All the times I've ridden the new Arab gelding, Mick, Debbie and I have been trying to find out the 12 to 20 problems that came with Mick. First the saddle, Debbie trailered Mick down to the good tack shop to consult their saddle fitter and they found a saddle for his young rider that fit both horse and rider. Then Debbie had a problem that Mick's adult riders (he already has a fan base at the stable) could not fit in the 16" saddle. I lent Debbie my regular 18" Wintec so she could have a saddle for adult students, and we finally selected and put in the correct gullet (red). Debbie found a girth Mick liked. Debbie and I also found snaffle bits he likes, my thinnest Dr. Bristol eggbutt for everyone else and a Mullen mouth eggbutt for me. Then, with several chiropractor visits to fix the kinks in his back, we had hopes that Debbie had solved all of Mick's problems.
The gods laughed.
As we fixed one problem another one would show up. It has been like peeling an onion, however far down we go there seems to be another problem. After going through a veterinary soundness exam for purchase and winning two championships for hunter under saddle (on the flat) and jumping during lessons, all of a sudden Mick started standing funny, with the right fore extended, all his weight on the left diagonal, and his left hind stretched out to the rear. He stood like this in the pasture, in his stall, and when at a halt in the ring. After the first week of this Mick also started bobbing his head at the trot during turns, and when he took the right lead of the canter he would start off fine, then speed up suddenly, and then change leads at the turns. Debbie asked the farrier to check out the front fore with the hoof testers because Mick was pointing it at the halt, and he found no signs of navicular. I did not really think Mick had navicular because I felt no flinching when Mick had his weight on his right fore but I am really glad she checked! So this week Debbie concentrated on looking at Mick's hind legs while I rode him. Debbie had been noticing something a little off about the way Mick's hind legs were moving but I could not FEEL any irregularity, not surprising since I've been riding a horse with an occult spavin for years.
When Mick came to Debbie's stable he was ALWAYS standing with both hind legs really close together at the hocks with both hooves turned out. After the chiropractor adjustments Mick started standing with his hocks further apart. I have been using the turns on the forehand to strengthen Mick's muscles on the outside and inside of his hind legs, starting with no more than a step or two before moving forward again. Mick showed that he had definitely been trained to do the turn on the forehand, and he always responded promptly to my aids. I also did turns on the hindquarters to encourage the up-and-down motion of the inside hind, again without any problems. Backing up has been a little dicier, but, with patience and light aids, Mick would back up straight though reluctantly. I had no problems when I asked Mick to extend his walk or trot though I had to use a little bit more support with the reins to get a true extension of the trot. With this targeted exercise and the chiropractor adjustments Mick's hind legs started muscling up and apparantly working better. Until he started bobbing his head at the turns.
So Wednesday I did a LOT of trotting (for me) while Debbie tried to figure Mick out. She finally decided that Mick's right hind leg was not moving properly. Because I could not feel it she asked me to get down and watch Mick while she rode him. But when I started to dismount Mick all of a sudden raised his neck, stiffened it and struck out some with a forefoot. Since he moved as I was swinging off (I take both my feet out of the stirrups before I swing off) and since the cantle on the Wintec saddle is higher than the cantle on my Stubben Siegfried my right leg sort of got hooked on the cantle. I froze. Debbie rapidly got to his head and steadied him, and then I completed my dismount though I'm afraid I dragged my heel across his back since I was off balance and did not have my left foot in the stirrup. All I could think of as I hung there was that Mick is in training to be a lesson horse and that a lesson horse HAS to learn to put up with less than perfect dismounts. He got a good lesson with that, my dismount was the worst one I had done in decades. (And later when Debbie dismounted she told him in no uncertain terms that SHE was not going to put up with any movement or protest, and of course Mick stood like a statue.) Since I was not using my Corrector pad Mick had probably been feeling my seat a lot more than usual, and since my balance is bad my seat moves a bit more than normal riders. I really think that the Corrector pad helps protects the horse's back from my problems with riding. At least he's never given me problems dismounting when I use it.
