Sunday, November 5, 2017

Small things

  • Pressure vs trust
    •  I ran as fast as I could run straight up to Sunny in the field and he didn't move away. He just lifted his head, pricked his ears and waited for a cookie.  This was a big test of his trust for me.  He is very sensitive to pressure and a year ago was hesitant to be caught at all.  Slowly walking up used be too much pressure and he would leave.  This is a big step. 
  • Bareback vs. Saddle and hip flexors...
    • I am upgrading bareback pads. I sold/shipped my old one out this weekend and don't expect the new Skito bareback pad to arrive for a few weeks. I love riding bareback (w/ pad) at home. It is so much quicker to tack up, I can feel the horse's back movement so much better and I also feel more balanced while riding.  But today I did not have a bareback pad, so on went the saddle.  I removed the stirrups from my saddle to continue my posture/balance practice as I have a bad habit of using the stirrups to brace a little. It wasn't fun :( Riding bareback is fun, but everything was a struggle for me in the saddle.  Sunny was great, he didn't seem bothered or tense, but I couldn't seem to get my balance.  My pelvis kept wanting to arch rather than to stay in 'neutral'.  I checked my saddle adjustment - yes it was good for him (thought I did tweak it an 1/8 of a turn narrower) and the seat was flat/level for me.  I struggled for our entire ride and was glad to be done , didn't even feel like riding Rogan next--- ugh, not how I want it to go! Thankfully I still think it was good for Sunny and he was happy.  My A-HA moment was a little later.  When riding bareback the width of the horse's back pushes my thighs up a into a flexed position, this in turns makes it easy to keep my pelivs neutral. (Try it at home-- when you tuck your knees into the fetal position your back rounds, when you pull your legs behind you your back arches)  I tend to have an arched back and tight ( and continuously stretched and worked on) hip flexors.  The twist (ie narrower seat) of the saddle however allows my legs to fall/drape almost straight down, which is accentuated without stirrups.  When MY legs are straight down MY pelvis wants to arch, thus making me fight to keep it in neutral and hence fight for my usual automatic balance.  So now I can't wait to play with this more next time... will it be easier if I carry my thighs up a little (like I would with stirrups?)  And I will continue to stretch my hip flexors out of the saddle.
  • Saddle tweaking
    • As I was struggling I obviously evaluated my saddle adjustment as a potential cause.  Widening the saddle gives it a more 'banana' shape on Sunny -- if really too wide it will actually rock.  Too narrow and it will bridge.  I continually play with about a 1/4 turn area of adjustment trying to achieve perfect (which obviously changes with his muscling, etc).  I had removed all my saddle packs and cleaned the saddle earlier in the day and had left them off for the ride.  Having the saddle packs off while riding really let me feel the panel contact on his back while mounted.  My saddle has a space in the front of the seat where I can stick my hand in and feel, as well an open gullet in the rear that essentially allows me to feel the panel from all directions.  Initially when adjusted slightly wider I had firm contact for about the middle 12" of saddle under my seat with opening up at the shoulder and loin.  I thought it was a smidge too much pressure for the seat and a smidge too little at the loin, but probably perfect for a free shoulder. So I narrowed it 1/4 turn.  This dramatically evened the pressure along the whole length of the panels but I didn't like the shoulders, they maybe a smidge too snug.  So I turned it back 1/8 turn wider :)  We shall see....   Also interesting was how the lifting of the horse's back really opened up the shoulder area between horse and saddle.  When Sunny was standing with his back neutral/dropped, the saddle was pushing down at the pommel/shoulder area more, but as soon as he lifted his back and therefor the saddle there was suddenly plenty of room for the shoulders. Hmmm, interesting and it all makes sense too!
  • Canter transitions
    • Sunny has a tendency to raise his head abruptly in canter transitions and I mentioned this to my teacher, Theresa.  She said to ask lighter, I am likely asking with too much force thus eliciting reaction in Sunny.  I will mention that at most my ask consisted of a light calf squeeze and a kiss. The challenge is if I ask lighter I don't necessarily get a canter.  At the same time I have been reading Phillipe Karl's book "Art of Riding" and just finished the chapter on lightness to the leg.  So on my next ride when it came time for canter I just lifted my energy and kissed twice and then when I didn't get much response I tapped Sunny's hip with the stick.  That really caught his attention!  I went back to relaxation and once he was relaxed and I lifted my energy, kissed twice and had a much improved transition.  We have since been playing with transitions off energy and they are consistently improving.  We have moments were we can ride in harmony and effortlessly move from walk to a canter without a change in contact, balance, or anything-- one step is a walk and the next is a canter. WOW! ---but now for consistency :)  I am also practicing this concept with all the transitions and they are steadily improving. I can't wait for these moments to become all the time!
  • Hollow Side - the side to which the horse naturally curves (ie left handed or right handed in people). The neck and hips will curve some amount to one side -- this is the hollow and stiffer side.  It is easier for the horse to move this direction and harder for them to bend in the opposite direction (which is why people mistakenly call the harder direction the 'stiff' side -- actually the opposite or hollow side is stiff and less-flexible preventing the horse's body from being able to bend in the other direction)
    • This is really more about Rogan. In the "Art of Riding" Phillipe Karl mentions a correlation between the horse's hollow side and the direction the mane naturally falls.  So I paid attention.  Sunny is slightly hollow/stiff on the right side and thus has a harder time with moving his hips to the left, his mane is to the right.  Sunny doesn't show to much preference with shoulder movement but canters much easier to the right than left and has a harder time moving his haunches to the left.  Rogan is hollow/stiff on his left side which makes bending to the right harder. His mane falls to the left.  Hollow to the left means Rogan naturally carries his head and hips slightly curved to the left and tends to weight his right front leg more than his left.  It is hard for him to curve his body to the right.  We played with this on walk circles today (until it rained suddenly and we both became soaked!!). The easiest exercise was either haunches-in (travers) on a left hand circle or shouder-in on a right hand circle, both exercises allow him to use his preferred side.  The hardest exercises were consistent with the theory and the most difficult for Rogan was counter-shoulder-in on a left circle-- his front end is very stiff and he has to keep right body/neck bend and weight his left front crossing his front legs while walking a circle.  Also consistent with theory is his left lead canter is much more balanced and effortless compared to the right lead where he tends to fall-in.  Right lead canter, by the very posture required to perform it, will naturally help him become more flexible and strong on his stiff left side.  This was very fun to play with and see the difference in the horses, it will be fascinating to see how continuing the simple exercises at the walk changes the flexibility of  Rogan and hopefully it will make him a happier and sounder horse! 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Update: Not Lame

