Equine Shivers: A Case Study
Jazz is a dressage bred warmblood who came to us to be restarted, having been backed the year before and been turned away afterwards. His owners thought he could do with our approach and the natural way we keep the horses, as well as our sympathetic approach and the way we back horses (always in straight lines, teaching them to hack and see the world while they’re developing).
Jazz had been diagnosed with shivers, a neuromuscular condition, so the way we strive to keep our horses out as much as possible was also important (his symptoms were much worse in a stable). We were told that it affects a few things, including his ability to back up and to know where his feet are. He would panic when he couldn’t do something or overthought it (if you came to his stable door, he would start to back up and then begin shaking all over as he couldn’t work out where the walls or his feet were). Having done a lot of research into the shivers between meeting Jazz’ owners and meeting the main man himself, we found out that it’s a progressive (sadly it normally gets worse over time) condition, with no known cure, and a lack of information as a whole. Some horses can manage a ridden career in spite of this and others, unfortunately can’t. Our main job was to see if Jazz had the potential to make it as a high level dressage horse and hopefully improve his proprioception.
Our first session with Jazz was a gentle walk down the lane in a head collar to help him get his bearings. He started off pretty strong and lacked respect of personal space so we started working on that straight away.
He’s 17.2hh and we had to make sure he wasn’t using his weight and size against us. Though some may have done this by forcing him under control, we try to get this respect from people more organically - and we’re both under 5’6” so really can’t win a battle of strength with a horse that size!
In just a few minutes, we showed Jazz that he could trust us. Few horses will truly respect you if they don’t trust you. This involved making the first move and showing him that we trusted him. We went ahead of him but walked backwards. This showed him that we were willing to go first into danger, but (because we were moving backwards and facing him), that we were pretty certain that there was no danger. It is also telling him that we trust him not to run us over. Even with a horse that starts off extremely rude and sharp, this method has never failed us and has only succeeded in slowing the horse and encouraging respect in us.
We also worked on him moving backwards. This was one of the things he really couldn’t do and his owners asked us to work on, and we wanted to get started on it straight away. Asking a shiverer to simply take a couple of steps backwards is such a challenge for them but it’s a great task to ask of any horse because it helps with proprioception. Proprioception is essentially bodily awareness, so is something all horses can benefit from working on, but shiverers even more so!
The next day, we saddled Jazz up for the first time and added a bridle to walk off to help him get used to the bit. After initially panicking about the saddle and having a shivering episode in his stable, he settled into it nicely and relaxed on the walk. We asked him to move backwards again, this time entirely on body language, you can see the handler just pointing, which he was already picking up swiftly from our clear movements. He was like a totally different horse to lead in general, thanks to the training in hand the day before. This was a really good sign because if we can’t rely on the horse to be safe and easy to maneuver on the ground, adding a rider becomes much more of a challenge.
The next hurdle was long reining. We always long rein horses that we have in to back as this gets them used to the rider aids. When long reining, the aids to slow or halt are very similar, and to ask the horse to move forward, you close the reins on the horse’s sides in a similar way to how the rider would squeeze their legs on.
Jazz didn’t react well to the roller and had a couple of broncs after it was first put on, similar to the way he reacted with the saddle. He soon settled with the roller so we took him down to the arena and attached the lines to the bit and the loops of the roller (this is to keep both lines from ending up on the same side or crossing over which is scary for the horse and puts the handler in a compromised position). Jazz was walking nice and calmly for about five minutes, after which, a small noise behind him made him panic, bolt, rear and bronc.
We didn’t want to leave it there and have him frightened of the roller for no reason, so we kept working with him and calling to him that everything was alright, whenever he was flipping out. We repeatedly brought him back into the middle and reassured him softly before trying to step away from him again. Following one of these ‘team meetings’ and some T-Touch, which can be seen in the video and picture below, we managed a calm walk and trot with one line and then with two. We left it there because it was an achievement for him to work through the panicked fog to the other side, and become calm enough to work.
