How pain affects behaviour has become an almost endless conversation now. If you ask about a behavioural issue on an Internet forum the first responses will suggest “the usual checks” which is increasingly close to what we used to consider a full work up. Trainers are quick to offer their veterinary experiences and vets have quite a lot to say about training. (I’m a big fan of a combined approach – it takes a village – but it’s about combining views, not contrasting them.) The general objective view is that pain will produce consistent reactions, although what this means (even if it’s true) is often hard to interpret. Every day is a new day, every situation is slightly different – if you don’t know the trigger how do you know if the reaction it consistent or not? And if you’re only seeing the horse in limited circumstances – or worse, going on personal reporting, which is notoriously unreliable – how can you gauge consistency or lack therof?
I’m always a bit surprised vets are so keen to say “it can’t be x because there isn’t y reaction” as both science and experience suggest it’s not that simple. I know people with chronic conditions who can be okay one day and not the next, or who can “cope” in some situations and not others – why would it be differnt for horses? Similarly trainers who feel that any behaviour they can’t address must be from an a source outside their remit and control. It may not be something they can personally change (for a host of reasons, not all of them down to skill) but that’s not the same as saying it can’t be changed at all.
There is also the problem that so much depends on the situation. Frankly, I have made more than a few clinically damaged horses ridable and not found out the extent of the damage until afterwards, when the horse either regressed or changed situations. I know for a fact that many high profile trainers have “fixed” horses that then turned out to have physical issues so severe they could not remain in work (or alive). I would hazard every trainer – behavioural or otherwise – has had that experience if they’ve been at it long enough. I have “successfully” ridden horses with spinal damage, neurological impairement, ulcers, all manner of known “unsoundnesses” (some known at the time, although often not, some treated, some not) and, in fact, know horses that have competed at the highest levels – sometimes erratically or with super careful mangement, but not always to an unusual degree – that turned out to have a physical basis for their behaviours. It is quite doable and I suspect, done a lot more in professional programs than people realise, including the people who are doing it at the time!
Some of it is perception. Is “functionally sound” the same as “sound”? None of us wants to think a horse is in discomfort but, frankly, sometimes they are. And it’s not always the end of the world. After all, we cause horses pain to fix physical problems all the time. Is it so different to cause temporary discomfort in the name of retraining? And where does physical rehabilitation stop and training begin? If a horse says “no” in a rehab program we don’t always take that as a final answer. . .
And what do we do if we can’t find the problem? Or we can find the problem but we can’t fix it? Does that always mean the end of the road? Does “management” count as a “fix”?
Looking back, it was almost standard not that long ago, when our diagnostic options were so much more limited, to just ride the horse and see what happened. If everyone tried their best and it couldn’t be ridden successfully, then that was that and people made whatever choice they had to make. It was often accepted that a horse had to be looked after or worked in a particular way, discovered through trial and error and consulting more experienced horsemen, for reasons we might never know. Sometimes this was probably pretty unpleasant for the horse!
But I genuinely do think we can find so much now it’s tempting to assume we can find everything. We can’t. Some problems are needles in haystacks. Others are innate – I knew a family of “crazy” horses and it was only really apparent if you met them and worked with them as a group – and won’t show up at the vets. Some – even most – are multifactoral and even if you find one bit, that may not be the bit that turns it all around.
In the end, much as we don’t want to admit it, it still comes down to a personal decision.
I had a very educational horse to ride once, who really crystallised this issue for me. She was so beautiful and so athletic and so amazing to ride when she wasn’t trying to kill me. She jumped houses for fun and looked like a giant show pony. It was impossible to think she wouldn’t be a super competition horse with the right production. But when she was bad, she was awful. It quickly became apparent she wasn’t going to do the job she was bought for (at the viewing the horse seemed not ideal but certainly workable, but when the sellers were challenged later about her subsequent behaviour they were very cagey on the subject . . .) The owner and I contacted three Pros well known for dealing with difficult horses and with ambitions that outstripped their pocketbooks, and offered them the horse for a nominal fee, first come, first served. They scrambled and one, a mad ride-everything-with-legs type who did extreme sports for fun, took the horse on. Initial reports were glowing, plans were made to compete. . . then nothing. I ran into the rider some years later and got the full story. They’d gone out XC schooling a few times and been blown away by the horse. Then they went out one day and the horse twigged to the job and she set off, jumping everything in her path. Everything. Jumps, wire fences, ditches, hedgerows, roads . . . All with ears pricked, on a mission. The rider, who was no shrinking violet, couldn’t turn or even steer. She saw a gap in the trees or something that looked like a jump and was off. Watching the rider’s face, the memory of genuine fear, was a study. In the end she jumped into plough and the rider managed to crank her around in a circle galloped to a standstill. Then the rider got off, led her back, and never got on again. And then they bred her . . . but that’s another conversation!
Who knows why the horse was like that? Good, experienced horsemen, in a variety or fields, tried and were initially taken in. Was it breeding? We didn’t know her origins, except that she was clearly bred for sport. Was it pain? Certainly nothing a vet could find at the time. Something in her brain? She didn’t behave like other horses I’ve known with neurological issues. The only thing odd about her was she was super sensitive – she would tear her blankets off if she got even slightly warm and you changed saddle pads at your peril. But very good people looked and didn’t find anything obvious. Very good riders tried and decided, frankly, life is too short and there are plenty of nice horses that won’t constantly endanger your life.
It happens. We like to think we are so knowledgeable and powerful, we can solve any problem. But the fact remains that’s not true and, anyway, not every problem is worth the potential cost of solving it.
I would say, over all, most of the time people don’t do every thing they could do, perhaps out of ego or simply out of weighing the balance. But in the end, even that is a personal choice. One person’s “didn’t try hard enough” is another person’s “ruinously over the top”.
We may want answers but we won’t always get them.