Saturday, March 9, 2019

Planning for Spring Training

The more I learn, the more I have to re-evaluate and re-set my priorities.  I love endurance riding, I love being on the trail with just me and my horse. But I actually only love this if my horse is content and relaxed. If he is spooky, anxious, wired and jiggy it becomes frustration rather than fun.  Even more so, as I truly care for and love Sonny I truly wish him to be happy, or at least content in his work. I do not want to put him in situations where is extremely anxious, scared, upset or 'over-threshold'.  Not be to overly-anthropomorphic, but it is miserable to be anxious and/or scared and have to keep working through it.  I do not want that for myself or my loved ones including Sonny, or actually any sentient being.  Sport or competition is not worth forcing misery on another being.  I want to teach him the skills and emotional resiliency so we can enjoy the trail together!     

This strong belief forces me to change how I approach my goals and training with Sonny.  I am learning how to read subtle signs of tension so I can intervene earlier and maintain his overall relaxation.  I am adapting my teaching environment to his needs each session, with the #1 priority of not letting things escalate beyond light tension.  Besides for humane reasons, this could be construed as a means to the end, as animals and people don't learn well under significant stress or tension; the more relaxed Sonny is, the faster he can learn.  The world and surrounding environment will always continue to provide novel stimuli that will induce light tension, or quick moments of high tension (ie spook), but the goal is for the animal to be emotionally resilient and able to return to relaxation.

Each horse and human are going to have their unique challenges and situations that induce tension that they will have to overcome.  For Sonny it is leaving his herd, dealing with changes in his herd, or any movement of the herd .   He is a bit stallion-like with a very strong herd protective instinct - he strongly drives new horses away from his band, and worries if his herd is moving about outside it's usual pattern (ie an owner taking their horse away to ride).  He truly always tries to please me and do the right thing, but he basically has anxiety regarding his herd that he cannot easily release.  For me this means I have to adapt each session to accommodate his level of tension and worry given the current circumstance.   He is not an ATV, I cannot expect him to abruptly cease his job as herd protector because I decided it is time to ride.  He is very obedient and I can certainly easily make him listen but I can't 'make' him decide he wants to ride and be together versus with protect his herd.  Instead I have to adapt each session to first get real connection then I can progress towards my goals of the day. 

I have taken to starting each session at liberty to assess where he is that day and see what he wants to do.  Most days he sees me coming and is waiting at the gate and wants to come out and play -- I open it and he comes out at liberty and I often start the session with small games to build connection. We play fetch while I latch the gate (this way he leaves me alone while I toss his rope-toy away so I have time to shut the gate!).  Sometimes we will walk together to the horse trailer to play with loading using a hand-target (he touches his nose to my hand), or maybe go for a walk around the farm.  When we have good connection then I may ask him learn a new task, or most-commonly we progress to an environment that causes increasing tension such as the indoor arena or walking further away from the barn (as my ultimate goal is to leave the barn for trail and conditioning rides). We then focus on developing relaxation in the new environment using basic foundation games such as targeting an object or my hand, or body yields (back up, hip or fore-quarter yields). After focus and incremental relaxation in the new environment I will retreat back to his comfort zone to let his emotions completely relax.  Each time we repeat this he learns it is ok to leave as he comes back and all is fine. When he leaves it is fun, and he is building emotional fitness. This only works as long as I manage things to keep him relaxed and 'below-threshold'. If he goes over-threshold all learning is done and we have to re-group and start over.

To make this a bit clearer and more practical I am using cones (targets) in a row leaving the barn or going through the indoor arena if bad weather/footing. I start walking with him to the first cone, nose-touch and target (click/treat), then onto cone #2. After cone #2 I retreat back to cone #1, then go back to cone #1-2-3, then back to to #2, then #1. At each cone he stops, targets, and gets click/reinforced (C/R). Besides making a fun game leaving the barn, he is learning to stop every few steps on the way back too - no more rushing home!.  This is progressive and as he gets more comfortable I space the cones further apart and may go multiple cones before retreating back down the line  -- this is based on my judgement of his tension, how the session is going, and how tired I am of walking up and down the hill in the snow!  While this feels very slow it truly is progressive. Just last week I spaced 14 cones out 6 large strides apart and we only made it down to cone #7 or so.  Today I had 17 cones space 8 large strides apart (each stride is about 3') and we made it all the way to #17, where he did have light tension but still was easily able to focus, take treats (and ask for more by offering different behaviors!!) -- this was a good threshold to stop at and retreat.  He will be interested in doing more at the next session instead of feeling overwhelmed with anxiety whenever he is made to go out that direction. (and we were able to reach cone #10 in our riding session!! The best yet - until the next session)
Line of cones going through the indoor arena

Line of cones leading from the barn

After we do a bit of this we take a break. He goes back to his hay so he can relax and process what we just did, I visit the washroom and have a drink (water - not alcohol, lol!!!).  Then I may move onto something else, such as practicing foundation behaviors while riding.  This is important as I want to re-wire some basic training that I feel he has never truly had down pat.  I re-taught lateral flexion using hand targeting, meaning I hold my hand out to the side while riding and he bends and bumps his nose on it, then C/R.  This was fairly easy as he already understood it well from ground work and I quickly progressed it to re-teaching hip yields. When he started to follow my hand with his nose to the side I asked with light pressure from my leg for the hips to move (which is what naturally happens when their head turns enough) and then C/R when he stepped over.  This has been fun because Sonny always struggled with having a quiet hip yield without forward movement using more traditional training.  Now I can tell that he truly understands what I am asking - he can readily shift just one step over without a thought of moving forward; it is an entirely different feel while riding.  No reins are involved - this was all re-taught sitting on him bareback with a halter/lead. 