Our next session involved starting to bring a rider into the equation. We had established that he was on the sensitive side with tack so we decided to introduce the rider bareback, as we often do. This means the horse can get used to a person on his back, without having to get used to the movement of the saddle and, the different way it will sit weighted down, at the same time.
Bigger horses aren’t used to people ever being taller than them, so it can cause them to worry as soon as someone reaches an elevated height. Thus, we started with the handler lifting the rider to just a little higher than the horse, without putting weight on his back.
From there, we had a successful lean over, getting him used to the weight of the rider, and the fact that he suddenly had a living, breathing person on top of him.
He was calm and happy so the next step was swinging a leg over to sit astride him properly. The rider then settled straight down onto his neck so that he didn’t have to contend with the height of the person at the same time. We paused here for him to get used to everything and lap up the praise!
Then we asked him to move a step forward. As can be seen in the video and picture, there was absolutely no pressure put on him by handler or rider. The handler just took the treats and herself out of his reach so that he could take his step and then be immediately rewarded with soft strokes and tasty treats. This is where the ground work that we put in earlier is so important. He had to respect the handler but also want to be with her. It’s also where the trust comes in. He is not being held by the rider or the handler, we have to make it easy for him to make the right decisions, without force.
Jazz bravely took his first steps with a rider. They were very shaky steps which was to be expected of a youngster, let alone one with his condition. Jazz was immediately praised and we called it a day on a positive note. Knowing where to leave a session is sometimes difficult, especially when you have spent only twenty minutes working and the horse has only taken one step, but over working a young brain is just as treacherous, if not more so, as overworking a young body. Allowing a youngster some latent learning instead of overloading their brain means that they will come out next time with a better understanding and an even better attitude.
We often have remedial cases where someone has rushed a horse in the early stages. They tacked them up for the first time, put a rider on and then rode off into the sunset, all in the same day. The horse was as good as gold on this ride but then bucked and reared the next time. Why? Because the horse was rushed, and then has gone back into the field thinking ‘that was hard and scary’, stewed over it (I promise that they do this), and then come out next time thinking ‘oh no, not this again!’ and throw their rider.
The following day, this was proven by Jazz coming out even better and braver the following day and managing a very relaxed walk down the lane.
After a few more bareback sessions, we saddled Jazz up and had our first ride in full tack. Jazz was so brave and brilliant from start to finish. He had got so used to a rider by this point that he only had to get used to the different feeling with the saddle and he transitioned really well!
Following a gentle session in the saddle, Jazz had a trot and moved beautifully, as well as being so relaxed!
His next session introduced another pony but also removed Jazz’ safety net in his handler. Straight away, we were confronted by a low flying helicopter. With plenty of vocal reassurance from the rider, he totally ignored this and carried on bravely.
We headed down a very small bank which tests how comfortable young horses are with their riders. With Jazz, it was more of a test as his hind and front legs were on different levels, not an easy thing to comprehend when you lack proprioception! You can see in the video that Jazz pauses so that he can work it out, before carrying on.
We tested him more throughout this session and he did his first small leg yield while trotting down the lane!
We also attempted rein back. As our readers may remember, this was one of the things he really struggled with and we expected this to be much worse with a rider on board. He managed really well and we rewarded him by moving forward again, after a couple of small but brave steps.
One of the next big steps was to mount from a mounting block instead of a leg up. He was so brilliant and stood stock still!
Next, was his first canter! This was not without some histrionics! The first three attempts involved a lot of leaping. He has a unique way of flipping out which involves him basically broncing (leaping repeatedly, with all four feet), but he lifts his front end more (most horses lift their hind end more).
This was rather entertaining but also fairly exhausting, rider had whiplash the next day and did comment that it would have been less painful if she had fallen off!
