Saying Goodbye

          I will never forget the look on his face, peering through the stall bars at the National Western Stock Show grounds.  He was always eager to see me, always ready to say “hello” and ready for that day’s adventure.  Today, however, my heart was heavy.  I had just finished giving him a final hug (his forehead pressed against my heart, my arms wrapped around his head).  I turned away, this image of my Squishy burned in my mind.  His ears were perked, his eyes bright and curious.  From his posture, I could tell he was leaning forward, pressed against the stall door.  Perhaps he knew that something was different about this parting.  This time was our forever good-bye.
          Riding a horse for me is more than recreation, more than sport.  It is forging a team, whose communication is through intimate physical contact.  Signals are sent and received in a constant stream, most of them imperceptible to the observer (really, many of them are imperceptible to me as the rider).  In a contract of trust, the rider provides confidence and direction while the horse becomes an extension of the rider.  It takes time to build the relationship, time for the horse and rider to learn to read each other. 
          I originally purchased Squishy in a partnership, as a business venture.  Our goal was to buy a young horse, who would be trained and shown by a professional, and then sell him as a fine derby horse.  When Shane Brown brought him home from Texas, where we had purchased him sight unseen, I admit I was disappointed.  As I led him out of his stall, all I could see was an ordinary brown horse.  I’d been warned that he wasn’t beautiful.  My reply was “beauty is as beauty does.”  But still.  Did he have to be so plain?  Even the name he came with was common to his bloodlines:  Tejon.
          As Shane worked with him, building up his confidence and teaching him how to learn and use his body, Tejon began to bloom.  He was a talented stopper and pretty mover.  He did have a white star and four white socks.  His coat was a reddish sort of bay, so maybe not plain brown.  I stood on the fence, watching him ride, evaluating his strengths and weaknesses from a distance, strictly reminding myself that this was a business venture.
          One day, Shane let me ride him.  Shane had warned me that the horse was short-necked, but from the ground, Tejon was a nicely-formed, balanced horse.  After I settled in the saddle, however, I realized what Shane meant.  Riding him was like riding a cab-over truck, where it felt like the saddle was perched right behind his head.  During that first ride, Tejon kept checking in, wanting to know what I expected of him.  We were both tentative.  My stern reminders of the business side of this were weakening.
          After a time, we (my partner, Shane, and I) came to realize that Tejon just wasn’t cut out to be an open rider-level horse.  Since we had entered him in the big Futurity in Oklahoma, we decided that I would show him in the Nonpro class.  That fall, I rode Tejon as much as possible, in an effort to build our trust contract before we were under the pressure of a show pen.  I threw the business facade out the window and embraced a new relationship.
          For Tejon, having a Nonpro for a rider meant that there were treats, rub downs, long baths, walks in the grass, and time spent exploring the world together.   During that time, Tejon grew into an expressive, interactive horse with a compact build.  Plain ole Tejon just didn’t seem to fit anymore.  So he became Squishy.
          Squishy and I worked hard on our partnership together.  We showed at the Futurity, where we didn’t place, but we didn’t shame ourselves either.  I continued to show him during the following two show seasons.  We had some good classes, and we had some bad ones (one in particular comes to mind where he jumped sideways at the end of every stop).  In the end, we had a great friendship, but we weren’t a team.  Squishy needed someone with confidence and an ability to dominate the ride.  I needed a horse that would forgive my indecision and heal my broken trust from a prior horse.  Like a bad romance, we were both too needy.
          No matter how much fun we had when I was out of the saddle, it was time for each of us to find a new partner.  Very rarely is there a horse and rider team that can grow together, from Rookie to Intermediate and beyond.  More often, a competitor has to be prepared to bring in and let go of several horses during their show career.  Intellectually, I know this.  Emotionally, I have yet to let go of a horse.
          So it came to that fall day in Denver.  His expression on that day is crystal clear in my mind.  He had this way of getting hugs from me by butting his head against my chest.  The hugs always turned to rubs, where he rewarded my efforts with sighs and a blissful expression.  On that day, with my own sigh, I backed out of the stall, pushed his seeking nose back in, and slid the door shut.  At the end of the alley, I looked back, and there he stood.  Both his expression and body reached out to me.
          He trusted me.  In leaving him there, I was breaking that trust, and breaking our bond.  That still hurts my heart and brings tears to my eyes.  Even so, I know that I made the right decision for Squishy and for me.  Squishy found a new vocation with less precision and pressure.  I found a horse exceeding my competitive abilities, but who could wait patiently for my trust.