Practicing foundation behavior while riding

Other fun things we are playing with including teaching 'hugs' and 'hip-targeting'. I noticed that Sonny was tense if I hugged him (something I don't typically do, but for some reason did the other day). So instead of tension I taught him to offer lateral flexion around my body and target my hand reaching out behind me. So now when I hug his neck, instead of tensing he reaches around and 'hugs' me back - fun!  I also decided I needed to spend the time to teach him to move his hip toward a target so I have a method to say move-over-here for mounting (it will also come in handy for haunches-in ground-work down the road!).  I enjoy teaching these little games and will often use them initially to establish good connection, or at the end of a session to end with something extra-fun and not quite so hard as leaving the barn.

Teaching hip targeting

So where does this leave us for endurance this season.... I don't know.  I would really like to at least try for the 25 mile Sheila and Marg Memorial Ride in May, but we have to first get conditioning miles on the trail. Right now we are cone #17  (with 8 stride spacing), leaving the barn (almost 1/2 way to the road to start a conditioning ride).  So we will progress at Sonny's pace, slowly increasing the distance between the cones and then eventually gradually reducing the number of cones, until we can start conditioning.  And we will make it to a ride when he is ready, I can hope for May but we will see. 

All the way at cone #17 today, at the top of the hill (and yes, I just wear the helmet the whole session - it keeps my ears warm!)

Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Resolution - Emotional Fitness!

Happy New Year's!!

My short-term (and lifetime!!) New Year's resolution for Sonny is learning emotional fitness.   This is a bit selfish  (or goal oriented) on my part as I want to compete with him in 2019 (ie  25 miles at Aprilfest, 50 miles at the Shelia and Marg Memorial ride, building up to multi-days later in the season...) But before any competition first comes the pre-requisite that he is consistently connected and relaxed (and hopefully happy).  This comes first, before any spring conditioning or thought of competition and we will take all the time he needs to develop these skills (but that being said I would like it be as efficient as possible for my goals).  Unfortunately this past year I had to balance developing his emotional fitness with the necessary physical rehabilitation for his tendon injury -- he needed to trot X number of minutes on a schedule for optimum healing and I prioritized his physical rehab over his emotional fitness (for long-term soundness). Now that we have successfully rehabilitated the injury I can switch focus back to his emotional fitness.

Resolutions towards Emotional Fitness:
  • Develop smaller reactions and quicker relaxations.
    • For example, my goal is that when a horse canters past or if someone leaves the arena, he only reacts with a small ear flick or a lift of his head and I ask him for a slight bend or head-lower and on we go. 
  • Maintain relaxation at all 3 gaits more consistently
    • We've got this when relaxed in the outdoor arena! Now I want it more solid so Sonny has a consistent relaxation go-to behavior in all 3 gaits
    • To me this is riding on a loose rein, in an neutral or slightly back-lifted posture with his head relaxed and natural (about level with his withers give or take). Our whoa and go will be balanced. 
To be fair, when Sonny is relaxed he is very connected and has quite a bit of training -- we have nice whoas off the seat at all 3 gaits, he can shoulder-in, haunches-in, half-pass at the walk, and we were previously playing with walk/canter/rein-back transitions. What I am trying to say is that he has the understanding when his emotions allow him to think.

However, when he becomes emotional this goes to "hell in a handbasket" very quickly. I still have good obedience and can use a tight rein (riding bitless with a cavesson or s-hack) to enforce transitions and safety, but that is not my goal and I know that riding is not good or fun for Sonny when he is that anxious! Thankfully I don't believe he wants to be anxious, so I am hopeful that teaching him how to relax will encourage him to want to relax and I will further reinforce those moments with clicker training. C/R = click/reinforce (ie tongue cluck and feed a treat)

Mat training for relaxation

I started out using groundwork and mat training to initially teach him to stand still on the mat. At our last update, a few weeks ago, he was up to 18 counts of standing still with 2 front hooves on the mat.  I tried several methods to be progressive with the mat training, as it seemed he would get distracted and wasn't really getting the idea past 25 counts or so.

