Wednesday, May. 29, 2024

The Relativity Of Soundness

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.

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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.

Disappointing Results

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.

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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.

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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 ilk 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


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.

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