Do you trust yourself enough to stand up for your horse?
Outwardly, he seemed just fine. Most of what he did under saddle was pretty minor and easy to write off as a training issue to be solved rather than a sign of impending lameness…
There is nothing quite so frustrating as knowing something isn’t right with your horse but not being able to find the source of the problem. Even worse is knowing something is wrong, asking for professional advice and being told it’s all in your head, your horse is fine, just ride him. Believe me, I know, I’ve been there.
Horses excel at communication, capable of letting us know when something is bothering them in even a small way. Assuming, of course, we create an environment where they feel free to express themselves. Absent such an environment, horses tend to bottle things up, feigning wellness that effectively masks subtly brewing issues. This pattern shows up in every horse I have taken on over the years.
Deep down I knew this sensitive gelding’s behavior under saddle was his way of trying to tell me something was off…
Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t trust my own instincts enough to follow through on my hunches. I didn’t trust my own training ability enough to believe that maybe this behavior he engaged in under saddle wasn’t due to my own ineptitude. This was the first time I’d ever had a horse come to me fully trained, ‘sound’, ‘bomb proof’, and ready for me to just ride and enjoy. Every horse I ever had prior to this was a rehab project of some kind. Having a young, sound, uncomplicated horse to ride felt like a dream.
Except he wasn’t so uncomplicated. He, like most horses, came with baggage from his past that began to surface over time. The more he felt safe and comfortable with me the more he started to show me that things weren’t right with him. He never led well and he seemed to hate any kind of ground work. That should have been a clue, but he was so good under saddle that I made up a story about how he just preferred being ridden to doing ground work.
He never once objected to being saddled. He walked right up to the mounting block, stood quietly while I got on. But ask him to go right in a circle and he got all bound up, bending tightly around my right leg and crab walking. I might as well have asked him to fly to the moon, he made the movement so much harder than what I wanted…
There was no visible lameness. So I started riding him with various clinicians and instructors that I trusted. Once again looking outside myself and my horse for answers. Because surely someone else would be able to explain what I was feeling and help me understand how to support him through the odd things he did.
During one of those lessons I could feel him balling up beneath me, I could feel his stress building like a ticking time bomb ready to explode. We just happened to be working on cantering to the right. The clinician at the time joked about it, wondering what I was worried about. Much later, I got to watch a video clip my Dad had taken – he happened to catch that moment when I felt I was riding a time bomb. Outwardly that horse did not change at all. He did not change his pace, or his posture, or anything. No wonder my instructor thought I was nuts.
This was a huge lesson for me. It would have been easier to buy into the idea that it was all in my head. But it wasn’t. I was the one sitting on his back. I was the one who had a relationship with this horse. He was absolutely communicating with me about how he felt. But he did it politely, instead of dumping me and running off in a panic. The only outward sign of his internal anxiety was a high-pitched whinny he threw out there. It was easy enough to write that off as him calling to the horse that was being led over for his lesson. But is was also a reflection of his internal stress levels – which I could feel because I was sitting on his back. I am grateful I felt comfortable enough with this instructor to pull the plug when I felt it wasn’t right for my horse to keep pushing the issue.
I finally trusted my own sensing over what anyone else was telling me…
As I said before, the lameness was ‘sub-clinical’, in that there were no obvious outward signs of something wrong, just the strange behaviors when I’d ask for certain things, that almost always included going right. I worked for a Veterinarian long enough to know that when it’s this subtle it can be difficult to diagnose a specific problem. Nothing was found until he finally went lame enough on his right front that it was obvious. His behaviors weren’t training issues. He was doing his very best to tell me that he had a problem brewing.
It’s been a long road to recovery. Once a horse learns to work through discomfort or pain, there are mental and emotional scars that go along with that. If you’ve been reading my stories about Sundance and his healing journey (Opening the Door to Healing), you know that it can be complicated to find soundness beyond masking symptoms to keep a horse in work. A horse needs incentive to really heal. They must have a voice and a sense of choice.
Bottom line, trust your instincts. Trust your horse and the relationship you have with them. If you feel something is wrong keep digging until you get to the bottom of it. My horse is on the path to recovery from his lameness. I hope to one day have the experience of us riding together in mutual enjoyment. He gets to decide when and if that happens, and this time he has his voice and opinions intact!
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