"The Relativity Of Soundness" - Between Rounds with Anne Gribbons
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The Relativity Of Soundness
March 6, 2009 Issue
Our columnist believes that technology shouldn’t be the only tool employed in the decision to purchase a horse.
In January, I read the fabulous story “Graf George—What I Remember” (Jan. 30, p. 33), written by Dr. Paul McClellan, the long-time treating veterinarian for all of the horses belonging to Dick and Jane Brown and ridden by Guenter Seidel.
Having just helped Graf George, Guenter’s first Olympic mount, to move from this earth to greener pastures, Dr. McClellan tells us about the long and fascinating relationship he had with this horse. It’s a beautiful and also a realistic and fulfilling tale about taking risks and having faith and passion overcome real and imaginary obstacles.
Particularly interesting to me is the story of George’s physical state at the time of purchase and during his career.
Graf George, or just “George” as he’s referred to in the story, had already put on considerable mileage when he and Guenter met. He had been to one Olympic Games with his original trainer, Michael Poulin, and then worked with another rider in between.
Dr. McClellan described in touching terms the excitement and happy anticipation obvious in Dick and Jane when they presented him with their new hopeful acquisition. The veterinarian started by examining George’s feet and found them pleasing.
Unfortunately, anything above the hoof had “issues” galore, such as ringbone, enlarged suspensories and an unusual knot on the side of his right knee. But Dr. McClellan wasn’t discouraged, because he had already noticed the boldness, determination and brilliance in the eyes of this gray gelding, and he knew the horse had the will to overcome the odds against him of going to another Olympics.
The road there was by no means easy, and maintenance was a priority. Obviously, the magic worked, because George and Guenter qualified to participate in the 1996 Olympic selection trials in Gladstone, N.J. In the middle of those trials, George was shipped off to New Bolton Center (Pa.) with a severe case of colic. He didn’t have surgery, and in the end he made the Atlanta team, but it was a close call, and the most perfect set of legs would have been of no value if his digestive system hadn’t responded to treatment.
So many times when I’m involved in a pre-purchase exam at either end of the spectrum of sellers or buyers, it becomes obvious to me how futile and sometimes frustrating those events are.
We are really fooling ourselves if we think a “clean” vetting will lead to a career free of physical problems or even guarantee that the horse will live to see another day. What Dr. McClellan saw in George when he looked at him was not his weaknesses, but, instead, his potential strengths. And that aspect is often overlooked or pushed into the background when we try to protect ourselves from future problems.
Many years ago, when I first started buying horses from Europe, I would ask the seller for X-rays, and sometimes the reaction was violent.
In particular, the breeders who had lived with the young horse for years and seen him every day since his birth would balk at this requirement. They took it as a personal insult, and on several occasions the issue of X-rays would put a stop to the sale.
Although I argued all the reasons for my point of view, I knew in my heart that they were not wrong. For years, I found myself turning down perfectly sound horses—who remained sound for long careers— because of “bad” navicular pictures.
At that time, many American veterinarians were used to examining the images of Thoroughbred feet and were not familiar with the warmblood “look,” and therefore they were cautious. Even today, however, I find that when a potential buyer gets cold feet and wants to drop the ball, it’s always the navicular bones that get blamed.
How many times have we gone over an ailing horse with a fine-tooth comb and not been able to find what’s wrong, or found it only when it’s too late to fix the problem? And sometimes not at all.
Quite often those are just the same horses who pass their pre-purchase exam with flying colors. After that they are no good to anybody.
Some horses are what I call “excuse horses,” never really fit for action because they have a new little problem every day. They are too light for heavy work and too heavy for light work. No radiographs will protect you against that kind of horse, because they are allergic to effort and have “work avoidance” down to an art form.
The Heart Of The Matter
It’s the other kind of horse that makes the grade and wins your heart, the George kind of horse who overcomes his physical shortcomings and belies all of our dire predictions.
I have been privileged to meet several of those noble animals, and every one of them makes me grateful for the experience.
My very first Grand Prix horse was one of those special creatures. His name was Tappan Zee; he was a Thoroughbred by Royal Charger, and he had two huge bowed tendons from racing to win. Not only did he change careers, allow me to train him to Grand Prix, get to selection trials at Gladstone, earn a USDF gold medal and allow me to enjoy numerous wonderful events on his back, he also did it unconditionally.
At 19, Tappan fell in his stall during the night and broke his pelvis. We found him in the early morning, fighting to get up. His efforts had steamed up the windows, and he was soaking wet. While waiting for the veterinarian, he finally put his head in my lap and died.
I was too young and inexperienced then to know what a rare, brave and generous animal I was losing, but I know it well today.
We have had school horses with impossible conformation, legs like corkscrews, and I would hate to know what radiographs might have revealed. They made up for all of that with a never-failing work ethic and a will to succeed. For years and years they did their jobs and were never lame or cranky.
In the meantime, we had some show horses with near-perfect conformation, wonderful potential and all of the care and maintenance in the world, who could never get through the day without complaints.
