What do Grandma and Mr. Ed Have in Common?

Happy Birthday! With each year that passes, we grumble a little more about our aching backs, creaking hips and stiff knees, but do we ever stop to consider how aging effects our four-legged friends? Many of us have watched our older dogs slow down, avoid stairs and stop jumping on furniture. We often dismiss this as “he is just getting old,” but it is important to realize that these changes in behavior can be our pet's way of telling us that something hurts.

Signs of pain in the horse are often even more subtle. A horse's instincts as a prey animal are to hide pain. With the exception of Mr. Ed the talking horse, it can be hard for horses to tell us exactly what is troubling them. Like humans, horses often suffer from arthritis and back pain as they age; they just complain about it differently.

So how do you know if your horse is uncomfortable? Horses vary in how they express pain. While the sensitive ones may pin their ears and swish their tails when certain areas are brushed, when saddles are placed or when girths are tightened, more stoic animals may show only decreased performance under saddle. If your horse starts missing a lead change, knocking down rails or otherwise under-performing in the ring, it may be time to look closer.

Too often, what is labeled as a training or behavioral issue is, in fact, the horse's response to physical discomfort. Your veterinarian can be of great help in determining the underlying cause. Even when a full lameness exam is unable to locate a cause of decreased performance, it may be helpful to have your horse's acupuncture points scanned by a veterinarian trained in acupuncture. A “scan” of the acupuncture points simply involves applying gentle pressure to a series of specific points on the body while paying close attention to the horse's response at each point. Specific patterns of reactive acupuncture points can help localize a problem. These non-invasive scans, which take only a few minutes to complete, are often sensitive to subtle musculoskeletal problems, even when the horse does not show an overt lameness.

Dr. Rathbone and Sherlock enjoying a Seattle Ferry Ride

As horse people, we develop special partnerships with our equine companions. We depend on each other, and when we communicate well, we excel as a team. We are accustomed to telling our horses what we want. Next time you are in the saddle, I challenge you to take a moment to listen to your partner.