Thursday, November 17, 2011

The nerve!.....

Apologies! I have been MIA due my father's ongoing health issues, mixed in with the usual family drama plus year end activities at work. I am slowly working towards getting caught up with what's going on with my blogger friends!


Over the last 6 months, three horses where I board have been "nerved", the most recent was done last Thursday. I have read a little about it and attitudes seem to be that it is an alternative to provide a pain-free life for some horses. I am all for pain-free. But for some reason, making a body part permanently numb sort of makes me nervous.

Nerving is a surgical procedure where the nerves at the back of the foot are severed, so the horse looses sensation thus eliminating pain and making the horse "sound" again. This procedure is a sort of last resort to give your horse a pain-free life. However, there can be complications like the nerves regrowing and the pain returning or infection or the horse sustaining an injury but being unaware of it. Once this procedure is done, the horse's feet have to be check daily to make sure that there are no punctures. The horse can't really feel the terrain under his feet while on a trail ride or galloping across a field, so injury from tripping is very real. Obviously, it is a controversial procedure.

The three horses that have been nerved where I board are all competitive horses; one in reining and other two in barrels and games. These disciplines require a lot of sharp turns, circles and speed. These horses are between 8-11 years of age.

The owner of Horse #1 was new to riding 3 years ago and decided he wanted to take up reining. He bought #1, a trained and proven reining horse, but stopped regular lessons. He decided that he would take a few clinics to hone his riding skills. Early fall last year, #1 came up lame. My understanding is that it was thought that it was because his shoes had just been pulled, but as the heels started to decompress, severe thrush was discovered and treated. The thrush started to clear up, but lameness continued. X-rays were done. Nothing was found to be wrong. Lameness continued. Then there was a weird bout of colic. #1 was given a nerve block, which helped but he came up lame again. At this point, #1 had been on rest for about 7 months. More X-rays, nothing conclusive. Soon after, the decision was made to have him "nerved".

The owner of Horse #2 had participated in riding camps as a young teenager and her parents bought her #2. She took lessons in barrel racing and competed locally at fairs. #2 did come up lame a few times over the last 5 years and was eventually diagnosed with Navicular Syndrome. I know he has had nerve blocking in the past, but his owner decided to have him "nerved" a few months ago.

The 13-year old owner of Horse #3 has had him for 3 years. She competes in barrels and games at most of the local shows. #3 came up lame after a couple of early season shows and was on and off all summer. I am not sure of the different treatments #3 has undergone, but I was a bit surprised to find out that he was being "nerved".

These horses are so young! How did it get to the point where "nerving" was the only option? Wouldn't it make more sense to figure out what caused the lameness and stop doing it before it gets to the stage that nerving is required?

I don't know that much about lameness, but the reading that I have done points to riding an immature horse/bones, repetitive stress from aggressive training, not being balanced when riding circle patterns (one of my personal issues!!), and fatigue. So I wonder.....could it be that the riders didn't know how to "ride" their horses properly and have caused undue physical stress to the horse? Did the riders push their horses too hard? Is it the discipline? Poor foot maintenance, particularly the bad case of thrush in Horse #1? An unbalanced rider? Was a re-hab plan lacking when these horses first went lame?

In the book "Feet First" by Nic Barker and Sarah Braithwaite have this to say about navicular syndrome/caudal pain/deep digital flexor tendinitis: "Although 'navicular syndrome' is a widely used term, studies have shown that horses presenting with the pattern of lameness typical of 'navicular syndrome' only occasionally have damage to the navicular bone itself."....."The most recent studies confirm earlier research which proposed that damage to the navicular bone is the last stage of the degenerative process, only occurring after the deep digital flexor tendon and navicular bursa have become damaged and inflamed as a consequence of poor biomechanics and under-development of the fibro-cartilage in the back of the hoof." My theory is that the riders at my barn were not riding correctly and perhaps pushing their horses in repetitive patterns, causing strain and damage to soft tissue. They did not change the way they were riding, so lameness became chronic.

All of these horses are still sort of recovering. #1 has been ridden out on the trails and seems content to do so, but he must wear boots from now on. I am not sure if he will be competing next year. #2 was sent back out to the regular herd and problems arose when he kept kicking and nicking his now numb front feet with his back hooves. He has had one infection as a result of cuts and an abscess since his surgery in the summer. Although she is wrapping his front legs now, the owner is concerned how she is going to manage this in the winter. The surgery is still fresh for #3, but he is doing well. I will say that in the case on #1 and #3 they seem happier because they are pain-free.