  • I added on head-lowering criteria, so he had to stand on the mat with 2 front hooves and his nose lower than his shoulder (ie neck horizontal or lower) in order to be C/R.  We started the count over from the beginning when adding on the new criteria, so he had to stand like this for 1 count then C/R, then 2 counts and C/R, and so on until after a few sessions we reached about 30 counts.  I think this helped him understand and connect to the game a bit more, otherwise he was so distracted when standing on the mat he didn't realized why he was being C/R. 
  • After a while we still couldn't seem to really make it past 30 counts or so without a emotional distraction. I decided he needed more incentive to stand still and also to develop more emotional fitness with 'coming up' and then 'coming down'.
    • So I added in the trot on a longer line (remember that "Motion creates Emotion", credit Parelli). When he stepped off the mat I encouraged him to move out and trot or canter, rear, buck, in rough approximations of figure-8's. At anytime he could choose to come back to the mat and stand still with his head lowered and get C/R. When adding in trot+  I once again relaxed the duration/count criteria and C/R'd immediately when he chose to come back to the mat. Next I rather quickly added the criteria of head-lowering back-in the mix and then slowly increased the duration.  He figured this out fairly quickly and I also realized it was really good for him to work off anxiety by moving his feet!
    • A few sessions later we had the arena to ourselves and I decided to try the mat at liberty as he had a good understanding of the game at this point. It was amazing!!! At first he galloped, bucked, farted and yee-hawed around the arena while I stood patiently at the mat.  After only a few minutes he chose to stand and lower his head, C/R.  He left and came back a few times, and then he wouldn't leave. After about 30+ counts we called it a great session! Can't wait to play with that more.  
    • I also re-read the section in Alexandra Kurland's book "Riding with the Clicker" about the 300 pigeon peck game (ie increasing duration in a behavior) and decided that more persistence on my part was needed to in addition to increasing emotional fitness in the other ways.  So in another session we returned to just slowly increasing duration and made it up to 35, then 40, and finally today a 60 seconds of relaxed standing on the mat!!! Now the ultimate goal is 300 counts (or 5 minutes) but we can take our time getting there, I am very happy with 1 minute!!!
Now for riding!  I set up 2 rows of 5 cones down the arena as targets for figure-8's and small circles to establish patterns of relaxation.  Initially, we started at the 'safe-end' of the arena doing figure-8's of hip-yields around each cone (or milk-crate) until he offered moments of connection and relaxation, C/R. It took several sessions to progress to the small circles to the far 'scary-end' of the arena.

As with the mat training, we seemed to hit a plateau of progress. He could walk around each cone in a semi-relaxed state and semi-connected, and he could stand still with his head-lowered, but I couldn't quite get full relaxation (like we have in the outdoor arena).  Maybe I am just too impatient and expect faster progress than I should??  Regardless, I have been experimenting with different strategies.

The last 2 sessions including today, I tried increasing the emotion through motion, ie I asked him for an upwards transition.  The thought behind that is to use and establish the pattern of coming-down off emotion to further progress overall relaxation.  My goal is a relaxed gait or trot, in a neutral body position with a consistent moderate speed/tempo on a loose rein. This is also the relaxed gait I need consistent for our endurance ride goals.  Yesterday I was able to use canter circles and after a few minutes he started to lower his head, blow out and relax, we C/R'd and ended the session. What I had today was a runaway trot-gait-a-buck-a-gallop, so I persisted with single rein riding around a cone/obstacle. I would ask him to yield his hindquarters with a single-rein whenever he wanted to bolt away (ie don't leak out through the shoulder and run into the wall, instead you have to turn your hind end!), and then ideally go back to a loose rein, and repeat.  Eventually, I would feel a change and a start of relaxation/connection and would C/R, and he could immediately stand with his head lowered. However as soon as I asked him to move again it was straight back into the head-in-the-air, leaky-shoulder, gait-buck-a-lope. We did this a few times, switching directions, and immediately rewarding relaxation but did seem to hit a plateau instead of progressive relaxation.  I picked a spot of relaxation to finish out the ride and then cooled out walking out on a loose rein around the arena, which interestingly enough he could do fairly well with only 1 initial reminder to walk -- it was still a motoring, not entirely-chill walk. but definitely ok.   I also C/R the more relaxed/connected moments of the walk and ended at the 'scary-end' of the arena with a happy pony interested in playing with the Give-It game (see the video below)!  I am very interested to see if this technique will be helpful after a few sessions -- will he start 'getting-it' and offering more moments of relaxed trotting? Or will he stay anxious which would tell me I need to go back to slower games like 1-step at at time, backing, lateral work, etc. Always data collection.....

FYI - the Give-It Game - Sonny can only play the Give-It game when he is sufficiently relaxed to think and play, so it is a good emotional status indicator.  The game consists of me dropping or tossing my glove or his special new dog rope-toy, him retrieving it and giving it to me! So much fun!

And as always, I think (or am sincerely hopeful!) that these arena exercises of learning to relax will be HUGE at endurance ride-starts or other intense moments during a ride (or simply trying to come back to the barn, at a walk, from a trail ride..)

Happy New Year!!!!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Semi-Annual update

Beautiful Ontario twilight

Summer has flown by and now it is almost winter (already feels like it outside with clear blue skies and a high of -7 C /19 F today! ).  We spent most of the good weather this year doing regimented rehab distances, increasing the amount of trot by 5 min each week.   Last week this slow and steady progress built into our first 10 mile ride since spring- it felt wonderful!  Other than the initial anti-inflammatories, then rest and rehab, the only other treatment I added in was Cartrophen injections 1x/week for 4 weeks last month.  Cartrophen (pentosan polysulfate) is very similar to Adequan and is readily available in Canada (unlike Adequan).  I do think it helped, as prior to the injections Sonny would be very intermittently very slightly off on small circles in deep sand to the right (I could feel it and it was noticeable on slow motion video, but not to the naked eye).  After 4 more weeks of time and the Cartrophen he is completely sound. Was it the additional time or the Cartrophen... I don't know, but I do know he will be receiving it semi-regularly from now on (at least while asking him to do 50 mile+ rides!)

