Monday, March 1, 2010

Bad Apples, Bad Experiences or Lack of Communication

By Terri Rocovich

I got back yesterday from a show, (got rained for 3 days oh joy!) and I was so impressed by the number of comments to Laura’s last post that I decided that it merited further attention. Laura and several of you that commented to her post chronicled some troubling stories of very bad experiences with some very bad horses.

Most of you know that I am a full time professional trainer who also happens to have a journalism background and am currently working on my first fiction piece. Any trainer would be lying if they told you they have never come across horses like those that Laura and the rest of you described. I have luckily only run across a few in my career and only 2 who just could not be figured out and as a result, could not be saved. As was pointed out, horses can suffer from psychiatric issues just like people. They actually now have anti-psychotics and mood elevators (like Prozac) available for both horses and dogs. I think the biggest challenge for horse owners and trainers is how to figure out the pieces of the puzzle and how to get closure as to when it is time to call it quits.

It would be so much easier if horses could talk our language, (I do believe they try to talk with us) since the biggest issue is that we understand their language in very limited ways. I have learned over the years that bad behavior is often only a symptom of a greater underlying cause. For example, many performance horses today are plagued by acidy stomachs, stomach ulcers, intestinal ulcers and bacterial imbalance in the hind gut. All of these medical issues can be difficult to diagnose and frequently manifest themselves in disobedient or destructive behavior by the horse. Horses with ulcers often buck or rear for no apparent reason and/or refuse to work or move forward. Over the years I have had several horses come into my barn, including the horse I currently compete on, who have exhibited cranky attitudes and training problems that could easily be misconstrued as poor work ethics, aggressiveness and overall unwillingness. Several of these horses have been dramatically turned around by a course of gastro guard (not a cheap endeavor) on by adding Ranitidine (generic Zantac) to their daily feed.

About ten years ago I was asked to work with a mare that had a kicking and bucking problem. Every time you would tighten up her cinch (she was a western horse) she would either try to bite or kick you and when that did not work, she would explode bucking taking out whatever she was tied to and whatever or whoever happened to be in her way. I tried every type of discipline and training trick that I knew of to no avail and was about to write her off as a “bad seed” when I observed her just standing in her corral kicking. I watched her over the next week or so and discovered that at random times she would kick at the air, the rails, her feeder, her water tub, anything whether there was another horse near by or not. I was baffled and was about to tell her owners that she simply had a screw lose when she colicked. Turns out that the mare had an intestinal stone that had been developing for years and it would cause her periodic pain when just standing and consistent pain when being ridden. This was a really nice reining prospect so the owners paid for surgery and after recovery and rehab the bad behavior never returned.

I have also seen lots of horses refuse to jump, or bolt or rear or buck or all of the above due to back pain and/or chiropractic misalignment. My niece bought an event horse several years ago who was initially a fabulous jumper and enjoyed great competitive success and then slowly over time they started to have problems. The horse at first started to stop and big solid fences on cross country but was still very reliable in the stadium ring. Then he started to get very strong and hard to control on cross country, almost on the verge of running away with her, and later also started to stop at fences in stadium.

After months of problems and consultations with various trainers, including me, and various vets, it was suggested that they get a nuclear cyntigraphy, commonly know as a nuke scan, done on the horse. The results showed that the horse had a problem known as “kissing spine” which is caused by an unstable vertebra that in turns causes them to pinch or kiss at various times of physical stress like using his back when jumping. There was no surgical solution for this issue so they retired him from jumping and he is now happy, healthy and easy to handle as a dressage schoolmaster.

Now I am not saying that all bad horse behavior can be explained by medical causes or even bad treatment or bad training. Just like we find in the human realm there are simply some bad horses out there. But I do think that when afforded a little more investigation, time and patience a lot of behavioral issues can be resolved to a positive result.

