Overcoming Horse Ailments


I slowed my car and carefully drove onto the grass bank as there wasn’t a safe place to park on the narrow country lane. The moment I spotted the horse I could tell something was wrong. I wondered how many drivers had passed this location and either didn’t spot the problem, or didn’t care. I slowly approached the horse while uttering soothing words, the words didn’t matter, perhaps I was just trying to calm myself. The animal was surrounded by at least 2 days’ worth of manure, and this angered me. I reached down the leg and tried to remove the fencing wire that was wrapped several times around the fetlock. But one pair of hands wasn’t enough. I needed someone to stop the horse from pulling back from pain. I envisioned the horse damaging itself further, probably catastrophically. I called the fire-brigade and told them to leave the sirens off.

Retirement is not always such a cut and dry decision, at least not in my experience. At the age of 16 my mare was diagnosed with desmitis of the fetlock annular ligament. While speaking to my own vet I also researched veterinary reports on the subject. The choices were either an operation to cut the ligament, or to retire the horse completely.

I chose neither.

My vet could not guarantee the operation would work, in many cases the procedure failed to correct the condition, and those odds didn’t sit well with me. My instinct told me this was wrong, the lower leg of a horse is a complicated structure and I felt a scalpel had no business slicing into such an intricate area. In this case, and it’s rare, but I felt nature alone should be given the chance to sort the problem out. We all develop problems as we age and most of us adapt to those changes, so I chose nature over science.

I removed my horse from the large livery yard with amazing facilities, because I no longer had a use for indoor arenas, cross-country courses and great hacking. I returned to the quiet yard I had been at before. Here I could mind my own business, and the owners would let me mind my own business. While there, she had 6 months off before I resumed riding her at walk. The ice packs and cold hosing continued on a daily basis and she was stabled at night. She was slightly lame on the left rein, so while in the sand school I only rode on the right rein.

I rode on the right rein for an entire year.

There was never any indication she was in pain, I wouldn’t have ridden if there was. There was no heat, no swelling and no sign of discomfort, she just felt slightly awkward on that rein. It was slow progress but over the next 2 years she slowly became sound. After trotting her up for the vet he asked how did you do it?

I didn’t, nature did.

I know in my heart and from experience a horse with an ailment will deteriorate further and quicker if left to become unfit. Without the light ridden work, the groundwork and the in-hand hacking, I believe the ligament would have continued to thicken, her legs would have stiffened and she would have gained weight. It would have been a rapid downward spiral which would have resulted in euthanasia.

With every passing year I have adjusted the work we do and now only ride twice a week, at most. Considering the diagnosis was 8 years ago, I’m proud of what we have achieved and how long we have both managed this condition for. We do so much together even when I’m not sat on her. I keep up the groundwork, loose schooling and take her for in-hand walks.

The way I chose to manage this condition is specific to us, I have been with my horse since she was 3 years old and I know her well. I also had the experience and knowledge to at least give it a shot. I’m therefore not encouraging anyone to manage this in the way I did, every horse and everyone’s circumstances are very different. If my horse had not shown even the slightest improvement, or demonstrated anything I was doing was detrimental to her health, things would have been handled differently.

But this gets me onto my main point, many people don’t bother. Not enough as much as I would like them to anyway. I had 13 good years with my horse before this condition developed, I wasn’t going to say thanks very much and leave her in a field. I had to at least try my best for her before retiring her fully. Even then I would still strive to spend time with her, still be vigilant with her health and do everything possible to keep her fit, both physically and mentally.

The jumping may be over, the sponsored rides and the hunting is all finished. But that does not mean I will cast her aside. Retirement is an inevitability, but horses must not be left in fields unchecked for days on end. The horse I found that day trapped by wire fencing deserved better, they all do – was OK in the end.

Deborah Jane Nicholas has been around horses for nearly 40 years and has worked within the horse industry in a number of roles. Deborah’s other passions are her 2 dogs, countryside walks and writing, which she does here.