Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Improbable Phrases

It's amazing how living with animals can bring out strange situations. This evening I actually uttered the phrase. "Just come in and eat! I will get the chicken off of you in a minute!"

I have several young hens who are a little confused as to where they should roost. The chickens have their own coop, but these three have decided to try to take up residence in my barn. If you know anything about chickens, you know that they poop everywhere. I don't want them in the barn. I have quite enough pooping animals in there, thank you very much.

So, every evening I have to do a "chicken sweep" of the rafters with my handy lunge whip. Whips are such useful tools, I really can't stress that enough. The "chicken sweep" results in chickens flying pretty much everywhere, then running out of the barn to go to their coop. While all this is going on, I usually get the feed ready for the horses.

As I brought the feed out, I noticed that Spider was a bit agitated. On closer inspection, I noticed that one of the wayward hens had decided to roost on his back. She must have landed on him when she flew down from the rafters and decided his back was a nice cozy spot to roost for the night. Once a chicken roosts for the night, they don't want to move, either. It's pretty much necessary to physically remove them. Poor Spider didn't know what to do. He really wanted to come into his stall to have dinner, but he also wanted the chicken off him. And he really wasn't sure how to go about that. Unfortunately, my hands were full of feed scoops and buckets and I couldn't really help him out. After about the third time I had to dodge him dancing around trying to get the chicken off, I yelled at him to just get in the stall.

Once I had everybody fed, I should have rescued him. But I decided to take pictures of him instead. I mean, come on... would you have believed this story without photographic evidence?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Getting It Together

So, I had my trainer out Friday. I decided to give Spider Saturday off, mostly because I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. We resumed work today. There were three very important things my trainer pointed out to me. 1) I wasn't suppling the front end of the horse enough. 2) My grabby hands were blocking the horse. 3) I was riding with my reins waaaaay too long. These three things are all related.

My grabby, blocking hands were not allowing my horse to be forward. So, I was letting my reins out to try to get the impulsion I needed. Unfortunately, when I let my reins out I was allowing the horse to fall on his forehand. Then he was rushing and getting strung out. My grabby, blocking hands were also too rigid to allow my horse to supple his neck properly, which was also preventing him from ever really coming on to the bit. Which led to me letting my reins get long, which led to him falling on his forehand, etc., etc., etc.

On the bright side, the work I have been doing to get Spider to reach under with his hind legs has been a good thing. I've been asking for leg yields and turns on the forehand, shoulder in and haunches in to get him reaching under himself with his hind legs. Even though I have been allowing him to escape out the front door with my loose reins and generally crappy riding, I did manage to build up some muscle back there. So, when I asked him to come together, he did so nearly effortlessly. If that isn't proof of the benefit of riding a horse from back to front, I don't know what is!

So today, in addition to leg yield, and shoulder in and haunches in I suppled his neck. I flexed his neck into the circle, I flexed his neck out of the circle. I followed the movement of his head and neck with my hands. I thought of that old analogy, that it should feel like there are no reins. It should feel like your hands are directly connected to the horse's mouth. In the end, it felt like the entire horse was out in front of me. It felt like I was literally sitting on his haunches. What a wonderful feeling.

He did trip once when I rode him today. And I did not back off. I did not second guess myself, I did not assume unsoundness. Instead, I promised him that I would never let it happen again. I am responsible for this living creature, this animal who only exists for my pleasure, and I will do everything in my power to make sure he never takes another bad step again.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Solution!

Remember my last post when I said I was being too handsy? Boy, was I right!

I finally got around to having my trainer down for a lesson. I needed one. I also wanted to find out two things: What's going on with Spider and how bad do I suck.

The verdict: Nothing's going on with Spider and I just suck. Ha!

Okay, that's not entirely accurate. What my trainer feels is going on is that I am causing him to trip by allowing him to get strung out. Spider tripped while my trainer was down (twice) and he saw it. But, he doesn't feel Spider has an actual unsoundness issue. I'm allowing Spider to get strung out, then his head pops up, his back gets hollow, his hind legs trail out behind and he trips. See, it's always the rider's fault!

That's not to say that his stifles aren't bothering him. I'm sure they are. He's getting older, and I've seen him trip from his stifle locking. But, my riding hasn't been helping because I've been riding poorly. I have been too rigid with my hands, not allowing the horse to come to the bit. I ask him for forward, he hits the brick wall that is my hand and starts to balk, he falls apart, then trips, then I back off because I think he's lame. It's an icky, icky cycle. I am the only one who can break it. I'm feeling better about pushing him, though. We pushed him pretty hard in my lesson and the more I pushed, the better he got. When I was actually riding (rather than sitting there like a rigid bump on a log, not paying attention to anything) he did not trip at all. Lesson learned, we will be returning to a normal training regime. I realized that in my "conditioning work" I have not been paying attention. I've been asking for the bare minimum, not enforcing standards of performance and basically just letting my horse (and myself) putz around.

