Forward: Training Issue or Pain?

“My horse won’t go forward,” she says. Are you sure he isn’t in pain?

“No, he’s fine. No signs of lameness.”   Not going forward is a sign of lameness.

Oh.”

When is a horse trainer an amateur veterinarian? Every day. Soundness must be the first question when we start anything with a horse. We all acknowledge it’s true, we love horses, after all. It’s an intellectual awareness that can be hard to remember in an emotional moment.

Head-bobbing lameness is obvious, by that time the pain is front and center. An injury can show up undeniably, but subtle lameness is harder to recognize. If there’s resistance where there usually isn’t any, have a closer “feel.” Perhaps the horse’s transitions up or down are a little sticky. He might be reluctant to canter or have an unwillingness to come to the mounting block. Perhaps, you think you imagine a slight unevenness, not limping but a subtle weakness or tension. Or maybe not.

Instead, we think it’s a training issue. It’s a flash of ego or some dark Neanderthal warning that we can’t let our horse win. He needs to respect us. Usually, we just want to ride, that’s all.

It doesn’t go well so we start by asking a barn friend or for online advice. It explodes and everyone has an opinion. Suddenly, it’s an information runaway. You have training techniques to get a horse forward coming out of your ears, and as you jump from one to another, the more confused you get, and the worse your horse is. It really feels like a training issue now.

Back to square one: The only way a horse has to tell us he’s in pain is through his behavior. We can misread that, decide the behavior needs to be corrected, and train him it’s not safe to show his vulnerability.

An example: A horse doesn’t want to canter because his back is sore. So, the rider canters the horse another ten minutes, to get him over his disobedience. Or we think girthiness is just normal. Or we don’t notice when his eyes go very still and dark.

I don’t blame you for hoping for anything but a nebulous lameness. Fixing a canter is easy in comparison.

Perhaps you’re at the other end of the continuum. You know your horse is acting strangely but he looks okay. It’s something you almost feel more than see, but you’re sure something’s not right. So, you call your vet for a lameness check. Maybe an ultrasound, radiographs, and a decent sized check written.

“Nothing I can find,” your vet says

They might literally teach that sentence in vet school. It took me a while to hear it literally. It doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong, it means just what is said. The vet found nothing. Beyond that, it says something about science, as well. We’ve come so far, but sometimes the source of pain can’t be found. The horse can’t say, and vet science is still an art. Is there anything more crazy-making than a nebulous lameness?

Back near the dawn of time, I had a young horse who was being very “rebellious”, and my trainer and I were working him through it. During one ride, his poll was so tense that he whacked me in the skull. I guess it knocked sense into me, I didn’t recognize my good boy. Finally, I called the vet, almost secretly, telling her that I thought something was wrong and was ready to be embarrassed when she told me I was being a ninny.

My vet was the kind who thought her clients knew their horses and she had a suggestion. She asked me to leave him in a stall and she came in about forty-eight hours. He was dead lame when I led him out. It was a suspensory injury that took a year and a half to heal. In hindsight, easy to diagnose and not nebulous at all. Since I prided myself on our miraculously profound and deep connection, I felt both guilty of neglect and mad that he didn’t tell me. Silly me.

He’s a horse and being stoic is smart. A prey animal who shows weakness attracts predators, but it can be an issue in his own herd as well. It’s common-horse-sense to hide vulnerabilities, a matter of life and death for him. Being stoic is actually a strength when you see it from his side.

When someone tells me they know their horse is sound, it gives me a bittersweet feeling. Part nostalgia for the last time I had the confidence to think soundness was a finite, knowable thing, and part sad begrudging respect for the horse’s ability to endure.

For all their strength and beauty, horses are also badly designed. They have tiny feet and large bodies. Their digestive system is very particular. I can’t help but think that the stifle is like a personal Bermuda Triangle.

Most of us are taught to push through riding challenges, but we must learn to recognize pain as well. Minor lameness needs time to heal. If we don’t pay attention or send the horse back to work too soon, minor issues become chronic lameness and we damage the horse’s willing good temperament as well as destroying his physical strength.

About now, a cynic should chime in that they don’t feel great either. Pain is how you can tell you’re alive. “It’s a long way from his heart, get to work.” Maybe the ultimate insult, “You’re babying your horse!”

Fine. More bad advice from railbirds. Why do humans value suffering so much?

Talking about lameness is the most depressing thing. Healing can be elusive, and years can be lost. There is no guarantee that by owning a horse that you will also be riding one. Horses are heartbreakers, but we aren’t quitters.

Wouldn’t it be great if hindsight could work in our favor for once?

This is a longwinded way to remind riders that the warm-up is the most crucial part of the ride. It takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm the joints of a young, sound horse. Twenty minutes feels like forever, but a slow, thorough warm-up is insurance for a horse’s longevity, the only forever that matters. Strength and suppleness must be the priority because soundness is the first requirement for any training.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine ProBlog/FB/Email/Author/FB/Tweet/Amazon

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49 thoughts on “Forward: Training Issue or Pain?”