When raising foals, amateur owners, (not an experienced horseman like Laura’s uncle) can often spoil their beloved babies into very aggressive and potentially dangerous conduct. I had a young warmblood come in for training a few years ago who had been hand raised by doting loving owners who could not understand why their now nearly five year old 17.2 hand baby had been dubbed untrainable by 2 other trainers that I knew and respected. I explained to them the best I could about herd dynamics and that their horse thought that he was alpha which is, of course a problem, when you are attempting to climb on their back. I told them that I would take the horse on only if they would leave the horse and not come back to see him until I said they could and that this would probably be 3 or 4 months. Otherwise the horse was their problem.

I told them that I was going to have to get fairly rough with him because he needed to learn that he was several pegs down on the herd hierarchy and there was, to my knowledge, no other way. ( I was not looking forward to this because being rough with a horse is not in my nature but some times tough love is they only way).

The first time I worked him in my round pen he pinned his ears, bared his teeth and charged to which I responded by hitting him as hard as I could between the eyes with the hard handle of my longe whip. He staggered back, ran away, tried again to the same hard whack on the head and then decided it was in his best interest to keep his distance. This was not the simple fix, we had several altercations over the next few months but when he gave in, he gave in and accepted be under saddle with no drama. He still challenges his rider from time to time (but mild by comparison) and needs a little “aunt Terri” talk. All and all he has turned into a nice horse but if his owners had witnessed a few of our sessions in the beginning, they would have had a heart attack.

Working with horses is truly a journey filled with many adventures and many personalities – both human and equine. As much as we all love and adore horses, we all know that some of them are more bright than others; (I have a few in my barn that we refer to as special needs children) some have hearts of gold, some are perpetual delinquents and some are simply bad apples. What are some of your experiences? Have any of you been able to resolve a behavior problem through a medical solution? I would love to have your input. I do think that we owe it to ourselves and our horse to try to piece together the puzzle and look at the physical picture whenever negative behavior occurs.


Aske said...


Just by accident saw your blog... I'm from Belgium and have two horses. A gorgious stallion of 17 years old and a very old mare who hopefully will become 30 in a few weeks time... Just wanted to say... nice reading your blog!!!! And I'll return to come and read some more!

Shanster said...

Hey Terri - I think I have that situation. (I feel like I'm always talking about it ... sigh)

Brought home a TB from the track - he was going really well last winter. I was taking him up to my trainer's barn and riding him - he was fine with kids riding big wheels in the barn alley while I was riding in the indoor... he had really nice mellow moments so I know he's got it in him.

My trainer kept telling me how cool he is gonna be....

and then this past spring and summer began acting up. Nothing hugely evil... no bogging his head down and really bucking - no kicking or biting.

Right when I get on, before I have my seat, he sort of spins around til I loose my balance and then crow hops a couple times and I slide off his shoulder...

He's always seemed sort of on edge - kind of a worried look in his eyes. I figured it was part of his personality - he was thinner, never really gaining weight - moved around a lot - nervous energy is what I chalked it up to - part of his personality.

I eventually brought out a chiro/actupuncturist - she did some adjustments on him - found some pain in his back. The 2nd time I had her out he'd held the adjustments. She told me to look for when he has a hard time picking up his right lead to have her out again. Could be in 6 mos - could be in a year ... or several years.

Since then his eye has become more quiet - he stands around alot more with his hip cocked - he's gained weight. He seems less nervous over all... he is still a "delicate flower" but seems to be much more comfortable.

I'll be starting in on riding him again this spring and summer - hope to have a good outcome!

Laura Crum said...

Very interesting post, Terri. I think you saw my post titled "Abusive Training Practices" which described a horse who had been "spoiled", much like the warmblood you describe. Playboy, the horse in my story, was cured through some very tough "love", if you want to call it that, but it worked. Playboy went from a dangerous horse to a solid citizen because someone was able to become the "alpha" with him--just as you did with the warmblood. And, as you say, with a horse like that, you have to be tougher than the animal, which can be challenging and is never pretty, however you do it.

