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Does My Horse Have PSSM? PSSM Horse Behavioral Problems and Training Issues

PSSM Horses and Horse Behavior - PSSM Horse Behavioral Problems

Common PSSM horse behavioral problems or something else?

One of the big topics that comes up often on PSSM groups is horse behavior.  Horses that are normally very calm, placid, and easy to get along with suddenly become flighty and aggressive.  Many times this comes after someone first buys the horse, and sometimes the old owners are blamed for lying about the horse’s demeanor.  Sometimes it’s surmised that the old owner knew SOMETHING was wrong with the horse and that’s why they sold it on.  This absolutely can happen, but is it the only explanation?  The truth is it’s not – there are many other reasons this can happen, but let’s look at this from an angle of “This could be PSSM” first.

PSSM symptoms seem to flare up with stress – recently being put into work, moving, being sold to new owners, injuries and stall time – these are major stress triggers and there’s a lot of anecdotal stories of horses becoming symptomatic, sometimes for the first time, after these types of events.  I bought Jax from a group sale at a boarding facility – he and eight other horses had been moved there from his home about 4 hours away, and he was one of the last horses sold.  He was scrawny with mild signs of laminitis and obvious (looking back) muscle wasting. 

I don’t think he took that move well.  Thankfully by the time I found him it was a couple months later and he had acclimated to the move, and took going into work very well.  However 4 years later when I moved him to another facility, he had one of his most symptomatic times.  He was known PSSM by that point so thankfully I was able to manage him through, but if I had sold him just one year earlier when he was really healthy (and undiagnosed), he’d have been one of those horses that crash with a new owner, and I’d have been suspected of offloading an unhealthy horse!

PSSM Horses and Horse Behavior - PSSM Horse Behavioral Problems
PSSM Horses and Horse Behavior – PSSM Horse Behavioral Problems

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a newly bought horse that’s not coping with change has PSSM though.  Other physical/management issues can be at play – ulcers (newly formed from the stress of the move or older gut issues), changes in feed and forage, and many other things can be the culprit for these behavioral changes. 

“Grass affected” is a term coined by Calm Healthy Horses and deals primarily with electrolyte issues from forages and other feeds – a horse moving from a home with very little clover to a pasture full of clover can have a significant reaction and become “grass affected” – and many symptoms of grass affected look a LOT like PSSM horse behavior.  The same is true of a horse staying on property with the same owner, but just moving over to a different pasture! Other mineral imbalances like calcium deficiency can also mimic PSSM, so diet changes can be a huge trigger for a horse losing it’s mind after changing owners/management styles.

If horses move from a more strong-arm type of training to a newer rider that wants to partner with rather than dominate a horse – that can cause major friction.  The horse can be viewed as trying to “get away” with things, when in reality the horse has never been allowed the freedom to make decisions and doesn’t know how to make them properly. 

This is one area I loved working on with my youngsters in training, I like to instill the ability of partnership into any horse that passes through my hands so that each horse can be successful in any type of home; and I really wish more people worked with horses in this manner.  This type of work is ESSENTIAL with a compromised PSSM horse.

Training the PSSM Horse and PSSM Horse Behavior Problems:

On the subject of training, if you do have a true PSSM horse, there’s a certain way to go about working with these horses.  Sometimes they need an out, but you don’t want to spoil them either.  Compromise and working with a light touch and kind hand goes a very long way with these horses. 

Punishment over spookiness/anxiety will cause these guys to blow (and potentially cause stress spasms/episodes), so finding the correct management to bring those anxiety levels down is necessary before working on the training aspects of these issues (see one very unexpected way I’ve helped my PSSM horse with anxiety!).  If the issue truly is that they need wet saddle blankets (which does happen with PSSM horses!) then you have to find a way to help their mind cope with that extra work – and how you manage their PSSM is at the root of their coping abilities!

Easy round pen session to get my PSSM horse bending and thinking. He was an old hand by this point, but a little touch up can be good for any horse!

So What Are The Common PSSM Symptoms?

There are many PSSM symptoms, and not all PSSM horses present the same.  Here’s a list of Jax’s PSSM symptoms when he was at his worst:

  • Sticky stifles, (his stifles stick when he’s not in work, but it was becoming debilitating, and stifles are a common issue with PSSM horses)
  • Sore back and hindquarters
  • Tight, rigid muscles
  • PSSM behavior changes (anxiety, spookiness, etc)
  • Possible feed/gut complications (ulcers, low grade laminitis – undiagnosed)
  • Atrophied right shoulder (muscle loss/atrophy is common with Type 2 PSSM horses)
  • Obvious twist in right hind leg at a walk, catching/hitching every step at a trot
  • Can no longer canter (common with PSSM horses)
  • Hindquarters stiff and beginning to look atrophied (atrophy is a common Type 2 PSSM symptom)
  • Slight roach back and pelvis tilted with posty/straight appearance to hind legs (overextending stifles and aggravating them even more)
  • Difficulty lifting hinds for farrier (common PSSM symptom)
  • Can no longer trot, barely walks around in pasture
  • SI swelling – SI issues are common with PSSM horses
  • Colic – many PSSM owners report muscle episodes looking like colic, and my boy’s first major episode was no exception.
  • Won’t fully weight right front foot – now won’t lift fronts for farrier
  • Body soreness everywhere, chiro helps but short-lived (common PSSM symptoms)
  • Glutes/croup sore – light touch made him drop his back

The problem is that all of these symptoms can have other causes, and many vets don’t know about PSSM to help guide owners to a diagnosis.  So many people spend a ton of money on diagnostics, then study and learn about (and test for) PSSM on their own (usually after the horse has suffered for months or years without diagnosis). 

Thankfully there are more and more vets learning about muscle myopathy and PSSM horses, both in physical issues and in horse behavioral problems, and there’s more and more information available on these topics to help owners struggling with their horses. However, most don’t learn about PSSM horse behavior issues unless they 1) deal with it personally, or 2) hear about from someone who’s dealt with it – you don’t commonly find this information from vets or magazine articles.

For an in-depth look into testing and some very informational videos and podcasts from the scientists who know these disorders best (plus a link to a huge myopathy study being done by the University of Minnesota) see my  Testing For PSSM Types 1 and 2, UMN Myopathy Study, and Helpful Videos, Podcasts post!

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