Friday, June 4, 2010

Treating the Cause Instead of the Symptoms

Maisie has taught me a lot of things. One of the biggest things she's taught me is that before I decide that something is a training issue I'd better figure out if there's a physical problem underlying it that needs to be remedied first. Or of course I could try to fix it the way I used to - compel the horse to do it regardless of how they felt about it. A horse with a temperament like Maisie's will comply, unhappily, and hate you quietly for it, becoming shut down; a horse with a temperament like Dawn's will refuse to comply, and fight and be fearful and angry about it, and maybe hurt you or herself in the process. One of the first things I learned from Mark Rashid was to always ask yourself "how does the horse feel about that?" I also used to believe that a horse that didn't comply with what I was asking was stubborn, or just acting up to prove a point. That can happen, rarely, but most horses most of the time are willing to try to do what we want, if they can just understand what it is and are physically able to do it. Punishing a horse for failing to understand what I want - or failing to figure it out fast enough - just builds in resentment and doesn't lead to any sort of effective learning. Forcing a horse to so something that hurts, when the horse has clearly told you it hurts (if you were listening), is unkind and destroys trust. Maisie taught me about ulcers, saddle fit and body soreness that needed chiropractic work, and as she's aged, I've also learned about metabolic and endocrine matters and how they can affect soundness and way of going.

What got me thinking about all of this was Maisie's visit with the farrier on Wednesday and her visit with the chiropractor on Thursday. I always try to schedule a chiropractor visit close after major dental work, as changing the way the jaw moves affects the biomechanics of the whole horse - whether you ride with a bit or bitless. Also, Maisie recently had a bout of laminitis, and holding her body to protect her feet undoubtedly led to soreness and things being out of whack. Maisie has had a history of problems with the farrier - any farrier - due to the soundness issues she came with when I got her and probably untreated metabolic issues that made her somewhat footsore - but we've mostly worked through that together with our current farrier. When he trimmed her and shod her fronts on Wednesday, however, she had serious trouble with her left front - not the trimming or shoeing itself, but having to hold her leg up. It clearly was really hurting her, which wasn't really surprising since her laminitis had been worse in the right front. This was one of the cases like having the vet give shots where the job had to get done, and we did it - the farrier helped by keeping her left front low for the trimming and shoeing part. Fortunately, the other legs were OK.

Our chiropractor found that Maisie, not surprisingly, had cramps and soreness in her shoulders, wither area, sternum and neck, undoubtedly from holding her body with tension during the laminitis. I had been able to feel the cramps in the right side of her neck and had been working on them. Maisie helped by shaking out her head and neck while they were worked on, and was very clear about asking for work in the areas where she was sore - our chiropractor is a good listener to horses. Her left stifle and gaskin area needed work too - I had expected that from the couple of "stifle collapses" we'd experienced lately while riding. Our chiropractor, who is also a vet and an expert on endocrine matters, said that she might have some residual foot-soreness (it's 90% better due to taking her off grass and having her on a chromium supplement) so we drew some blood to check her thyroid function and insulin levels. She's been doing at the trot what my chiropractor describes as a "sewing machine" gait, particularly with her right front - lots of knee action and not much reaching out - which could be protecting her feet from hitting the ground in a way that's uncomfortable.

My chiropractor said that one of the reasons she now tries to spend most of her time doing chiropractic and endocrine work, rather than her traditional veterinary practice, is that she wanted to treat horses for causes of unsoundness, soreness and behavior issues rather than just putting band-aids over symptoms that repeatedly occur because underlying issues were never addressed either while they were developing or once true unsoundness appeared. She likes making horses feel better in ways that make them able to be willingly compliant partners in the work.


  1. A good post. In all its aspects.

    "She likes making horses feel better in ways that make them able to be willingly compliant partners in the work."

    Thats a real good quote! I need to think that over.

  2. Kate,
    I'm curious about how one finds a good equine chiropractor? I have considered one for Maddie, with some of her ouchy-grouchy symptoms. The vet found and treated the ankle issue last month, and she's due to start some light work this weekend, but I still wonder if there's another issue going on. Vet didn't find any suspect areas in her back with simple palpation, but we're in cowboy country, not quite in the middle of nowhere (Seattle's an hour and a half west). I've heard of one chiro (who may also be a vet, I think) that comes through if a barn-full of folks get together to make it worth her while...

  3. EvenSong - try the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association website:

    Also, if she's marish, I've had good luck with Mare Magic - and it's very cheap.

    Any signs of ulcers? Girthy, touchy sides, signs of pain before feeding time?

  4. I really agree with your sentiments about finding out WHY the horse doesn't comply with a request. My mare really does want to try, but she has also taught me to think before pushing her as she usually has a good reason for her troubles.

  5. I am so in agreement about physical issues always being a consideration when a horse does not try or gives his trainer difficulty.

    The only problem I've developed with Tucker is that he KNOWS I will listen, so he will often tell me about even the little things he could ignore. A bit spoiled, I fear, but I'll indulge him.

  6. A very thoughtful post, I enjoyed it.

  7. First I have to say - if I ever come back into this life as a horse, I want to come to live with you :-)

    Excellent post!

    I find it frustrating sometimes in watching a rider fight with their horse when it's very clear (to me) that the horse is telling them something...and not just being naughty.

    Some of these people are people I know....and even get along with. I can't say anything that would have any effect though, because they view me as the "less experienced" rider. On the contrary I don't see myself that way at all -- but I know if I were to say anything, I would be completely dismissed and no doubt have some people annoyed with me.

    At least I take comfort in knowing my horse does not have to put up with that. If the roles were flipped, with them telling me I need to "make" my horse do something, they would probably get more of a lecture from me than they ever intended (but at least a polite one at that). While I wish I was a bit more bold in speaking my mind, I feel that I am at least a great advocate for my horse. I think others around me know that too...which is why I am usually left alone when working with my boy. I guess no one wants a lecture- LOL

    I also liked your chiropracter's analogy about taking care of the scource of the problem instead of just putting on band-aids. Very cool!

  8. "treat horses for causes of unsoundness, soreness and behavior issues rather than just putting band-aids over symptoms that repeatedly occur because underlying issues were never addressed" !!!! WOW!!! SOOOO wish I had a vet like that where I live!! Here most vets dont even believe in chiropractic work! It is sooo frustrating to see horses who are clearly in pain being punished for "resisting training". I know a lady who buys "problem horses" really cheap for resale... she just looks for the ones with serious back issues or giant white scar marks on their backs from ill fitting saddles. A months worth of chiro work and a little retraining and they are good as new.

    Another thing that a lot of people overlook is that some horses are just built unsound and will never be able to stand up to hard work. I actually was watching a horse like that last night! She had hocks that twisted worse than I've ever seen and built straight up and down in her from pasterns... sure enough she was unsound.

  9. Kate, you always inspire me to be a better horsewoman. I wish I had the skills to back it up - or more confidence in the skills I do have. I'm sorry she's still sore, and I hope your next post reports she's back to normal. :)

  10. Funder - your skills seem just fine to me!


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