Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Retraining the Trainer

Although I teach riding lessons, I do not consider myself to be a particularly advanced rider, nor do I have perfect equitation. I have worked very hard to get myself to the level of riding I am at today, and in the world of dressage I am not very far along at all. I beleive I am a better instructor than I am a competitive rider because I have had to learn, re-learn, and reflect various lessons in balance, equitation, and execution that my more talented peers have picked up apoun almost immediately. I've read countless books, attended thousands of lessons, participated in clinics whenever possible, and constantly search for new teaching material on the internet.

That said, I must admit I have been out of regular lessons for almost two years. I attended two clinics and squeezed in a few lessons with an amazingly intuitive reining trainer in my area, but that's about it. Granted, I rode on intercollegiate teams and competed on a somewhat regular basis. After my intial introduction to Shorty, I was paid to train him for three months. Shorty's progress was slow going but he was improving, but my boss told me he could no longer afford to pay me for training. Shorty does not like strangers and would have been a terrible lesson horse, so I was the only one working with him. I decided to keep on riding and training him for free, and also paid for many of the necessities Shorty needed that his owner refused to provide... but that's another story. Let's just say that even though I wasn't in lessons consistently, I was learning from the horses I rode on a regular basis.

And herein lies the problem. Riding a strong, crooked horse that tends to lean into the bridle has tipped my already shaky balance off the scale. In the saddle, I feel terribly off. I sold my old saddle, which was too small for me, and bought a beautiful Albion dressage saddle. I bought new leathers, thinking that one had stretched and was the cause of my instability. I am in decent shape, good enough to walk twenty miles and bench press 150 pounds, so I do not think muscle weakness is the cause. My old half chaps bore significant wear marks in distinctly different locations, meaning that one or both of us is seriously off-kilter. Considering that the aforementioned dressage saddle was flocked specifically for Shorty's back after I bought it a month ago, I'm betting the imbalance is due to some subtle asymmetry in my body. However, I do not remember feeling this way four years ago as a freshman riding three hours a day, mostly in lessons.

There are some possible causes to my problem:
  • I've been crooked all along, but the mass amounts of lessons I teach has made me more critical of equitation, including my own.
  • My rheumatoid arthritis is causing my joints to shift slowly. Yes, I have RA, which is basically arthritis in every joint in my body, but my hands and knees are the worst. As a result of the swelling often seen in my joints, my doctor explained that I will likely experience blood clots, pinched nerves, and instability in one or both sides of my body. Other than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, there's nothing that I can do to stop this degenerative disease.
  • Last year, I broke three bones in my left foot when a horse I was grooming spooked and landed on me. The horse, a Hannoverian tank, knocked me down and stepped on the arch of my foot as I hit the ground. I did not have insurance and the employer did not offer to pay for the medical bills, so I didn't get treatment. Stupid, I know, but I didn't realize how severe the damage was until the swelling went down and I could feel the displaced bones in my arch. By then, the breaks were fusing as is, and I didn't feel like taking time off for surgery and re-breaking.
  • I've been out of lessons so long, I've been getting sloppy. Although I hate to say it, and please do not think me arrogrant, I am the most experienced rider in the barn. There are no others around to give me corrections or pointers. In fact, I've had to give the other instructors lessons because they know so little about riding. (I didn't hire them, but I'm stuck with them).
  • I have adapted my riding to my crooked horse. Shorty is a lovely boy, but he does not have great confirmation and tends to hang on the right rein. He leans on me quite a bit. I have effectively convinced him to lower his head and relax at the withers, but he still lacks flexion at the poll and jaw. In fact, his entire spine is as rigid as a 2 by 4. There are days when he flexes beautifully, and others were he is extremely stiff- stifle, knee, and hock arthritis is the cause. I have been working on building impulsion and strenthening his previously anorexic hind end.
  • My riding has always been crooked, but my old saddle saved my ass. It was a wintec with CAIR panels, and I had to use a big, thick, foam riser pad to keep it balanced. Perhaps the air cushion flocking canceled out my lopsidedness. Now, I have a traditionally-flocked saddle that has been customized to Shorty's back, but I'm still riding the same way.

