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Pets Large & Small

The Husband Horse

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw
Walkersville Veterinary Clinic

(7/2012) I recently went on a couple of trail rides with Crystal, a friend and client. She was riding her husband's horse as while originally he had claimed to want to go riding with her regularly, his interest had faded shortly after the purchase of his horse. Finding a "husband horse" poses a challenge. The typical husband (and I know I am making generalizations) is what we horse people refer to as a "fair weather rider." If it is too hot, too rainy, too cloudy, too sunny, too anything other than perfect, the husband elects to not ride and so the end result is that he rides maybe a couple times a year. When some horses aren't worked regularly they tend to get a bit wild. When the horse acts up, the husband declares that riding is not fun and elects not to go very often, and hence the cycle continues. In this case, the wife was riding the horse and keeping him going. She admitted that the previous husband horse had, in her mind, been a more appropriate match.

The previous horse was a little paint gelding with a calm and kind temperament. His demeanor had allowed for the husband to take him out about once a month and still have a calm ride without the high spirited antics of a typical horse that hadn't been ridden in awhile. And while the horse was pleasant to ride the husband said he wanted a bigger horse with more presence. The paint was sold to another one of my clients who adores him, while Crystal and her husband went in search of another horse. They found a large black horse and the husband was instantly smitten. A person who is determined to buy a horse is like a person in love. He or she is frequently so enamored with the horse that he or she is unlikely to listen to good advice let alone pay any attention to it.

Nothing short of the vet, or in this case the wife, jumping up and down and shouting "You idiot! Don't even think of buying that horse," is going to possibly stop the infatuated buyer from writing a check. So as has happened time and time again, a rider ended up with a horse whose flashy good looks concealed a temperament that is overall too hot for the rider to handle. While the husband was overmounted, he did enjoy the compliments of the non-horse people he encountered on the rare times he did ride. And as her husband received compliments on the horse's good looks, Crystal watched from the sidelines, while thinking that these people were just further encouraging the acquisition of attractive horses that are unrideable by their owners, or that require medications to make them "rideable."

In the old days the problem of a hot horse was solved by having the groom ride or lunge the horse until it was exhausted and safe for the owner to ride. Now the issue is frequently addressed chemically through the use of sedatives (both herbal and prescription sedatives are available on the market). While sometimes this helps the situation, other times the horses become more dangerous in that the horse can lose his concentration and stumble, trip, fall and injure the rider.

The dangers of tripping and falling are not only present in a tranquilized horse but also lame ones. While a lame horse is unlikely to run off with a husband, the chance of injury is still present. You may remember "Trip-leader" from my article on camping. He has two attractive horses, a solidly built palomino and a tall and elegant grey. Unfortunately they are plagued with various unsoundnesses ranging from a bad knee to navicular to hock arthritis. While the plus side is that the horses won't run away, I am concerned that they are going to stumble and fall as their feet are sore. I have injected their joints, and they are always give a dose of pain medication before they are ridden. Corrective shoes have also been utilized but unfortunately the horses' conditions are too severe to be completely fixed. While vacationing in Florida, Trip-leader rode my horse Bart. Bart is perfect (I know I am biased as it goes without saying that the perfect horse doesn't exist but I stand by my statement that he is perfect). Bart is easy and cooperative and gives the right combination of go and whoa to make for a pleasant ride. Trip-leader even commented on the ease with which he could get the horse to move to a trot or canter. My response was "that's because he's not lame." And while Bart was declared to be a great ride, he is a plain bay horse who lacks presence and flash and so once back in Maryland, the attractive but lame horses were ridden again.

Now I should mention that there are levels of lameness. I have repeatedly been told that I think all horses are lame and to some extent that is true. Even the ones that are currently sound have the potential to become lame and a look at their conformation and gait characteristics can frequently tell you where they are likely to develop lameness. While I declared Bart perfect he does have a touch of arthritis and while your typical horse person would think he was 100% sound, another vet would look and see a mild lameness.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has a numeric method of scoring lameness. O: Lameness not perceptible under any circumstances. 1: Lameness is difficult to observe and not consistently apparent regardless of circumstances (ex. Trotted on hard surfaces, circles, etc). 2: Lameness is difficult to observe at a walk or when trotting in a straight line but consistently apparent under certain circumstances (ex. Circles, hard surfaces, weight carrying, etc). 3: Lameness is consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances. 4: Lameness is obvious at a walk. 5: Lameness produces minimal weight bearing in motion and/ or at rest or results in a complete inability to move (this could be seen in a horse that has broken its leg or has a severe hoof abscess- obviously this horse should not be ridden). Bart would score a 1. Because of this score, I no longer compete Bart but I think that he is quite happy to go out on trail rides. Lameness comes in degrees and a trail horse doesn't need to be as sound as an Advanced level eventing horse. That is where the art of selecting an appropriate horse comes into play and matching the qualities of the horse to its intended use and seeing if it will fit.

All of that relates back to the quest for the perfect horse with the questions being perfect for whom and for what. And while Crystal and I agree that for us the perfect horse is sound, cooperative, sweet, and talented. For others attractive or good bloodlines may matter most. It seems people spend years buying the wrong horse before, if they are lucky, they stumble across the perfect horse.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw