Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Does Your Horse Ever Yell at You?

Once in a while, one of my horses has to yell at me, and I always feel bad about this because it means I've not been paying attention and have been ignoring what they have been trying to tell me, often for days.  They say that if they ask nicely - often repeatedly - and if I'm still not listening, and they have something important to say, then I leave them no choice but to yell at me.

Yesterday, Dawn and I figured out something important - but she says to tell you that she had to yell at me first.

She's been increasingly snappish about our morning rides, sometimes when I'm grooming, often when I'm saddling and girthing, and even sullen glares and attempted nips when I'm leading her to the mounting block to get on.  She started with gestures of displeasure - glares and grimaces, then over the next days, upped the ante to "air snaps" - biting gestures where she doesn't make contact, to grabbing my coat and holding it (with accompanying glares).  Finally, Monday, she'd apparently had it - she really turned into an alligator - big snaps and even hitting my hip with her teeth.  She and I have a deal: she can be expressive but contact with my body isn't allowed.  The fact that she felt she had to cross that line was a really clear indication of how upset she was that I wasn't getting the message she'd been trying for days to tell me.

The worst of the snapping occurred when I was saddling - putting the saddle on, putting the shims under the saddle, adjusting the pad and girthing.  So clearly it was something about the saddle.  But I was a bit perplexed.  We're using the same saddle she's been happy with for years, with the same shims.  I had to think about it overnight until the light bulb came on . . .

But first, a note about saddle fit and shims.  These are the shims I use:

This shows two of them, fanned slightly, much as I use them under a saddle.  They are very thin pieces of felt, and they are inserts that came from a Mattes pad.  A number of years I got a Mattes pad, thinking it would be useful, but pretty quickly got rid of the pad itself and kept the inserts.  The pad itself was pretty, but not very helpful, as it has pre-set pockets into which the shims go.  But what if that's not where your saddle needs shimming?  And the shims had to stack up in the pockets, creating uncomfortable edges for the horse.  So, instead, I shim using the felt pads alone, arranged in whatever number and configuration is needed and placed between the saddle and pad exactly where they're required.  The pads stay put nicely, since the felt isn't slippery.

But, you ask, why not get a saddle that fits?  This is a good question to ask.  I have three saddles.  Missy wears one (an About the Horse saddle), with no shims - it fits her perfectly.  Red wears a different About the Horse saddle - it fits him well with no shims.  Pie wears the same saddle as Missy, but with shims to compensate for his narrower shoulders.  Dawn wears a third saddle (a Kieffer dressage saddle), and she's both slightly downhill and also narrow through the withers, so we use shims.  There's nothing wrong with using shims to allow a saddle to fit, and they can be helpful as horses change shape due to fitness levels and weight.  But as with anything, shims can also create problems, and they won't fix a saddle that really doesn't fit.

I use the thinnest saddle pads possible - Red and Pie use single wool pads, and Dawn uses just a dressage pad.  Missy does use a diamond wool pad but it makes her saddle fit perfectly so that's OK.  If your saddle fits, you don't need much if any padding (also assuming you're not bouncing and pounding on your horse's back), and this has the benefit of putting you closer to the horse.  If you need a lot of thick padding, your saddle really doesn't fit.  And padding up a saddle with a tree that is too narrow actually makes the problem worse.

Anyhow, I thought about what Dawn could be telling me about saddle fit . . .

Aha!! I got it!  She'd changed shape - she has gained some weight recently (a good thing as she's a hard keeper) and also has most of her thicker winter coat, and her saddle, shimmed the way we'd been doing it, no longer fit and was putting pressure on the back of her shoulders (the most common saddle fitting problems are: a) wrong tree size - too big or too small or wrong shape, b) bridging - where the front and back of the saddle correctly fit the horse but there's a gap in the middle where the saddle doesn't contact the horse's back, and c) pressure on the shoulders due to wrong tree shape/bar pressure or incorrect placement on the horse's back).

The next morning, I confirmed when grooming that the areas at the back of her shoulders, just below the withers, were a bit sore, the right a bit more than the left.  We did some massage and energy work on those areas, which she seemed to really appreciate - some muzzle twitching, chewing and even one big head/neck shake out.  Then we went to saddling, and before I saddled, I took the shims and held them out to her and told her I now knew what she was saying and thought we could fix the problem so she would be comfortable.

