Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ride a Gimpy Horse?

by Laura Crum

My last blog post about my son’s horse, Henry, generated some wonderful comments and stories about older horses. Some of them referenced “slightly gimpy” oldsters who were still having a good life teaching kids to ride, and these stories made me want to bring up this topic to discuss.

The topic is actually pretty relevant for me right now, because my horse, Sunny, is entering this category. Not that Sunny is so much an oldster. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how old Sunny is. He came from a California horse trader who bought him from a Mexican horse trader at a sale in El Paso. He was said to be six years old at the time. Those who know the horse business at all will automatically add at least two years to that age. I bought the horse two years later, so by this reckoning he would have been ten then. I had his teeth floated shortly after I bought him and asked the vet how old she thought he was. She said, “Fifteen.” I said, “Well, drat, I thought he was younger than that.” She looked again and said, “I don’t know. He’s got a funny mouth. The bottom teeth look younger than the top teeth.”

So, okey dokey, I don’t know how old Sunny is. That was three years ago. Which makes him somewhere between thirteen and eighteen now. And one thing I do know is that his previous owner had her vet X-ray him when he came up lame after a thirty mile ride (the problem turned out to be a bruised sole), and the X-rays showed “incipient ringbone”. So between that and the fact that he’s certainly at least a teenager, I’m pretty sure that the occasional “bad step” I’m seeing this spring is the result of an arthritic complaint—probably ringbone.

I didn’t vet Sunny when I bought him. I knew his history and I knew he was sound enough for the work I had for him. He has always trotted without a bob in a straight line. But I have always been aware that the horse was not 100% even, and that he needed plenty of warmup to move freely. (This is true of most older horses.) Even experienced horsemen couldn’t spot it watching him. But I knew it was there; I could feel it.

I’ve dealt with ringbone before (and navicular and various other arthritic complaints) in horses as they age, and I know the parameters. And the first parameter is that every horse is different. Every situation is different. There is no one “best path” that works for everyone (like most of life). Back when I was competing at team roping and my good horse, Gunner, came up slightly gimpy with a couple of arthritic complaints when he turned fourteen, I retired him to the pasture. But I’m not ready to do that with Sunny.

First off, Gunner was a sensitive horse who was a BIG baby about pain. I had buted this horse to use him for several years, due to the relatively minor problem of bone spavin in the hocks (and for those of you who will think I am a bad person for doing that, I would like to point out that Gunner is pasture sound today at thirty-one, so I don’t think I did him any harm— and I still own him and care for him). I was unwilling to up the bute dose when Gunner began to have navicular issues in one back foot. The other problem was that I wanted to compete at team roping, which was a strenuous event for a horse. I had no use for a “light riding” horse at the time. So I retired Gunner.

In Sunny’s case, he is a tough little trooper who is not in the least a big baby. All I use him for is very light riding in the ring and on the trail and he is still plenty sound enough for that. So, yes, in his case I am going to ride a slightly gimpy horse. And there are lots of other slightly gimpy older horses in the world who would make wonderful light riding horses for so many riders who are currently struggling with younger horses who have behavioral issues. These riders are not having fun. They are, quite frankly, scared. I read their blog posts (or talk to them) and it is easy to see that underneath the various things they say is a simple fact. They are not having much fun because they are anxious—afraid the horse will dump them, or at the very least, give them grief. Their interactions with their horses are very limited—because they are quite simply scared to just head out on a ride. And I don’t blame them. I often think that “so and so” would be having a lot more fun if they owned Sunny or Henry. But the Sunnys and Henrys of this world are mostly older horses who have been there and done that and most of them are likely to be a touch gimpy for this reason. Even if they’re just a little stiff before they’re warmed up.

Now I understand why people often choose a younger horse and try to be very sure there are no soundness problems, such as “incipient ringbone”. They hope that the horse will be with them as a sound riding horse for many more years than that older, slightly gimpy horse would be. And there is obviously some logic to this. But over and over again I have seen people overestimate what they are going to be comfortable coping with in a horse and essentially “overmount” themselves. Often they are people like me who once rode pretty well, and then took a break and came back to riding as an older person. Sometimes they’re just people who haven’t had a lot of experience. They buy a youngish horse that is said to be broke and gentle and at first it is fine. But then the young horse spooks or does some typical young horse thing that scares the rider. The rider is after this worried that the horse will do this again and nervous when they ride the horse. This anxiety creates responses from the rider that make the horse more anxious. And pretty quick the rider is not having any fun because she is scared and the horse is learning bad habits. This scenario usually does not end happily.

