One of the many joys of horses, is they always go lame at the best times possible. Always. Without fail. No horse has ever gone lame when you didn't have something going on, cos that's just not how horses are wired...
So... annoying. At the beginning of August, Zarry went lame. Now, at that point it had been 11 months since we had competed, but we were up and ready and looking good! We'd been jumping at home, we had been to one training camp... amazing, back at it, comps entered! Except sadly, I went up on a Saturday afternoon and started tacking up and he was super grumpy... now Zarry is a grumpy old man most of the time but he's always happy to be ridden so I thought it was weird. But I checked him over, went for a quiet hack, all good, text my Yard Owner and asked her to check him but thought nothing of it! Now... I'm lucky... Zarry lives on a yard that specialises in training and rehab so has lots of experienced professionals around, and I have also worked on the yard for 3/4 years. So not only do I have a decent amount of experience with these things, but I have the benefit of very clever and excellent people around me with a looooot of experience and knowledge, so I don't worry too much.
Sunday morning, YO checked him and said she couldn't see anything obvious but agreed he wasn't happy... so I went up later and lunged him... and just thought... nope. That's not my pony. He's not happy. Although he wasn't obviously lame, we described him as looking "stuck" in front... so there we go... physio was called, vet was called. Commence nearly 4 months of treatment, investigations, not being able to ride and insurance nightmares. All of which has prompted me to write this blog!
Like I say, I have a lot of experience with lameness... and I have some thoughts on it! But... I'm going to preface this by saying, obviously I'm not a vet. I think I have decent knowledge... I have seen lots of horses with issues, I have managed a vet practice so have experience on that side too, but I am not a vet and I have utmost respect for those who are. These are just my personal experiences, what I have observed. But its as good a place as any to start!
I wish they could talk! Is a phrase I've heard a lot from horse owners... but honestly I think if I could speak horse I think they would say "I wish he/she would bloody listen!". Yes, horses don't use words, but if you observe them enough they tell you as much as they can! Sometimes you just have to be aware of what you're listening to. For example... A horse that's as good as gold in every scenario but naughty when ridden? Are they a nasty or naughty horse? Probably not. Are they unhappy being ridden? Probably yes. Have they randomly decided they don't like being ridden? I doubt it, but being ridden adds weight onto the horse soooo maybe that weight is causing them to be uncomfortable? If its the only common theme?... Just a thought! Got a horse that's bred to jump, trained well, of good nature, and you're an experienced rider, but he/she starts stopping at jumps? Is he/she just being a dick? Probably not. Is he trying to tell you he's not happy about jumping? Probably yes. So Zarry normally happy to be ridden, on this day he wasn't? Something is wrong.
Oh he's just young! Is another of my favourites. And yes... he/she might be! When Zarry was 5, he couldn't maintain a united canter... he could strike off and then could go disunited or fall to trot... "He's just young and unbalanced!" they told me... and he was! But I'd had lots of young and unbalanced horses and they could canter... he couldn't even do it loose in the field?! I spent time building him up, hacking, straight lines, gave him time and he still couldn't do it... so now people said I couldn't ride it, it was my fault or he was just no good. At the time, a part of me thought they were right, which wasn't great for confidence. But now, logical me says... well, hang on! I can ride every other horse in a united canter? And he can do everything else, has a good attitude and tries for me? So clearly he's trying, I'm trying, and he can't... so why is that? Well at that point (with the help of said amazing YO), we went to the vets and hey presto... he has been trying, but he couldn't do it due to having a problem.
But what if you find something?! Was a question I got when I took him to the vets as a 5yo... well, I have a very simple answer for that. Whether I look for and find a problem or I don't, it doesn't change the fact that clearly there's one there. If I know about it, I can treat it, if I pretend it doesn't exist/don't "look" for it then... what? I'm stuck with a horse that can't canter? Great... what good is that to me again...?
But you don't want to have to claim on your insurance?! ... yes, why wouldn't I? That's literally why I pay it! There are a few common misconceptions about insurance... so I want to clear them up as best I can!
1 - Did you know, most equine insurance has a 12 month window to claim, based on the first vet record of the issue? So if my vet comes to look at an issue and I decide not to treat it ("work them through it!" people say...) and I carry on for 13 months, and finally my horse tells me to f off... hey guess what? Its on my record from 13 months ago, and so its now excluded. They won't pay out. Say I try to wait it out for 6 months? That's better, but I only have 6 months left to get in all diagnostics and treatment and then its excluded. If you're going to get the vet out and have it on their record, you might as well claim because you won't be able to again*.
2 - I literally pay insurance every month so I can claim on it. I pay £50pcm to insure my horse, so if my horse has a problem, and I claim on my insurance, I can pay £145 excess, and can diagnose and treat it. If I don't, then I still have a horse with a problem, I'm still paying £50 a month, and no one is happy?!... And also, if I have claimed and paid my £145 excess... it doesn't matter whether I spent £500 of my insurance allowance or £5000 of it... the claim is open, the issue will be excluded... bloody use as much of your allowance as you can and get that horse diagnosed, treated and rehabbed!*
3 - don't take their first word as truth. Insurance companies will go to the arse end of the universe to not pay your bill... bloody argue your point. Ask your vet to back you up. As long as you aren't actually trying to commit insurance fraud... fight your bloody corner.*
* obvs this can vary based on your own insurance company/agreement, but the principles tend to be the same in my experience
But now you've got a lame horse?! No, not really. I had a lame horse. Now I have a diagnosis and treatment options. So I had a lame horse, now with information and a plan to make it not lame? Is that not better...?
