Someone I know is going through the age old process of problem finding out why their pony “isn’t quite right” so I thought it was the ideal opportunity to list the areas to research.
1. Does the saddle fit? It’s always worth getting an objective view on your saddle, when stationary and when moving as an observer may spot some movement or imbalance, which can be followed up by a visit from a saddler. A lot of people forget that flocking gets squashed over time, particularly in a new saddle, so your saddle should be checked by a proper saddler at least once a year. Additionally, horses change shape as they grow and mature or as they get fitter muscles will develop and fat will be lost. Girths and numnahs should also be checked too, as sometimes a girth can pinch and cause behavioural problems.
2. Is there any pain in their back? This ties in with the saddle as a badly fitting saddle can cause back pain, so the two should be checked together. Firmly pressing with your fingers will show any areas of pain, but be careful not to use your nails or press too hard then you will get a reaction, as would you if nails were scraped down your back! Someone once told me that you should always get yourself checked by a back quack when your horse is done as you both compensate for each other’s crookedness. Additionally, if your horse becomes crooked then this feeling becomes normal for both you and your horse, so it is always worth getting an observer from the ground or another person to ride your horse.
3. Do their teeth need checking? Mature horses need to see the dentist as least once a year, and young horses who are growing their full set of teeth will need checking more frequently to check for abnormalities.
4. Does the bridle fit? It’s always worth checking there aren’t any pressure points from the bridle, which may occur with a thick winter coat, or the growth of the bridle path, and also check the fit of the bit. Perhaps the bit isn’t the most suitable for the horse, so it may be worth investigating the options of bits.
5. Is it a learned behaviour? Does the problem occur at the same time, or when asking for a transition. If so you may be able to identify potential reasons. For example, if it is left canter that causes the problem then there could be an issue in the back or left legs or side.
6. Are their legs clean? Check their legs before and after exercise to make sure they are normal for this horse. If they feel slightly uncomfortable there may be an underlying reason, such as a developing splint, mud fever, cut, or even slight sprain.
7. Are their feet correctly protected? Perhaps it is worth discussing the way your horse is going with your farrier on his next visit as he may recommend a different type of shoes, such as natural balance instead of hunter, or suggest putting shoes on behind if they are only shod in front.
9. Are they on the correct diet? Coming into spring owners should be vigilant that horses don’t get overloaded with sugar and start misbehaving. Change their haylage over to hay, remove the sugar beet, and check that they are getting enough, but not excessive, energy from their diet.
10. Are they doing the right about of work? This also takes into account the type of work. Sometimes a horse feels a bit off when he’s stale of the school, or needs a holiday or even a change of scenery. Mature horses who are used to working sometimes don’t really appreciate being turned away in the field, but may benefit from hacking only for a month, or not jumping if that’s their main discipline so that they can mentally recuperate. If the horse has done less work because of the weather (well, it is winter) then some cheeky behaviour is only to be expected and they will need their diet adjusted or lunged before being ridden.
11. Have a vet MOT. If nothing from the above provides a solution to why your horse is “not quite right” then a vet’s opinion is the next thing. They can do flexion tests and check for lameness, or listen to the horse’s internal systems and perhaps scope or scan to search for problems. I read last week that the majority of ridden horses have gastric ulcers, and the symptoms are so varied that it is difficult to diagnose, even for vets, without performing an endoscopy.
If the vet can’t find a reason, or they or any of the other professionals do and the problem is solved (injections to the arthritic joint, for example) then you have to assume the horse has learnt this behaviour, or associates an area, or item of equipment, with pain.
I saw a livery, who has solved the problem of her mares bad behaviour, free schooling the mare. The horse wore nothing but a headcollar but was just trotting and cantering around the arena so that she learnt to associate moving freely without pain in the arena, where she had previously been hurt. Out hacking there was never a problem, so her owner knew in part the bucking was caused by a learned behaviour, but before addressing the naughtiness, she quite rightly wanted to ensure that there were no other underlying problems. I thought the free schooling was an excellent idea though, as it will hopefully break the cycle of association.
It’s a difficult journey, trying to find the reason for a horse not being a hundred percent, but just be methodical in your research and try to listen to what your horse is telling you. Look at their ears and their body language, as that will pinpoint the moments when they are most uncomfortable and then you can narrow down your search.