Sunny had his vet appointment yesterday.  Since Fort Valley he had been confined in a small paddock and received a dose of Equioxx on Friday and Saturday.  By Tuesday he looked great, which unfortunately makes it challenging to diagnose what is going on.   Had this been his initial onset of lameness in that hoof I would not have been so concerned.  However he was lame on the right front on September 15, from a what I had assumed was a mild abscess but it never ruptured and he wasn't 'abcsess lame'.  That history made me very concerned for a mild tendon or suspensory pull as those horses can have mild intermittent lameness, especially with the amount of downhill trotting (and even slow cantering) we have done in the past few months.  The downhill forces at even moderate speeds can really stress the suspensory apparatus.  Also, when I palpated his tendons I found he consistently reacted more to the right front suspensory than the left.

Sunny saw Dr. Davis at Piedmont Equine for his lameness workup and I was very pleased with Dr. Davis's thorough, detailed, and knowledgeable exam. I would be more than happy to use him (hopefully not needed!) in the future.  I chose Piedmont, as my normal vet (Dr. Ann Marie Hancock), didn't have any availability in the near future, and the other recommend endurance vets also didn't have any opening's that worked with my schedule.  I have also been impressed with Piedmont for other veterinary workup's in the past (EPM in Rogan and an injury to my neighbor's horse).  Piedmont is a referral level hospital and they have great lameness evaluation facilities including an asphalt trot-out lane, a soft footing round pen, a firm footing riding/longeing area, and a regular arena.

Sunny was completely sound for his examination.  During flexions he did show a slight positive to flexion of his right hind hock/stifle according to Dr. Davis (it was slight enough that I couldn't really see it!), but completely negative on the other 4 limbs.  The veterinary technician longed Sunny (so I could watch) on the different surfaces, and then I even rode him in the arena -- he was sound the entire time! Dr. Davis explained how to properly palpate the tendons, during my palpation of the suspensory I was likely causing a cutaenous (skin) reaction, not eliciting true pain in the suspensory.  Instead of running my fingers down the ligament continuously I should apply pressure in each location separately.  Sunny certainly didn't react at all to his palpation! (And this is why my horse sees an Equine Vet- while I certainly know the basics, I see small animals all day and don't have the daily practice with horse injury)

I elected to proceed with imaging (xray and ultrasound).  I have big goals and demands for Sunny's future athletic career (would like to try a 100 mile ride and definitely would like to have a decade team horse!). I need to know if Sunny has a problem that could cause reevaluation of my goals, or if he needs a year of rest and rehabilitation.  It is not fair to push a horse that could have a problem -- you could cause a major problem or a lot of pain for your horse unknowingly.  I need to feel confident that my athletic demands are fair to my horse and not causing him pain.  He is my beloved partner, not my ATV!

The technician and I went into the radiology suite and she quickly took the views needed, Sunny was great, obediently standing on the blocks; only pooping out of nerves when another horse left his direct sight.  The xrays looked great- no signs of osteoarthritis in either front hoof or the fetlocks!  The only finding was what appeared to be a flat, 0 degree, angle of the solar plane. To explain, that is comparing the bottom flat surface of the coffin bon/P3 to a flat line. Ideally, while standing the bottom of the coffin bone/P3 (solar plane) would be about 3-5 degrees up from a flat line, this would allow 3 degrees for the bone to sink to level (0 degrees) into the digital cushion during maximum weight bearing.  When the hoof sinks below level (a negative solar plane) the horse is more prone to heel pain and tendon tears.  To fix this problem Sunny needs either higher heels or a lower toe.  His heels were lowered for the recent shoeing (to provide a flat surface for the shoe) so I suspect I just need to let them grow out a little but I will have my wonderful barefoot trimmer, Patrice Sager, evaluate his hoof and let me know for sure what the correct course of action is for this.  The xray also showed the defect the abscess left in his hoof wall (so, yes, it likely was an abscess making him lame in September).  However, after measuring his hoof on the xray and calculating the angles I consistently get between a 2.4 and 2.8 degree positive solar plane, not quite the 3-5 degrees of ideal, but better than 0 degrees!

Image courtesy of 
We then proceeded with an ultrasound of his flexor tendons and suspensory to check for common problems in seen in athletic horses.  I have to say Sunny was a champ for all of this, no sedation required.  He was a little unsure of going into the ultrasound/wash stall area, but trusted me that he wasn't going to fall into a black hole, then stood quietly for the exam (he did receive regular carrots for his exemplary patience).  The ultrasound showed some mild changes in his distal suspensory branches, but it was explained that those minor changes could be from anytime -- once they happen they generally don't heal ultrasonographically, but he should still be lame/ouchy if they were acutely injured.  The only concerning abnormality was at the origin of his proximal suspensory.  Sunny has a slightly abnormal anatomy with a more prominent bony ridge separating the medial (inside) and lateral (outside) of the lobes of proximal than expected.  This was symmetrical in both legs so that tells us it is likely just him; if these changes were just present in 1 leg then injury would be a major concern.  The biggest concern of the entire exam was irregular bone surface (instead of a smooth bone surface) at the origin of the suspensory in both front legs, this indicates some chronic inflammation/changes or stress to the area.  This could be an area of pain or just changes that indicate use and are not an issue.

