Dr. Haberman came today.
Before she came, I got Grimm out for a little hand-walk, just to make sure his back was limber and to burn off some of my own nerves ... and Grimm was easily as wound up as he was yesterday. I'm pretty sure that he could still smell the bear.
Even with a break in his stall after the walk, we still decided to tranquilize him a bit before trotting him up. We didn't want to take any chances that he might get too excited on the longe and do something ridiculous. It was probably a good call. After a bit of screwing around, including snatching the longe line in his mouth and pretending to take off with it -- mind you, this is WITH the tranquilizers on board -- he finally settled in and did his work so we could assess his progress.
The verdict: 80% improvement.
The other 20%, we may never get back. Or, it could be stiffness or lack of strength in the tendons that he might work through, something coming from his back that we can work on later, or that fetlock that showed up on the MRI that hasn't been treated yet. Still, at 80%, he can go back to work, and the other 20% can be managed. And even with that 20% lingering, he offered the most fluid, willing trot I've seen from him since last July.
Dr. Haberman was happy with what she saw and pronounced him ready to start, as she put it, "excruciatingly slow rehab". We will progress excruciatingly slowly so that I can stay tuned in and watchful to catch any change for the worse that signals a need to stop and adjust, before it turns into a big issue again.
So, the journey begins with baby steps. Here's the plan for the first week:
And hopefully no bears.
This is the sight that greeted me this afternoon when I pulled Grimm out of his stall for the last hand-walking before his soundness check tomorrow. The weather at 4:30 was overcast and too cold for a bath ... and the vet is coming immediately after work tomorrow afternoon. I was going to have to try to get him back to white and presentable again with nothing but a good brushing -- and anybody who has ever had a white horse knows exactly how successful that ends up being.
"Bad horse," I grumbled as I fastened his halter and glared balefully at the wet paddock out the back of his stall. There's been just enough rain to make that beautiful, black Washington dirt stick to him like an all-over mud facial ... but thankfully not enough to turn it into a morass and force him to be locked in. At that moment, however, I would have preferred him to be locked in. At least his shavings were clean.
Rolling in the mud is a perfectly normal equine behavior. I know this. I know that it's good for his skin and coat, REALLY good for his back, and the only harm -- a dirty coat -- is merely an inconvenience to me, but that one perfectly normal act of being a horse got him branded "Bad Horse" before I'd even taken him out of his stall.
It's interesting how we often blame the horse and call them "bad" for doing things that make perfect sense ... to a horse.
Today was a prime example. You'll notice that Grimm's nose in the picture is cut off. That's because he wouldn't stand still for the picture I was trying to take of the Bad Horse brand of make-up that he'd put on for tomorrow's vet visit. The best I could get was him walking in circles while I juggled camera and lead rope.
It was exasperating, but I really couldn't blame him. I've been changing up the routine enough that he's been pretty good most days, but today his behavior seemed to be saying that he was as sick of stall rest as I was, and he just didn't want to stand still. He wanted to DO something. I wasn't going to fight him on that one. I gave up on the picture and just let him get moving, but that didn't seem to appease him, either.
For the next twenty minutes, Bad Horse gave me a real run for my money. He reared and wheeled around with front legs flying more than once. He threatened to kick at the arena rail. He tried to prance and when I told him "no", he struck the ground -- not AT me, but with very clear frustration about my rules. He glowered and did the Grimm version of an angry Bad Horse Spanish walk, striking with every step. He cut the far corner of the arena by the round pen -- almost every time we passed it -- shouldering not QUITE into my space, but tossing his head and stomping his forefoot with agitation when I made him bend and yield back to where he belonged. In the last couple minutes, he repeatedly slammed on the brakes and gazed off into the distance at nothing with his 'look of eagles', playing 'stallion on the hilltop' like I didn't even exist until I tugged like I meant it on the end of the lead.
Nothing he did was overtly threatening, and in between it all, he was his normal mannerly, gentlemanly self. But for the most part, throughout his exercise time today, he was certainly bad. Very bad. In fact, if he'd have dared to try any of that nonsense -- let alone ALL of it -- when he wasn't at the end of almost a half year of lay-up, he'd have been in a whole lot of very Bad Horse trouble. But today, I thought I understood.
I was wrong. I didn't find out the real reason for all of his "bad" behavior until we were done. Here it is:
I didn't take this picture. My friend Tracy took it from her car on her way to the barn just as I was finishing up with Grimm. It's a black bear who'd been hanging out in the neighbor's paddock -- at the house just across the street from the round pen -- until he took off across their driveway and headed up the hill through the pasture right across the street from the arena.
All this happened, mind, while I was blithely walking my "bad" horse around the arena just a couple dozen yards away.