With all of this in mind, I need to get back into regular riding lessons, maybe even two or three a week at first. All of the things I listed are sadly not quick fixes; I will have to retrain my body to regain my balance, and that takes TIME. It also takes strengthening and increased flexibility. I am strong, but I can't touch my toes to save my life. I have a strong diaphram, thanks to twelve years of playing the trumpet and a lifetime of blatting impressivly long and loud belches, but are my abdominal muslces strong enough remian centered in the saddle? Yes I can walk twenty miles, but can I wrap my legs around the horse without pinching in any one area? Yes I can benchpress a lot of weight, but can I retrain an elestic elbow and a soft hand? Probably not, which means I should start adding stretches into my daily routine, including during the minutes before getting on my horse.

I've looked up a few instructors in my area that specialize in dressage, but very few of them travel and possess the qualifications. I can't tell you how many ads I found for 17 year old girls advertising themselves as experts in their disciplines because they've been riding "since before they were born." I found one woman that specializes in OTTBs and looks legit (nice website, actually literate, certification with ARIA). I will start making phone calls this afternoon; updates will be given soon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rest in Peace, Raspberry Miss

Quote from article posted today:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A gruesome accident involving two unraced horses Monday morning at Churchill Downs resulted in the death of one of the horses, delayed workouts for several runners in the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, and prompted discussion over whether too many horses are being allowed on the track immediately after the mid-morning renovation break.

The accident involved Dr. Rap, a 3-year-old colt trained by David Carroll, and Rasberry Miss, a 2-year-old filly trained by Ken McPeek. Dr. Rap was adjacent to the starting gate, which is positioned at the top of the stretch during training hours, when he threw jockey Tony Farina and sped straight down the stretch. He crashed into Raspberry Miss, who was standing inside the sixteenth pole amongst a large group of horses who were about to begin gallops. They crashed in a sickening thud and initially lay entangled.

Both horses were removed from the track in horse ambulances and transported to equine clinics in Lexington, Ky. There was a 25-minute training delay to remove the two stricken horses.

Raspberry Kiss, who was sent to Rood and Riddle, was euthanized due to her injury, a broken hip, based on the recommendation of Rood and Riddle's Dr. Larry Bramlage, McPeek said.

Dr. Rap was being evaluated at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee clinic for an injury to his right shoulder, Carroll said. Carroll said X-rays were clean.

"He either has nerve damage or a severe bone bruise," Carroll said. "If they say he'll never race again but can be a show horse, I'll take that."

Exercise rider Larry Lague, a former jockey who was on Raspberry Miss, was going to have X-rays to see if he had broken a foot, McPeek said. Farina was not injured.

There were about 10 Derby and Oaks horses on the track at the time of the incident.

Both Chocolate Candy, with jockey Mike Smith, and Join in the Dance, ridden by Angel Cordero Jr., were in the midst of their works when the horn sounded, signaling a loose horse. Both horses completed their drills.

"Fortunately, it was isolated to the outside," said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Join in the Dance. "It could have been worse. There were a lot of high-caliber horses out there working in a short amount of time."

Pletcher said he thought it might be wise for Churchill Downs to close the track earlier for the renovation break and then allow only Oaks and Derby runners on the track for the first few minutes after the track re-opens.

"This morning's incident is the perfect opportunity for Churchill Downs to realize they need to do this," Pletcher said. "Just for 10 minutes after the break. It would be a great idea. It would be great for the Oaks and Derby horses and safer for the horses of every caliber."

Jim Gates, general manager of Churchill Downs, said Pletcher's idea is "not something we'd be opposed to in the future."

"We have never gotten together and discussed this specifically," Gates said. "People work horses every day, and trainers have their own personal preferences. Some like to work early, some like to go after the break. But after what happened this morning, I suspect we will have discussions. We are always looking to make the Derby horses more comfortable."

Although Derby horses like Friesan Fire and Pioneerof the Nile got in their works just before the accident, Rachel Alexandra, the heavy favorite for Friday's Kentucky Oaks, had her work affected by it.