So the plan is to enjoy Sunny as a light riding pleasure horse through the winter, essentially with easy rides and time off.  This may give any minor injury sustained during the season time to heal and bone to remodel. I will start conditioning him in the late winter/early spring for next season's rides and hope he doesn't have any more lameness.  If he does come up lame again (without an obvious cause) the next step is to get him to the vet while he is still lame and then block (numb) the proximal suspensory.  I am also going to be more aware of stressing his suspensory area and avoid high jumping (LOL), racehorse style-gallops (LOL-- the fastest we have ever gone is about 15 mph!) and for what really affects us - go slower on the downhills.   My favorite theory for the whole episode is that Sunny banged his lower pastern on a rock, causing swelling above the coronet band, which mimicked coffin joint effusion, which explains what the ride vets saw and also would explain the quick resolution. And that means he would be essentially fine. 

So really good news overall!!!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Fort Valley: 17 miles and lame

View from Massanutten Trail (the ridgeline on the first loop)

I should be at Fort Valley base camp finishing dinner after a long but rewarding day of 50 miles. Instead I am writing this back at home, with my visiting out-of-town family.  My parents drove up from Florida to see first hand this crazy sport that their daughter has gotten obsessively involved with!  Unfortunately they got to see first hand ALL the aspects of endurance... (except a completion award!)

Fort Valley prep officially started 10 days ago with a new set of shoes, then light riding the week prior to the ride, with mashes, electrolytes, gastrogard, etc.  Sunny traveled well and was relaxed at camp. We had a great pre-ride and he vetted-in without an issue.  We had a calm start, but going up the initial gravel road I felt something was slightly off so I stopped to make sure he hadn't picked up a rock in his shoe.  All looked good and he evened out so we enjoyed the trail, readily moving out on the forest service roads and taking our time on the rocky climbs.  Sunny ate and drank well on trail and was an absolute dream to ride! However on the downhill forest road headed back into basecamp he felt slightly uneven at the gait and trot and the rider with me confirmed a very slight head nod-- off on the right front, but then on level ground he felt sound again.  At camp he pulsed in quickly, but I asked Dr. Bob Marshall to pay extra attention to the RF on the trot out and he confirmed that he was consistently off on the RF.  The wonderful ride vets had a lull in the horses coming in, so they looked at him a little more in depth and Dr. Julia Wolfe found a moderate amount of coffin joint effusion, mild reactivity to palpation of the proximal suspensory and definite reactivity to the 'foot' acupuncture point on the right side.  His shoeing and hooves still looked great (boy I wish it was just an obvious hoof bruise or muscle cramp!!).  In hindsight I also noticed he kept throwing me to one diagonal when trotting -- of course now I can't remember which one as I make a point to consistently switch.

Spot on the right front that I thought was an abscess coming out the corornet

I am not sure what is going on yet,  but of course all the horrible career ending injury thoughts are going through my head.  Sunny is my decade team, amazing-forever-partner horse- we have another 10-15 years of great rides ahead -- he can't be permanently lame!! The kicker is he was off in the right front on September 15, our first conditioning ride 3 weeks after he completed back-to-back 50's at Iron Mountain (sound).  He had a spot on the coronet band of the hoof that looked like an abscess coming out, but he was only about a 3/5 lame and hoof-tester negative.  I had to go out of town and by the time I got back he was sound and we had 3 good conditioning rides prior to Fort Valley.   Now I am wondering if he had something brewing in the hoof/tendon/joint/etc and now it is rearing it's ugly head.  I sincerely hope it is not low-ringbone :(  Sunny and I can take all the time we need to heal a tendon or even surgically remove a bone chip, but there are not many great options for osteoarthritis of the coffin joint besides management and reducing athletic demands.  Sunny has an appointment for a full lameness workup on Tuesday and hopefully we will have some good answers. Hopefully it is nothing but a minor strain or bruise! On the bright side the timing is convenient for  rest as Fort Valley is the last ride of our season and I am also very glad he is insured with medical coverage!

For now he is enjoying relaxing back in his home field, comfortable with a dose of Equioxx on board.  I will post again when I have answers.. until then I will worry 😊

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Beautiful weather, bareback dressage, Rogan and Sunny

What a beautiful weekend!!

I thoroughly enjoyed not having plans and time to play with both horses all 3 days.  I am always amazed at how consistency really makes for fast progress!  Also, interestingly enough I am working on the same tasks with both horses right now.  The contrast between Rogan and Sunny is educational. Rogan understands all the movements I am asking for (through our previous training) but physically struggles - he is built very downhill and has very low set neck -almost a ewe neck; he is very stiff and heavy in his movement.  He also has some anxiety from my previous attempts to teach him things (thank you Rogan for helping me learn and improve!).  Sunny is much more athletic and fluid, but is still learning what I am asking for and how to do the movements.  The increased fluidity, relaxation, and understanding for both horses over 3 days is wonderful.

I love riding bareback for fine-tuned arena work. I am using a Equi-Pedic saddle pad underneath a Parelli bareback for a little protection for the horse's back and a little grip for me. I can really feel if the back is lifting or if the horse has a little tension or brace that we need to work out; this is much harder for me to feel in the saddle at this point in my learning.  Rogan tends to 'cheat' and visually put his head/neck in a 'frame' but not actually have a relaxed and lifted back. When I ride him bareback I can feel this instantly and then ask him to release his tension and lift.  Rogan isn't very strong yet and can only really lift his back when his neck is around the horizontal position, when he tenses he typically raises his neck so I can gently ask him to lower it down again and then think 'lift' with my body and it works!!  Sunny is getting really strong and seems to vascillate between an excellent lifted back and then a REALLY lifted back during certain movements which is fantastic, but also makes it hard to tell if he is always lifting as I am losing contrast, LOL! It is good to ride multiple horses!