I know the owners of #1, #2 and #3 and they absolutely love their horses. They did what they thought was best to improve the quality of their horse's life. I do find it sad that there is the possibility that their horse's lameness may have been preventable through better riding skills and foot maintenance. Now that I know a bit more about 'nerving' and lameness, it validates my plan to keep taking lessons and makes me even more determined to learn how to ride Gem correctly. I don't think Gem has to worry about me over-working him, but I am sure glad that my balance is improving. :-)


  1. I don't know if it's physically possible for my eyebrows to be drawn any closer together than they are right now. How utterly disgraceful! There are better ways, people!

    Three horses at one barn makes me strongly suspect they had the same vet? I'd also be interested in whether or not they had the same person providing hoof care.

  2. PS- I'm sorry about your father's health issues :(

  3. Shannon - Thanks for your kind words re my father. Yes, it's the same vet for all of these horses...and he's the vet that also manages the horses at one of the local racetracks, so there may be a bit of an attitude of getting a horse sound quickly. I believe the hoof care provider was the same for #1 and #2, but not #3.

  4. Glad you are back, and I hope your family issues are better.
    I only know of one horse that has been nerved. He was a show jumper in his late teens. He did one more season at a lower height after being nerved and he did very well, but he was retired shortly after that. I don't remember what the initial diagnosis was, something chronic I think.

  5. I think nerving is just plain terrible - it's also done in the hunter/jumper world (would you want to jump a horse that couldn't feel part of its leg?). It's a way to keep competing on a horse that would otherwise not be able to keep going, at the cost of further damage to the horse that the horse can't protect itself against because it can't feel the pain - as far as I'm concerned it's a form of abuse. And of course they're recovering - they can no longer feel the pain they're in. The only time I think it's justified is if you have a horse that's retired and unsound and the only way the horse can be comfortable for its remaining years is to nerve it - but it should never be done to mask pain and keep on riding. Just my opinion (steam comes out of my ears . . .).

    Sending best wishes on your family matters.

  6. Barbara – Thanks. You know, I don’t think it’s fair to ask a horse to compete when they can’t feel their feet. In my heart and gut, there is just something wrong with that. I am glad they retired the horse.

    Kate – I totally agree with you. These horses are not “sound”, they are just numb to the pain. Nerving, in my opinion, allows a rider to ride an injured horse. Like you, I think that this procedure should be reserved for retired horses in chronic pain, to allow for a decent quality of life as they grow older. Thanks for your wishes.

  7. How terrible! I have never heard of nerving, but it sounds awful for the horses! For them not to be able to feel such an important body part must be difficult for them.

    Wolfie, you and your family will be in my thoughts

  8. Wolfie-

    First, I'm sending prayers for your family your way.

    Second, thank you for posting this! I haven't looked into 'nerving' and now that I know what it is I'm surprised! Do people really think that numbing a horses feet is a good option? It sounds really unsafe to me! I think it's hard for some folks to realize that maybe their horse needs a new job, different management or some time off. It's sad that we want it to happen so quickly that we're willing to take such incredible risks.

  9. {HUGS} re: your dad's health, & family issues xx

    I have never heard of 'nerving', and I can't believe its actually done!! How on earth is a horse supposed to move confidently when it can't feel its feet?!!? Isn't there a saying: 'no foot, no horse'? I remember reading something like: without the full and perfect use of its feet, the horse is useless. I think it was referring to farriery but still ... I just find the whole thing offensive! Thanks for posting though.

  10. Allison, Mona, Joy – thank you for your hugs and thoughts re my father. The more energy coming his way, the better! xoxo

    Allison – I had never heard of it either until this summer. The sad part is that I don’t think these riders understand that they probably won’t be able to compete again. And, really, would you buy a horse that’s been nerved if they decided to sell their horses?

    Mona – Sadly, I think that these boarders really thought that this was the only option left for their horses. Lameness once? OK, it happens. Lameness twice….hmmm, maybe it’s time to rethink what’s going on here. My sadness comes from the lameness probably being preventable in the first place.

    Joy – These poor young horses! Word will spread now how they were made "sound" and rideable, so I am anticipating this procedure to be the new quick fix for lameness. People are so impatient nowadays! I am p***ed at the vet! Why didn't he insist on a re-hab program??

