Small changes with big impacts

In lieu of any updates (other than “waiting and seeing”) on baby Marrakesh, I thought I’d discuss some small changes I’ve recently made in Candy’s life that have had big impacts on her behavior and our relationship.

Candy’s been my horse for nearly two years, and her progress has been…underwhelming.

From 2016

Her origins are pretty unexciting: bred in Florida, raced until she was 5, had two foals after coming off the track, sat in a pasture for a while, sent to a dressage trainer for restarting, hitched a ride to Oklahoma with my neighbor’s student who was working for aforementioned trainer one summer, landed in my pasture when my neighbor offered her to me.  The dressage trainer in Florida had Candy going reasonably well at all gaits, had installed some lateral work concepts, and had introduced her to very small jumps. My neighbor’s student who was in Florida vouched for the trainer and the horse.

When Candy arrived in Oklahoma, I assumed most of her behavior stemmed from her sudden life change and general greenness. She didn’t do anything bad or especially weird. She was just sort of jumpy and timid. As time wore on, Candy didn’t get over the jumpiness or timidity. In fact, it seemed to get worse. Candy trembled while eating breakfast. She shied away when I tried to blanket her. She broke into a nervous sweat at the sight of a ground pole. Trail rides, an activity she seemed to previously enjoy, now caused extreme agitation.

Candy’s very first trail ride, August 2016

I tried a lot of things to help her, including:

  • 24/7 turnout
  • Chiropractic work (nothing seriously out of whack)
  • Turning out with Moe and Gina
  • Turning out alone
  • Having a professional assess saddle fit (basically fine)
  • Riding lessons
  • Calming supplements (3 different kinds)
  • Assessment for ulcers
  • More riding
  • Less riding
  • Only trail riding
  • Only arena riding
  • Ground work (the natural horsemanship kind)
  • Ground work (the longeing kind)
  • Reiki
  • Hanging out without working (grooming, hand-grazing, baths, etc.)

Nothing really helped. Candy continued to be very anxious all the time. Sometimes, our rides would start out okay, but would be derailed by something- a horse leaving the arena, a horse running in a pasture adjacent to the arena, a saddle pad gently flapping in the breeze. The distraction made Candy freeze, stare, and become frantic. She’d jig or try to bolt. On rare occasions, she’d buck. It was impossible to return her focus to me after a disruption.

I gave up. I contacted a trainer in Kansas with whom I have some mutual friends; my friends had recommended this trainer as someone with a lot of contacts who might be interested in Candy. The email I sent the trainer contained Candy’s basic information, a summary of what I’ve done with her, and a conformation photo. I received a particularly condescending response: I clearly needed professional help with this horse, I obviously had no experience with Thoroughbreds, I ought to be treating the horse for ulcers and doing ground work and hiring some young person to ride her. No is interested in my horse because free or inexpensive Thoroughbreds are a dime a dozen. Oh, and the photo I sent made the horse look hideous.

That email made me really angry. This person doesn’t know me! I’m not an idiot, and I’ve certainly tried a lot of things to help this horse! And that photo is FINE!

After stewing about it for a while, I re-framed the way I thought about the trainer’s response. This person doesn’t know me. The assumption that I’m an overhorsed adult amateur probably comes from experience- I’m sure horse pros encounter overhorsed adult amateurs regularly. This person probably thought they were offering me sound advice. Could they have offered that advice more tactfully? Definitely, but I don’t think the advice was meant to be patronizing.

Such a sweet face.

I decided to follow some of that trainer’s advice. I started with ulcers. The presence of ulcers had crossed my mind, and I’d consulted my vet about it. My vet suggested we run a basic blood panel, which is less expensive than scoping. From what I understand, her thinking was that if certain elements of the panel were out of normal ranges, it might be indicative of ulcers. When the blood panel came back with normal values, I dismissed ulcers as a possibility. After all, Candy exhibited almost no signs of gastric ulcers and lives a pretty low-risk lifestyle.

I remembered Austen had mentioned putting Bast on Nexium. Then I remembered that Jen had tried it with Connor. Karen put Hampton on it, too. These aren’t mysterious people from Chronicle of the Horse forums; they’re people I know and respect. I bought a month’s supply of Nexium Clear Minis for Candy. As experiments go, it’s fairly cheap. After a couple of weeks on Nexium, Candy’s demeanor changed. She was quieter and less distracted on the ground. She gained a little weight. I sprayed her with fly spray without her leaping sideways. When the Nexium course finished, I bought a jug of liquid U-GARD (mostly because it was the only thing available at the feed store). Candy has been doing pretty well on the U-GARD. She’s less jumpy on the ground and under saddle and seems to be able to refocus on me after getting distracted.