I am starting out both horses with neck stretches in hand and when mounted.  Then with Sunny we are still playing with Spanish Walk, but at this point it is Spanish-Stand, LOL.  He is continuously improving and we get 4 leg lifts in a row consistently under saddle but we are struggling with walking forward between.  I am hopeful more practice and loads of praise will sort this out from Spanish-Stand to Spanish-Walk.  Then I have been warming up with alternating between shoulder-in and haunches-in along the rail both directions; today I added in more half-pass.  I used a barrel as an end-point to the half-pass; both horses quickly figured out the target and aimed themselves to it, half-passing over for a rest and treat at the barrel.  I find horses are much more motivated and offer so much more when you give them a purpose such as 'we are going to that barrel with a cookie' rather than aimlessly repeating a movement along the rail.  Today I also added in walk-pirouettes. Rogan really surprised me, he did several really nice 1/2 - 3/4 pirouettes -- this is where he shines because he understands what I am asking and since I had warmed him up well and his body was loosening he gave me some awesome relaxed and beautiful movements.  Sunny doesn't understand this very well yet and accordingly I have to be very precise in my direction. However, when I do my job and prepare him correctly Sunny will consistently offer really nice 1/2 walk pirouettes.  If I don't prepare him well he will do what just comes easier and step out with his hind end (a coke-bottle turn, rather than a pirouette).  Today we got 3 really nice 1/2 walk pirouettes each direction (yay!!)  What I love about this is both horses are so relaxed and on really light contact -- just enough to communicate, everything is so easy and smooth!  The horses are relaxed, understand the communication, are physically capable and 'it' (the really cool fancy movement) just easily happens!  No more "driving the horse into the bit"-- bleh, never ever again!!!!  Thank you Theresa McManus and the many horses that have helped me learn!

Next, I played with trot/walk (or gait with Sunny) transitions.  Each horse needs a slightly different focus.  Rogan has done a million transitions (and knows his job), but wants to tense his neck and thrust forward (this is my fault too from previous riding/training mistakes). I have to help him relax his neck and lift into the transition. I find this is easier if he does the transition from a shoulder-fore position, it breaks up the bad habit and every day he is getting softer with more of a lift-transition.  He also tends to fall-in on his right shoulder when on the right-rein/direction and starting him in a shoulder-in on the circle helps him stay even on his shoulders when this happens; accordingly he drifts out on left hand circles...  Sunny still will get emotionally nervous about transitions and just needs practice and repetition that they are ok; he still needs his million transitions!  He truly hasn't done a lot of arena/practice transitions, it is very different on the trail where it is very obvious to go/slow.  We just walked, then gaited for about 20 feet, then walked, then gaited, etc. At the beginning he would vacillate between a mild balking and a nervous-go, the balking equaled a light tap with the stick and then nervous-go equaled relaxation and repetition.   Today he really understood and we had forward transitions without nervousness, balking, or the stick!.  Downward transitions are really easy in the arena (ie I think stop), LOL!

I am also adding-in shoulder-in at the trot for Rogan and gait for Sunny.  Both horse's think it is hard (me too!!!), but both horse's were really getting a few good steps by today.  Rogan struggles more going to the right and Sunny to the left.  I think this will really come soon for both, but I find it hard to push both the horse's and myself to the next level (versus stay in our comfort zone).  I have to just keep practicing and praising the wonderful horses for every good step they offer, and then the next session they just offer more -- each step they take increases their mental understanding and physical ability to do another the next day!  And today I was amazed by the improvement in Sunny's gait after practicing this -- he was really moving, while maintaining relaxation and a hugely lifted back, Wow!! And I also learned throughout the weekend of riding that I am dropping my left shoulder as my bra strap falls down on that side-- Now that's a good reminder, LOL! If I remember to keep my hands level in turns, etc (ie "serving tea to the queen") then my bra strap stays up-- imagine that 😉

Finally, we added on the canter. Once again both horses are practicing the exact same thing -- a relaxed upward lift into the canter (pushing off with the outside hind, rather than falling onto this inside front leg). Both horses initially tend to raise their necks and fall forward into the canter. Rogan physically is having trouble cantering so I just ask for a nice lift into the canter, about 2-3 strides then walk.  I am not sure if he is just that stiff, anxious about previous mistakes I made in the canter (ie flying lead change training trying Parelli methods -- that didn't work at all for us!!), or a little footsore too.  Regardless we are taking it slow and building up with all the walk/trot/lateral work, using hoof-boots, and he also has an osteopath visit in a few weeks.  Sunny is doing amazing -- he is just having to figure out that horses can canter in a small arena (instead of a 14 mph hand-gallop on the trail!!) and is offering a delightful back-lifted balanced and relaxed canter.  I also only ask Sunny for a few strides as he is just learning, and when he lifts into the canter and offers a few lovely strides I let him know he has the 'right' answer by stopping and praising.  Not every transition is lovely (of course) but we are making huge improvement.  I CAN'T WAIT until we can flow down the trail alternating between his amazingly smooth gait and this lovely little canter! That is my goal (or one of my goals!).  My next conditioning ride (next week after 3 weeks off from conditioning) will just be a short 7-8 mile loop where we, hopefully, practice maintaining a gait or lovely little canter most of the time.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Iron Horse! 100 miles, 2 days

Iron Horse Award, handmade by Marshall Bates from old-horse shoes found on the Iron Mtn trail

Sunny completed 50 miles both Friday and Saturday at Iron Mountain Jubilee. The weather was perfect, the trails were fantastic, and all the stars aligned! He transversed 100 miles of mountain trail with 15,622 elevation gain/loss on Saturday and probably about the same on Friday (my Garmin lost Friday's data).  His 100 mile ride time was 18 hr 52 min, we tied for 27th on day 1 and had a 4-way tie for Turtle on day 2 (it was great sharing the trail all day with Dale, Roger, and Monica!) The Renegade Vipers stayed on perfectly for both days and the vet cards looked great the entire time. Thank you to Nancy Sluys and team for putting on such a great, well-thought-out ride!!

