Right after I got Domo’s front feet more or less even (click here) he felt and moved wonderfully but then we had our lightning encounter (click here). While there did not seem to be any obvious damage, over the next few weeks, he gradually began to balk. Refusing to move is a sign something is terribly wrong, especially for this horse as he is quite sure that he thinks best and can resolve most any issue at a brisk gallop. So I began at his tail and went over him bit by bit until I got to his head. He was holding it at an odd angle and while I would generally start almost anywhere else than with shifting a horse’s head, in this case it was all I had left. I laid my hands against either cheek and very slowly and gently rocked his head looking for place where his neck was not twisted and he could relax.
One of his favorite people at his last racing stable (that did care for and appreciate him and sent him to me instead of slaughter) was the chiropractor. He even learned how to adjust himself by tossing his head, but does appreciate a little assistance on those occasions when his own efforts don’t bring relief. So as he relaxed and let me take the weight of his head in my hands. As soon as he did so his TMJ, poll, and first vertebra suddenly went off like a storm of firecrackers. It was so loud I actually jumped, while he stood there grimacing in pain (click here) with his head down and his eyes half-closed.
After a bit, he risked opening and closing his eyes and his mouth and moving his head about. I checked to make sure things were at least somewhat stable and offered him my array of herbal tinctures that can help with muscle spasm and tendonitis. The next day I noticed his second and third vertebra were radically out of position making huge asymmetrical lumps on his neck when he put his head down to eat. He was also barely able to open his mouth as his jaws were locking again. This time what worked was having him rest his head on my shoulder while I hyper-extended his neck. Once again, there was a huge amount of popping and grinding and then his neck and jaws were even again.
We weren’t done yet though as the next symptom was a hot inflamed swelling the size of a hen’s egg on the right topside of his neck where the second and third vertebra meet. From that swelling was a rigid line of tense connective tissue that ran both directions, to his poll and to his withers. My first thought was infection, and that was worrisome as infections along the top of the horse’s spine have been given names like ‘poll evil’ and ‘fistulous withers’ for a reason- even with surgery and antibiotics they are nearly impossible to completely cure.
Thankfully, the swelling went down quickly with a little herbal help and the hot spot cooled off of its own accord, but he was not a happy horse for weeks afterward. Normally active, sociable, sensual, and playful he was adamant he did not want to move around or be handled. Even looking like I might lay my hand against the side of his neck was enough to make him rear, strike, and leap into the air.
It turned out that although there was not a raging infection there was a long thin foreign object over an inch and a half long, that was gradually working its way up and out. Given his serious resentment of mishandling, his utter hatred of needles and injections, and the lack of infection it is most likely a broken off hypodermic needle that became encapsulated by scar tissue and eventually traveled to its exit point. Once there was enough of it sticking up through his skin for me to grab, I yanked the whole thing out. Which I did very quickly, I might add, as he was not one a bit thrilled about the idea. As soon as that was accomplished though, he finally started to feel and act a little more like himself.
While a foreign object embedded in his neck does explain a lot of the difficulties on our journey to getting Domo whole and sound, this was an unforeseen, lengthy, and appalling detour on our rehab journey, and things are not yet entirely copasetic . His body is still readjusting, there maybe be even more unwanted bits working their way out of his neck with still the possibility of a low-grade infection now that the wound site is open, and we are working through all the compensatory patterns he developed to keep functioning through the pain as well as the subsequent damage that resulted. So we work on making sure:
• he can take either lead as he pleases
• with easy transitions between gaits especially into the canter;
• that he is tracking straight with all four feet
• That he is tracking up behind
• But not lagging in front and stepping on the heels of his front feet with his hind toes
• or brushing his hind hooves against each other behind.
• Even the head tossing will vanish if I stretch his front legs, neck, and back before we work.
Occasionally he even arches his neck, or offers a few steps of lovely lateral work and shoulder-in while we are playing about at liberty. Best of all, he is back to his playful exuberant sociable self that loves to be groomed, rubbed, brushed, massaged, and generally tended to. However, the single most important lesson out of this is:
Trust your horse.
The uneven growth patterns in Domo’s hooves were not the cause of his unsoundness, but were symptoms, the result of him trying to compensate for and protect himself from pain and injury. His behavior was also his attempt to avoid further pain and damage. So if your horse suddenly does not feel like doing something, rest assured that there is a reason. You just need to figure out what it is and what do about it.
I could have assumed he was being bad, stubborn, willfully resistant and rebellious, even vicious. I could have tried to force him to submit, to obey, and to work, regardless of his pain. He could fight me as he fought his handlers early on his life or he could try to do what was demanded of him. In his past, the first option got him beaten even worse, and the second was how he re-injured and nearly crippled himself. Instead of escalating injury and behavioral issues, I’ve done my best to follow the horse’s lead and figure out what is actually going on with the goal of forging a path towards genuine healing and to a sound cooperative horse/human relationship.
click for the beginning