Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fitness- Week 2 And A Picture

I haven't posted in awhile, bad me! Partly, it's because I'm not doing anything interesting (we're still working on overall fitness) and partly because Blogger has been acting funny, not letting me post or write comments. I don't know what's up with that, but it seems to be alright now.

I've been really good about getting out and working Spider, so I'm pleased with that. We've fallen into a two days on, one day off schedule. I try to mix it up with arena work, ground work and work out in the pasture to keep it interesting. When we work in the arena, we do transitions and lateral work. In the pasture we just concentrate on being forward and round to build stamina. Groundwork ends up being a mix of the two. I tend to work him a little harder on the ground, since he isn't carrying me. So far he's doing well. We even added shoulder in to our repertoire. We were only doing shallow leg yields before. This evening I worked him 45 minutes without a single trip. Very good indeed.

Last month I posted a picture of Spider, with the intent of taking a picture every month to track his progress. So, here's this month's picture:

And here's last month's picture... for comparison:

There's not much difference. I think he's a little more muscular in his haunches and his neck is looking better, but that might just be wishful thinking.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Facing Your Fears

I'm generally a pretty fearless person. Most would even call me "foolhardy". There is, however, one thing that sends me into a panic: lightning. I hate the stuff. Even though I know the odds of being struck are remote, the first sign of lightning sends me running (and usually screaming) to the nearest building as fast as my legs will take me. Much to the amusement of my friends. Generally, if there is even a hint of thunderstorms I do not ride, or even leave the house.

But, I have dedicated myself to getting my horse fit. That means no excuses. And I didn't end up riding yesterday because time got away from me. So that means I had to ride today.... no excuses. We're having intermittent thunderstorms today. Great.

So I waited for a break in the storms, and ran out to ride. Naturally, as soon as I was finished tacking up I heard the familiar rumbling of thunder. Great.

And, of course, it was windy. And you know how much horses love wind. Great.

So now we had a tense horse and a tense rider. Great.

I had wanted to trot over cavaletti in a nice, relaxed frame. We did trot over cavaletti, but I ended up putting him into a higher frame, and asking for more collection. Loose and relaxed just wasn't going to happen with him jumping at every rattling leaf and me jumping at every boom of thunder. And, while I don't really like putting a horse into a more collected frame before they're relaxed, I couldn't really just quit, either. Spider is a riding horse and a show horse. I can't just allow him to quit because something is scary. To allow him to quit working because he or I was scared would set a dangerous precedent. I've known too many horses who became quite dangerous aa a result of that type of mentality. So, my only choice was to push on through it.

At first it was awkward and not productive. He wanted to jump at everything and not go forward or round. Eventually I got annoyed with him and just sat down and got it done. I planted my butt in the saddle, my arms at my sides, fixed my eyes on a point right between his ears and kicked him up towards it. As I worked, I forgot about my impending doom and relaxed. As I relaxed, Spider forgot about his impending doom and started paying attention.

In the end, we survived. Obviously, since I'm still around to write this. It wasn't our best work, and it ended up being a lot shorter and much more intense of a workout than I had planned. We trotted over the cavaletti, did a lot of transitions between walk and trot, a few rounds of canter and a few leg yields at walk and trot. He only tripped once, and that was during a particularly intense spook at the beginning. That spook was actually the catalyst for me getting annoyed and getting down to business.

Lest you erroneously think that I was very brave (or very foolish), I must say that I did not actually see any lightning while I was riding. I only heard the thunder. Had I seen any lightning, I would have hightailed it back into the house. With or without Spider.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fitness Blitz- Week 1

Due to a suspected stifle weakness, Spider and I have upped our workout schedule. Here's what we've done so far:

Monday: I took him out into the pasture to trot around on the "hill". It's actually more of gentle incline, but it will do. We did big circles, big figure eights and lots of straight lines. Tight circles can irritate weak stifles, which doesn't help the problem. I let him go on a fairly loose rein, allowing him to stretch downwards and out but keeping him off his forehand. I trotted him until he tripped, about 25 minutes, then did a couple shallow leg yields at walk in both directions. I figure he's probably tripping when his muscles get tired, so working him at trot to that point then doing a little gentle lateral work at walk while he cools out will strengthen him without over working him.