There was one pro forma glare when the saddle came out, but other than that she was relaxed and happy throughout the saddling, including for girthing - a huge change from one day to the next.  I'd been putting three shims on each side, at the front and top of the saddle - this both raised the saddle and narrowed it at the front.  The problem was that three shims was too many with her weight gain, and I was also putting the shims too far forward where they pushed on the back of her shoulders.  I reduced the shims to two (we tried one on each side first but that wasn't enough shimming) and moved them back from the front of the saddle - they're still towards the front, but behind her shoulders.  I also rotated the shims by about 45 degrees to more correctly fill the space without lifting the middle of the saddle.

Voila! Problem solved!  Happy, non-snappish Dawn.  We've had two days in a row where things have been just great.  I think that many horses who act out - who feel they have to yell (which can take the form of biting, bucking, rearing, bolting, etc.) - have issues of physical discomfort due to saddle fit, bit type/fit and muscle/joint pain issues that no one is paying attention to.  "Misbehavior" can often be a horse who is desperate to communicate something important about how they are feeling, physically and/or emotionally.

Now, Dawn says, if she could just get me to pay better attention so she doesn't have to yell at me again . . .

Have you ever been yelled at by your horse?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Good News!

Red and I had our vet visit today.  I really, really like my vet - she's extremely smart and knowledgeable, and a real pro about lots of things, but especially about lameness of any sort.  She's good with the horses, and always takes her time - even if her schedule is running hours late.  She also is good about explaining things to the human connections of the horses.  She also knows my horses well as individuals and remembers how they move and any oddities about their bodies.

She watched Red on the lunge, looked carefully at his leg, asked me questions, and did a careful palpation (done the correct way, with the leg held up) of all the structures, including the ligaments and tendons.  The swelling was down quite a bit from last week, but still visible.  Red was very close to completely sound on the lunge, slightly less so when the left hind was on the outside, but still more than 95% good.  Slightly less push with the left hind, but very subtle.

She said all the important structures - the suspensory ligament and the flexor tendons - felt fine - no swelling or tenderness.  She said it was highly likely, due to the location next to the tendons and in an area where he has scar tissue under the skin from his splint bone surgery, that an adhesion - scar tissue from the surgery - had been attached to the tendon sheath and had moved (when he almost fell with me or from running around in the pasture), causing a small tear in the tendon sheath.  This leaked synovial fluid, forming the swelling and causing minor lameness at the time.  The fact that the swelling has gone down a lot and there is no heat or tenderness likely means the small tear in the tendon sheath was so small that it has already closed back up again.

After discussion, we decided not to ultrasound at this time, since she didn't think the structure of the ligament or tendons was affected, and ultrasound does a poor job visualizing adhesions.  She also thought the 5% unsoundness was likely in large part to his hind end arthritic joint issues and him being out of work.

So we're cleared to start back to under saddle work!  Very exciting!  Obviously, if he doesn't work out of his stiffness, or he gets less sound or the leg starts to look worse, we'll rethink, but her opinion is that he'll be just fine.  I let him go into the pasture and he trotted and then cantered off, as happy as can be.

(A note about tendon sheathes.  Normally, an injury to a tendon sheath is a very serious matter.  But most injuries to tendon sheathes are wounds - lacerations or punctures.  These injuries present serious risks of infection, and often the structure of the tendon is damaged as well.  Red's injury isn't of this type - it's wholly inside his leg with no exposure to the outside.)

So, this afternoon, we went back to work with a 15-minute walk ride - he was as good as gold, despite having been out of work for almost three weeks.  It was great to be riding with him again!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Nature of Trust, and Another Vet Visit Coming Up . . .

An excellent post from Soft and Sound on what it means for a horse to trust, and what it takes to get a horse to put trust in your leadership.

