What's Wrong? (Understanding Horses)

How do you tell if a horse has a physical, behavioral, or a training problem? Once you rule out a physical condition, are the other two options that different from one another?

Andy Anderson, DVM, grew up training, riding, and showing horses on his father's ranch in Broken Arrow, Okla. He says he has learned much through the years from many people in his lifetime of riding reining horses, and he has refined and put to use these concepts and those he has gleaned in his 30 years of equine veterinary practice.

Who is Andy Anderson?

Anderson graduated from Oklahoma State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1975, and he has been practicing equine medicine ever since. Along the way, he did an internship with Littleton Large Animal Clinic in Colorado, learning about horse care and clients, he says, from some of the top horse veterinarians in the business. He currently owns and operates Equine Veterinary Associates in Broken Arrow.

Anderson says he continues to learn from his peers and mentors, specifically citing reining horse breeder and trainer Dick Pieper. "He's my hero," says Anderson, who has bred, owned, and trained multiple reining horse award winners under Pieper's tutelage.

Despite his standing as an accomplished reiner and a successful veterinarian, it is the sharing of what he has learned about training horses that has become a second calling for Anderson. First he helped clients with difficult horses. Then he was hired to simply load horses that wouldn't go on trailers, or he'd work with horses that had difficult or dangerous problems. Then, in the mid-1990s, he began demonstrating his method of trailer loading a resistant horse to groups, including horse owners and veterinary students. He was asked to repeat that demonstration many times at a variety of locations for a variety of audiences.

Clyde Johnson, VMD, 1995 president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), saw Anderson give his trailer-loading presentation at the Western States Veterinary Conference and asked Anderson to give the talk for veterinarians at the annual AAEP convention. Anderson didn't think trained veterinarians would have any interest in the topic, but he presented to a full house in 1999. Anderson has been back several times to give talks during the AAEP's horse owner education day held during the convention, and he has presented material multiple times to veterinarians attending the conference.

It was at the AAEP convention we first heard his down-to-earth methods of working with horses. His "Trailer Loading Made Easy" talk made sense. Much like how a horsefly can make a 1,200-pound horse move, Anderson chooses to "annoy" or "aggravate" a horse until he seeks a place of less annoyance. Once the horse gives any kind of attempt to do as Anderson asks, he gives them a break. Pretty soon the horse figures out how to avoid the annoyance. Once the horse is successful, Anderson praises him. Patience and persistence are his key words, with nothing brutal or harsh allowed.

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, who writes our monthly behavior column, and Anderson have shared the podium several times discussing equine behavior, restraint techniques, and problem solving. In her column, McDonnell once said, "I'll paraphrase Andy Anderson, DVM, a good and kind veterinarian and horseman who speaks each year at the American Association of Equine Practitioner's convention about handling difficult horses: 'Setting horses back on their ass and other punitive techniques surface when good people run out of good ideas and techniques'."

In many talks, Anderson has said, "When someone loses their temper with a horse, it's time to put the horse away, because the human ran out of options (to get his way) before the horse did."

In this monthly series of articles, we'll visit with Anderson and pick his brain on a number of topics suggested by our readers and horse owners across the country. The answers sometimes seem too simple to be true, but getting back to the basics of working with horses is Anderson's focus with his own horses, and it's what he recommends for other owners.

Anderson now spends a good amount of his time traveling around the country speaking to different groups on various techniques and behavioral problems. It's a job he likes and wants to do more of in the future. When asked who Andy Anderson is, he replies, "I am a horseman who practices veterinary medicine for a living. My first love is horses."

This series will start with some basics on horses and their jobs. Anderson trains all his younger and older horses the same, and he says no matter what discipline you choose, establishing a solid set of basics is essential for a successful outcome with any horse.

Now, let's hear from Anderson.

What's Wrong With Him?

We have a lot of horses come down the clinic driveway looking for second and third opinions on performance problems. For example, the horse won't change leads, the barrel horse is running by the first barrel, the jumping horse stops, etc. By the time they get here, they have had their hocks injected, and some have even had their stifles injected. While you'd like to think the first or second veterinarian eliminated physical problems before we see the horse, we have to start with a blank sheet and work from the ground up, beginning with a complete medical and behavioral history.

Is it medical, behavioral or lack of training?

If his lameness is a grade 2 (lameness is difficult to observe at a walk or when trotting in a straight line, but consistently apparent under certain circumstances, such as weight carrying, circling, and hard surfaces), it is easy--start looking for the origin of the lameness, block him starting at the foot and work your way up, and radiograph the area that is found to be the problem. But what if the stride is symmetrical, he has no gait deficits, no ataxia (incoordination), no lameness, and he's negative to hoof testers and flexion tests?

It's surprising how many folks come to me and say their horse must hurt somewhere because he won't take his right (or left) lead. I watch the person ride, then I take the rider off, the saddle and bridle off, and put the horse in the round pen. When I chase him around, he takes both leads repeatedly and might even do some flying changes--all without lameness or showing any signs of distress. That's when the veterinarian must tactfully explain to the owner that the problem might not be a physical problem, but perhaps a deficiency in the horse's training regimen, and he should recommend the owner go back to the basics (these topics will be covered in subsequent articles).

Round Pegs, Square Holes

For some horses, it could be lack of talent that caused a performance problem. For others, you might have the wrong horse for the job. That's an unfortunate situation. My horses don't have a choice. To remain my horse, they must be reiners. Recently, the full sister of two of my best reiners came of age. She had lots of talent, but in a very short time, she let it be known that she didn't want to be a reiner. Three days after my partner took her home, he was team roping off her. If you put a cow in front of this mare, she never loses focus.

For many of my clients, this becomes a dilemma. They purchase a horse for a specific discipline, and they invest their time, money, and emotion into the horse, only to find that he will not be competitive. It is especially heartbreaking for young riders to understand that not all horses can be taught to jump fences, run barrels, or cut cows competitively.

When I first started showing reiners seriously, I believed that I could take any horse with normal conformation and moderate athletic ability, work harder, train longer, and eventually I could beat the guys with the really expensive, really fancy horses. It frustrated me when that didn't happen.

I was at Pieper's and I said, "I have my horses twice as broke and work twice as hard, but I can't beat them."

Dick replied, "You're a basketball fan. If you and Michael Jordan had been born the same day, and we handed you both a basketball the same day, and you spent twice as much time training as Michael Jordan, do you think you'd be twice as good as Michael? Andy, they all aren't Michael Jordan. How many Michael Jordans are born each year? Your goal is to get them to the limit of their ability. They can't go past that."

Since that time, I have backed off some horses when I realized they were doing the best they could. If that upsets me, then I need to sell them to someone who wants to compete at a lower level or in a different discipline. In reining, as in other disciplines, there are various divisions and levels of competition. The horse you start out with might win in the lower divisions, but he might not have the talent or ability to take you to the level of competition to which you aspire. The secret is knowing when to move to another horse, rather than trying to force the proverbial round peg into a square hole.

Next month we'll start discussing the three things that all horses need to know to make their riders happy.

By G.F. "Andy" Anderson, DVM, with Kimberly S. Brown

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