So. What was Grimm's lesson today? Well, actually it was a reiteration of something Chris McKechnie said to me during a clinic years ago. It's a lesson I've always remembered but really internalized at a new level today.
My mare had done something infuriating during a lesson, and I was sulking at her, so Chris set me straight. I don't remember exactly what Bri had done, and it doesn't matter. What Chris said about it is the important thing.
"If the horse was in her paddock," he asked, "or out in the wild and she did that, would it have been considered 'bad'?"
"No," I answered impudently. "Because I wasn't trying to ride her."
Chris replied, "Exactly. It's the human that makes the behavior 'bad'. The horse is just being a horse."
Nothing Grimm did today was bad either. He was simply being a horse. He reacted exactly as a good herd leader should to a very real and present danger. There was a bear practically in our driveway, and if Tracy hadn't been there to take that picture, I never would have seen it. But what if I had lost my temper with Grimm over how he was acting? What if I had taken his behavior at face value and made it my mission to teach that BAD HORSE a lesson? What if I never found out about that bear?
The thing is, horses don't decide to be bad simply for the sake of being bad; they just aren't wired that way. To understand a horse's 'bad' behavior, instead of blaming the horse, you as the human have to look for the metaphorical bear on the other side of the fence, because there really are no bad horses ... there are only horses that are reacting to the bear you didn't see.
Grimm's second lesson is one that I will be learning for the rest of my life -- and it was such a hard lesson at the beginning that he needed back-up. That's where Heather came in. With Heather acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone to bridge the gap between us, I learned that, first, I will never be done learning to listen. Second, Grimm has taught me so much more than just how to be a good partner for him; he's taught me to really, truly strive to understand. Every horse I've worked with since meeting Grimm has given me something new to listen to and try to figure out, something about what they need, what they fear, where it hurts, how they think, what they want me to tell their rider.
It would be impossible to list here every single thing I've learned since Grimm became my partner, but beyond the personal growth and improved grasp of dressage that I've acquired, there are four HUGE, foundational horsemanship points that have been driven home to me again and again over the past six years, until I can honestly say that I well and truly understand them. I wish every single rider could embrace them, too. Here they are:
1. Proper saddle fit is non-negotiable.
2. Correct use of the back is imperative.
3. Horses show pain in ways that aren't always obvious to humans.
4. A pain-free horse is a willing and happy partner.
As I continue with this blog, I will refer to these four points often because they are the basis for my philosophy. Once I really understood and accepted these four truths, the roadblocks between Grimm and me fell away, and our amazing partnership was able to flourish. Getting rid of his back pain was a four-year-long journey, and sometimes I thought we'd never get through it, but in the end, I had a pain-free, happy, athletic, successful dressage horse, and honestly, as hard as it was, I wouldn't trade the experience for the world. The universe sent me the horse I needed, to learn what I most needed to learn. Thanks to Grimm, I know that my job as a horseman is, as Stephen Covey's so-famous quote goes, to "seek first to understand and then to be understood."
Fast forward to present-day.
In June of 2015, I moved to Washington from Arizona. Before I left, I had Grimm checked over by his faithful and knowledgeable vet. Grimm was pronounced (still) pain-free, and ready for the trip. I took every precaution: I fed him up. I started him on ulcer medication, electrolytes, stress and calming supplements. We stopped frequently on the trip and unloaded at night. I took three days instead of pushing for two so he wouldn't be stressed in the trailer. Nevertheless, by the time we got to Washington, Grimm's poor back was a mess.
Thanks to all of our earlier work, I knew how to manage it, and I brought him back slowly, carefully, correctly, but about the time he started to come back around and I had him back under saddle, he got a stone bruise. I laid him up and had the farrier and the vet on it. It took forever for him to get over it, and I started him again, but he didn't feel quite right. I had the farrier investigate, found an abscess, and put him in pads. More lay-up. Started him again. And he didn't feel quite right. The vet had me test him for insulin resistance and Cushing's, just to rule them out. The results were normal. It went on and on.
To make a months-long story short, every time I tried to put him back to work, he seemed just mildly off, and I could always attribute it to something different. He had several tiny abscesses, sometimes he seemed sore in his back, sometimes he just didn't seem to want to go forward, or he just didn't look like himself on the longe. Sometimes he was crabby and bronc-ish under saddle. I convinced myself it was his back ... except he didn't show ANY of the other symptoms, and to everyone who didn't know him, he looked fine. But I knew something wasn't right. He was trying to tell me there was a problem, and I heard him. I just couldn't understand what it was.
Finally, after months of frustration, he started limping in earnest, in his right front, and I couldn't attribute it to anything else. Finally, I had something we could investigate. I called the vet out again.
