Monday, July 25, 2011

Feeling the Pain?

I spent some time yesterday catching up on my reading.  In particular, I felt the need to attack the stack of horse mags accumulating on the arm of my reading chair (where I put them so when they topple from sheer overload, I'll have to pick them up and address the situation).  I wish I could link you to the article, but it's not available online, so I'll have to tell you that you need to go find a copy of the July 2011 issue of Equus and read the article "The Shocking Truth About Sickle Hocks".
No sickle hocks here...leave us alone

"But my horse doesn't have sickle hocks."


Yeah, that's fine.  I didn't accuse you of harboring a sickle-hocked animal.  There's more here than meets the eye, and far more than the title suggests.  The page 1 box says it all:

       "Contrary to popular belief, this 'conformation fault' is rarely the result of a structural
       defect of the hind limbs and instead usually signals trouble elsewhere in the body."

Whoa!  What?  Really?  And what about other conformation faults, like camping out, post-leggedness, and that overall "what third-grader drew this horse" look that makes us shake our heads?

Let's begin with the definition of "conventional wisdom".  It doesn't mean what it sounds like.  It doesn't mean that a Wisdom Convention was held to determine the meme that needs to be passed around, nor does it mean that there is a consensus of opinion on the subject at hand.  Its root is the word "convenient".  Conventional wisdom is what's passed around when no one cares enough or has the wherewithal to figure out the truth.  In this case, conventional wisdom has done some serious damage, which, if I could reproduce the graphics from the article, would curl what's left of your hair, I promise.

The article, by Deb Bennett, PhD is one of the most enlightening pieces of reporting I've read in the past year.  Bennett begins by reminding us (actually, I never knew this, but I am willing to fake it) that Hilary Clayton, BVSc, PhD, biomechanics researcher, rewrote the book on the arc of "hoof flight" a while ago.  Wish I'd gotten the memo on that.  I've spent an awful lot of time trying to train my horses into or out of things that didn't, as it turns out, exist. At the same time, I've undoubtedly missed moments when my horses were reconfiguring their bodies to accommodate pain from injuries or bad training methods that I was unaware they were feeling. 

More importantly, I (and thousands of my closest friends) have passed up perfectly good horses based on a flaw that is not inherent in the horse's build, but can most likely (barring serious permanent damage to the reciprocating apparatus in the horse's hindquarters) be corrected by appropriate diagnosis, persistent farriery, visits from a chiro, and not doing stupid things.  According to Bennett (and suitably proven with the terrific use of a computer for some nifty graphic manipulation), the vast majority of hind-end conformation flaws are not skeletal in origin but relate to injury or the way the horse has been used or trained.

In addition, she explains how in an effort to take a really attractive sale photo, we often cause the animal to look totally weird, belying perfectly good conformation.  It's not just a matter of standing the horse on level ground (duh) so he doesn't look up- or down-hill built.  It's equally important not to show the horse subtly rocked back or forward because we've done something silly to get that "interested" expression and scared the poor horse into thinking about running away before we get even more stupid or preparing to mug us for the apple in our hand.  The thought shows in small ways in the horse's stance, and a buyer seeing that tension and misalignment of body parts may walk away from a nice animal.  A foal born with minor flaws might be worked out of them rather than shipped off to that Special Place for ungainly babies. 

After reading the article, I took another look at my Quarter Horse, Leo.  Granted, he's geriatric, but he's still quite rideable and does everything I ask of him very nicely.  From the saddle, he's fine.  From the ground, he's a mess.  Viewed with a keen eye, he's got a weakness in loin leading to an undulating top line and hind legs that are almost sickle-hocked with toes that drag on the ground as he walks.  He doesn't seem to be in pain, but odds are somewhere down the line he probably was. 

The article doesn't deal with front-end problems, and I would guess that over-at-the knee is more likely a skeletal issue as is a neck that ties into the chest too high or two low.  But since the motor is in the back, we need to address the back-end with far more interest than the front. With the help of research currently being done to make our wisdom less conventional, we may help our horses live a happier, sounder, and safer life and cut down on the number passed up out of sheer ignorance on our parts. 

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