Monday, July 20, 2009

For the Good of the Horse

Given the way the economy is going, I'm lucky to have a job that I love - heck, I'm lucky to have a job, period. And part of my job is selling saddles, and the shop I work for sells a lot of 'em - over 800 every year. And I do understand that it's in the shop's best interest (and by extension, in my best interest) to sell saddles. But sometimes the "retail" me takes a back seat to the horsewoman that I've been for 48 years ...

We had a very interesting client today: a 4 yr. old Morgan gelding named Lucky. His owner had contacted me about a month ago to initiate the saddle fitting process. Lucky is a bit of a special case, however: he has severe scoliosis (a side-to-side curve in the spine) from an injury that occurred when he was a foal. I consulted with Lucky's vet, and we both agreed that two things were critical: to keep the pressure off his spine, and to accommodate Lucky's asymmetries and balance the saddle as well as possible. I also was very happy to have Edie here for this one - her husband, Reggie Tschorn, DVM, is an equine vet who is an absolute whiz with lameness and soundness issues, and she's spent many, many hours learning from him. She's my "go-to" when there's some kind of soundness or gait issue that I just can't pinpoint, and I was really eager to get her input with Lucky.

Anyway, here's our boy, with green tape marking the spots where we took his template:

And here are two photos that really show the scoliosis:

Whether he's looking left or right, there's a definite spinal curve to the left. As a result, most saddles fall off to the left side. This is problematic, obviously: while the scoliosis will always be there, correct and symmetrical muscle development will help keep Lucky stronger, sounder and happier, but if the saddle's always sliding off to one side, that's going to be tough to develop. And while his owner will be using him primarily for a carriage horse, she would like to be able to do a little dressage and trail work.

Armed with the info from Lucky's vet, Edie and I had brainstormed on his needs, and had formed some basic ideas: hoop tree, wool flocking, and serge panels - the Equinox, Eloquence X or Vinici X came to mind. When Lucky arrived, we watched him go around on the longe line, and noticed that there was a definite problem with the right hind leg, and the stifle looked like the culprit - he was short-strided on that leg, and when he went to the right, his right hind swung up under his belly rather than tracking straight ahead. Given that his injury came from getting hung up by the right hind leg on a fence he'd tried to jump, a compromised stifle didn't seem at all out of the question. His conformation and tracings backed up our initial saddle choices, so we went upstairs to put his owner in some saddles.

Unfortunately, none of our initial picks suited Lucky's owner, so we tried a Summit - it's built on a hoop tree, and I thought if that saddle worked, we could always order it with serge panels. When we tried the Summit on Lucky, it fit as well as I'd hoped. His owner decided to try that, and a Bates Caprilli with CAIR panels (which wasn't as good a fit, but was certainly in the "acceptable" realm and was more comfortable for his owner).

As we were watching Lucky trot around the indoor under saddle, Edie said, "Do you hear that?"

Every few strides, there was a sort of "pong" noise - think of plucking the string on a bass fiddle that's had a pillow stuffed inside it. (In all honesty, I'd thought something had dropped on the roof of the indoor when I first heard it - it was quite jarring). But as Lucky trotted, the "pong" became more and more regular, and seemed to happen when the right hind was swinging up.

"I've never heard that before," his owner said, "but I've never ridden him in an indoor before. It could be that we were just never in the right conditions for me to hear it."

The more he trotted, the more he "ponged." Switching directions and changing saddles did nothing to correct the "pong", and while Lucky was trotting around gamely, he was still short on the right hind, and something obviously wasn't right.

Edie and I discussed what we were seeing. We both felt that there was some soundness issue besides the scoliosis that needed to be addressed ... but was the issue caused by the scoliosis, was the scoliosis aggravated by the issue, was it the stifle, or was it something else entirely? Given that there were so many unknowns, we began questioning the validity of trying to find a saddle for Lucky - at least at this point in time.

Edie (who is utterly brilliant when it comes to broaching potentially painful issues) brought up the subject of doing further diagnostics on Lucky to see precisely what soundness issue(s) besides the scoliosis needed to be dealt with before going further with the saddle quest. She and I both felt that the right stifle needed a thorough examination, and Edie also suggested some spinal radiographs. As she put it, "We'd love to sell you a saddle, but we'd hate to have it turn out to be the worst thing we could have done to your horse. Let's find out for sure that he's sound enough to carry weight on his back before we go further."

Lucky's owner agreed that further diagnostics would be a very good idea. She's had Lucky from the time he was foaled, and obviously loves him very much (and it shows - he's a real sweetheart and a joy to be around). If he's sound enough to carry weight, then we have a good handle on what his (and his owner's) fitting needs are. If not, Lucky will still be a great carriage horse and wonderful companion, and won't have been subjected to the pain of carrying a rider when he shouldn't have.


Melissa said...

I'd love to hear what the noise turned out to be - if lucky's owner doesn't mind. I wonder if there is a partial upward fixation of that patella - it causes a dull 'thunk' when it lets go. Good on you to be forthright with the owner!

saddlefitter said...

Thanks for the kind words. I know there are people out there who'll sell a saddle no matter what, but I prefer to be able to sleep at night ...

We sort of thought the same thing might be the culprit. If we ever find out, I'll post about it.

Zion-St. John Lutheran School said...

How did everything turn out for the horse? I'm wondering if my TB has the same problem (scoliosis, possibly not sound enough to carry weight) as this horse. At any rate, I learned a lot from reading this post. Thank you for your informative posts!

saddlefitter said...

Unfortunately, we never heard back from Lucky's owner, so we don't know how things turned out. But I promise I'll let you all know if I ever hear.

Zion, thanks for the kind words - glad you find the blog helpful. I'm sure a good vet and / or equine chiro could address your concerns about your horse. Good luck!