Another change to Candy’s life was the addition of Marrakesh. She and Moe were in the paddock when he was born (because Gina FREAKED OUT when I tried to split them up before he was born), but were removed as soon as possible. Since then, Candy and Moe have been together without Gina and baby. Candy is like an entirely different animal. She’s easier to catch, seems calmer, and is less distressed when alone. Earlier this year, when Gina was boarded at the vet while I was out of town, Johnny remarked that he thought Candy was better behaved while Gina was gone. He suggested there was some kind of weird, subtle power struggle going on between the two mares.  I dismissed his comment at the time, but I think he’s right.

Finally, I started doing some very, very basic ground work things with Candy daily. I read True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond a few weeks ago, and decided that the first couple of basic exercises were something I could do every day. When I say basic, I mean super basic. The first is lowering the horse’s poll and the second is turning the horse’s head. Performing these two exercises with Candy every morning seems to have done something positive to her brain.

I do like her pink nose.

All these little changes- the Nexium/U-GARD, the turnout with only Moe, the extremely casual ground work- have made a big difference in Candy’s demeanor. She is much more pleasant to handle on a day-to-day basis. She seems less jittery, both on the ground and under saddle. And when she does have a freak-out under saddle, I don’t feel like her brain has departed for another planet. Now, she feels more like an ignorant green horse and less like an uncontrollable ball of tight energy.  I don’t know if Candy will ever be suitable for what I want to do, but at least now she’s the kind of horse I can deal with.

Have you noticed big improvements from what seem like small changes? Or has there been something that doesn’t work when you thought it would?

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

20 thoughts on “Small changes with big impacts”

  1. that’s awesome that you were able to make some changes that have had such a big impact on her behavior!! the turnout situation is really interesting too, it’s kinda crazy how much of an impact that kind of thing can have. charlie was pretty unhappy at his last farm and i never really was sure why, but wondered if it had to do with his very aggressive neighbor horse (with whom he shared a half wall of open bars). glad also the ulcer meds appear to have helped. that’s always something that’s pretty high on my checklist whenever something seems really out of whack with a horse’s behavior. mostly bc it’s pretty easy to just move forward with a treatment. if it helps? awesome! if it doesn’t? on to the next thing.

    1. The turnout situation making such a big difference in her behavior is bizarre to me. I never, ever saw Gina and Candy acting as if their dynamic was anything other than pleasant. No aggressive behavior, no weird pecking order stuff, nothing. They seemed a little buddy sour about one another, but I didn’t think it was especially severe. I mean, one would settle down and go back to eating within 10 minutes of the other leaving the pasture.

      I don’t know if it’s the absence of Gina specifically or the presence of Moe as her only companion that’s made the difference. Whatever it is, I’m glad it’s helping!

  2. I so wish horses could talk and just TELL US what is the matter! Interesting that the Nexium also made a change for you. Have a couple friends who are seeing nice changes in their mares on CBD oil as well, but that is expensive for sure. When Hampton was at his very, very worst – I put him on Depo for about a year. And truthfully it saved our relationship. After I had tried everything. He was just so jumpy and miserable, and getting dangerous to ride. It was either try that, or sell him.

    1. I wish they could tell us what was wrong, too! Or that I could at least tell them, “Hey, trust me, those ground poles aren’t going to jump up and kill you!”

      I discussed a mild long-term sedative with my vet because Candy’s behavior was deteriorating so much but I didn’t want to use something I couldn’t show on. (Not that we’re going to shows, but I wouldn’t want to have to change something if we did.)

      I’m really glad you wrote about trying Nexium on Hampton- it’s always nice to read the account of someone you know!

  3. Sarah got Omeprazole (the ingredient in Ulcer Guard but, in a generic brand) for Rambler and put him on a 30 daily dose when he was here at my place. It made an AMAZING difference. A lot of the same things as you have described about Candy. Quieter, less reactive, laid down less (who knew that was a symptom of ulcers) much better to ride, less spooky. After his 30 days the vet suggested a dose before and after any stressful activity such as a show for example. Chamged his life. I’m happy to hear you have found some things that are making Candy happier! I also find the turnout situation weird. But, horses are weird. Ava scared herself yesterday when she kicked a small stick with her foot while walking???

