Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Quirk

By Laura Crum


My horse, Sunny, has an odd quirk. Its not something I feel I need to fix, and I’m not sure how I’d fix it if I wanted to. It’s a strange behavior, one I haven’t run across before. I thought I’d describe it and ask if anyone else has a horse who does anything like it. Maybe I can learn something.

I bought Sunny two years ago. I knew his background—he’d come from old Mexico via a horse trader, and was brought into this county by a team roping friend of mine (see Sunny’s photo on the sidebar). Sunny was a mediocre team roping horse, but a steady reliable mount and “cute”, and my friend sold him to a woman who wanted a trail riding horse for her daughter. I knew the woman slightly and knew that her daughter and various other beginners used Sunny for many trail rides during the three years she owned him. Nobody ever came off of him. However, the woman’s daughter outgrew her interest in horses and Sunny was for sale. I needed a gentle bombproof trail horse to give my son a lead as we began trail riding together, and my old gelding, Plumber, was too jiggy and spooky to be the right one. So I bought Sunny.

Sunny proved to be just what I needed on the trail. He is steady, quiet and reliable…you can ride him anywhere. Up and down steep, tricky trails, in the surf, across muddy little creeks, along busy streets, you name it. He rarely spooks, he does not jig to speak of. But he does have one little quirk, which I have never really figured out.

The very first time I took Sunny on a trail ride, he gave his usual stellar performance. I was very happy with him. We were almost home and the horse and I were both relaxed, at the flat-footed walk. Crossing a piece of level, sandy ground, Sunny, for no apparent reason, “caught himself”, and gave a very minor crowhop. He did not put his head down, he just hopped his butt in the air and scooted forward a stride. And then he was fine. It was a nothing, but it was odd.

I was puzzled. I checked to see if the back cinch had flanked him. No. I looked down to see if he’d stepped on a stick or something prickly. But there was nothing there. I kicked him up to a lope to see if he was planning on trying me. He loped off like a gentleman. I shrugged and rode on home, figuring it was just a momentary aberration.

But Sunny’s quirk persisted. He didn’t do it every ride. But maybe one ride in six, he’d have a little “moment” like this. I hardly knew what to call it. He never put his head down. He was never really out of control. He never came remotely close to unseating me. He always walked off quietly when he was done. But he also didn’t quit doing it. It was annoying rather than threatening, and at first I mostly ignored it. But I got curious.

I couldn’t figure out why he was doing it. It always occurred very near the end of the ride. Sunny would have been calm, quiet and cooperative throughout the ride, as he always is. He might have had to pass various spooky/difficult stuff, and he was reliably steady. And then, when we were almost home, for no apparent reason, he’d do his little thing.

Sunny’s quirk could take many forms. If there was a horse behind him, it would appear that he was kicking at that horse. If my neighbor’s tractor struck a rock as we rode by he would appear to be spooking at the sound. If I had to kick him up to a lope as we crossed the road, he would seem as if he were attempting to bolt. Sometimes he just appeared jiggy for a few minutes and hopped his butt around. But I was aware that all these behaviors were various manifestations of his quirk. I just didn’t understand why he did it.

It felt as if he were giving me the finger. If I could put words to his gesture, I thought they might have been, “OK, I’ve taken you on one more ride. I came through for you. But I’m nobody’s sweet little pony. Get it?”

This made sense as far as it went, but I failed to see why he needed to do it. We get along well for the whole ride and then at the end he needs to give me the finger? Why?

I remained puzzled by Sunny’s quirk. He continued to do it once every few rides. I could never predict when. Sometimes when he was fresh, sometimes when he’d been ridden a lot. Always very near the end of the ride, but not in the same place every time. He never made any effort to get me off—that clearly wasn’t the point. But it was a gesture of defiance—it did have some negative component, that seemed obvious.