We have used our rehab time well and have steadily improved Sonny's foundation and our communication.  I am so lucky to be boarding with a great group of horse-people that re-introduced me to clicker training.  I have played with it a little in the past, but this summer I was'converted' - ultimately due to Sonny's great responses!  Sonny has struggled a lot with his own emotional fitness at a boarding stable. Previously, I always trailered out for training and we 'broke' our emotional tie to home during the trailer ride, often we were by ourselves.  Now, I can ride into the forest from home and other riders are frequently entering and exiting the area, or riding in the fields nearby, etc.  While Sonny is the best horse in the world, his Achilles heal is social anxiety.  Should he see a new horse & rider 2 hilltops away, his head comes up and I can count his heartbeats through the girth.  Should he have to go alone into the indoor arena you would think he was a foal being weaned from his dam.  We have made huge progress in this department but still have a long way to go. I have great obedience, I can ride him in a rope halter or s-hack and have control, accomplish transitions and lateral movements, even stand still on a loose rein,  but when his anxiety increases our 'connection' vanishes.   When he is relaxed I can whoa from a walk/trot/canter without reins, but when anxious it drops down to only sometimes being able to whoa (off the seat) at the walk.

Braving the cold and tacking up outside, where he is relaxed and happy

So back to clicker training. For clicker newbies, essentially the 'click' is a noise single that says 'Yes' to the horse followed by a reinforcer for getting the correct answer [click/reinforcer = C/R].  It clarifies what the correct answer (or movement, task, etc) is at that moment and adds precision to the communication.  The reinforcer is typically a treat for horses but can be anything highly valued by the 'learner'.  For Sonny I use a tongue cluck as the 'click' as then I am hands-free for riding, or holding ropes and other things. I use treats for the reinforcer, often hay cubes or cut-up carrots.  Clicker training is lots of fun for cool tricks - one that Sonny is learning is picking up a dropped glove (and then eventually handing it to me while riding).  For you endurance riders... I am teaching him to lower his head and put his left foreleg forward in response to a pressure or a stethoscope at his left armpit...and maybe when we are really awesome he will do his trot outs by himself 😉  He has also learned to drink from different water buckets for a C/R, hopefully that will come in handy at rides too.

But besides 'tricks' I am using it to teach him emotional fitness.  The more common way of getting connection from a right-brained (anxious, distracted, emotional) horse is to move their feet enough that they focus on you rather than the other worry.  This hasn't been overly successful for me and Sonny - maybe I am not persistent or consistent enough or am not doing just the right technique, but I tend to get good obedience but fail to get emotional connection and relaxation.  I also don't want this to take years, as I want to compete next season --- Yes, I know horse's have their own timeline and my goals are irrelevant to their needs.... Let me re-phrase, I want to compete next season on a happy horse that is connected with me most of the time.

So I have recently graduated from Alexander Kurlands book "Clicker Training for your Horse" to the 2nd book which is MUCH more detailed  "Riding with the Clicker".  She incorporates good classical and natural horsemanship techniques (John Lyons, Parelli, classical dressage, etc) and then adds in the C/R.  Having already built a foundation of C/R understanding and standing on mats with Sonny, I am now using mat training to teach Sonny to control his own emotions.  A mat is a what it sounds like -- we are using the foam squares often used on the floor of kids playrooms.   In the indoor arena, where Sonny is anxious, I put the mat near the non-scary end of the arena.  From previous sessions outside he already knows to stand on it with both front feet.  When he stands on it for 1 count (in my head one-one thousand, so forth) he gets a C/R. Then I count for 2, then C/R.  He could initially stand on it for about 3 counts before having to move his feet. I then used the Parelli figure-8 online pattern to direct his feet softly at a walk, re-presenting the mat as an option with each turn. After a few figure-8's he would decide he could stand on the mat again. Each time he had to stand for 1 count longer than the previous time, prior to C/R. If he moved off the mat then the counting re-started when he elected to stand on the mat again.  He made it up to 18 counts today, and to 10 counts wasn't to hard for him, but it took quite a few tries to make it to 18.  I like counting like this because it will give me a very objective measurement of progress, my goal is 300 counts or about 5 minutes (from the book).  I also like that the quality of the stand improved significantly during the session. Initially we had 2 front hooves on the mat with a head in the air and tight eyes and lips, at the end he was lowering his head, blowing out, and had soft eyes/lips.  Each time he chose to stand on the mat he was having to think through his anxiety and resist his natural impulse to move his feet, all for the C/R. I am hopeful that if he can overcome this anxiety and choose to focus on 'us' that it will build a foundation for relaxation and focus in many different situations (I will keep a bright foam mat in my crew bag, LOL!)  At the very least it will certainly help our ground-tying!