On the fourth attempt, Jazz managed several strides of canter without going up in the air so we called it a day after making much of him.
Our next big step was riding Jazz in the school for the first time. He was so relaxed in walk that we did some trot work too! His owners had said that poles may help him to work out where his feet were so we tried him over some in walk. Because he was focusing on the poles instead of overthinking, he was actually much more relaxed over them, so we trotted them too. He was amazing!
We followed this session with another canter hack! This was better than our first day and we had no broncing either!
A difficult but game changing day was when we headed to the woods and the rough track helped his proprioception.
We had a setback… We believed that this was down to having to change his saddle. Despite the new saddle fitting well, it was obviously different enough for him to turn himself inside out broncing and then rearing and switching back to broncing again (much like when he first had the roller on). This wasn’t on video.
This led to further bouts of what could be described as ‘cold backed’ behavior. It happened at the beginning of a couple of his rides but we just reassured him by touching his neck and soothing him vocally, loudly and repetitively enough to break through his brain fog.
Instead of backing off or continuing to do the same thing, we decided to take him to the woods for a change of scenery and a good canter, to get him forward and out of his head!
Jazz loved it!
We got on and he gave no reaction for the first time in a week, then we went for a canter up the hill and he was braver and more relaxed than he had been in canter up to that point.
Because of how happy and chilled he was, we took him over some small logs and he jumped for the first time too!
The next time in the arena, he came with a much better attitude! He was much more relaxed, did some trot poles and we put out some small jumps for him to trot over too. We had some amazing moments of elevation!
Doing something a bit different gave him a much fresher perspective when he came back!
Unfortunately, this fresh Jazz only lasted for a couple of sessions before another minor melt down. We decided to put him in a slightly wider saddle than he should have been in, and pad it out with lots of fluff so that he felt more comfortable. Due to sensitivity to anything touching him and the inability to work out whether something was a fly or a big cat, we thought that maybe this method of cushioning him to anything touching him might help.
That was the last of any notable meltdowns and the next session saw some of his best, most relaxed and forward trot work that he had shown us!
His work continued to improve from there and we continued to focus on him working behind. We managed a lovely, relaxed canter, with no fearing, broncing or nervousness, which we were so pleased with!
Working with Jazz was so different for us. We have a lot of horses come in with problems like rearing and bucking, our first port of call is always to check for a physical problem. Jazz came in with one which couldn’t be fixed. A neuromuscular one, no less, which wasn’t going to improve with all the physiotherapy in the world.
He wasn’t a nasty horse at all. He didn’t try to get his rider off ever, wasn’t really sharp or quirky… He just had these seemingly random moments of brain fog where there just wasn’t any reasoning with him.
We had to just sit tight, show him that he was fine, and keep thinking of new methods and ways to improve proprioception and his reactions. This was frustrating at times but, between his massive leaps in the air, he would also have huge jumps forward in progress. He would be broncing one day and jumping the next.
We learned so much while working with him. Small things, like picking his feet out daily, were such a big challenge for him. We would groom all the way down his legs with a soft brush each day and the reaction changed so much over time.
Grooming in general was something that helped him. It’s something that we all have to do before riding but it aided Jazz so much that we would spend longer doing it, then go out of sight and keep touching him gently so that he worked out where we were and what we were touching without having the visual aids to help.
We would regularly touch his heal or around the coronet band, just with our boot, as we were walking around him or if he ever planted his feet. This would draw his focus down and make his brain work hard!
It was very rewarding to have stuck with him and eventually be sat on a horse who didn’t panic when asked to do something, and who had all of this potential with an amazing way of going when he was no longer quite so terrified of everything.
Though his progress may be a mixed bag, we are so proud of him. It was no small feat to get him to the stage where he was ridable, let alone with potential to have a promising career in the right hands.
We are hoping for the best for this lad, we hear he’s getting on well and are over the moon about that. Fingers crossed, we’ll one day see him going up the levels!