Horses are masterful at finding ways to move that diminish pain while maintaining the appearance of soundness. A horse can look gorgeous and healthy, be well cared for, and still be compensating for undiagnosed pain. In a predator rich environment this would be part of their survival strategy. In our domesticated world, they work through pain because we ask them to. They will continue to compensate and work for us until something gives.
When something gives it might show up as a clinically diagnosable lameness. Our horse starts visibly limping, for example. It might show up as illness – recurring ulcers or metabolic syndrome can be caused by the stress of chronic pain. But, before lameness and illness there are often early warning signs that show up in the form of changes in behavior.
Some horses hide their discomfort so well that you might not think anything of it. The behaviors are easy to dismiss as something to be trained through. Common training issues can be an early warning sign of a physical issue: refusal to pick up the right lead in canter, difficulty transitioning from one gait to another, trouble standing still at the mounting block, or refusals to turn in one direction or the other, to name just a few. Some behaviors 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.
This horse refused to pick up the right lead canter, would rear, or buck when asked. She charged and struck at people on the ground when asked to canter in a round pen. And she was extremely head shy. She was given a clean bill of health and passed a pre-purchase exam. Ultimately diagnosed: calcification in nuchal ligament near poll, mild navicular changes in one front, damage in right stifle, and a host of other small things that all added up to a lot of discomfort. Same horse on right after some therapeutic work and now, years later, she’s comfortably sound and ridden with understanding for her issues.
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 care immensely about their horses. They have done their due diligence. Teeth have been checked, feet are well cared for, nutrition dialed in, tack meticulously fit. 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.
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. This an alarming trend, the number of horses I see at clinics who are struggling because they have unrecognized physical issues that cause anything from nagging discomfort, to balance issues, to pain so intense they lash out.
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 have a theory that 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 release of chemicals that put the horse in fight or flight mode, flooding their nervous system with adrenaline and effectively masking pain to the degree sub-clinical lameness won’t be visible. I believe the reason we, as a horse’s primary care-giver might still think something is wrong is because there is a bond of trust that isn’t always there with others that come in to evaluate. Our horses show us things in those moments of trust that would otherwise remain invisible.
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 physical, mental or emotional discomfort. 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 him down. Keep seeking!
If you’d like to know more about how to assess and address any issues your horse may be having check out my facebook group: The Tango with Horses Tribe, and look for upcoming trainings for horse owners to assess their own animals.