  1. “There is no guarantee that by owning a horse that you will also be riding one. ” Thank you. Boy do I know this. And what is your plan for the above scenario before you buy that horse? I am at the other end of the spectrum now, after having gone relying on my vet too much (and learning a very hard and very expensive lesson) to trusting no one but my horse and my gut. A vet shows up and sees a snapshot of your horse basically. While you are (hopefully) around your horse a fair amount at least, observing behavior in the stall, the aisle, the pasture, with other horses, the arena. They are all important and relevant. We must be an advocate for our horses more than we are an advocate for our training/showing agenda.

    • I agree Kim, it takes a full view to see, and then good horses will do their best to hide it. A pre-purchase exam is a good start, but still, not definitive. Luck? (Great comment, Kim.)

      • Then I’ve had terrible luck! BUT, it’s made me realize that what I thought I wanted to do with horses wasn’t really what I wanted to do with horses. I am learning how to work with them in a way that feels right for me AND them. It has been a long journey and there are definitely times when I see people riding like it’s no big deal and I feel a bit envious. But I am feeling that less and less as my mind is so engaged in this work and there are more people like you to help me find my way. I feel less like this is a game of Marco Polo! Thank you for your voice Anna! I wish I could give you a bigger megaphone but we’ll get there!

    • Yes! Advocating for our horses! What a concept! Thank you both (Kim and Anna) for reminding us that the horses are (or should be) our priority. This type of discussion is the reason I so value your blog, Anna!

  2. This is so true. I had a horse who wouldn’t stay in a canter. He kept shutting down. It turned out, initially, to be severe ulcer pain. Later, when he was cleared of the ulcers and was still trying to shut down, it was found to be back, hock and stifle pain issues. Before I bought him he had been used as a pick up horse and for team roping. That all took it’s toll on this sweet, loving horse who, through no fault of his own, suffered a lot. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see how horses suffer in the hands of humans and their agendas
    .

    • I think a huge reason horses go to resuce or worse is from behavorial issues that are actually pain… Yup, I agree, and we can be the change we hope to see. Thanks Melinda.

    • “Horses suffer in the hands of humans and their agendas.” The very reason I literally ran out of horses, because I couldn’t stand to see what happened to some I sold, while I had a few “keepers” to ride and never a problem. So I determined not to breed any more, and they’ve all died out. The very best are never sold.

  3. This should be printed and taped onto the flap of every saddle. I have learned over time that if Keil Bay doesn’t want the saddle or bridle on, he gets the day off. He enjoys the work when he feels good. He tells me if he doesn’t. And there’s never been a sign of lameness or offness, but I trust his judgement about his body. (Now if only I focused in as well on MY OWN BODY!) 🙂

  4. Wonderful post, Anna! I learned this lesson with my OTTB who suddenly got “girthy”, uncharacteristically grumpy, and didn’t want to canter. Turned out to be an ulcer issue. That’s over and now he’s back to his old, willing self. He teaches me so much if I take the time to listen and learn. And so do you, thanks!

  5. I alway think how it would feel to have to be led out of my bed in the morning and forced to go jogging around the block before my synovial fluid got warmed up!!!! Would you say horses that have 24/7 access to moving around between their stalls and pastures may be able to have a shorter warm up than 20 minutes? Sometimes 20 minutes is all the time I have to be in the saddle.

    • If I had to guess, I’d say no, depending on the work you’re doing. Being out doesn’t mean moving around necessarily and if it’s collected work, for sure no. SO, what I’m saying is online advice, even from me, is no help because I don’t know you and your horse. See how wiley I am? (Thanks, Tiffany.)

  6. 20 minutes is a long time and if I don’t have much time, I’ll warm up 10-15 minutes and then do low impact work (shoulders in/out, haunches in/out, side pass, etc.) for 5-10 minutes to make up the 20 minutes, before I go to the trot. But I have to say, if you can do the full 20 minutes, it is a wonderful time to be and breathe with your horse; calms me and puts me in “the zone” so that the rest of the ride is even better and more productive. And my horses have softer eyes and smile more as they work. If you don’t have more than 20 minutes to ride (and I’ve found myself like that too) it usually means it is time to reprioritize things so you do have more than 20 minutes. Funny how often I have to do that because things keep creeping in to take your time.

  7. This is a wonderful article and I really like that you advocate to look for pain first particularly for sudden behavioral changes. I would love a clarification about one thing, when you say to warm a horse up for around 20 minutes are you saying no matter the living circumstances of your horse, ie living 24/7 in pasture or a stall resident, does it matter?