Day 2, Photo by Becky Pearman

After just under a 5 hr drive to camp, he weighed 910 lbs (413 kg) and had a body condition score of 5.5/9 on arrival. (I love having the horse scale at rides! On an aside, he weighed 878 lbs on arrival at Old Dominion after a 1 hr trailer ride). After completing the 50 on Friday he weighed 896 lbs, losing 14 lbs or about 6.4 liters of fluids, this would equal to about 1.5 % dehydration (not taking into account any weight loss or dehydration from travel prior to the ride) [For the math geeks,  Liters of fluid loss = Kg of horse x % dehydration].   I was hoping he would regain his 14 lbs of loss overnight, but the next morning he still weighed 896 lbs (hey but in the morning he didn't have his renegades on... so he actually regained about 1.4 L of fluid, and YES I did just weigh all my wet/muddy renegades and all 4 weighed about  3 lbs or 1.4 kg).  At the end of the 2nd day he weighed 878 lbs or 399 kg, having lost a total of 32 lbs or 14 kg.  This equates to about 3.4% fluid loss or dehydration for the 100 miles/2 days.  That is not too bad, but of course I hope this improves at future rides as he becomes better at eating and drinking on the trail and at camp; he did eat much more consistently on day 2 than on day 1. I did give Sunny plain salt and mashes prior to the ride and electrolyted about every hour on trail with 1 oz (half-dose) of Enduramax and 1oz ProCMC (and lost my drench syringe on trail too).

Powerline view on trail
I was pumped and excited after finishing the first 50 on Friday with both of us in great condition, so I went ahead and signed up for Saturday. About 1 am on Saturday I was definitely thinking 'WHY?" why did I think this was good idea again... And when I tried to get up and walk Saturday am, I definitely thought, why??? But I had already paid my $110 so I certainly wasn't going to back out and lose my entry fee, LOL.  Sunny agreed and was reluctant to leave basecamp, he wasn't concerned at all about following the herd of horses down the trail, he knew the correct direction to go, back to the trailer and his alfalfa.  However, after a few miles down the trail we both loosened up and he was especially happy to catch up with Dale and Cheyenne; Sunny has a crush on Cheyenne and loves to share the trail with her.

My Trail Buddies for Day 2 - Dale, Roger, and Monica
Hospitality stop on the 2nd, 20 mile yellow loop

Sunny and Cheyenne enjoying Melody's and Sweet Pea's leftover hay at the Vet Check

I loved having different trail both days, with gorgeous views!  I thought the footing was fantastic, mostly firm sand/clay base trail with some shale/rocks and gravel roads. There was no boulder climbing like on the Old Dominion trail. I enjoyed hiking the climbs to give my body a change and Sunny's back a break from carrying me.   During the last 15 miles on Saturday my calves were failing and my shoulders were cramping.  I still need to improve on my posture while riding, I push my heels down too far which works my calves too much and I hunch forward a little which is why my shoulders cramp from supporting my heavy head.  Also, when I have brace in my position it can create brace and tension in Sunny as well (never a good thing).  This is a continual work in progress and fatigue brings out bad habits, but on the bright side when my calves stopped working I had to find new ways to keep posting without using those muscles :)

Photo by Nancy Sluys. Starting out on Day 2, this photo captures my braced posture (and tells my why I am still so sore today!)
I loved basecamp, it was picturesque with mountain views, shade trees, and on the banks of the New River (and had showers too!!). The horses enjoyed the cooling river (great for 'icing' the legs after riding all day!) and good roll in the sandy banks afterwards.

Lessons learned --
1. I need to keep practicing better posture
2. My hind renegades rubbed on the 2nd day, this has never happened previously but I may have had them adjusted too tight.
3. I did have mild girth chaffing on the 2nd morning, I smeared on the Desitin and it actually looked better post-ride. Next time I will use Desitin prior to any long ride.
4. This ride really took everything Sunny and I had. We are both really tired, my calves are swollen and I have been on/off nauseous, he is still only walking around the field, not trotting and playing yet; his windpuff's are little extra puffy this morning out from standing around after such intense exercise. We did finish with A's and in good condition but in hindsight I don't think we were really fit enough for this level of difficulty. Had the conditions been less than perfect (ie muddy, hotter, more humid, etc) we probably would have run into problems.  This is the hardest I have ever pushed myself or my horse and while I don't regret it, I do understand that we need to be more fit before tackling hard 100 mile rides (ie Old Dominion). I don't have the experience to know what is 'normal' for horses after such a hard ride but I would like both my horse and myself to be a little perkier a little sooner.   I think prior to tackling any more longer rides I would like to pace a little faster, add-in a little more canter, finish 50's solid early to mid-pack rather than with the turtles. But we have just added 100 miles to our base of long-slow-distance and we should both come out better for it.
5. Our relationship is improving, Sunny trusts me more (and vice versa) and I love the fact that he still wants to be partners after such an ordeal. He seems to know I do love him and he trusts me to take care of him, knowing I dismount and lead him through the hard sections, take him off the hi-tie for grazing walks and pee-breaks (he doesn't like to pee in his 'bed'), and in return he still walks up to me in the dark, after 12 hours of work, after 100 miles and almost 10 hours of trailering, just so I can make sure everything is still ok.

Rest and more rest and relationship play while resting!  Then we will keep building our partnership, practice dressage, and maybe start adding in some more speed to our conditioning rides.  I would like to practice maintaining a balanced, easy canter for longer stretches on the trail.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Ride Between the Rivers 2017

Sunny and I received our first Turtle Award!!!  Definitely got our money's worth in hours on the trail, LOL!  Also, I had my heart rate monitor on me instead of Sunny to participate in a study comparing the intensity of exercise of endurance riding to other sports, such as long-distance cycling.  Here is what Jerry (the researcher) said about the results:

"Your maximum predicted heart rate was 185[220-35]. Your average heart rate was 133 therefore your maximum predicted percent heart rate was 72%. This is almost exactly what the average has been turning out and comparable to a bike rider doing 100 mile race. You are tough to be able to do that for 10 hours and 42 minutes"

But to start from the beginning... I made some adjustments to (hopefully) prevent a repeat of the tying-up episode at Old Dominion.  Sunny was treated for Anaplasmosis, I switched his diet to the low-starch, high-fat/fiber Triple Crown Senior,  I rode him lightly in the arena for about 15 - 30 min every day the week prior to the competition, and I did about a 20 min pre-ride the night before.  It worked -- no muscle stiffness, tying-up, or any other problems! Yay!!!  He also looks a lot better having gained some weight since switching his diet  -- he went from about a 4 - 4.5 Body Condition to a 5- 5.5 BCS.

