Last May, I bought this lovely guy, thinking that I’d have a challenging re-training project. He turned 11 the week before I bought him, and while he had been started under saddle as a 3 year old, he hadn’t had any more work in the intervening 8 years.
What I discovered, once I got him home, was that he also hadn’t had any farrier care, and so his feet were a mess, and he had suffered damage to the internal bone structure. Little did I know that this would start me on such an incredible journey.
I have been a horsewoman all my life – fearful and reluctant, but inexplicably drawn to horses even though they terrified me most of the time I interacted with them. I actually had been working as a professional in the sport for several decades, before I finally made my peace with my fear, and learned how to interact with any horse, anywhere, on terms that both us us feel comfortable with. But that’s another story, for another day.
This story is about Rudi.
I was first made aware of him through a friend in Florida. It was a simple conversation – a text, I think. Her mom was trying to liquidate a breeding program, and did I know anyone looking?
I (of course) am always looking, but I am also always letting people know about horses available or riders looking, and so it was a natural to get the details on these horses and then spread the word.
I never got around to the ‘spread the word’ part of the equation because as soon as I learned more about the gelding, I felt like he was what I was looking for: a well-bred Warmblood, Oldenburg, a grandson of Rubinstein, a line known to be very teachable and trainable. The other thing in his favor – he was supposedly just 9, and backed but not worked – all good. Most horses are started much too young, and so by the time they are 10, their joints are ruined through early weight-bearing and poor training. This guy had no training or weight-bearing. This combination doesn’t happen very often. Well bred horses aren’t usually left alone as youngsters. So I had to go see him, at least.
We live on our boat, and at the time I learned about Rudi, we were down in South Carolina. Rudi was in upstate New York, and we had no immediate plans to be back up in the Northeast. As all horse people know, horses always sound fantastic – the perfect fit – over the phone. Since Henry and I had decided that this was, in fact, a good time for me to get a horse of my own again, I was actively looking, and had another barn asking me to take on one (or more) of the horses they were selling, and there were also a few other rehabs friends had shared with me that I was considering. But deciding which horse you say ‘yes’ to, when your only information about them is through phone calls, is a challenge. I knew I had to go visit each of them, and oftentimes, waiting to decide is the same thing as making a decision – horse owners under pressure to get rid of horses typically have to place them in the first-available situation that will work. I wanted to wait until I could get to New York before deciding on the others, and that, by default, meant risking the availability of the others.
I wish I could say that as soon as I saw Rudi I knew he was ‘my horse’, but the truth is he charged me twice when I went in to see him, and I did seriously question whether I would be up to the task of training him. But I also knew that I had to try. He was just lovely, and not in the best of situations. He clearly was very intelligent, well-built, and quite stout. While he wasn’t underweight at all, he was in very mucky footing, and his feet were a mess. I have done a few rehabs in my career, but most have been re-training poorly trained or abused horses, or re-feeding starved horses. This guy wasn’t starved – that’s for sure – and wasn’t poorly trained, but rather, not handled at all. These are big distinctions. But a few years previous to this, I had started an older horse, so I knew I could handle that part of the equation, and Rudi needed a job and a person and a life.
So where to start? I bought him, and had him shipped the few hours from New York to Connecticut, and as soon as he stepped off the trailer, I could really see his feet for the first time. Initially, I thought they were simply too long from lack of trims, but within a few minutes, I could tell that, now that Rudi wasn’t moving through soft muck, his feet were in poor shape and bigger things were going on than I had initially been able to see. He had huge cracks in his feet – the kind of cracks that made me think the entire hoof capsule was going to split apart and slough off, so I called in a farrier to get the worst trimmed off, and hope to arrest the splits and keep them from getting worse. Unfortunately, removing the long edges put Rudi squarely on his feet, and it became quickly apparent that standing on his feet was very uncomfortable.
This discomfort, combined with no training, combined with the terrible bugs of summer, resulted in a crazy horse on my hands – a really big crazy horse. I bought a fly sheet, and fortunately he didn’t mind me putting it on (I am sure he was never blanketed in his life, and so this was a huge ‘win’) but it was an unpleasant time. Once again, I was waking up with a knot in my stomach about heading to the barn – something I had to do now at least twice a day – because I just didn’t know if I’d be able to handle what I’d face when I got there. During those early weeks, I thought the issue was simply lack of training, but it seemed to be a training issue on a scale that I’d never encountered before. I understand, now, that his primary issue was one of intense pain.