Why do people do this? A lot of times they are simply not aware that a young horses will almost inevitably have less than “solid” moments no matter how well broke they are. If you have ridden as many young horses as I have, you know this. If you haven’t, you might suppose that because the young horse was very well behaved when you tried him, he’ll always behave like that. Not so. Horses younger than eight almost inevitably have their less than perfectly behaved moments. Horses older than eight can certainly have these moments, too. But its pretty much a given with younger horses. It doesn’t mean the horse has a problem, necessarily. Its just part of the overall package that comes with a younger horse. (And yes, there are exceptions—though I personally have known very few.)

Another reason people buy a younger horse rather than the older, solid horse that would better fit their needs is ego. They don’t see themselves as needing a “bombproof” horse or a “babysitter”. They think they are a much better rider than that. Buying that old solid horse because he is more reliable feels demeaning to them.

Now I am the first to admit that for many years I, too, would have scorned to ride a babysitter. I trained young horses, I competed…etc. I didn’t need a solid, broke horse. I could train my own. But when I came back to riding after a several years break to have a child, I soon realized that my skills were not what they once were. And I realized something else. I didn’t want to work that hard. I didn’t want to take the chance I would come off and be hurt. I wanted to enjoy relaxing rides on a horse I trusted.

Oh, and lets not forget time. As the busy mother of a young child, I had/have very little time to work with a horse—and young horses need regular work. My riding time has to be fitted in around a full schedule, and sometimes I only manage to climb on once or twice a week. Younger horses usually do not thrive on such a pattern. I realized that at this point in my life I wanted and needed an older, solid horse, and was willing to accept slight gimpieness as a trade off. And this choice has worked well for me.

That doesn’t mean this is the right choice for everyone. If you feel relaxed and comfortable on your young horse despite his “young horse” moments, and you look forward to riding him, then you are doubtless in the right place. And I might be in your camp (if I had more time), except for the fact that for many years now my goal has been to have safe, non-eventful, fun trail rides with my son. I needed that solid horse to let me relax and keep my focus on my child, not be dealing with my horse. I did ride my boarder’s young horse occasionally for the last few years and realized I could still do a competent job of this. But I have to admit, I wasn’t drawn to it. Those who have similar emotions/situation to mine may want to give a good hard look at that solid older horse with a slight tendency to gimpieness.

So today I want to discuss how I decide what is an acceptable level of “gimpiness” for a light riding horse. And its actually pretty simple. The horse needs to trot in a straight line without a noticeable bob of the head. If he can do that, he’s sound enough for light riding. If he can’t do that once he is warmed up, then you need to address the lameness in some way in order to use him.

As for Sunny, if he is warmed up at the walk sufficiently, he trots without a head bob. However, if I pull him out of the pen and trot him “cold” (which I did last week to see where he was at) there is a slight bob. And that is new as of this spring. I have also seen the horse take the occasional “bad step” this spring, both in the corral and under saddle, so I am clear that his arthritic issue has progressed—as such issues almost inevitably do.

However, Sunny still runs and bucks and plays (a lot) at liberty, and once warmed up, trots freely up my long graveled driveway, without any bob at all. So I consider him sound enough for the work I have for him.

Now I could spend a lot of money getting Sunny “diagnosed” and then a bunch more money having whichever joint “infused”, and maybe it would help him. And, if he gets significantly worse, I may yet do that. But I’m not going to do it now, because I’ve been down that road before and frequently all that money spent does NOT help the problem.

What I plan to do is be observant, trim him regularly, make sure I notice any changes in behavior and soundness, and keep the horse within his comfort zone. In practice this means walking him a lot before I ask anything more of him, and I have always done that and will continue to do so. If I wanted to do something more strenuous with him (which I don’t) I would have to be more proactive about addressing this issue. But for those of you, like me, who enjoy not too strenuous trail rides, a slightly gimpy horse can usually do this and continue to enjoy it, if you are thoughtful.

