Sunday, September 29, 2013


                                                            by Laura Crum

            If you’ve owned horses for any length of time, you have dealt with lameness. It’s just a fact of life with horses. They go lame from time to time. If you’re lucky, it’s not permanent. If you’ve never had a lame horse, you just haven’t owned enough horses, or owned any horse a long time.
            So I’ve been really lucky when it comes to lameness. I can pat myself on the back and say it’s because I have great horse keeping/riding practices and I know how to pick the sort of horse that stays sound, and maybe this has something to do with it. But really, maybe I’ve just been lucky.
            As of last year at this time, I had five completely sound horses on my place, including my retired 32 year old horse, my retired 23 year old horse, my riding horse, my son’s riding horse and my friend’s horse that I board here. Today? Well, the boarder is still sound.
            I know, it sounds bad. But it is part of life with horses.
            I retired Gunner, my now 33 year old horse, when he was 18 because he had enough arthritic changes that I felt he would be more comfortable if I didn’t work him. I retired Plumber (now 24) at 19 for the same reason. Both horses became much more free moving after some time off, and would long trot freely and completely sound as retired barefoot pasture pets. And this made me happy.
            Last winter Gunner got cast and was down (I think) most of the night. I found him there at morning feeding. He was stuck in a hollow by the fence and we had a very hard time getting him up (took a couple of hours). He was in pretty rough shape when he finally stood up, and I thought it was the end. But my vet convinced me that the horse could pull through, and this turned out to be true. It took a couple of weeks, but eventually Gunner was trotting sound again. However, he was never as free moving as he had been before being cast. Still, he was sound, he ate well, his weight was good, he would buck and play—I thought his quality of life was good enough. Here you see Gunner this summer.

            Several months after being cast, Gunner fell while running around screaming for his buddy (who I had taken out of the corral). Gunner got up from that fall limping, and since then developed some very obvious arthritic changes in his left knee. And he was lame. When it became clear that this wasn’t going to resolve on its own, I had the vet out.
            To cut to the chase—yep, he had bad arthritis in his knee, and we put him on Previcox—a pain killer which works well for long term use in arthritic horses. Gunner got better. But he never got really completely sound. And now, as it gets colder, he’s a little more off on that left front, despite the drug.
            He still bucks and plays a little, he eats well, his weight is pretty good. But he’s definitely lame. Here he is a week or two ago—getting fuzzy for winter.

            Gunner will be 34 next spring if he makes it that long. Right now I think his quality of life is good enough. But if he keeps getting lamer, I will have a hard choice to make. I have buted older horses to keep them comfortable, and I could do this with Gunner, but I am not sure I want to push this 33 year old horse to make it through another cold rainy muddy winter (and he hates being confined so locking him up in a stall won’t work). The end result is the same. Eventually the bute won’t mask the pain, as the Previcox is currently starting to fail to do. Do I just want to prolong this so Gunner can stand in the rain? I’m not sure.
            And then, just for icing on the cake, three weeks ago I went down to feed and 24 year old Plumber was lame in the right front. Plumber has been sound and comfortable, so my first thought was an abscess or a bruise. It just so happened the farrier was coming that day, so we trimmed Pulmber and used the hoof testers and could find nothing. No bruise, no tenderness. Also no swelling, no heat, no sign of injury anywhere on the leg or foot. But lame in the right front. OK then.
            I did not call the vet because I have been down this road before. We had done most of what a vet could do. The next step was X-rays. I decided to wait and see if Plumber got worse or better. If he got worse it was probably an abscess and would become much easier to diagnose. If he got better, well, as we expert horsemen say, he just tweaked himself. Or, more accurately, he probably aggravated an existing low level arthritic condition (such as ringbone, sidebone or navicular).
            Every day I checked Plumber out. First he got better. Then he got lamer. Then better. Then lamer. And then consistently a little better every day. Right now you can’t tell he is off unless you jog him in a circle on hard ground. Trotting in a straight line in his corral, he looks sound. And that’s sound enough for his pasture pet life. We’ll see what the future brings.
            Here you see my son giving Plumber a little love.

            Ok, retired horses having soundness problems is par for the course. At least my riding horses were sound. We’ve been riding two or three days a week all summer and having lots of fun. I’ve particularly been enjoying riding in the redwood forest on Sunny.

            My son and Henry have enjoyed chasing cattle.