Also in the 8 weeks between OD and RBTR Sunny has had some significant muscle changes from our dressage training and me learning what a lifted back feels like, and then asking for it!  (Thank you Theresa!!!) I started to have saddle sweat dry spots under my seat (from his lifting and developing/widening back muscle), so I adjusted my saddle 1/2 turn wider and we had even sweat patterns again (it has a large allen wrench that you insert into the 'magic-hole' and turn 'righty-tighty' for narrower and 'lefty-loosey' for wider).  I love my DP saddle!!

Otherwise everything is getting much easier about going to endurance rides, which is wonderful. Graham and I have a routine and list, we know what needs to be packed, how long it takes, etc, etc. Much less stress about camping, electrolytes, and everything -- So if you are a Green Bean just starting out, things do get easier with practice and repetition!.  Sunny camps like a pro, lays flat out on the high-tie every night and eats better at every ride!   The funniest thing is that he doesn't like to pee on his Hi-Tie or on the trailer, he will hold it until I take him for a walk -- I understand, I don't like to pee at my bed or dinner table either!!  I also would like him to eat a little better by himself on the trailer, but he is improving.  I also just used my previously made electrolytes from OD (I froze them between the rides) and gave Sunny a dose every 1-2 hours, with plain salt the day before the ride.  He doesn't currently like to eat salt in his feed so I am having to give it to him via syringe.  But I just found out the Triple Crown Senior provides about 1 ounce of salt per 5 lbs of food, which is the about the basic maintenance requirement which makes things easier!

Trailering to ride-camp and setting up was smooth, no issues.  I did get a bit of headache/migraine from the intense mountain driving but with medication and rest it was gone by ride morning.  I really enjoyed my pre-ride. Sunny was motivated and gaited the best in his life thus so far- smooth, fast, and fun!  Sleep the night before the ride was in short-supply with lightening flashes and rain keeping us awake for a few hours, then sometime in the early morning loose horses running past spooked Sunny who jolted on the high-tie and caused us to wake-up very quickly to check on him.  All was ok and I believe the loose horses were quickly recovered by their owners.  And the impromptu wake-up allowed us to check on Sunny who felt a little chilly since the rain and temperature drop, so I put a light sheet on him so he wouldn't have cold/stiff muscles in the morning, and also fed him an early breakfast.
Trotting through the river. Photo by Becky Pearman

Ride morning went as planned with plenty of time to eat and warm-up. Graham was wonderful help, making sure I was checked-in with the start-timer and ensuring that I was well-fed with all my gear. Sunny was ready-to-go at the start, but certainly calm and listening well --no troubles with speed or rating.  The trails were quite muddy in parts (I describe it as brownie batter with walnuts!) with large puddles. We were pre-warned that the puddles may be very deep in the middle with dangerous debris; last year one was so deep a horse fell!  So I was very cautious to go around the edges and avoid any deep centers.  The river crossing were absolutely gorgeous -- knee to chest high clear mountain water with good footing of small-medium river rocks.  There was plenty of room for Sunny to splash and self-cool himself without disturbing any other horses too!   He got me plenty wet too, I had to change my soaked boots out for dry sneakers at the first hold.  He didn't drink or eat much the first loop, but steadily improved through the 2nd loop, and by the third loop he was devouring everything in sight -- he really liked a roadside weed with little blue flowers...I think it may be Chicory.
Headed out for the 2nd loop with dry sneakers. Photo by Becky Pearman

I had decided to try my Renegade hoof boots out during a competition for the first time and the mud was a real test!  I put 3 of the rubberband holders on the velcro prior to the ride, knowing all the mud might be problem for the velcro; this worked very well, I didn't have any problems with loose velcro! I did have 1 front boot cable break during the first loop and had front boots slip off two other times with no damage. The cable broke after he had a hard slip at at trot on a front foot at a sloped mud bank going around a puddle; I think the crazy angle with the impact force at the trot was too much torque for the cable.  At the first hold I repaired and tightened the front boots -- I had recently trimmed Sunny and the boots were actually a little looser than normal.  During the rest of the ride the front boots didn't budge.  During the second loop the boots were doing great, until Sunny got excited about catching up to some horses during an area of deep boot-sucking mud.  He powerfully lunged out of a mud hole and left both back boots behind.  When I went to fetch the boots I almost lost mine! And I realized just how slick the footing was when I slipped and went straight down into the mud;  it was very deep (mid-calf) with powerful slick suction.  Thankfully Sunny was somewhat patient with the whole process (even though there were horses in front of him that he needed catch up with!) and I replaced the boots, remounted and proceed down the trail, complete with mud-covered pants and squishy-sloshing shoes! At the hold I was able to change into a fresh pair of tights, socks, and I commandeered Graham's shoes.  At the end of the 3rd loop I finally had a cable break on a hind boot and quickly replaced it with fresh boot.  Overall the boots performed better than expected given the tough conditions.  I wouldn't use them if trying to race, but I was able to easily complete the ride in time and saved the costs of shoeing.  I also noted that if I was slow in the mud I didn't have any problems; I only broke cables at a trot when he slipped or lunged through the muddy footing.. hmmm.

Drying off during the 2nd hold

During the 3rd and final loop I didn't see another horse or rider!  Sunny wasn't very motivated without any buddies and we had plenty of time, so we just mosied down the trail.  We stopped to eat grass when he wanted, carefully walked through the deep mud, and walked the big climbs and descents.  At the radio-checkpoint I enjoyed some delicious watermelon moonshine which made the rest of the ride very relaxing!  During the last mile we picked up a steady canter, I let go of the reins, closed my eyes, spread my arms and flew down the trail!  And at the very finish I caught up to the last riders, but savored my turtle award of last place, 50/50 (54 started, 4 pulls).  Sunny looked great at his completion check, all A's and moving well.

Fritzi and myself enjoying the RBTR swimming hole post-ride!

