Sunday, 3 November 2013

Could Charlie have PSSM?

Training a young horse has its challenges of course. But Charlie has come a long, long way since the end of June 2013.

One of the reasons Charlie is called a 'wonder horse' is to try always to view the horse -any horse- in the most positive light, believing they can achieve. If something goes wrong to look hard into what has happened or what is happening and not blame the horse. Clearly, communication needs to be improved and as humans, that's our job.

Pat Parelli talks often of knowing what happened before what happened happened. That's just one of the many easy to recall but profound Parelli statements that fits our current situation. Let me explain.

Over the past four months of  knowing Charlie, certain patterns have been emerging  which on the face of it, paint Charlie is a bit of a challenge to deal with.

When we got him we were told he didn't like to be brushed, especially around his hind end. Soft brushes only.

We were also told he was a nightmare at farrier visits and because of this the decision was made to simply not have a farrier. So Charlie developed poor feet and a mistrust of being handled. Charlie knew what a twitch was by this time too and so the scene was set for some active desensitisation sessions.

The previous owners were right about Charlie not liking being groomed  or even touched. But this was intermittent, not constant. It was perplexing.

Over time Charlie a pattern emerged of bracey behaviour. Not wanting to move forward. An and at times downright weird kind of hopping gait. Then the biting started! Another surprising moment came when after months of building our relationship, Charlie was in  his stable after a lesson and he kicked my daughter. There had to be a good reason for his behaviour.

The thing that was clear was that Charlie was becoming grumpy. It reminded us of our Fell pony, a chronic laminitic poor thing, who became nippy and very grumpy when he was in a lot of pain.

The upshot of all of this is that several weeks ago there was a light bulb moment.

Have you ever heard of PSSM? That is Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy.

  Horses with both forms of PSSM have signs typically associated with tying-up. These signs are most commonly muscle stiffness, sweating, and reluctance to move. The signs are most often seen in horses when they are put into initial training or after a lay-up period when they receive little active turn-out. Episodes usually begin after very light exercise such as 10-20 minutes of walking and trotting. Horses with PSSM can exhibit symptoms without exercise. 
During an episode, horses seem lazy, have a shifting lameness, tense up their abdomen, and develop tremors in their flank area. When horses stop moving they may stretch out as if to urinate. They are painful, stiff, sweat profusely, and have firm hard muscles, particularly over their hindquarters. Some horses will try pawing and rolling immediately after exercise. Most horses with PSSM have a history of numerous episodes of muscle stiffness at the commencement of training; however, mildly affected horses may have only one or two episodes/year.
 Check out the link above for a brief overview of this genetic condition.

Well, we had never heard of it and why should we have? Fell ponies don't get it. Draft and cross breeds do.
PSSM horses cannot digest sugars like normal horses and glycogen gets 'stuck' in their muscles causing pain (our, basic novice level understanding of the problem).

The solution is diet based and if it works, lifelong. No grain, carrots, sweet treats and so on. Instead a high oil diet can help a working horse live a near normal life, keeping symptoms to a minimum. Of course it isn't that simple and we have found extremes of heat and cold affect Charlie as well as grazing availability.... We are still on a steep learning curve and will one day have found a way to better manage Charlie. Understanding what symptoms are showing and what to do.

Below are two video clips of Charlie before we knew about this problem. To begin with we just thought, young, dominant horse with a training issue. The second video shows a before and after of his movement. Before he was uncoordinated, reluctant, resistant, then on his new diet he became happier, more forward going and athletic.

We'd love to hear from people who have PSSM affected horses. You will know that this behaviour comes and goes. We are still learning about this but can say that after a change of diet alone, Charlie is loving being brushed, touched, rubbed and it is easy to go near his hind end now without threat of being kicked. He isn't as short tempered and grumpy. The changes observed so far have made us quite sure that we are on the right track with Charlie and he'll one day be fine.

Transitions Part 1

Before we left our previous yard it was becoming evident that Charlie needed to find a way to feel more confident when moving from trot to canter. Every book we have ever read on the subject of horse training talks about this being a challenge for the young horse when you factor in a rider.

In addition to using natural horsemanship techniques we are also following the good advice of top event and dressage rider Ingrid Klimke on training the young horse. Ingrid talks about crossing the reins over and holding so the horse is less likely to receive a sudden tug on the bit. In this exercise, to improve confidence at canter, Charlie was likely to be pulling at times or at risk of receiving a tug to his mouth. Our job was to set things up as much as we could for success.

It is also good to have a space large enough so the horse can set off in canter confidently and continue long enough to find their balance and feel the rider on board.

With this in mind we went through a process of negotiation to ride in one of the farm fields. In the arena, Charlie was having to concentrate on turning rather than cantering and balancing himself.

We set up the field with a virtual fence. Only posts with nothing in between, to provide support during the canter.

This exercise worked very well and Charlie had two sessions over two days building his confidence. He found out what it felt like to have a rider on his back at canter. 

Charlie Horse: four months on

Charlie has been busy over the past four weeks, settling into his new home. The place we were at quickly became unsuitable for his needs. We had use of an outdoor arena but this was small and Charlie, being large and young found it hard to do certain thing like canter, because he was always running out of space and having to turn. Anyone with a young horse will know they need a lot of space to turn until they develop and get better coordinated and balanced.

So we found a place with not one, not two, but three arenas. Two large outdoor ones and one large indoor one. Perfect for Charlie.

Now he can get on with training even in poor weather. 

Charlie has been developing his confidence out hacking and was starting to become more confident on busy roads. That was a double edged  sword because the roads where he lived really were congested and dangerous, being close to shops and an airport. Now Charlie can go for literally miles without bother of traffic.

On our first walk around the fields we laughed at this notice. At our previous yard the horses were often being worried by loose dogs in the fields. It bothered some horse owners more than others possibly depending on personal affinity or otherwise with dogs. Now we have an area where you can ride without fear a dog will appear from nowhere.

And so, although I really liked our previous yard and we had been there for quite a number of years, this was a good move for Charlie horse and had to be done, to give him the best start.