Hanging out in the indoor post-ride

And for all you endurance peeps, my goal is to start next season with a 25 mile ride and make sure our tack and soundness is spot-on (and as conditioning for our first spring 50!), then spend the rest of the season with 50's and multi-days.  I would like to re-build his physical strength and improve our connection before starting our first 100 (maybe in 2020!).  Happy Holidays!!!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Laid up

Longitudinal split in Sonny's deep digital flexor tendon (looks like a cracked egg)
This year has continued to be challenging since moving to Canada, I have realized how hard change is for me.  Even moving-forward positive change is still hard.  I think other people with different personality types thrive on excitement and new possibilities. I too love possibilities, but apparently only when my home-base and routine is stable.  I have always delt with a bit of anxiety issues combined with a strong drive for performance and perfection (can be a challenging combination!)  I didn't take the time to transition through a huge move and life change, instead continued to move forward at my normal intense life-pace, with goals of 50 mile rides, camping, etc, etc-- well now life has set me back.  While the setback is frustrating and I wish it didn't happen in this way, I think it is a blessing in disguise.  My anxiety issues were skyrocketing and leading into difficulty focusing on even the smallest tasks and also into small bouts of depression (it is really bad when you want to stay huddled on the couch watching Heartland rather than visiting your pony! Much less trying to get things like work and groceries done!).  Now life has forced me to slow down and change my goals for the year; I am taking the time I need to re-group and it is amazing how good it feels.  If I could go back in time, I would have allowed  more 'me time' for change instead of jumping in 100% right away after moving -- hopefully no more big moves, but next time I will know.  Right now it is beautiful weather, I am enjoying loving on Sonny and walking through the woods, life is good!  Now onto Sonny and some explanation.

Effusion (swelling) in the deep digital flexor tendon sheath

Sonny was sound and doing well after his bout of foot-soreness. We had 2 really nice rides where he felt great, he had gained weight and were getting back to ourselves.  Then he was turned out with a new group of horses while getting on spring grass.  There was a mare in heat that he was trying to 'steal' from the herd, but things seemed to going ok overall.  He was enjoying cantering in the big grassy field!  Then the next evening when I went to check on the horses and bring them in off grass, Sonny was very stiff and obviously lame on the right front at the walk. He looked quite miserable overall.  His windpuffs were up in all 4 legs and he had heat and swelling at the right front fetlock. Also a good kick mark on his chest.  I do not know if he got kicked in the leg by another horse or just injured himself running and being silly.  I made some calls, got a referral from our local equine vet, and had an ultrasound scheduled for the next week.

Fetlock swelling, note the loss of the 'hour-glass' shape compared to the left fetlock

In the meantime I had to figure out how to manage stall-rest, twice daily bute, and cold-hosing.  The barn that I was boarding at could not accommodate more intensive care (only basic outdoor board available and do-it-yourself extras).  I could not drive 1 hr round trip twice daily to provide the care Sonny needed plus trying to work and live (and deal with stress/anxiety).  Our local equine vet referred me to a nearby barn that would be glad to provide full lay-up care. Sonny was moved that morning to Maple Crescent Farm,   Boris had a stall ready and then set-up an outdoor 'horspital' pen so Sonny be on stall rest and still be outside and see the other horses rather than cooped up inside 24-7.  He cold-hosed the leg every morning and I did the evening session after work. He tried different bute flavors to find the type Sonny preferred (strawberry liquid), he knew how much hay he ate, how much (clean!) water he drank, and that Sonny enjoys drinking out of the hose too!  He was more than happy to feed my pre-made baggies so Sonny received the amount and type of feed/vitamins/minerals that I prefer - no issue with having to feed the barn feed, etc.  My stress level decreased 200% knowing that Sonny was being taken care of like I would take care of him at home. I didn't even realize how much subconscious stress I had been having about his care -- now I could just focus on his injury!



I was again amazed at the friendliness and openness of horse-people and Canadians when setting up the ultrasound.  Dr. Bruce Watt (, a board certified equine surgeon, was recommended for the exam and he practiced about 1 1/2 hours away, but farm call only.  He would make trips out (for a mileage fee) but I wanted to get Sonny in ASAP.  I had met wonderful Parelli instructors while re-homing Rogan, that lived in the Uxbridge area of Dr. Watt's practice.  While their facility did not have the setup needed, they put me in contact with a local friend.  This complete and wonderful stranger, opened up her barn for Sonny, even waking up early for our 7:30 am arrival.  She had the perfect setup, a quite and relaxed barn, with doors that shut (for the darkness needed for ultrasound) and electricty.

First, we did a lameness exam. One week after the injury, with bute and stall-rest, Sonny was already much better. He was sound at the trot in a straight line and left circles, but was slightly off on the RF on tight right hand circles, and a little worse on pavement versus the arena footing. Flexion didn't make much difference, maybe a little ouchy on both front but nothing significant.  Then we moved inside for the ultrasound. Again let me say how much I love Sonny and how much he impresses me!  He stood inside, in a strange place, by himself (no other horses), in the darkness, with machines, cold ultrasound goop, cords and strangers touching him without flinching. He relaxed, cocked a hip, and rested for the whole exam.
NOT Sonny!!! Example of a typical 'core-lesion' tendon injury

The good news was there was not a core lesion or an increase in size in any of his tendons.  Typical tendon tears have a big black hole on the ultrasound and the injured tendon is swollen and bigger than on the other leg. These take 8-12 months to rehabilitate and the tendon will never been as strong as pre-injury.  Sonny, of course, had an unusual and uncommon finding.  He had a longitudinal or saggital split only visible in 1 view just at the fetlock, above the sesamoid bones. It didn't extend up and down the tendon, and while small and difficult to spot, was consistently visible on the injured leg and not on his healthy left front leg.  What does this mean?? Well, we really don't know..