  11. Another thing about nerving is that some kind of nerve regrowth can happen, causing pain to recur. My friend bought a gorgeous warmblood at a super reasonable price because he had been nerved. The procedure was repeated twice, and then she had to put him down at 16 as there was no other option to keep him comfortable.

    So sorry about your dad - healing thoughts coming for him!

  12. Those poor horses! When a horse is lame there is a reason somewhere, even if nothing shows up in x-rays. Determining the cause of lameness can be a long and frustrating process, but x-rays don't show everything and I think every effort should be made to find the cause and that should include getting a second opinion and also getting a chiropractor or equine physiotherapist to check muscular or soft tissue damage. From experience I know that some types of lameness can take between 12 and 18 months (or longer!) to recover but a lot of horses are getting recovery periods that are substantially shorter than what they need. After recovery from injury a horse needs to be carefully and slowly rehabilitated before they can be brought back into full work. Again, a lot of horses don't receive a proper rehab and will consequently break down again.

    I have never heard of nerving being done over here, but I think it is criminal. If a horse is lame, he should not under any circumstances be ridden. Anything done to the horse to make him rideable is in my view totally wrong.

    Wolfie, lots of love and positive energy coming your way!

  13. I had horse a long time ago who was diagnosed with navicular. Nerving was an option the vet school gave me, but I didn't like the idea of my horse not feeling his feet. I was afraid he'd trip a lot. So I didn't have him nerved and tried to manage his lameness with corrective shoeing and I stopped all competition and training. I think there is more information and better ways of managing navicular these days than when I experienced it. But I still would be very wary of nerving.

  14. Sending best wishes for your family and your father's recovery.

    I'm almost to the point of not commenting on nerving. If I say what I really think about these people I think I might just go over the line a bit. Let me just say that I don't believe in it and think there are better ways to manage lameness. Mainly, learning how to ride and not stress your horse too much. I'd also like to point out that if anyone was considering this as an option for their horse they might want to get second and third opinions, possibly do some research. Or maybe remember how your foot felt when it fell asleep and was numb. Never mind I'm starting myself up. Good post.

  15. I hope all is well with your family.

    I think having a horse nerved is an absolute last resort kind of thing. I wouldn't like to have it done, purely for the fact that they could trip or do cause injury to themselves without knowing it (stepping on a nail ect). That being said, there are cases where it may be the best course of action. Three horses out of one barn seems a little odd to me though.

    Horse #1 absolutely should not have been nerved. The owner didn't even know what was wrong with him. IMO, this probably could have been fixed without nerving.

    I think I remember my vet talking to me about nerving when we thought Lady had ringbone, but I didn't like the sound of it then either.

  16. I hope everything turns out okay for your family and my thoughts are with you!

    I cannot imagine having a horse nerved and then continuing to compete with it. I don't really agree with nerving except for in extreme circumstances. I personally want to know if my horse is in pain because then I know I need to look for the cause and I like knowing when I need to change something or do something to make my horse more comfortable. The horses might act better because they can't feel anything, but wouldn't that just continue to make the problem worse? Especially if you put them back into training without finding the cause of the lameness?

    As you know I'm training Socks to barrel race but I try to be very aware of the toll this can take on her body. We don't do it every ride and the nights we do, we do the pattern, then have five-ten minutes of walking around the full length of the arena on a loose rein, do the pattern again, walk around the arena again on so on through out the night. We do the pattern about five times each session.

    I want to learn how to barrel race and I want to compete in it, but not at the cost of my horse's health. If she began coming up lame because of our training, it would be over. She's more important to me than competing.

  17. Oh my. I gasped when I read "8-11 years of age". Nerving in my opinion is an absolute last resort to keep the horse pain free.

    A nerved horse needs to be actively managed for the rest of its life. For exactly the reason you described. They can't feel their feet they can hurt themselves very badly in a normal situation.

    My first horse, my Quarter Horse, had navicular disease. We think he was 15 when I brought him home and I managed his feet with wedge pads and egg bar shoes. Within a couple of years he had deteriorated significantly and nerving was an option.

    It got to the where I had to have him nerve blocked to shoe him. He was in too much pain to stand on one foot long enough to put on a shoe. That poor horse. He'd hide in the shadows of his stall every time he heard the vet coming up the driveway. He was such a good boy.