    1. I had no idea Sarah had done that with Rambler! Giving a dose before/after stressful activities is a good idea, although I might go broke buying Ulcergard because everything in Candy’s life is a stressful activity.

      Horses are very weird, and I don’t know why we have them. Are we dumb??

      1. We’ve had a ton of good luck at our barn with Abprazole too. It’s a lot cheaper than Ulcer Guard. I think there are also some peer reviewed studies on it too!

        And yeah I’m definitely dumb for owning my horse and spending so much money on him. ><

  4. I’ve bene down this road and found that good diet and really really working on my ground work with Carmen has made all the difference.I’m glad that you stuck with Candy and it sounds like you really have helped her.

  5. Wow! “Professionals” are also a dime a dozen… So pfft to her.

    Moving z up to ok, she became very different. It was hard to tell the family that this wasn’t the horse I knew. However, my sister recommended magrestore, a specific kind of magnesium supplement… Apparently there are different types! But she thinks the OK grass can lack something for certain horses. Her horse trembled too and long story short it helped him, and it helped my horse adjust. It sounds a bit silly but if the ulcergard doesn’t work, try magrestore for a bit and see if that will help.

    1. I’ll take a look at MagRestore! Some of the calming supplements I’ve tried contained magnesium, but I don’t know how they compare.

      I’ve never really thought about how grass can be different from place to place- I mean, conceptually, I KNOW that the grass in Florida is different from the grass in Oklahoma, but grass is basically grass, right? But that’s definitely wrong, but the soil in Florida is very different from the soil in Oklahoma. I feel like I should have thought of that sooner?

  6. I admire your ability to step back and reframe the email advice. I’d have been in a rage for days lol.

    So glad to hear that she’s doing better from such simple changes. I’ve questioned putting Q on an ulcer treatment time and again, but when I step back and look at her behavior as it compares to others who had ulcers it never really stacks up. Every time I do this, I also put in the effort to just change my behavior around her and it garners a calmer response from her with regard to all things. Mares are so much trickier for me than geldings! I wish I’d grown up around more mares because I think a lot of the “problems” I have with her would be nonexistent.

    1. It took me a couple of days to really calm down and re-frame that email! I was angry and offended. But I’m also a person who assumes the best about people.

      Mares are very weird- I had a lovely QH mare growing up who never put a foot wrong and never acted mareish. I think she was the exception! I felt like I had a good working relationship with Gina for a few years- it was cordial and mostly polite. But about two years ago, I felt like Gina and I really clicked, and something changed, and now we’re friends. Not BEST friends, but more friends than coworkers. Let me anthropomorphize my animals some more, haha!

  7. One other thing that worked for my mare with somewhat similar issues was a shot of altrenogest. Coco didn’t have nearly the behaviour Candy had, but she was consistently naughty and nothing seemed to help. I treated her for ulcers twice, which seemed to help a tiny bit, but after the altrenogest shot she is MUCH better and I can feel how much more relaxed her back is, which I attribute to not being in pain.
    Hopefully with more time Candy will be a new woman! She’s lucky to have you to at least try to help her be the best she can be!

    1. That’s crossed my mind! I’ll ask my vet about it next time I see her.

      I felt obligated to hang on to Candy for a while and try to help her because I didn’t want to see her end up somewhere unpleasant. I’m sure she’d be fine- at worst, she’d probably go back to popping out baby racehorses. But in my mind, I could see her doing something stupid to the wrong person and ending up at the kill lot here in Oklahoma. She’s not the best horse, but she doesn’t deserve that!

  8. I did try Nexium with Bast, but the changes were very limited. The changes when using Gastrogard (at 1/5 tube daily dose for 30 days) was mind-blowing. Honestly the concentration of the drug in Nexium is much lower than in gastrogard. I’d spring for the good stuff.

    I’ve decided Bast is one who will get doses of gastrogard every month to keep him on the right track. After about 2 months, he gets antsy again. A few doses brings him back together again. I wonder if that’s something Candy might need, too.

  9. Ugh, I’m so sorry that was the response you got. There are many ways she could have declined your horse without being such an ass.
    I’m glad you’ve found some things that are helping though! It’s possible she has acid reflux without ulcers. (I do!) Also, something else to check into that is often overlooked in your part of the country: have you tested her for Lyme?

  10. Sometimes we just have to reframe the way we approach a subject, I like how you did that with the response you received. Writing/textc can be so hard to discern the authors intent. Glad that there are also really positive changes for Candy and I hope this translates to her undersaddle work. Fingers crossed for Gina and Marrekesh!

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