            My son started his junior high homeschool program three weeks ago, and we have been really busy getting up to speed with that. We took a brief break from riding just due to how busy we’ve been. But last week things seemed to smooth out and we decided to go for a ride. We saddled up and my son started to warm Henry up. Henry is 25 and though he is still sound, his hocks are getting stiff. He needs lots of walking before he is asked to do more.
            I led Sunny out on the driveway to climb on and dang, he looked lame. I jogged him. He WAS lame. Lame in the left front. I picked his foot carefully. No obvious problems in the foot. Also no injuries, swelling or heat in foot or leg. I jogged him again. Still lame.
            This was a big surprise because Sunny gallops around in his corral every day at feeding time and trots up and down the fence, and I had seen no sign of lameness. But he was definitely lame in the left front now—too lame to ride. I unsaddled him, let him graze a little, and turned him back out.
            I bought both Sunny and Henry roughly six years ago. They have both been completely sound virtually the whole time I have owned them, and taken us on hundreds and hundreds of rides. In the nearby hills, on the beach, gathering cattle—we even hauled them to the Sierras. They have been barefoot almost the entire time. As Henry has gotten older, we’ve quit loping a lot of circles on him, but that has been the only real change. These two horses have been sound, solid riding horses for six years and given us an amazing amount of use. Henry is 25—Sunny is possibly as old as 20. So I wasn’t entirely shocked to find that Sunny was having a soundness problem. To be frank, I knew this would happen eventually. And eventually just happens to be now.
            My horses are all older. This is what happens when you don’t get rid of your beloved friends once they get past their best working years. To put it simply: you have older horses with soundness problems. I accept this. That doesn’t mean it makes me happy. But I accept it.
            I am going to give Sunny some time off and see if his lameness will resolve (unless he gets worse, in which case I will have the vet out ASAP). But if he still gallops up the hill at feeding time and trots without a head bob in his corral (as he did this morning), I think his quality of life is OK. I’m not sure about mine. I am pretty addicted to going for a ride any time I feel like it.
            Anyway, it’s early days to make predictions. Sunny may be sound next week. Or I may have the vet out and we’ll put Sunny on the Previcox, if that seems like the right choice. Or maybe it’s an abscess. If so, it will show itself and I’ll deal with it. For the moment, I’m going to take a deep breath and be grateful for all the happy rides I’ve had on my good little yellow mule. I’ll turn him out to graze, and give him lots of attention and accept the fact that owning and loving horses means dealing with lameness. It’s not all about happy rides in the sunshine. Sunny has given me plenty of wonderful rides and taken really good care of me—now it’s my turn to take care of him.


Gayle Carline said...

What is this, National Lameness Month? Seriously, we've had four horses with lameness issues this month, horses that are not usually lame.

Snoopy started favoring his broken leg about three weeks ago. We thought at first it was an abscess - turns out the farrier was trying to lift his heel a little more and had used new packing, which was kind of like having an arch support that was too high. We ALMOST had him back to normal, then he decided he was going to jump and buck around and ended up making himself sore again.

Fortunately, all four are sound again. I hope yours have the same luck!

Francesca Prescott said...

Oh dear, Laura, I know how you feel. So worrying. I hope Sunny gets sound again soon, and that you find what the problem is, and that you can enjoy many more trail rides.

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary said...

Too many typos in that last comment...
I am very sorry you are (or should I say your boys) are having these lameness issues. Like you said, it is part of having a horse. I hope Sunny's issue is short lived and minor, and that you will be back in the saddle soon. What ever decisions you make with your crew I know it will be the best one. Good for you for sharing the good, bad and ugly about owning a horse in your blog. These things should all be considered when contemplating horse ownership. It's not all galloping and sunshine.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the good wishes Gayle and Cesca--Sunny was sound this afternoon when I jogged him out. But I'm going to give him a little more time off, I think, so I just turned him out to graze. Funny how he didn't seem disappointed about not being saddled (!)

Laura Crum said...

Mary--So true. Responsible horse ownership is not all galloping in the sunshine. And by far the worst suffering I have seen in the horse world comes from owners who dump their once beloved horse when he is no longer sound. Such horses almost never come to a good end.

Mindy said...

Laura, I know how you feel - it's so hard to see our animals get older and have their bodies start to fail. I've been fortunate to have very few lameness issues - even in Gypsy, my half Arab/half Welsh pony, at 31 years old. But I guess it was a trade-off - she had Cushings and breathing issues in her senior years. Lily has recently developed a limp in her left front - I believe it's in her shoulder. She acts goofy sometimes when she can't see her pasture mate and I'm pretty sure I know when it happened. It's off and on and I ride her at a walk most of the time; usually she's sound by the time we're done with our ride. If it doesn't resolve itself, I'll probably have to go the Previcox route too.

I love the pictures you post of your horses. They all look awesome . . . here's to many, many more lame-free days for everyone!

Anonymous said...

I've had trouble with a couple of abscesses this summer. It isn't really the abscess that's the real problem, it's the hole it leaves behind, just when I think it's all grown out and I can resume some trail riding, he got another. He's not lame right now, but he has a couple of little holes and I'm trying to be careful because of them. I'm sure Sunny will resolve his issues. I wouldn't even worry about a horse at 34, as long as he can get up and move around and he's happy, you're doing a good job.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Mindy and Redhorse--I guess we all have lameness issues to deal with from time to time.

