When good horses go bad

Mallory Anderson and her horse, Amira.

To be misunderstood is one of the most difficult challenges to encounter in life.  When you can’t speak for yourself, to explain what is going on, it can have disastrous results. The following is a true story about a horse and a family that just occurred this past year. 

The Anderson family has always been very involved with the local 4-H and animals. Their young daughter, Mallory, was a typical 9-year-old  “horse-crazy” girl. All Mallory wanted to do was to be around and ride horses, 24 hours a day. She had taken many riding lessons with me and became quite proficient in riding horses. The time had come to find her a horse of her own to ride and show.

As clients of mine, we went about to find her the perfect horse.  I had a friend who had a gorgeous flea-bitten grey Arabian mare that his granddaughter used to ride, but she was going off to college so the mare became available.  The mare, looking more like a mystical unicorn than a horse with her white mane and free-flowing tail, amd gorgeous face with dark eyes, became love at first sight for Mallory.  

This beautiful grey Arabian mare was 12 years old and had already produced champion offspring. She was a nice riding horse who liked a lot of attention.  Mallory fell instantly in love.  It was a dream come true, or so we all thought. 

The horse came to my training stable so that Mallory and Amir Image GCA – known as “Amira,” could bond and be trained together by me.  The mare’s show training and conditioning began immediately and she began to learn how to be a more proficient hunter show horse, rather than just a casual riding horse.  Many hours were spent teaching foundational basics to both the horse and to Mallory. 

Mallory was bonding with Amira and they were becoming a team.  We were impressed watching this sweet and gentle mare work with Mallory and, even more so, when we watched Mallory’s 5-year-old brother, Bryer, ride this kind and calm horse as well. Then, it all started to change. 

When Amira came to our facility, one of the first things we did was schedule a visit with the veterinarian dentist specialist.  Horses’ teeth need to be attended to each year and floated if necessary. Floating means to take a dental instrument and file down the rough edges so that they don’t cut into the horse’s mouth, especially when they are carrying a bit. Many horses that misbehave when being ridden are just acting out of pain because their mouth hurts from these sharp points cutting the inside of their mouth.

The dentist went over Amira’s mouth and adjusted her teeth and found a slightly loose, angled, large molar in the furthest back part of her mouth. The dentist informed us that this tooth should be looked at in the spring and if it continued to be loose and angled it would eventually cause her great amounts of pain, because of a potential abscess or food being packed around it causing pressure and decay. We agreed and scheduled an appointment for the spring. 

Soon, the trouble began. Amira no longer would greet you at the door of her stall, she would stand at the back. She started to jump and shy away from normal things that never bothered her before. She started to scream and kick her stall violently every day. She lost a great deal of weight even though we fed her more. 

 The once sweet-tempered, calm mare was gone and was replaced with an angry, aggressive, spooky and jumpy horse. We all were taken by surprise. This “child’s horse” became a challenge for adults to now control. Mallory was emotionally crushed, her dream horse it seemed had turned into a nightmare. 

 As an equine behaviorist I knew something was terribly wrong. Horses do not change personalities just because. There had to be a reason, a reason we couldn’t see.  Horses in the wild are prey animals. They must hide their injuries as best they can to survive.  Horses are reactive to pain and pressure. Pain and pressure can cause a an otherwise normal horse to act wild and unpredictable. I knew we needed to look for the pain.

We started by examining her from the hoofs up. Everything was checking out, until we watched her take a treat from Mallory. As Amira ate the treat she became more and more agitated and jumpy. Could it be her back molar, the one that the dentist warned us about?  Could just the pain in her mouth turn a calm horse into an unpredictable, angry, aggressive horse? 

We called out the dentist again and she agreed. The pain in Amira’s head could be so intense that she would do anything to try and run away from the pain, including acting dangerous or violent. 

The problem was that this was a large molar. The dentist could not easily remove the tooth. The tooth went into her jaw at least three inches in depth, so she would need a surgical team to remove it in a hospital. 

We hoped desperately this was the cause of the personality change in the mare. So, Amira was taken to a veterinary specialist hospital where they removed the tooth under sedation, in the surgical suite. We all held our breath, could this be the cause of the drastic personality change in Amira? We would know soon.

We had to change her diet for 10 days to all soft food, put her on antibiotics due to the infection under the tooth and give her pain medication. Then we waited. 

Within a week, the mare started to come to the front of her stall again, the screaming in her stall and kicking the wall for no reason ended. She started to come up to Mallory again begging for attention. This was the horse we had all fallen in love with last year. 

To see the drastic personality change in a horse, due to pain, is phenomenal! Think of the worst toothache you have ever experienced and then not be able to tell or do anything about it. You would feel the throbbing each day, every time you ate, drank or exercised and it would never stop. You would definitely feel angry, depressed or desperate.  

The only way for Amira to communicate her pain was in the way she reacted. She became a different animal because of the constant throbbing pain. We removed the pain and Mallory got her unicorn back.

 I can’t imagine what would have happened to this horse if we hadn’t looked for the pain. If we hadn’t checked, she would have ended up, unfortunately, like many other horses end up, labeled as a “dangerous unpredictable – untrainable” horse with an uncertain final fate, through no fault of their own.  

Always look for the unseen with horses. They are excellent at hiding pain and soreness and replacing it with fear, spookiness and aggression. Remove the pain and remove the problem. Happy Trails!

LORI RICIGLIANO is a horse judge, trainer, riding instructor, equine photographer and clinician. She also hosts a weekly syndicated equine radio talk show “Hoof Beats with Lori.” Lori has held her horse judges license as a USEF / AHA — “R” rated licensed horse judge for more than 25 years and currently operates Ricigliano Farms Horse Training and Riding Academy near Kent, Minn. She can be reached by email or phone at 218- 557- 8762 or riciglianofarms@gmail. com. Her website is www. RiciglianoFarms.com.

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