So, that's the solution for now: Ride better. Well, that sounds easy!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Use For A Whip

I'm feeling very uninspired lately. Spider is doing well, but I'm a little afraid to push him. I don't want to injure him or make his stifles worse. So we're just doing very light conditioning work. Which, quite frankly, is as boring as it comes. I suppose I'm going to have to just push him a little and see what happens, eventually. In the meantime I've been trying to work on my position, which needs a lot of work.

I don't care who you are or what discipline you ride, we all get a little "handsy" from time to time. Dressage riders get a bad rap for it, but all disciplines are guilty of the "crank and yank" at some point. I don't really consider it something to get bent out of shape over, so long as it doesn't become a habit. Like I said, everyone has done it at some point. As long as you take steps to fix it, you're OK. Now, if you consider the crank and yank a viable training option, then you have a problem. But that's another post...........

Yesterday I was doing arena work with Spider. Transitions and lateral work and such. I noticed he was a bit "bridle lame". Bridle lame is when the horse's head bobs as though he's unsound, but he isn't actually lame on any of his legs. You can check for this by standing in your stirrups and giving the reins for a few strides. If the bobbing disappears, you are the cause. More specifically, you're riding with too much hand, or too unsteady hands, and not enough leg. The best remedy I know for this is a horrific torture I learned from a classical instructor I had years ago.

While holding the reins in the normal fashion, you take your dressage whip across your hands, perpendicular to the horse's withers. Hold the whip under your thumbs with your hands on each side of the horse's wither. Then you ride around like this. Keep your elbows at your sides. Keep the whip straight. Keep your hands on either side of the horse. Curse the day you first heard the word "dressage" and decided to give it a try.

Okay, it's not that bad, but it is difficult. And it lets you know exactly how much you are relying on your hands. In my case, I was definitely being way too handsy and not enough legsy. With my hands locked on the whip, I was forced to start using my leg correctly or else go careening into the trees like a drunken madman.

In the end I got the job done. And I only ran into the trees a couple times. Spider is smart enough to dodge the trees in the event of rider failure. He does not, however, make sure that I don't hit low hanging branches. There's really nothing like getting slapped in the face by wet leaves to get you focused.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I finally saw Spider trip today on the lunge line. And, I'm no vet, but if it isn't a sticky stifle that's bothering him then I'll eat my hat. It was really a textbook locking stifle trip. As he tried to bring his inside hind leg forward, his stifle didn't bend, causing him to trip as his toe dragged the ground. Classic.

Locking stifle, properly known as upward fixation of the patella, occurs when the stifle joint fails to release properly after extension. The stifle of a horse is analogous to our knee. Except that horses (and some other hooved mammals) have a unique adaptation that allows them to lock the joint so that they can sleep standing up. For a prey animal that evolved to live in open grasslands, the ability to sleep standing up is an important adaption. A sleeping horse that is already standing up is better able to run when startled. The caveat is that sometimes the mechanism can stick.

The mechanism itself is pretty simple. To lock the stifle, the horse simply extends the joint to it's fullest. When the joint extends, the medial patellar ligament hooks over a ridge on the femoral head, thus locking the joint and allowing the horse to sleep without falling down. To release the joint, the horse flexes it's quadriceps muscle, which pulls the ligament free of it's hook.

Just looking at how the mechanism works we can isolate two potential causes of locking stifles. A horse with fairly straight hind limbs will be more likely to have the mechanism catch. His natural conformation is such that just his normal stance will encourage the ligament to catch. And a horse with poor muscle tone, particularly poor muscle tone of the haunches (quadriceps, etc.) will not be able to release the mechanism properly.

What do I have? A horse with straight hind legs and poor muscle tone. Pretty much a recipe for locking stifle. I'm impressed he made it this far without ever having trouble with it.

I had already suspected a stifle problem (Thanks to Kate and Jean), but it is very nice to have a visual confirmation of that. It doesn't change anything, really though. I will continue working him as often as possible, doing lots of transitions, trotting over poles and trotting in the pasture on my little hill. When the vet comes out for fall shots I may explore putting him on estrone. Some horses with locking stifle issues benefit from estrone, some don't. But it doesn't seem to hurt and it's pretty cheap.

Spider did try to sneak away when I went to get him yesterday. As soon as he started to walk away from me, I turned around and got the lunge whip. He saw it and decided to let me catch him. Since he wised up, I decided to reward him by taking him out and letting him eat grass in the lawn instead of working. While he had his head buried in the grass, I took the opportunity to trim his mane up. He was beginning to look like a wild mustang, or perhaps an Andalusion. He has such a nice neck, it's a shame to hide it under all that hair. I banged his tail, too, while I was at it. Now he looks like a proper dressage horse again.