There was no way for him to stand or move or sleep without his feet hurting, and everything above his feet hurt, too. I networked with everyone and finally decided on therapeutic boots, but putting boots on a 1300+ pound horse, who doesn’t know how to pick up his feet so that I could get the boots on, and doesn’t really want to weight the other three feet more while the fourth foot is booted, makes for a stressful process. We managed, but not well.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and I have to say that that is exactly what happened for Rudi and me. I was feeling desperate – truly feeling over-faced on the training front (remember, I thought this was a training issue and had no clue it was a pain issue), and had started searching for a situation where I could bring Rudi for a month, and get some basic control.
Simultaneously, I knew I needed to approach his feet from a different perspective. My vet recommended shoes and pads, which probably would have made him more comfortable, but wouldn’t have actually corrected the problem. For much of the past decade, I’ve been investing my time in learning about more appropriate methods of horsemanship – keeping horses barefoot and unblanketed, creating a feeding and turnout environment that is appropriate a horse, emotionally and physically. I knew that how I had been taught to keep horses was not the ideal, and caused most of the problems people faced with their horses, and so I wanted to do things differently, but had no network and no experience (other than what I had read).
I had seen some videos from a school in Sweden, showing how, since horses’ feet grow constantly, issues (even severe issues normally considered to be fatal) can be reversed. This is what I wanted to offer Rudi – not just a band-aid to the problem, but a reversal of the problem, and a future of optimal health, with (hopefully) room to have a bit of a career.
Through Facebook (yes, Facebook), I had connected with a woman who seemed to take a completely different approach, and I was loving what I was seeing. Only problem – she lived 3+ hours away. I had another name, someone trained the same way, and she was closer – but I didn’t know her, and this was all going to be expensive and time consuming, so going with an ‘unknown’ felt risky, but I was desperate. I contacted her, and as luck would have it, or as the Universe intended things to be, Jessica could come in 2 days. She required just one thing before she came – that I soak Rudi’s feet for an hour before she started to work on him. That was a huge requirement! Rudi does not enjoy running water, and certainly wasn’t going to stand happily with his feet in a bucket. But “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and so I settled for making a muddy puddle in the corner of his turnout, constantly running a hose and making him stand in the water and mud. I was hopeful that it would be enough.
I also bought a sedative and was trying to time the administration of it so that Jess could handle him and work on his feet. I knew no other way. When Jess arrived, we debated giving him the sedative, but she really wanted an opportunity to work with him without it. She has never used a tranquilizer of any kind on any horse. I didn’t want to use one, but I honestly just couldn’t see how his feet could be trimmed without one. Fortunately, Jess knew another approach, and within minutes had him understanding how to stand like a Prince.
And then she asked the magic question – Would I consider sending him to her farm for a month of therapy for his feet? She had no idea that I’d been madly calling every place I could find for a residential situation. I thought I wanted it for training, but what I’ve learned is that what I needed was a program to alleviate Rudi’s pain. Sometimes we are just sure that we know what we are looking for, and yet we are completely wrong – asking the wrong question, convinced that when we find the answer, we’ll be able to correct what’s going on. As Randy Gage says, when you ask the wrong question, the answer doesn’t matter. I was asking the wrong question – I was asking, “How can I re-train this horse?”, instead of asking, “Why is this horse behaving the way he’s behaving?” I couldn’t imagine the behavior was pain-induced, even though I could see that he was uncomfortable.
“It’s what we know already that often prevents us from learning” (Claude Bernard)
Fortunately, Jess has seen many horses dealing with even more severe issues than Rudi, and that experience and confidence allowed me to see that her approach might be “other way” I’d been looking for, even though I didn’t even know it existed. Months into this process (we are in Month 6), I am only just now starting to understand how profound the work is that she and her trainer, Cheryl, do. My lifetime in horses has blinded me to much of what they understand, but I’m starting to get it, and I hope to share what I’m learning through this blog so that other riders will begin to get it, too.
We are still a long way from soundness with Rudi, and over the next few weeks I will begin addressing some issues in his feet, myself, with lots of texts and photos and videos sent to Jess and Cheryl for their input. Jess will be down again in another few weeks, to keep do a full-fledged corrective trim, but my goal is to be able to advance the cause in whatever limited way I am able.
In subsequent posts, I will share what we are doing for daily therapy, and also put up videos of any work that I do on his feet. I am also working him in hand, and teaching him the basics of how to move his body and how to understand what I mean. This is a long process, but he is a bright horse, and I am learning. I hope that you enjoy the journey with me, and will learn along with me.