    The only way I was going to have a horse to ride was if he was nerved. His pain could otherwise be managed if he didn't work. That made nerving more for me than him and that's not a good enough reason to do that.

    He was really uncomfortable and I decided ulcers and liver problems were the least of his problems. I kept using wedge pads and egg bars and gave him bute twice a day. I rode him bareback 2 or 300 yards on his better days.

    Oh and you learn a lot taking care of a horse like that.

  18. This has been floated around as an end of the road possibility for my horse, Cowboy, since his P3 fracture. They've always told me that when his foot deteriorates from the arthritis in the joint, he'll be a good candidate for nerving. At the same time, my vet and farrier haven't liked the idea of nerving and have said it would only be reserved for the worst case scenario to give him relief from pain. Thanks for this post--it helps me to know what the downs sides are.

  19. Sounds like you hve your horse's best interest at heart. I don't know much about nerving or the why's and when's Vets believe it should be done, but I do agree that it does sound a bit extreme to do for young horses especially when the root of the problem is never truly figured out.
    It's also very odd that such a large number of horses in the barn you are in, have had this done.


  20. All my best wishes for your father Wolfie.

    I've never heard of 'nerving' but from your description it sounds like a pretty drastic measure. This procedure isn't going to take away the cause of the problem or enable any kind of healing or rehabilitation. I could see it being an option for a retired horse to livew out his retirement in more comfort but I would not like to ride a horse who couldn't feel his feet!

  21. I don't think that is right. A horse shouldn't be ridden or competed if they can't feel there legs/feet.
    I hope your father gets better soon.

  22. Well, I know nothing about horses, but I don't understand how this can be helpful in the long run for any animal or human! It doesn't seem to take care of any problems, just the symptoms. So I'm with "twohorses" on this one.

    It sounds like they all go to the same Vet. :-/

    Best wishes for your family, Wolfie.

  23. I appreciate the positive thoughts for my father. He’s not doing so well, so I will take all you have! :-)

    CFS – You are correct. There is a probability that the nerves will re-grow and the pain return. :-(

    twohorses – There is a lady at the barn who’s horse has been in re-hab for two years; she has only just been given the go ahead to get on her horse and WALK for 10 minutes. I admire her dedication and perseverance (and yours!) to do what is right for her horse.

    Once Upon an Equine – Your concern about tripping is valid! Can you imagine running full tilt and not being able to feel your feet hit the ground? Good for you for trying to manage your horse’s lameness without nerving.

    GHM – You can say whatever you want on this blog! Don’t hold back! :-) I truly believe in my gut that being a balanced rider and not over-working the horse could have influenced a better, kinder outcome for these horses. And, you are right…a 2nd or 3rd opinion is so important with this type of “treatment”.

    Megan – Perhaps there is a place for nerving, but I believe only if it’s for a retired pasture ornament. I will agree that #1 went into it fairly quickly, but #3 was really fast!

    Cjay – Your approach to training is responsible and caring. I would think that you and Socks will have a long and safe career in barrels.

    ltd – I know! They are SO young. How lucky your quarter horse was to have you in his life when he needed compassion and kindness. Our four-legged companions teach us so much.

    Linda – Arthritis is a degenerative and painful condition. Nice to hear that your vet and farrier are working together on this.

    Lisa – It is extreme and I did find it alarming that one after the other had this procedure done.

    Jooles – You are correct. Nerving doesn’t change the fact that the horse is still injured.

    Ruffles – I, too, have a hard time with the idea of riding a nerved horse in competition.

    Detroit Dog – Yep, same vet for all three. :-(

  24. I'm visiting new blogs today for the first time, so i also thought id wish you a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your readers. And i hope that the day is spent generating positive memories for years to come. Richard from Amish Stories.

  25. Thanks for stopping by and for the Thanksgiving wishes! Enjoy your family.

  26. My mother unfortunately took (poor) advice and had her mare nerved. The mare was about 10, and hadn't even been worked that hard in her life. I forget the cause of the lameness. But the nerving made her foot worse, she was in terrible pain, and was put down within 6 months. Sad for her to go like that (but her death also allowed my mother to get a good-hearted horse, so I suppose there is a silver lining). Keep us posted on the recoveries of the horses in your barn!

  27. P.S. Great point from Shannon...

    PPS: sorry for the illness in your family! I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!