Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Shorty's Hero

This is Shorty's hero. The horse is named Just Right, ridden and owned by Paula Wong. Paula purchased this horse as a four year old for $2,500 after the horse sustained a compromising, and very painful, quarter crack. Fortunately, he had healed and is sound, and he competes 3rd level.

Here's another hero of Shorty's:

This is Just Fun Stuff, ridden and owned by Melissa Hunsberger. She also rides and shows another OTTB named Expedience. Melissa was named to the USEF developing rider list in 2006 for her awesome work with these horses.

See? It can be done.

While our goals are not so lofty as FEI level, I'd love to make it through first level, maybe even work in second level. While it is difficult to recognize that Shorty does have a few issues and chronic lamenesses that will likely prevent him from doing certain dressage movements, I'm doing my best to be realistic.

One thing that cannot be accounted for is Shorty's heart. He puts a lot of effort into what he does, otherwise he wouldn't have raced for five years on three different racetracks. (Santa Anita, CA, Presque Isle Downs, PA, and Thistledown, OH). However, I do not want this horse to be uncomfortable when he is under saddle, so there's a delicate balancing act. Fortunately, I'm getting a lot of great feedback in my lessons, and riders more professional and experienced in the world of ex-racehorse rahab are setting some great parameters. My newest instructor feels there is no reason why Shorty can't work in second level and beyond once his spine alignment was addressed (and it was on Sunday).

I'm off to the barn to go ride now. I didn't ride yesterday due to Shorty's chiropractor appointment (I needed to give him some time off after being poked, prodded, and pushed around), so we start anew today! I'm excited!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Chiropractor Is In!

Shorty had a visit from an equine chiropractor today. At first, he wondered why the heck she was up on a mounting block, pushing his neck around, but when she brought out hay to get his head to stretch, he decided he really liked her. When she first touched his tender left stifle he tried to kick her, but eventually he settled down as she continued to work with him and started to enjoy himself as she eased some of the really tense spots.

She made some major adjustments- even I could hear bones creaking. There were a few moments were it looked like Shorty was enjoying himself; licking, chewing, sighing, stretching his head out inquisitively. All and all, it wasn't a bad experience and Shorty seemed none the worse for wear. Time will tell if it was a worthwhile experience.

Truth be told, I was warned by my veterinarian about the "evils" of chiropractors. According to my vet, one person "pushing" on a horse will not influence the bones to move; even band saws barely get through the muscle! I see her point; Shorty has a very thick neck, but pushing on a live muscle is probably very different than sawing through a dead horse's muscle during necropsy. When I asked if hiring a chiropractor would be a good idea for Shorty, she responded, "Well, it won't HURT him to have it done, but don't expect any major results. Just don't let anyone hammer on your horse's head."

I decided to search around and ask some of my horsey friends about who they recommend. I finally called a woman that came highly recommended by a fellow certified riding instructor. I'm glad I called her out; she didn't slam my horse against a wall and hammer on his head (which is basically how my vet made it sound). If you are in the Cleveland area, feel free to contact me through my email address for her contact information.

I'm tentatively scheduled for a "check-up" in four weeks. According to the chiropractor, it is pretty common for the alignment problems to resurface after a few weeks because the muscles will pull them back. A tune up will reshape the horse as the muscles adjust to the new alignment. Shorty will have tomorrow off from riding (but he will go for a nice handwalk) and then we start fresh on Tuesday. I'm not expecting him to suddenly start picking up his right lead canter, but I do hope he will be more comfortable to the right and able to bend a bit more without falling in on my right leg. I'm exited! Yay progress!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Le Sigh

Friday was an interesting day. My car picks very opportune moments to randomly, yet quite effectively, die. I decided to rename my car from her former She-Ra the Princess of Power to the manly man John McClane from the ever-popular Die Hard films. My car died hard, died harder, and died hard with a vengeance. I'm waiting for the final installment; the inevitable live free or die hard moment where the car finally reaches its final resting place, probably in the middle of a busy intersection, on the highway, or at a drive through.

The reason the moment was so unfortunate was because I had just purchased grain for Shorty and was expected to drive back to the loading dock to retrieve my order. I, the triumphant fool, strolled out of the feed store and into the parking lot, thinking "Yes, I bought grain. Somewhere, probably in a city, some girl paid $120 for shoes, but me, I bought GRAIN. I'm COOL." I happily hop in my hoopty, only to to hear the ultimate sound of fail. After three pathetic whines, all I got was a click from the ignition.

"What? How could this be? Surely, I did not leave any lights on and the radio was off." I searched around, looking for a cause to my effect. None were to be had, and that's bad news. That means
it is time to shell out $120 on something other than GRAIN; a car battery. But first, I had to call my husband and asked him to drive over to the grain store and jump my car.

