Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Long-Awaited Update

Shorty's leg is getting better, slowly.
For the past week, I've been spending even more time than usual with my horse. Every morning, before work, I've been getting to the barn during AM feeding to take off his wraps, cold hose, and put ice packs on while Shorty eats. Before trucking off to work, I would put Shorty's splint boots on and take him for a handwalk in the arena.

After work, I go to the barn to clean Shorty's stall and buckets, groom him, go for another hand walk, hand graze for as long as possible, cold hoze/ice pack his legs again, dry him off, and poultice wrap him up for the night. I've been trying to make Shorty still feel loved and cared for, so I've been doing one extra little thing each day. Yesterday, I clipped his whiskers, which is something he actually enjoys. The day before, I gave Shorty a super-bath, complete with whitener and conditioner.

I also surprised Shorty with a number of stall toys to play with while he is on stall rest. He loves his lik-it, but didn't really play with the Jolly Ball. He thought highly of the treat roller thing until he figured out how to pin it in the corner of his stall and dump out all of the treats. He's getting extra hay, soaked beet pulp, and lots of treats, too! I did reduce his grain ration since he is a TB out of work (which usually ends up looking like a sugar-high toddler unless you take some preventative action), and he hasn't been out on grass much, so I've had to beef up the forage. Plus, it gives him something to chew on.
I hope to start lightly under saddle again by the end of next week with the vet's blessing. Fortunately, she felt that the swelling was a the result of a very large bruise and lightly strained tendon. She said the cold hosing, bute, poultice routine that I has already employed was exactly what she'd prescribe, and there's not a whole lot more I can do. I did shell out some $500 for ultrasounds, but knowing that Shorty isn't permanently damaged is worth every penny.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shorty's Injured Tendon

When I got to the barn on Monday, Shorty had a small, but deep, cut on the inside of his front left leg. It was swollen and hot. I cold hosed, pulticed, and wrapped it. I usually give these things three full days to heal on their own or at least make significant progress before calling the vet.

I have an appointment with the vet this afternoon. I'll update soon after. Please keep your fingers crossed!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bat Crazy!

Yesterday evening, I was giving a lesson to one of myadult students. A small object fell from the rafters of the indoor (it was starting to rain outside, so we had gone in). At first, I thought it was a baby bird, but as I walked closer I realized that it is too late in the season for chicks to be falling out of the rafters. The tiny little body that greeted me was one of a baby bat, later identifed as a male little brown.

My adult student was, as many people are, totally freaked out by the little guy. Once, an adult bat nesting in one of the barn doors that is open all summer fell out when I closed it during a big thunderstorm. Once the storm passed, I was able to take him outside on a large dustpan and put him in a tree, where he could wait for a good breeze and fly home. Bats cannot fly on their own, they rely on a good gust of wind to take off.

It was raining, and the little bat had taken quite a fall (over forty feet) To make matters worse, the barn cat was aware of the bat as well, and had already decided that the bat would make a good dinner. I went up in the loft to see if I could put him in the rafters near his family, but he wouldn't stay in the rafters. He fell out and landed on me, clinging his little hind legs to my shirt. I put him in a small box I rustled out of my car and put him in my tack locker, where the cat couldn't get him.

Once my lesson was over, I again turned my attention to my newly acquired friend. One should not keep a bat, they should live outside, and I knew he probably needed medical help from his long fall. I took him home, looked up bat sanctuaries on the internet, and called a local rescue operation for wild animals.

So, at 11 pm last night, the little brown bat was safely delivered to a sanctuary and into knowledgeable hands. The actual sanctuary was closed, so I delivered the bat to a rescuer's home. Her house was decorated with Halloween decorations of bats, identifying that I was in the right place. She looked him over, told me his gender (male), age (about a month old), and type (little brown). As her husband readied baby bat food, a type of formula, the woman informed me should do everything in her power to save the little guy.

I called this morning, and he made it through the night, but he ate very little. I do hope the little guy makes it! Bats area valuable part of insect control, eating up to 400 bugs a night (which is awesome at a horse farm), and no creature should go without proper care. The woman seemed surprised that I would drive an hour to drop the little guy off, and said that most people just kill them. Poor bats.