I understand what Dr. McClellan saw in George’s eyes, which overcame whatever he observed in his body. That keen look of eagles and the body language that spells pride and energy should mean as much to us as images of bone and conformational flaws. In the case of George, and several horses of his elk that I’ve met, the spirit and will (and sometimes a high pain threshold) combine to overcome the science.
Today the technology is so advanced that every deviation from the “norm” can be detected with radiographs, ultrasound and blood tests, and you can pick a horse apart before he even takes a step out of the barn. These tests often override the original purpose of searching for that right horse.
I have seen people walk away from the equine that would have fit right into their picture of what they wanted because of a shadow on cellophane that may have been an artifact.
Taking risks is almost disallowed in our American society. Everything must be so “safe” that our instincts are rubbed out in the name of proper procedure.
Well, the fact of the matter is that life itself is a dangerous business, and chances are pretty great you will die from it. Just like people, some horses can rise above it all and beat the odds. If you think you can see that quality in a horse, and dare to bet on him, you may not end up at the Olympics, but you could be in for the ride of your life.
Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.
Why would a lawsuit happen unless everything was not disclosed? Everyday is a crapshoot. You work hard to condition the horse properly and provide a safe environment, but still things happen. Life happens! An excellent article. Thanks for sharing. Peg
That was one of the best articles I've read in a long while. I agree with everything she's written. I've noticed that most people looking for a horse do not want to consider an older horse, because they want their horse to last for many, many years and figure that with the older horse, they have only a few good years to enjoy him.
I agree as well. Two years ago I bought a (then) 17 year old horse. I did not do radiographs. He was working consistently and sound, and we could not get him to show unsoundness on the flexions.
Last year he had what turned out to be a stone bruise, but I had the vet x-ray the foot just to be sure. For the heck of it, I had him x-ray the other front foot as well. I fully expected to see changes. Lo and behold, both front feet and fetlocks were very clean.
The horse is now 19, and shows no sign of slowing down. He'll probably be ridden well into his 20's.
Amateur rider, professional braider.
Save a life, adopt a pet.
Totally agree with the article as well. canyonoak has a point regarding the effect of a litigious society but I also think some of the reason for the trend toward ever increasing pre-purchase ordeals is the influx of "new owners". People getting into sport horses seem to want everything, a young horse, big, lots of show miles, good temperament, spotless pre-purchase...and cheap.
I have noticed that parents almost never want to buy older horses for their kids anymore, they want something they can re-sell in a few years and maintain or increase their "investment". Horses and investment are words that just do not belong in the same sentence.
People bemoan the lack of schoolmasters but exactly how many people are prepared to take on older horses with maintenance issues.
I love cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food.
I took a risk and bought a horse who's price had been dropped because of Xrays. Yeah, she'll need maintenance sooner rather than later. But for a very cheap price, I got a lovely, rideable, sweet and talented mare. At low price points, something will be compromised. So many people compromise on anything but soundness and end up with unrideable horses anyway.
Horses and investment are words that just do not belong in the same sentence.
LOL, my dad told me that years ago.
I figure, if I need to retire my Niki early, at least I have a friendly, likeable pretty mare to stick in a pasture.
My friend just prepurchased a young mare and chose not to buy her after they found an OCD, but not entirely because of the OCD... The very (I stress VERY) poor attitude and distasteful dealings with the owners on the day of the PPE made her decide to walk away. Everything was kosher until then... and now there may be a lawsuit because of the seller's continued harassement of her over the past week over the PPE.
When I bought my first horse, he did not flex clean on one leg (turned out he trotted out of the slight uneveness) and my vet said to take xrays JIC, but otherwise he looked fantastic. Probably just a little "bleh" from the long trailer-in. BUT the owner dropped the price for me right there, and said he would pick him up the next day at no cost to me if the xrays were not clean.
I have no qualms about going reasonable with the number of xrays,especially with a good history, but it's the sellers that make the difference in the end for me!
Becky & Red
In Loving Memory of Gabriel, 1998-2005 and Raalph, 1977-2013
GREAT article!! I've had horses at both ends of the spectrum (and some in between). The wonderful, never lame PSG horse who when vet checked the buyers' vet said, "I don't understand how this horse is still standing, let alone doing his job." The hot-house flower who passed his $1000.00 vet check with flying colors who was "work allergic" with a myriad of problems...never the same leg or area which was just a treat. BUT, then there was the young TB that a vet did find something in the x-rays which he felt compelled to tell me about but then said I should buy the horse anyway (seller's vet....I know, I know)....never should've bought that one. Vet covered his butt but made sure the sale went through, horse developed intermittent issues later. It's tough to know for sure... The ones with that "heart" though, too bad there's not a vet check for that, just a "gut check".
The funny thing is, agreeing with what ToN Farm said, that if people were to buy an older horse they'd probably be in better shape anyway. An older horse that has had a career and is sound has proven he can hold up. If he's still happy and ready to go every morning, he's also proven his heart and desire. Instead, people want the young horse with the miles… hmmm, not logical. That horse hasn't proven himself over time and may have been worked with too much, too young to get the record people are dying to see to buy him.