Will Sunny get worse? Obviously I don’t know. I have known ringbone horses who got first worse and then better—the joint will sometimes fuse. There is no simple answer. But for those who are considering taking on a slightly gimpy older horse (due to arthritic issues), sometimes the horse gets worse and you can’t use him and sometimes he stays pretty stable and you get many years of happy riding. Sometimes you need to bute him or inject him and sometimes this can help a lot. Sometimes no matter what you do he gets worse. I’ve seen both. It’s a crapshoot. But so is all of life. Young horses who pass the vet check with flying colors can also come down with serious problems. If your intended use is light riding and you value being relaxed and do not want to struggle with training issues—these slightly gimpy older horses can be an extremely good deal—as they can often be had for not too much money.

Am I sorry that I bought Sunny? Not at all. I’ve had three marvelous years of happy trail rides with my son without one disaster or even one scary moment—thanks to Sunny and my son’s horse, Henry. No one, horse or human, has had so much as a scratch, and we have covered a lot of country in that time. I absolutely could not have done this without two rock solid horses—which are not all that easy to find. Coping with the fact that Sunny is getting slightly gimpy is a small price to pay for what I’ve been given. Have a look.

Sunny and me in the lupines.

Taking my son on a trail ride.

Riding with my little boy at the beach.

I guess this post is somewhat a repeat of my previous post. Look at all the joy that can be had in a rock solid older horse, even if that horse is a little bit gimpy. There are so many of these horses that both need and deserve a good home. I do understand that for some of you the sort of riding I am describing looks very tame and downright dull. I once felt the same way. Some of you want to do more exciting things and have a horse that is more of a training project; my little palomino plug would bore you. But if you’re looking for a horse for “light riding” and you just want to enjoy your horseback time and not work too hard, maybe see some pretty country, its worth thinking about. Anyone else have any gimpy horse stories to share?


Linda said...

I have the gimpiest horses in the West, I assure you. And that is why I LOVE my farrier--he somehow keeps my problem horses sound. I have a 30 year old who is obviously gimpy because he's old and arthritic--mostly in the shoulder, a 19 year old who's a great trail horse, but really stiff, a 14 year old who broke his P3 four years ago, but has still been my main riding horse, a soft-soled QH (young) but who is often gimpy, however, is the most solid trail horse you'll ever ride, a somewhat club-footed Mustang, and the goofiest footed Paint on God's green earth. I think my horses put the gimp in gimpy, but I'm like you--as long as they're rideable, we're using them. My farrier says it's the best thing for them--all of them.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--I totally agree. Getting light exercise (not being pounded hard) is absolutely the best thing for slightly gimpy horses. With my oldsters that I don't ride, they are kept turned out in big pastures and move around a lot to graze. And all are pasture sound--even into their thirties. That regular, light exercise just does wonders.

I love hearing about your gimpy herd. They sound like great horses--and very much loved.

Anonymous said...

As you point out, there's gimpy and then there's gimpy. My Noble had high ringbone in one front foot when I got him at age 17, but was always perfectly sound - up until him mid-20s when I stopped riding him because his hock arthritis made him somewhat uncomfortable.
I like your trot-in-a-straight line test for light working horses.

I do hate to see, however, horses who are obviously lame in the show ring - happens all the time in the equitation classes even if the horses are supposed to be "serviceably sound", whatever that means. Some of these horses are OK and some are miserable - you call tell by the eyes.

But keeping an older horse moving with light riding can be the best thing for mild gimpiness, particularly if it's caused by arthritis. And they love the attention and activity, too.

You are absolutely right that there are lots of folks out there who are overmounted. In my experience, there's often a trainer in the picture when this happens - trainer gets nice commission when client buys fancy horse, trainer gets paid a lot to do frequent training and warm-up rides and owner thinks they know how to ride since they can go into the show ring and compete on a horse that has been first lunged to death and then schooled by the trainer before the owner gets on.

And then there's the folks who purchase young/untrained/badly trained horses out of ignorance, or who buy a horse, pull it out of the pasture a couple times a month and expect everything to be OK - that's how I came to have Drifter - he was under ridden and his owner didn't really have the skills to cope when stuff came up, which it did. He certainly didn't do anything bad to her, but I'll bet she sighed a big sigh of relief when my trailer left her property. And all young horses will have their moments - even my Pie who has the best foundation on him anyone could expect at his age (and then there's the older ones, like my Dawn, who have their moments too - in fact she's my most difficult ride) But I have the time and desire to work with them - they wouldn't be the right horses for someone who didn't want to do the work I do.

