Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 2: Dentists, chiropractors and farriers, oh my!

I had quite an agenda for my new horse, Xcel, during the first few weeks I owned him. As it happened, I already had an appointment set to have all of my horses' teeth floated just a few days after I bought him. I have all of my horses' teeth checked and floated at least once a year. This was the first time I had used Dr. Julie Bullock, a veterinarian specializing in equine dentistry. Xcel again showed his racehorse manners.

As Dr. Bullock did her initial exam, Xcel pulled back in panic and reared. He had also done this with Dr. McClellan when she checked his eyes just a few days earlier. I do not view this type of behavior as intentional mis-behavior. This is a horse reacting in panic. He is afraid, unable to think, panics and pulls back. It is something I will need to work on. At any rate, Dr. Bullock said he had a typical racehorse float--just the first few molars had ever been floated. There was nothing significantly wrong. I thought Dr. Bullock did a very good job. She tranquilized each horse, used a speculum, a head rest and power floats. She did a regular float on Xcel and gave him a "bit seat."

One thing I had done just a few days after I bought Xcel, was to start him on a 10x Panacur® treatment. This is something that Dr. Judith Shoemaker recommends. She is a vet from Pennsylvania who specializes in chiropractic and acupuncture. This treatment involves giving the horse two doses of Panacur® paste wormer (fenbendazole) once a day for five days. This acts to boost the immune system and as a "gut astringent" as well as knocking the heck out of any parasites. I already had an appointment set up with Judith at the end of the month and wanted Xcel to finish the treatment before she saw him.

I hadn't even had Xcel two weeks yet but he had already calmed down a little. But any calmness went right out the window when we arrived at a local stable to meet Dr. Shoemaker. When I put Xcel in an empty stall he did a very strange thing. The stall was bedded with straw, but because it had not been in use, the straw was banked high on the sides with none in the middle. Xcel must really like straw a lot! Because as soon as I let go of him he literally dove headfirst into the straw and then began rolling with great enthusiasm. Then he jumped up and began bucking and kicking the wall. I don't know what was going through his mind, but every bit of his worst manners came out. He began walking in circles and every time there was a bit of noise or commotion, he began blasting the walls with his hooves.

Despite this behavior (and Dr. Shoemaker gets really bothered by unmannerly horses) she loved Xcel. She found him very smart and a fast learner as she has to teach horses a couple of things in order to do the adjustments. Judith loves Thoroughbreds and thinks they are smarter than other breeds. Chiropractically, she did not find anything drastically wrong with Xcel. She just did a few adjustments. She was concerned by Xcel's explosive and unmannerly behavior and thought that he could be quite dangerous if he didn't learn to control himself. I knew what she meant, Xcel was very energetic but I was quite surprised to see this behavior as he had not been nearly this bad at home. But he is a fast learner and I knew that he could improve quickly. I would just have to be careful as he is so smart he could easily learn bad things as well as good.

I continued to give Xcel Gentocin via his catheter and also B vitamin injections. At the end of two weeks his catheter was showing some wear and tear, as was the skin around it. Unfortunately, another blood test showed that his liver enzymes had not yet returned to normal so he would have to continue on the Gentocin for another two weeks. Dr. Waldron removed the catheter from the left side of his neck and put a new one in on the right side. I wished I could turn Xcel out with another horse and start really working with him but with the catheter in, I would have to wait.

Xcel had gained a little weight but really was not eating grain very well. He was very finicky and had refused oats and the corn, oats and barley mix my other horses eat. I was feeding him a high fiber sweet feed that was made of pellets and beet pulp. The high fiber would help him if he had an ulcer, which we suspected he did. I was also giving him a supplement called UL-Cerase and a probiotic called, Pro-Bi™ both of which are made by Advanced Biological Concepts®. He rarely cleaned up his grain though and many times barely touched it at all. I hoped eventually I could wean him off of sweet feed and just feed him plain grain. I do not normally feed my horses grain with molasses because I know it can make horses more nervous and tense. In fact my horse, Magic, is actually allergic to molasses. He is also allergic to corn so I feed him a mixture of oats, beet pulp, rice bran and a couple supplements. I tried giving Xcel beet pulp and rice bran but he wouldn't touch either one.

The next order of business for Xcel was to have him reshod. My farrier, Derek Poupard, has shod tons of racehorses. He specializes in "natural balance" shoeing. I had not done very much with Xcel's feet other than making sure he would pick them up for me but I had a feeling he may not stand well for Derek based on his manners thus far. 
Neither Derek nor I were surprised when Xcel kept rearing and pulling his front feet away. Many people would "get after" a horse for doing this. But as I saw it, Xcel had been literally taught to behave this way by being allowed to do so. I don't think he really knew that it was wrong to act like this. I don't think you can "get after" a horse for not knowing the rules. You have to inform them as to what the rules are first. This was my first chance to teach him how to behave for the farrier. The other thing is that Xcel does not know how to stay relaxed and still around people. So this was another chance to teach him that as well.

The first thing I did was to ask him to keep his head low. Xcel already is pretty good about lowering his head from pressure on the halter. I also talked to him and stroked him. This helped settle him for a moment. But then he sat back in an attempt to pull his foot away from Derek so I tapped him under his belly with a TTEAM wand (4 ft, white dressage whip) and told him to stand up. As soon as he did, I praised him. This helped quite a bit. I was making it clear to him, what was good behavior and what was not. But we were also dealing with the fact that Xcel still lacked the ability to hold still any time he was with a human. This lack of ability to hold still is not intentional misbehavior in my mind. It is nervousness and learned behavior which has become a habit. Xcel simply does not know what else to do with himself so he fidgets and tries to chew on everything.

I tried different Ttouches to help him relax for Derek. The first couple did not help though. Then I tried hair slides on his mane. Suddenly, Xcel's ears turned back toward me and he stopped fidgeting. Ah, ha! I thought. I continued the hair slides down his mane and he continued to stand well, focusing his attention on what I was doing instead of what the farrier was doing. Hair slides are very relaxing for many horses. What I did was to pickup a one-inch section of mane at the base and with firm pressure, pulled the hair straight up letting a couple inches of it slide through my fingers, then keeping the pressure on, I pulled the hair down in an arch to his neck and then laid it back down. I then picked up the next section of mane and repeated this staying in the middle portion of his neck. I continued this for several minutes and Xcel was able to stand still. I kept telling him what a good boy he was to make it clear that he was doing the right thing.

Derek commented on Xcel's calmer behavior. I showed him what I had been doing and he was amazed. Teaching Xcel to relax and to stand by doing hair slides is, to me, a more useful way of working with him than just punishing him for pulling away or moving around. In this way, I am laying the foundation for his ability to keep himself calm without my help. He did not stand completely still but he was much better. Derek said that he had pretty good feet, but that his soles were thin.

I was not in a hurry to do much training with Xcel. He was having to adjust to many things and, of course, he was really not very healthy. I think it is important with a horse off the track to give them several weeks to let down both physically and mentally. I did do some grooming and Ttouch with him. I found that he loved being groomed, sticking his upper lip out in pleasure nearly the whole time. The next thing I needed to focus on was Xcel's excessive mouthiness. It seemed he was always trying to grab the lead rope or anything else he could get hold of so he could chew on it. That was going to be quite a challenge!