Q.I have a 13-year-old Quarter Horse gelding that is in good health, and he is usually a pleasure to ride. He does extremely well with movement one direction, such as sidepassing to the right, but he seems very uncomfortable when I have him sidepass to the left. I was wondering if there could be some physical problem causing him pain that makes him reluctant to move to the left?
A.This is a great question. It brings up the concept that we must always rule out a medical issue as a base for behavioral issues. That is always a challenge as horses are, I believe, much smarter than many of us give them credit for, and they can quickly learn avoidance behavior.
However, the change in body position that you are mentioning most likely is a medical avoidance. If this is a new behavior, then certainly something has changed in your horse physically. Remember that a horse needs a healthy back and neck, as well as fit legs, to perform a sidepass.
First, consider all recent changes that your horse might have experienced. Are you using a new saddle or pad? Do you have a new farrier, or has the farrier made a trimming/shoeing change? Next, try to consider the circumstances. For example, is your horse’s reluctance worse when he is cold, and does it improve with a warm-up? Is it primarily noticed up or downhill, or on flat ground as well? Does it change depending on your horse’s head and neck position? Does he improve if he is given an anti-inflammatory drug (i.e., phenylbutazone, firocoxib, or flunixin meglumine)? These are all important pieces of the puzzle that will help you and your veterinarian solve this issue.
Let’s also consider the mechanics of the sidepass: I like to think of a horse as a cheap card table—if one leg is uneven, the whole table wobbles. It isn’t until you get that matchbook under the correct leg and make the table level that the table will be stable. So, any “unstable” leg will create resistance to lateral movement (such as the sidepass). In addition, neck or back pain might be the source of that resistance. With our advances in imaging such as field radiographs (X rays) of the neck and back, as well as advanced imaging such as bone scans (nuclear scintigraphy), we are now discovering far more problems in these areas than ever before.
I would recommend a musculoskeletal (lameness) examination by your veterinarian. Be sure to ask for the examination to also include his/her evaluation with you riding, as many of these case characteristics can only be seen under saddle. Your veterinarian will likely begin with a physical exam, flexion tests, nerve blocks, and a neurologic examination. Radiographs for bone evaluation or ultrasound exams for soft tissue or joint surfaces may be required. If these are unrewarding, your veterinarian might conduct further tests such as bone scans.
Remember to remain open-minded about complementary therapies such as acupuncture or chiropractic therapy, as these could be helpful with some of these difficult-to-diagnose performance cases. (Keep in mind that currently, few peer-reviewed studies on these therapies’ effectiveness exists.)
Furthermore, don’t forget that all horses, just as humans, have a dominant side and are naturally better and more flexible to one side than another. That asymmetry shouldn’t change, though, and it sounds as if this is a new problem for your horse.