Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Little Mystery and Goodbye for Awhile

by Laura Crum

Yes, I do write mysteries and I recently finished book number twelve in my series featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, but this is not one of my “made-up” mysteries, this is a real mystery involving a real veterinarian.

I've written before about my little trail horse, Sunny. Sunny has been a real champ for me, allowing me to lead my son on hundreds of trail rides in the last three years (with my son riding equally bombproof Henry) without one scary moment. In my personal book, that is priceless. I read of others’ accidents and fear issues and my heart really goes out to them. It is so sad to have a lifelong dream of a happy life with horses turn into a nightmare of emotional and physical distress due to injuries and/or fear. I myself have so far dodged this bullet—knocking on wood (literally). I haven’t been hurt yet and I am not fearful when I handle/climb aboard my horse. Not because I am such a good hand. Because I have a reliable, steady horse to ride. I know I have proffered this advice before, but I’m gonna do it one more time in the hopes that it will help somebody. If your primary goal is to enjoy horses without struggling with fear issues or getting hurt, buy a reliable horse in the double digits. A horse with plenty of years of experience in the event you wish to pursue. Not a horse you have to train, or worse yet, retrain. A horse that has been a steady babysitter for his previous rider(s).

I don’t know how many times I have heard someone say, “I don’t need a babysitter.” Very often this person has had far less experience riding/training young horses than I have. I always want to tell them, “I may not need a babysitter, but I WANT one.” I want to have fun on my horses now—I do not want to feel nervous. If you’re not afraid of getting hurt, and don’t mind the normal antics of a young horse or the recalcitrant behavior of a horse with some sizable holes in his training, more power to you. This advice is not meant for you. But if you, like me, are currently more concerned with being safe and worry free while you enjoy riding and handling horses, think long and hard when you choose a horse to work with. A reliable horse in the double digits is a far greater aid to staying safe and anxiety free while riding than any helmet in the world (not that there is anything wrong with wearing a helmet—and, in fact, despite my long and safe helmetless horseback career, I am now planning to go out and buy one, and its mostly thanks to what I have learned from other bloggers. Any suggestions on what brand/sort I should choose?).

(A small aside here—I recently read on another blog the statement that “if you think you own a pair of bombproof horses that will never hurt you, think again. Any horse can hurt you at any time.” This is, of course, true. But its like saying “anything can hurt you at any time. The asteroid could strike the planet at any time.” True, but not very helpful. The woman who made the statement had been hurt handling what she considered to be a gentle horse. From her description, my assessment would be that she wasn’t being careful enough, as the horse hurt her due to a habit that she already knew he had. So here’s the next part of staying safe—always be thoughtful in the way you handle horses. I wince when I read about people playing “games” with horses at liberty, or strolling along beside, or worse yet, behind a loose horse. This is, quite frankly, asking for trouble, no matter how gentle the horse is. When I handle my gentle horses they are caught and haltered and I remain alert. I am careful about the way I catch them and lead them and turn them loose. I groom them and fuss with them when they are under my control and in a safe place, not “at liberty” or God forbid, out in the pasture with other horses. And I am equally thoughtful when I ride them. And these are two very “bombproof” horses. Yes, any horse can hurt you at any time, but if you are careful in how you handle them and use safe practices, and the horse is reliable, it is not very likely. Most of the horsewrecks that I’ve known of involved green horses or horses with a problem habit, or a moment of carelessness on the part of the rider/handler, or following a practice that is just not safe. I understand how people get started doing these things—they are taught these practices by some horse guru or other and they are looking for that elusive “connection” with the horse. But I can tell you for a fact that many of these practices are quite dangerous, and there is a big potential for the horse to hurt you.

Of course, lets face it, people get hurt climbing out of the bathtub or stepping off a curb. Virtually anything can hurt you; life can and will hurt you. As we all know, no one gets out of this alive. However, I will stand by my statement that riding/handling solid horses in the double digits and using careful practices while remaining alert will do the most possible good towards keeping us safe and not fearful when we work with our horses. All right—I’ll get off my soapbox now.)

Anyway, Sunny, my reliable little horse that I just love, has given me hundreds of happy, relaxed trail rides. And here’s the problem. There is a downside to reliable horses in the double digits—and I’m now facing it. The soundness issue.

I’ve mentioned before that Sunny has been off and on slightly gimpy this spring. Well, after last week when we did several trail rides, I went down to feed him one morning and he was lame. Lame in the right front—the foot he’d been slightly off on from time to time. I called the vet.

The vet concurred that it was the right front; the vet agreed with me that there was no sign of a soft tissue injury—no swelling anywhere on the leg. Hoof testers showed some soreness on the sole. No sign of heat or laminitic issues. The left front was fine. The vet wanted to block the foot to see if the lameness was there. I did not want to block the foot.