Tuesday he had off, because it rained all day.

Wednesday: I free lunged him over cavaletti. I was originally going to have him in side-reins, but he went right into a lovely frame without them. If he's going to stay nice and round without them, I really see no reason to bother hooking them up. It's just more work for me. Of course, the thing about lunging a horse with weak stifles is that they really shouldn't just go in circles. So you need to use the whole arena. Which means a lot of running around for the person at the end of the lunge line. You never really realize how big a dressage arena is until you're running down the long side trying to keep up with your trotting horse. Spider thought this was great fun (of course) and tried to make it a race. I ended up getting some really beautiful trot lengthenings out of him, unintentionally. He offered them up willingly just to watch me try to keep up, I think. One thing is for certain, he is not a lame horse. He went absolutely beautifully on the lunge line. Not a single misstep.

Thursday: Back under saddle. This time we did leg yields and trot-walk-trot transitions in the arena. Again, we avoided tight circles by using big figure eights to change direction. He ended up working for about 30 minutes before he tripped. After that I cooled him out and called it a day.

Friday he had off and today we'll go back to the pasture to trot around on the "hill". I think sometime next week I'll have my trainer out to evaluate us. It helps to have another pair of eyes on the ground when you're having an issue.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Role Models

Five years ago I broke my back in a riding accident. At the time, I thought it was the end of the world. It was the end of my world at the time, I suppose. But I slogged on through and made a new world for myself. In my new world I am not the rider I was, but I am still a rider just the same. I have learned that nothing can stand in the way of my passion. What was the catalyst for my epiphany? A picture in a magazine.

About a year after my injury, I was thumbing through either Dressage Today or USDF Connection, I can't remember which one. I saw a picture of a lovely horse and rider team in competition. The horse was soft and relaxed, the rider's position was exemplary. It was such a lovely picture that it took me a few seconds to register that something was very different about that pair. The rider had no arms. She was a Para Equestrian, something that, up until seeing that picture, I had never heard of. Intrigued, I read the article and found that there were many Para riders out there. They were out there training, competing and doing it well. And here I was whining and pitying myself for having a few broken bones.

From that point on, I had new role models. Role models who were riding against all odds. Role models who would not let anything get in the way of their passion. When I am having a bad day, and my back hurts and I'm ready to give up, they are my inspiration. Their drive, ambition and sheer passion for horses inspire me to keep going. If I could be half the horseman that these men and women are, I would be happy.

This year, for the first time, Para Equestrians will be competing with all the other disciplines at the FEI World Equestrian Games. However, most of the Para athletes are amateurs. They don't have wealthy clients to sponsor their trip to WEG and have to pay much of the costs out of pocket. It has come to my attention, through the blog Dressage Mom, that one of the American Para athletes is short of the money she needs to get to WEG. Sheri, the author of Dressage Mom, has been trying to find a corporate sponsor for her, but has been unsuccessful so far. She is still looking, and has entreated her readers for help. I don't have any ideas, either. But I do have a blog, and I can help put the word out.

The rider in question is Laura Goldman. Laura has Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that weakens the skeletal muscles. She is listed as a Grade 1A rider, which is considered "most impaired" by the FEI. But she doesn't let that get in her way. She is able to mount and dismount on her own and ride at walk and trot, keeping her horse in a frame that puts many able bodied riders to shame (myself included!)

The U.S. Para riders need our help. Competing at WEG is the opportunity of a lifetime and they have earned the right to be there. It would be a shame to not be able to go just because of a silly thing like money. If you have any ideas for how to get this dedicated, inspirational athlete to WEG, head on over to Dressage Mom and leave a comment. Even if you don't have any ideas, spread the word. The more people who know about the problem, the more likely it will be that a solution is found!

