Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Horse is Lame (and not in the middle school sense of being uncool, I mean lame, unable to do what I want him to do!)

So here's the thing: everything with horses is complicated.  Once in awhile you get an uncomplicated horse or maybe, if you aren't really doing a whole lot, the horse is able to go along with your plans pretty easily.  But if you are competing in any of the many equine sports out there, at some point, your horse is going to have some issues.

When we say our horse is "lame" it reminds me of when my kids were babies and we called them colicky if they cried all the time.  Colic in human babies is not in any way a specific diagnosis.  It basically means I have a crabby baby who cries all the time but we can't find anything that is actually wrong with him so we think maybe he has a permanent stomach ache and basically I never get to sleep!  So it goes with a lame horse.

The generic term lameness covers just about everything.  A horse can be lame from simple soreness from a bad shoeing, or maybe the saddles aren't fitting properly.  Often older horses who have competed heavily have arthritic changes in their joints, most commonly their hocks but just as likely their SI or their back.  Lyme can cause stiffness that presents as lameness.  A bone spur, an abscess, ulcers, you name it.  There are as many possibilities as bones in the horse's body.  If your horse is unable to do his job, he's lame.

Photo by Amanda Sylvia
My daughter got an awesome new horse a few months ago.  A 10 year old mare, Quizz will be Elizabeth's partner for at least the next 6 years.  She's big, athletic, talented and has the greatest attitude of any horse ever, not that I'm biased or anything.  Sadly, shortly after we started working with Quizz, something wasn't right.  It was never not right all the time.  But sometimes, you could swear she took a funny step.  Then it all seemed fine again.  Some days she couldn't seem to pick up the canter without bucking but the next day she would be amazing.  We brought in a masseuse, a vet/acupuncturist, we refit saddles, bought a fancy new saddle.  Then we thought maybe it was a stone bruise (a bruise or soreness in the hoof) so we gave her some time off and poulticed her front hoof which seemed to help only to have her go lame again a few weeks later.

This seems to be a pretty typical scenario.  We had several people look her over.  Everyone had a different idea about what might be wrong.  This is also pretty typical.  The thing is, the horse can't tell you with words what is happening.  For a horse like Quizz to refuse to canter, you know something is wrong, she's telling you that much, but figuring out what is like a great whodunnit mystery.  Even with the best available diagnostics (we took Quizz to Tufts for a bone scan) you don't really know what's going on with the horse.  In Quizz's case she had inflammation in her bones in several places but none of it severe enough to be the cause of her issues.  Just because it shows up on the scan doesn't mean it bothers her.  So it's all guess work.  The best we can do is to gather experts we trust, accept their best guess and come up with a plan of action.

In Quizz's case we decided to be pretty aggressive.  We injected her neck, back and SI (it's like your sciatica) to get the inflammation under control.  The vet came out and administered a course of Tildren which is an old human drug now being used as a fancy new equine drug the purpose of which is to inhibit the growth of new bone in order to prevent old bone from decaying, at least from what I can tell.  In humans it's used to treat osteoporosis but in horses it's used to treat just about everything and the consensus is that the horses feel better but honestly no one really knows why.

In addition we will be changing farriers and giving Quizz new shoes.  When all is said and done, almost everyone we have consulted agrees her issues probably started in her feet.  And let that be a lesson to you.  If their feet aren't comfortable, it throws off everything else and eventually (within a very short period of time really) you have a huge mess.

And then there are the saddles.  Through all of this I keep doing what I can to make sure the saddles are fitting her as well as possible.  Quizz has as super long back and her withers go to the middle of the saddle so she's tough to fit.  The challenges are numerous. When she's in pain she moves funny so the saddle doesn't fit.  She's lopsided so the saddles don't fit.  As she gets back into shape her body changes and the saddles don't fit.  I have had several people examine our saddles.  Among them there is absolutely no consensus.  Each says something a little different, approaches fit from a different angle.  Unfortunately, none of them feels the expensive new jump saddle I bought is a great fit for her but the hope is that when her feet feel better, the saddles will too.  For now I'm taking that on faith and trusting my experts because I'm exhausted by all of this and just need to believe it will all resolve.

Now we are starting down the road toward rehabilitation.  So far, it's been great.  Quizz is definitely doing better than she was before all the treatment and the expectation is that it takes 4 weeks for the benefits of the treatment to be fully realized.  We expect even more improvement as her new farrier makes her more comfortable.  We are spending lots of time with her on the lunge line and lunging her in a Pessoa (a fancy contraption which resembles a torture device but isn't) which is great for several reasons.  Firstly, it's great for the horse, her condition and strength, and building the muscles in her back which is difficult to do with a rider on board.  Secondly, it's an important skill for my daughter to learn and one she will be required to demonstrate proficiency in for her pony club rating a couple of years from now.  It's also one of those things that not that many people really spend time on and even fewer really know how to do it properly.  It's really super amazingly great for the horse and they can often do better work on the ground than they can under saddle.  I'm sensing an entire post on lunging in my future.  So we are taking advantage of this opportunity to make lunging a major part of Quizz's routine moving forward.