Once the car was running, I drove over to the barn and was careful to remind myself not to turn off my car. Instead, I let my battery recharge with the running alternator while I unloaded grain, turned Shorty out, cleaned his stall, waterer, and feed bucket, measured out grain, brought Shorty back in, rode Shorty, gave Shorty a bath, and gave Shorty his "good boy" cookies at the end of the night. I left John McClane running for four hours. To avoid overheating, I turned the heat on full blast in the passenger compartment to draw hot air out of the engine. While the engine did, in fact, remain in the safe temperature levels, my seats, the steering wheels, and the air in the car was stale and hot.

A new battery later, all seems to be well and good. Hopefully my only convenient means of getting to the barn to see my horse and do my work will not abandon me in the near future. Here's to wishful thinking *raises Dr. Pepper bottle in toast.*

The fine piece of machinery pictured to the left is not my car, but very similar. If the fake wood panels were taken away, it would basically be my car: a 1991 Cutlass Cruiser Supreme, mostly powder blue. Yes, I realize this is a Buick, but back then, they were basically the same thing. Sometime in the near future I'll take a picture of my beauty and post them for giggles. The rust that goes through the wheel wells is particularly amusing.

That said, I did purchase my car for $400 out of a junk yard and have since enjoyed five years, roughly 100,000 miles, of relatively pain-free driving. My horse, on the other hand, has an Albion saddle that cost $1,300 used (these saddles are over $3,500 new - yikes), and right after I got the saddle I had it reflocked and shaped to his back (another $400). Heck, Shorty's two bridles, one Tory leather and the other Courbette, cost more than my car. But, as a dedicated horse owner, driving around a POS while buying the best possible tack for my horse is A-OK with me. :)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Last night, while teaching an adult group lesson, I watched one of the new, less-experienced riding instructors struggle with getting her horse to hold still. Exasperated, she grabbed on to her horse's withers, pulled hard, and slammed down on the horse's back. I grimaced and the horse didn't look happy about it either.

For the sake of confidentiality, I will refer to this rider as "A." A started taking lessons because she is interested in dressage and knows that I ride the discipline and work it in to all of my lessons in some form or another. She wanted to work on getting her mare on the bit and said that the mare resists her hand.

I walked over and asked if A wanted to work on some training issues with her mare during the lesson, and she agreed. When I looked at what the mare was wearing in her mouth, I wanted to cry. The brow band was two inches lower than I would put it, the throat latch was too tight, and the noseband was buckled over the cheek pieces. The worst part of all was the bit: a loose ring snaffle that was 1. too tight and pinching the mare's mouth, and 2. really, really disgustingly RUSTY. I held the horse and sent A into the barn to get Shorty's bridle, a full-size Tory leather bridle with a nice, fat full-cheek snaffle (complete with keepers). I adjusted the size of the bridle a bit for her more petite head, put it in, and readjusted, all the while talking to A about things like the 2 finger rule and wrinkles at the corner of the mouth. The horse was relieved to get that rusty bit out of her mouth but she thankfully did not have any rubs or missing skin as a result of A's lack of judgement. (Who the fuck doesn't realize that RUST is a bad thing to put in a horse's mouth?)

A moved to grab the reins from me again, but I didn't give them up. Instead, I took the mare for a walk. As I walked around, I stopped and gave her praise when she held still. If she moved, I lightly corrected her, waited for her to settle and stand, and went right back to pets and praise for being a good girl. After three stops, she had the idea; this mare is no dummy. I walked her over to the mounting block, asked her to stop, and again petted her. Then, I walked away. I walked around to the block again, this time standing on the bottom step, all the while reassuring her. I hopped off and walked around again. I went to the block one more time, asked her to stand, went all the way to the top step of the block and made a big fuss about how awesome she was. The process took no more than five minutes, all said and done.

I handed the reins to A, and told her to do the same thing. She had observed me making light corrections to prevent walking off. For a horse that is accustomed to following me the way Shorty is, I simply place my hand on his chest and he stops. For a horse that is being intoduced to the concept of hanging out with humans, a "whoa" and soft tug back on the reins should suffice. After a few stands, we introduced the mounting block.

Before A was allowed to swing a leg over, I warned her about the evils of flopping onto the horse. "Have a heart," I told her. "You wouldn't want someone slamming something onto YOUR back, would you?" Wouldn't you know it, the horse held still while A got on and we both petted and praised her.

