professional willing to dig deeper, you can always learn how to find the problem yourself…
That may seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as it sounds because your horse likely trusts you enough to show you in small ways that something is brewing beneath the surface.
Their behavior is one of the first things to be impacted by physical stress, discomfort, or pain. These behaviors might be easy to dismiss as training issues, or rudeness to be corrected. Some of the behaviors that indicate discomfort are easy to misinterpret, like the horse that bit at his chest and acted like he was itchy, when in reality he hurt all over. Instead of biting at his human, he displaced his frustration and bit at himself. Horses are so kind…
Overt , dangerous behaviors:
- laying down when saddled
- pinned ears
- swishing tails and snapping teeth
are pretty big red flags.
These behaviors tend to be a horse’s last resort when they can no longer work through the discomfort or stress. But there are less overt and dangerous behaviors that can also be early warning signs that something physical is brewing:
- refusal to pick up the right lead in canter
- difficulty transitioning from one gait to another
- trouble standing still at the mounting block
- refusals to turn in one direction or the other
to name just a few…
Every time I encounter a horse that is behaving ‘badly’, having trouble doing something that from a training perspective should be pretty straight forward, I ask the same question: Are you sure he/she is not in pain? The people that come to me are diligent. They care immensely about their horses. They have ticked all the boxes: Teeth have been checked, feet are well cared for, nutrition dialed in, tack meticulously fit. Usually, they have tried every solution available to them to no avail. Veterinarians and an array of alternative practitioners have weighed in to give the horse a clean bill of health. Such was certainly the case with Apollo!
These people show up on my doorstep because they still feel like something isn’t right. They know their horse is behaving ‘badly’, or struggling to perform what should be easy tasks, for a reason. They don’t want to ‘train’ through it, they want to know why their horse is struggling. Without fail, every time I encounter one of these horses, I find they are indeed in pain. And further, when I show their person what I see, they can see it too.
Before Covid, when I still traveled to do clinics, I noticed an alarming trend. So many horses were struggling with unrecognized physical issues that caused anything from nagging discomfort, to balance issues, to pain so intense they were lashing out. I recall one clinic where I completely let go of my planned content to teach everyone how to evaluate their horses for pain and do simple bodywork to help them feel better. A partner in pain simply cannot dance.
So why is it that competent, well trained professionals are missing something that both the horse’s owner and myself can plainly see, feel, and work with?
I believe we can trace the reason back to that instinctive drive to appear sound as a survival strategy. Any training methods, any palpation techniques, bodywork, or methods of evaluating for lameness that involve obedience, or cause the horse stress could trigger the horse into survival mode, flooding the nervous system with adrenaline. Adrenaline, of course, masks pain…
I believe the reason so many horses owners can sense something is up is because they are not triggering that adrenaline response and so are able to perceive subtle shifts away from normal. The horses are also more willing to let a conscious owner know what is going on because there is a bond of trust that isn’t always there with others that come in to evaluate.
From my perspective, the most humane and compassionate thing we can do, is assume a behavior problem is valid rather than naughty, lazy, or bad, and work our butts off to find the source of the horse’s problem. Then we can focus our efforts toward movement practices that support the weak area to promote comfort, and ultimately soundness. If you feel your horse has an issue, trust your gut and keep seeking answers until you find them. No one knows your horse better than you. And your horse likely doesn’t trust anyone else more than you!
Remember, horses are masters at not limping. A limping horse is predator bait. If a training method causes stress it’s releasing chemicals that help them mask pain. If the vet exam or body work causes pain in the course of diagnostics it’s releasing those same chemicals. Bottom line, if your horse is stressed it’s that much harder to pinpoint subtle sources of pain or discomfort. Your horse is far more likely to show you what’s bothering them than a total stranger because they know you are looking and they trust you. Don’t let them down. Keep seeking!
Thank you for being here and caring about horses with such passion and compassion! The herd appreciates your efforts.
If you want to learn how to accurately asses your own horse and work to resolve subtle lameness before it becomes a bigger issue, never fear, I have a mini-series this month designed specifically for you! These courses combine practical, hands on skills and observation, with intuition, and animal communication.
Seeing Beyond the Obvious Series:
Part 1: Interpreting Movement and Behavior: April 23rd 9:30 – 11:30 am MDT
Part 2: Interpreting Your Horse’s Response to Touch: April 30 9:30 – 11: 30 am MDT
Keep an eye out here: Tango with Horses Online (click link), registration opens later today! Or, message me (click here) to find out if this series is a good fit for you, or to have me send you a registration link directly.