by Laura Crum
Not too long ago I read a blog post in which the blogger talked about how much she hated seeing people ride lame horses. My immediate reaction was yeah, that’s one of the reasons I quit competing—I got so tired of seeing all these poor half crippled horses being pushed to keep going and then dumped when they finally couldn’t go any more. Its awful. Right on.
Then I started to think about it. And I realized that just like many other things I’ve written about lately, lameness isn’t black and white either, much though we might like to think so.
What do you mean, you say, surely a horse is lame or he isn’t? Well, yes and no. Let me explain what I mean.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m gonna talk about rope horses, because that’s the sport I competed in most recently. But the same things hold true for the cutting horses and reined cowhorses I knew. I’d guess this holds true for horses in any competitive discipline, though I don’t know this for a fact. I’d even say it probably holds true when friends gather for a casual non-competitive trail ride.
Here’s what I mean. You go to a roping and watch the horses warm up. If you are good at spotting lameness (and I am), you can easily see that maybe ten per cent of the horses in the warm up pen are slightly lame at the trot. Some of them will warm up out of this. Now, if you took the rest of the horses out in the parking lot and trotted them in small circles on hard ground, as a vet would do in a soundness exam, the number of noticably lame horses would go up to about thirty per cent. Then if you added in every horse there who was on some sort of medical supplement to reduce symptoms of various lameness (bute or whatever) the percentage of technically lame horses would go up to at least fifty per cent.
At this point you realize that half the horses here are technically lame (feel free to dispute my percentages if you want to—I think they’re accurate). The horses who are sound are not (in general) the better horses. No, they’re the younger, greener horses. Most of the best horses in the ring are not truly sound. They’re “servicably sound”.
What does this really mean? Is it evil for these people to be using these not-really-sound horses? Here’s where you get into the gray area. Cause its not black and white at all. How do I know? Well, I was once one of these folks roping on a good horse who had a little bute in him to make him comfortable—because he was lame.
OK—now I’m part of the the evil empire. Before you jump to this conclusion, listen to the rest of the story.
I roped for several years on my good horse, Gunner. When Gunner was eleven years old, he developed bone spavin in his hocks, something which is relatively common in rope horses. This was long before the days of “Adequan”, “Legend” and various other similar products in use today. My vet advised me to keep the horse on one gram of bute a day and keep using him. I did so.
Gunner was sound on his gram of bute a day regime and I kept roping on him. But I had now joined the ranks of the folks who were roping on horses who were actually lame.
Why did I do this?
First off, because my vet said it wouldn’t do my horse any harm. We knew what was wrong with him. Bone spavin doesn’t get worse through use—often it improves. Second, because I didn’t want to retire Gunner and I didn’t have the sense Gunner was ready to be retired. Third because Gunner really seemed to do fine on this system. When Gunner was thirteen, he became increasingly reluctant to run, and I had my vet reevaluate him. This time X-rays showed that Gunner was developing navicular in a hind foot (unusual but true). My vet discussed my options with me, but I made the choice to retire Gunner from roping. I felt the horse was telling me he didn’t want to run hard any more. And unlike bone spavin, hard use does tend to make navicular disease get worse. I used Gunner as a riding horse for one more year—light riding only—and then retired him to the pasture. I still have Gunner today—he is thirty years old and trots sound, if stiffly, across the field where he lives. I’d say I took pretty good care of him, even though I did rope on him when he was technically lame.
On the other hand, I have been moved to tears and outright rage by the sight of a good old head horse I knew, mostly crippled at this point by navicular and ringbone, being loaded up with bute and used to run steer after steer until he bowed a tendon (and was then put down). There is a line (somewhere) between appropriate use of a horse who is not technically sound and abuse. The number of horses in many competitive events who are forced to keep going until they cripple up so badly they cannot even be retired (supposing their owners were willing to retire them—which is often debatable) is huge.
So, here’s my topic for today. Let’s discuss where that line lies. When is it Ok to keep a horse going, even when he isn’t technically sound, and when is it abusive? And you folks in other competitive disciplines, what’s your take on it? Are these other disciplines better in this respect than what I saw? Terri did a nice post on how well the eventers treat each other. Are they equally careful not to “abuse” lame horses by forcing them to work past the point where they should be retired from competition? And again, where is that point? I’m not saying I know. I think it may vary from horse to horse. And then, how can we judge others when we don’t know that individual horse? My team roping partner kept his great heel horse going for many years because the horse really didn't want to quit. I knew that horse; I knew how much he liked/wanted to go roping. I helped my partner retire the horse when the gelding literally couldn’t do it any more. We patched Pistol together so he had ten good retired years in the pasture before he got so painful he had to be put down. Should that horse have been retired earlier? It’s a tough call.
Again, I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. I’m saying that this is a subject worth discussing and thinking about. I’d welcome your insights.