What is wrong with my Horse? (Aug 2015)

What is wrong with my horse?

This year I decided to start my training to treat humans using Bowen myofascial release. Having 15 years experience in treating animals with a combination of massage and McTimoney chiropractic techniques, I hoped I might have a little bit of a head start in my human training. I have always been far more interested in the animals, mainly horses and dogs, although I have treated the occasional sheep, cow and cat, but now I am really enjoying treating people too. However, it brings to light the key differences between our species and how much this can influence treatment outcomes too.

Clearly the anatomy is different as we are biped and the animals are quadruped, but possibly the biggest single difference in the treatment process comes at the start when taking down a history… the person you are treating is able to tell you where they hurt, for how long and on what pain scale. The horse, on the other hand, relies on the owner/rider to have correctly noticed and interpreted whatever symptoms they may have, and to communicate those to the therapist or vet attending. And while the therapist or vet can use specific tests and observation to assess the horse’s current mobility and presentation of pain, this can vary in severity of symptoms making it harder to ascertain exactly what is going on inside the horse’s body.

These days our vets have a far wider number of diagnostic tools and much higher levels of specialism within our veterinary practices, which is good news for our horses as earlier diagnosis and correct treatment of pathologies can affect the overall longevity of a horse’s career and life. Similarly there are a wide range of therapeutic interventions used by people trained up to MSc level, offering our horses the opportunity to continue working comfortably even where underlying conditions would have previously prevented this. However, a key part at the start of any investigative diagnosis by the vet or course of physical therapy by your McTimoney practitioner, Physiotherapist or Osteopath, is the report of symptoms given by the owner or rider.

Symptoms can be acute, that is they appear quickly and can be severe, so in these cases it is easy to pick up on them and to be accurate in giving this information to the vet or therapist. However, in many cases there have been small clues that have gone unnoticed, such as occasional unlevel steps on a particular surface, flinching when mounted or reluctance to lift a hindlimb to pick out the feet. These subtle symptoms are easily overlooked, especially when they are intermittent, or the horse might be blamed for being ‘awkward’ or ‘naughty’. Horses need to be handled and trained to behave in a certain way, such as picking up the feet when asked, standing still to be mounted. Once this has been taught to the horse, then any deviation from this behaviour should be noted. I am not saying that every horse will behave perfectly all the time, and certainly the stress or excitement of competition can transform a very biddable character at home into a fire breathing dragon when in full view of the masses, but where there is no discernible reason for a change in behaviour it can be fortuitous to make a written note of abnormal behaviours as and when they occur.

When things aren’t going right, as a general rule we tend to look for ‘the reason why’. Note there I used the word ‘reason’ in singular form as if there is only one problem. This is a common mistake we make. When questioning my human patients it is noticeable how many times they are suffering specific pain in one area but have aches, soreness or intermittent stabbing pains in other areas of their body too. As a complementary therapist, my training has always focussed on looking at the animal’s body as a whole, and considering where patterns of soreness might be coming from as well as where they current reside. A common example I see would be a horse who presents with a lot of muscular tension and stiffness in the neck region as a result of an unbalanced pelvis in the hindquarters, with transient lumbar region pain in between these two areas. The owner or rider has noticed the neck stiffness but is not able to identify that this is compensatory for the pelvic imbalance. The reason for the pelvic imbalance might be related to incorrect saddle pressures, overly exuberant behaviour or slips in the field, or could be compensatory movement from a lower limb pathology which has yet to progress to overt lameness. Getting to the root causes, (note the plural), can take time, ongoing observation and a dedication to recording all possible symptoms, and when they occur.

So what should you do to pick up the subtle symptoms your horse is showing?

Firstly, train thoroughly and sensibly. Take time to ensure that the basics are done so your horse has good manners at home, where you will be able to assess any changes in behaviour most accurately. This can include everything from standing still to be tacked up, feet picked up, standing still to be mounted and good manners when working on the lunge or ridden exercise. Increasingly there is a focus on the ‘performance’ element of our horses, and the ‘manners’ are neglected.

However, assuming all is well with your horse and good manners are achieved, any behavioural deviations can then be noted and these are often the subtle signs your horse will give you that something isn’t right. If your horse hasn’t worked as well as usual on a particular day, think back and ask yourself if they showed any reluctance when your approached with the tack, or brushed off their body before you rode? Write it down in a diary or calendar as our memories can be very inaccurate when issues have been presenting intermittently over a period of time.

You can also hone your own observational skills, so you are better able to pick up subtle changes in gait in your horse, which may be precursors to overt lameness. Lamenesstrainer.com is a new free web application if you want to learn more about lameness or test your skills in observation. Get into the habit of watching your horse move, and this can be free in the field, on the lunge or with someone trotting it up for you. It is so easy to video on a phone or similar device now, so take a short film when your horse is going well, so you have a comparison when you are questioning your horse’s gait on another day. A video can also be useful to show your vet or therapist if the issue you are having is intermittent as horses have an uncanny knack of looking much better as soon as a professional walks onto the yard!

Above all, trust your gut instinct if you think something is wrong. Sometimes my human clients can’t give me precise symptoms and struggle to find the words to describe their condition. Similarly, when treating horses, some owners will simply say ‘he doesn’t feel himself but I don’t know why’. Consult your vet or therapist and let them help you to analyse your horse, and identify what is going on, so you and your horse can enjoy a pain free and happy career for many more years to come.