As I watched Debbie ride I concentrated on watching Mick's right hind, first looking at the hoof and pastern, then looking further up. Looking at his hoof and pastern when walking it looked like Mick was moving as if he had something like a vine around his pastern. After a few trots watching the uneven motion of Mick's hind legs it hit me, Mick was not flexing his right hock as much as his left hock. This was VERY SUBTLE, I had to look closely to see it, but once I did see it I could tell that Mick did not flex his hock much whether in the air, landing, bearing weight, or when he pushed off, it sort of looked like Mick was using that hind leg like a vaulting pole. When Debbie started cantering him on the right lead and Mick sped up with increasing acceleration each stride, it looked to me as if Mick was trying to run away from pain, and then at the turn he would change his lead and do a counter canter around the rest of the turn. When Mick stopped I looked closely at Mick's hocks and while the right hock might have been a teensy bit wider than the left hock Mick showed no pain when I palpated it. Like I reminded Debbie, that particular problem of not flexing the hock could also come from problems with the stifle or hip joint, the way the hind leg works all the joints flex the same amount at the same time. Well she did not think it was in any way a stifle problem since the farrier had no problem bringing Mick's leg back for trimming, so either 1) there is a problem relating to his past back problems way up in the hip joint that affects his standing and movement, or 2) I suggested a problem might just be starting in his hock and I offered some of Mia's arthritis multi-supplement just to help the joints work better. I have found that it is a much better idea to treat the pain when it starts rather than waiting until the vets have no problem seeing the lameness. Arthritis can be insidious, starting with small pangs of soreness and ending up with horribly painful joints, and since Mick is in his teens and has had a lot of miles in competition (3-Day events and showing as a hunter) and on the trails there should be some wear and tear in his leg joints. Hopefully the supplement will make him feel better.
I've noticed that horses often prioritize pain. At first Mick definitely had big problems with single jointed or thick lozenged snaffles, throwing his head up and stargazing. I lent Mick my thinnest Dr. Bristol put properly on the bridle and he improved, and when MY hands got worse I changed to my Mullen mouth. Then Mick had problems with the saddles Debbie tried, he went fine with my pretty wide Stubben Siegfried and the Corrector pad, but none of Debbie's saddles really fit him, so Debbie fixed that, getting him fit properly by a saddle fitter. At the same time, because Debbie thought something else was wrong with Mick's back, she's had the chiropractor adjust him several times and Mick improved further. Next Mick, after no problems with it for two rides, blew up when we used my adjustable girth with no elastic, so we found the type of girth that he likes, with elastic on both ends. Now that those pains and irritations have been dealt with Mick is showing us where he is uncomfortable in his legs, starting with his right hind (I think.) Have we found all of Mick's problems? I don't know. What I do know is that Mick has been making it obvious that the only reason that he puts up with me riding him is that he is a polite, well trained horse and because I ride him as well as I can, carefully timing my aids and not abusing his back with my seat. However he is not comfortable with me riding him (probably due to my lack of balance and general unsteadiness) and because he is tensing up from my unsteady seat this may be aggravating his pains further. Mick is probably not going to relax more under me until we deal with every other source of pain. Only then will Mick feel comfortable enough to adjust himself to my handicaps like every other horse has. Until then I will only ride him when Debbie is in the ring with me.
Figuring out a horse's problems can be a journey of discovery, going down many different paths and trying many different solutions. It would help SO MUCH if the horse could just speak and tell us what is wrong. Well, horses DO speak, in their own way, about their discomforts, we just have to learn how to correctly interpret what the horse is saying. After decades of riding I have come to the conclusion that most problems that people have riding and training horses come from the horse feeling pain, pain in the mouth, pain in the head, pain in the back, pain on the ribs, pain in the legs, pain, pain, pain. Once we fix the pain resistances can disappear as if by magic and all of a sudden we are riding a cooperative horse. Until the next pain appears.
Why take so much care for a dumb animal's comfort?
Because when the horse no longer hurts the horse can start dancing with you just because it feels SO GOOD when you ride him.
Have a great ride!