Here's some more ways you can help:

You can donate directly to the USPEA HERE

Behind The Bit is sponsoring a giveaway for those who donate! All you have to do is donate to the USPEA, then leave a comment on this post or at Behind The Bit saying "I did it!" and you'll be automatically entered to win great prizes! (Be sure to keep your donation receipt number for verification purposes)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Stifling Stifles

I just love the internet and blogging. Yes, it can be tedious, and you have to wade through an overload of information, and there is a lot of mis-information out there. But, there is also a wealth of good information, ideas and viewpoints out there just waiting to be tapped. Case in point: Sunday I was scratching my head, trying to figure out my my horse was suddenly dragging his hind legs and tripping behind. So I posted about it, and within a few hours I had a really good answer.

I think sometimes when you're too close to the problem you just get overwhelmed. You can't quite wrap your head around it because you're too busy imagining horrific scenarios in which you have a lame horse, giant vet bills and pastures full of evil dandelions. This is when the outside observer steps in and says "Hey, sounds like weak stifles." Stifles. Now, why didn't I think of that?

Much thanks to Kate and Jean for picking up on that..... I think they're right on the money!

The stifle joint of a horse is analogous to our knee joint. Just like with people, if the muscles supporting the knee are weak the joint tends to act up. I have not been working Spider consistently and he is definitely flabby and out of shape. Spider is getting older, too, which doesn't help. I know he has arthritis from his career as a sporthorse. Add all that together and you have a recipe for Sticky, Ouchy Stifles.

So, with that in mind, Spider and I are embarking on a Fitness Blitz. The best treatment for weak stifles is consistent exercise, which he has not been getting. Specifically, lots and lots of trotting. Of course, the very best treatment is trotting up and down hills. Unfortunately, we don't have hills in Southern NJ. But, I do have a sort of gentle incline in my largest pasture. And it just so happens that the pasture is empty, due to an infestation of dandelions, so it's free for me to ride in. See, everything happens for a reason.

For the next few weeks I'm going to work him consistently at least 5-6 days a week. If he shows improvement, then I know it was a fitness issue. If he doesn't show improvement or seems to be getting worse, then I call the vet.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bad Steps

The last two days have been lovely, so I rode Spider instead of doing ground work. I noted last week that he was dragging his hind feet in the sand during some of the lateral work. The last two days he's also started taking off steps behind.

I don't know exactly what's happening, since I'm sitting on him and don't have anyone to watch us go, but it seems that he's either tripping or slipping on his left hind when he trots. Usually after I have asked him to put more weight on that leg. I can't reproduce it on the lunge line, so I don't really know if it's a soundness issue or just that he isn't fit enough to do what I'm asking him to. Flexing it doesn't produce a visible difference, either. I'm sort of at a loss. Since I can't see what's happening, I really can't even say for certain what's wrong. I'll take him out today on the lunge line again, with side reins this time, to see if I can get him to do it. I'll try flexing him again, also.

I'm 99% sure that he's just out of shape and I'm asking for too much. But that 1% chance that he is actually unsound is worrisome. I suppose I'll be doing just ground work for a little while, then only walking under saddle until I can get this figured out. It's supposed to get hot and steamy again, anyway... no big loss.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Where I'm at.... A Month Later

Last month I wrote up a little situation report of what I'm doing, what Spider is doing and what we are accomplishing together with the intention of tracking our progress. So, now lets see where we're at one month later.....

Ummmm, about the same place. I'd love to blame the evil weather we've been having, but I don't really like making excuses. I need to get motivated.

I'm exercising every day, which is good. I do a quick yoga sun salutation every morning, then another 30 minute workout in the afternoon. I swap out days on my 30 minute exercise: pilates one day, yoga the next, weight training on the third. It keeps me from getting bored.