Anonymous said...

When my friend's horses show minor lameness I remind them that we humans have off days too-especially as we age. Sometimes I wake up with a sore knee or pain my my lower back. It doesn't mean I quit riding; it just means I quit riding for that particular day. (of course all my common sense flies out the window when it is my own horse who is off). Your horses are beautiful and well loved. I'm hoping they just had an 'off' day and that they will be trotting the pasture or hitting the trails soon. Thanks for your honest portrayal of horse ownership and for setting such a wonderful examply of how to honor our beloved equines in their old age.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, NC Bay Mare. I appreciate the kind comment.

Promise said...

Ah, mystery lameness. The bane of every horse owner's existence.

I spent the last 3 years with Promise battling lameness. She came back really well after the initial stifle injury, and about 12-15 weeks of stall rest. But then "tweaked" it again several weeks after being back in light work and was just never quite right after that - at least not consistently. I did the best I could to keep her comfortable and at least pasture sound - and hopped on her for a stroll around whenever she was sound enough for it. When she was no longer pasture sound - and the basic essentials of being a horse, ie kicking at flies, seemed to put an extra strain on her, I knew it was time.

Fingers crossed that Sunny snaps out of whatever it is that is bugging him and you have many more years to explore the trails together!

Jan said...

Lame has been National Lameness Summer for friends horses and our horses. So frickin many lame horses!

We have 6 horses and 5 of them are lame. Correction, we have 5 horses and 4 of them are lame. I gave away one just today that was off and on lame for 6 months. A long story but perfect for me in every way but just occasionally dead ass lame. But most of the time fine. Unable to even figure out the location, not positive to hooftesters, palpation or flexing. Did not block out sound. Put pads on and no change. The final straw was yesterday. Went on a trail ride and she was 100% sound for 20 min. Then felt a little funky going up a hill and at the top was 3 legged lame. My husband ended up ponying her back, I just couldn't ride a horse that lame. Could barely get on and off the trailer. Put her in her stall for the afternoon, then turned her out with the gang and she was slightly off. Looked fine this morning. Gave her away to a neighbor for the kids. The kids always love to ride her and they won't ride her hard enough to hurt her. I told them if she doesn't stay sound for them that we will put her down. Don't want to see her change hands and get into a bad situation. I hated to give up on her but it wasn't a situation with an end in sight.

Then we have 4 lame geldings. They are from 19-28. We used all of them as lead ponies at the racetrack and they worked hard for a living. Then we spent many enjoyable miles on them trail riding. One by one they have all become pasture sound only. Because they are all at least part TB they are not the easiest keepers so they continue to eat us into the poor house, while happily living out their years.

I'm struggling with the question of do I go on another horse search, or do I give up? I have physical limitations I have to factor in. I have had to give up most other things in my life and trail riding is all I have left. But I can't sacrifice the retirees just to get another horse. Two years of drought and high hay and grain prices have made horse keeping very expensive.

So oh hell yes, I now where all of you are coming from and I share your pain. I have so many friends in the same boat too. We have started a support group called Horses Rock/Suck and commiserate with each other over all sorts of lamenesses, illnesses, and hard decisions.

Good luck to all of you dealing with this.

Val said...

I have a lameness issue, although it may not often be described that way. Harley has allergies that cause him to cough. Last weekend he was having an episode so I treated him as per my vet, which included daily shots for a week. It is very frustrating when your horse is completely sound of foot and limb, but cannot trot around the ring without stopping to cough. It is even more heart wrenching in that he wants to go for a ride as much as I do (and I worked a crazy work/mommy schedule all week with only a few hours to spend with Harley). September is gorgeous here, but a tease when your horse is allergic to beautiful autumn days.

Laura Crum said...

Jan and Val--Ouch. Horses can be so hard. My Sunny is sound today, but Gunner is the lamest he's ever been, and not happy. I scheduled an appointment with the vet to consult. But if Gunner's lameness issue can't be improved, I am afraid it is going to be the time we all dread. Because he is too lame to try to take him through the winter.

Laura Crum said...

Promise--Sunny is doing well, but Gunner is reaching that state you describe...just can't be comfortable being a horse.

Val said...

Oh no.

alifarr said...

As I was telling my husband that I really wanted to get down to three horses, his comment was "Well, one of them is always lame, so don't you need more than that?" I'm still of the opinion that three should be enough to keep me in one rideable horse, except the one I really don't want to sell on is the lame retired guy who has earned a forever home with me. So, ok, stuck with 4. It might be time to find a home for the one that keeps bucking me off....

Laura Crum said...

alifarr--My husband calls it the four horse rule. Horses are lame at least 25% of the time so if you have four horses or more at least one of them is always lame.