How Sensitive Are We?

In the Principles of Compassionate Equitation we talk about being mindful of the horse’s physical sensitivity.  Many people are quick to hop on the back of a horse without thinking about the fact that they’re sitting on the skin, bones, muscles, nerves and organs of another living being.  Not only are we sitting on something that is alive, but it has the same kind of pain receptors and perception of pain that humans do.  Horses will often do their best to let us know when something is wrong, if only we’re listening in the first place.  It isn’t unusual for a rider or trainer to claim the horse has behavioural issues, when all it’s trying to do is let somebody know something is hurting.

For some reason it’s expected horses should be far more stoic than humans regarding the acceptance of pain.  If they’re poked at, strapped down, gasping for air, squeezed by a tight girth or prodded to move when their joints feel like they’re on fire why should we expect the response to be any different than a human put in the same situation?

Everyone who has horses comes by them through their own filters of experience and learning situations, and chooses their breed, equipment, style of riding and training for many different reasons.  Horses, fundamentally, are the same as they have been from the beginning of their species, and have put up with pretty much everything humans have done to them.  Do we really understand their level of sensitivity though?  It’s not about whether they’re smart or not.  This isn’t about their ability to think.  It’s base-level response to stimulus and what it takes to achieve a response in a horse.

We’ve all watched horses twitch at a fly on their side, and yet the same horse might completely ignore the pressure of a rider’s leg asking it to go forwards until it receives a kick in the ribs.  Is this horse simply receiving conflicting aids and/or desensitized to the meaning of leg pressure or is it resistant to go forwards because pain in the back or hocks makes it painful to do so?  Every horse-person should be aware of asking such a simple question every time resistance is met in the horse.

Is it really a training problem, or is it pain?

I realized several years ago just how extraordinarily sensitive the horse is and how finely tuned our own senses can become to their needs.

I had just finished teaching a lesson at a barn when a new boarder walked by with a lovely chestnut mare that reminded me of the off-track thoroughbred mare I’d had years earlier.  We’d jumped to many show victories and she was the catalyst for the start of my professional career.

The woman leading the mare stopped to chat and noted she was just hand-walking the horse because its back was sore.  As a trainer, dealing with sore and sensitive backs and necks had become my speciality, honed over years of working with many ex-racehorses and rescues from all kinds of backgrounds.

I asked about the sore back and began to scan the mare’s body with my eyes.  She was at least a horse-length away from me yet as my eyes fell on the most painful part of her back, she pinned her ears in a very threatening expression.  She meant business! The owner didn’t notice the horse’s reaction until I mentioned it.  The pretty chestnut pricked her ears up again when I averted my gaze  back to the owner.

Fascinated, I told the woman what had just happened and then asked her to watch while I tried it again.  I scanned the mare once more and got the same “don’t touch me” response when my eyes landed on the damaged part of her back, which would have been right behind the saddle if she’d been wearing one.  It’s also a very common site for extreme pain and spinal damage that will often show up as a “hunter’s bump” on horses that have been so compromised.

The owner confirmed that I was indeed looking at the part of the mare’s backside that had been confirmed as so sore she was unrideable.

She was under a veterinarian’s care so I left it at that and wished them both well.

Sensitive?  Amazingly so.

As Dr. Schoen notes, if there’s any resistances or sudden changes in behaviour in the horse, “first rule out pain”.  If one veterinarian’s diagnosis doesn’t find the source, you may need more than one, and we highly recommend integrative and holistic workups to get the whole picture.  I’ve seen far too many people injured by horses whose alleged “bad behaviour” was simply a response to pain.  Many of them will put up with a lot before they finally “blow” but as a trainer, I would prefer that riders & horse owners accept the fact even the most stoic and gentlest of horses will reach a breaking point and a painful area isn’t necessarily as obvious as a trauma or open wound.  Not all horses will give us the same radical clues as the chestnut mare in this story when a body part is so tender they don’t even want us to look at it!Image

Think of the horse being as sensitive as we humans are to pain… it doesn’t always take much before we’d feel like bucking somebody off too!

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