I have an irrational hatred of nerve blocks because I knew a horse who was put down because he broke his leg trotting with a blocked foot in a vet exam. I know this is a very unlikely thing, but I can’t help it—it bugs me. Also, I’ve been around horses my whole life and I knew Sunny was lame in the foot—just by the way he moved. The hoof tester results confirmed this. (90% of front leg lameness is in the foot, anyway.) So I told the vet I wanted to shoot X-rays of the foot. I thought we might discover some sort of arthritic issue.

But the X-rays were clean. No ringbone, sidebones very clean, no navicular changes, coffin bone looked fine. The vet suggested the horse might be bruised. But we had pared the foot out carefully, and there was no sign of bruising. However we agreed I’d try front shoes and pads and see if it fixed the problem. The pads would be somewhat diagnostic. If the horse went immediately sound, he had sore soles/bruising type issues.

I have been running Sunny barefoot for three and a half years and up until this spring the horse has been quite sound. He has good, big, open feet—he doesn’t chip to speak of. I liked having him barefoot, but I went ahead and put front shoes and pads on him—just to see if it would help him.

It helped some—but it was not an instant cure. He was less lame, but still a little lame. I still felt it was in the foot. I called the vet back and told him to look at the X-rays again. He did. He consulted with another vet. And then he called me back and said he thought, he wasn’t sure, that he could see a tiny little hairline fracture at the very edge of the navicular bone. We discussed my options, IF this was the case. I thought the diagnosis fit the symptoms the horse had shown, so was inclined to believe it. It made sense that the trail riding made him worse. It made sense that the pads would make it better but not fix it. The vet thought leave pads on him, give him a month off, and then reevaluate.

The bright side to all this is that I will be gone for the month of July, so giving Sunny a month off is no problem. The dark side is that I may now be coping with soundness issues in my good little trail horse—for possibly a long time. But I have to say, even if this is so, I would not trade Sunny for any other horse. He has given me a huge gift and if I have to manage his soundness issues in the future, even if I have to retire him, those years of so many lovely rides in which I was never scared, let alone hurt, are totally worth the price of dealing with a sore foot.

Anyway, that’s my little mystery—has anyone else had this particular problem? I’d love to hear about it if so. I have no idea how Sunny injured himself—if this is the answer to his gimpyness. I have never had a horse with this problem. The edges of the navicular bone were very clean, so this is not “navicular disease”. I’m still a bit puzzled about the whole thing and am not sure if we’ve solved the mystery lameness or not. After several days with pads Sunny IS markedly better and trots almost sound in a straight line on level ground. Any thoughts?

And, I will be gone in July—gone from the computer, too, no email or blogs—and back to posting (and riding, I hope) in August. I’ll be participating in the summer book giveaway then—which Jami just announced. Hope you all enjoy it in the meantime.

Happy summer. Cheers--Laura


TBDancer said...

Have a good month off, and with luck your pony will be better with no additional issues when you return.

Re helmets: Get yourself fitted for one by someone who knows what he/she is doing. The size is important, yes, but so is the shape. My head is apparently round on the sides--looking down at the top of my head it's ( )--because I tried a mid-price-range helmet that is quite popular but even a size larger wouldn't fit down over my head. I decided that helmet is shaped | |.

Have the helmet person adjust the harness, too. I've read a correctly adjusted harness doesn't have a lot of extra "strap" left over. I've had issues with THAT, too, with helmets I've bought for myself without someone to help me.

Right now I have an Ovation that fits well, is correctly adjusted, is cool and comfortable. Didn't break my personal bank to buy it, either ;o)

Anonymous said...

There can be soft tissue injuries inside the foot too, where tendons and ligaments attach, and these wouldn't show up on an x-ray, and there isn't necessarily any visible swelling. Dawn has a mystery lameness in one front foot last fall and we never did figure out what it was.

On helmets - there are all sorts of lightweight, well-vented ones - just be sure to choose one that's certified for safety.

Older, reliable horses are worth more than their weight in gold.

Laura Crum said...

TB Dancer and Kate--If I go down to my local tack shop and ask for some help selecting a helmet, is that likely to be sufficient? Or do I need to consult some sort of expert? Believe it or not, I have never bought a helmet for myself. I bought an "all purpose" Bell helmet for my son, said to be good for rock climbing, cycling, skateboarding, and equestrian use. But he's due for a new helmet now, so I plan to buy one for each of us. Any suggestions are appreciated.

Kate, did you do anything special to fix Dawn other than lay off?

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, I'm sorry to hear about Sunny's soundness issues. Can your vet do an ultrasound to see if there might be a tendon or ligament issue? I know you said there's no swelling, but it can happen.

I bought my helmet in one of the local tack shops. I looked at all the lovely GPA ones, tried them on in various colour combinations, and then fell over when I looked at the price! Mine isn't fancy, but it's comfortable, light, and doesn't leave a horrible welt in my forehead for hours after my ride.

I agree with your views on choosing horses, and especially with what you say about handling horses out at pasture among other horses! Even my gentle old Kwintus gets a bit stroppy now that he's retired and spending his days with his buddies. I'm not comfortable handling him for anything unless he's haltered and away from his group.

Have a great holiday!

Shanster said...

I went to the local tack store and had them help me size my helmet.

Sera was 11 in February... and the difference in her after all these years is wonderful. She is confident, steady and I have fun on her. Truly, truly appreciate the double digits and time she's had under saddle! Amen to that.

Hoping Sunny recoups and has many more years on the trail with you and your son.

Have a restful month! Looking forward to reading about your time off when you return!

Andrea said...


Higher prices don't indicate better protection in helmets, which blows my mind. I think Troxels have actually been shown to be the safest. The nice thing about Troxel is they make several designs that have a bit more of a western "feel" to them. I had a Dakota for years that I liked and was really comfortable. The more recent Legacy I bought seems to fit a bit different, so definitely try them on before you buy.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--If Sunny is not a lot better after I get back from this vacation, I'll have him evaluated again. I'm hoping rest will help and the shoes/pads should stabilize his hoof and protect it somewhat from concussion, which would help if there was a tiny fracture, and won't hurt, in any case.

Shanster--It really is amazing how much more reliable horses become after ten. Some become reliable before, of course, and some never do become reliable, but if a horse wants to be a reliable horse, he usually IS that when he's ten.

Andrea--Thanks for the helmet advice--I'm actually somewhat looking forward to choosing one.

Anonymous said...

Hey Laura, it's me Lynn. I agree totally with your comment about getting a double digit horse. I would also re-emphasize getting a horse that you know the history on. The little palomino mare I purchased 3 weeks ago is 10 years old and was sold as a beginner/kid friendly trail horse. I am now pursuing a small claims court case against the trainer that I purchased her from because once I got her home she has been a hard-mouthed, hard-sided, wench. She won't stand tied without setting back and rearing up. She is a bully walking into me all the time to the point where I have to carry a crop to remind her of my space. She is fearless of people and hence of being disciplined. It takes at least 5 times longer to get her to obey and then she will only do it once and back to her old tricks. And the final blow was that she will not trail ride alone, without trying to get back home and calling and calling to her herd mates.

Both my trainer and I rode this horse at the ranch I purchased her from. I made the mistake of believing the trainer's history on the horse and did not see it do every thing I needed it to do. It's been a heartbreaking and discouraging experience. Now I won't buy any horse that I haven't got a fairly solid history on and that I haven't found through friends.

I didn't buy impulsively either, this was the at least the tenth horse I had seen and ridden. I really thought I had the one I needed. Now the 24 year old "trainers" parents have become involved and they will not take her back even though I had called her the second day and they knew I was having problems. After two weeks I wanted to return her and they said I had ruined the horse either on the trailer ride home or in the two weeks I had her at my place. Ug. It's just going to be one ugly mess because these are not the type of people to close their mouths long enough to listen.

So yes older is better as long as you know the history and know the horse and the people the horse is coming from. In all my looking I think I would have had as much luck buying at auction with all the misrepresented horses I have seen.

Tough lessons.

Laura Crum said...

Oh Lynn, I am so sorry. And I know this sort of thing happens all the time. Yes, I have to agree, I almost never buy horses that I don't "know". Both my bombproof babysitters were horses I had known for many years and watched them be great for other owners. I totally think this is the best way to buy a horse. But it isn't always possible. Insisting on a trial period is sometimes the only course, and if the seller won't go for that, perhaps you must just move on to another seller. It is absolutely true that older horses can be complete spoiled jerks--no question. Again, I am so sorry the mare did not work out. I know you had high hopes for her. What a sad business.

Linda said...

On the first part of your post, double-digit horses, safety--I'm with you. I love my old horses! I've never been hurt on or by a horse, and I credit that to picking good ones and being safe. I think, if you're lucky, however, you can find a sound mount who is also young. People don't usually put them up for sale, but every so often you see one. You might have to pay the big bucks, but very WORTH it.

As for helmets, I've never been a big fan although I do own four. They hurt my head and make it difficult for me to turn around and look behind me. One of the commenters, TBDAncer, recommended trying them on--that is EXCELLENT advice. If it hurts your head, you won't wear it, and having it sit back in your trailer really lowers its effectivness as a safety aid. lol. I've got a whole bunch of super-safe, expensive helmets decorating the tack room of my trailer, so I should know. Good luck.