Sunny and Poptart reuniting post-ride

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July Lessons with Theresa

Shoulder-in to Travers (haunches-in)

I just got back from my latest session of lessons with Theresa McManus; this time both Sunny and Rogan came along.  Having two horses worked well, because after a few sessions Sunny becomes tired; alternating horse's keeps both fresh.  I wasn't quite as well-prepared for this session, because I hadn't done all my homework from the previous session. I knew our canter transitions needed work and I also needed to focus more on lowering Sunny's head/neck to a neutral and relaxed position to allow him to use his back well (Theresa re-iterated both points and it is the focus of our new homework).  At this stage he is not strong enough to carry himself with his back lifted for long periods of time, and carrying himself in 'neutral' with a moving back, alternated with lateral work lifting his back will strengthen his muscles over time.

I think this will be one of the biggest moments of my lifetime learning and riding journey---I felt and recognized a truly lifted back for the first time!  Theresa and I switched horse's briefly, and I had the opportunity to feel Maggie's back (bareback, so I could really feel!). Maggie's back was actually lifting under my seat bones, it was very firm and strong (and wide, LOL!).  When people talked about lifting the back I always understood it to be a lifting of the loin as the hindquarters engaged-- I have felt this and always thought the loin lifting was the goal. However, this was different-- this lift was directly under my seat bones. I could have assumed it was just Maggie and how her back felt.  But then we switched back to our own horses and suddenly Sunny had the same feeling from Theresa riding him ---this was new!  I have ridden Sunny a lot and he has not done this before.  I lost the feeling after a few minutes, but we repeated the switch the next session and I think I have it! Now that I know the feeling I can subtly change my seat and legs and ask for the lift -- now for lots of practice.  I don't think I can verbalize how to ask for the lift, I think this is something most people must learn by feeling a properly schooled horse. And once you have the feeling then you can play with asking for it in your horse. Maybe a subtle ask (not really a squeeze) for upward with my legs at the same time as asking for the horse to lift the base of his neck with the reins...clear as mud, right? Unfortunately in modern riding in the USA properly schooled horses are in very short supply-- certainly don't look for them in the competitive dressage world 😢.

A few steps of shoulder-in while gaiting (for the first time)

We also discovered that advanced lateral work IS possible in Sunny's gait (saddle rack?).  We didn't know if a horse could step under for shoulder-in or travers, etc during a more lateral gait versus the diagonal trot.  I don't know that it would work with a pace or stepping pace, but when I asked for shoulder-in during a relaxed gait, Sunny readily did it!  He crossed his legs underneath himself readily, no problem.  My theory is that since his gait is actually a 4-beat gait (almost lateral pickup with an even 4-beat set down) it is actually similar to doing the lateral work at a walk.  We will keep playing with this 😁

We also started Sunny jumping, he has cleared logs on the trail but has not had any formal training.  Theresa has an excellent resume for teaching jumping, having previously coached the 1988 British Olympic Showjumping portion for the Modern Pentathlon team (not too mention having ridden 4-star level eventing in the UK!) She initially set up a low progressive grid to build confidence and to teach him to figure out his feet and balance.  The grid was fantastic, after the 3rd session he was bouncing through the caveletti and small jumps like a pro. The small size of the jumps (ie 18", etc) kept him (and me!) confident.  I would love to practice this more and would thoroughly enjoy some eventing or jumping on the side (in all my free time between dressage and endurance training...oh and work too, LOL!)

Besides loads of learning we also had fun swimming with the horses. Claire Morris (thank you Claire!!) graciously soaked herself taking Rogan into the lake while I rode Sunny and I think we all had lots of fun!  Sunny likes lakes so much so that he stands in the big water troughs and splashes, generally tipping the whole thing over in the process. I am glad I have a small automatic waterer at home.... but I bet he would enjoy a field with a pond!
Tipped over water trough...

Guilty party... the fresh splash marks give him away!

Lesson notes: (and FYI- all this fancy-shmancy 'dressage' stuff is done bitless!) (or you could just call it a healthy foundation for all horses 😉 )