Truth is, finding a horse with no problems at all is virtually impossible. I remember horse shopping when I was a kid and my instructor would take us to see horses out of our budget. She said that if we found one we wanted, and vetted him/her thoroughly enough, we'd find our negotiation points. There's no perfect horse by the numbers; aside from obvious, limiting physical issues, it's truly what's in their hearts and minds that makes a good horse great.
What an excellent article. The truth is that "horses can't read x-rays."
Instead of veterinary diagnostic tools, the risk averse purchaser should rely much more on common sense. To me, the fact that a horse is currently doing what the purchaser wants him for is a much better predictor of soundness. The best possible situation is when the purchaser has seen, or knows someone else who has seen, the horse over an extended period.
A purchaser should be wary, of course, of horses that have been "layed up" for any reason for any significant period of time or those that have not been doing what the purchaser wants to do with him. Young horses are a risk on many different levels--that's why they are less expensive, not more.
When you've been around a while, you collect all sorts of stories about horses that couldn't pass a prepurchase, but then finally succumbed to something else that was not revealed by the pre-purchase examination.
"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain" ~Friedrich Schiller
I don't think that people are turning down imperfect horses for the "bad" reasons Gribbons and others have suggested.
It's not that Americans just want a damned guarantee for everything.
It's also not that they will back that up with a lawsuit that will cost them plenty to pursue.
It's that they know they will spend lots of money, time, effort and love on any horse they buy. Good horsemen know that perfect conformation and great, long careers don't correlate, but it makes no sense to play an odds game when it's so expensive to do so.
I know sellers want deals to work, and that it's frustrating to be subjected to the standards of fussy would-be owners. Before you blame them for being risk-averse or just ignorant, recognize that they will end up losing and regretting their mistake of not being conservative in their PPEs if they don't.
The soundest horse I ever bought had no PPE aside from the flexion tests my friend and I did on her in the yard. Her game, business-like look, her survival on the track and then in this guy's rather poor field also figured into my evaluation of her. She taught me the important lesson described in this article, but I had to see the horse for myself to make the call. I'm happy because now I *know* that I can see that "sound look" in a horse's demeanor and to factor it into any PPE.
Yes but what are you supposed to do when you have one set of pictures and 5 vets (2 FEI) say no problem "not clinically significant in warmbloods" to quote one vet and 2 vets go I would not ever touch the horse and one vet says ok maybe he will develop a problem that will require maintenance years from now?
All the vets are fairly well know, all are looking at the same x-rays so what are they seeing that is so flipping different. I am not sure how the interpretation of the x-rays can vary so widely??
The horse in questions passed one of the toughest flexion tests I have ever seen, him passed the thermography, ever other joint in his body was perfect. He is only coming 4 in June and has never taken a lame step in his life nor suffered any major injuries. He has been in steady work for 8 months now and still is fine.
What should I do with this gelding? Still attempt to sell him? Donate him to a college program or a research program?
That's also what I heard from manyyyyyyyyyyyyy insiders.
But I would add "lack of real knowledge"
AG is completely right in her article. I have even seen many very good horses (with remarks on their X-rays) sold to the UK, Japan, Scandinavia etc... and they lived happily ever after and made it to the Olympics safe and sound.
Ultimately, it is the buyer's money and their decision. If the seller doesn't like the outcome of the PPE and the decision that the buyer makes; oh well.
I know how much risk I am willing to assume for the money that I'm willing to spend on a horse. It is my decision to make. I recently passed on a 4 year old that the PPE put at a grade one lameness on one hind leg. Given the price and the fact that I'm already paying board on one gimpy gelding, I passed. Yes, it may have been something he outgrows but given my situation I was not willing to take that risk. Yes, I realize that I may have passed on a great horse and that's a risk I was willing to take. The bottom line is that it was my decision and I'm willing to live with it.
If buyers in the US suffer from a "lack of real knowledge", it is equally fair to say that sellers frequently suffer from a lack of any knowledge of the buyer's situation and perspective.
I find it very hard to believe that the number of lawsuits involving purchases of horses is anything close to significant. Yeah, there are a couple of high profile ones but it's the exception and not the rule.
Good horsemen know that perfect conformation and great, long careers don't correlate, but it makes no sense to play an odds game when it's so expensive to do so.
In fact, I think it is related. What is the problem is our conception of conformation.
Conformation is often being viewed as another word for "pretty" while TRUE FUNCTIONAL conformation is NOT necessarily pretty!
Heck, have you seen a conformation shot of Baloubet du Rouet? He's NOT a pretty horse! Yet, he is at the top of the game. Apparently, his conformation is PERFECT for the job and he is SOUND. Otherwise, he would become too costly to keep at the top or he would simply be crippled.
Same with Salinero. Goodness, that's one ugly horse!
Perfect functional conformation is the key to success and that, no PPE will tell it. It is up to us, riders, breeders and buyers, to educate ourselves on the REAL definition of a good conformation.
One of the best horses I ever owned went so lame during the flexions that I asked the vet to please stop, don't hurt him, I'm going to buy him anyhow. With some corrective shoeing he became sound again, and he never took another lame step, and went on to make it to FEI, and I wouldn't trade the time I had with that horse for the world.