Just as jockey Calvin Borel was ready to have Rachel Alexandra break off nearing the half-mile pole for the filly's final prerace workout for the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaks, the loud horn signaling a loose horse sounded. Borel alertly eased his mount toward the outside fence, gathered her up, and eventually rode her back to a gap and off the racetrack.

Some 30 minutes later, Rachel Alexandra drilled a half-mile in a bullet 46.40 seconds.

"Calvin actually was getting in a few fast strides there before the horn went off," trainer Hal Wiggins said. "We walked her back, loosened the girth, and just walked her around the barn for a while. You really worry about a horse tying up [cramping] in a situation like that, but she's got such a good mind on her, she was walking around there like nothing had happened. Her disposition helped her a whole lot.

"I was a lot more upset about it than she was."

The jockey, thankfully, came out uninjured.

This is not the first time that an errant racehorse, scared and unsure, has crashed into another horse. Youtube (my favorite source for videos) is full of examples from the racing indsutry. This seems like a sad situation that is just as likely to occur in carriage driving Arabian Country Pleasure driving or simply trail riding. This one looks like the rider was doing nusiance training the horse and, after several minutes of riding around with the piece of plastic,decided he was done; he's very athletic!

This is after the death of Tin Cup Chalice and Zany, two racehorses that collided while exercising at Finger Lakes, New York. It is very sad to hear of the death of Raspberry Miss and others.

The Luck of the Irish Part Two

Yesterday, I talked about Shorty's self-preservation habits and work ethic with the phrase, "Luck of the Irish." For a horse born on March 17th, St. Patrick's Day, the implications are purely coincidental, but somehow meaningful to me anyways (I always try to assign meaning to the various aspects of my life, even when it makes no sense to do so).

The phrase, "Luck of the Irish" has another meaning for Shorty. Unlike thousands of Shorty's "peers" in racing, Shorty was adopted from the racetrack and eventually found his way to a home. Real Sports, an HBO program, did an excellent expose on racing last year after the dramatic death of Eight Belles, the filly that nearly won the Kentucky Derby, only to fracture both front legs at the end of the race.

Here's a synopsis: “Hidden Horses: Few casual horse racing fans are aware that many former racing horses are slaughtered for profit. When a thoroughbred race horse reaches the end of its career or is simply no longer profitable on the track, it is often taken directly to auction and sold for meat. Because horse slaughter is no longer practiced in this country, these thoroughbreds are now being shipped by ‘killer buyers’ to slaughterhouses abroad, which are frequently less regulated and less humane than former U.S. slaughterhouses. Correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who recently won the 2008 Sports Emmy(r) for Outstanding Sports Journalism for his 2007 REAL SPORTS story on the NFL concussion crisis, traces the disturbing journey many of these young and healthy horses take from the track, to auctions, to slaughterhouses, and finally to the plates of European and Japanese diners who pay top dollar for the delicacy.”

I was able to find a rather rough version (by rough, I mean someone filmed their TV, but the information is still relevant and the sound isn't bad) on Youtube. Be warned; the video contains graphic imagery.

And here we are at the heart of the issue: Hundreds of thousands of horses are bred to be racing potential in the United States. Only a percentage of them actually make it to the track due to improper breeding and poor foal raising. Even breeding a great dam and sire does not gaurantee a high-quality foal, although good confirmation and smart breeding practices go a long way. Others never make it through the rigorous training programs imposed on horses at an extremely young age. Of those that do race, odd are slim to none that they will retire peacefully with no injuries, chronic pain issues, or other forms of mental or physical issues.

Shorty is one of the lucky ones, even with old injuries and arthritis. The horses at TB Friends and Old Friends Retirement are the lucky ones, along with other rescues that actually take good care of the animals in their barns. And what happens to the rest? Many end up on double-decker trailers meant for smaller livestock like sheep and goats, bound for Mexico or Canada. It is a long, hot, and cramped ride. Fugly Horse of the Day did a great post on double deckers, again, beware of very graphic images.