Sonny's injury again, for comparison

Ultrasound video showing the split - looks like a cracked egg

What we do know is it is a relatively small injury that is already responding to standard treatment. The plan is to continue small paddock rest (poor Sonny) so he doesn't have a momentary good gallop and re-injure or completely tear it.  We have to strengthen it slowly prior to releasing him from horsey-jail, so it can support his kicks and giggles or mare-stealing activities. We are walking for 30 minutes under saddle several times/week for the month of June, slowly increasing about 5 minutes every week.  Then in July we re-evaluate for any lameness and if all looks good will start adding 5 minutes of gait/trot per week.  He also gets as much hand-grazing and love as I can give him.  The walking is enjoyable for both of us and gives me time to re-visit basics (such as whoa, LOL) and play with fun ground work and obstacles.  We are both enjoying Sonny's new home, the other boarders are very relaxed and friendly, we seem to have a lot in common with a focus on improving horsemanship, clicker training, well-fitting saddles, and hitting the trails.  It is still on the 11,000 acre forest, so I can hit the trails straight from the barn.  It is also about 5 minutes closer to home (20 min versus 25 minutes, which makes a bigger difference than one would think) and has farm fresh eggs for sale!  So while we may be out of the endurance game this season, we are enjoying life!

Happy Sonny enjoying the grass!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

To 'get to the ride' is to win...Or Foot-sore, skinny, over-conditioned?

Sometimes I tell myself the true test of endurance is making it to the ride, to start is to win!  This has been a challenging spring for Sonny and myself.  I planned my conditioning carefully, averaging between 20-35 miles per week with 1-2 easy arena sessions to work on ground work or dressage- I was trying to do the minimum to leg him up for the spring rides.  I used Renegade hoof boots for all of our road riding and all but 2 rides on soft footing.  Sonny was moved to a new herd and he had trouble adapting.  Sonny had a high fecal egg count (worms!) [he was negative on the recheck fecal after de-worming]. We had an ice storm.  He lost weight despite me driving to the barn everyday to feed him and free choice round bales.  He was easily a 4/9 with ribs visible (no good!) -- not going to a ride like that!!

He then went lame on our last big conditioning ride, 3 weeks before our 1st 50 of the spring, a plan of 12 miles, lunch-break and repeat the 12 miles. During the first loop he was amazing, flying up and down hills at a smooth canter! But when going out for the 2nd loop he was off on the right front.  Back at the barn he was hoof tester positive on all of his toes.  Even though he had been wearing hoof boots his toes were soooo worn down. I should have noticed sooner!  I do know that he has never been hoof tester positive previously (I checked before purchasing him and he had a full lameness exam this fall) and he tends to have absolutely amazing gravel crunching feet.  In hindsight I think he had too many stresses (cold temperatures, new herd that he didn't fit in with, spring conditioning, heavy worm burden) and he lost weight and I don't think he quite had his normal hoof growth. I think he also had extra hoof wear walking on all the ice this spring/winter.

So, new plan.. lame and skinny horse, 3 weeks to my first 50 of the season, which I have paid for and really want to go to if possible, but only if I can have a healthy and happy horse! Rest, food, and more rest!


Sonny working on gaining weight. You can also still see his clipping from Fort Valley last October!

1. Sonny was moved back 'solitary confinement' for anti-social behavior.  He was very worried and anxious about keeping all the other horses away from his new best friend. So much so he didn't eat as much as he could.  He would attack the other horses if they came between him and his friend, which was very problematic when other boarders wanted to take their horses in/out.  Moving him to his own area (where he could still see and be near all the other horses) was a blessing in disguise (I typically prefer the horses to be out with other horses).  He seemed much more happy/relaxed and I could leave him with a full bowl of food and alfalfa, rather than just feed him what he could eat during my lunch break from work.  So on 1/3 - 1/2 bale of alfalfa + free choice round bale + 8 lbs of high fat/high-fibre (Fibre O Plus) feed daily, he has gained a good amount of weight in the past 2 weeks!  You can no longer see ribs, but I would still be happier with another 50 + lbs on him.  I would give him a 4.5/9, hopefully with another week of full meals he will be up to a 5/9 by ride time!

2. I put shoes on him (meaning I myself, put my 4th set of shoes ever on a horse!).  I used aluminum Kerckhaert Triumphs. I can shape the aluminum without having to learn how to work hot metal or buy a bunch of very expensive equipment.  His toes were so worn that the shoes didn't even contact the toe from 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock if you imagine a clock face on the hoof.  In a way this was also good, it eliminated all further pressure from the sore and bruised areas.  The bad news was I quicked him too.  This is part of the learning curve of learning to nail on shoes.... He has upright medial (inside) quarters on his hind feet which is very common.  This tends to pull the nail in deeper. I did not compensate enough with my technique and he flinched during nailing. I pulled the nail out immediately and he did have a small amount of blood.  The long-term prognosis for a nail quicked horse is excellent. The short-term prognosis is very questionable, they tend to abscess... so with a ride in 3 weeks this wasn't a good place to be. I spent the next 7 days soaking his hooves (in lieu of actually eating lunch -- oh wait I did shovel food in while driving to/from the barn!).  Either luck was on my side or the soaking helped, but he never became sore from the nail prick (yay!)  While not yet perfect, I was pretty happy overall with how the shoes turned out too (other than the nail prick!)!  Every couple of days I re-hoof tested and as of now he is hoof tester negative with 1 week until the ride. He is also trotting sound, yay!!!
Front Hooves
Hind Hooves (I find shoeing the hind feet a bit trickier than the front!)

