A Retrospective Review of a Sick Horse.
My recent ordeal over DiDi’s health has left me a much wiser man. It all started months ago when I realised that DiDI was not herself and that she was behaving erratically. I knew she was fundamentally a gentle horse who only wished to be pleased, cared for and loved. In return she was very willing to be ridden, so long as the rider asked and did not demand. To ask, the rider had only to know how to ride with the body and not just the heels, the hands and the whip. It mattered not so much as to how someone appears when mounted but rather how one feels to the horse between the knees. My horse sought understanding and she expected me of all people to understand her.
I knew that DiDi’s cavorting around an arena pell mell at full tilt was abnormal. I knew she was running in fear of something, the problem was I did not grasp what her problem was. As much as I twisted and turned, in that I forgave and excused, it made no difference. Horses can’t talk. They can indicate that they are unwell but they cannot convey where exactly they feel unwell. I knew, I felt, I sensed that my mare was not herself. But I simply did not know why. Mea culpa.
And this is the fundamental dilemma presented to all riders when taking ownership of a horse. The owner rider must be able to guarantee at all times, the health, comfort and well being of the animal which lies within his or her care. Make no mistake, it matters not how fast the horse can run, nor how high it can jump, rather does it matter how content the horse is with its life style. That must be the role and aim of the caring owner. The horse must be contented to perform its side of the bargain.
Human and equine make a pair. Separated neither being is as capable as the combination of the two different creaturess. Horse and rider are symbiotic. Literally, riding becomes a matter of : ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ between horse and master.
Recently, once I had become convinced that my horse was unwell, life with her became a search for her ills. Unbeknown to me, the ailments were to lie deep within the bowels of her stomach and. importantly in the relative vastness of her chest. The two origins were to confuse me and the professional vets namely those technicians who are supposed to know why and where. The symptoms of DiDi’s ailments over lapped and the required treatments conflicted with each other. She presented as an, as yet, living conundrum.
The vet would come along and do the simple tests, mostly those that he/or she does wherever they go. When they visited our yard, I had to stand between my horse and the vet, so as to translate between human and equine. Often I found myself unqualified in the role. The horse trusted me, whereas she certainly did not trust the vet. The vet was there as a visitor to produce answers and to explain what the novice horse owner was supposedly ignorant thereof. Somehow we who sit with the horse between our thighs, who hold the reins leading to the bit; who merely indicate for the horse to obey, are viewed as being innocents. Our judgement as to the horse’s state of mind is untrustworthy. We are unqualified. We can’t prove anything. We are prone to be generous and soft. But if we ask the horse to open its mouth to receive a camera on a pole, then it will be us whom the horse will trust in the belief that we, the loving owners, know best.
We’d better be certain we do.
/To be continued
well said Barry I hope there is a positive outcome!!
Eclipseranch, Didi has passed away.
Barry, I've been in your shoes. A couple of times actually. The first horse I ever lost was a spirited Arabian gelding. When he got into his early 20's he would have episodes of being very quiet when I rode him (not his style!) and I put it down to his age and him finally settling down.
Then he would lay down sometimes (more than he used to) and I didn't know what to make of it because when he got back up he seemed normal and ate normal. Just his age catching up with him, right?
Then he would go off his feed from time to time but be eating again in a few hours. He would seem to colic and pull right back out of it.
Long story short he finally had a major episode of colic that he never recovered from despite vet care. He was 24 yrs old. One of the toughest things about it was it wasn't a "rolling thrashing have to make a decision right now" type of colic. It was more like he quit eating and started to waste away.
I am not a wealthy owner and he was not insured. He was a backyard trail horse. So after trying non-surgical treatment for about a week I finally admitted defeat and had him euthanized. I have since lost two more horses but I think the first one was the hardest. Looking back I could see the symptoms coming on for a couple of years. Just him slowing down out on the trail was a sign something wasn't right and I told myself it was maturity catching up with him. :-(
So we all second guess ourselves and feel guilty that we didn't read the horse's signs sooner, or misinterpreted them. But I don't think it would have changed the outcome in Bel's or Didi's case. Both Didi and Bel had something majorly wrong with them and we had good intentions. I know I flubbed up, but what can I do about it? In hindsight, I think he must have had an entrolith or cancer in his intestines.
We all misread the horse but a good owner tries their best to get to the bottom of it, and you certainly did better than the majority of horse owners out there in trying to get to the root of Didi's troubles. You went above and beyond in fact. Many people just call it bad behavior or in my case, old age, before we realize there is even an illness going on. The best we can do is try to learn from the experience and be more aware if we are ever in the same situation again.
DiDi had been a ‘sharp’ horse ever since I had known her. She was always ultra sensitive to the rider’s every move. She was a horse you did not slump down on - perforce you sat upright and alert. She had a way of startling by almost ‘shrugging her shoulders’ - a sort of ‘Oof’. It was an unnerving movement until, or when, you learned how to ignore it. She mini shied and then almost instantly it was forgotten. It must have been a relic from her past. A far more lethal shy in her repertoire was a sudden jump off all four feet towards the offside during which DDI would rise at least two feet off the ground. Horse and rider would land over a horse width away to the side. There was no warning given. Neither a twitch of the ears, nor a tension in the body. Either the experienced rider sat in or fell off. Then on other occasions she would stop dead in her tracks, her neck would come up, her ears would prick to the sky and she would feel just like a spring ready to uncoil. In many ways, she was to the capable rider a joy to ride because she was so sensitive. The slightest pressure of the calves, a slight resistance on the rein and she would respond. The rider asked her for trot and she would trot until asked to walk (or canter). Show her something new and she would learn the move within three attempts. And , Oh My , could she step out when she wanted to! She always preferred to be up front and in the lead of a line of horses. But sadly as an all round trail riding horse, over ground fresh to her, she could be a pain to ride. She was suspicious of any piece of paper lying on the ground and even more so if it had been carried by the wind. There was no riding long and low with DiDi. A permanent but subtle contact with the mouth had to be maintained at all times.
