The best riders and trainers are consistently black and white with horses. Same rein, same leg, same rein same leg, starting with the lowest amount of pressure and increasing to the level that is needed for a response, and release as a reward. What the trainer expects in response from the horse, is not black and white, but more of consistently darkening grey. When they ask clearly and in the same way time after time, what they expect from the horse is progress. Quicker response to a lighter aid is the goal, and the more consistent the aid, the faster you will see progress – but the horse doesn’t just “get it” overnight.
So, when a horse shows me a black and white response, demonstrating the end result of something we haven’t been anywhere close to expecting yet, causes me concern. While they have multiple mini lightbulb moments leading up to a clean execution of a consistent cue, they do not go from a colt learning to use their body, bouncing between moments of brilliance to puppy dog clumsiness to a maneuver far beyond our training efforts overnight.
Cue: Zeffy’s Story.
Zeffy is a coming 5 year old registered quarterpony, and everything I wanted in my next horse. Small, catty, athletic, smart, gritty, and pretty to boot. She had been started slow with lots of groundwork, 30 rides in the fall of her 3-year-old year, 90 days as a 4-year-old and I put another few dozen rides on her mostly out on the trails over the summer.
When fall came, I intended to bring her back into “school” for another 20 or so rides then turn her out until we headed to Arizona in January (a trip that never came to be). Even though we hadn’t been arena riding, we had been conditioning on the trails, working hills, long trotting, and I considered her fit. So off to a lesson with our trainer we went for a refresher. A few days before our lesson I worked her in the arena on the basics and she was definitely sticky, but not unexpected. A lesson couldn’t come at a better time.
We had to earn our stripes in our session, unlocking several pieces of her body, but unlocked they came and by the end of the hour she was mostly put back together. I was unconcerned because over the last few months we had definitely been working different muscle groups on trail and I only felt that in combination it would overall make her stronger. We continued our schooling at home, which was when Zeffy’s first black and white response reared its head and left me scratching mine.
Zeffy has been trained to seek the bit through rein contract, with the goal over time being an overall body carriage working through and over her back. Working in this way, over time, elicits a long and low headset, something that is often worked backwards from and called collection (think: chin tucked to chest). Zeffy was starting to “get it” pretty consistently with her trainer, learning self-carriage a few strides at a time. But once we started back schooling in the fall, she suddenly began “peanut pushing” on a loose rein at all gates – something that came on suddenly, I never trained her to do, and she didn’t actually progress to through learning the maneuver as one would expect.
At first, I thought “what a smart girl. We just got to skip all those steps and she gets it!” But watching back video it still left my head-scratching. Her stride was full and she wasn't leg lame, but going from the beginnings of self-carriage to a long and low headset overnight wasn't normal.
Are all excuses that ran through my head as I continued our rides. It wasn’t more than 3 or 4 rides that this “lightbulb training breakthrough that a horse had suddenly taught itself” took a turn for the worse. I got on Zeff one day and headed to the arena. She was less than willing to lead forward, felt stiff when I popped in the saddle, and was downright pissed off when I asked her to trot. Ears pinned, head raised, teeth barred – I dismounted and palpated her back – she was sore.
I figured maybe she hadn’t been as fit as I thought, and her first lesson back too much. Feeling horrid, I focused the next two weeks on rehabbing her – massage, chiro, microcurrent, taping, lunging, the works. I made progress, but could not alleviate her pain completely. Next on the list – saddle fit. My saddle fit her pretty ok, but I knew I wanted to get her looked at when she was done growing and get a saddle that was 100%. Now I was changing my tune (more on saddle fit for young horses on another blog), and I had a professional fitter come out. We fit her and I to a saddle, and I found an ungodly expensive one in the US and promptly bought it and imported it up with even more of my hard-earned cash. She was worth it.
I documented our progress, educating others that when they have back pain in a horse that is due to saddle fit, for as exciting and relieving as it is to have “fixed” your problem – to not just hop in the saddle and head to the races. Horses have memory, and the anticipation of pain can elicit the same issues you were having in the first place! So we headed off down the road, with me hand walking Zeffy in her new saddle. We walked and we trotted, all seemed great so we moved to lunging at all gates with her saddle on, still good – we were fixed! Until I got in the saddle. Although she was better, she was not good. We had the saddle fitter back out and made some small rigging adjustments, but still – no progress.
Her posture also began to change, where after we did any work, she would stand tied and cross her back legs in front of each other, alternating both left and right. This really began to cause me concern, it is not a normal stance and indicated she was attempting to alleviate pain somewhere.
