Yesterday, a friend and client brought the assessment offered by a popular trainer on Facebook to my attention. When one of their followers mentioned they thought their horse’s behavior issue might be a result of underlying pain this trainer made the bold statement that blaming your horse’s behavior problems on pain is, essentially, a cop out. Or as they said: taking the easy way out. This individual made this statement with no history taken, no questions asked, not even a photo of the horse, simply based on a description of the behavior…
Do I need to say that this makes my blood boil, or can you feel the heat roiling through your computer screen right now?
My rebuttal to this statement is that if you ignore the possibility that pain might be an underlying factor in your horse’s behavior and choose instead to train them through it, THAT is taking the easy way out.
You might ask why I would say that choosing to train a horse to change an offending behavior is the easy way out? After all, it doesn’t always feel easy to train a horse to change a behavior, and it might even take a little time. But here’s the thing: horses are eminently trainable. They’ll do just about anything we ask if we acknowledge their efforts with a little food, or other positive affirmation. They’ll also do just about anything to avoid disharmony, so we can, fairly easily, change a behavior by making it uncomfortable for them to engage in that behavior, and relatively more comfortable when they cease the behavior.
You don’t have to be a genius to train a horse to change a behavior you find undesirable or dangerous.
I can sure see why people might think that blaming pain for a behavior problem is taking the easy way out. After all, there are a lot of horses with underlying issues that go undiagnosed. And a horse WILL stop telling us how they feel about how they feel, and comply, when sufficiently motivated to do so. The fact that a halfway competent trainer/rider can take a horse with sub-clinical lameness and make them behave and appear sound makes it hard to believe that there is legitimately something wrong.
While it is not easy, you also don’t have to be a genius to determine if there is reason for the ‘undesirable behavior’ your horse is exhibiting beyond ‘they are being a jerk, lazy, disobedient, or disrespectful’. I have come to think of those early changes in behavior as an early warning sign. I want to know why they are doing what they are doing before I resort to training them to change that behavior.
You don’t have to be a genius to figure out if your horse is in fact in pain, you do have to be very very brave and quite persistent. You may even have to learn how to assess your own horse to find the answers you seek…
It is certainly NOT taking the easy way out to think there might be pain influencing your horse’s behavior when there is no visible lameness. I’ve been there. I could tell countless stories about horses that came to me with catastrophic, career ending injuries or extreme behavior that started out as something small and seemingly insignificant…
- The little mare that refused to pick up her right lead, but nobody could find anything ‘wrong’. Finally, the right trainer got her to do the right lead canter by essentially putting her in a position where she had no choice. Bingo, she did right lead canter. Shortly after she pulls up visibly lame right hind – diagnosis – torn cartilage in her stifle. Career ending injury.
- The gelding that always felt funny traveling to the right in any gait and refused to pick up his right lead. He was labeled lazy, and his owner told he was challenging her and she was afraid of him. If she would just commit, he would do as he was told. A few years later he was working well when he came up lame. Sesmoiditis in his right front.
- The Warmblood gelding who panicked over everything, especially contact on the bit. Never could find any clinical sign of lameness. He retired with me and just this year he has visible evidence of what is probably calcification of the nuchal ligament 3 inches back from his ears.
- The gelding sent to me to figure out why he was so itchy. He would bite at his chest while being groomed. He was so body sore grooming was painful. He bit his chest because he was too kind to bite the person grooming him.
- The mare that always had her ears pinned and had started biting and kicking. Her owner spent over a year trying to find in roads with her mare who used to be a sweetheart. No one could see any lameness but to me, she acted like she was in pain. It took a trip to a specialist and a full body scan to find all the places where she had issues that were indeed causing her pain. Once her pain was addressed that sweet mare came right back.
I could go on like this for days. What all of these horses have in common is that the first indication of a physical issue brewing was a change in behavior during training. If you think that it’s taking the easy way out to think that your horse’s behavior might be related to pain, let me tell you, that second horse belongs to me and I was the one told that my horse was walking all over me and it was all in my head.