Next, we talked about halting while astride the horse. I told her about what I call the "halt position" where the rider is completely centered deep in the saddle and does not move. "Movement from your leg, seat, even your hand and mean 'Move off' to the horse," I told A. "When you ask for a stop, exhale and settle down deep into your seat. Sit quiet."

The horse danced a little, and A was quick to kick the horse hard on the side with a sharp, "Cut it OUT!" I honestly feel that using leg to teach your horse to stand is a conflicting message; leg means "go" and I told A that. "If she moves, I said, "Gently exhale and halt again, wait for her to settle, and go back to petting and praising her." A few minutes later, the mare stood beautifully for over a minute.

"Okay, that's enough for today," I told A. "That's a great victory for today, and you should be very proud of that mare."

"That's it?!" A retorted. "We didn't trot, canter, or work on getting her on the bit. We just did stuff on the ground."

"What we did today strengthened your communication with your horse. Over time, she should be able to follow you when you walk and stop and stand when you stop without a tug on the reins. In the meantime, these little improvements add up to a healthier, safer, and more balanced horse."

A stomped off, probably feeling like she was cheated out of becoming a brilliant dressage rider in one lesson, but I feel like taking it slow was the best thing for A and the mare. I truly feel bad for the mare. I wish I could find her an upgrade, and it is sad to think that A IS an upgrade from her last owner.

The whole lesson made me think about Shorty and ex-racehorses. The few times I've been on a racetrack, I've witnessed grooms legging up jockeys while the horse is in motion. Many racehorses do not learn to stand still for mounting. When I first started with Shorty, that was one of the first things I had to do. Before I hop on a horse and ask for walk, trot, or canter, I need to know that he/she understands my cues for standing still.

Just like my lesson with A, I had to start from the ground and "earn" my way up, and by "earn" I mean I had to have Shorty's trust, and be able to trust Shorty, before I felt that I was ready to put my foot in the stirrup. And trust, my friends, isn't initially earned by galloping in a field. That kind of work is acceptable for a horse and rider that already has an established partnership, but I wouldn't recommend it for an amateur rider with a new horse. Trust comes from those quiet moments where you and the horse can stand peacefully, side by side, enjoying the peace and sharing, not invading, eachother's space. I love those moments just as much as I love nailing a lateral movement or getting an awesome canter depart.

For the first two weeks, my training methods with Shorty were very simple. Observers would have probably switched over to watching the grass grow. That's okay. We spent most of the time standing still or walking around in big circles. We built an awesome foundation for trust, and even when Shorty spooks he stays near me. Without or without a leadrope, he will follow me and he's a breeze to bring in from the field. And he certainly does not move from the mounting block until I give him a light squeeze to let him know (if he does move too soon, 99.99% of the time it is because I shifted my leg and accidentally gave him the cue, the other .01 is usually because he was off balance and moved up a step or two to be more comfortable).

Too bad the barn is closed. I want to go do some ground work. :)

Friday, June 12, 2009

The End of the Lounge Line

One of things Shorty struggles with is bending and going forward at the same time. He will stand still and allow me to gently guide his head from one side to the other, and he has mastered going straight on the racetrack, but clearly my horse is not a multitasker.

Today, I free lounged Shorty for a few minutes at the walk and trot in both directions. Normally, at this stage, I would have the horse in his bridle, reins removed, with the lounge line through the inside of the bit, over the crown piece at the poll, and clipped to the other side (clip facing out, of course). Even that is too much for my large and stiff friend. So, we started with the basics.

I attached the lounge line to the center ring of his halter, put on my riding gloves and asked Shorty to walk. He almost immediately stopped and questioned what I was asking, so I encouraged him to continue walking out on the circle with clucks and a wave of the excess lounge line in my hand (whips are too much for Shorty and I get tangled up in them anyway). We walked for minute one way, turned around, and walked the other way. Shorty started to get the hang of walking and looking to the inside, which made me happy.