At this point, that's all the personal experience I have with lameness.  For the most part this experience has served to illustrate the challenges of parenting a horse kid with limited personal horse knowledge.  I'm actually pretty lucky.  We have a phenomenal trainer, Erika, who has been involved with horses for over 30 years.  She's amazing and incredibly generous with her time and support, guiding us, introducing us to professionals who may have something to add, helping us sift through all the information, loaning us her gut feeling when ours is inadequate and working to keep our emotions in check and help us understand that with horses, these things take time, lots and lots of time.  We also have the world's greatest pony club.  The other pony club families are a phenomenal resource of experience, information and moral support.  Even so, with the best people by my side every step of the way, I panic.  Did I do something wrong?  Did I make some mistake that another person would have known not to make?  Should I have known we needed a different farrier sooner (actually I think we all knew this a few months ago but changing farriers is often a complicated business)?  Should I have been more patient about buying a jump saddle?  Did I just waste thousands of dollars on useless tack?  Is my husband going to divorce me as a result? Did I wreck my daughter's horse?  Did I just do a bunch of crazy expensive treatments when a new set of shoes was all the horse needed? Some of these questions sound totally irrational but I'm telling you every one of them has run through my head and kept me up at night.

If lameness has found its way into your horse experience, my sympathies are with you.  The best we can do as people newish to horses is to hire good people.  Find experts you can trust.  At a minimum you need a great trainer, vet and a great farrier.  Your trainer is sort of like your general contractor.  She will find the subcontractors you need if you run into trouble and she will be the guiding hand in your program.  It is useful to have a saddle fitter and I found our masseuse to be a font of valuable knowledge.  We also now rely on a back up vet who specializes in lameness.  She has quickly become an important member of our team.  Make your experts communicate with each other.  I like it when I have several of my experts together.  I like to hear them talk things through.  It makes me feel good and I always learn something from the experience.

And try through it all to keep a sense of humor and remember life is long and horses are worth it.


  1. I enjoy your post and alarm bells are going off in my head as we have a new horse and have an appointment set up for County saddle fitting this week. We had a Master Saddle fitter come out and look at what we had and he said we had a very difficult horse to fit...Arrrrghhhh! Is a 4-5 thousand dollar saddle really the only answer? and is that answer only good for a few months as the horse is always needs a new fitting.. I yearn for the days of ignorance and a plain old saddle on the perfect pony. I would much rather buy a used saddle and have the flocking adjusted to his back but I cannot get a firm confirmation on that solution either. I thought the five month search for the perfect horse was hard but the perfect saddle is proving to be equally daunting. What comments are you receiving on your custom saddle? Can it be reflocked to fit? Did it ever fit? Is this like everything else in the world of horses in that everyone has an opinion but no one has a correct answer.

    1. Susie - I feel your pain!!!! County makes a great saddle and IF you can find the perfect tree and panel combination in a seat you like then it is well worth the money. We tried to find used saddles from Pelham. We tried about 20 but none of them were correct. By buying new we could control all the variations. I wish I had looked around more but I just don't understand enough about fitting to ask the key questions. Our saddle fitter liked a Frank Baines better than our Black Country but the seat was too deep for jumping cross country and at the time she said she like the Black Country too as long as we got shoulder gussets in the panel. We have our saddle fitter out to adjust the flocking regularly. There is only so much that can be done. The tree and panel need to fit. Then the fitter can tweak the flocking as they develop muscle or change. Even with expensive new saddles you may find yourself using corrections pads, shims. I am seriously disappointed to find out that no matter what you spend, it is possible that the saddles will never be a perfect fit. Conversely, our pony was easy to fit, had two saddles, never an issue. They needed to be refitted every 6 months and they did sometimes cause discomfort but the parts that matter fit him.

      Black Country makes great saddles and they are a bit less expensive than County at $3200ish a saddle. I've had a friend have a custom Devoucoux made at great expense, Devoucoux coming out to measure the horse and the rider and make every inch of the saddle to fit them only to have it cause the horse severe pain.

      In other words, I have no good answer. Hopefully you'll get lucky and whatever saddle they suggest will truly be a good fit for your horse!

  2. We have a horse in our barn that just got his first dose of Tildren. The family is keeping their fingers crossed for it to work.

    1. I've read a couple of interesting articles about it. It's very hot on the show circuit which always gives me pause. One article made the fair point that if they have stopped using it in humans because there are more effective and safer versions now available, why are we giving it to our horses?

  3. Thank you for the tips. Our horse needs shoulder gussets as well to fill in the hollows behind his shoulder and as he is down hill will need smaller panels in the rear of the saddle. He will be six in April which means he still has growing to do and more muscle to change with work. It seems custom will be needed I just hope it is the answer and not an expensive mistake.

    Many times a drug is ceased to be used in humans because new drugs are FDA approved and the sales reps convince the doctors to be cutting edge and use the latest drug in the arsenal. My daughter has Crohn's and it is a nightmare to treat with both new and old drugs. You just keep trying anything hoping for relief.

  4. Great post Kristie. I am just dipping my toe in the water of Horse-mom-ship at the moment. Your blog helps me to see into the future a little bit!

    1. Good Luck! Please ask any questions I could turn into a post. I'm a little lacking in inspiration at the moment!

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