    • I don’t know you or your horse, so I have no specific advice for you. Of course. But having turnout doesn’t mean they are moving, or that they’ve had weight on their back or a bit in their mouth. So for me, it’s always 20 minutes and probably more. It’s a training tradition centuries old that science backs up… (the link in the article talks more about a good warm up.) Thanks for asking, Mary Ellen.

  8. I love your stuff, Anna. Enjoy letting people know finding you is extremely worthwhile. Every pain on your list can be generated by saddle equipment…and people generally have no idea how impactful it can be. Even veterinarians and equine professionals. My mission continues…headed to UK again Monday working with a University there doing research on saddle fit. Hallelujah. Still looking forward to encountering you and swapping observations of what the horse is saying about all of this. Thanks for all you do.

  9. Timely reminder that I have forwarded to a couple of “friends”! It also reminded me of a comment a wise (female) physician made to me after months of consults from egotistical specialists who told me “there is nothing wrong with you”. Instead, she said “I have been unable to find what is causing your symptoms!” A totally different meaning there. This wise physician ended up making the diagnosis because she listened to the patient and persisted in pursuing the problem. As a practicing veterinarian, I often could not find the diagnosis but you cant exactly tell the animal or its client that there is nothing wrong with the animal . I was careful to reuse that sentence….”I cannot find the cause of your animal’s signs.” Often times, if you continued to watch and listen, it became apparent. Classic example is the sole abscess. “Tincture of Time” is both a good diagnostician as well as a good therapist. Thanks, Karen

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    • Thank you, Karen. Such a wonderful comment. What you say is so important because it’s easy to get adversarial when we’re frustrated or fearful in the diagnosis process, and that just does more damage. As horse owners (or in dealing with our own issues) we have to work with others to find a diagnosis, and that might take some time. Again, thank you for commenting and for working for horses.

  10. Good advice as always, Anna. I would add that it’s important to remember that most community vets are GENERALISTS, like our own family doctors. Even the best of them can miss unusual disorders. It’s important to do our own homework and insist on what we want, and be willing to go to a specialist if needed.

  11. Thank you ,Anna – well said! I would add to “Minor lameness needs time to heal“, that even what seems like minor lameness, or “just not feelin right” usually needs more than just time. Many times, just giving your horse time off may only allow him to develop compensations that keep the issue hidden until it eventually becomes a much bigger lameness issue. As a bodywork professional, I try to educate my clients to notice when they feel a subtle change in their horse’s movement, and explore the cause, even if the horse is not lame.

  12. Brilliant bit of writing Anna. I believe horses are getting hurt because they are rarely very fit, work is spasmodic, perhaps rushed, unlike in the old days when they were man’s only mode of transport, unless he walked. We expect so much of them, but they are not a tool to be hung on the wall until needed. Then, how many people know their horses well enough to recognised when something is “off”? Dressage requires a tremendous fitness, in order to gather the hocks and get above them. I feel that any form of resistance is the horse trying to tell you something. Riding a horse is like playing my fiddle, keep it light or it screams! Light balance seat, light hands, and allow. Thank you, you touch my heart.

    • Agreed Louise. I will say that the path of Dressage takes years to do in a healthy way. I still beleive the fundamentals build strong horses, regardless of how the haters make it look sometimes. Thank you.

  13. This is very timely for me. My horse has been bucking in canter and the advice I got was to “ride the snot out of him”. I finally managed to get our wonderful local physio to see him. Turns out he has a sticky point on his right hip and was sore from there to the opposite shoulder, he was bucking to try to release it. So glad I trusted my instincts that he was hurting. I hope to have more courage to do this in future.

  14. Some of the best advice I was ever given was “Ride the horse you have today”. Just because your horse was fine yesterday doesn’t mean he’s fine today. And maybe it’s not a pain issue maybe he just isn’t where he was yesterday mentally. I used to expect the same behaviors from my horse from one day to the next and now I realize just how unfair that expectation was/is. And I was forever hearing “don’t let him get away with that” or “you have to show him who’s boss, don’t let him win” on and on ad nauseum. I listened to my young horse and if he was scared on the trail I GOT OFF! Imagine the horror of my fellow riders “You’ll never get that horse to go anywhere getting off him like that”. He turned out to be one of the bravest in our group over the next few years. I’ve found I now ride so seldom with others because they don’t listen to their horses (I’m also 71 so galloping around the countryside is less appealing than it used to be lol) unless the horse starts speaking VERY loudly and then it’s the horses fault.
    I had a mare from our breeding I bought back from a bad situation, she was running through her bit and balking, snapping at people and kicking. I never put a bit in her mouth again and started riding her in a side-pull. She would bite on her leg when she saw the saddle, so I rode her bareback until she realized I wasn’t going to hurt her and she had a saddle that fit. She was a grand ol’ girl who ALWAYS let you know where she was at, and that’s what I call an “honest horse”. One day I was in a crabby mood but had to stick to my schedule to ride, so I took her begrudgingly down to our arena and took her lead rope off and she calmly walked by me and kicked me in the ass. And I totally deserved it!! I didn’t ride and we just played a little and I groomed her. She won!

