Is the Horse Really Lame, or Do We Just Think He Is?

I recently was called out to massage an older horse who was purchased from an internet ad and turned out not to be exactly what the owner expected. She wanted a sound, quiet trail horse for her husband and thought she was getting a healthy early-teenage gelding. When she got there, he was severely underweight and seemed very stiff. But something about him attracted her, and she took him home anyway.

She had a vet come check him out, and got nothing but bad news. The vet estimated the horse was in his early 20s and told her he was too old and arthritic to ever be ridden. For many people, especially novice horse owners, that would have been the end. They would have had to decide whether to keep an unrideable horse or put him down.

So, are we going out to do something or what? I want to move!

"So, are we going out to do something or what?" Not the attitude of a horse who is "too lame" or "too stiff."

Luckily for this gelding, the owner was a relatively experienced horsewoman who took the vet’s assessment with a grain of salt. She put the gelding on good feed, had a chiropractor come do some work on him and put him into gentle work just to see what would happen. When she called me about massage, she told me the entire story. She had been trail riding the horse some, but seemed unsure whether this was good for him.

Given the history, I was amazed at the horse I met at our first appointment. He is a sweet-faced, compactly built Quarter Horse type with plenty of bone and really nice conformation. His neck and shoulders were pretty bound up, the muscles showing the telltale signs that he probably spent at least some of his life working in a tie-down.

His very nice owner had obviously bonded with the horse, but the questions she asked made it clear that despite having had some very pleasant trail rides with him, she was still seeing him through the vet’s lense. Based on what I saw and felt, I was able to reassure her that as both a trainer and a bodyworker, I didn’t see any reason why her horse couldn’t go on getting stronger and remodeling some of the musculature that stuck him on his forehand. I gave her some massage homework to help him start stretching and swinging his neck and freeing up his shoulders and suggested she keep riding him.

A week later, I checked in to see how the horse was doing after his massage. I got one of those responses sure to warm the heart of a healer – she told me that the day after his massage, he was “like a different horse.” Great! And wouldn’t I like to take full credit for that? I’m the last one to underestimate the benefits of a good massage. But I think there’s something even more interesting at work here, something I have pondered in similar cases over the years.

What if, in the owner’s mind anyway, it is a different horse? I was called in to treat an old, debilitated animal and instead I worked on a basically healthy body that just had a few challenges to overcome on its way back to being its best. How does the energy around an animal change when the person looking at it expects to see soundness instead of pain? When the person most involved in its care acts as if the horse is just fine, will the horse choose to be just fine?

I have seen the reverse, too – horses who were perfectly sound and well-behaved with me or another person, but moved strangely or behaved completely differently with their owners. I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that I never work a horse as if there are built-in limitations, focusing on what the horse can’t do. Instead, I’m always exploring what the horse can do, looking for ways to help him do more – happily, comfortably, successfully. If we don’t treat them as lame horses, are they really lame?

Yes, of course, some of them really have physical problems. But in a “What the Bleep” sense, are they lame if they don’t get treated as if they’re lame? And, of course I don’t mean we should torture injured horses by pretending they are just fine and making them work in spite of their pain. But the possibilities are interesting, at least to me …

I wonder how many perfectly good horses have ended up at the killer sales or gone to rescue organizations over the years just because the owner believed someone – vet, trainer, local horse guru – who said the horse would never be sound enough to do even light work again?

4 thoughts on “Is the Horse Really Lame, or Do We Just Think He Is?

  1. I have seen the diffference in treating a horse as if he ” has some physical problems”, but not as lame horse ready to be retired. I have personally seen the attitude change in my own horse’sdetermination to becoming the best he can be and working through his physical issues..

  2. Well, you know my crew. The one the vet told me to give up on as a dressage horse at age 12, the one thrown back at me from a lease as “lame in three legs, broken down, never be any good again, put him down,” the one dumped in a pasture for nine years after failing to vet for sale, the one with the mind so difficult she might never be ridable, the retired broodmare with the bad stifle who came back to me with an improperly rehabbed check-ligament injury…

    It strikes me how some people always end up with unsound horses, whereas other people always seem to end up with sound ones. Can it be that it’s not the horses?

  3. My Mom’s gelding is 24. He is currently having issues (the MTG has him looking like a patchwork quilt. Or maybe that’s the hair loss ;), but I simply don’t think he’s done yet.

    Is he a bit IR/metabolic? Sure.

    Does he get sore sometimes? Damn skippy. (But then, so do I. And I am only middle-aged. I think it’s part of being active).

    Do we insist he work when sore? Nope.

    Do we ask him to work through tightness to help get the joints moving? Yep. And he is the better for it.

    My holistic/chiro vet will be up when she is back from her endurance race circuit on the 18th, and we’ll recalibrate Beau’s herbs. But the boy is Not Done Yet ;).

    IN other words: what you said ;).

    • That’s great Paula. So often it’s just a question of some sensible management and consistent, appropriate exercise. (Along with believing those things will really work.) My old guy is 26 and still sound, happy and bossing around riders to help them learn. I’d hate to think what would happen if I started treating him like a “poor, old, lame” horse.

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