I sought help from everyone I could think of, and not one single expert could see a thing wrong with him. But I could feel it. And yet, it was relatively easy to train him to travel right and work through it. Until the underlying condition blew up. Feeling like an incompetent idiot in the face of professionals telling me I was just copping out because I was afraid to ride my horse was nothing compared to how I felt when my beloved horse turned up lame and I realized I had been right all along. If only I had listened to him. If only I had listened to myself…
Blaming pain on your horse’s behavior is far from taking the easy way out. It is anything but easy to keep fighting and keep seeking until you find answers. My friend who shared her story describes literally begging the vet to keep looking. That is not easy. When her farrier told her that her horse was walking all over her when he wouldn’t stand still for trimming and she begged him to be patient because she thought he had foot pain. That is not easy.
Right here, right now, I want to say to all of you who have been shamed by a professional because you think your horse might be in pain – hang in there. You are not alone. If no one else believes you, know that I do. And there are countless others like me who have been there. Ten years of rehabbing horses from catastrophic injuries and behavior problems caused by pain that had gone undiagnosed or misinterpreted tells me that if you think your horse might be in pain it’s worth investigating. And sometimes that requires enormous persistence and courage to stand in the face of the people who will tell you you’re making it up and using it as an excuse not to ride your horse. Keep seeking. It’s worth it.
If you still think this a bunch of BS take a look at the Facebook page Apollo and the Story of his Bones, or this post from a blog called The Horse’s Back, or Equus-Soma Equine Osteology and Anatomy Learning Center where they are digging up skeletal remains of horses and studying the bony changes. It is truly remarkable what our horses will work through. The evidence is there, and when we know better, we can do better. So, let’s do better. And let’s stop taking it on the chin from professionals who frankly do not know our horses as well as we do.
Thank you Jacqui, for sharing your story and galvanizing me to keep going.
Until next week..
Andrea and the herd
If you think your horse might be one of those struggling with undiagnosed pain, it just so happens I am running two mini workshops this month. This week (people are already in the course preparing for our live session this Friday) we are talking about how to use a figure 8 pattern to assess movement and behavior. Movement inefficiencies are most easily identified in a walk, in a relaxed horse. So much so that anyone can learn to see it.
Next week we take what we discovered and learn how to gather more information through hands on palpation and letting our horse’s guide us to doing bodywork that helps them resolve those movement inefficiencies.
If you’d like to join us, there’s still time. I truly believe every horse owner should know how to assess their own horse for pain. You don’t have to know anatomy. No prerequisites required. And if you try it and don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back, no questions asked. I’ve kept the cost low because I believe everyone needs this information and I don’t want finances to be a barrier to participation. $24.99 for one course, or $45.99 for both. If you have need and the money is still a deal breaker please reach out, I’m happy to work with you.
Contact me here for more information or a link to register: email Andrea
And in case you’re interested, and I hope you are, here is Jacqui’s story that inspired me to write this:
Thank you Jacqui and Dica:
OK, I’ve got my serious face on for this post guys, as it’s something I feel very strongly about, and for me to post this on FB has required some courage. Anyone who has the time and inclination to read, thank you!
I read this post by Andrea Datz today and I felt compelled to write something in response. Thank you Andrea for highlighting these important points in this blog post about pain in horses.
As many will know I had my lovely chap Dica PTS late last year. I said after he died that I would write our story for people to read, so if it could help one other horse and person that would make it worth while. Well, I feel sad to say I have found it very hard to re live our experiences together by writing them out, and it is taking much longer than I would have hoped. I am not even sure writing about him and what we went through is ever going to be possible. But when I read this post by Andrea I felt the need to share a few thoughts, so to make a start.
