The U Word?

After Tuesday’s bucking bronco debacle, I wasn’t too keen on putting a saddle back on Stella anytime soon. It was very obvious to me that there was something about it that she couldn’t tolerate, and I was really starting to second guess whether or not her new saddle really did fit her. In my heart of hearts I really didn’t believe that to be true. I’d been so careful about the fit, and had tried so many saddles that didn’t fit, I felt certain this one did. But the difference between “pony with saddle” and “pony without saddle” was so obvious, I started tentatively (and half-heartedly) thinking about another saddle shopping excursion.

Wylie hadn’t been at the barn the last time I’d lunged Stella, so I went back out on Wednesday so I could show her see how things were looking. While I groomed, Stella was definitely still showing signs of a sore stomach, swinging her head back with a stern look whenever I touched behind her elbows, or around her sternum. This gave me a little bit of hope about the saddle fit – there was still absolutely no pain anywhere along her back or loins.

I took her out without her saddle, and it was pretty obvious that the pain was not saddle-related. My poor pony, who had stunned me with her beautiful, forward, flowing trot the first time I met her, was now not even tracking up. She looked dejected, her eye seemed troubled, and she was short-strided and tight in front and behind. The way she was “holding” her belly (you could see her ab muscles working to try to keep the belly still) made it very clear. This was not saddle pain. This was a gut issue. Wylie said, “she’s getting weirder”. And that was the truth.

I took her temperature, pulse & respiration (all normal). She was eating, drinking and pooping. This was not colic. This could be… gulp… the dreaded U word. I fed her a treat (yes, I know. No treats for Stella. But if there was any time for an exception to the rule, this was it) and tucked her in. I felt horrible. It was killing me to see my pony in such pain.

Friday afternoon, the vet came. He did a quick examination (during which she almost bit him when he touched her sternum area). Not surprisingly, the pain response seemed as bad as, if not worse than the last time he’d seen her almost a week and a half earlier. If you recall, at that point, we’d suspected ovary pain, or some sort of heat-related issue. Obviously that was not the case.

He asked to see her lunged first without the saddle, then with. I brought her out to the arena and sent her out on the end of the lunge line. She immediately exploded and started bucking. So things had gotten worse (last time I lunged her without tack she was definitely not bucking). She also demonstrated her short-stridedness, as well as a new tendency she’d developed of, post-explosion, lowering her head and shaking it as she trotted along.

We took her back to her stall to put her saddle on (which almost killed me. I couldn’t believe I was doing the thing to her that hurt her most… again. But we had to get to the bottom of it, so I petted her, apologized, and did up the girth). She was obviously not happy with the process. I had a bad feeling about taking her back out into the arena tacked up. Nonetheless, off we went, me and my little trouper of a pony. As soon as I tried to move her out away from me, she spun to face me and started running backwards. This was not going to happen. I couldn’t bear it any longer. I looked at my vet and he said “Take the saddle off. I don’t need to see any more.”

When I took the saddle off, Stella seemed a little more comfortable, but she had a dull, pained look in her eye and she just seemed… tired. Like she was waaaaaay over this. I scratched her forehead and fussed with her forelock and ears and she leaned her head into me. It was time to fix this.

We started her right away on Gastroguard, an orally-administered paste which should reduce the production of stomach acid. According to my vet, if the issue really is ulcers, she should start to feel relief in about three days, with peak-effectiveness at the five day mark. As you can imagine, I’m counting down the hours until my pony starts to feel better. At this point, I’m actually hoping it is an ulcer, because at least then we can get to work on healing it. And if it’s not, then we don’t know what the heck it is, and I just need this pony’s pain to stop!

It used to be that people thought only race horses got ulcers. Now, however, there is quite a bit of research to show that they can be caused by as little as the act of exposing horses to weekend show conditions. If I think of all of the changes Stella has been through since I got her last summer, it really wouldn’t be surprising if she had developed one as well:

* For the first six years of her life she lived a low-stress life, mostly outside, with her herd

* Her first trip off her farm was a three hour trailer ride to a brand new barn, leaving her herd behind

* Three months later we moved to her current barn, including some fairly intense trailer loading training, another trailer ride, and another new herd of friends to get used to (plus, for the first time, being stabled at night and out in a paddock during the day)

* Her training started in ernest a month ago, when we finally found a saddle to fit her

* She moved to a new paddock a little over three weeks ago, with a new paddock mate and a new group of friends

This little mare has been through more changes in the past five months than many horses go through in years.  So if ulcers really can be brought on by stress and change, then it would be no surprise to find that she had one. I think that some horses are much more capable of handling changes than others, and having spent six years of her life with very few changes to begin with probably made it all the more traumatic for Stella. She is a surprisingly sensitive little horse, and it’s entirely possible that this was all just a little too much for her.

If ulcers are truly the problem, then it will become my mission in life to bring Stella along to her full potential with as little stress as possible. She will require constant, careful monitoring and some small adjustments to her lifestyle, but I know we’ll be able to make it work.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s had a horse with ulcers (success stories only, please – no nightmare scenarios!). What did you do to manage your ulcer-prone horse?

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