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Three things that might make your horse…

  • Buck
  • Spook
  • Trip
  • Grumpy to tack up
  • Strong in the hand
  • Unsettled in the contact
  • Lazy
  • Struggle to engage from behind
  • Refuse a fence

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Three things that might make your horse buck.

Pixie was an angel in her jump lesson on Saturday, jumping through the grids seemingly with ease. Eleven-year-old Jane was buzzing! But on Sunday in her flatwork lesson, she bucked every time she was asked for canter, and Jane suddenly found herself lacking confidence. What had changed? Think about whether your horse is fit enough to work hard two days in a row. Often, ponies are not ridden during the week and are expected to work hard twice at the weekend. Is it any wonder they are sore on the second day and that this soreness might be expressed through bucking? If Pixie’s saddle has not been fitted for her, she might be able to tolerate the discomfort of a poorly fitting saddle for one day, but not two days in a row. She might buck because her saddle is hurting her. Perhaps Pixie has some mild arthritic changes in her hocks. She can overcome the discomfort when she’s excited about jumping, but without the adrenaline as a painkiller, she bucks in her flatwork lesson the next day.

Three things that might make your horse spook.

It’s hard work for a horse to put in the effort required to spook, so it’s not something you’d think a horse would naturally choose to do. Better to try and find out why he’s doing it and remove the cause, than to learn how to hang on. Some horses seem tense and are supposedly naturally spooky, but it’s not natural for a horse to always be tense. Does your horse have something not working quite right inside, such as gastric ulcers or hindgut dysfunction? Is he sore in his saddle area, either because his saddle doesn’t fit or because a mild lameness creates soreness in his back? Or is there pain in his sacroiliac region, which is often secondary to pain in one or both hind legs? Whatever the cause, your horse will be grateful to you for finding it, and riding your horse will be considerably more enjoyable, let alone safer!

Three things that might make your horse trip.

An injury when your horse trips can be one of the worst. There is no warning, and you are unable to protect yourself. This is why I’m so careful to discuss the issue if I notice a horse trip on trot up or if the owner mentions tripping when I ask them about their horse. Old age is one of the most common causes of tripping, especially in front. As the horse gets older and stiffer, he’s simply less able to move his body efficiently. Leaving your horse too long between shoeings can also lead to tripping, as his hoof grows longer. Something else that might cause your horse to trip could be forelimb lameness, often so low level that you don’t notice the horse is lame, and often in both front feet so there is no obvious limping.

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Three things that might make your horse grumpy when you put his saddle on.

Something that annoys me intensely is when I see someone telling their horse off for being ‘grumpy’ when he puts his ears back and threatens them as they put his saddle on or do his girth up. This horse is not being grumpy; he is communicating that something is hurting. I’m not saying that in the case of saddling, we can always remove the discomfort. Still, we should, at the very least, be aware that this is communication, not bad behaviour. We should show our horse the respect he deserves by finding the source of the pain, or if we cannot, by making the tacking-up process as pain-free as possible. Some horses demonstrate pain when saddled but seem comfortable and willing in their ridden work and score less than 8/24 on the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram. Sometimes, there is a really obvious cause for the discomfort, such as the saddle not fitting well. Other times, there’s a less obvious cause, perhaps a bilateral forelimb lameness, when the horse is mildly lame on both front legs, and so it doesn’t show up as lameness because it’s on both sides, so he doesn’t limp. And then there are the horses where despite rigorous investigation from the vet, a thorough assessment from the physio, good farriery, and a second opinion saddle fitter, you still don’t know the root cause of the problem. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any pain; it doesn’t mean your horse is grumpy after all. It means you haven’t been able to find the root cause of the problem. If that’s the case for your horse, chat with your team to find the best way forward, focusing on listening to your horse to the best of your ability.

Three things that might make your horse strong in the hand.

It can’t be comfortable for your horse, leaning on your hands like he does. It makes your back and arms ache, so goodness knows what it must feel like in his mouth! So why does he do it? Think about brain, pain, or training. Are you holding on so tight that he cannot let go? Has he been trained by a previous rider to go in this way? Or is he sore through his neck, and the only way he can ignore the pain is to lean on the bit?

Three things that might make your horse unsettled in the contact.

It can be frustrating when your horse is unsettled in the contact, and keeps shifting the position of his head and neck. You’re doing everything you can to sit in balance and keep your hands steady, and you still can’t achieve that consistent outline. Why is he doing it? Here are just three possibilities… Perhaps he is not comfortable in the bit you have him in. There are bitting consultants who can visit to trial different bits for you. Maybe his saddle isn’t fitting him. Has he changed weight since you last had it checked, or has it been longer than six months? Or there could be mild lameness, either in front or behind, so low level you can’t see it. Drop your physio a message and ask him to come and check your horse over to help you find the reason.

Three things that might make your horse lazy.

Sometimes, it can feel as though you are working harder than your horse when you ride him. Remember that your horse does not set out determined to make life difficult for you. There may be a reason why your horse is lazy in his ridden work. This could be brain, pain, or training. Perhaps your horse really does have you wrapped around his little finger and knows that he can get away with a minimum amount of effort doing a job that he doesn’t enjoy anyway. Perhaps he is learning something new and struggling to understand what’s asked of him. Or possibly he is sore, maybe with arthritic hocks, and it’s more difficult than you realise for him to do what you’re asking him to do. First, assume pain because a horse can only communicate pain through behaviour or performance.

Three things that might make your horse struggle to engage from behind.

Horses are powerful animals, and the hindquarters are the powerhouse. For the horse to engage correctly, he must be able to lift through his sternum, move freely through his ribcage and thoracolumbar spine, and activate his hindquarters. If your horse is stiff through his neck, he will struggle to lift through his sternum. If he is sore through his back, he will be unable to move comfortably through his thoracolumbar region and, therefore, will be unable to move freely through his ribcage and spine. If your horse is sore or stiff in one or both hind legs, he cannot fully activate his hindquarters. Remember that if your horse is low-level lame in both hind legs, you will not see it as lameness because he is equally sore on both legs, so he will not limp. If you have any concerns, please get in touch with your vet or physio.

Three things that might make your horse refuse a fence.

If your horse refuses to jump, likely, something isn’t right. Perhaps he had a bad experience in the past. Maybe you or he lack confidence, and that’s coming through in how you approach the fence. Or perhaps he’s sore. A horse that has pain in both front feet will not be lame if he has the same level of pain in both legs. However, he will likely feel that soreness as he lands over a fence. This could make him reluctant to want to take off in the first place, which I’m sure you’ll agree is understandable! So if your horse doesn’t want to jump anymore, see if you can find out why, rather than assume he’s being difficult.

About Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio

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Sue Palmer MCSP, aka The Horse Physio, is an award-winning author, educator, and Chartered Physiotherapist. Sue specialises in understanding the links between equine pain and behaviour, focusing on prevention, partnership and performance. She promotes the kind and fair treatment of horses through empathetic education, and is registered with the RAMP, the ACPAT, the IHA, the CSP and the HCPC.

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