It was time to call the vet. By now I was anticipating something more serious, and leaning towards kissing spine. Zeffy flexed sound until we got to the SI flexions. She palpated sore over her thoracic spine and her SI, so we proceeded with x-rays and an internal ultrasound. There was no kissing spine, unfortunately, it was much worse. Zeffy’s imaging showed early facet joint arthritis at T15/16, which is directly where the rider sits on their back. She also had sacralization (fusion) at L6/S1. Although a fusion doesn’t cause pain itself, studies are showing that it can place extreme strain at L5/6 and cause issues there in the future. Compounded on all of this, was a finding we diagnosed earlier in the year with the help of our osteopath – a bone spur at C3/4. Watch our youtube video documenting over 8 months of content as we worked towards this diagnosis
With less than 100 rides on her, these bony changes were not due to saddle fit. At some point in her life – Zeffy has been in a serious wreck. I personally feel she may have been involved in a rotational fall (ass over teakettle) to cause this level of damage that is so advanced in such a young horse. It could have happened anytime, anywhere, maybe out in the field where no one even saw it.
The bone spur (pictured above), was in a “good” spot and fairly easy for the horse to compensate around athletically. The joint space in front of the sacralization could have been aggressively managed in a proactive manner. But the combination of them topped off with a progressive disease such as arthritis in the T-spine, meant game over. It was decided right there, right then, that Zeffy was retired at just 4 years old. I of course asked all the questions through my devastation in the moment – “what can I do to ride her again…” my other saddle horse Ticket was already also sore and unrideable for the entire summer, and Zeffy was my up and comer, my next mounted shooting horse, and now my winter in Arizona dream was all but shattered with nothing to take to ride, plus, the money I had saved to go had now been poured into vet bills.
Sure, there could have been treatments, but only of the pain-relieving kind, aggressively managed so I could (selfishly) get a few years out of her and eventually retire her anyway, likely in even more pain. I decided to cut my losses and hope to find her a new life where she could be useful to someone, just not as an athlete. With her disease in an early state, and the stress of competition training off her back (literally), we treated her with shockwave and I went to work finding her a new home.
Zeffy has several full brothers and sisters who are high-level sport ponies, competing in everything from heeling to hunter jumpers. Her bloodlines do not lack athleticism, and if you know me, you know I love what a pony brings to a mount – quick thinking, bravery, and just the right amount of quirk. Combine that with her incredible roan color and of course just being a mare in general – a breeding home was my first search.
If you’ve followed us for any length of time, you’ll know that my other good mare littlebit, went to Crosshair Springs last year to also become a broodmare. Crosshair specializes in breeding mules (also if you know me you know I love donkeys) as well as sport horses. littlebit has fit in seamlessly with their broodmare band and is expecting an APHA registered Tristan’s Millennium foal in June. Krista was my first and last contact when I was looking for a new potential home for Zeffy. We dropped her off there yesterday for a trial to ensure she fits in with the group – Krista runs nothing but a tight ship and offers incredible care to both her own and her customer’s horses; and on top of having a top-notch facility, I know Z will be in the best hands – hopefully as a sound and long term pony-mule mom!
Now to add before anyone asks - no, I didn’t do a PPE on Zeffy before I bought her. A few reasons – she wasn’t in the price range that I would have done anything but flexions on her. And two – the more I learn about horses, the less a PPE really means to me. On a good moving, happy looking horse in regular work – if you have a keen eye and skilled hand, you can tell a lot by feel and sight on how the horse is moving. A radiograph can show something that is causing nothing. And a positive flexion can bring up zero on diagnostics. On top of all that – with Zeffy’s level of presentation - unless full spinal radiographs and internal ultrasounds become the norm of a pre-purchase, the odds of finding things like this are incredibly low.
To close this chapter in Zeffy’s life, is just another reminder that horses are never “bad.” They either don’t understand or are in pain. If I had asked for help online, I could have told the first part of her story and many people would have suggested I “ride her through it” – that she was just a young horse (and a pony to boot) testing the limits. I do, always have, and always will, disagree (insert Shotgun’s story, littlebit’s story, Tuesday’s story here). I don’t go chasing things on horses showing no symptoms – but if I see a symptom – I’m going to get to the root of it. And I have never, ever been left without a clinical diagnosis for my efforts.
So – look, watch, listen, feel. Know what is normal for your horse, know what’s not. Ears, eyes, mouths, tails – can show us tension in the body before it ever manifests at the actual location of pain. They work through so much to please us, and it’s rare that I don’t go to a horse event and watch a horse working through some level of pain through compensation – and I believe they deserve better. It’s all just one lesson at a time, moving from average to exceptional horse owners, I believe we can all get there, I at least will never stop trying. <3
-Addy & Zeffy
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