I'm only managing to ride sporadically. It's really just too hot, even in the mornings and evenings. I've only managed to ride 8 times in the last month, lunged twice and ground drove once. When we do work, I have to keep it short, usually less than 20 minutes. Spider still feels unbalanced, which is a fitness issue. We'll work through it eventually, 20 minutes at a time.

I'm working mainly on transitions and relaxing with him. Transitions to build muscle, get him off his forehand and help balance him and relaxing to just help everything. Spider likes to get tense when he's out of shape, and when he gets tense everything falls apart. We're also doing some suppling exercises: turn on the forehand and haunches and leg yields. And I'm still concentrating on riding every step and thinking about my position.

I think for this month I'm going to shift my focus to in-hand work, I'd like him to get a little better with the long lines and ground driving. He halts, walks and trots nicely on them, but I'd like to get him to do a little lateral work as well. I may try some work in short reins, too. I noticed yesterday that he tends to drag his hind feet when doing some of the lateral work under saddle. On short reins I can more directly see and control his hind legs and, hopefully, fix that. Or at least figure out why he's doing it....if it's a soundness issue or just lack of fitness or laziness.

Hopefully this month will be more productive. This heat wave has to end sometime....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

There's No Fool Like An Old Fool...For A Third Time!

When I built my fences, safety and security were my top priority. They are electric, which is usually enough to deter a horse from escape. But, just in case somebody decided to get cheeky and try to jump out, I built them tall. The top strand is 5 ft tall. Even the deer don't try to jump it.

However, when I built the interior fence for the dry lot, I got a little lazy. I only ran two strands, so it's 3 ft tall. But, my horses are all very respectful of the fence and pretty lazy. So I figured 3 ft would be fine. Even if they did jump, they would just end up in the pasture. But still, there's no way those fat, lazy beasts would try to jump 3 ft.

So, this morning when I got up, my horses were waiting patiently at the gate for me to come feed them. Except for Vinny. Vinny was in the pasture, eating grass. He had somehow escaped the dry lot during the night and gotten into the pasture. The dandelion infested pasture. (Oh, the irony!)

I checked the fence, it was on and unbroken. The gate was closed and securely latched. There was only one way he could have gotten in the pasture...... he jumped the fence. My 24 year old dressage horse with stringhalt so bad that he kicks himself in the belly every time he takes a step had jumped a three foot fence.

A little forensic investigation confirmed my suspicions: there was a rather large scuff on the pasture side of the fence where he had landed. From the look and size of the scuff, it was not a graceful landing. But, he appears to be no worse for wear... no scrapes or signs that he hit the fence and he doesn't appear to be sore anywhere. What was he thinking? He's not a young man anymore. And I've seen his jumping scores from his 3 yr old inspection, there's a reason he became a dressage horse! Old fool......

Needless to say, I was out at 6am running another strand of fence. It's now 5 ft tall. He better not try to jump that!

Related Posts:
There's No Fool Like An Old Fool
There's No Fool Like An Old Fool... Again!

How many of these am I going to have to write?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hot and Steamy

It's hot again. And when it isn't hot, it's humid enough to feel hot. Needless to say, I'm not working Spider very hard. Mostly we've been doing relaxed, stretching work to build his muscles up, mostly at the trot. I've been riding in two point position to help build my own muscles up as well. Although, my knees are starting to bother me a bit, I may need to go back to posting. We've been hacking a bit, too. I don't have a lot of places to ride outside of the arena, but there are a few trails in the woods behind my house and a big hay field next door that I can ride in. It's enough to relieve the boredom of constant ring work.

Time is a huge constraint now, too. The horses are still in the dry lot, which is about 66 ft square. It's much larger than what many horses have access to, but much smaller than what mine are used to. They are not pleased. They are also used to being able to graze at liberty. The best I can do is offer them hay several times a day, but they still end up spending a lot of their day standing around being bored. So, I take them out to hand graze in the lawn (which is dandelion free) for a bit every day, to give them some distraction from their "incarceration". Unfortunately, hand grazing takes up time that I could be spending riding. I know they appreciate it, though.