Matching the right rider to the right horse is difficult - but older horses, as you've said before, can be worth their weight in gold, mild gimpiness or not.

Promise said...

My mare has been anywhere from 2-legged lame to slightly gimpy for going on 2 years now. We've been dealing with injury after injury - starting with the right stifle, presumably a strained tendon, although I refused to do an ultrasound when she didn't get worse after 2 weeks stall rest. After 10 weeks stall rest, she was sound.

While it seems to have healed, she is nearly 17, and it most likely changed from strain to arthritis to go with what she already had in the hocks. She certainly doesn't "bounce back" like she used it. Plus, she's 16.2 and 1700 lbs.

She tweaked it late last spring, and wasn't off, but wasn't sound, either. No one noticed but me. I gave her more time off. Mid-summer, she came up three-legged lame again. Still more time off with only minor improvements.

I had it injected in November and I got an incredibly short 2 months out of the steroid. I had it injected again in February and 2 days later, she was found cast via that same leg, between a gate and a fence. How she managed it, we'll never know.

8 weeks later, she's still got some dings. BUT, I put her on a new joint supplement 2 weeks ago, and now she's sound at the walk, and about 90% at the trot on the lunge line. So, I've been getting on her bareback. The first time, we walked for about 10 minutes and called it a day. I was just happy to be riding again!

This past weekend, she was raring to go, so I gave in and let her trot. She felt completely sound. My eyes on the ground said she looked sound. Maybe that extra 10% of lameness at the trot is simply being on a circle. I don't know. But, I figure if I can get on and walk, and maybe build up to doing some short trail rides, I'm going to enjoy what little soundness she seems to have left in her.

So, yes, I'm riding a slightly gimpy horse. :) And as long as she's happy while we're doing it, not showing any signs of soreness afterwards and doesn't come up lame, I'm going to keep doing it!

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Don't have a gimpy horse, but my mare, 11 this year, is stiff at first until I warm her up. I anticipate issues with her in the future...she was broke/framed/overridden at 2, and I expect her hocks took a hit for all the WP bad training she had. I have her on joint supplements now to help ward that off.

I must say, however...I am stiff starting out, have aches and pains, but they do go away when I warm up. And I am no where near ready to be put out to pasture :)

Tansy said...

I have a 16 year old TB. He was raced, evented, show jumped to 1.20m (about 4ft).
He has an old injury in his left hind (it looks as though he's sat on a T-post and cut halfway through his hamstring, but I really don't know.) this makes him unsound for any of this anymore as he is weak already on the one leg, though it is not painful. At the moment I'm suspecting the beginnings of arthritis as well, as he's sound at the trot in the pasture, but takes a while to warm up when out riding. About half an hour into a trail ride you can feel him really start to rev up and move forward more easily.
He is the most fantastic first horse I could ever have wished for though. Yesterday when out for a ride in an area we'd never been before, someone was shooting. At the sound of the gun Harry lifted his head, planted his feet and stood still. A few seconds later we moved off as though nothing had happened. Knowing that that's as much of a spook as he's got has done such wonders for my confidence you wouldn't believe it!
Together we go trail riding and do small amounts of dressage, mostly for my seat and posture and to keep him flexible.
Here's to the older, slightly gimpy horse: Cheers.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Kate, for a very thoughtful comment (as usual). I did not even go into the real evil done by those who push gimpy horses past their comfort zone in an effort to win some competition or other. I've gone off on this before, and hopefully you all know I don't believe in this. My point, as I know you understood, is that gimpy horses can enjoy light riding. And I do, agree, from what I've read on your blog, that Drifter's former owner was probably quite relieved to hand him off to you. And there are very many people who would not enjoy such a horse. You, on the other hand, have the time, skill and inclination to work with him--and you clearly enjoy it. I think that's what counts. Those who are enjoying their horses are on the right path.

Promise--I hear you. It can be a roller coaster, dealing with lameness. But it sounds like you are making all the right choices for Promise.

Jackie--Yes, I say that, too. I am stiff starting out, but I still like to go. I think our horses often feel the same.

Laura Crum said...

Tansy--What a nice horse you have. And I, too, know that feeling about half an hour into a relaxed ride, when my horse starts to feel really free and wants to move out. You can tell that they're happy to be there.

