Nebulous Lameness. Nebulous Anxiety. And a List.

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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24 thoughts on “Nebulous Lameness. Nebulous Anxiety. And a List.”

  1. Oh my, this is brilliant. And the timing for me… spot on (I run a sanctuary full of horses in their 30’s and late 20’s). Taking a deep breath this morning…

    • Oh Katharine. You are on thin ice and I’m sending you a few deep breaths from here. When they all hit the same age at about the same time… nothing harder. Take care and thank you. We’re here if you need us.

  2. Thank you for this. It’s a serious PSA for all horses everywhere. One of our barn vets, who is brilliant at figuring out pain issues, related this experience: Dead lame horse. Left front. Full head bobbing. Clearly suffering. He couldn’t find anything obvious, so with owners permission, began blocking the horse from coffin joint up. Nothing changed. Still dead lame. Owner gave up, but he decided to continue, with permission, on his own dime. He finally blocked out the facial nerve to the horses eyeball. The horse was joyous and completely sound. Immediately. A month prior, the horse had been treated for an eye infection by a different vet, owner was diligent with treatment, eye looked just fine, and had been cleared by treating vet. Obviously, it was not fully healed. Lameness Vet prescribed another round of eye treatment. Horse’s “fine” eye finished healing, lameness was completely gone. His eye had been hurting with every step. I’m reporting this because it’s so very relatable: original vet does a good job, owner does a good job, horse looks great, but develops lameness long enough after recovering from eye treatment for everyone to assume no way (right?!?) it can be related. Thank god for the vet who insisted on listening and not giving up. And the owner who let him. It would never have occurred to me to ask for an eye block to check for lameness. This was a master class in listening and believing the horse. (!)

    • Thanks Jane. One of my favorite things about traveling is that I get to hear so many stories like this. Listening better is our only hope for anything!! I love that everyone did a good job. Because we do!

  3. Really enlightening story for anyone who has a horse – whether lame or not. Make sure ALL avenues are covered! Not just the “easy” ones.

  4. This is a well-traveled road for so many of us. With my last horse, the road led to saddle fit at one point, ulcers at another and EPM, again and again. Then a few bouts of cellulitis were thrown in just to even it out. Thank goodness for Anna and the Barnies that supported me on this journey, when many around me couldn’t see a problem.

  5. I don’t know which is worse, nebulous lameness or lameness you know the cause of but can’t fix. We spent years battling chronic laminitis with my daughter’s perfect unicorn Welsh pony. Kept getting better worse better worse lather rinse repeat, despite doing everything “right” that we could possibly do. Oh and the cherry on top is all the conflicting *you must* and *you must never* advice from reasonable people all trying to do the best for horses. How do you tell which conflicting advice to follow? A question for the ages.

    • Shaste, thank you. That part where you are either healing or killing the horse, experts don’t agree and that is the very definition of purgatory. Good luck with your good pony.

  6. After spending several hours last night to trowel through vet journals/studies, I woke up this morning (Australian time) to your post… Timely and accurate for my horse: I raised him from yearling, he was an easy horse to start under saddle, he never bucked, no vices, a happy, enthusiastic horse. Then one day, about 3 years ago he started to object to going forward, very unlike him. I could not find any obvious lameness, just a tight lower back and short striding behind. I stopped riding him, vet came out – nothing wrong. the body worker managed to improve things for a little while and I could ride him on occasions. Then I got ‘advice’ from all corners: get someone else to ride him, you need to be tougher… you know the ones. I didn’t follow any of these but stuck to not riding, observing his attitude (grumpy on many days – not his usual behaviour), trying different things: boots, walking in hand, in hand rehab programs – to no avail. Eventually I found a vet who x-rayed his hocks and found OA in both, with some fusion going on already. Pain medication did nothing. Rest did nothing. I still didn’t ride him. More x-rays recently, OA is worse, some full fusion and some partial fusion can be seen. “Let’s inject the hocks” – well that sent me on the wild internet search which resulted in a lot of information, some useful, some confusing… I still have a gut feeling that it’s not just the hocks, but his front feet: he has very thin soles and improves when wearing boots and when we go ‘bush bashing’. The vet will come out again tomorrow – maybe we won’t inject the hocks… Maybe it’s time for early retirement (at 12 years old) from riding, my grey horse and me, the elderly grey mare.

    • Yes, this is just what I mean… Sometimes it’s so clear what fragile animals horses are. Best wished Connie. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. You have written a very critical essay for all horse owners. This has been my life for the last few years as you well know. Of course , with hindsight, Bear’s reluctance to move forward with a rider was maybe the first sign of more serious issues. I’m so relieved I didn’t kick or force him in some way to go against what he was telling me.

    And yes to more-than-one thing statement. In the end it was numerous issues that took Zen Bear down. A perfect storm as you said. I think getting on top of our anxiety is essential for making good decisions and I felt like I was able to do that., and sometimes just dwelling in denial.

    I do think keeping photos, videos, written records is SOOOO important and somehow hard to do even for a psychologist like myself who likes data !! My dad kept better records of his cattle than I do with my horses.

    Thank you for writing this. I’m sadly aware this tells the story of many of our wonderful horses.

    • Thanks, Sarah. People always compare situations like this to living in the wild. I’ve met horses that would have never grown to maturity because of a turned knee. Small in comparison. It’s a roller coaster ride, not a horse ride at all. And yes, cattle and sheep are followed closer…

  8. Anna, After reading this piece it’s so good to know that my neurotic observations of every aspect of every horse on a daily basis, just may be considered “normal” among us horse people. I try to temper my neuroticism with the occasional fact, the gift of time, and some serious deep breathing. Loving these fragile/powerful, private/social, stoic/expressive creatures is a heartbreaking/heartwarming experience. I will continue onward among the lameness, illness, and anxiety because I can’t imagine life without horses.

    • Thanks Laurie.. and I agree about choosing this life. Are some of your “neurotic observations” about Ferdinand? Do I have the name right? If it’s the horse I’m thinking of, you are not being neurotic.

  9. You do have the name right, Ferdinand, though he responds to Ferd as well. And yes, both Ferd and his older half brother, Noche, are the ultimate horse puzzles. However they don’t prevent me from also fretting over my older Arab, Raz, and the newest addition, Chica, who demands complete “mare respect” at her towering 14+/-hands. I often wonder how I got here, but I’m glad I did.


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