Vinny isn't showing much improvement yet, but that's to be expected. From what I've read, it seems that the False Dandelion toxin physically damages the nerves (as opposed to just disrupting the chemical transmissions as many toxins do). Physical nerve damage takes an extraordinary amount of time to heal. The impervious myelin sheath that surrounds a nerve acts like an insulator. It speeds up the transmission of nerve impulses by not allowing the chemical signal to dissipate. But, it also doesn't allow for repair supplies to get in when the nerve is damaged. Nutrients and repair supplies must be sent all the way down the nerve from the brain. The further the damage is from the brain, the longer that takes. After several of my nerves were crushed when I broke my back, it took over a year to start regaining feeling in my leg. And I am much smaller, and thus have much shorter nerves, than a horse.

Vinny has learned that it's easier for him to canter than it is to walk or trot. So he canters whenever he needs to take more than a few steps. It looks absolutely ridiculous with his exaggerated hind leg movement, but it gets him around. He doesn't care what he looks like.

He is enjoying the extra attention he's getting. By the time he gets better, he'll be quite thoroughly spoiled. He gets to come out and graze for longer than the other two, partly because he needs to move around more and partly because he pretends he can't walk when we head back for the gate. I know it's an act, he can get out the gate to the grass just fine, but I indulge him. Silly old man.

More information about the effect of Australian Stringhalt on nerves:

Pathological Aspects of Australian Stringhalt

The link is just to the abstract, but the abstract has loads of good information.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stringhalt And Dandelions

Vinny, my old retired gelding, has always had a bit of stringhalt. It's a neurologic condition that causes a horse to have an odd "goose step" in their hind limbs. They lift the hind legs abnormally high, particularly when backing or turning.

The cause is not really well understood. It's thought to be caused by some sort of damage to the nerves or spinal cord innervating the hind limbs. The damage could be from an injury, a tumor or a toxin. In Vinny's case, it's probably the result of an old injury. I would think if it were a tumor he would not have lived to the ripe old age of 24. He was seen by a vet for it many years ago and it's never really bothered him. It's really only noticeable if he's turning a tight circle or backing up and even then you really have to be looking for it. Mostly it just looks like he has a lot of action in his hocks.....fancy. Until Tuesday, that is.

On Tuesday he looked like he was auditioning for The Ministry of Silly Walks. He was lifting his hind legs so high that they were hitting his belly. Not good. He was eating fine, acting otherwise normal and not in any distress, he just looked ridiculous when he tried to walk. I had no idea what could cause such a dramatic increase in his stringhalt symptoms literally overnight. I thought maybe he just pulled something, so I gave him some bute. If he was still off in the morning, I would call the vet.

He was still off Wednesday morning. No improvement whatsoever. But he still didn't seem to be in any pain, or even upset by it. He was just taking it in stride. I called the vet and started to explain his symptoms. Her response was immediate: "Do you have dandelions in your pastures?"

I have tons of dandelions in my pastures, they seem to be epidemic this year. I never gave them any thought, other than as a pretty little flower. Turns out that these aren't ordinary dandelions. They are False Dandelion, also known as Flatweed or Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata). And these particular dandelions have been implicated in cases of stringhalt (called "Australian Stringhalt" to distinguish it from regular stringhalt). My vet had seen several cases of it in South Jersey over the years.

I thought I knew all the toxic plants inhabiting these parts, but this one slipped under my radar. My horses have been grazing on these pastures for over a year with no problems. Turns out, the weed thrives in dry weather and poor soils. It just so happens that South Jersey has sandy, rocky soil and is currently experiencing a drought. Conditions are pretty much perfect for a proliferation of this weed. And proliferate it has! My pastures are covered in it. It grows flat to the ground, so mowing doesn't get it, unfortunately. Mowing does get the flower heads, keeping it from spreading, but the plant is perennial so that won't get rid of it altogether. The only solution is to spray the pastures with herbicide.

