A Pain Response

“I think she’s really sore.”


I read these words from the dressage coach I sent Fiona to in the San Diego area. I was lucky to work with her a year prior, and when Fiona had some troubles, she seemed the best resource to be able to help Fiona either improve, or find a new home in the rich horse market that is California.


“Maybe nothing that would be a big deal on its own, but something that could make anxiety a lot worse.”


I tend to think of pain as a narcissist, a self-important voice focusing on the “I” in its name saying “I’m tired, I hurt, I need something else, I need more, I am absolutely the most important thing you have to think about.”


Now I thought about pain as an amplifier.


I was recently out to dinner with my mother. We had a beautiful view, savory food, and each other’s company. We also had a phone-focused couple next to us, the female of whom had a high, nasal voice reminiscent of an air leak, and a large party beside us with kids doing as they will when parents suddenly develop amnesia and senselessness to their children’s presence. Without a squawking left hamstring, I could have blocked out ‘booboo’ coos and galumphing kid feet. Not being able to sit in any position without pain like an embedded ice pick, I was distracted to the point of just wanting the meal over—ridiculous in the same way as if I were awarded a trip to Hawaii and just couldn’t stand the smell of coconut sunscreen. I knew I was in a great place, knew I wanted to feel wonderful about it, but, despite myself, I felt crummy and couldn’t help shifting around just trying to get more comfortable.


Now I thought about Fiona.


Nothing about her had looked sore to me.


“She was moving sound and didn’t flinch when I groomed her,” I texted back. “What’s hurting her?”


“Several points along her spine,” came the reply, “and extremely tight hamstrings. Nothing that would test in the pre-purchase exam, but enough to really bother her.”


Both of us have sore hamstrings? Since when is tightness a communicable condition?


“Will be interested to learn how you figured that out,” I wrote back. “Good to find out about these things before they cause bigger problems.”


“I’ll show you when you get here,” she promised, then said Fiona had also been tilting her head and didn’t seem to be able to walk a straight line for being so crooked.


“That’s funny,” I confessed. “I’ve worked with her so much on a circle trying to get her to bend, I haven’t even tried a straight line.”


So far, Fiona’s routine under saddle seemed to be to start quick and stiff, then progress to quick and flexing at times, to more relaxed and bending after about thirty minutes. Because she’d been so unresponsive to rein pressure until minute thirty-one or more, I hadn’t wanted to ride her in a straight line where she could pull against me, preferring the circle work to be able to use body weight and position to keep her turning rather than building speed.


I thought more about pain.


It makes sense to me that pain should be as variable in horses as it is in people. In my own case, for example, I can walk without a problem, swim with only minor twinges depending on the stroke, and can dance without any aggravation. Run more than a few steps, or any faster than a jog, however, and it’s as though I can feel my hamstrings pop, squeeze, then begin to burn like I backed into a stove. As a result, I have nixed running workouts. Racing my nephew in the park, however, is worth every hot spike.


Suppose that Fiona has something similar. Nothing structurally wrong, so a vet wouldn’t catch it doing the typical horse activities of walk and trot, especially if Fiona can look like she’s interested in something that causes her to turn or tilt her head. Little could we know at first that her tilt-and-turn isn’t interest, it’s pain management. Nor would I necessarily pick up on her carriage when I’m focused on trying to relax her out of being stiff: to this amateur rider, stiff and straight is the same problem as stiff and crooked. Either way, I have a resistance I need to supple before I can rate speed or posture.


Now let’s suppose that Fiona, like me, is reactive to her pain only when asked to move certain muscles, or when something (saddle, bridle, my leg) moves against her in just the wrong way. I am nothing like a nephew to her yet. There is no way she could associate the poker of pain with a cost she’d gladly pay. I can immediately see why, if she feels at times the way I have felt, she could only think about escape. Never mind that I’m friendly, never mind that she’s been stabled with access to grass pastures, or that she’s treated to carrots after every ride – if she hurts, she’s looking for the first exit from serene countryside because all she can hear is pain’s needling voice.


I haven’t had to query a horse about discomfort before.

Usually it’s shown up like its own signboard with a lame gait, bloody gash, or side-biting, pawing, sweaty symptoms of colic.


This is more like the old joke, “Does it hurt when I do this?”


If yes, the answer is scripted: “Then don’t do that.”


But ‘not doing’ doesn’t work so well.


Most things are a matter of degree and strength; of testing how much of this can we do before the hurt is prohibitive? Can we change that over time? Or with more support (supplements, acupuncture, rest) and a different routine?


This is a conversation I’ve never had before, especially when the need for it has triggered dangerous behavior. If I were still ten, just learning to develop confidence as a rider, there is no way most trainers would want to keep a horse around that had run backwards. We are a litigious society, and there is also plenty of competition for our discretionary dollars. For completely understandable reasons, wise trainers partner youth riders with proven, reliable mounts, and if they should falter or misbehave, they will get disciplined, possibly drugged to be able to get through ‘something important’ like a show or event, then likely sold with the explanation that this horse needs a more experienced rider. If the horse bucked or kicked, the trainer isn’t advising a kid’s family to stick around to figure out why; they’re just going in the direction of something safer.


My dressage coach is outraged by this culture.


“As a European,” she points out, “I’ll tell you that none of you learn to ride a horse in this country because you’re never given a real horse to ride. You’re given horses that won’t move so no one will get sued.”


I remember the time I was thirteen, and my horse leapt out from the steady trot we’d been maintaining because of a rock clanging into the side of a lawn mower. My trainer made me jab and yank at that horse back and forth along the offending newly-shorn fence line until he was lathered and I was past crying.


“He has to learn he can’t do that to you,” she had shouted.


I don’t think either the horse or I learned much that day except to hate lawnmowers.


The horse went so sore shortly thereafter, we had to sedate him to keep him quiet enough to maintain stall rest.  When he could be ridden again, he was sold to an older rider.


At the time, my family acted on our trainer’s advice. This is, after all, why we pay subject matter experts.


Now that I can look back at that time, I can see that I was taught a certain range of skills to apply to a certain spectrum of horse behaviors. The only way I was to react to events deviating from that norm was to treat them as willful misbehavior and apply smacks, spurs, yanks, pulls or to surrender the horse altogether for the trainer to ‘fix.’


Thirty years on, we’ve all learned a lot more about horses, with a prevalent trend toward reading body language, and making a right decision easier for a horse than a wrong one rather than forcing anything.


Two weeks ago when my trainer had to help me keep Fiona from running me over or dumping me, she sent a corrective message  about manners and safety, but she didn’t beat it in, nor did she re-state the point again and again and again. At the time, she kept me safe, got Fiona under manageable control, and agreed that our place just didn’t bring out Fiona’s best.


Who knows what it was about us there: the separation anxiety on top of her pain, the fit of my saddle, the combination of work to rest creating sore muscles; we won’t ever know.


However, having kept her, Fiona can introduce me to a whole new vernacular, and I am grateful to have my learning assisted by people who believe in dialogue rather than the lash of a fear or dominance-based response. I note that this San Diego barn has no planted pasture whatsoever; it’s groomed dirt or hillside scrub. Maybe in addition to grumpy hamstrings Fiona and I also have some trauma around grass. We’ll surely have no shortage of conversation topics.