He gave me no problems today.

I also finally figured out how to manage the lunge whip, line and a camera. It was tricky and most of the pictures came out wonky, but I got the job done. So, here is Spider in action:

Not bad for a lame horse. *L*

Friday, September 10, 2010

Windy And Cool

The heat wave returned briefly this week, and so Spider got a few days off. Fall is closing in and I'm just tired of battling the heat, a few days off won't kill him, right?

Today feels like fall, windy and crisp. It's warm in the sun with just a touch of a chill in the shade. Quite nice. The horses were playing all day. Well, Spider was playing. The other two were mostly giving him dirty looks and then going back to eating grass.

When I went out to catch Spider he decided he was having too much fun to come in. He decided to run off, instead of coming in like a good boy. He's done this a couple times before. I know exactly what the trigger is: not enough work.

Thoroughbreds are fun to work with because they have boundless energy. Thoroughbreds are a complete pain to work with because they have boundless energy. As they get more fit, their energy levels just keep going up and up. Spider is no exception to this rule. And, as Spider's energy level goes up, he needs to have outlets for that energy. If you don't give him enough to do, he starts getting obnoxious.

So, since he wanted to run around and not be caught, I went and got the lunge whip. If he wants to run, run he will. Now, I wouldn't chase just any horse around the pasture if he didn't want to be caught. If the horse didn't know me, it would be counterproductive. Chasing him would just reinforce that I am scary and he should run from me. But Spider knows me, and Spider knows he doesn't need to run from me. So he got chased. It took about two laps around before he realized that this game was not very fun and stopped running. At which point I stopped chasing and haltered him.

I then decided we needed to work on basic commands. Like "Whoa" and "Come here you dirty little so and so!"

So I got out the lunge line and we went to the arena. We walked, stopped, trotted, stopped, cantered and stopped ad nauseum for about thirty minutes. He never missed a cue. Dirty little so and so.

With all the transitions we did, he got pretty sweaty. It was a good workout for him.

We'll see how he feels about coming in tomorrow.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Good Ride

My last ride on Spider was quite nice. It was the kind of ride where everything clicks, the kind of ride that keeps you coming back for more. We didn't do anything too strenuous or anything new: shoulder in at walk, trot and canter; haunches in and leg yield at walk and trot and turns on the forehand. But the contact and impulsion were there and the movements were effortless. It seems my "fitness blitz" is doing the trick. That's a load off my mind. I was very worried that Spider might be becoming unsound.

As I was reveling in my good ride, my thoughts turned to my equipment.

I don't really use much in the way of equipment, just a saddle and a snaffle bridle. I have a loose ring bradoon bit on the bridle, because it's a double bridle that converts into a snaffle and the bradoon was already on it. Eventually I'll put the curb back on, when Spider is ready for it. A keen observer will notice that it has a crank noseband. I like crank nosebands because they're wide and very well padded. You don't actually have to "crank" them. If you leave them loose they function just like any other noseband, just better padded. I don't use a flash. I don't think they really do anything other than collect drool and annoy the horse. They annoy me when they fall off in the barn and get lost, too.

If I'm wearing my dress boots then I have spurs on, because they're on my dress boots and I just don't take them off. Plus, they have some pretty engraving on them and I just think they look nice. I've reached the point in my riding that my leg is steady and I can use them or not as I see fit, a point everyone should be at before they are allowed to wear spurs anyway. I always carry a long dressage whip, I find them to be invaluable tools. I use it to whisk flies off the horse's ears, belly and anywhere else I can't reach. I also use it to check how steady my inside hand is. If I can see the whip flopping around out of the corner of my eye, I know my wrist is probably flopping around, too.

I sometimes use side reins when I lunge. Sometimes I don't. It depends on the situation. Sometimes the horse needs to have a place to go, they want to seek the contact that side reins provide. If the horse doesn't seem to need that support, I don't put them on. I play with long lines sometimes. I'm not very good at it, so it really is just playing. Or perhaps an exercise in how much foolishness my horse will put up with from me.

And that's all the equipment that I use. Most of it isn't even being used for it's intended purpose.

I could use all sorts of gadgets to get my horse where I want him. It would certainly be quicker. But I don't think it would be better. There is an exhilarating rush that comes with being able to manipulate a 1000lb beast with just the barest shift in your weight. My horse is ten times my size, and yet with just a thought and the lightest touch of my seat and leg I can send him sideways across an arena, or stop him in his tracks. I don't need drawreins or trendy bits to control his head. I don't need whips and spurs to control his haunches. It has taken years for me to get to this point, but I am mostly there. I still have off days, and there will always be off days. But the on days are such a rush, such a feeling of accomplishment. And that feeling is worth more than the quick fix that the gadgets would have gotten me.

