Joanna Thurman-Baker’s dressage blog: ‘no horse is perfect and it’s about time we stood up and admitted it’

Hi all and welcome back to my blog.

It’s time for another story — one that some may relate to and others might wonder why on earth I am choosing to share it. I hate the stigma around everyone in the horse world staying so secretive about their horses’ various injuries and aliments — no horse is perfect and it’s about time we stood up and admitted it.

Back in the summer when I fell off, it happened while I was riding my four-year-old, Dolce. We’ve owned him since he was a few days old foal. He had been backed a few months before in the early spring and had been relatively easy to back. Come the summer, he came home for me to ride. With my brave pants on I had him going around the new GP arena in all three paces, nearly on the bridle and with steering. Like with all our youngsters, we like to start the in-hand lateral work early with them as it shows us where they are weak and begins to give them the basic understanding of how to laterally move their bodies. We did a session with Dolce in-hand, just doing a few steps of shoulder-in on the circle in walk, which he did very easily. Happy that he could do one step of it, we finished the session and I rode him the next day.

As soon as I got on, something felt wrong. He allowed me to get on though and we moved off in walk (still on the lunge like we were still starting), but he was giving me an unhappy feeling. I had my brave pants on, so I pushed it aside and after walking a few more circuits, went into trot. About three strides later, he catapulted me into the air and I flew off — cue fractured spine. Dolce stopped and stood still as soon as I was off, which was lucky as if he had taken off there could have been the risk of him going over me lying on the floor. Had I not been in a lot of pain, I would have pushed myself to get back on, but we had to call it a day when I started retching.

We assumed he’d had a fright and subsequently had me off, as it was so out of the blue. So a few days later we had event rider Tom Martin up to sit on him again. Tom has ridden him previously, so he was happy to sit on to give Dolce his confidence back. But unfortunately Dolce had other ideas and also catapulted Tom off (which was unbelievable, as Tom can stick to anything like glue). Luckily he is a lot more of a ninja than me, as he rolled to the floor and was back on his feet in a heartbeat — unhurt bar a scraped elbow.

So as I was out of action, we decided to send Dolce to Tom’s to be re-backed. In two months Tom had him going super — he would go solo round the gallops, hacking, trot poles and jumping. But by the end he still had to be lunged before getting on or he would rodeo. Perhaps he was just cold backed? Tom also noticed that Dolce always held his tail over the one side when being ridden — a tiny thing but was this a tiny clue that Dolce was trying to give us?

But we had a bad feeling about it all — he is a super-sweet natured horse and this violent reaction to get the rider off just didn’t suit his character. So we decided to have his back X-rayed and maybe some of you have guessed it… he had terrible kissing spine.

Dolce’s original back X-ray — clearly the spinal processors are touching

After studying the X-rays, my vet Rob Oulton and surgeon Bryan O’Meara decided that Dolce was a good candidate for surgery. While putting a horse through surgery isn’t nice, it was better than the alternative, which would have been putting him down. He wasn’t safe to ride and it’s not fair to leave him in pain. The week after the national championships, he went in for non-invasive keyhole surgery. He ended up having eight ligaments cut and the top of one of the spinal processes removed. This blew my mind — how the hell could they do that?! But Rob explained that removing the top of one of the vertebrae was like removing a tooth — it gives the others room to move and separate. He came back from the vets a little shaky and thin from the stress, but otherwise his usual smiley self and didn’t portray any signs of pain, but he was loaded up on painkillers and antibiotics. Our main concern in those first few weeks was infection to the wounds.

During a dressing change — sometimes the white fluff of the pads would get stuck to the skin

So while we had my sister’s hen do and wedding, we also had Dolce on box rest. Every other day we had to change the dressing that covered the staples and stitches, keeping a constant eye on him. He had the biggest bed of clean shavings every day and a freshly cleaned rug every other day. We hand grazed him on the back grass of the yard and after three weeks he could spend a few hours loose in a small pen. Now, nearly two months later, he is out in a small field 24/7. We will start to bring him back into work in a few months time and see how he is.

I’m optimistic about the future with him as he is a lovely horse with great movement. It’s lucky that we caught it so early on in his life. If we had just ignored it and accepted that he had to be lunged before getting on, we could be years down the line before we found it and by then it could be too late. I’m so glad we gave him the benefit of the doubt — we don’t believe that any horse is born naughty. So next time you come across a horse that’s messing up or being tricky — think to yourself, what is this horse trying to tell me?

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In other news, I’m sad to say that my time competing Apollo has come to an end. After 10 years together, we have achieved everything we ever possibly could, from internationals to Europeans, novice to grand prix, from Sheepgate to Spain — he has taken me everywhere. Looking to the future, it wouldn’t be fair to campaign him at grand prix for another season at the age of 18. He has given his all to me and I’m so, so, so thankful. But on the plus side, I’m very excited to say that he will still be out and about, as our lovely working pupil Juliette Lindsay is taking over the ride on Apollo for the coming year, as she is on a gap year before starting her veterinary degree at Uni. They will be campaigning at young rider (prix st georges — PSG) level. He is fit and raring to go, (most days looking more like a wild five-year-old than a seasoned schoolmaster…). He and Juliette are flourishing together, having already been out and achieved 68% in their first PSG together! I still ride him weekly, he’s staying at home still, his routine hasn’t changed but now he has two girls to love instead of one! While it means I will have a quieter season next year with only the young horses to ride, I’m looking forward to watching the pair grow and shifting my role from rider to trainer.

Apollo and Juliette in action

That’s all from me for now, as I need to get Habil ready as he’s off to SICAB with Samantha for the World Spanish Championships!

Joanna x

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