I agree that many horses may have medical issues that underlie their "bad" behavior. Unfortunately, unless the horse is very valuable, or the owner has pots of money, the treatments for such conditions are often prohibitvely expensive (not to mention the diagnostic work). Most people can't (and probably shouldn't) try to afford such veterinary bills. I often question the wisdom of trying to salvage such a horse when so many good, kind, willing horses are dumped for lack of a chance.

In the case of these "inheirited" behaviors (which seemed to be what we were dealing with in the get of this one stud that I wrote about in my previous post "A Good Deed...") I remain puzzled as to the best solution. Its a very gray area for me. When I wrote the post I said that I still don't know what I should have done differently when it came to Fine--and that's really true.

Shanster said...

Yes, the ulcer treatments and surgeries are really expensive - prohibitively so for my bank account!

The chiropractor I used was $85 for a farm call and adjustments. She spent an hour going over the horse. I didn't think that was bad at all. I don't know how other areas go as far as charges.

And I don't really know yet if that fixed the gelding. I haven't tried it out ...

Tho', I can say I called the chiropractor back out to evaluate my mare who'd been pretty resistant to collection work - making faces, ears flat back, kicking out with both hind feet while I'm riding.

I had my saddle refitted/reflocked 2 yrs ago specifically for her. It still didn't really fix the issue.

After a chiropractic adjustment (in Oct) she is now much more cheerful doing her work.

My primary vet evaluated her recently (Feb) and found significantly less back pain than she'd had in the past.

So for whatever that is worth!

Some back pain with resulting bad behavior might be fixed for a fair cost. In my experience with my mare anyway.

Of course I'm not talking about severe, dangerous issues like the warmblood you worked with or like with Laura's example in Playboy...

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I agree if an $85 call (even repeated several times) can help a horse--that's very reasonable and worthwhile. I haven't had a lot of luck with chiropracters working on my horses, though I have tried it a few times. But I know people who have had great success with this--so I'm not discrediting it. Perhaps I never had a horse whose problems could usefully be addressed this way.

And I'm a fine one to talk when it comes to throwing money into veterinary treatments. My son's horse, Henry (who was twenty at the time) had colic surgery last year--the cantalope-sized stone that was removed is on my mantle. Between the initial colic treatment, the surgery, and the follow up treatments, I spent (taking a deep breath here) $11,000. Yep. On a an old gentle kid's horse who isn't worth anything near that. And no, I don't have tons of money--I went into debt (since paid off) to do that. It was worth it to me for my son's sake. So we all do what we have to do. Every situation is different. But I think its worthwhile to point out how very expensive some of these medical cures are--not to be undertaken lightly if your financial situation is tenuous.

Shanster said...

I agree - just wanted to point out that chiro work might help and is relatively affordable. :)

Henry is worth his weight in gold as is your son's heart.

Each situation is very individual and personal so it's hard to know.

I agree about people needing to know costs! The warmblood colt I had long ago was perscribed ulcer medication. We were really struggling financially at the time... the vet we used then didn't give us any indication how much the medicine would cost.

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut when I got a bill for $500 for the ulcer meds alone - on top of the farm call and exam fee. If I had known, I would have looked for another treatment option or a 2nd opinion.

horsegenes said...

I have used a chiropractor and an equine massage therapist for my horse. He had cast in the stall and a chiro was coming to the barn so I decided that it couldn't hurt to have him checked out. Turned out he was out in his hips and his poll area. Prior to having him worked on, I had been having trouble with flying lead changes. He would "pop" his butt up in the air and would sometimes kick out at my spur when I ask for the change. At first I thought he was just being cranky and disrespectful but it really isn't his nature to behave that way. I noticed that after having him worked on, his changes were so smooth you could hardly feel them. I didn't do the chiro because of the lead change issues, but it turned out that he was having some pain in his hips making it uncomfortable to make the change. Now I have him worked on once a month or if he starts showing signs he is uncomfortable I have him done more often. I switched from the chiro to the massage therapist because the chiro tends to make him sore for a couple of days afterward and the massage therapist does the same stuff without making him sore and it is cheaper! HE LOVES IT. It is almost obscene how much him loves his massages.

