If it Walks Like a Duck …

One of the things I like best about my work is the variety. No two days are the same. And I have learned that even though I show up to teach lessons with a general plan in mind, it’s really the horses who decide what they and their humans need on any given day. Sometimes a groundwork lesson turns into more of a bodywork session. Sometimes horse and rider need to move back through the progression of skills mastery and revisit a basic concept with a new perspective or challenge (mental or physical.) And sometimes circumstances change unexpectedly and other horses or people take precedence.

Take last Sunday, for example. Simple enough plan – teach two lessons at a lovely ranch near Tumacacori starting at 8 a.m. I met my client, Bobbie, at 7:45 to ferry across the Santa Cruz River crossing in her car. Except, well, we only got about three-quarters of the way across before we dropped off into a sandy hole. Had a nice chat while waiting to reach the ranch manager for a pull. Just as we were hiking up our pant legs and prepping to wade out and walk to the ranch, a very kind passerby came along and dragged us out. The ranch manager showed up just in time to drive us across in her large pickup with large tires – we didn’t even get our feet wet!

So, a 9 a.m. start instead, and it’s still lovely and cool and less humid than town. No worries. Except the black mare lieing on her side in one of the pastures we pass on the way on to the ranch, with her owner obviously trying in vain to get her to stand up. Turns out the mare’s owner and the ranch manager have been trying for a weeks to figure out what’s wrong with the mare, and visits from two different vets haven’t seemed to yield any help. Would Bobbie and I be willing to talk to the lady and see if our combined experience could offer any help. Of course! Who would walk away from a horse in distress? Not me, for sure.

So, by the time we get around to gate and into the pasture, the horse is up. Barely. She’s standing with her butt all hunched up under her and is shifting her weight back and forth from one front foot to the other. Took about 8-3/4 seconds for one word to come out of both Bobbie’s and my mouth. Can you guess what that word was?

DISCLAIMER: I am not a licensed veterinarian and I do not diagnose horses or any other animals, either for fun or for profit.

I am, however, an experienced horsewoman and a healer and, well, as the saying goes, “If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”  I’ll bet more than a few of you who are reading this can name this particular bird.

Here’s the story we got from the owner (also known as presenting symptoms, if we were vets, which we are not):

Horse, a 20-year-old Foxtrotter mare, has had intermittent lameness for a couple of months. Said lameness got worse a few weeks ago after the horse was vaccinated with “West Nile and all those other spring shots.” The mare moved to this facility and was turned out on pasture a month ago. No noticeable change in lameness until the past two weeks. (Note: we waded through ankle-deep green grass to get from the gate to the horse and the ranch manager rhapsodized about how fast the grass has been growing the past couple of weeks since the monsoon rains started.) The owner has been treating the horse’s feet for thrush, but felt that had started to resolve.

The horse’s physical appearance included the aforementioned posture that suggested she very much wanted weight off her forefeet. On close observation, she was not only shifting from forefoot to forefoot, but she was also very slightly doing the same from hind foot to hind foot. All the large muscle groups were rock hard to the touch. Her topline was very undeveloped and she had a big belly. Her feet showed regular, wide horizontal rings from coronet band to the ground and her toes were very long. Her gums were pink and capillary refill seemed normal. Her skin was elastic, but just a bit tacky.

The mare has been seen by two veterinarians and her regular farrier in the past two weeks. Here’s what the “experts” had to say:

The shoer, when asked about the rings on the horse’s feet, told the mare’s owner and the ranch manager it was nothing to be worried about, but was simply a sign that the horse had been stressed at some point.

Vet #1 diagnosed a foot abscess and prescribed a sulfanomide drug. No other treatment suggested.

Vet #2 diagnosed by observation, no labs, selenium deficiency and had the owner start feeding a selenium supplement.

Neither treatment seemed to make any difference. In fact, the mare seemed to be laying down more and be much harder for the owner to get to stand up in the past two days. The owner has been visiting three times a day to administer meds and be sure the mare eats her supplements. She has been on four grams of powdered bute per day for the past two weeks, administered 2 grams in the morning and two at night mixed into beet pulp.

So, anyway, back to my story. After Bobbie and I help the nice lady lead her very sweet and game mare through the pasture, down a road, around the barn and into a dry-lot pen, we had a nice chat and answered the owner’s questions with lots of sentences that started “If it were my horse, I would …” Bet you can fill in some of those blanks, those of you who recognize and have managed horses with similar symptoms.

By this time, it’s coming on noon and getting hotter, though still breezy and significantly cooler than it’s been in Tucson. So, modified lesson plan for the day. A little saddle fitting (mostly to the human, an endurance rider who is battling chronic back pain.) Bad news: the new saddle makes the human’s back more sore, even though the super cushy seat is very nice. Good news: one of her other saddles is a good fit for rider and horse, though weighs a bit much for rider’s liking.

Next, a little groundwork, with me demonstrating how the horse falling even a little bit onto the forehand in the first step out of a halt sets up a cascade of heaviness and imbalance. Then some mounted work in the shady side of a pasture, practicing the same release and engage exercises that helped the horse achieve lightness from the ground. (Big smiles from the rider and droopy bottom lip from the horse.) A little trailer-loading practice, and everyone was done. Horse #2 will have to wait ‘til next time for her turn.

Though we got stuck, sidetracked and sweatier than planned, Bobbie and I agreed it had been a great day. We got the chance to talk a lot about our philosophies on good training and horse health and stupid people. We helped a nice lady and a very sweet horse and earned good karma points for the future. And we accomplished several teaching/learning tasks and left her challenging mare with “thinky lip.” It’s not all according to plan, but it’s all good!

4 thoughts on “If it Walks Like a Duck …

  1. Gosh, and I thought some of our sessions went off on tangents!

    If that were my mare in that situation, I’d be whispering the L word. Did two vets and a farrier seriously not consider it, with all the markers waving brightly in the breeze? Or is this a trick question and there’s something on site that says it can’t be that?

    • No tangent too far, Judy!

      Not in the slightest a trick question (except, perhaps, for the farrier and vets in question?) You gave the “duck” the same name I did.

  2. I’m not a horse person (wish I could be closer to horses), but even I knew what this was about. So sad that vets couldn’t see this. Hope the mare can recover.

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