Hoof Soaking. Sonny loves his spa treatments and didn't move a muscle during daily soaking (Wow!)

Now, with 1 week until the ride I have to balance weight gain, letting his hooves continue to heal, but also making sure he is loose and limber.  He did tie-up at Old Dominion last year; I am leary of over-feeding and under exercising prior to a ride as that is a great recipe for a repeat tie-up.  I am going to try taking him for a 30 min - 1 hr walk under saddle tomorrow to start things out.  Then repeat on Tuesday and Thursday. Maybe add in a few minutes of trotting/moving-out on Thursday to make sure all feels good. Then our pre-ride on Saturday and 50 miles on Sunday!  He also had an absolutely wonderful massage today (thank you Chrystal!!!!).  He absolutely loved it, I have never seen so many yawns, floppy ears, stretching, and so on -- he would probably love having a spa day all the time!  But for now, the tight muscles from his sore hoof are loosened up and he feels much better in his poll/neck too.  He should be ready to go next week, but we are pushing things a bit closer than I would like. Fingers crossed!

***Edit  -- Thank you for the information, Nancy! I actually need to add a bit more trotting in this week (5-5-5 - 5 min walk + 5 min trot + 5 min fast trot) to help prevent tying up rather than just walking. Every day is best, rather than every other day.  Wanted to share so others with this problem have the correct information***

Enjoying spring grass today!

UPDATE: He was still slightly inconsistent today while riding at the trot - I could feel him pushing me off the right diagonal :(   No head bob, but not quite right... so no ride for me this weekend. Next time!!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Prepping for a 50, liberty, and new herd mates

Playing at liberty today

Conditioning has been going well. We are averaging about 20- 35 miles/week for the last few weeks. He has worn holes in the toes of his Renegades and a new set is already on its way.  Assuming he settles and fattens up, I am planning on riding Aprilfest barefoot with boots available if needed.  We also found some cross-country jumps in lovely fields with rolling hills and had a bit of extra fun yesterday! I have been riding out with Chrystal and she has been meeting us on the road between her place and Sonny's barn, so I haven't been particularly working on our 'tether' recently.  However yesterday I was early and she was running late, so Sonny and I rode all the way down the road, past the horse-eating cows, to meet her and all was well.  So with repetition and time our tether to the barn is sufficiently stretched :)

In-between conditioning (and work, and head-colds for me) I have been playing with a little more liberty/on-line play (as I have been too tired to actually ride!).  This is going really well and Sonny is becoming very connected to me.  We haven't played a whole lot online, so the obedience is lacking as we don't have our body- language communication together enough yet for things like downward transitions or changes of directions.  But, connection, is the point of our liberty game and it is amazing!! We are even getting canter circles both directions with him eagerly drawing back into me.  I found it very interesting in the indoor the other day (after putting him with the new herd). He was very connected, but I kept losing the connection during canter circles to the right -- he stayed along the long-wall of the arena rather than turning to circle around me, but would re-connect when coming back around and each time after a few circles he would manage to leave the wall and circle around me and I would immediately draw him in for a reward break.  However, after a few tries it wasn't changing; I then had the lightbulb moment! I was facing with my back to the long-wall and that was the long-wall where he could see his new herd.  With my back turned he lost connection to me and started to re-connect to his herd (or at least I think that was what was happening).  I turned around, faced the herd and long-wall and with that small change we kept the connection and had beautiful liberty circles again.  I love learning from my horses!  I also love that when drawn in, Sonny chooses to 'snuggle' with me. He is the first horse that has done this for me -- at liberty he comes and he lowers his head and neck and places me right behind his head, at his neck.  I lightly massage his ears and poll and neck and he becomes so relaxed and happy, he will move his head so I get the 'right' spot- it is heavenly 💗

Rogan moved to a wonderful new home on Tuesday; he will be a much loved and pampered partner! And he is < 1 hr away so I can visit frequently -- we may trail ride together this summer too!  I re-homed him because he basically has been in early retirement for about 3 years (since I started endurance) and now that I am paying board and he had lost his job as 'companion' horse it didn't make much sense to hang on to him if I could find the right home.  He didn't have to go anywhere but I felt very guilty not having time for him when he clearly wanted attention -- while it was a hard decision I think this is a win-win for all involved. Congratulations on a new best friend Deborah!!

Rogan and Deborah

Unfortunately, Rogan leaving has made the last week a bit hard on Sonny.  While I hauled Rogan, Sonny stayed in his paddock by himself (still near and in-sight of other horses), but paced and whinnied on/off for several hours and I don't think he ate or drank very much.  We had tried to put an older mare with him, but they couldn't have cared less about each other.  So that afternoon I introduced him to the herd of 11 other geldings (plus the older mare). I had been feeding him in the adjacent pen for the past week or so, so he had met of the herd over the fence already.  Introducing him was uneventful.  Some squeals and posturing, but no bites or kicks; after about 1-2 hours he was eating at the round bale with the others and I went home.  After I left, an owner had the audacity (LOL) to remove their personal horse out of the herd for riding, and that horse may have had the potential to be Sonny's new best friend (I don't even think they had sniffed noses yet!).  Sonny had a meltdown -- must have been the final straw for his poor introvert brain.  He galloped the paddock (apparently very fast) and when squeezed between another horse, mud, and the round bale feeder, he chose to go over the side of the round bale feeder. Thankfully he cleared it successfully and didn't hurt himself physically with the whole ordeal.  He seemed to settle in over the next few days, but now he has become infatuated with a QH in the adjacent pen. To the point he is aggressively defending his new love from all 11 other horses (who don't actually care about the QH, but occasionally need to go where the QH happens to be standing -- like to the gate or near the water, etc).  He is even blocking the most dominant horses of the herd.  I am concerned he is not actually leaving the QH even long enough to eat.  On the bright side, at least he isn't getting beaten up by the other horses.  Hopefully time will sort this situation out, between all of this stress, the cold weather, and conditioning, he is down in weight to about 4/9 and I am trying my best to fatten him up. If he doesn't settle and loses more weight I will be missing our first ride of the season :(   There are always more rides, and keeping him healthy and happy is a priority.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Stretching the tether, approach and retreat

