The Case of the Feisty Pony, Suspect Saddle Fit and “NADs” All Around

Sue Dyson has many academic distinctions following her name — MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO …to name a few.

The “Sherlock Holmes of Sport Horse Discomfort” may be the most relatable way to think about this key player in the well-being of all horses.

As a case presenter in one of IGNITE’s recent Rehab Rounds, Dr. Dyson discussed using the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram to investigate a show jumping pony’s mysterious and increasingly feisty behavior.

The 11-year-old Connemara came to Dr. Dyson’s attention after previous extensive veterinary evaluations and diagnostics failed to pinpoint the cause of progressively difficult behavior.

The pony flitted his head erratically and would not hold the trot for more than a few strides without breaking into a canter.  Erratic gaits, signs of tension and reluctance to forward cues were additional clues.

This happened using five different saddles, all supervised by a certified master saddler, and with the pony’s child rider and a professional trainer.

“NADs” All Around

Dr. Dyson explained that a thorough veterinary assessment provided no conclusive answers.

A gastroscopy exam and radiography of the thoracolumbar region all returned “NADs” – no abnormalities detected.

There were no palpable abnormalities during a hands-on exam.

A whole-body bone scan did show a mild increased radiopharmaceutical uptake in the hocks and distal phalanges of the forelimbs, and between the 16 and 17 thoracic vertebrae.  The vet recommended medicating all these areas, but that did not affect the pony’s performance.

The pony’s owners and veterinarians were stumped.

This is where Dr. Dyson and the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram came in.

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram, aka “RHpE,” is a list of 24 behaviors, the majority of which are at least 10 times more likely to present in lame horses compared to non-lame horses. Generally, a horse exhibiting more than eight of these behaviors is likely in musculoskeletal pain, although some lame horses exhibit fewer than eight behaviors.

Published in the BEVA’s Equine Veterinary Education, in July 2022, the RHpE is a tool to help horse care providers, owners and others identify musculoskeletal pain even if the horse is not obviously lame.

That’s why the RHpE aligns perfectly with IGNITE’s mission of helping prevent injuries and prolonging sport horse careers.

Saddle as Primary Suspect

In the IGNITE Rehab Round, Dr. Dyson also referred to the RHpE as the “Performance Horse Checklist.” Applying the Ethogram accurately requires training and skill, but its existence helps everyone understand the diverse factors that affect a horse’s well-being and performance.

Dr. Dyson detected 9 of the RHpE’s 24 behaviors when evaluating the problematic pony.

Watching him trot, in-hand on hard ground, she detected very subtle right hind lameness, although the pony was moving rhythmically and without audible irregularities in his footfalls. Flexion of the right hind leg resulted in a lameness rating of 2 out of 8, although there’d been no lameness evident when lunged.

Saddle fit and its impact on the rider’s position were identified as key factors.  The tree points of the saddle were tight. Watching the pony trot away while ridden, Dr. Dyson noted that his saddle constantly slipped to the right. Normally a saddle may move slightly with relative symmetry to right and left.  Saddle slip is usually associated with hindlimb lameness.

The saddle sat perched on the withers and tipped backwards at the cantle, she observed. This put the rider’s weight on the back, or “caudal third,” of the saddle. Maintaining a balanced position in which the shoulder, hip and heels align was virtually impossible for the rider. Both the child rider and, later, the professional rider had to lean forward to compensate.

“This case highlights the influence of saddle fit for the horse’s comfort and balance,” Dr. Dyson said. “And its influence on the rider’s position and balance and ability to remain in synchronized movement with the pony.”

With a properly fitting saddle and an experienced rider, the pony’s behaviors improved markedly.

Never Just One Thing…

It would be convenient if a horse’s health or behavior issue could be attributed to one factor or solved with one treatment. But this is almost never the case, and it wasn’t with the Connemara.

In fact, with the well-fit saddle and well-balanced rider, the pony’s right-hind lameness became more obvious.

IGNITE’s Rehab Round with Dr. Dyson covered additional issues related to the pony’s case. These included the impact of rein tension, clues in the pony’s head tilt and ear position and diagnostic anesthesia to better identify the core discomfort — bilateral proximal suspensory desmopathy and a component of lumbosacroiliac joint region pain.

The case also illustrated the difficulty of recognizing subtle bilateral lameness.

A Tool For All

After Dr. Dyson’s presentation, veterinarians and physios with horse, human and even canine experience posed questions that expanded the Rehab Round conversation. Diagnostic and treatment methods were debated but there was complete consensus on one thing…

Everyone who cares about horses’ well-being can and should learn more about what affects their musculoskeletal health. Dr. Dyson’s Sherlock Holmes-level sleuthing skills are not needed to recognize many early pain indicators. The earlier they’re referred to an expert, the more likely they can be resolved.

“We should encourage riders, trainers and owners to use the performance horse checklist as a monitoring tool on a regular basis,” Dr. Dyson urged. “That would show signs that something is going wrong and needs to be investigated – sooner rather than later.”  This is also important during on-going management of a horse in which problems have been previously identified.

This Rehab Round session is currently accessible for free at IGNITE’s Rehab Rounds take place the last Thursday of every month (the next is April 25) and cover a broad range of topics.

IGNITE membership allows participation in upcoming live Rehab Rounds and access to all on-demand sessions, plus an extensive library of content focused on injury prevention, peak performance and longevity for equine athletes.

IGNITE is a platform for advancing leading-edge knowledge, evidence-based approaches and collaborative, proactive practices focused on injury prevention, peak performance and longevity for equine athletes. Five levels of membership provide access to in-person events and an extensive, constantly updated library of live and on-demand content.

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Media Contact: Kim F Miller

Photos available on request