By the way, I did not take any pictures of the little guy. I briefly considered snapping a few photos, but figured the bat was in shock as it was and I wanted him to get medical attention immediately. Thankfully, the internets are full of bat pictures.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rocks and Rock-Like People

Yesterday, Shorty and I went for a trail ride with my friend Barb. Barb owns an adorable Quarter Horse named William, and are two horses are simply awesome when it comes to trailering and going to new places. They load on, ride quietly, unload nicely, and quickly settle into their new surroundings. As a trainer, I am often asked to work with horses that have trailering issues, so it is nice to have a horse that is very no-fuss about such things.

The trails were beautiful and well marked, and the day was gorgeous. We saw joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers, fishermen, deer, blackbirds, a huge pond filled with bullfrogs, small bridges built for horses and other would-be scary stuff. None of that affected Shorty. The only thing that Shorty spooked at was a random rock of red marble that was about knee high and two feet wide and sat next to the trail. Shorty came up to it, snorted and stepped sideways past it, never taking his eyes off the offending rock, and then attempted to bolt down the trail. We circled it a few times before moving on. On the way back, he was very tense going past it, but maintained straightness and tempo.

The trailer lot itself was terrible. One woman decided to park her trailer, a huge 4 horse gooseneck, in the middle of the turnaround for trailers, effectively blocking the rest of us from turning around to get out of the lot. To make matters worse, there was a huge picnic for Weight Watchers participants going on and there were hoards of people running around the park. When we got back from the trail, the woman with big trailer was still there and people had parked their cars right next to my horse trailer. There was less than a foot of space between the trailer and the cars, completely blocking us from tying the horses up, giving them water and hay, and being able to untack and load up.

Barb and I rode over to the picnic and had to track people down to move their cars. I was nearly kicked out by a park ranger for riding in the pavilion area during my pursuit of others. People were in a rush to come over and pet our horses (which Shorty hates) but they were reluctant to walk to the parking lot to move their cars. One very heavyset woman said she would only move her car if I would give her a horseback ride back to the parking lot. *Eye roll* "Umm... no. I can't do that." Let's list the reasons why: 1. Shorty hates new people 2. LIABILITY 3. I don't have a helmet big enough for her 4. I am not legging up some three-hundred pound woman onto my nice, well-trained horse because she's too lazy to walk 5. Her audacity to get a free ride was totally rude and could feel my blood pressure rising as she insisted adamantly that riding my horse was the only way for her to get to her car (which was about a thousand feet away).

I was proud of my awesome horse for being such a good boy and a real trooper with the overly-enthusiastic people, who often say things like, "I once rode this horse at the YMCA camp, and I swear, they gave me the really stubborn one," or "I was riding before I could walk, but I don't ride anymore, I would love to ride again." If I got a penny every time someone told me about their stubborn horse at the Y, I'd be able to buy a Starbucks Venti Java Chip Frappuchino by now. When it comes to rocks, I was a little perplexed by Shorty's dislike of that chunk of granite, but hey, it could have been worse. As for his strong dislike of rock-like people, I don't blame him. Those people were downright rude.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I Need Your Help on This One: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Yesterday, Shorty and I took the day off from riding. Instead, I took him for a walk around the field. I let him hand graze for about twenty minutes near the "scary car zone" as a sort of reinforcement that cars will not jump through the trees and eat him. We explored the property (about 12 acres in all) and made frequent stops for nibbling grass. Shorty found a jackpot of white clover and was so excited he grunted as he furiously tore into the little patch. While he grazed, I groomed the itchy spot under his jaw. If we was a cat instead of a horse, he would have purred.

All of that came tumbling down in a matter of minutes when we walked over to riding arena, where a group of summer camp students were riding in their lesson. I managed the 2008, 2007, and 2006 summer camp seasons and taught an average of ten hours a day. This year, I have a full time job that offers more opportunities and much higher pay, plus I'm not getting burned out on kids peeing their pants and throwing up their sandwiches while riding. The instructor, we'll call this one B, was praising one of the students for her great hands. Great hands? Hardly. Her hands were about a foot too high and yanking back with ferocious pressure. I had to take Shorty back to the barn and put him away because I was getting so upset.

