Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Me and the Big K and the Pointless Horse

The paint gelding was tall, smooth gaited, pretty handy and crabby.

Robin was a retired pleasure horse. His show career had been successful until he had enough and rebelled.Over a period of months he slung his head and bolted in the arena, wrung his tail with every touch of a spur, buried his head in the far corner of his box stall, threatened to kick anyone who entered and finally, bit the hands, arms,or legs that fed him. He was put up for sale.

A wealthy family bought him as a guest horse for their 1200 acre weekend place. Their barn manager turned him out for six months, hoping to cheer him up by letting him "be a horse." The problem was, he didn't know how to be a horse. The wide open spaces frightened him and he paced the fence line for hours. Other horses had always been separated from him by walls, ropes or riders and he didn't know how to socialize. He was aggressive, yet a crappy fighter, so he ended up ostracized.

 It was a long six months for Robin, and when he was brought back to the barn he was thin, anxious and beat up. He wasn't happy to be back in a stall and run though. He cried for his herd mates and lashed out at the other horses in the barn.

Robin didn't have a lot of success under saddle either. He was clumsy out of the arena, and so slow moving he was always lagging behind the other horses on trail rides. He was smooth and easy to ride, but soon fell back into his old, cranky behaviors. The unhappy gelding was on the market again.

One of my clients bought him as a husband safe horse. Robin settled in well enough, his only company was an elderly Arab gelding. He had a walk in shed, plenty to eat, and a corral, big enough to run in and small enough to help him feel safe. The husband didn't really want to ride, so, for a while, life was pretty good for Robin.

Then, the 12-year-old who rode the Arab decided to ride Robin in 4-H. It didn't go well. She wasn't one to give up, and tried a few reining patterns on him. To everyone's surprise, the pretty paint got along fairly well, and earned a few ribbons.

Next thing you know, I've got him in training, to see if he could actually have a career as a youth reining horse.

Robin wasn't bad. He had a fluid, effortless lead change and with a little encouragement, turned his showmanship at halter pivot into a decent spin. He liked loping fast fast circles, it was the happiest and most relaxed I had ever seen him.

There was a bit of a problem though. He consistently  threw himself on his front end for his stops and backing him up was like yanking a pulled easyboot out of a bog. He sucked.

Transitions didn't improve things, hill work made no difference, I didn't need much but I needed something.

I finally talked to the Big K about Robin. It was a short conversation.

"He isn't going to stop," K said.


"He's built wrong. If you push him, he'll go over." He untied his next ride and walked off.

 I stood and pondered Robin's hind end. It wasn't set up like a nice cowhorse, but it wasn't the worst I'd seen. I had taught a long-backed, off the track mare with string halt to slide and a 17 hh hunter jumper. When you are a mid level trainer at an upper level barn you get all kinds of interesting problems and didn't let them stop you. He was a pleasure horse, they were trained to step way deep. Maybe K was cranky. Maybe he didn't like the horse.

I saddled Robin up and took him out in the arena. K was loping colts, giving a lesson and coaching his wife. I warmed the gelding up, loped him until he was relaxed and then started playing with backing him up. If I couldn't see it, then maybe I could feel it.

I asked him to step back one foot at a time. I moved his haunches, flexed his ribs, moved him in a reverse circle, thinking, feeling, trying to find the elusive stickiness that was stopping this horse from stepping under himself.

I felt for each hoof as it came up of the ground, was he stepping deeper with the left hind than the right? I moved his haunches to the right, so I could push for a longer step. I was so deep into what was happening, when I felt his stifle stick, his leg lock, and our launch into the sky, all that crossed my mind was,Well there it is.

As we tipped over backwards and went crashing to the ground, two more thoughts whipped by, I wondered if it was conformation or injury, and just how pissed K was going to be.

I got up, Robin got up, I dusted off my jeans and checked the gelding over.

K came at a gallop. "Are you OK?" He asked. He looked scared.

"Yeah, feeling kind of stupid, that's all. I guess I found the hitch."

"You just refuse to believe me, don't you?" K didn't take kindly to being scared. "I told you that horse would go over, but you had to keep at it until you made it happen."

"I, uh, no, that's not it."

K was gone though, back to work and geared up to be twice as hard on everybody. The glares I got from the other riders let me know they were aware my nonsense just turned their day to hell.

It was a week before things simmered down enough to square things with him.

"I've been fretting," I said.

"Well,  it doesn't do to have you fret,"  K said and smiled.

"I don't want you thinking I don't listen to you, because I do. I just didn't understand what was wrong with that paint."

"I know. It was hard watching you go over, that's all."

"I know." I turned and headed back to my barn.


I stopped. "Yeah?"

"It's the trainer in you. That's why you can't leave it alone."

I gave him a half wave and went to collect my rides.