  15. Back when I was riding I used to open the barn door to the field, then head for the tack room to get my riding gear. It was always reassuring to see my TB Dover inside waiting for me by the time I returned. He may not have been sound, but I took it as a sign I had a willing partner.
    I’m sure it comes as no surprise I NEVER got this from my Appy who ALWAYS headed as far away as possible from the barn door when it was not feeding time!

  16. Have a friend who tells me, “There’s always something wrong with your horses!” With a herd of five, yes, it does seem like somebody always has something that takes them out for a few days or weeks. But, I’ve lost count of the times, over the years, when I vet has told me, “Most people wouldn’t have picked up on that!” I think, perhaps because of size, that people forget (or don’t think) that if we can be creaky, sore, or just tweak something and feel off, so can our horses! Pain is always my first thought – and thank you, Anna, for bringing out how important it is for all of us to consider!

  17. “Why do humans value suffering so much? ”

    Because it’s the way we measure our own worth…by how hard we work no matter what, by how exhausted we are, by how hard we push ourselves past our own limits…
    Because we do it to ourselves, we (I hope) subconsciously do it to our horses.
    And we call it heart, or bravery, or being desensitized…when really it’s their pain and they’re shutting down.
    Slowly, we are learning to listen (thanks to people like you!) and starting to think pain first.

    I have to say, this past summer, my daughter’s mare started rejecting her bit. Violently.
    Now, this horse doesn’t have a violent bone in her body. She’s the sweetest, most gentle horse.
    Our first call was to the vet…I figured it was her teeth.
    After getting her teeth done, a scope of her sinuses (she had an infection that we couldn’t figure out the source of that made her face swollen and eating painful), several rounds of antibiotics and x-rays, we discovered the poor girl has the start of arthritis on her tmj.
    Started her on previcoxx and immediately retired her from riding…and thankfully our vet agreed with us every time we said “something just ain’t right” even as he found nothing…until the x-rays showed the excess bone growth.
    We had a few trainers tell us to push her through…force her to take the bit and ride her to wet saddle pads.
    How awful that would have been for her!
    Never mind that she would have likely thrown my daughter, or hurt her while bridling…

    So now we have a giant palomino pasture puff, who only has to stay healthy and look pretty for pictures.
    We’ll find another horse for my daughter to ride…and this mare will stay here because she’s earned the right to live out her days healthy and happy in a safe home.

    • Arthritis is so common but this sounds painful in the extreme. She was nothing but honest, who knows how long she struggled before she hit the wall. So happy you found the answer eventually. Retirement isn’t the worst thing at all. Thanks for commenting.

  18. This phrase alone. “More bad advice from railbirds. Why do humans value suffering so much?” wow. I have learned through my two horses, and thankfully my trainer shares this view, that every single time my horse is non compliant in the slightest way, there is a physical reason. How lucky to have reliably informative horses, and how grateful I am to be able to trust this feedback loop. From the obvious limp or head duck to the barely less forward, each has been a clear conveyance. It is my life’s work to help others recognize our dears’ sentience. My relationship with all others of every species crystallized when I stopped demanding they listen to me, and I started listening to them.

  19. If riding was the only reason to have horses, I probably wouldn’t have any. They bring SO much more to the relationship and to my life in general. They bring joy in just being who they are, and bring me peace of mind in a world I don’t always feel comfortable in, and don’t know how to handle. Without horses, I’d be all messed up. I can totally relate to what you said about humans and suffering, and even more so to the comment someone mentioned in regards to that being where we get our value. Truth! We are taught from a very early age that to survive and be successful in this world, we need to do more, do it better and do it regardless of how we feel. And we wonder why we have a tendency to push, push push? It’s what we know, and what we think we have to do. Sad, really. With the (slowly) wisdom that aging brings, I am learning to “be” instead of always trying to “do” so much. I will never be what anyone would consider an “accomplished” equestrian. And you know what? I don’t give a damn! I am in love with horses. I try to always be respectful of horses. I want to always be fair with horses. I get pleasure and true joy from being in their presence. They enrich my life and I love everything about them and taking care of them. Except on some days, the mud. 🙂 I enjoy riding and feel more freedom riding than anything else I’ve experienced in life. My horses are my greatest teachers and every moment spent with them is time well spent. I don’t really care how someone else may or may not measure my accomplishments. I am a devoted lover of the horse, and I truly hope to never stop learning or appreciating this incredible, intuitive, sensitive, intelligent and loving animal that I consider one of the greatest blessings in life. Stepping down from my soapbox now, but always Anna, I value your thoughts. Thank you for sharing.

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