The worst part? The riding instructor encouraged her to "half halt" the horse if he went too fast. She described a half halt as a "sharp, upward jerk back on the reins." If I were a cartoon, steam would have errupted from my ears, because my brain basically fried when I heard that. The student's posting was absolutely awful; the girl pulled up on the horse's mouth as she rose, causing the poor, old, loyal school horse to hollow, invert, and chew the bit furiously. When she came down, she SLAMMED down on the seat, and she was not a lightweight girl. The cherry on top was when B praised the girl for being on the correct diagonal, and she wasn't.

When the lesson was over, one camper's mother praised the girl for "great seat" and the student beamed. B chimed in with "Yeah, and great job posting today." Meanwhile, I'm over at my locker, furiously scrubbing dirt off of Shorty's cribbing collar because I want to say something, start something, do something but I can't because there are so many kids and horses around. In my head, I imagined myself putting a bit in B's mouth and having her student with "great hands" rip her around for an hour. I wanted to give the old loyal school horse a hug and a cookie (I teach lessons on him, and depend on his good nature to give my students a good start in their careers).

The girl doesn't deserve praise for her riding. I found out she's been riding for four months now and is A. just now learning how to post, B. still hasn't been told not to pull too hard on the reins, and C. worse equitation-wise than the student I started last week in her first lesson ever. She's also 12. At that age, deep down, I feel that she should at least feel that something is wrong with her horse's head, and that horses don't typically choose to pop above the bit and suck behind a rider's leg the way old JT did. I admit, there could be a mental issue there that prevents her from reasoning correctly, but if that is the case she should not be riding in a group. I would put her in lesson on her own and stick her on a lounge line for a while, and I would give her reins with elastic inserts (or reins made of string that will break), and get a fat rubber snaffle for the horse. While I believe that horses can teach us powerful lessons about patience, quiet equitation, confidence, balance, etc. and offer TONS of great exercises for physically and mentally handicapped people, this issue isn't being addressed the right way.

So here I am. And, as I type this, B is finishing up with her campers for the day, and she'll spend tomorrow with them as well. I do have a bit of sway with the barn owner, and, after three years of employment and several degrees/certifications/times I was proven right, he has expressed that among his staff I am the senior instructor. Addressing the B situation will be difficult. She's not a good instructor, and unlike A she doesn't listen well for learn from her mistakes. For example, I've had to teach her how to put polo wraps on three times now, and yet, when I walk in the barn, horses she wraps have velcro around their coronet bands and there's a tail of extra material at the top (*headdesk*). I've already recommended that the student not ride on her own any more. If she wants to continue, great, but she needs constant attention whenever she is around a horse- that much is clear. Now, do I go for the jugular and recommend that B gets fired?

I'm really at a loss on the whole situation. On one hand, I have ignorant B, who has proven she's stuck in her old ways, not that I'm not either, but at least I have an education and you'd best believe I listen attentively when someone with more credentials/credibility/professionalism/proven track record has something to suggest to me. On the other? B is the only teacher available for the summer camps, and I know firing her will put my boss in a bind because A and I work during the day. Plus, some kids have really grown to like her and she'd probably take them with her. I'm not in charge of the business, but, as a business person, I know it will hinder my boss's meager earnings, which have already suffered due to the recession.

Readers, I am asking for your comments on this one. What would you do?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Total Freakout!

Yesterday, while riding along peacefully in the field, Shorty freaked out. This wasn't the garden variety, "let's look at snuff and snort" kind of spook that I've become accustomed to in Shorty. Shorty had a long career on the track, so few things phase him. Car, trucks, motorcycles, brooms, hoses, plastic bottles, garbage bags being dragged down a gravel driveway... these things are fine with Shorty as long as he can get a good look at the offending noise/movement.

Not yesterday. In the open field, one side is dominated by a line of trees. On the other side of the tree line is Hosford Road, where cars traverse between the busy Route 44 and the slightly less busy Ravenna Road. Normally the cars do not pose a threat.