But what if it can't be fixed?! I'll be honest, in my personal experience, a lot of horses can't be "fixed"... most issues are managed. Even if you have surgeries to remove the problem, a lot of common issues still need to be managed. Does that mean the end of the road? Not at all! Just manage the problem! Ignoring it doesn't fix it or manage it, so you might be making it worse until you get to the point that neither will work! Or, you're not enjoying a horse because you're written it off without trying. Managing a problem allows you and your horse to have a fun time together, in the best way, for as long as you can. Management is best done with a good vet, physiotherapist, work program, complementary therapies... and good knowledge of what you're dealing with.
But you're just running them into the ground! Covering up issues! Well, I guess that depends on your view. Like I said, Zarry first had lameness issues at 5 years old, and he had likely has had them his whole life. They really aren't bad at all, but also can't be 'fixed'. However, he is a happy horse who loves to work and can do so with pain , with the right management. Does that mean that working him or managing his problems may speed up their degeneration? Possibly very slightly. Does it cost me an arm and a leg to keep him comfy? Yep. Would he be happier retired, doing nothing and with no management (so in the field, in pain, out of work)... definitely not. Do I put him to sleep because he has a small issue? I'd rather not... I personally would rather that me and my horse could have a fun and pain-free (hopefully!) 10 years together, than he has 20 painful years of boredom, or no years at all. But that's just my personal preference, based on my horse. If he every tells me he's not happy to be ridden anymore, I will reassess. His happiness is my priority, I listen to what he wants as much as I can, and currently: in work + pain managed = happy Zarry.
How can you work him knowing he has issues? Well, again a common misconception. A lot of issues horses have are actually improved with work, as long as the pain is managed. So medicating with steroids is basically putting an anti-inflammatory (painkiller) directly into the joint/muscle/problem area... often by taking away that pain, you can get them moving well and correctly all over. This can make them strong enough that the other joints/muscles/structures around the problem area can work better and so support it correctly! This is great! It means your horse can stay pain free for longer! So in Zarry's case (and many others) it would actually be worse for him to not be in work due to not having the strength to support his joints correctly.
But I tried medication and it didn't work! Again, I feel like misinformation? I didn't medicate Zarry and he magically went like Valegro! Muscle memory, secondary pain and learnt behaviour can take months to undo... so medication + a full and long rehab plan with lots of physio, regular check-ups etc... definitely the way to go. And if its not working, are you sure you've treated the right/only thing? Maybe go back and ask again? Look further? Zarry's original issues where in his hind fetlocks, but having had that all his life, he was very tight from compensation! After treating his fetlocks, 12 weeks of rehab, reassessing and treating his back muscles, 12 more weeks of rehab, then looking at his SI joint, more rehab, schooling, training... we finally managed to break through 5 years of not moving correctly to being pain-free enough to retrain his issues. This has meant that we could build up his good strength and manage him to not get to that point again... then with regular physio, other things (like water treadmill etc), a good work program and annual vet checks... we have been going 4 years pretty damn well!
So, smart ass, why did you have a problem now then? Well, because like I say... horses are idiots! From what we can work out, effectively... he fell over in the field and did some soft tissue damage through his neck, chest and shoulders. This is what made him him look "stuck"... so the physio really helped this. But we were left with a 1 out of 10 lameness in the right forelimb. After extensive diagnostics.. we can't really find anything except... he has slightly sore feet! Because the other thing there is their conformation.
Mother nature is a a bitch too! And things change over time... On the example of Zarry... Naturally he has quite big and flat feet for his shape, which he has never had an issue with before. It's not perfect, but its never caused a problem so we did the shoeing that worked and didn't worry about it. Clearly... it is a problem now! Now that's okay, we looked all over and can't find a terrible reason for it... so we just change the management again! Something new arises... so we reassess, look at the management and see what we need to do differently.
There is so much more I could say... but this is too long already.
So there we have it... why has my pony been off work for 4 months? Effectively... he had an accident on the field, and he seems to have developed slightly sore feet. What did we do about it? We took it slow, we looked for the reason, we spent the insurance, we turned to the professionals, looked into it to see what was there to find. What are we going to do now? Well because we did that, hopefully... With the help of an amazing yard owner, vet, physio, farrier and the general village that it take to keep any horse happy... we will manage it, as we have before, and continue to enjoy our wonderful life we have together. If we can't, then that's life and its another conversation... but I love my horse, I want him to be happy and I want us to enjoy life together. So we have managed problems since he was 4 years old, and we have managed to achieve that happy life and comfortable life, so we will continue on and do the same again...
So hopefully if you get bad news about your horse, or have a bad feeling about something with them that you would love to pretend isn't there... I hope this will give you hope that you can look, find answers you may not want, but you can manage it and enjoy life together anyway :-)