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Libby from Washington, writes:

Dear Dr. Dave,

I have owned my eight year-old gelding, Dodge, for four years and have been training him on barrels for three, taking it slow and letting him come along at his own pace.

He was in very poor condition when I first got him. He was worm-infected, extremely underweight, and had been abused and scared so he bucked off anyone and everyone who tried to ride him.

He's come a long way since then – with lots of TLC, riding and good nutrition. Now he is a sweet, easy going, and happy horse.

In past years I have kept him on very good supplements and he has always been extremely healthy. He's been barefoot all four years I've owned him with no problems and has always been the picture of health.

About three weeks ago, he developed a vertical crack in his front hoof. The farrier put front shoes on him to prevent the crack from getting any worse. Right around that time, I noticed Dodge's attitude when under saddle was getting worse. He started balking and every day I had to convince him to keep moving. Instead of getting better, he's actually gotten worse and worse.

I've tried several different things to get him moving again and sometimes it works but now he's started threatening to buck rather than move – bucking is his way of protesting. When I got him, all he wanted to do was buck but we've worked through that and haven't had an issue with it in a couple of years.

He's like a different horse now. It's puzzling because he is very well broke and while he has bad days like every horse does, usually he is very willing and easy to get along with. I've kept riding him, assuming his "bad attitude phase" would pass like it always does.

Last weekend, I took him to our first barrel race this year but didn't get him warmed up well because he kept balking and refusing to move. I decided to lope a time-only on him because he normally loves to run barrels and I thought it would be good to take him through the pattern at a trot or lope and get a training run in. As soon as he got in the arena, he headed for the first barrel (without any protest) at a good lope with his ears up like always, and started the turn just fine. When he got to the back of the barrel, he tried to throw a fit. He wanted to go back to the gate (something he hasn't tried to do since I started him on barrels several years ago) and when I wouldn't let him go back to the gate, he tried to buck.

I pulled him down to a walk and walked the rest of the pattern. On the way to the gate from the third barrel, he tried to lope and when I pulled him back to a walk, he started to act up again and I had my hands full keeping him from bucking. I assumed that the whole episode was due to the fact that he was too "hot" because he wasn't warmed up properly which was due to the fact that he wouldn't move out. So I figured that it was his disrespectful attitude that we needed to work on and I needed to work harder at making him move out like he used to. But after talking to a few other barrel racers, I realized that maybe there's a reason for his sour attitude lately besides him just being a brat.

So I've decided to cover all my bases and make sure he is not in pain or anything rather than assuming it's just a bad attitude. I checked his back for soreness and sure enough, his body is a bit sore, mostly around his withers and loins. I have ridden him in the same saddle with no soreness for three years so I don't think it's the saddle that's making him sore, but I am going to have someone evaluate the saddle fit just in case before I ride him again. I am having an equine massage therapist/chiropractor come look at him tonight.

It also occurred to me this week that one of the biggest differences I've made between this year and past years was that I haven't been feeding him supplements ever since I started riding him this Spring. So I am putting him back on good supplements to see if that will help his body soreness and his attitude. I talked with an equine nutritionist about it and she gave me some advice about which vitamins/minerals I should be feeding him. I ordered Vitamin E/Selenium crumbles and Quiessence (which he was on the last year or two), and also bought corn oil (which I have always added to his feed in the past). I am wondering if you could give me advice on what else, if anything, I should be feeding him besides the vitamin E/selenium and Quiessence? He lives in a pasture and is fed timothy/blue grass hay. I'm thinking of getting a hair analysis done so I know for certain where his vitamin/mineral levels are at. I am interested in feeding him Satin Finish rice bran because I have heard good things about it but I want to make sure I'm not going to create a mineral imbalance by mixing my own feed.

Thank you for your time and help!

Hello Libby,

Thank you for your great questions, and thank you for your in-depth detailed history on your horse. All the information you supplied helps me to picture what is happening with your horse.

Congratulations for taking a young, abused and neglected horse and building him up to the athlete he is today. Your horse is proof that there are many great horses out there that merely need TLC and patience to fulfill their potential.

I believe the “barefoot trim” is applicable and useful for some horses, in some situations. As a general rule however, I prefer to shoe my barrel horses. Contrary to what some barefoot advocates may profess, I feel that barrel horses need the traction, support, and protection that shoes provide. In my experience, vertical hoof cracks indicate a need for shoes. I do not feel the shoes have anything to do with your horse’s attitude.

Thank you for your complete description of your horse’s change in performance. In the timed run, his reaction is very typical of a horse that hurts. The first barrel initiates the fear of pain and he balks for home. From the horse’s point of view, he is frequently brought to the first barrel in a slow controlled manner, then is asked to speed up to the second barrel, so why not try to leave the area?

He is OK when you walk him, but after turning the third barrel, he figures he’s finished and he just wants to get out, therefore the desire to not walk out, but lope out.

I wonder what “the very good supplements” were he was on last year; however I doubt that supplements or feed are going to be the fix. From a scientific view, hair analysis is a very unreliable method and I would not recommend it. Certainly hair analysis will not hurt your horse, but I am skeptical of its benefits.

When you first acquired this horse he was thin and mal-nourished. You fed him up, he began gaining weight. After a year, you began riding and training. I suspect he continued gaining weight and condition. Your saddle that initially fit him is now too narrow and is hurting his withers and putting undue stress on his lower back. It is also possible, and I see this very often, that you are placing your saddle too far forward on his withers creating painful confinement on his shoulder blades. Not only does this restrict extension of his front legs, it can bruise the skin and muscles of the shoulder, and this will cause your horse to “shrug” his shoulders, raise and stiffen his neck, and basically stop effective forward movement. The saddle should be placed so that the front of the bars are nestled in the depression behind the shoulder blades, not on the shoulder blades. Saddle fit and placement is critical.

I also see horses react in a similar manner that have low grade pain in the front feet. They too will shrug their shoulders, stiffen their neck, and to lighten weight on the front legs, they will tighten their lower back attempting to shift weight onto the hind legs. This over stresses the lumbar area and gluteal muscles.

Now, purely by definition, a barrel horse puts incredible torque and twist in the lower back. There is always the possibility of a hind leg slipping on the back side of the barrel. So it shouldn’t surprise us to have lower back pain in a barrel horse (and also confirms the need for traction providing shoes).

To sum it up, my areas of concern for your horse (all which are fixable) include shoes for traction and support, saddle fit, saddle placement, and muscle damage. I would encourage you to have a highly qualified farrier shoe your horse (you get what you pay for), have a veterinarian skilled in chiropractics attend your horse, and if not previously done this year, have a complete performance dental done by a qualified veterinarian.

Please don’t get frustrated and give up on your horse. He is doing the best he can with how he feels. Make the necessary changes, provide him the time to heal and strengthen. Practice and have patience. Give him time to gain back his confidence, and slowly build him back to his potentially winning form.

You are both winners. Never lose sight of that!

Happy Trails and Fast Times,

Dr. Dave