I started to think about some of the other uses for lounge lines. Here are some of the ways I've employed my 25 foot friend:
  1. Putting timid or inexperienced students on a lounge line for their first time trotting or cantering allows me more control of the horse and lets my student concentrate on feeling what the horse is doing.
  2. The benefits of balance exercises and stretches while working on a lounge line are amazing, especially in developing your seat or working on maintaining or correcting your equitation. It helps to have an instructor holding the lounge line; he or she will see some of the minute asymmetries and tense points in your body that could use a bit of attention (if said instructor knows what he or she is doing).
  3. This probably sounds awful, but I once put an unruly camper on a lounge line. I clipped it to his belt loop and told him to pretend he was a racehorse until he was so tired he didn't have the energy to kick at me or slap the little girls in the camp. I lounged that kid harder than I've ever lounged a horse.
  4. The first time I taught safety to my campers, I sat them down and lectured them on horse behavior and barn rules. They fidgeted, didn't pay attention, and didn't learn a damn thing. Now, I pull the kids in the arena and do role playing before they get to work with the horses. My tacker is great at pretending to be a horse and gently kicking at the kids when they go behind her. To teach spacing in the arena, I took a few frayed, awful looking lounge lines that were sitting around and clipped them together to make a 100 foot line. Using my trusty tape measure and a sharpie, I marked 15 foot sections with a black band. I then lined my campers up and had each one hold the long line at the black marks. I then sent them off around on the ring, and the kids had to maintain the slack in the rope- if it was on the ground, they were too close. Its a great way to get your students to look up and pay attention, and they understand what 15 feet looks like. During lunch breaks, the kids would ask if they could keep playing follow the leader with the long line!
  5. Getting horses in the trailer. Sometimes, a 12 foot leadrope isn't enough for the horse that pulls back suddenly. One horse nearly dislocated my shoulder before I figured that one out.
  6. Rope gate practice. The first time I set up a rope gait for my students to work through, I found they quickly ran out of rope and got discouraged. Before I realized that could buy 15 feet of nylon rope at Wal-mart for a couple dollars, I used a lounge line and bundled the excess line to the "gate" with a bungee cord to keep it out of the way.
  7. Blocking off a driveway for a horseshow. My lounge line is a brighter shade of green and made an excellent barrier across the driveway between two jump standards. To complete my road block, I taped signs to the standards and hung one off the line itself. It was very effective and required all of two minutes to set up.
  8. Diagnositics. I use lounge lines to evaluate lameness, especially when I'm on my own. I like to lounge all of the school horses and observe how they move. I've learned a lot about the schoolies I work with and know when they're moving normally, when they're thinking about bolting, and when they're feeling arthritic and sore. (I like to ride the schoolies every now and then as well, but observing them on the line has really helped me understand them from the instructor's viewpoint on the ground). Some lamenesses are more prevalent on a circle as well.
Here's what I don't use lounge lines for:
  1. Wearing out the energy of a horse. Yes, I've lounged to take the edge off a horse that I know has a lot of extra energy and is considering bucking me off, and I've used it to build communication with a horse, but I never lounge a horse down to totally tired and dripping in sweat. I feel that the horse doesn't learn anything, and it sure as shit doesn't improve your image in the horse's eyes when you wear them down like that.
  2. Long lining. The few times that I've long lined a horse, I used real long lines, although they did suspiciously look a lot like a pair of lounge lines. :)
  3. Ground work. There's too much of a possibility of getting tangled up when you are working closely with the horse.
  4. Tying up the barn manager and locking him away where he can never touch a horse or "clean" a stall again, although I've been tempted at times. He's the only person my horse truly hates, and there are many reasons for that.
On a related note, I never use a lounge line with a chain. Ever. Period. How does using a chain teach a horse to come forward?

Also, if you lounge in a saddle, don't subject your horse to pain via stirrups banging on his sides. Remove them or, if you can, run them up. A western trainer of mine used to flip both of his stirrups over the seat of the saddle and put a short bungee tie around them and the saddle horn so they would not come down and hit the horse's ribs, although Cashel makes a stirrup keeper for western saddles and it really shouldn't be hard to take the fender, or at least the stirrups, off your western saddle (if it is, you might not be cleaning your saddle enough).

Also, for Pete's sake, wear gloves. Rope burn is a bitch and really slows you down when you work with your hands. Some of those nylon lines will chafe right through your skin, sometimes causing a deep, four inch gash along the palm of your hand.

Above all else, use common sense and take it slow. Loungeing is a wonderful training tool, but don't use it as a regular substitute for riding and don't overwork and overburden your horse with it.

P.S. I've seen a lot of ways to spell "lounge" and "lounging." I'm not entirely sure which spelling I've used, so forgive me if I spell it differenly.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Entry That is Long Overdue

Sorry for the lack of writing lately. I got married on May 24th, Memorial Day weekend, and I've been playing catch-up ever since. I was also feeling a bit depressed, especially since my co-workers decided that referring to me as an old, crotchety, married hag and making snide remarks about my sex life were okay now that I've tied the knot after seven years of dating. But I digress.

On the morning of Sunday, May 24th, I was not preparing for my wedding. The individuals at the barn that I would have trusted to take care of my wonderful horse were either out of town for the holiday or refuse to do work on Sundays. I woke up early, donned my one pair of faded jeans and an old sweatshirt and headed out to the barn, thinking I'd turn Shorty out, clean his stall and do other chores, give him a good brushing, and have a few hours to put together those last minute details before my 3 pm ceremony.

