Unfit, but nice hind leg, Fred.

It may be time for me to rename this blog, and not just because I’ve branched out from TBs. “The Mystery Lameness Chronicles” or “Venture into Saddle Fit Hell” are both recurring themes that don’t vary from horse to horse. I could also go with “Sometimes a Lady Chases You With a Whip and It’s OK. (You’ll need to keep reading for that story.)

Calculating GHP (Gross Equine Happiness)

I know I’m not alone in these travails or in the frustration they cause, because I see other bloggers wrangling with the same issues, and I have picked up more than one good idea from my coterie of equine digerati over the years.

This story is a bit more of the same, but with a twist.

Getting your horse happy, healthy, sound and outfitted with a well-fitting saddle is an exercise in scenario testing – with a lot of variables. Over the years, I’ve learned a few truths:

  • Horses can communicate but it’s on us to observe their responses, and the subtle variations they display;
  • When you start testing your scenarios, be darn sure you only change one variable at a time, otherwise you will go crazy;
  • Gaping mouths are not bitting problems, they probably stem from the back or the hocks. Or both. Or maybe you’re just really hanging on the horse’s mouth, that’s a distinct possibility.
  • Your own shitty riding is an amplifier, and a highly variable one.


It reminds me a lot of macroeconomics class, and the variables we consider when calculating Gross Domestic Product. GDP is a function of a set of variables, and how they interrelate. It’s the same with our horses.

I’ve spent the last few weeks banging my head against the problem of Fred’s discomfort, driving myself to near-distraction trying combination after combination of shim, gullet and therapeutic pads in an effort to find the combination that worked.

However, I knew – I SWEAR I KNEW – that I wasn’t on the right track. Fred was being resistant but it was different. Instead of being unwilling to go forward and frozen in his shoulders, he was somewhat willing to go forward, OK in his shoulders but fifteen kinds of wonky with his head – gaping his mouth, pinning his ears, and twisting.

While horses can’t verbalize, they can communicate, and Fred’s message was clear – he was NOT comfortable with any of the options I was presenting. Nothing and I mean nothing made any difference. Finally, I called Dr. Nicky and asked for a lameness workup – again. She went over him thoroughly, found bugger all, and even sent video from her eval. Fred looked great.

But put a rider on his back and things just went to hell. I was well and truly stumped, but had a niggling idea that the saddle wasn’t the issue, because Fred was equally uncomfortable going in the ThinLine. This was an important indicator, because previously, when the saddle has been the issue, jumping on bareback is transformative. It wasn’t this time.

I threw up my hands and decided that doing nothing would be a reasonable course of action for a few days while I traveled for work. When I did finally make it out to the barn upon my return, Fred was off on the longe line. I skipped another day.

When I started to work cleaning him up the following day, I got a surprise that almost made me faint. A massive abscess had worked its way out through one of the heel bulbs on his right front. The bulb sported a two-inch long wound, which was probably a combination of the exit point for the infection, and the splitting of his coronet band due to the shocking amount of inflammation present. That hoof bulb was the size of a golf ball and it was hot and the skin showing through the hair was angry and red.

It was revolting, but that didn’t stop me snapping a quick picture and sending it to Dr. Nicky.

“Awesome!!!” was her reply. She also noted that deep abscesses frequently evade detection, and can take weeks to resolve.

Want to see it? Fair warning before you scroll down.

img_4989The abscess resolved in about a week, and last weekend, Fred was good to go. Clearly, that was good news, but it also meant that I’d have to go once more into the breach of saddle fit.

The first ride back was in a lesson, and I was grateful for the extra set of eyes. Christy and I decided to start with the Verhan. It’s newly reflocked, and even though it’s not great for me (the knee blocks are all wrong for my long femur, and can act as fulcrums, threatening to pivot me out of the saddle, it’s great) it has worked pretty well for Fred previously.

Fred signaled his improved opinion quickly with deep, relaxing breathing, floppy ears and pleasant demeanor. With all the time off, however, and the fact that he’s no longer keeping himself fit ripping around a pasture with a bunch of loonies, his fitness has taken a dive. We decided that a “Couch to 5K” program was in order, mixing in plenty of walk breaks between trot and light canter work. Importantly, together we concluded that Fred was in fact sound and comfortable. This is an important point, because it gives me the confidence to get after some behavioral issues, some of which can look a lot like resistance related to discomfort. It’s not fair to punish legitimate complaints, and I err on the side of caution in this department.

Sometimes a lady chases you with a whip and it’s okay

Which leads me to my ride last Tuesday night, when I was sharing the arena with Alice, an upper level rider with a gorgeous horse who has been doing all of this much longer than I. Fred and I were chugging around, him on his forehand, me happy that he was just moving. However, apparently the sight of us caused Alice pain, because she finally blurted out “You’ll never get him fit if you let him go around that way,” and then proceeded to channel a German Dressur, following us around, arm raised and brandishing her whip.

She was all over my ass, no other way to put it, but five minutes of following her moment-by-moment instructions (“Leg leg WHIP BEHIND YOUR BOOT THERE GOOD BOY leg leg GET HIM FORWARD WHIP AGAIN There! Good boy give him a pat NO NO DON’T LET HIM DO THAT leg leg leg THERE GOOD”) we had great forward momentum, and when I asked him to canter, he gave me a hand gallop, and I let him roll.

None of this was anything that I’ve not been told by Christy, who has been dying to carry a longe whip during my lessons. Alice, bless her, just isn’t into asking permission.

I grudgingly admitted all of this to Christy, who as much as I love her still scares me when she gets a particular look in her eye which foretells an extended trip outside my comfort zone. Thankfully, no really vigorous riding was required, so alas, Christy will have to wait before she chases me around with a longe whip.

Fred’s feeling pretty good – out of shape, for sure, and I can’t wait for warmer weather so we can get outside. We’re on a trail system, and there’s a nice bridle path around the farm, as well as a lovely outdoor – all of which will be useful in fitting up the redhead.

About Sarah Skerik
Sarah Skerik is an experienced digital business executive and strategist with a long track record of success in team leadership, employee development, marketing and business development.

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