‘They’re trying to tell us – we need to listen’: rider of ‘naughty’ horse diagnosed with kissing spine wants to help others notice signs earlier

  • A rider who was told for years her horse had training or behavioural issues and should be pushed, only to find he had kissing spine and major foot imbalance, wants to help others “hear what their horses are telling them”.

    Rachael Smith bought her Irish cob Arthur, her first horse, as a five-year-old, in 2017. Some four years later, he was diagnosed with, and treated for, a number of issues, and became “a different horse”.

    She told H&H that with the benefit of hindsight, she believes Arthur may have had the kissing spine since before she bought him. Her aim in sharing her experiences, with H&H and on her Facebook page, is to share what she has learned over the past four years, in hopes of helping other riders — and horses.

    “For a first horse, it’s been a rollercoaster,” she said. “But it’s made me passionate about trying to help Arthur, and if I can help any other horses get help sooner, at least I’ll have done something good, and helped another horse, the way I didn’t [initially] help Arthur.”

    Rachael said Arthur was the first horse she tried who she really liked. He was fairly lazy in the school but different when she rode him in the field.

    “I jumped him over a half-decent sized fence; he charged at it and just flew over,” she said. “That was the moment I fell in love with him.”

    Arthur had a five-stage vetting, during which no issues were found. But looking at videos from when Rachael tried him, she can see signs that something was not right.

    “His ears were back, I couldn’t keep him in canter in the arena, his back was hollow and I think he was lame, but it was subtle,” she said. “I had concerns, but for me, the vetting was black and white; had the vet found anything specific, that would have been it.”

    Rachael took Arthur home and over the next few years, they enjoyed success, coming second in the pairs class with her husband Dave at their first hunter trial, and seventh out of about 200 at the Eland Lodge National Hunter Trial Championships in 2018.

    But there were always nagging issues; although he never presented as lame, Arthur would be hollow, and not want to go properly forward except at competitions.

    “I’ve had trainers saying he’s naughty, or crooked, or lazy, and needed strength,” Rachael said. “Not once did anyone say ‘Hang on a minute, is he not struggling?’”

    In 2019, Rachael thought she had found the answer in an ill-fitting saddle, which had been professionally fitted but was later found to be too narrow.

    “You trust the professionals but he was never going to work properly over the back in that saddle,” she said. “I got another saddle, which was better, and got the vet out to check him as a precaution.”

    The vet found Arthur had some soreness in his back, which was thought could be related to the previous saddle. In 2019, after physio treatment and a lot of ground and pole work, Arthur was much improved. He enjoyed success in online dressage and hunter trials.

    “I thought I’d cracked it,” Rachael said. “Then in 2020, I fell off him and broke my back.”

    Rachael was riding Arthur at home, but had not brought the other horses in as normal, and said he seemed stressed that day.

    “He was giving me all the warning signs, but I’d been told to ignore it and push him through it,” she said. “I’ll never do that again.

    “Some crows flew under the trees and that was it, he was broncing and I think trying to get me off. We’ve got sleepers rather than a fence round the school and I’d said to my husband they were dangerous, never thinking I’d be the one to fall on them.

    “I broke four spinous processes, which have healed but it just goes to show. I paid the price for doing what I’d been told and ignoring my horse. He wasn’t being naughty, he was trying to tell me he was uncomfortable.”

    When Rachael was able to get back in the saddle, and after further rehab work, Arthur was going the best he ever had, but in 2021, after some time out of work owing to bad weather, she again felt something was not quite right. At a showjumping event, he refused every fence, and she called the vet again. In a full work-up, X-rays diagnosed kissing spine. Other investigations found that Arthur’s foot balance was a concern, so he has had remedial farriery, as well as medication for the kissing spine.

    “After that, I was riding a completely different horse,” Rachael said. “I got quite upset because I’d been told it was training or strength issues and to push through it, and then it all vanished before my eyes after I had his back medicated and feet corrected. It blew my brain.”

    Rachael said Arthur is also now less spooky and anxious; she believes that when his “cup was half-full” already, owing to the discomfort he was in, it took less for the cup to overflow, and present as unwanted behaviour.

    She has since researched all the issues she has come across in detail, and is “a great believer that it takes a village to keep a horse sound”, and that all the different professionals should work together, with horse and owner.

    “The difference has been amazing; everything I’ve struggled with for years has just gone,” she said. “Horses are stoic and want to please. We owe it to them to educate ourselves, so we can spot the subtle problems before it’s too late.

    “It’s about listening to your horse and getting the right knowledge, because knowledge is power. I don’t think people don’t want to know but there’s that mindset of ‘the horse wouldn’t jump like that if it wasn’t all right’. But horses hide pain and want to please, and won’t stop doing things till it’s too late.”

    Rachael said she appreciates the bond she has with Arthur now more than ever. He is still undergoing some investigations to ensure the root of his issues has been found, and to form a long-term action plan.

    “It gives me a bit of a sour taste to look at all the rosettes we’ve won and realise he did all that for me,” she said. “I look back at a video from a one-day event event in 2021, when he came second, and think he had all those major issues but he still did that for me.

    “If I’d caught his issues early enough, I might have had a different outcome. Horses aren’t naughty, they’re trying to tell us something, and we need to listen.”

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