Gallon has a history of self-destruction when I go out of town. As much as I want to find that flattering, it has been a challenge since I am usually out of town for at least a couple days each month.
I went to Hawaii the last week of December, and left Gallon in perfect condition. He had been doing wonderfully, and was at the highest level of work he had ever been at - And holding up to it! When I arrived home, there was not a huge change in him, but he started a new behavior on the lunge line. Since Gallon is in the physical condition that he is (knocked down hip, kissing spine, arthritis in nearly every joint), we do a lot of strengthening work on the lunge and in the round pen, since I cannot ride him as often as I would ride a "normal" horse. He began sucking back on the lunge, and then whenever I asked him to go forward with or without pressure he would stop, spin, and face me.
I began asking Gallon, "Why?". When he first started this behavior in January, I began making mental notes. He only does it while traveling to the right, which is his more challenging direction. He does it whether or not we start the workout to the left first or to the right first. Even if I keep perfect lunging form with the "triangle", he will do it. We always have an ample amount of warm-up time, too. He walks for about 15 minutes before starting any trot. It usually happens later in the workout when he is cantering, or when I ask him to come down from the canter to a trot.
Unfortunately, this behavior has persisted. This entire time, I have been trying to problem-solve. What can I do, as his human and "trainer", to make this behavior go away? Gallon is not the type of horse that I would punish for this behavior. Although I will admittedly say I wondered for a bit if he was using the stopping and spinning as a way to protest work - He does only do it to his more difficult direction - I know my horse better than to believe so.
We had a few sessions where this behavior happened 6-7x. A couple of times, on days like these, I really felt at my wits end. To be perfectly honest, this behavior becomes maddening very quickly. On some days, Gallon would be especially emotional, and as I tried to walk towards him and direct him back out on his circle, he would throw himself in reverse like he was frightened of me. As a horsewoman who strongly believes in building a foundation from the ground up, based in trust and as soft a hand as possible, this was hard on me emotionally. I began spending a lot more time with him doing nothing at all - hand-walking, grazing, grooming, and cuddling.
I began losing sleep over the problem. During January and into the beginning of February, when we would go riding, he didn't have any poor behaviors, he was actually thriving under saddle, and in January and February we were even able to go over a few fences. Gallon's body worker had been complimenting how great he was looking and feeling - Telling me in February that "Gallon feels the best he has felt since you have had him". I began feeling like some things were going so right, but then why was the lunging aspect of our groundwork going so wrong?
Here are some of the thoughts that went through my mind while I was with Gallon, while I wasn't with Gallon, and while I should have been sleeping:
1. Something is causing him pain when he is traveling to the right. Since his right hind is the limb with the old pelvic fracture, it is harder for him to travel with that leg on the inside. When he is uncomfortable, he is becoming "sticky" and stopping and pivoting to face me.
2. 15 minutes of walking warm-up and 5 minutes of trot each way isn't an ample enough amount of work to get him warmed up enough to feel comfortable at the right-lead canter, even when I make sure he has gone to the left first to warm-up.
3. The right-lead canter is very challenging for him, when he picks it up, he often has to pick up the incorrect lead and then will flying change to it. When he flying changes into the correct lead, it's a very emotional experience for him, because he doesn't understand why his legs aren't working the way they should.
4. We have been doing too much lunging work and he has become bored.
5. Something happened to Gallon while he was being lunged when I was out of state. He is associating that bad experience with lunging.
6. The potential that the problem is purely behavioral, and he has learned that the behavior allows him to get out of work, if only for a few moments.
7. It is my fault - I take my phone out too often to video tape, so he has developed this habit from the lack of attention I am paying when I video.
8. Gallon needs a mental break from all of the work we have been doing.
9. Maybe there is a systemic problem, maybe Gallon has gastric ulcers and needs to be treated for them.
10. Gallon has become sour because my schedule has changed. While I used to come in the morning for his exercise and the evenings for his blanketing and graining, I now have to come in the evening for everything since I started a new job in January.
Some of these thoughts were brief and I quickly passed over as either not likely or just not Gallon. I began working on changing our routine to see what I could change to make things better for both Gallon and I. I stopped videoing altogether for awhile. I tried swapping between regular lunging, lunging with a neck stretcher, and using Equibands, as well as lunging in different arenas and using the round pen instead of having Gallon on the line. I made note of if he was better one the days where I could exercise him in the mornings. I tried incorporating ground poles to change things up, and tried adding in more liberty work to stimulate his mind. Every time we went back to any form of lunging on the line, the stopping and pivoting behavior would rear it's head.
I struggle with how often to be lunging Gallon because I know that movement on a lunge circle is not natural and puts unnecessary torque on the joints and skeletal system, since horses usually do not bend through the lunge circle, but rather, lean in. However, in conjunction with those concerns, since he can currently only be ridden 1-2x per week at best, I struggle with other ways to exercise him. I would love to try ground driving so I could keep him on straighter lines.
At one point in early February, Gallon had a bit of edema on the left-side of his face, between his left nostril and mouth. My vet agreed that it was just a bug bite of some sort, but I wondered if this made him sour towards lunging as well - I made sure not to put a bit in his mouth until the bug bite was gone.
Also in early February, Gallon came up more lame in the right hind than what is usual for him. I ended up having my vet out to assess Gallon on February 13th, and she found that he was very sore in his right hind and SI. This was proof enough for me to believe that being uncomfortable was causing his behavior, but then, for how long had he been uncomfortable? Since January, even though he had seemed quite sound? We started Gallon on a course of Bute for 7 days, and afterwards, he seemed in much better spirits and more happy to work. Our last 2 lunge sessions have been fantastic, he has been keen to working and hasn't gotten sticky once. We went for our first ride in 3 weeks yesterday, and Gallon was so happy to be out and working under saddle.
I don't know exactly what Gallon tweaked, but my current thought is that it happened while he was in his stall playing with his neighbor, Ghost. They were rearing up and spinning the day before Gallon came up lame. Rearing is a challenge for Gallon, something he couldn't even physically do when he arrived in Davis in Fall 2017. I would not be surprised if he made himself incredibly sore, to the point where he was a bit off. It also makes sense because a few things coincide on Gallon's timeline - His lunge line pivoting behavior and when Ghost arrived at the barn.
I am not sure if there was ever one answer to this mystery. Probably not. This post was more than anything a reflection for Gallon and I, for what we have been working through the past 2 months together. If you made it to here, thank you! I really find it important for me as a human being and as a horsewoman to debrief the events that happen with my horse. Looking back, I feel I can always find moments were I could have been better. By reflecting, I can ensure I will continually become a better horsewoman.