Reading Your Horse—Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Reading Your Horse—Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

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“If your horse seems to be struggling or uncomfortable or acting out, do some troubleshooting. Pain issues—most often in feet, teeth, and back—are responsible for 80% of horses’ behavioral problems. And often pain and discomfort are related to saddle fit.”

—Riding Through Thick & Thin

I was on the right track, sort of, then I swerved, changed horses and missed the boat completely. Despite this ridiculous mix of metaphor, this is a lesson so worth learning I repeat it to myself often. And if I forget, my horses tend to remind me.

My horse, Trace, is extremely sensitive. And smart. And athletic. So when he started bucking every single time I got on him, I tried one thing after another to make sure it wasn’t a pain issue (right track!).

I changed saddles—several times. Pads. Feed. Treated for ulcers. Floated his teeth. Cleaned his sheath (well I didn’t but the vet did). Consulted a holistic vet who “strength tested” and then had me treat an old leg injury with an herbal compound and wrap it daily for a month or so. Acupuncture, cold laser and some clicking instrument I still don’t understand by a chiropractor who made barn calls. Cranial sacral therapy. Animal communicators…

As you can see, I looked under every rock for the answer. Trace was so sweet and willing when I was on the ground—I had taught him everything in Clinton Anderson’s DVDs—but every time I got on it became nothing short of a wild west show. I do not like wild west shows in which I am a participant.

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So, deciding it wasn’t pain (here’s the swerve), I moved on to a series of trainers who tried first one thing and then another to “train” this strange and increasingly violent buck out of my little buckaroo. One after the other, they gave up. One blamed me and my lack of skill as a rider (he offered to “trade me something I could ride”). Another quit, deeming Trace “too dangerous  to work with,” and the others just shrugged and said I probably ought to get rid of him and get another horse (detour!).

To say I was discouraged, my confidence shattered and worst of all, truly afraid to get back on that horse, were all understatements. But my gut told me this was a horse worth sticking with (right track!). When we worked and played and learned together on the ground, this was the partnership with a horse people yearned for. I trusted him completely…unless I was on his back.

“You don’t ride your dogs and you still enjoy them,” one friend said, trying to console me. This solution didn’t feel quite right either.

Then came Karl, an old-fashioned trainer with a definite idea of what was wrong. “Take him to the chiropractor,” he said. “He’s in pain.”

I was skeptical and didn’t want to get my hopes up again as I ran up yet another bill—and likely, down another blind alley.

“See this?” Karl said, poking a finger into Trace’s neck up near his poll. Trace’s head shot straight up and his eyes grew white rims. “He’s out [of alignment] right there. See that?” He said, running his hand down Trace’s spine and pressing lightly on either side as he did with thumb and forefinger. The muscles of Trace’s back visibly tensed up. “All this is related to that mess up there in his neck.”

Then, watching Trace move around the round pen, Karl pointed out several things, from how he carried his head to the slight pause before his back right leg landed.

Karl, you see, makes his living reading the signs.

But how, if we’re not Karl, and aside from decades of experience of our own, can we learn to read the signs our horse might be in pain?

First, I think simple awareness of this great truth of horsemanship is huge. If 80% of behavior problems are caused by pain, why wouldn’t we start there?

 

For this we need to have some resources at the ready—a vet, an equine dentist, and yes, a chiropractor (and if either of these folks will be sedating your horse they really should also be vets). Equine massage therapists and cranial sacral therapists can be tremendously helpful if they know what they’re doing. And although saddle fitters who aren’t trying to sell you a saddle are few and far between, I’ve run across some extremely thorough resources in Dr. Joyce Harman, DVM and Susan Harris. Dr. Harman’s books and DVDs on Pain Free Saddle Fit (she has one for English and one for Western) are extremely helpful in assessing how your saddle fits and in evaluating one you’re considering buying. Harris’s DVD and articles on her website are fabulous for understanding how a horse moves and how to assess the movement of your own horse.

When choosing horse care professionals be sure to get references from people you trust who have used these folks before. Other good sources are your vet, trainer, or farrier. But don’t just take their word for it. Read up, ask questions, educate yourself all you can on learning how to listen to what your horse’s behavior might be telling you.

Having a little knowledge—and your own custom-built “A-Team” at the ready—goes a long way toward your own readiness to read the signs your horse is giving you that he’s not comfortable and needs some help from his human. Best of all, this awareness and having a plan will help you nip pain-related behavior problems in the bud and take the short path back to your happy trail!

This post was previously published on horsenetwork.com

“The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Buck Brannaman

News Projects The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife Horses Women and Horses

 

by Melinda Folse (formerly Melinda Folse Kaitcer) Order it now at www.horseandriderbooks.com!

What a profound statement from Dan “Buck” Brannaman in the riveting documentary, “Buck,” now showing in theaters everywhere (learn  more at www.buckthefilm.com) . Go see it and reply to this post with your favorite quote! Free “Saddle Up Your Midlife Horses” t-shirt to the first five who respond!

What is most interesting to me about this statement from this celebrated “horse whisperer” is that, in the midlife horse experience we often completely miss this gift of pure gold.  It’s so easy to blame the horse when things don’t go as we hoped in this relationship. We deny what our horse’s  behavior may be telling us about who we are on the inside. Or, paraphrasing Buck and before him, Ray Hunt, and before him, Tom Dorrance, “horse problems” almost always turn out to be horses with “people problems.”

That invaluable reflection from our ponies, girlfriends, is the essence of what we can learn from our midlife horses. And, whether we like it or want to admit it or not, you can’t fool them or change their opinion. Horses just call ’em as they see ’em . . . and it’s up to us to figure out what changes we need to make so we’ll like what they see in us!

What did my horse, Trace, tell me? (I’m not sure why I’m sharing this, but it does give context to my struggles, documented for all the world to see in my recent book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses.)  That I have an innate tendency to overthink, overachieve and overreact. That I am something of  a control freak and get upset when I can’t have my own way. That I am sensitive to others’ feelings and emotions, need a certain amount of sincere, positive feedback, and am happiest when I have a job to do or something new to learn. I don’t like being pushed around. There’s a certain amount of disrespect I’ll put up with from people if  I like them, but enough’s enough. And bullies bring out the  crazy in me.

Fortunately, my second horse, Rio,  shows me a sweeter, gentler reflection (if a little headstrong): I like to have fun, I’m sweet and committed (sometimes overcommitted) to doing the right thing, loyal as a dog, and my quirky personality gives me a knack for making people laugh — especially when things start to get too serious.

 

What does your midlife horse tell you? Don’t have a midlife horse, but wondering what’s going on in your inner landscape — and outward relationships? Get yourself one of these swishy-tailed mirrors and you won’t be wondering for long!

The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife Horses by Melinda Folse (formerly Melinda Folse Kaitcer)

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Happy Trails!

Saddle Up! Your Midlife Horse is Waiting!