Terri Rocovich said...

Aske, welcome and thanks for reading our blog. Congratulations on your senior citizens. We all know in the horse world that that is a great accomplishment. I had a mare make it to almost 32 and I have a gelding who will be 21 later this month.

Shanster, good for you for exploring the potential cause for your horses's actions not just discipline the behavior. I use both a chiropratic vet and a vet for accunpuncture as part of our regular regimin in the barn. I also regularly reevaluate saddle fit, especially as young horses develop. I would also keep an eye on your horse's digestive health. I have seen ulcer type conditions develop later on, sometimes months after a horse has gone through pain or stress. Good Luck!!! I am sure that it will work out because you are a sensitive and diligent horse mom. Sometimes those "delicate flowers" do us a favor by letting us know something is wrong, rather than suffering in silence.

Terri Rocovich said...

Luare and Shanster,

Great comments! It is a sad but simple fact of life that finacial considerations come into play when it comes down to our animal's medical care. But then again that is also often true for us as well. I will often tough it out through a bad cold, and in one case phneumonia, because I didn't want to spend the money going to a doctor.

Laura, when I first started training I used to get very angry and indignant with people who would unwittingly create bad bahavior in there horse by not setting simple boundaries. But the again I deal with lots of parents who do the same thing with their kids. Now I have mellowed and realize that what seems so simple and logical to me is elusive and complicated to others. People forget that they need to think like horses do, having a strong herd hierarchy. Without that, with the human as alpha, a sweet cuddling horse can become very dangerous. It is the same thing with dogs. I own the often maligned breed of rottweiler. My dogs, because they are well trained and know their boundaries would not hurt a fly,(or my cats) but I have been around others that should probably be put down. A very big shame caused by stupid humans.

FYI, a cheap alternative to ulcer guard (which runs about $600/month) is ranitidine, which is generic Zantac. I buy it from a catalogue online for about $12/bottle (loading dose would be about 2/3 bottles per month) or you can buy it in saller miligram doses from Costco. It won't cure or heal an actual ulcer, but it willl alleviate the symptoms.

Terri Rocovich said...


I use chiro, accupuncture and massage with my and my client's horses. It sounds like you a good chiropractor like I do. I will only use a vet for chiropractice because in my area (San Diego county) there are 5 bad chiroprators for every good one. I have a friend that is an equine massuece and like your horse, my gelding is almost pornographic in horse much he loves his massage. I find that, especially when he was heaviliy competing, that I would get longer, greater benifit from the adjustments when followed up by a massage.

I have a 3 1/2 that came into training with me last month and after riding himn several times I talked to his owners about being adjsuted. For as nice of a trot that this gelding has, his canter was horrible. He would not load his hocks at all and felt like he had a flat tire tracking left. I rode him yesterday, after his adjustments last Thursday, and the difference is remarkable. Turns out that he had cast himself about a year ago and since he seemed to be fine his owner didn't think anything of it. She just figured that that was his baby canter. Especially since he is still growing and developing I am really glad we had him adjusted and will continue to do so for a while.

Shanster said...

Terri - the chiro/acupuncturist I use is also a vet... Tho now she only does chiro/acupuncture because people began to not refer her as they lost clients to her.

So she doesn't practice general vet care 'cept for the clients she already had.

She teaches workshops up at the CSU Vet Hospital. She is EXCELLENT.

I wasn't sure about the whole chiro thing... I'd seen a guy who did chiro work where I didn't see a difference in the horse. I was really on the fence but figured I'd give it a whirl. I had this woman out... she was truly amazing.

My primary vet came out to watch her exam on my mare and I think was a bit skeptical.. but was also very suprised and pleased when the adjustments made such an improvment in pain response for my mare's back.

I have a ton of faith in this woman's capabilities, but have heard from other people who've used different chiropractors with no or minimal result.