Few things are worse than having a Not Quite Right (NQR) horse. The horse who is never lame but also never fully performing at the level you know they’re capable of. Maybe they always start a little hitchy and work out of it. Maybe they are great for weeks at a time, and then one day no longer want to move forward; it lasts for a few days, and then all is well again. They never stop at the jumps or pin their ears getting tacked up, but they’re also never totally happy in their work.
The NQR horse usually looks fine from the ground, and may even feel fine to other people, but you—and maybe you alone—know something is NQR. You know they could be looser in their backs and push more with their butt. You can feel them ever so slightly guard themselves in the turns or tense up through their neck. You know their resistance is not just behavioral.
There are the vets who come out and give their best guess, but who can’t really see anything in a normal lameness evaluation. You get the horse scoped; you give them omeprazole and sucralfate. You read articles online about issues that mirror their symptoms—maybe it’s their stifles, or their sacroiliac joint. There are the trainers who say the horse is just being stubborn, is testing you, is an adolescent who pushes back. You know everyone is just doing the best they can, but you also know the answer is still out there.
These horses can go for months, or even years, just getting by the best they can. It takes a lot of digging (and dollars) to come up with a reason for their slightly sub-par performance. Then there’s the old saying of if you go looking for “something” hard enough, you’re going to find “something”—some stones are better left unturned.
But some stones need to be turned. Even if the end diagnosis is the last one you want to hear.
And so, after taking my young mare Azul to a top lameness practice, I was able to finally get the answer I had sought for the better part of the year: Azul, very unfortunately, has a right hind proximal suspensory injury. It took a bone scan to diagnose. Even though she’s young, the vets don’t think it’s degenerative or genetic in nature. It was probably a small acute injury from slipping or playing in the field, probably way back in February, maybe even longer ago than that, which gradually, almost imperceptibly, worsened. Azul was more than not quite right; she was downright injured.
As terrible as this diagnosis is to receive, I’m ultimately glad to be out of the NQR fog. It’s a place full of second-guessing, doubt and well-intentioned but ultimately incorrect advice. You feel like you’re crazy for sensing something nobody can even see, and you question your horsemanship.
The downsides to being out of the NQR fog? I feel tremendous guilt over working her with such an injury for so long. I try not to replay every missed distance or tap of the stick when I insisted she canter when she told me she would rather not. I’m also in a new fog, one surrounding my future with Azul. While the vet said she has a 70% chance for a full recovery, that also means there’s a 30% chance she won’t.
But I also have a solid rehab and treatment plan, and I’m no longer spinning in circles. I have a clear path forward, and I’m already traveling down it. As strange as it sounds, I’m happy to be making clear progress at least in some capacity.
The moral of the story? When your horse feels Not Quite Right, chances are, they’re not quite right. You know your horse the best. Fight for them. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re imagining it, and don’t stop until you get to the bottom of it. The quicker you can get out of the NQR fog, the better off you’ll both be in the long run.
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 on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.