We blocked him and isolated the pain to his hoof and over the course of weeks, we started working to solve the mystery. His x-rays were essentially clean. There were some things that are normal for a horse his age with his history, but nothing that should indicate the lameness. The ultrasound found some hints of inflammation, though. So we tried Prevacox and more lay-up. Back to light work for a week, and he was off again. Hoof injection and lay-up ... and he actually came up lamer than before. Things were not looking good.
The problem is that Grimm is not a retirement candidate. Because of his back issues, he needs to be in work to be pain-free. Without work, his back will lose flexibility and the degeneration will accelerate; he can not be a stall ornament. In addition, mentally, he MUST have a job. Without one, he is miserable. He beats the ever-loving tar out of his stall, fights with his neighbors, becomes depressed, quits eating .... And he can't be retired to pasture, either. Alone, he frets and frets. He trots the fence line until he is coated in a froth of nervous sweat, and then he keeps going. He will run himself almost to death, throwing shoes like frisbees, and injuring himself right and left. If other horses are in the pasture next to him, he tears down the fence trying to get at them, and with company in the same pasture, he can't really be trusted. I'm not sure what happened since he was out with the other geldings at the rescue, but when I put him in pasture with company now, he goes into full stallion mode. I've watched him go after a mare with blood-lust in his eyes -- he nearly ran her through the fence before I could get in and get them separated -- and he's literally gone after other geldings with the intent to kill. Worse, even if I COULD find a pasture-mate for him (and risk that horse's life to test it out), Grimm's hooves won't handle being outside here in Washington with the mud and the wet. He'd be crippled in a week.
So, with this weight bearing heavily on my heart and soul, in March, I took him to Portland for a standing MRI. Either, I'd know for sure that I had some very, very hard decisions to make, or we'd find something we could treat.
Thankfully, it was the latter.
The report came back with a reason to hope:
"Mild fluid, navicular bone and distal phalanx, right fore
Mild navicular bursitis, right fore
Mild deep digital flexor tendinopathy, right fore
Focal mild to moderate sclerosis, third metacarpal bone proximal phalanx, right fore
Mild to moderate arthrosis, metacarpophalangeal joint, right fore"
Basically, lots of related inflammation, all mild or mild to moderate, probably caused by contusion or a mild degenerative injury. Dr. Haberman, Grimm's vet, assured me that she has brought several horses back to soundness and full work with this same diagnosis. It's not a guarantee, but it's something ... and that's where we are today.
Grimm's diet has been changed to a modified (read as not QUITE so strict) insulin resistant feeding regimen, just in case. The tests aren't 100% reliable, and there is some evidence that cutting out sugars and carbs and upping the amount (or at least making sure to feed the recommended daily allowance) of iodine, copper, zinc, chromium, magnesium (very important), vitamin E, and calcium can help control inflammation, even in horses that do not test positive for IR.
He gets a mixture of timothy and alfalfa, heavy on the timothy, and Renew Gold (a low sugar, low carb feed) to keep his weight on. He gets prebiotics and probiotics to help ensure hindgut health, which is also indicated for horses with IR. As a supplement, he gets LamineX, by MVP., which is formulated to 'support healthy joint function, blood sugar levels and hoof growth in horses recovering from founder and laminitis.'
Dr. Haberman has treated him with three shockwave therapy sessions, an injection of Osphos, and a navicular bursa injection. We will be doing a fetlock injection, too, later this month.
The farrier has him in a reverse shoe to keep support under the heel, but to allow the hoof to break over sooner when he walks. This is to keep the pressure off the tendons that must extend at the end of the stride. He may need to be shod this way for life. I can live with that; it's super fun to ask an unsuspecting student to pick his feet ....
Most days, he gets hand-walked in side-reins or turned out to walk in the arena right behind the barn with me to keep him company. As long as he isn't left out too long, he stays quiet. He also has a stall with toys and a very large paddock -- when it's dry enough that it doesn't turn to mud, which will soften his feet. He gets groomed regularly, but he's impatient about it -- probably because his back hurts. He fidgets and threatens to kick, which isn't like him. He has trouble reaching around to scratch an itch on his flank; his back just won't bend enough anymore. If he pulls through, the rehab on his back will start all over again.
Last week he learned to play fetch with his Jolly Ball, but this week, the novelty has worn off and he refuses to play. I can tell he's getting sick of not working. He nickers and comes eagerly to his stall door whenever he sees me and keeps nickering as I put on his halter. He seems a bit disappointed, though, when all we do is walk around the arena, and he's starting to screw around when he's supposed to be walking quietly. I'm hoping this is a sign that he's feeling better and ready to work. He still has three more weeks off. I'm going to have to come up with some new games to entertain him until then.
At the end of the month, we find out if all of the treatments and the time off worked. At the end of the month, I'll have my answer. For now though ... for now, I just hope.