* * * * * *

Red gets to see the vet . . . again . . . next week for a diagnostic ultrasound.  Although he seemed to be OK after our almost-fall about two weeks ago, about three days after that he developed a mysterious swelling on the outside of his left hind leg.  His outside left hind is where he had splint bone surgery, and the leg, although fully healed, does have some lumps and bumps.  But this was a soft, puffy swelling, and the location was a bit problematic in my view - in the area between the lateral suspensory ligament and the flexor tendon.  The swelling is clearly defined, not that large and about two inches above the top of the fetlock joint. It could be a result of the almost-fall, or somewhat that was exacerbated if he ran in turnout.  On the lunge, he's only slightly off on that leg - barely detectable - and he doesn't seem sensitive to palpation.  On a straight line at the trot, he appears sound.

Here's a picture - we're looking obliquely at his left hind - front of the leg is to the left.  The white line is where the hair grew in white over his surgical scar.

Horses with ligament and tendon injuries can sometimes present with minimal swelling or lameness, or after a fairly brief period of rest, no swelling or lameness, even if the tendon or ligament isn't fully healed.  This can result in a cycle of injury/soundness/back to work/reinjury/etc./etc., ultimately compromising the structure of the ligament or tendon to the point that soundness is impossible to retain when the horse is in work.  Maisie and I went through that a number of years ago - I was less experienced at the time and also got poor advice from the vet and trainer I was with at the time.  I don't know if ultrasounds were available at the time - more than 10 years ago - but no one suggested one. After repeated reinjuries, she was retired in her mid-teens - she's pasture sound but can't be in work - and is happily enjoying her retirement.

It's possible, due to the location of the swelling, that Red simply tore an adhesion from his surgery.  But the ultrasound will give us a more definitive answer on Friday.  Keeping fingers crossed . . .

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Tale of Four Tails

This is another case of how different each horse is from another.

I'm careful grooming tails - I hate pulling out hairs.  So, for most of the late fall, through winter, and into spring, I don't groom tails, at all.  If there are burrs or mud, I pick it out with my fingers.

Usually, the first really hot day in late spring, the horses get one of their few shampoo baths, including tail washing, and after that, I brush out tails, with liberal application of Show Sheen, and then use Show Sheen every time I brush tails after that.  This year, for some reason, although we had baths, there was no tail brushing.

So we ended up with September (and early October) tail brushing.  Dawn was easy - her black tail is sleek and slippery, even without Show Sheen, and easily brushed out.  Her tail looks a lot better than it used to - she used to frequently pull out big chunks of it catching it on her water bucket hooks, but that seems to have eased up with Missy (instead of a gelding - nasty gelding, Dawn says) in the adjacent stall.  Pooping in the water bucket is also way down, which I appreciate.  Her tail is pretty full now, and hangs to almost fetlocks, which is longer than it used to be. (None of these photos is recent, but it gives you an idea of tails.)

Red's tail is beautiful - very dark in color (although his mane is lighter than his body color), and quite narrow and long - it just brushes the ground.  It also has some wave to it, and tends to twirl - individual tendrils tend to form long, wrapped twirls, which makes them tough to brush out at first.  It took quite a while - at least an hour - to work through his tendrils.

Pie's tail is huge - very large and bushy and also quite long - it almost touches the ground.  I knew it would take quite a while to brush it out - his hair is a bit curly/kinky and tends to form knots and clumps, and it takes a long time to work through all the hair volume.  But once it's done, it's full and exuberant.   It took me two full sessions - probably an hour each time - to get it done - and I have to brush it with Show Sheen every day to keep it from snarling up again.

Missy has the prize tail - it's full, and very thick, and very, very long, white on the top and very dark brown below - it drags on the ground by at least three inches when she's at rest.  I was dreading brushing it out - although her's had been done more recently that any of my other horses.  But it turned out to be a breeze - less than 10 minutes to get the whole thing done.  She has the same slick, very straight hair that Dawn does - no curls or twirls or snags to deal with.  It look gorgeous - I may have to (reluctantly) trim the very ends to keep her from stepping on it and pulling it out.  She seems to have the same slippery, dirt resistant coat and mane/tail hair that our pony Norman has - we called him the Teflon pony - which is a good thing, considering how much white she has.

It's interesting the different character each horse's tail has - have you found that with your horses?