Pain or “Problem Horse”?

Posted in: Ask A Pro, Featured, Horse Care

At the risk of being labeled as a hypochondriac, many horse owners (including myself) may push off any doubts or nagging feelings if something is not exactly right with our horses. However, as this story illustrates, it is always best to be safe rather than sorry, as our instincts are often correct.

My husband recently took in an outside horse from some good friends of ours. Her behavior was naughty at times — bucking, kicking, etc. — but she had her good days in the roping and branding pens, too.

It was thought that some long miles on the ranch would help her attitude. However, Tobias just never seemed to break through to her. At about the 10 ride mark, I decided to recheck her body to make sure there wasn’t any obvious musculoskeletal issue that I could resolve. Due to her kicking (and my unwillingness to fight with her while I’m pregnant), I didn’t really get the chance. I was aware of a constant tension in her low back, but since she wouldn’t allow me to treat her, that was the end of what I could contribute to the matter. But I knew something wasn’t right.

Her behavior was confusing because she was always the first to come up to us in a corral of 50 horses, which told us that she did not want to be foul or nasty. Yet, she was kicking when she was saddled, trying to buck, and overall not moving out well at a long trot.

We shared our concerns with the mare’s phenomenal owners, and agreed she should be vet checked before we proceeded with any hard riding, just to be sure.

They made an appointment at a reputable horse vet in our area, who found the answer we were looking for: the mare had kissing spine.

Suddenly, all of her behavioral quirks made sense. What was labeled as a “bad attitude” was really just her reacting out of pain. Her bucking, kicking, inability to pick up hind feet, irritability, and lack of athleticism had a reasonable answer.

It should be made clear that the owners were not at fault, and have always taken very good care of their horses. At just five years old, it was difficult to discern while starting this mare whether she was being fresh, and I can relate. When we look at and ride the same horse every day, we become blind to what is in front of us. Sometimes, it takes the perspective of an outsider to get to the bottom of an issue.

In a cowboy’s world, sometimes the first reaction is to “discipline it out of them” whether with long, sweaty days or fine tuning in the round pen. And while there is definitely a place for this, it’s always best to ascertain whether a horse is reacting out of pain or truly being rude.

As I always tell my clients, it is helpful to give the horse the benefit of the doubt until we can find out whether they have an “excuse” to act the way they do. If their body is certifiably pain-free, then stronger discipline may be implemented to dissuade rude behavior. But we cannot do one without first doing the other.

Here’s the thing: we breed horses of such high quality in our modern era. “Outlaw” horses were once a dime a dozen, but it just isn’t like that anymore. Horses that genuinely want to be nasty for no good reason are few and far between. If you have a horse that is acting out, it is wise to ask yourself (and a professional) why.

That’s not to mention the price of a saddle horse in the current market. Any kind of broke horse or prospect is a pretty substantial investment, which is a great motivator to ensure their overall functionality. Just as you wouldn’t drive a brand new pickup with a loose tire rim for fear of causing more damage, nor should you continue riding a “trouble” horse without checking to see if something is wrong, lest you do more damage in the long run.

A good horseman or woman ought to be able to recognize when it is time for discipline and when it is time for therapeutic or medical intervention.

If you don’t know, ask someone else. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, keep asking it until you get to the bottom of it.

As my late, great mentor Bill Hackett would say, “Horses talk to us all the time. We just have to learn to listen.”


Photo by Kristen Schurr.


Posted in: Ask A Pro, Featured, Horse Care

About Kaycee Monnens Cortner

Kaycee Monnens Cortner is an equine bodyworker from Meeteetse, Wyoming, and also serves as the Assistant and Special Sections Editor at Tri-State Livestock News. Her career as a bodyworker has spanned nearly 12 years, leading her to know some of the greatest horsemen and women...

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