It was annoying and puzzling. I tried punishing him for it. This made him a little jiggy when he was about to do it; he was gearing up both to make the gesture and be punished. I could feel when he was about to do it (due to the increased energy) and I sometimes just stopped him and made him stand. When I had time, I turned him around and went back out for another ride. None of these things made much impression that I could see; Sunny’s quirk remained the same. Every few rides he produced his crowhop (for lack of a better word). Once he made his little gesture, he walked calmly and quietly home.

So here I am, after two years of owning and riding this horse, still no wiser as to why he needs to do this. Sunny clearly gets along well with me, he nickers when he sees me, he comes through when I need him. But he retains this odd behavior. As I began by saying, I’m not sure I need to fix it, or how I would fix it if I wanted to. But it interests me. I would be fascinated to hear if anyone else has had experienced something like this and what your take on it might be.

15 comments:

Kate said...

Sound like it could be a momentary muscle cramp or spasm, and the little hop either comes from that or helps him fix it. You might want to check out his back for soreness. Or it could even be something like a stifle that momentarily locks and causes that movement. Since his behavior is ordinarily so good, I doubt it's a behavioral problem, but who knows? Horses are mysterious!

Kate said...

Apologies for commenting twice - one other thing that makes me think it might be physical is you said it tends to happen at the end of rides - and this is when he is more fatigued so a muscular or joint problem could cause trouble.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I don't think Sunny's problem is physical. I did (and do) check his back for soreness and I'm always evaluating all my horses' soundness. I've never seen a sign of pain in Sunny. His demeanor, too, does not indicate pain when he makes his "gesture". Above and beyond that, I believe a pain issue would (at least occasionally) present at some other time than a quarter mile away from my front gate. Say on a particularly hard ride, or a steep hill...etc. But such is not the case. Sunny also never displays this behavior when I ride him in an arena (no matter how hard I ride him), and almost never when I haul him somewhere for a trail ride. However, there are several different rides I can take from my home, and it doesn't seem to matter which I choose or how long I ride or how well rested he is. Arbitrarily, about a quarter mile from home, one ride in six, he'll throw in his mini-buck. And like you say, its really hard for me to understand this, because he will have been cooperative and obedient throughout the ride. Pain was the first thing I thought of, too, but I've not seen a sign of it, and again, I think it would present in other situations if it was pain. Also, he'll do it on an ascent, a descent, or the flat...doesn't seem to matter which, and this, too, makes me think its behavioral rather than physical.

Terri Rocovich said...

Hi Laura,

OK Sunny has come up with a unique one. It is a good mystery, that is for sure. The only things I can think of are 1) if he is always really relaxed before he does it, is he falling asleep and then catching himself? Just a guess. or 2) maybe he does not want the ride to be over and he thinks that by being naughty, you will take him out more rather than proceeding home. Just another guess.

I agree with you about it not being physical because it seems too random than that unless its a occasional nerve pinch?? You will have to let us know if you ever figure it out. Sorry the blogger ate you first response to my post. I really hate computers sometimes. I agree with you on the hind shoes risk. It is amazing how much damage horses can do to each other. My other pet peeve is people you turn their horses out in big arenas, usually with no boots, and then chase them around or let them run around like maniacs and then they wonder why they overreach, pull shoes, or worse yet end up with soft tissue injuries. It happens all the time at one of the facilities I teach at and it drives me crazy..

Kate said...

Weird! Maybe he's just excited at getting back? I wonder if you'll ever figure out what he's thinking?

Enjay said...

This is a stumper. I'm a bit more inclined to think it is physical because you said when punished for it that later he would start to get jiggy knowing he was going to do this and he was going to get punished. That, to me, says he doesn't have, or doesn't think he has, control over it.
Has he been evaluated by a chiro? I ask because not all injuries are painful when touched and if it's a mild pain he may just tolerate it without much of a reaction when you palpitate him.

Enjay said...

You might also think about asking his previous owner also :)

stilllearning said...

Maybe it began as a physical thing--a little self-adjustment--then became a habit?

It wouldn't have had to be from real pain, could have started with a damp saddle pad, or a little cramp, or who knows...