I was trotting large circles and practicing my steady outside rein, open inside rein maneuver. As I passed by the treeline, a car sped towards Shorty on the road, making a loud acceleration noise. Shorty took the open door opportunity to run through my soft inside rein and blast off in a series of bucks, spins, and crowhops. Shorty finally lived up to his Jockey Club name of Spicy Devil. As I attempted to reel my inside rein back in and regain my balance (I'd lost my inside stirrup as well) Shorty bolted for the barn. Thankfully, a big exhale and a strong half halt, followed by plenty of circles, brought Shorty back. I got my stirrup back. The blasted leather had twisted three or four times thanks to all of the twisting break-dance moves on Shorty's part, and I took a moment to thank the Lord for thigh blocks and giving me long legs before continuing back towards the offensive tree line.

Sure enough, every time Shorty heard a rustle or thought he saw something move, he'd pop up above my hand and blast off like a rocket. Did I strap on Air Jordans instead of bell boots? Did someone fill Shorty's waterer with Amp Energy Drink instead of water? After lots of circles and half halts, Shorty started to settle down. For the rest of the ride, a solid 45 minutes, I kept Shorty close to the treeline and praised him for not bolting when a car went by. I had to hold his little hand like he was just started under saddle, not the veteran that he is.

In the aftermath, I realized a few things:
  • I've ridden some cantankerous horses in my life that could throw a mean buck. However, most of them were Quarter Horses. I learned that a horse with long legs can really throw himself in the air like no short-legged horse can. If Shorty were human, he'd be the next LeBron James.
  • Even horses that can handle F-15 planes and air ballons without much care can spook at something he's seen nearly everyday. Heck, I once had a professional barrel horse that spooked at a BARREL in the middle of the arena.
  • Long legs and thigh blocks are awesome. I love my saddle, I love my full seat breeches, and I love my grippy half chaps. I love my helmet, too, and my gloves.
  • When opening your inside rein, be aware of your surroundings. Don't get caught, as I did, in midair when your horse suddenly becomes the next Challenger Space Shuttle and propels himself to the moon. I'll take the blame for a lot of this one, not because I think that I caused Shorty to somehow spook, but because a more aware rider wouldn't have been caught so off guard. I sometimes get tunnel vision and block out my outside surroundings, but alas! when climbing on top of, and attempting to control, a 1,000 pound plus animal, it pays to be observant.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Opening Rein

I had an AWESOME lesson yesterday with Shorty. Shorty has difficulty picking up his right lead canter. As a typically do, I went through the checklist:
  • Saddle fit- I purchased an Albion dressage saddle with a TB tree and had it flocked to him
  • Back soreness- The chiropractor was out a few weeks ago, and Shorty has had several massages. Upon probing, no tucking or flinching has been noticed.
  • Arthritis/Joint Pain- Shorty has been evaluated by two different vets, including the highly regarded Dr. Genovese, who specializes in racehorses. We did everything from radiographs to flexion tests. Yes, Shorty has arthritis; with over 100 starts, that was almost guaranteed. However, both vets felt that Shorty's joint damage is not so far gone that, with proper management, there's no reason why he can't canter on both leads.
  • Management- Teeth are done, trimming and shoe resets are done every four to five weeks in the summer (Shorty grows hoof really, really fast, especially in the summer, so I have the farrier come out once a month May to September), he wears splint boots and bell boots on all four, BCS of 5 (probably for the first time in Shorty's life, he has fat deposits), and Shorty is fit for moderately strenuous exercise.
Where does that leave us? The problem hasn't been solved, although Shorty's life has significantly improved since I purchased him in November. I know that Shorty is capable of doing the work. I also know that, as a lower-level dressage rider, I found myself unable to get the results I wanted to see.

Rather than perpetuating the ugly, vicious circle of me being unbalanced in the saddle, Shorty being unbalanced underneath me, which then makes me more unbalanced, and Shorty is more unbalanced underneath me, etc., I decided to get help. I'm glad I did.

Yesterday, I was reintroduced to the wonders of the opening rein, thus riding off my outside turning aids. On a circle, the instructor, Chelsea, had me take up the slack in my outside rein and hold it steady. I also followed through with my outside leg, closing it when I felt Shorty going beyond my rein and becoming over bent. That part was relatively easy for me because I am familiar with using outside turning aids to push a horse away from me.