The whole time I knew Dica (Deek as I like to call him) he was in various degrees of pain, so it was impossible for me to know who he was without that burden on his shoulders. As you do when you first get a new horse, you give the horse time to settle to new environments, new handlers, new lives, and that I did. I spent our first year together helping him through his emotional challenges as best I could, and because I was no expert I enlisted the help of many wonderful and compassionate horse people and trainers. One of which was Andrea who wrote this post. Andrea has an awesome skill set to offer horses and horse people but also a tonne of experience, and with that she has lots of compassion for horse and human a like. She helped me through some rough times, and even after Deek had gone I sought her wisdom for reassurance in those initial horribly dark days of trying to come to terms with his loss and what had to be done.
What Andrea’s post highlights is what I want to highlight. Pain in our equines is real, and common, and often times very very hard to diagnose. Please read her post, it is enlightening and speaks right from my heart. She can say it way better then I ever could.
A year into our journey together Deek made it apparent he had pain and it needed sorting. I had done all the behavioural retraining he had responded beautifully, so much so that to most peoples eyes there shouldn’t have been any further problems. Low and behold there was, and a whole slew at that, each problem to be highlighted at various points in the future.
My experience with the equine vets was what I would call frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to bash vets (obviously!!). But I want to make it clear that often it isn’t easy even with something that people generally consider should be. We had to go through the very slow process of finding out the extent of the physical problems and coming up with solutions for them. I remember the hardest conversation I ever had with my vet vividly. It went along the lines of me pleading with him to do more tests, there’s more things wrong, I cannot ignore what Deek was telling me. NO ONE knows your horse like you do, if you feel there is something wrong, there is. Simple as that. And you push like I did to get answers. If that means pleading with your vet. If that means a second opinion. If that means consulting with other equine professionals. Whatever it takes.
A very well known and highly regarded horse trainer upset me recently. Disregarding pain as the cause to a particular behavioural problem in a particular horse when they hadn’t even seen the horse in action, not even a photo (sometimes you can see pain in a photo, if it is obvious enough), and had just gone off a description of the problem and made assumptions based on that. In all honesty, I was horrified. A public figure outwardly eliminating pain as a cause to behavioural problems and stating it as a definite training issue. Now I don’t know the particular ins and outs of this particular horse but what got me was the blatant disregard for pain being important and a major cause of behaviour problems. Please, go with your gut and if something someone says doesn’t feel right then chances are they aren’t.
It was made out that pain was in fact the ‘’easy way out’’, implying that training issues are harder to work through and it’s easy to blame on pain. From my experience I have to disagree. As pointed out by Andrea here, pain is hidden, missed by many equine professionals, horses who have passed vettings can still have pain and not actually be sound. If the vet doesn’t believe there is a problem in some cases it doesn’t eliminate pain as the problem, it just means you have to search harder and go way outside of your comfort zone trying to figure out what the heck to do next. Been there, done that, got the T shirt.
Another thing that Andrea touches on in the post is about asking the horse to show us where it hurts. This part might be going too far for many people, but these animals are way more than just quad bikes, they pick up on your intention, they hear us and they respond however they can to get us to listen. I am sure all horse people can come up with stories that couldn’t otherwise be explained ‘’logically’’. So I asked Deek in utter desperation one day to tell me where it hurt, pouring my soul out. He picked up my intention of wanting to know and being open to hear. He stopped abruptly the next day when walking out and my usual ‘’come on Deek’’ reaction kicked in, but then a realisation came over me and in complete disbelief I realised he was actually communicating with me that his feet hurt. I felt it in every cell in my body, this was his response for me. Now, I am no animal communicator, I am just someone who loves their horse and was open enough to allow him to show me what I didn’t think could be possible. This is available to everyone, I think we just need to learn to listen.
If eliminating pain was the ‘’easy way out’’ to deciphering what’s going on with your horse, why to this day does it kill me to think about what we went through to get a diagnosis and what he went through to have to tell me where it hurt. If pain is the easy way out then why do I still live every day with a heavy heart thinking about his life and his loss. Please, please do not underestimate the almost universal problem that is pain in our domesticated equine world, it is far far more prevalent than people might think.
May be one day I will talk more about Dica, but for now thank you for reading anyone who may have gotten this far. And thank you again Andrea for this post and for all your help, Deek and I are forever grateful.