Other horses end up in the hands of ignorant horse owners with little understanding of ethical training methods and the meaning of the word patience. Shorty ended up in the hands of an ignorant owner for four years before he was nearly sold in an auction by his owner, allowing me to step in and claim ownership of the horse.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Luck of the Irish

Shorty, aka Spicy Devil, was born on March 17th; St. Patrick's Day, in 1998. As an 11 year old, he is becoming quite mellow and content. He wasn't always a happy camper, but his tastes have become somewhat epicurean of late. It is hard to imagine the horse that begs for cookies and looks longingly at the empty lick-it holder was once a performance horse of any sort. He fills the role of pet pony perfectly. In short, Shorty is a lucky, lucky horse.

But what does the phrase, "Luck of the Irish," really mean? A quick internet search reveals that the phrase has uncertain origins. Many believe that it was coined during one of the many time periods where Irish people suffered great tragedies and catastrophes; the potato famine, war, and mass colonization from foreign invaders are the cause. The Luck of the Irish refers to the perseverance and determination of Irish people to suffer all hardship and toil and still remain a strong group of people, culture and heritage intact.

In a sense, this is very fitting for Shorty, my St. Patrick's Day horse. Five years of hard work, where he popped splints, broke seasamoid bones, developed ulcers, and wore down his stifles and knees so badly he struggles to maintain a comfortable canter, especially to the right. And yet, Shorty can be a very loving and trusting horse, but only a few select people. His self-preservation levels are set high enough to cause him great distress from a single pet given by a stranger, or even from people that feed him on a daily basis (his old owner, for example). Shorty has a very interesting personality and a great deal of intellect.

Many people expect Thoroughbreds to spook. A group on Facebook, with over 500 members, is titled "When People Ask to Ride my Thoroughbred, I Ask if they Value Their Lives." However, a horse that has lived in a high stress environment, once shown that the world is not out to get him or her, can be a very safe and reliable horse. I love the moments where Shorty sees something new and stops, extending his nose to sniff the air in curious wonder, before dismissing the disturbance and moving on. Just today, my boss and his son zipped past me on mopeds as I was taking Shorty out of the outdoor arena. Expecting some kind of reaction, I tensed on the rope, bending my knees to avoid being pulled over by 1,000+ pounds of scared horse. Instead, Shorty raised his head, snorted, and looked at me as if to say "What? Can we go back in? It's hot out here." Had he spooked, he likely would have injuried himself and me in the process, maybe even taken out the moped riders.

And there you have it. The Luck of the Irish manifests itself in the most unlikely places. In this case, it is alive and well in a content Thoroughbred that constantly questions that world around him, and that's why I love the little guy.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I was a sophomore in college when I was first introduced to Shorty. I had recently been hired to teach riding lessons at a small farm in Ohio, and Shorty was one of their "school horse potential" projects. Shorty was given his name by the young riding students as a joke; Shorty is 16.2.

At first sight, I was alarmed. With a scraggly coat, mane, and tail, with long whiskers and overgrown hooves to boot, I could tell the little guy needed love. My heart melted instantly. Shorty regarded me for a moment in silent wonder, ears forward and eyes bright, before turning around and attempting to kick the owner's head off. The owner confessed that I was the first person Shorty didn't try to eat upon entering the stall. Apparently, the biting and kicking had been going on for some time.

I was told that Shorty had raced for five years and broke the inside seasamoid bone on his right front. I found out later that he didn't just break it; he actually cracked it in half vertically, as a result of years of hard work and stress. I was also told that Shorty had been rehabbed for a year and was ready to start under saddle. I told the owner that I was willing to work with the horse, but admitted that I was green when it came to racehorses. My prior experiences included barrel racing, bronc riding, and reining, but the owner assured me that Shorty had a heart of gold. On that point, at least, he turned out to be right. When I first laid eyes on the sad gray horse, I had no idea that I would eventually purchase the horse and devote an entire blog, let alone thousands of hours and dollars, to him.

Shorty and I have embarked on some epic rides, from the first ride where we crashed through a fence, to the ride I took on him this afternoon, bareback and bridleless at a walk, trot, and canter with some work over ground poles. This blog is a chronicle of our struggles, woes, triumphs, and simply happy moments.