The harder part was opening my inside rein. The natural tendency for a lot of riders is to squeeze and half halt the inside rein, which actually causes a horse like Shorty is resist the tug and evade the bit with an open mouth and a hollow back. Instead, Chelsea had me gently pull my inside rein towards the center of the circle, a motion much like the opening of a door. After a few seconds, I would gently bring my hand back. When Shorty started to tense up on his right side, I opened my right rein, keeping my outside aids constant and my inside leg long.

Although there were a few ugly moments where I ended up getting a movement similar to a shoulder in, I was able to spiral in and out of the circle using leg yields and opening my inside rein. Although Shorty did not pick up his right lead, he was more sensitive to my outside aids and he was more flexible to the right. It is difficult for me to break my old barrel racer habit of flexing my inside rein to get inside bend, but I was pleased with the results.

When I first started with Shorty, I was told to counter bend him and force him into the canter. I resisted using that method because it doesn't solve anything; the horse remains unbalanced and no dressage judge would respect that as a clear canter depart. This method takes more time, but overall, Shorty will be more comfortable and flexible as a result. Also, as a result of yesterday's lesson, I've decided to continue my weekly lessons with Chelsea and I have set a goal of riding a training level test at a USEF show held in November. I don't care what score I get, but I want to canter to the right in front of a judge. I shared this goal with Chelsea, who feels that gives us ample time to build, strengthen, and communicate our way to success.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Dressage Training Scale

Pictured above is the dressage training scale. Although several variations exist, the idea behind the visual is a foundation of training eventually leads to upper-level ability in the horse. Much like a world-class athlete, a certain amount of genetics, fitness, nutrition, and other contributing factors lend themselves towards greatness in horses. I love the Fugly Horse of the Day blog, and the author clearly demonstrates the negative effects of poor breeding and ignorance in equine husbandry that leads to an unprecedented amount of "fuglies" born every year.

That said, even talented, awesome horses have bleak futures with bad training. Here is a well-documented case of a stellar Tennessee Walking Horse that was ridden to the ground and is now in constant pain. One look at the picture to the left indicates that Mr. Biggs is uncomfortable simply standing in the sun on even ground.

That's where the training scale comes in handy. Long before we can expect collection and gorgeous upper-level movements from our horses, we must strive to build a strong foundation. This is especially important for OTTBs; these horses have no sense of rhythm, and they certainly are never asked to be supple and bend beyond the sloping turns of the track.

Sadly, and all too often, emphasis is placed on collection of the horse before the horse is fit, elastic, and willing to truly accept the bridle and come onto the bit. I adore the Sustainable Dressage blog, and I highly recommend that anyone rehabbing OTTBs or a rider interested in dressage training should follow the blog and read this post about true and false collection. One of the reasons I love the blog is because the author, Theresa Sandin, advocates practical training methods that do not force the horse in a particular frame, but instead opts for training that slowly strengthens, balances, and increases the flexibility of dressage horses for long, healthy, and successful careers.

Compare that to the racehorse industry, where, at least in the United States, thousands of horses are used up and basically tossed out every year. Although the exact number is tricky to nail down, some sources indicate that 1 out of every 1,500 racehorses will suffer from a fatal injury while conducting racing activity, while others simply breakdown or retire and are quietly disposed of. Thankfully, the sad plight of many of these horses is sometimes intercepted by a group like CANTER and eventually adopted to private owners.

My point is this: ex-racehorses are not performance horses served to trainers, owners, and competitors on a silver platter. They are diamonds in the rough. There's heart, there's drive, hopefully there's good confirmation and a healthy body, but rhythm, relaxation, suppleness... these things take a long time to teach. I printed out the training scale as presented to me by a professor at my college and I taped it to my tack trunk. Every day, I look at that scale, and I know that one day, after lots of training, long days, and patience, I'll strut my stuff in the show ring with a bounding bundle of elastic equine underneath me, but in the meantime, I'll be happy with that nice, rhythmic, balanced trot.