Becky said...


What happened to Robin???

sarah said...

Wait. Did he fall over, did he go over backward...? I don't really understand what happened, and I definitely don't understand why. How would pushing a horse to step under cause him to fall? I mean, what was wrong with the horse?

Cindy D. said...

Yes I'm with Sarah, can you elaborate just a little more about "how" he was built wrong? I think I might have missed something.

smazourek said...

So did he know the horse had a locking stifle or did he infer that from the horse's conformation?

IndyApp said...

And what do you mean when you call him a "Pointless" horse since I don't think you're referring to show points?

mugwump said...

So much stress....Robin went be a husband horse only, which meant he lives, to this day, in his corral, with his Arab buddy, who I do believe is somewhere in his thirties.

That's all I'm giving you, the rest is in there and open for interpretation...

bassgirl said...

Heh, it sounds like Robin is living up to their expectations in this situation. They have a pasture posy and everyone at his home is happy. I guess that is his "point".

I love these blog entries where we get to hear your thoughts, and K's comments. You are both very wise in your own ways. :)

ANW said...

I love these entries. They always make me feel less crazy. If you swapped "Paint" for "App," Robin could be a project I had a couple years ago. Couldn't pick up the right lead, very sticky on his stops, and it was all in his stifle. He wasn't being an a$$hole (as trainer BF suggested - and failed to be able to fix the problem as well), he just wasn't ever physically going to be able to do more than be a trail horse.

ponyfan said...

It's still surprising for me just how often a cranky, angry horse is just a horse in pain. Often I see people, esp. trainers write them off as 'spoiled', which is fair because trainers are often in the position of having to enforce all kinds of things that their usual riders don't know about or don't care about. Getting suddenly 'tuned up' isn't usually pretty and tends to make horses cranky and angry too.

To me, the best part of this story was your comment; this makes this a fairy tale, where Robin was just a horse, not the best or the worst, not particularly special at all, and in the end, I think that I'm just. . . so, so happy for Robin, who got exactly what he needed and deserved after his show career was over.

MichelleL said...

Thanks so much for sharing where Robin ended up. I do hope he learned to be happy where he is. Everyone deserves to be happy.

Found that I could relate to your need to "see" for yourself what the trouble was and I could appreciate the Big K's concerns.

Val said...

I am thinking that backing up is the one time when this horse could not compensate for the weakness in his hindend, because weight must be transferred in the direction of movement. This would be why backing can be used to improve collection and transitions. He must have learned to carry and drag himself around with his front legs. Loping at speed would have lightened the burden on his back legs a lot, relieving whatever discomfort he had, which I believe caused his crankiness.

I imagine that it would take experience with hundreds of horses before someone could see this at a glance. Perhaps he had very straight hind legs or his stance suggested his problem.

Very interesting.

mugwump said...

Val - K could never give me specifics...he said the horse just looked "wrong."
I did learn to feel what he was talking about though, and can find it while backing the horse.

Heidi the Hick said...

Interesting! I really am thinking most problem horses have discomfort, physical pain going on. And they can't say, in words, "Hey dumbass, this hurts" so they have to tell us the best way they can, and sometimes it takes us a long time to figure it out. Your boss must have seen it happen before, or maybe had just looked at enough horses to get an idea of what would happen. I can't picture it though!

sheesh said...

I also believe that physical pain is the cause of much horse misbehavior. My gelding would kick out with his hind leg when I asked him to lower his head. We made several trips to the vet for various reasons. He would stop and pee (or try) on the trail every 15 minutes. This turned out to be ulcers and was instantly solved by UlcerGard. But why the ulcers? Then he was found to have some mechanical laminitis from bad (not THAT bad) shoeing angles. Finally he went lame enough for a vet to see that it was indeed his stifle that I had been suspecting for over 2 years. The xray showed nothing (like OCD) and the ultrasound only showed some swelling. Surgery revealed defective cartilage in that stifle joint, and of course it can't really be fixed. He was probably born with it. He could not work with his head level because it pulled way back to his stifle, and dumping on his front end with his head up certainly contributed to his front foot problems. So he can hang around and/or go onittle rides as much as he can. However, pain bad enough to cause ulcers with the light work that he did will certainly cause his life to be shortened.

Anyway, the point of my rambling is that I think that lots of horses are 'naughty' because of pain. And if anyone recognizes these symptoms that my horse had in their horse, maybe they'll catch on faster than I did.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about Heidi the Hick's comment just made me tear up a little. Cause many many horses will be in pain from something like this, try to say something about it the best they can, get ignored or misunderstood, and just keep trying to do what they think is wanted, over and over. In pain, clumsy at the manuever from no fault of their own, whatever. Some horses will blow up, but others submit and still try the best they can to do what's wanted. Those horses get me, everytime. WyoFaith

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