So far Spider and Matilda are unaffected. The vet thinks that Vinny is more susceptible to the toxin because he already has stringhalt. Either that, or he's the only one eating the weed. He's kind of a pig, so that wouldn't surprise me.

There is no real treatment, other than removing the horses from the affected pasture. Symptoms should begin to subside within a month of him being removed from the weed, but it could take up to a year for him to be back to normal.

They are all in the dry lot now, which they hate. I have been unsuccessful in convincing them that it's for their own good. They'll have to stay there until all the weeds have died. Hopefully that won't take too long, or too many applications of herbicide. We're using 2,4-D broadleaf weed killer, which is registered as safe and unrestricted for horses.

I've also started everyone on a magnesium and vit B supplement. Magnesium and vit B are usually main components in the so-called "calming supplements". What they actually do is increase skeletal muscle function and neuronal transmission. In cases of injury or deficiency, they help restore normal function to the animal's nerves and muscles, which produces a calming effect if the animal was distressed by the condition. Hence the misnomer "calming supplements". I also have Vinny on Robaxin, a prescription drug commonly used as a muscle relaxer, that depresses the central nervous system. It will help with any muscle soreness he gets from his radically altered gait and should have a sedative effect on the spasms he is experiencing from the stringhalt.

Vinny, showing the characteristic exaggerated hind leg movement of stringhalt, while stealing Spider's hay. He's obviously very distressed by his condition. *snort*

As of July 2011,  Vinny has made a full recovery from his toxic stringhalt.  He received no treatment for his condition, other than the supplements and time.

More information on stringhalt:

Shivers, Stringhalt and Australian Stringhalt from Kentucky Equine Research

Australian Stringhalt In Horses from Equuisite

Identification of H. radicata from UC Davis

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Pushing The Right Buttons

This weekend was beautiful. I tacked up on Saturday evening intending to work on trot. Spider has been a little inconsistent in the contact at trot, I wanted to do some transitions and bending to encourage him to take the outside rein. Didn't happen.

As soon as I mounted I knew something was up. He was nervous and distracted, not his usual self. As I began to put him together he got worse: avoiding me, spooking, just being generally miserable. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on. He was avoiding engaging his hind end because he was muscle sore. Makes sense. We've been doing a lot. I'm sore. Why wouldn't he be, too? I decided to try to push him through it. After a few futile minutes of that, I realized we were getting nowhere. I was frustrated, he was frustrated and the entire ride was degenerating into a tug of war.

I can't win a tug of war against a horse. So, I did what I always do when I find myself getting angry or frustrated: I halted, dropped the reins, rolled my shoulders and breathed for a minute. As I pondered my next move, I thought of a comment Jean made on my last post about only working on the bit for a few minutes at a time. She has a good point. Dressage tests only last a few minutes, there's no real reason for a horse to need to be put together for any longer than that. We had already been working for 15 minutes by this point, much longer than any test. It hadn't been particularly good work, but it was still in a competition frame. I decided to scrap the trot work and the frame and work on what we were obviously lacking: relaxation.

Relaxation is the base of the training scale for a good reason, without it you can't really get the other components. So I put him on a fairly loose rein, maintaining the contact and forward energy, but allowing him to stretch forward and down. We walked, trotted and cantered like that with no resistance. All the nervousness melted away once I stopped asking him to go around in a competition frame. I ended up working him in a loose frame for about thirty minutes. We worked mostly on the rail, but did a few big figure eights to change direction at the trot and a few 20 meter circles at canter. It was actually quite nice.

I gave him Sunday off to rest up. When I rode this evening his attitude was much improved. We just had a light day: a few circles of trot, a few circles of canter, a lot of transitions. He stayed relaxed and happy throughout, which is all I should be looking for right now. He's still a bit wobbly in the contact, still unbalanced, but that will take time to resolve. He's got to get fit first.


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