Is your horse acting up due to behavioral issues or are there physical issues at play? Lindsey Partridge discusses just this and shares her experience.
By Lindsey Partridge
When I have a horse that is great to be around and listens well, then it’s a red flag if the horse does something out of character. For instance, if it doesn’t want its ears touched or rears from poll pressure (among other things), this is something to consider.
Many times it’s simpler to blame the horse for misbehaving and punish for the rude behavior.
But is your horse trying to say it is hurting?
How else is it supposed to communicate this?
When my little palomino, Shiney, arrived earlier this summer from Florida she was super sweet and quiet in the cross ties. Then I started working with her and she seemed stuck in a stressed state and would rear very easily, especially when I did anything around her ears. I wondered if she hit her head in the trailer on the long journey up from Florida. With my vet we discovered a sarcoid on her left ear that was so painful that I needed to sedate her in order to treat the area. Thankfully treatment for the sarcoid is over and we can now work on building trust so that I can touch her ears.
I’m not sure exactly what happened to cause Shiney’s rearing when I first got her. The breeder/trainer I got her from is extremely reputable and a kind soft trainer, so I don’t think it is training or handling related. What I do know is that when I slowed down and listened to my horse, things got better.
I treated her with chiropractic adjustments, Bemer, cold laser therapy, had her teeth floated and healed her sarcoid.
I didn’t punish her or make her work harder.
It is now a few months later and we have a beautiful partnership, great liberty and she hasn’t reared unless I asked (which is a new thing we’re working on as a fun trick).
When a horse starts to act out of character there are a few common issues that come up and are where I start assessing with the help of my vet, farrier, equine chiropractor or massage therapist.
- Toothache: the number of horses that have sharp points, poor alignment or a fractured tooth causing pain is surprising. The trick is finding the right vet or dentist to float your horse’s teeth. The pain in the mouth can affect their jaw, poll, and overall give them a headache — this can make anyone moody, sensitive, and irritable. As I’ve addressed issues with my horses’ mouths, here are some conclusions to which I have come:
- A vet using a hand float won’t have the risk of over heating teeth, but it is unlikely they can address all the sharp points, especially the back of the mouth that is hard to reach, or be precise about the angle.
- A vet using power tools needs to have a camera to check their work, needs to be very careful not to overheat the tooth, and needs the right attachments for the teeth deepest in the mouth (I’ve had a vet overheat my horse’s teeth and caused multiple fractures in 100% of my horses). The vet I use now uses power tools and has the smaller attachments and a camera to check his work — we haven’t had a fractured tooth since.
- In rare cases a horse could have something more serious going on in its mouth — a horse at one of my clinics was having issues with a bit, so we switched to bitless and the horse was great. Later on the vet discovered tumors in the horse’s mouth that would have caused the discomfort with the bit.
- A horse I have in for training right now is only five years old. I asked the owner if we could get her teeth looked at. Turns out she had such sharp points that she had big ulcers and lacerations in her mouth, and the points were causing her teeth to grow crooked.
- Ulcers: A large number of horses suffer from ulcers, and not just racehorses (many reports estimate that over 90% of racehorses have ulcers). Feeding high sugar grain and stressful situations increase the odds of ulcers. Feeding alfalfa can help with ulcers (my horses all get alfalfa pellets everyday).
- Often vets will prescribe treatment for ulcers with omeprazole without scoping and looking for ulcers. The rationale is that it is expensive to scope a horse for ulcers (about $500), it doesn’t hurt the horse to treat them for ulcers if they don’t have them, so you may as well put the money towards treatment which is also fairly expensive.
- I’ve had a couple horses in for training that I suspected had ulcers (one currently in for training that the vet suspects has ulcers). Horses with ulcers are typically overly reactive or sensitive, they don’t like their belly touched and can be girthy or not like the saddle/girth being put on or done up. Sometimes they will act cold-backed, meaning that after you saddle up they go bucking or crow hopping around for a little bit first. This is happening with the horse in for training right now — she’s been saddled or had a bareback pad or lunging surcingle almost everyday for nearly three weeks now and she still crow hops or bucks after doing up the girth. It doesn’t matter that every session we finish relaxed and positive, it doesn’t matter that I do the girth up slowly and reward her along the way, and it doesn’t matter that sometimes it’s just a bareback pad (so it’s not a lot of weight on her back).
- Sometimes when I get Thoroughbreds off the track I will find they don’t like scratches and can be irritable when I put my leg on or touch their belly to ask for lateral movements. Usually after a couple months of treatment for ulcers they are significantly happier and will actually enjoy the scratches.
- In my experience, using Gastra FX with RegenerxEQ from Omega Alpha along with a diet of alfalfa pellets and a vitamin/mineral balancer can be effective at eliminating ulcers without the need for omeprazole.
- Sore feet: sometimes horses have thin soles or their hooves aren’t balanced. This can be genetics, nutrition or less than ideal trimming. Either way, having sore hooves can cause strain and tension through the whole horse and can make other parts of the horse sore. It’s comparable to if you had a pebble in your shoe. The way you would walk to avoid feeling the pain from the pebble would cause you to be sore through your back and hips, and you would overwork your other foot. The same is true for horses. Sore hooves can lead to a sore back, hips and other limbs.
- Using hoof boots can help if you want to keep your horse barefoot (my favourites are Scoot Boots). Sometimes a horse will benefit from shoes, and sometimes they might need pads too. Thinline makes a hoof pad that can be put between the shoes and the hoof to help with impact protection.
- Thrush treatment and prevention is key. I use a Thrushbuster product once a week during muddy season to help keep my horse’s hooves healthy — Healthy Horse makes a good product.
- After solving the hoof soreness, sometimes the horse will need massage or chiropractic care to help relieve the tension in the rest of the body.
- Sore back: sometimes the horse’s back can get really sore. This can cause any number of problems, such as them not wanting the saddle on or to be mounted and to react negatively to work under saddle — especially when trying to jump or canter.
- Back x-rays can let you know if there are any musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis or kissing spine. Kissing spine is when the back vertebrae touch, which can be painful. Sometimes this can need surgery, but other times it can be addressed through building muscle along the topline.
- Saddle fit is probably one of the most crucial pieces. If a saddle doesn’t fit it can do serious damage. Finding an expert saddle fitter is so important.
- Chiropractor and massage can often tell you if the horse has places of tension in their body or anything out of alignment.
The key message is to stop and listen.
If your horse’s behavior doesn’t make sense, it could be something physical it is trying to communicate to you. Doing some investigative work can really help you get back to training sooner. It also can help prevent a potentially dangerous situation of pushing a horse to a breaking point — mentally or physically.
Remember, if your horse is acting up, first stop and listen.
Lindsey Partridge is the founder of Harmony Horsemanship, a Certified Equine Canada Coach for English and Western, multime time champion and reserve champion at the Thoroughbred and Mustang makeovers. You can find our more about her at www.LindseyPartridge.com.