Putting The Puzzle Together To Solve Behavioral Issues

Apr 14, 2022 - 2:57 PM

If there’s one thing I don’t like about horses, it’s that when things go south, there’s almost never a clear answer as to why. It’s like putting together a puzzle, and suddenly there are five different pieces that might fit into the next spot to make things come together again, but you’re going to have to actually try each and every piece before you find the right one. 

This comparison brings me to how things have been going with Azul for the past few months. She settled into her new digs like a champ, with several perfect lessons and rides. Then, about a week after her arrival, she started to say “no” when asked to pick up the canter. It started as a small reaction, and increasingly, her voice became louder. 

Cue the search for the puzzle piece to remedy the situation. What is something I needed to change with my riding? Was it back pain? Was it ulcers? Was she just testing boundaries as a baby? 

Azul face
Horses may sometimes present a puzzle, but as Azul demonstrates, they can still be cute while doing it. Photos Courtesy Of Sophie Coffey

We brought out the vet to do a workup, but nothing definitive was found. We decided to start with a round of Robaxin to see if things improved. And yes, things did seem to improve. She participated in some on-site clinics and was a superstar. She went offsite for a weekend field trip and again, superstar. The puzzle piece seemed to fit, much to my elation. Was there sometimes still a touch of snark in an upward transition to the canter? Sure, but nothing more than a head toss or an enthusiastic first stride. 

Then, our progress derailed. Azul became super heavy in the bridle, almost to the point of being bridle lame. The next day, she had some swelling in her cheek and throat latch area, but was otherwise fine with a normal temperature. The cause? The new spring grass gave her a case of Grass Mumps (yet another wonderful horse illness I never knew existed until now). Fortunately, this puzzle piece proved to be straightforward: We put her on Zyrtec and took her off the field for a few days to get things quickly under control. Back to work we went! 

Azul jump
Sophie Coffey and her mare Azul are finding their stride together despite some challenges.

Only now, her canter was getting sticky again, and she had picked up another bad habit of planting her feet by the in-gate and refusing to move forward towards the middle/end of her rides. So maybe mild back pain from an increased training load wasn’t the piece we were looking for, maybe it was just a coincidental improvement while she happened to be on it.

Back to the puzzle we went, going to the next possible reason: ulcers. While I didn’t see it at first, this piece actually makes the most sense. She’s always had the odd habit of standing like a gelding who needs to pee once you dismount, which is something I learned could be a sign of tummy trouble. She has a bit of a dull coat, and is a bit of a picky eater. She also only really starts to say “no” once you’ve been riding for a while, which makes sense if her stomach has been sloshing around more and more as you go. 

So now, we’re trying an ulcer treatment piece. She’s starting a round of Gastrogard (sorry wallet) and will then transition to a maintenance supplement. She’s already getting around 17 hours of turnout on nice grass (remember the mumps?) with hay also thrown out in the field, and free choice hay while she’s in the stall, so that base is already covered. I’m truly hopeful that once she’s gone through her regimen, she’ll be the happy willing lady I tried in Florida. 

Sophie trot
Sophie Coffey gives her mare Azul a good-girl pat after a jump school.

But I’m also braced for the possibility that this won’t be the right piece. If we’re wrong, then we’ll need to go back to saddle fit, or get the dentist out again (who was just out a month ago), or any other one of the myriad of potential pieces, before we find out what’s going on.

If only horses could help us put the puzzle together in a more direct way. If only they could point to the right piece and say, “It’s that one!” or better yet, just tell us what they’re feeling. Instead, they show resistance that could be one of so many things, or maybe just a symptom of something else entirely. So we sort out which pieces might be the best fit, and then try them one by one until we’re sure enough to keep moving forward. 


Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur, and is currently teaching her baby warmblood mare Azul the ropes. She resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her fully indoctrinated horsey husband and several kitties. Follow her adventures between posts on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.

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