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The Horse Always Knows

I can’t remember now who it was, long ago in vet school, or maybe before, who told me “ the horse always knows what is wrong”, but it has always been the guiding mantra of how I detect lameness. The horse knows where he hurts. The horse can tell me. He speaks a different language, so I have to learn to understand it. But the horse knows, and the horse can tell me what is wrong. Body language, tension in muscles, the movement of a leg, the swishing of a tail, this is how they speak. We who profess to love them ought to learn to listen.

Yesterday I had the experience of examining a horse who was almost euthanized as a “dangerous bucker”. Initially she was a good riding horse for her prior owner, who had her for several years . One day though, she started showing bad behavior under saddle. Eventually She bucked off the owner, the owner’s daughter, and the trainer paid to sort the horse out. They decided she was unfixable and wanted to euthanize her. Fortunately, another horse person in the barn felt they were making a mistake. She took the horse, and gave her some time off. Then, she decided to have her examined for something that might have caused the bucking.

When they led the horse out of the barn, I recognized the tense expression on her face. Horses repeatedly asked to work through significant pain often undergo a personality change They may become withdrawn, tense, anxious, or cranky . She had that look about her. I am a veterinarian, and a scientist, but that look tears at my heart in a way that has nothing to do with science. Throughout history the horse has suffered for us, and they suffer still. Its painful to watch that quiet, confused suffering.

A 15 year old Thoroughbred mare, bay without a speck of white, she lashed her tail back and forth as she came out onto the drive. Her hind end was stiff, the “posty” walk horse people talk about. As she walked on the gravel drive her toes dragged and kicked up stones. She didn’t limp, which is typical of horses with problems like hock arthritis that tend to occur in both legs at the same time. Often, these lamenesses are missed by owners and sometimes trainers until they are very bad, because both hind legs move in an abnormal fashion. Asked to trot, she pinned her ears and flatly refused, then kicked out when someone tried to encourage her. When I tried to flex her hind legs, she held them stiff, fighting my every movement, though she lifted her foot and gave it to me like a horse well trained.

It was quite clear to me she was suffering from hock pain. She moved as much as possible without flexing them at all, and resisted my attempts to manipulate them. She has the cranky demeanor of a horse in chronic pain. Also, bucking is a common owner complaint in horses with hock pain . Unable to tell us they hurt, they speak in the ways they can: bucking, rearing, refusing transitions, balking at jumps, getting girthy, refusing to be caught. The careful reader will note that many of these signs of pain are things a lot of horse people write off as disobedience, poor training, or lack of respect. Indeed I have seen a number of horses with very painful physical ailments who have been hauled from trainer to trainer, with the same poor results until the good trainer gets the horse and says” there is something wrong. Your horse needs to see the vet”.

Xrays confirmed my suspicions. She had distal hock arthritis. The joint spaces in both hocks were narrowed and filled with bony overgrowth. Movement would create bone-on-bone rubbing that would be very painful for the horse All her bad behavior was a way of communicating her pain, and she was almost put to sleep for it when what she needed was medical treatment.

While as a lameness vet I certainly believe there is no substitute for a lameness exam by a qualified professional you CAN be an advocate for your horse’s well being by learning to recognize the signs of lameness. Here is a rule to remember. When a good horse suddenly goes bad, don’t blame the horse until you have made sure the horse isn’t just asking you for help. Behavior problems like bucking, rearing, girthiness, etc are common complaints from owners of horses with back or hock problems.

Particularly in addition to hock pain, kissing spines in the back can cause this type of behavior. The horse’s back vertebrae have large dorsal spines, like a skinny version of a shark fin. Sometimes, these spines will grow so that they overlap each other. The result is pain, particularly when there is pressure of any kind placed over the back, by for example a saddle and rider. One striking case involved a half Arab gelding who after being a dressage mount for some time, began biting when girthed. The biting progressed to refusal to be caught for rides, and finally to bucking and complete refusal of anything but a walk under saddle. The trainer was insightful enough to realize something had to be going on.

During the exam , I palpated along the dorsal spines of the back vertebrae, and the horse ducked painfully, pinned his ears, and cow-kicked at me. Clearly there was pain present. On the lunge line he looked content and smooth without a saddle, but once the saddle was on he began to drag himself with the front end, losing the collected grace he’d previously showed. After several circuits, he charged the owner with pinned ears and refused to go forward again for several minutes. The owner attempted to do a riding demo but we aborted it because the horse’s behavior was so extreme and dangerous.

For these cases I will often inject local anesthetic between the vertebral spines, where the bone contact is. If the spine is the cause of the problem, it will resolve as the area numbs similar to when a dentist gives a Novocaine shot. In this case, the change was stunning. After 15 minutes with the local anesthetic block, he trotted off obediently with the saddle on , moving on the lunge line as lightly as he had without. The owner mounted, and he moved off quietly, a completely different horse than we had seen just a few minutes before.

Following back injections with steroids and pain relievers, this horse was again a cooperative and sound mount. His bucking and refusal was only an attempt to communicate how badly his back hurt.

While it takes years of study of both normal and abnormal horses to really develop an eye for lameness, any horse owner can take the step of pursuing an exam if their horse starts showing unusual behavior. Don’t be too quick to write off behavior problems as dominance or disrespect. The horse will tell us what is wrong. We only have to listen.