Margaret Freeman is an S-level dressage judge, lifelong horsewoman and journalist. She’s also been the Associate Editor of Horse Journal since its inception, helping develop that publication from infancy into its prominence today. Her views on reading our horse, especially if you’re having a training problem that seemed to pop up out of no where, may give you some solid food for thought. Have you considered your horse’s viewpoint:
We’re usually glad our horses can’t talk. We don’t want their opinions on our riding ability, our plans for a four-hour trailer trip or the call we made to the vet for spring shots.
But the one time we wish they could talk is when we want them to tell us where it hurts. One of a horseman’s greatest frustrations is sorting out the source of pain, ranking right up there with training-related issues that just can’t be resolved. But many horsemen are slow to accept how often training-related issues are really vet-related issues.
It wasn’t that long ago that most of us hadn’t heard of ulcers, and many horsemen still don’t grasp their impact on behavior because their onset is gradual and usually escapes notice. Ulcers, however, should be considered for any horse whose negative behavior is out of proportion to the stimulus that sets it off. If a horse kicks out when asked for a transition to canter, the first resort is a tap of the whip. But if a tsunami of stomach acid sloshes across an ulcer when the horse lifts to a canter, no whip is going to make him less resentful of the leg aid.
Or take the horse that won’t stretch his nose down at the trot when the reins are released. If the horse is footsore, he won’t want the extra weight on his front legs and will keep his head up. Why is he footsore? Maybe when his hay was changed six months back he encountered a mineral imbalance that reduced hoof quality over time. In essence, he won’t stretch his head down because his nutrition is off kilter, not his training. But it may take a miracle of detection (and maybe a second symptom, such as a rough coat) to figure it out.
When a horse suddenly changes its pattern of behavior, we often react with a whip, leg or voice aid. If the change is more gradual, we may not even realize it until the new behavior becomes ingrained. We then don’t know if we need a vet or a trainer. If the source of the problem is pain and the pain is removed, the anticipation of pain may remain and the physical problem becomes a mental one, a tangled chicken-and-egg dilemma.
When your horse develops a problem you can’t sort out, take a step backward. Get help from your vet, your trainer, your farrier and your knowledgeable friends who will take the arm’s-length look at the problem that you’re standing too near to sort out. Consider all possibilities, but first think about whether your horse could be hurting somewhere, because then no amount of training will help him.