As Alois Podhajsky said, "I have time".

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Cross Rail Fail

Hurricane Earl turned out to be a bust, no rain at all and it wasn't even that windy. We could really use the rain. But, it did cool off this evening and is supposed to stay cool for a bit. So, that's nice.

Since I suspect Spider has a stifle issue due to his tripping behind, dragging his hind feet in lateral work and not wanting to cross over behind, I've been looking for ideas and exercises to help him with that. So far we've been trotting and cantering on a hill, going over cavaletti and doing lots of transitions, but I'm always on the lookout for fun new things to try. One idea that came up was jumping over crossrails.

Before I bought Spider, he was a jumper. The details of his past life are a little sketchy. I bought him through a broker, you know how that is. The only thing I was told is that he had jumped up to three feet, but gotten "wild over the jumps". He was being sold as a dressage prospect. In the four years that I have owned him, I have never intentionally put him over a jump. I'm a dressage rider, I feel that things tend to go better when the horse's feet are on the ground. However, the first time I tried to trot him over cavaletti he jumped them, much to my surprise. He will still try to jump over them if I put them too far apart. Or if we haven't used cavaletti in awhile. Or if he just feels like annoying me that day.

So, I thought it might be fun to set up a little crossrail and lunge him over it. I don't have proper jump standards, or even those plastic blocks for setting up ground poles, but I had some old spools that the electric fence had come on. They're about six inches high, which I felt was a pretty good height for making crossrails. So, I brought them out to the arena, set the cavaletti on them to make a little crossrail and we were set.

I brought Spider over to see it, walked him over it a couple times and then set about warming up. After he was warmed up, I aimed him towards my nifty little jump. He slammed on the brakes and refused it. I was shocked. It's barely six inches high. We tried again. This time he went around it.

At this point I noticed that he was starting to swish his tail. Spider never swishes his tail. Something about that crossrail was upsetting him. I tried a few more times to get him over it, but he was just getting more and more tense and it wasn't getting done. So, I took the crossrail down and set up the cavaletti. As soon as the evil crossrail was gone I had my usual happy Spider back and we finished up just fine.

I have no idea why he refused the jump. I suppose it might be a physical problem. Or perhaps he was just insulted and embarrassed by my redneck crossrail. But, I suspect he just doesn't care for jumping, and that's why he was sold as a dressage horse and not a jumper. Whatever it is, I don't think we'll try that again.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hot And Steamy, With A Chance Of Hurricanes

It's decision time. Yesterday was Spider's day off. Do I ride today when it's 95 degrees? Do I wait until tomorrow to ride and brave Hurricane Earl? (We're only supposed to get a little rain and a lot of wind) Or do I resume our regular training schedule on Saturday? Saturday is supposed to be cool and beautiful, but the downside is that Spider will have had three days off by then. Three days off doesn't really fit into our new training schedule. I suppose I'll have to play it by ear: If it cools off this evening I'll work him tonight, if not we'll see how tomorrow's hurricane goes. And if the weather's too bad tomorrow, then he'll have three days off. One has to learn to be flexible when working with horses.

Whenever I work him next, it will be ground work. I want to do some work on his canter, particularly the left lead, without me on him. Last time I worked him in the pasture he didn't want to pick up the left lead. His left lead has been tricky in the past when he was out of shape, so this is nothing new. We just need to work on it. I was thinking of maybe cantering him over cavaletti or even setting up a little cross rail for him to go over. Something to really build up those butt muscles. I want to work on it unmounted because I know I tend to interfere with him picking up the lead. When he's unbalanced, he tends to throw me to the right. With me sitting to the right, it's difficult for him to pick up the left lead canter. Then we both get frustrated. I want to remove myself from the equation, improve his balance and fitness, then add myself back in.

Vinny is showing quite a bit of improvement in his stringhalt. He still walks funny, but he can stand still without spasming and canter fairly normally. He even managed to stand quietly for the farrier yesterday. The last time the farrier came he couldn't get trimmed because he was spasming too much, so that's a major improvement. I don't expect him to be back to normal for some time. Actually, given his history, I'm not sure he'll ever be back to "normal", but as long as he's happy and comfortable I'll keep him around.

On Tuesday they were finally allowed back into the pasture. Vinny pushed Spider right out of the way to be the first out onto the grass. He even did a victory lap around the perimeter before settling down to eat. Like I said, as long as he's happy and comfortable..... silly old man.

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