Horses are emotional creatures. Maybe that’s why they so often “speak” to that other highly emotional species called human beings. Interspecies relationships function best when they are partnerships. Horses let us escape our personal life challenges by demanding our undivided attention while we are working with them. We in turn sometimes need to become psychiatrists on their behalf.
Spring is in the air, if not yet in the daily weather report. One reason we know this is because our horses say so. You don’t need a stallion in the barn to see, hear, smell and otherwise appreciate that mares are beginning to ramp up their reproductive cycling. That once sweetly mellow love of a mare is all of a sudden unpredictable and moody. Alternately calling out in desperation for her dearest friends and kicking the daylights out of them if they dare come close. The boys aren’t immune, but the poor geldings are probably just confused and the stallions, well, their winter laissez faire is evolving into a single minded need to be in charge of everything in sight or smell.
These are relatively predictable behavioral changes that we know can sometimes overlap into the quality of our riding experiences, but what about behavioral changes that occur without an obvious reason? That’s where some systematic sleuthing can come in handy. From a veterinary point of view the first thing we want to rule in or out is pain as a cause of temperament changes or resistance-avoidance behaviors. We’ve talked about physical evaluations before and it's a good place to start. You can do one yourself just to rule out anything obvious like actual limping, lumps or swellings of the limbs, palpable back soreness, heat or increased digital pulse in the feet etc. Look at how your horse travels, is there a crook in his tail, are her gaits stiff, is his neck askew?
Keeping a horse journal can be extremely helpful in identifying the what and when of developing behavioral changes. A daily brief of your ride gives objectivity to your observations and training progress. Equine behavior can be predictably unpredictable which is why looking back on a riding journal can be helpful to pick out anomalies. The better you know your horse the quicker you will notice early behavioral changes that fall outside of their normal patterns. A history of head tossing, ear pinning, kicking, stumbling or rearing that seems to occur under specific conditions may be telling you that a musculoskeletal or other dis-ease of some sort is brewing well before it becomes an obvious problem.
Two very different but well documented conditions that may manifest with behavioral issues include gastric ulcers and “kissing spines” aka overriding spinous processes of the back.
Keeping in mind the emotional nature of our horses, it’s not a big surprise that they are susceptible to stomach ulcers. Add in modern alterations in feeds and feeding of an animal that is meant to graze all day and you definitely have a recipe for ulcers to form. Here’s a real case scenario of a 6 year old sport-horse mare who has recently become unusually grumpy while being groomed. She’s pinning her ears and swishing her tail especially when you brush near the girth area or under her belly. You’ve always been careful to take plenty of time to gradually cinch up the girth before mounting but lately it seems like she’s cranky about even the lightest touch. It would be easy to write this off as just a grumpy mare, maybe she’s coming into season, maybe she’s just “in a mood”. It could definitely be that, or it could be that she’s telling you something else. The key to the mystery may lie in how well you know your animal and how consistent the changes are over time. This is where keeping a horse or riding/training journal can help. If the behavior is obvious and frequent enough to get your attention in the first place it’s probably worth doing a little sleuthing to find out why. In this particular case, a therapeutic dose of anti-ulcer medication resulted in a recognizable switch back to more normal behavior. We call this a presumptive diagnosis, because we saw an observable positive effect following a specific treatment we presume that ulcer pain caused her behavior changes. The strength of our belief that this diagnosis is correct is based directly on how well we know this horse’s usual behaviors. A definitive diagnosis of gastric ulcers requires an endoscopic examination. In this scenario it is perhaps best to invest in prophylactic treatment rather than in the pursuit of visual proof. In this case our journal has proven it’s value.
Another medical condition that can manifest through behavioral changes is the musculoskeletal disease called overriding dorsal spinous processes or “kissing spines”. In another case scenario we have a 6 year old OTTB well along in his retraining as an eventing prospect. After coming to the barn he had been given a long readjustment period of light work which seemed to progress just fine with no particular complaints about behavior or way of going. He was even started over low fences, showing promising form. As training demands have increased however he has become more and more difficult to deal with in hand and on the lunge line. He’s become nippy, impatient and obviously anxious while in the cross ties and while being groomed. Several different behaviors are apparent here, but, he IS a thoroughbred, fairly recently off the track… how much of this is “attitude” lack of ground training or just part of adjusting to a less regular and predictable exercise regime? Moving forward, what began a few months ago as relatively mild balking and bucking on the ground and on the lunge line is now showing up under tack as difficulty picking up canter leads, an inability to track straight and resistance to collection. Again, not exactly unusual for an OTTB. Fast forward to today, the horse is regularly rearing, spinning and bucking to the point of being unsafe to ride. It has now become imperative to find out if this is a “bad” horse or a horse screaming as loud as he can that he has pain that he can no longer cope with?
This horse is way past due for a complete and comprehensive physical evaluation. It’s true that what turns out to be the probable cause of his behavioral changes (kissing spines) is not necessarily easy to diagnose in early stages where pain is less focused and intense. However, earlier evaluation may have suggested ways to avoid the escalation of his behavioral drama and the development of what can become dangerous habits of resistance. The retrospect-a-scope works great after all the puzzle pieces have been brought together, but a training journal might have saved this horse & human a lot of wasted time and distress.