Laura Crum said...

Enjay and stillearning--Maybe I'll reevaluate the pain issue. But I think my take on this has a lot to do with my overall knowledge of Sunny's personality, which inclines me to the "giving me the finger" interpretation. Its hard to explain in a short post, but though a very reliable, steady trail horse, Sunny is no sweetie pie. My friend and boarder has nicknamed him "Small Nasty", and though he agrees that Sunny is a good trail horse, he says he can't figure out why I like him. Sunny is cross grained in many ways and is always testing for dominance (both with other horses and humans). Interestingly, he seems to need to test for dominance and be punished--he seems to find this reassuring. He does it in many small ways on the ground, and I guess, at bottom, I believe his "quirk" is another variation on this theme. In essence, it amounts to "I try you, you prove you're the boss, I feel happy." I know its weird. Horses are just as weird as people.

Laura Crum said...

And Terri--I totally agree with you on the risk of horses hurting themselves running around in turnout. Its one of the reasons I keep mine turned out 24/7 in big corrals where they can move as much as they want. I can't remember how many times I've seen or heard about horses running wildly about during turnout time and sustaining a serious injury, whether due to another horse or just hurting themselves. And those soft tissue injuries are "H-E-double hockey sticks" sometimes. I know many people who have completely lost the use of good horses due to the elusive "soft tisue injury". Anyway, as I said in my comment on your post, I'm paranoid. I never turn horses out together who have hind shoes, and (when possible) my riding horses live in big corrals where they can run and play--one horse to a corral. They can socialize over the fence (and yeah, I know, they manage to hurt themselves that way, too). My retired horses are barefoot and live turned out together in large pastures (many acres). So that's my best plan for reducing the incidence of those "turnout injuries".

lopinon4 said...

I think he's doing just what you think he's doing: whipping you the bird.

Laura Crum said...

lopinon4--But here's what I don't get. Why does he always do it at the end of the ride? (Or rather, just before the end.) Why not in the beginning? Or in the middle, when, for instance, he might be faced with a steep climb, or be asked to turn away from home when he'd like to turn back. He's always good then. I guess its become a habit, but it still strikes me as an odd one. It puzzles me, too, that he did it on our very first trail ride, which argues that it dates from before I owned him. And how the heck did he realize that he was almost home on that very first ride?

So, here's a new theory, based on what everyone has said. Sunny's previous owner said she had a hard time finding a saddle that fit him (her other mounts were skinny high withered things--Arab cross, TB, Standardbred--and Sunny is a round low-withered sort). She said he gave definite signs of discomfort until she found the right saddle. Though I think my saddle does fit him well, maybe Sunny developed the habit of "protesting" near the end of the ride due to being sore and has just retained the behavior as a habit.

I guess its gonna remain a mystery. I was hoping somebody would write and say that they had a horse who does exactly the same thing and this is why they think he does it.

littledog said...

This is just an idea that is way out there and probably wrong--but since he only does it towards the end of the ride and is totally happy before and after---could he just be annoyed about dirt or mud sticking to his legs/feet and trying to get rid of it?

autumnblaze said...

You may not see this, but I'm going to throw it out there. I think it sounds like 'sticky stifle'. Sort of like a luxating patella in a dog maybe... not hte best way to describe it. However a ligament in his stifle may be getting 'stuck' instead of sliding properly and he does a little... yee ha to sort of pop it out.

My Aussie (when she was little) had a luxating patella. She'd be in a dead run and do this little hop kick, hardly breaking her stride.

Some horses have a lot of discomfort from it, others not so much. Riding him, espeically on hills may be the best thing you can do for him if I'm at all right. Horses here in the flat lands of Tidewater VA often have similar stifle issues due to no hill work.

autumnblaze said...

By the way, I don't think it's a 'true' sticky stifle b/c they can get 'locked' - I just wonder if he has a very mild version he can sort of just kick his patella back into place sort of, like my Aussie.

It's a thought anyways...