I got to the barn right as it opened at 9 am. I immediately put Shorty's boots on (splints in front, bell boots on the hinds and the fronts (he interferes and overreaches)), put on his turnout halter, and put him out with his turnout buddy Oliver. I cleaned Shorty's stall, cobwebbed, scrubbed his waterer, and added to the "Shorty Instruction Manual" that I left for the novice riding instructor that agreed to take care of Shorty and cover my lessons during my honeymoon.

At 11 am, I decided that it was time to bring Shorty in. Normally, I put my horse out for much longer than 2 hours, but I was getting frantic phone calls from my soon-to-be in-laws and my future hubby, all adding to my long list of overlooked items that needed to be tended to. As I walked out, Shorty heard my footsteps and met me at the gate. Normally, he waits for me to approach him, especially on a cool day devoid of insects, so I knew something was wrong before I fully made it to the gate.

Sure enough, Shorty had a long, oozing gash right above his right knee. Although there was little blood and the gash was actually very shallow, the swelling had already poofed out to the size of my fist. Forgetting all about nagging phone calls, I brought Shorty in, went back for his buddy, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.

I cleaned and clipped the cut, and cold hosed for about twenty five minutes. Hose in one hand, bottle of betadine in the other, I cradled the phone between my jaw and my shoulder as I explained to Eric that I would not be able to make it to the park right away to set up. As I dried off Shorty's leg, I glanced at my watch and realized that it was 12 pm, and in three hours I would be getting married.

Back to work. A little dab of tri-care wound ointment, a few squares of guaze held in place by a roll of flexi-gauze, held in place by a knee wrap, held up (a little bit) by a stall bandage became the matroshka doll of equine first aid. Although Shorty was not lame when I walked him in from the pasture, I wrapped the opposite front for good measure. By then, it was 12:15. Turning my attention to the rest of Shorty, I brushed him and looked him over for any additional cuts, swellings or abnormalities. Finding none, I put Shorty in his stall, measured out his afternoon grain and added bute to help with the swelling, leaving notes for both the barn manager and Shorty's babysitter. I finally left the barn at 1 pm, 2 hours before my wedding.

Since I was expected to set everything up (my parents are useless when it comes to caring about stuff like that and Eric's mom did the best she could and was a HUGE help), I didn't have time to shower, pack for my honeymoon, or iron my dress. I washed my hands and face, hastily put on some eye makeup and a bit of lipstick, brushed my hair, and dashed out the door. 2 hours and a hasty change in a park latrine later, we don't look too bad, no?

Notice the farmer's tan?

Fast foward to 8 pm. The reception pretty much over, I started cleaning up and gently kicking out drunk people (making sure they had rides home, of course). I asked Eric if we could postpone the rest of our wedding night so I could visit my horse and make sure he was doing okay. I got to the barn to see that Shorty's knee wrap was still on, but was sagging a bit. Initially, I was diasppointed that my square knots hadn't held, but as I removed it I realized that the swelling was down significantly. Yay!

I cold hosed him again for twenty minutes, gave him lots of kisses, and decided to leave the wound unwrapped. It looked a lot better, and leaving the wraps on meant that the skin was soft and wasn't making a nice, hard, protective scab. I knew it would probably swell up again with the wraps off, but decided that letting it air out was more important, given that Shorty showed no signs of lameness or impeded movement as a result of his little boo boo. As I gave Shorty is cookies and walked out of the barn, I felt guilty for leaving him for a week, but knew that his babysitter (in charge of turnout, cleaning chores, and brushing only) would be fine- she's a college professor in the sciences and currently leasing a horse, so she has a good understanding of what healthy means and how to maintain it, in spite of being a novice in this industry. To help her out, I'd fully inventoried and listed the contents of my first aid kit and left her ten pages of info on Shorty including abnormalities that are normal for Shorty and ways Shorty tells you he isn't feeling well. (For example, I wrote down that Shorty is normally stiff when he first comes out of his stall in the morning as a result of arthritis, but if he has a significantly noticable shortened stride or refuses to bear full weight on a leg he may have hurt himself sometime in the night).

On the plane ride home, I wanted two things: 1. to snuggle with my cat and 2. to hug my horse. I missed my critters while I was away, and when I got back everyone was still happy and healthy, just as I had left them (Shorty's cut was down to a minimal scab). A week after my wedding, I drove up the gravel driveway and glanced at my horse's window as a backed into my parking spot next to the barn. Not only was he at the window, he was nickering as I got out of the car. I gave my horse a big hug, after which he turned to me as if to ask, "Okay, can you put me out now?"