Mikey said...

We've often joked about renaming this place the "Crippled Critter Ranch" or "Odd Dog Ranch" both of which I like, lol.
I think this... old horses, especially those who "worked" can get so despondent retired. They LIVE to get out. A slow short ride, a light person, kids, etc. makes for great joy in their life.
We took in Casper for Mercy. Broken down knees, retired rope horse. For 6 years when they'd leave with other horses he'd run the fence, begging to go with. Not understanding why he got left behind. We moved him from CO to AZ to help him be warmer, and he carried Mercy around when she was 2. She learned to team sort on him. Very slowly of course, but that old horse, you could see him swell with pride. Cows were something he knew. He was doing the most important job and he was so happy to have a job. When he could no longer get around, we retired him (and bought Mercy the next horse). He stayed front and center here, receiving tons of carrots and still letting kids sit on him. When he could no longer get around his pen, we held him as the vet did the right thing.
He taught me a powerful lesson about cripples and elderly animals. They still need to be needed.

joycemocha said...

Mocha has had off and on spells of front-end lameness, to the degree that the vet scratched her head worriedly when we diagnosed the hock problems at age nine. I figured it was a muscle issue as well as possibly some tendencies toward white line disease, and addressed the latter. That fixed things, but what really improved both the front end and hind end was taking the time to stretch her forelegs and bend her neck, as well as apply liniment to upper legs and neck after anything but the lightest conditioning work (she develops knots in a muscle that, according to the Jack Meagher book I have on muscle soreness in horses, can cause mild front end lameness).

It worked. In addition, she started muscling up more in her chest and forearms. And, as an additional bonus, it seems to take her longer between hock injections (we blocked them only, not x-rayed because the block in the hocks pretty much showed the drastic difference). The hock issue is possibly from an injury since she's not been worked that hard and I've seen her torque that hock when she fell in a paddock due to an unsuspected molehole.

In-stall or in-pasture doesn't appear to be a factor, what appears to be the crucial piece is the foreleg flexing and stretching. I can put a hand on her neck now and she'll bend her head away from it, plus she'll drop her head and breathe slowly on my neck when I extend her foreleg out in front of her. If I take slow, deep breaths, she'll do it with me. And if she's stiff when I do the foreleg rotations, or unable to stretch her leg further, careful warmup usually gets her past it. Plus I know that she's sore and will ride her appropriately on those days. So the stretches really help me figure out where she is physically from day to day. I adjust the work based on that, and I do slow, careful warmups and cooldowns, as well as lots of conditioning work.

Damp and cold is definitely a factor in her gimpiness. Unlike most horses, she tends to be a slug in cold and gets perky in heat. However, this winter was the first one I did the stretches with her, and she's been perky all winter, which makes me think that the stretches have addressed the front end problem. We'll see how long it is before she needs her hocks injected again. It's been six months in the past, but we're on six and a half months right now, and I'm only now starting to feel the gimp come on, very slightly.

Laura Crum said...

Mikey--Your comment brings up a point I really struggle with. My oldest horse, Gunner, who is 31 this spring, lives fifteen minutes from my house--in a place where he can be turned out 24/7 in a big pasture where he can graze. He looks GREAT for 31 and is still pasture sound, lopes and bucks and plays. He is fed equine senior every morning, so someone sees him and gives him a rub every day, but we just don't get a chance to hang around with him much, because we're busy and he's not at our place. So I feel kind of guilty. But the flip side of the coin is my horse Plumber, who is "retired" at 22 because I don't have time for two horses right now and Sunny is a better trail horse. I try to turn Plumber loose to graze most days and we do give him attention, but I sometimes feel guilty that he's not living in a pasture like Gunner and free to graze whenever he wants. So I feel like I can't win for losing. I don't know which is the better choice for a retired horse. I just don't have time to give them all the attention that would be ideal.

joycemocha--It sounds like you have really got a handle on Mocha's issues. And I noticed Sunny being much gimpier during that long rainy spell we had. Since the weather got better and we've been riding--and he's been running around his big corral more now that its not so muddy--he looks quite sound. So the cold and wet really had an influence on him.

Jami Davenport said...

You know, Laura, my mare is not sound at this time, and I've always assumed I could retire her to trail riding. Even if she is gimpy, as long as she isn't in pain, I figured I could trail ride her on even ground.