Your inner monster screams, “Just Kick Him!” but you don’t. You aren’t that person. You don’t use spurs or whips. You are so frustrated, so confused, so unhappy. Your horse doesn’t want to go forward and you’re at your wit’s end. This isn’t about one of my clients; this is about more than I can count over the years. This is about three horses in my barn right now. There should be a support group. Oh, wait. There is and we’re all in it.
Trainers get the call because when a horse isn’t willing to go forward, we want to think it’s a training issue. Sometimes it is. Humans are imperfect riders, bits can be cruel, and saddles that we are certain fit our horses just don’t. Beyond that, aggressive corrections or cueing can shut horses down and a horse’s memory impacts their behavior more than most of us think. But that isn’t where we start.
First, I ask if the horse is sound. The answer is usually yes, we’re all smart enough to see a head bob. My client says there are no symptoms of lameness and I let that awkward comment hang for a moment trying to find kind words for the obvious. Not wanting to go forward is about the biggest pain symptom that a flight animal can give. Moving forward is self-soothing, it is the go-to resolution for most anxieties a horse has. Free movement is the epitome of normal. It’s a horse being a horse. The absence is a call for help.
Some training questions are about aggressive horses who bite, strike, or kick. Surely this is behavioral? Most often pain is the underlying factor causing the aggression. Horses are remarkably willing to get along, tolerant to a fault sometimes. Being seriously combative is a horse not being a horse. Exceptions exist, but the first stop has to be an assurance there is no physical pain. A guess isn’t good enough.
Horses try to communicate with us constantly. Behavior is their mode of communication. Think about that. We think the conversation is about training but they are communicating about their emotional and physical reality. We are not in the same conversation. Often we’d rather dismiss the message or make excuses. Listening for something we don’t want to hear is hard. We don’t take our horses seriously but when we get quiet; we feel tightness in our gut. Now the conversation is starting to come together.
We’re stuck with the undeniable feeling that something isn’t right. Maybe the horse seems fine when we lunge him, or when we watch him trot away. Extremely subtle changes can be hard to see on the ground, but mounted, they became more obvious. But not all unsound movement creates a limp. We might notice personality changes, or we sense it by feel, if not literal unevenness. Footfalls seem especially loud. A bright, engaged horse seems empty, without personality. A normally brave and calm horse is good on the ground but seemed to lose confidence when carrying weight. Another might become hysterical over usually common occurrences. Horses seem to lose longtime skills that we thought of as normal in our routine. It can seem like training issues but smart horses are giving wrong answers. It’s not normal so we learn to trust our instinct.
Of course, you call your vet who does an exam and says, “Nothing I can find.” It’s a true statement. It also doesn’t resolve the question and both of you know the challenge ahead. More testing and more questions. Maybe you luck out and get a quick ulcer diagnosis. Yay, you found something. But ulcers frequently coexist with another issue and it’s a short-lived win. Perhaps the ulcers return, and you look again. Maybe you get a nasty diagnosis right away and have a perverse moment of genuine relief just knowing you were right. In what world is sad news a good result? Worst, you don’t get an immediate answer and the search goes on, even for years as one symptom reveals another. Eventually, the condition continues to degenerate until it’s easy to diagnose, then we feel stark but unfair guilt along with our nebulous anxiety. We love horses.
The most truthful thing a vet ever told me, two years into a tendon injury, was that it’s never just one thing. She was right back then and more so now. Horses are living longer but with more health issues than ever. We aren’t imagining it.
If you have a horse, you have had or will have a foggy time of nebulous anxiety, being high-centered over questions with no answers. You’ll wander in limbo between I hope we find something and I hope I’m wrong, with no idea how it started or what will happen next. Days pass while scrutinizing your horse like a lab rat, staring so often that you wonder if you’re making it worse. Now your horse thinks you’re a wolf who might eat him. You think the dream that is as old as your first thought about horses is at risk. Raging doubt has a slow-motion crippling effect. All of us are in this together, and all of us feel isolated and alone.
Is Purgatory a better word? In the darkest moment, your inner monster beats at the back of your eyeballs and squeezes your throat until you can’t utter your horse’s name. Okay, we aren’t in control of much but we can find a contrary peace in knowing that. Let’s get hold of ourselves. We are not quitters. We are list-makers.
The Top Ten Things to Do While Having Nebulous Anxiety caused by Nebulous Lameness:
- No matter how much you are breathing, breathe more. Let your eyebrows breathe wide. Let your heart breathe open.
- Start keeping an online journal or private blog noting the date and all you see or feel. Be online so you can import all vet papers.
- Add photos and videos from the first ones to the most current ones. Document everything in one place.
- Remember your sense of humor. Laughter is a human calming signal. Keep the air moving in and out.
- Don’t entertain horror stories. Don’t ask for advice from dubious experts. Protect your mental state. Say affirmations because they work.
- Do research on possible causes, but not more than an hour a day. Keep a list of useful information sites in your online journal.
- Gain tools for better listening. Study up on Calming Signals. Read articles by Dr. Sue Dyson, especially this one.
- Exhale for both of you. Quiet time is necessary for healing. Wait longer than the vet says. Many chronic issues result from not having enough time off.
- Respect your horse’s emotions. If you’re unable to postpone your worry, take a break from grooming and fussing. He has enough anxiety of his own.
- While you’re recording meds and supplements, take time to journal about how you met your horse. Write about achievements in each year you’ve shared.
Remember who you both are. Then fall in love all over again. Be proud of keeping your promises.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.