Sunday, November 9, 2008

How lame is too lame to compete?

Here's a new one that we've never discussed here before. Yesterday, someone talking about intercollegiate polo commented:

"My jaw dropped when a well-respected coach told us to warm up at the canter because our mounts were lame enough at the trot to upset spectators. "

This is not exactly unusual. I've heard instructors tell kids on school horses to canter their courtesy circle for the same reason. Horses who look obviously lame at the trot are asked to jump around. (You can tell how lame they are if you watch them land from the jumps though - ever see that? That stiff-legged "ouch all over" look upon landing? Watch a schooling show with a lot of old lesson horses in it and you'll see what I mean. The lame ones are obvious even if you don't see them trot.)

So all of this begs a very good question: How lame is too lame to ride or compete? Many of us are grateful to the solid old packers who taught us to ride, but how sound were they? Did we even know? I know that I was told not to worry about it, that the horse was "faking lame" or that he would "work out of it." When you're a kid you don't argue, at least most of us didn't. And if we'd been told what we were doing was wrong, we'd probably have gotten defensive about it. Remember the furious teenager who showed up here after I pointed out that the school horse she was showing was emaciated and her instructor should not have been using him? I don't blame her - it's normal at that age to look up to your trainer and not question. It's only with maturity that you learn to question and compare and gain the confidence to speak up when something doesn't seem right.

So, how do you make the call? Assuming the horse has been evaluated by the vet and you're dealing with a chronic condition like arthritis or navicular, how do you decide if work is still appropriate? Well, I'd say that if you have a horse who comes out of the stall stiff, but really does work out of it and trot sound in the first five minutes, that horse is probably still able to do moderate work, like beginner level polo, jumping at the 2 foot level and under, etc. If he doesn't work out of it and always looks a bit uneven, but the vet says that light work is good for him (a common recommendation), then I think it's time to retire to the point of light (flat, even) trails or beginner lessons where you have a lot of walking with short trots. If he's at the point of looking obviously lame all the time at the trot, then I think you're looking at total retirement or leading the little ones around for a pony ride. And the lame at the walk horse should not be asked to do anything - including carrying a foal.

Your thoughts/experiences? Has your thinking changed over the years? I often hear that a horse "wants" to keep competing. Two years ago, after I got Clover - my rescued way-over-30-year-old mare - back up to weight, I hopped on her to see if she might be appropriate for a light riding home. There was a gaming show going on and she made it apparent she knew what that was. She jogged sideways and yanked her head around. She wanted to go run, dammit - but she was an ancient, unfit rescue and so I laughed and held her to a trot. I think it's convenient sometimes to use the excuse that the horse "wants" to do it but, ya know, they're a horse. They're not as smart as a three year old child. Sometimes, you have to be the "parent" and make the call that's best for them.