As for the possible hairline fracture, my main riding horse had a severe fracture of the coffin bone five years ago. They put him in a bar shoe, pad, and stall rest and he's been sound for my long, rocky trail rides all these last four years. His was very bad, so it took a year before I could ride him. Sounds like what you're dealing with is much less of a problem. Also, my horse was only ten when it happened--so it wasn't age related. Hope he heals up for you soon and you're back out on the trails by August.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--Your comment made me smile--thanks. I am wondering how much I will actually wear the helmet--I am someone who won't even wear hats cause they bug me. But I guess I'll never find out until I have one that I COULD wear, right?

As for Sunny, he is still "not quite sound" --a very slight bob at the trot-- so I've left him in his big corral. If he's not sound by August I will reevaluate. Bar shoe was on my mind, too. I really have no idea if Sunny's lameness is age related, and I don't actually know how old he is. Over ten, though. But it is true that older horses tend to have more lameness issues. Do you still run your horse with the fractured coffin bone in a bar shoe with pads all these years later?

joycemocha said...

I have a Troxel Sierra and I love it. A bit on the heavy side, but it has an adjustable opening in the back for a ponytail. Works nicely for buns.

It also fits the best of any helmet I've had, and the harness is nice and sturdy and doesn't come out easily. One drawback to past helmets has been the flimsy harness.

Plus the Sierra is Troxel's "Western" helmet. You can buy a helmet with a Western hat on it, but it looks hideous. The Sierra has a mild brim to help shade your face. It's really no heavier than my ski helmet, but heavier than my bike helmet (yes, I do separate helmets for all three sports. Different needs, different foam shaping, designed for different types of impact). Probably need to replace my ski helmet soon due to age.

As for the navicular, G says that sometimes just a sudden impact to the front of the foot can cause that sort of break. Could be something like dropping the toe on concrete, could be something he did out in the pasture. Sadly, it's one of those things.

Wait and see how the shoeing goes, and check out several different options. Some horses will come sound with the right shoeing, others need more fiddling. Something like this might come right if you give it time. G swears by glucosamine supplements.

Best of luck to Mr. Sunny that he'll heal well.

Funder said...

You can also buy a velcro-on extra-large brim for any helmet. Looks even dorkier but gives good shade apparently!

Laura, I'm so sorry to hear about Sunny, and I'll be sending him good thoughts while you're on vacation. Have a relaxing July!

Unknown said...

I had this trouble with Lily and tried everything including adequate, shoeing, shot into the coffin joint. They never quite diagnosed it, at one point her shoulder was out, then it was her joint, then her mouth... Rough year.

What has worked is Regular MSM. ( not the expensive cosequin, just plain old MSM.). She was sound in two weeks.

I like both my helmets, but covet the leather troxel helmet. ;)

Unknown said...

Lily is my older horse, she is a little on the hot side, but reliable. And then there is Smokey.

I agree you should buy a horse that's older. But those guys are tough to find and you can be taken for quite a ride by sellers.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--Thanks for the insights. I appreciate the advice and will keep it in mind.

Funder--Thanks for the good wishes--I hope Dixie is 100% very soon, as well.

Breathe--Thank you--I will keep those options in mind when I get back in August. And I know Smokey has been a trial. It sounds like typical young horse behavior--not that Smokey isn't a good horse. But that's the thing--typical young horse behavior can be scary and downright dangerous--I would feel the same way you do. And it is hard to find those reliable older horses--when I notice one I keep him on my radar so to speak and if he's ever for sale, I think about buying him, even if I don't need another horse at the time.

Linda said...

Laura--My horse is pretty much a miracle horse and I credit that, one hundred percent, to my farrier. During riding season he has regular shoes on the fronts with no pads and during the off-season he goes barefoot. His injury was in the left, front hoof. The shoe is only on there to stabilize it a bit since there is some arthritis in the joint. One of these days the arthritis will get so bad we'll have to do something else, but that hasn't happened yet, and I'm riding him pretty hard. Good luck with your guy and finding a helmet you'll want to use. ;)

Alison said...

Laura, good luck with Sunny and have a great July!

MommyRides--your experience was a blog all by itself! It's so sad when the horse world and horse people turn ugly. Keep us posted on what you end up doing with your 'wench' of a horse.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Linda--I appreciate the info. I hope Sunny does as well as your horse has done. He looked pretty good trotting around his corral this morning. Barely detectably off. I was tempted to ride him but thought I'd better give him his month of R and R.

And Alison--Yes, I hope to have a relatively peaceful vacation, too. Is it evil of me to admit that I'm actually kind of looking forward to a break from horse chores?