Getting to the root of the problem

I was giving a lesson yesterday evening with a regular client. Her horse (let’s call him Jim for anonymity purposes) is a lovely youngster, a real tryer and very sweet. She’s done a fantastic job with him so far, building him up with care and he’s now working in a lovely uphill frame, producing nice lateral walk work and learning to do the same in trot.

However at the start of the lesson she said she wondered was he having a growth spurt because he just hadn’t quite been his normal self. He was walking around on the right rein with his ears very slightly turned back and his eye was focused inward, which immediately made me suspicious that something was bothering him.

I suggested we do some nice stretchy trot work on the left rein (which we know he loves) and then look at asking him to come up in front a little and lift through the base of his neck, and collect a little, for maybe a quarter of the school, then stretching again.

We repeated this, gradually asking for more extended periods of ‘up’. He did well on the left rein, but when we moved to the right rein it was immediately obvious when he was asked to come into a more uphill frame that he was pushing his tongue upwards against the bit (the neck muscles were tightening) and he was taking a stronger hold on the right rein. He was still stepping through from behind, there was no tail swishing or other more obvious signs of irritation or discomfort, but his eye had that slightly inwards focus again which hadn’t been noticeable on the left rein.

I asked her to walk up the long side and flex him a little left and a little right. When flexed right, he began to chomp on the bit.

I then asked her to halt and I used my hands, one gently on his nose and one on his neck to softly ask him to flex, which he did happily to both sides.

So we had a chat about his teeth, and his owner said that he was due and she’d originally made an appointment with the EDT for a few weeks time, but had brought it forward because she thought she ought to rule that out, and in fact the EDT was coming in the morning to check him.

I said that I felt his behaviour was indicating a problem in his mouth rather than anywhere else and we ended the session and popped him back out to the field with his friend.

I’ve just this morning received a message from his owner to say that the EDT has been and he had an oversharp canine which had caused a lesion on his tongue. It’s always nice to have suspicions confirmed, and the good news for ‘Jim’ is that now the sharpness has been addressed, the lesion should heal and he’ll be back to his normal comfortable self soon.

However it got me thinking. ‘Jim’ is a fortunate boy to have a thoughtful and observant owner. And I never stop being a behaviourist, even when I’m coaching riding!

It’s so ingrained in me to observe behaviour and ask ‘why’. But every coach ought to do the same. It’s too easy to tell a rider to use a stronger aid (or the infamous ‘kick on and ride him through it, he’ll soften eventually’), thus masking the symptom, failing to get to the underlying cause.

Inevitably, this produces more problems long term as the horse struggles with the stress of the pain and discomfort.

Quite apart from the fact that it is unethical, this approach is careless at best and at worst could lead to considerable safety issues for horse and rider.

So if you (or your coach) ask your horse to do something, and they are struggling, always always ask yourself why that might be.

  • Do they understand what you’re asking?
  • Are you sitting with correct posture and in a way that easily allows them to do what you want?
  • Are they physically fit enough?
  • Are they in pain (ulcers, teeth, back, joints)?
  • Does the tack fit?
  • Are their feet balanced?
  • Is something stressing them (e.g. busy yard, loss of companion, stressful handling)?
  • Are you asking in a way that cause stress? Could you consider a more rewarding approach to your training?

There are many more questions that could be asked, that’s just a sample, but the key is always to try to get to the bottom of the problem, rather than using strength or intimidation to ‘work the horse through it’.

The key point about ‘Jim’ was that he wasn’t loudly shouting his discomfort, he was hardly even grumbling about it, instead he was just struggling slightly when asked to do something that in previous weeks he had found easy. It would have been so easy to ignore the subtle body language that indicated a problem.

You must be the advocate for your horse. If your coach, or anyone else, fails to ask these questions, then it’s up to you to stick up for your horse! They always have a reason for behaving the way they do.

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