How to Check Your Horse for Soreness

          Being a prey animal, most horses tend to hide their pain.  Or we tend to misread their pain signals.  The pinned ears, biting, and swishing tails are easy markers; but most of us wish to know if our horse hurts long before then.
          One of the best ways to catch pain early is to get to know your horse.  Watch how he moves in the pasture, when being led, and under saddle.  Run your hands over his body as you groom to get to know the scars, bumps, and sensitive areas he has when he is healthy.
          Look at your horse from all sides.  Are the muscles balanced?  Is the horse holding himself straight and true, or does the tail or head cock off to one side or the other?  Look along the top of your horse from behind.  Are the shoulders even?  Are the glute muscles even?
          Up close, use your sense of touch and observe how the horse reacts to your touch.  It helps to know if your horse has sensitive skin, or not.  A skin sensitivity can be tested by how the horse responds to a stiff brush, to a rubber curry, and to your nails.  In observation by touch, you can feel muscular tone, check reflex response, feel for heat, and draw out pain reactions.
  • Muscular tone should be loose, with minimal resistance, much like raw meat.  Pushing on a major muscle group should flow to other areas, and jiggle.  If the muscle is tight, the horse may be holding their pain throughout their body, or just have an issue in the area you are working on.  If there is swelling or a fluid pocket, you will feel little or no resistance or a tightness, depending on the stage of the swelling.  
    • Check in the front shoulder and chest area where the muscle should have some tightness, but soreness is indicated by a guitar-string feeling.  
    • In the withers and upper shoulder area, the girth, the loin, the major butt muscle, and the hamstrings, the sore muscle will feel more like well-done meat, or cause a drawing (tightening or flexing) of that muscle or nearby muscles.
  • Reflex response is primarily in the loin and buttocks.  Draw your fingers about one inch on one side of the spine, from the loin to the tail.  Use the back of your thumbnail, with moderate pressure.  A horse with proper reflex response will tuck under themselves slightly.  Severe response or reverse response (hollowing the back) is also an indication of soreness.  Repeat on the other side.
  • Sometimes, the sore muscle will feel hot, or there will be a static charge in the area.  This is another reason to approach gently and move slowly.  A static shock will startle the horse, and you may spend more time soothing them than checking for soreness.  Run your hand down their legs and feel for heat or swelling in the joints, knees, and hoof.  Other times, a sore muscle will be bound up, cutting off proper circulation.  In that case, the area will feel cooler than other areas.  
  • Pain reactions are generally pulling away from your touch.  If the pain is severe, the horse may reach around to bite, threaten to kick, kick, or pull back against the tie.  Start your palpation gently, at the horse's shoulder.  If the horse is not familiar with you, speak gently as you work, and take breaks for petting to help the horse relax.  More subtly, the muscle itself or related muscles nearby will tighten and pull away from your touch as well.
          Observing your horse from a distance is another great way to check for soreness.  The most obvious sign is lameness or head-bobbing.  More subtle signs are shortness of stride, a stabbing stride, higher headset or lower headset, and side-to-side pelvic movement.  A healthy horse will naturally stride evenly on both sides, and the rear stride will reach up underneath the horse, causing the pelvis to tip underneath. Watching other horses as they move will give you a more discerning eye, practice this when you can.
          One final way to know if your horse is sore:  trusting your gut.  If your horse seems "off" or unwilling to perform a particular maneuver, or if working with your horse is more difficult, especially if one side is more reactive than another, they may be trying to tell you something.
          Watching your horse and using your hands, head, and heart to gauge how they are feeling each day is a great way to identify their pain quickly.  Often, catching the problem early will mean a quick solution and a quick recovery.