My horse, Gino, has been a perplexing case of difficulties. Now almost 11, he’s been with me for eight years. He is a friendly and curious horse who makes me wonder if he was a dog in a past life due to behaviours such as being exceptionally loyal, licking everyone, and having no fear about sticking his head into anything, or being impatient to get himself into the horse float. Although he has a boiling point that comes quickly. Most horse people might expect that from a thoroughbred, and in fact, this disposition generally gets explained away due to a breed trait. However, there was no obvious reason for Gino to be exploding into a maniac. He wasn’t ever taken to a track to race, and actually was sold at the Karaka bloodstock sale as an un-started 2 year old. I bought him about 3 months after he spent time at the breakers.
His difficulties with temperamental outbursts, and biting with stallion-like aggression sent me on a road of discovery. It led me, over the course of those challenging years, to connect many dots, slowly piecing together an understanding of what was going on in his body.
The first clue was the freeze response. This happened very early on in our relationship, even when leading, he had a tendency to lock up and not move. It was donkey-like immobility – nothing would move him, bar some serious force. At times, that response created a hazard, like when this happened while out walking along our rural road. But mostly when riding he would just go very slowly, requiring a huge amount of effort pushing him forward to get an upward transition or hold a gait. I concluded fairly quickly that something wasn’t right. I had a vet look at him – perhaps the wrong one to call. He said (with very little investigation or palpitation of his body) that he was just lazy and I needed to work him more.
I was skeptical of that diagnosis – and it felt quite a waste of money! At least the vet got to clean out a big waxy bean while he was there, adding some value to his visit. I decided to go lightly with Gino, taking him out for hacks at a walk and only doing the things that he was willing to do. We did this for years. His strength improved over that time, but it still wasn’t translating into forward energy when riding in the arena. It was frustrating for me as he would gallop and canter along the beach, but I could still see that his stamina was definitely lacking. I noticed that he would also become stiff after long bouts of exercise, despite having a good amount of earlier conditioning.
Jumping was a tell-tale sign. He couldn’t do it for peanuts. It was as if he was afraid to land over anything higher than a cavaletti. He tried, but it was invariably awkward. I stopped pursing these activities due to his lack of energy and resistance (which I now know was a shut down response).
So, eventually, we ended up doing mostly ground work where he learnt lateral moves – haunches in, half pass, walk pirouette, and lunging for transitions into trot and forward stretches. He had erratic behaviour though. I realised that his threshold for coping was low. At the point where he was frustrated learning something or the pressure was too much, he would either shut down immediately or launch into fighting mode. In new environments, it was a lottery. He either had a great day out, or freaked out.
After one particular day out when he went bananas at a training event – despite having his horse buddy there to help his nerves and being led through everything – I finally came to a better understanding of him. I had been trying to get him to disperse some energy by asking for a trot on the lunge – a task that he was familiar with – but the energy was not coming down. He was rearing and having a super tantrum, unable to cope with anything. Disparaged I led him to the side of the arena and sat on the fence, ponding what to do. I heaved a huge sigh, ready to give up and go home. Gino, was still fidgeting but he’d stopped the rearing and foot stamping. I sat there watching the others training their horses. With my attention off him, Gino relaxed and soon his eyes got droopy and he dropped his head into a standing sleep mode. A total switch into relaxation had occurred, and remarkably quickly.
From that day, I realised that I had a bigger influence than I thought over his moods. I committed myself to being responsible for his anxiety. We went back to basics on everything. I took it upon myself to get consent for his participation, and I watched for subtle signs that he was entering into the discomfort zone. The most obvious was his rigid stance, but he would also look away, or get a glazed look in his eye and a twitch in his muzzle – the beginning of the shut down. I gave him huge breaks between tasks, and every request was a tiny chunk – one step at a time, until he could cope with doing more.
With more observations, I pieced together a number of symptoms that he displayed with ECVM (c6-c7 spinal neck deformity). Speaking with experts on the subject, I found that his sire’s heritage had multiple inbred lines of a horse known to have the problem. As yet, I haven’t confirmed this via an x-ray, but the prognosis would be of no help. Horses with this problem have an overall downward trend in capabilities, worsening over time to a point where euthanisation is needed, usually well before old age.
Gino’s extreme nervous system activations have given me a huge challenge to handle, but with the understanding of his body being off-kilter and quite likely painful (which is being managed with pain relief), our interactions have become focused around helping him to cope with his situation. This means spending plenty of time allowing him to soothe himself, and assisting him with the areas of his body where there is tension – enabling him to restore the sensation of a shut down part in a manner that is not overwhelming. With these efforts to nourish his nervous system, we are able to continue doing some tasks, like obstacles at liberty or on the lead. I have decided not to ride him from this point onwards because his right front leg has become too unstable to support a riders weight.
Gino is a horse that had no option but to resist. His body told him so. Life is good now – mostly leisure, playing with horse buddies and showing off his array of tricks. The stressful incidents have been few in the years since I redirected my attention to an understanding of his boundaries, thresholds, and reading and adapting to his biological state. The severity of his case was able to highlight more subtle versions of the freeze response.
Not all cases are caused by pain. This is essentially a shock response, but it may also be caused by conditioning to fear – a triggering of anxiety. The body renders itself helpless and therefore shuts down, lacking empowerment to do anything differently. It creates an ‘I can’t do it’ type of resistance, as opposed to ‘I won’t do it’ which is what an empowered body would offer as a rejection of something asked. A horse that is shut down, either into a completely immobile or just a partially resisting state, needs to be provided with the security to restore their functions to being fully aware and composed. They need to be enabled to respond to the internal and external environment with their natural biological programming – a self-restorative healing process provided by the nervous system. In doing so, we support them to feel the sensations in their body without becoming overwhelmed, allowing the horse to cope with difficulties and move through them into a more stable bodily state.
Post Note: In this journey, I have also become inclined to the notion of starting horses at an older age. Gino had been the youngest horse that I had ever taken in, and thankfully my intuition knew to keep his workload light. We walked in-hand quite a bit and took short rides at a walk for the most part during his early training. But if I did this again, I would keep him unridden until at least 4 years old.