Having been kept very busy with my massage case studies over the last few weeks, it is fair to say that while my technique may be improving, my confidence in my own ‘diagnostics’ is not…this is certainly a case of the more you learn, the less you actually ‘know’!!
The lovely horses I have been working with have certainly kept me on my toes, trying hard to figure out where they might be sore, why they might be sore, and how I might be able to help them a little with my current trainee abilities.
Horses give us so many clues about their issues, many of which we, as owners, ignore. Some are subtle, but some are glaringly obvious – sometimes you just need a fresh pair of eyes in order to recognise it – as that ‘pair of eyes’ I am feeling the pressure to deliver if I can!
Often horses will hide their ailments and pain – their natural instinct is to mask weakness which may single them out to predators. Some ridden horses will go months or even years masking pain, until they finally break down with a debilitating injury. So what are the subtle signs we might look for? I have considered some below, alongside common owner reactions:
- Lack of forwardness, dead to the leg (‘I have to ride in spurs to get my lazy horse moving…’ – I am guilty of this one 😦
- Nipping, bracing, ears flat back during saddling (‘I can’t afford to get a saddler again, it cost enough when I bought it 5 years ago…’)
- Reluctance to pick up feet, kicking out (‘I just give him a whack on the rump when he does it…’)
- Tense posture during ridden work, lack of bend or ‘outline’ (‘I feel like I have to saw at his mouth to get any contact at all…’)
- Sensitive areas, flinching when touched (‘He gets grumpy when I touch him there, I just avoid it when grooming…’)
- Being ‘cold-backed’ (‘He’s just trying to avoid work…It’s just a habit…’)
While all horses are undeniably individuals, what we might label as oddities or mild irritability in our horses just MIGHT be their way of trying to communicate something very important to us.
Then there’s the horses that are not in the habit of hiding their issues – they REALLY want you to know about it! These are often labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘excitable’ or ‘difficult’. Signs and possible considerations include:
- bucking (Is there a pattern to when these bucks happen? Always the same rein? During particular transitions…?)
- rearing (Have you checked his teeth lately? Is your noseband too tight or sitting over his airway? Why else might he be avoiding your impact on his head or mouth…?)
- bolting (What might be triggering his natural flight response? Is your herd animal suffering from separation anxiety…?)
- repeated jump refusals or run-outs, bucking/bolting on landing (Imagine the associations that can be built up from the pain of a jarring landing on sore backs or forelimbs…)
There are obviously masses more signals, some subtle, some glaring, which we are all guilty of dismissing. Having said that, I am not in the camp of people that believes that horses can never misbehave or be cheeky – I believe this can certainly be the case, particularly in my experience when I have not entered into the interaction myself in the best frame of mind!! Horses that feel they are lacking in leadership, as seen with children(!), will inevitably test us in some way due to insecurity caused by a lack of boundaries. They are not machines that come with a manual, they are animals with personalities of their own, who find themselves in the rather unnatural situation of having a human sitting on their backs asking them to give up their own free will!
But…if your horse really wants you to know something, he is likely to repeat it – look at his expressions and body language in particular situations or when you interact with him. Better still, ask the opinion of others – they may not know more than you, but they may spot behaviours that to you have become ‘normal’ – when in fact they might be the whispers (or shouts!) of a voiceless animal in pain or discomfort…