I would go to collect her from her paddock and we had a routine which had to be followed every time. It included a treat. She would walk alongside my shoulder on a loose lead rein but then at the top of her paddock she would balk and look around to check where the other horses were standing.
In the stable one could groom and tack her up without clipping her to the ring. One could even clean her feet out without securing her. She would stand whilst you mounted from a block.\ She was, when she was in the mood, a delightful horse to own. From time to time, she’d have an ’off’ day and in the end one learned that it was easier to change one’s plans. I put her moods down to being a mare.
Using force, either with or without a crop, simply did not work with this horse. Indeed it would be counter productive. She’d come round in due course of her own volition without even the need for a raised voice.
After we moved over to the Countess’s yard, DiDi’s routine changed.. She would be ridden in the arena early each morning to learn her trade of Dressage Diva. Soon she was working at all times on the bit in a rounded outline. The Countess was more of a professional horsewoman than an amateur. She had been surprised at DiDi’s forward going manner and her ability to learn quickly. In the first year, DiDI was to rise through the ranks of dressage to Elementary level.. She was winning regularly at Affiliated Novice and she had gained a place to the Nationals. She was becoming well known on the circuit
It was almost a year after DiDi had been introduced to dressage that I one day noticed a change in her. The moods were swinging more regularly. She was showing aggression towards the geldings. She would snap at any horse which came close by. A Grand Prix dressage rider was asked to give her a
work out but the rider was very nearly dumped after taking liberties. That incident caused a little furore and DiDi was subsequently marked down by the local horse riding sorority as a super sharp horse, one fit only to be ridden by expert riders. So we changed the routine. If we were competing locally then in future DiDi would be warmed up on our own yard rather than be left for her to warm up in the warm up arena.. It was safer that way. DiDi at 15 hands may have been the smallest horse competing but she certainly was not the most docile in a ring filled with some very expensive warm bloods.
Then one day there came an incident which I took too little notice of. During a lungeing session DiDi suddenly freaked out. Standing in the middle of a sand arena without any fence rails, when attached by lead rein to half a tonne of horse just a few feet in front of you, can be a daunting experience at times - especially when the horse decides to go into a fast canter. That day I remember her running and my ultimate relief when eventually she calmed down. At one stage I was very concerned and I called out to The Countess, who also witnessed the event. We both decided DiDi was having one of her off days In actual fact, it had been something more than that. I untacked her, fed her some grass from the verges and put her away.
Some time later in the month of February there was another similar incident but much worse. The hunt had gone by that morning. A tractor was working in the adjoining field, as it often did and there was a helicopter flying overhead. Neither the hunt, the tractor nor the helicopter was strange to DiDi She’d met with them all before. I thought to take her back in, until things were quieter but I decided that it would be good practice for her to meet with the outside world. At first all went well. DiDi was coping and getting on with her daily exercise, then all of a sudden , for no obvious reason she freaked out. On the lunge she took off at the racing gallop around a relatively narrow circuit. She was going so fast that she was leaning over at 45 degrees. I could not even slow her down, let alone bring her back to walk. It was not as though all three frighteners were still present, only the tractor remained steadily chuntering away at the hedgerows. It was working at least fifteen metres from DiDi even at the closest point. Nevertheless DiDi ran and ran and ran. I held on to the lead rope grimly because I knew there was a strong risk of her losing her balance. Slowly but surely I got her back into ordinary canter, then trot and finally walk and eventually to halt. I was exhausted and DiDi was heaving. This episode was not just a result of fear, this was something else. But what?
Of course, other little incidents began to creep into our thinking. DiDi had been seen recently charging up and down the fence line on a couple of occasions And I had noticed that on occasions, when I went to collect her, that she was fractious. We wondered whether this was something to do with hormones. Was it diet? Was it the politics of the herd? Was it the onrush of new grass?
But I had felt her terror at the end of that lead rein. I wondered whether she could be in pain. Horses run from pain and fear and fear of pain. They are never moody for no good reason.
Of course we spoke with everyone we knew in horses. Were there clues to be had as to what was going on within a horse which was usually fairly placid? We tried a branded calmer. We tried one or two other homeopathic ideas. But although she had calmed a bit, she was not back to normal.
Next step would be to call the vet.
To be continued
The purpose behind rewriting this saga, one which has already been recorded is largely to highlight my thinking as the drama unfolded.
If I am honest with myself, with the benefit of hindsight, I would not have done several things which I did on this occasion. Maybe by shortening the story I can help other owners reach a conclusion when their own horses needs help.
Our job as owners is to act as a spokes person for our own horse in this human dominated world. To the vet, our horse is just another horse and when we agree to the treatment of our horse then we are accepting on behalf of our horse
that treatment - but we are not putting our own arm forwards. That's tricky , when most of us are not trained nor knowledgeable enough to make the decision.
Another point which must be made regularly, is that horses are not illogical creatures. We must not assume that when they have a strop that it is because they are being naughty. Invariably they are trying to tell us something - the big problem for we humans is to understand correctly as to what they are trying to communicate.
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