Yeserday's ride, almost 9k to go 1k in distance...

With recent weeks of warm weather I thought I would be spending most of my riding hours conditioning for the 80 k (50 mile) ride at AprilFest, April 29.  This started out fairly well, we did a few 16 k (10 mile) road rides with friends.  On an aside, the forest trails are still too icy to ride, except at a walk on a good day, so for conditioning we are left with the sandy edges of the country roads for a few more weeks.  However, I soon discovered that Sonny has a strong invisible tether to his new barn and Rogan.  This was never an issue before because I always trailered out for conditioning rides and he was great by himself and with others in the woods.  Leaving from home, leaving Rogan who is continually neighing for him to come home, and heading out to face parts unknown filled with dogs, cows, houses, other horses is now terrifying.  All is good if Sonny is with another horse that will get eaten first while Sonny runs away, but if Sonny is the sole prey he is going to make sure he is not going to get eaten by that cow!!  So we have changed our plans and hopefully will still get enough riding in for the 80k (50 mile) in April, but if not we will just adjust. 

If Sonny truly felt confident in me as his leader and partner, that I would protect and keep him safe we wouldn't have a challenge.  So we have to build that partnership and make it stronger.  Plagiarizing from Jaime McArdle and paraphrasing -- I have to accept where I am at today and be the best horseman I am today, while at the same time learning to be a better horseman for tomorrow.  That is hard, I would like to be the better horseman NOW, lol.  I  started this particular journey several months ago, using the winter downtime to re-focus on ground work and harmony between Sonny and myself; that is going very well.  For the particular challenge of leaving the barn by ourselves I am using the tried and true strategy of approach and retreat.  Each day and ride Sonny has confidence/comfort-level threshholds at some undefined distance from the barn and Rogan.  In other words, he has a safety-bubble that he feels good in and can relax and when we reach the edge of the bubble he starts to exhibit anxiety; if I go too far past the edge of the bubble his 'lizard brain' takes over, he edges towards a fulminate panic attack and I feel unsafe.   His thresholds can change from day to day, ie on windy days with lots of activity his bubble may be smaller initially. 

Back to the actual ride strategy. I try to initially get connection with a small amount of groundwork prior to riding. Right now I am playing with yielding his shoulders (he had a pretty sticky right shoulder!), trot circles, and the beginnings of line driving.  The goal is harmony and connection, not a number of laps or perfect transition, etc.  For example, initially he may trot an 'egg' rather than a circle, looking to the outside towards Rogan; when he connects (which is quicker each session) his circle gets smaller and round, his head lowers, and he stays bent around and focused on me -- it is actually a lovely, engaged, balanced trot.  When connected there is no pressure on the line, we are practicing for liberty.

After we connect on the ground we are ready to ride.  I start with walking up the driveway, ideally on a loose-rein with a relaxed head/neck.  At the end of the driveway I turn around and walk back to the barn, and then repeat the loop going a little further each time.  I judge how far to go based on Sonny.  Yesterday he was quite spicy, it took a lot of approach and retreat to obtain relaxation just leaving and returning to the barn yard. There were many thresholds -- a black dog that could have been a horse-eating bear, a mare guarding her herd, birds flying out of stored round-bales, snow and ice creaking, and the infamous yearling calves playing.  However, after 1 1/2 hours we made safely from the barn to the start of the trails "the rail-trail", taking almost 9k to go a 1k distance, but we returned to the barn on a completely loose rein, head down and back swinging with relaxation. 

Today, it was much quicker. Our first main threshold was almost 1/2 way to the 'rail-trail' or over 50% further than yesterday.  Sonny was so comfortable I even started to use the 1/2 way point as the 'retreat' area which enabled him to spend more time at the edge of his bubble (squeezed between a creaking snow-bank and facing the carnivorous calves).  Once we made it to the 'rail-trail' turn, the tether seemed to snap and he was ok to move on (at least in that direction, continuing straight past the calves might be a different challenge for another day!).  We motored down the rail-trail to a yummy field of dried dead grass which he enjoyed on for a few minutes before we turned around and headed home, on a loose rein and mostly relaxed.  My plan is continue this when I ride out by myself and if he is confident and relaxed we will head out for some conditioning, but when we reach a threshold we will play with approach/retreat, until we can move out again as partners.  (and hopefully I will get in some rides with friends so we don't loose all our physical conditioning while working on the mental conditioning!)
Today's ride, almost 2x as far in the same amount of time! The hard part is stretching the tether enough to get to the initial right hand turn onto the 'rail-trail'