  • The outside rein is used to control speed and direction.
  • The inside rein is used for flexion (vertical-- how lifted or lowered is the head/neck) and bend (lateral - how turned to the inside is the head/neck).  This was re-iterated when attempting to halt after jumping-- when in the moment I used both reins Sunny kept moving, but on the next pass I remembered to lightly lift 1-rein and had a beautiful soft halt. 
  • Shoulder-in: I need to rotate (not twist or lean!) my body with my horse and look where his head is (ie follow his movement). This is what feels natural and easy, but I tend to over-complicate things sometimes---I have a tendency to look straight down the rail and this throws him off slightly. 
  • Rider weight - always in the direction of the movement. For me this is subtle shift following his movement with my seat, this is not lean of my body or heavy stepping into the stirrup.
  • Standing/resting - Make sure he keeps his back lifted supporting me while stopped/resting; it is easy for him to slump and drop his back when we are resting, but it is important for his back health that he stays lifted. If I really need to rest him then I just need to dismount!
  • School Walk - this is a very neat exercise that promotes lightness and lifting ability for shoulder and forehand.  It is a precise 4-beat walk with a pronounced lift of the forelimbs - visualize a military parade walk.  This was much easier to feel when bareback and accordingly I think it would always be much easier to learn this bareback; once I developed the feel for this movement bareback I could recognize it under saddle much easier.  While bareback I felt each shoulder lift and rotate under my seat, it is how I imagine a Spanish Walk would feel (obviously much more so!)
  • Gaiting (or trotting) - I need to ensure that Sunny always has his head/neck in a relaxed 'neutral' position (unless specifically working on lateral work with a lifted base of neck or stretching down/forward).  When gaiting in this posture I can really feel his back muscles moving and this changes abruptly as soon as he stiffens his neck!  (once again felt best bareback). He moves most efficiently in this relaxed posture, but has a tendency to brace his neck with a little tension, especially when gaiting or trotting (the walk is much easier). Essentially he moves just fine by himself in the field, but I have to teach him how to relax and use his muscles efficiently and healthily while supporting a rider.  It is natural for a horse to brace when loaded up with 175 lbs of rider + tack, and most have to be taught how to both relax and lift to support a rider.  This will extend to the canter as well....but we are saving that for later. 
  • Canter transitions - Sunny needs to be relaxed prior to the transition with his head in the 'neutral' position; if he anticipates or tenses I just lower his head and ask again.  When he is tensed/braced he tends to pull himself into the counter with his front legs.  When relaxed and balanced he will lift into the canter pushing off his outside hind leg. All his transitions need to be pushing transitions!  My transitions are all from a travers (haunches-in) position to set him-up for the correct lead.  I need to ensure that my reins are soft with only very light (or no) contact. I tend to lift on the inside rein asking him to lower/relax his head and he takes that as don't go (which is confusing since I am asking him to go with my legs!).  We have an easier time in a larger area which makes sense as the horse has somewhere to go, and the first transition tends to messy because he is not thinking about canter.  Practice, practice!  
  • Transitions - When working specifically on transitions do not continue moving along after the transition, always stop and praise so the horse knows what he did right.  Work on improving the canter itself after the transitions are solid.  Also I am going to play with the beginnings of Piaffe with slowing the gait until he almost walks then asking to move forward again -- essentially shortenings and lengthenings, and transitions within the gait. 
  • Walk Pirouette - Start with travers (haunches-in) on the circle. Spiral to a smaller circle. When I feel he is balanced and ready continue from travers, I open up the inside rein to 'open the door' for the front end to step over.  Feel a step and ask him to walk forward. Slowly build to several steps, and eventually a complete 360, always coming forward at the end. 
  • Spanish Walk - this will be fun!  I know Sunny can do this move as I watch him do it when he climbs in and out of the water trough.  This is may be a meaningless exercise to the horse, but I believe it lends it self very well to positive reinforcement training (clicker or treat).  This exercise significantly strengthens their shoulder and ability to lift the base of the neck; it also helps teach passage in the future.  And it can be done with fun on the ground initially!  We start with the Jambette, which is the leg lift done in place, then progress to walking forwards in the true Spanish Walk.  I start next to a wall to prevent misunderstanding that I am asking for haunch/body movement.  It is essential that the horses head/neck is lifted to shift the weight to the haunches and lighten the forehand. I then play with a slight vibration on the rein by the mouth/nose and then tap the upper leg near the back of the elbow until I get a try of a forward lift of the leg.  (and this is where we are at!).  Then, essentially, I will continue to develop and modify this behavior until I get the full extended leg lift.  I am looking forward to playing with this!
1/2 serpentine or 1/2 reverse bow-tie pattern

  • 1/2 serpentine and Bow-tie exercise - we didn't get to this exercise, but Theresa recommended it to play with canter transitions, or actually she recommended a reverse 1/2 bow-tie aka 1/2 serpentine. We can also use the basic bow-tie pattern too.  
  • Jumping - always use an odd number of jumps/poles/caveletti. Unsure why but I will listen. Also I need to find the correct balance for neck release in 2-point position. I need to keep my hands on the mane (not waving wildly in the air...) and move them forward to release the reins during the jumps.  There is a sweet spot of just enough contact to allow a full rein release during the jump and retain enough contact to help guide the horse.  I can practice while cantering down the trail.  I also tend to completely drop the reins... which is fine on Sunny (he just keeps jumping), but could be dangerous as he could get a foot caught when lifting his knees so nicely over the jumps. 
  • Following the movement - I tend to stop moving my hands/shoulders with the horse's movement when I am concentrating (ie in new lateral work), then Sunny stops moving in response! I need to practice continuing to have flowing, relaxed shoulders/arms even when concentrating!
Homework with Sunny (to be completed prior to my next session)
  • Have solid relaxed gaiting -- the neutral head position should be automatic and routine
  • Have solid relaxed 'pushing' canter transitions
  • Have all the lateral work (shoulder-in, travers, and half-pass) solid in the gait
  • Full walk-pirouettes
  • Have the Jambette (spanish walk at halt) with both front legs
  • Continue his muscle development
    • encouraging constant lift of the back during dressage sessions and periodically during conditioning (it is too much strength-work for a horse to stay lifted in an endurance ride, instead I am looking for a neutral relaxed back during our rides)
    • Sustain lateral movement
      • Warm-up with shoulder-in to travers (haunches-in) and back to shoulder-in, etc.  Add in half-pass. It is better for strength development, responsiveness, and mental stimulation to switch between movements frequently, rather than do 3 repetitions of each movement in a row down the long side of the arena---that gets boring!
Swimming with both horses

And a little section on Rogan too!
Rogan is a 13 year old QH x Warmblood gelding. I have had him since he was 5 years old and we have done tons of stuff together.  He is wonderful but wasn't really cut out for endurance, so he has enjoyed being the '2nd' horse for the past few years, so needless to say he is rather hefty and unfit right now.  He hasn't been ridden consistently for about 2 years and has some stiffness/unevenness since being in early retirement (his last hoorah was completing the Old Dominion 25 in 2015!). He knows how to do all the basic lateral work and but we have previously been stumped on flying lead changes-- I tried many methods with Parelli Horsemanship (we have passed our level 4 online and were level 3/4 under saddle) but only succeeded in getting a more anxious and bucking horse, so I stopped. Ultimately the Parelli program did not teach me how to balance my horse and help them carry a rider well.  So, I finally took him to Theresa.  She watched us show her the problem, and felt it was physically inability to get his hind end under him for the lead change, leading to the bucking/anxiety.  When we continued working it was clear he was short-striding in his left hind limb.  She put us through shoulder-in on the circle and travers on the circle (walking) and watched us very carefully.  Rogan could easily bring both hind limbs underneath of him in shoulder-in, but could not bring the left hind under him during travers (haunches-in) on a circle to the right (ie the left hind was on the outside of the circle having to swing under and push off).  He could do this the other direction. He could also lift his hocks and back legs easily when trotting poles on the ground.  Very interesting!! We think the stiffness/restriction comes from his upper left back/loin area since he can move all the other areas well.  The other very interesting thing was his improvement.  After stretching the left hind with lateral work he suddenly became shorter on the right hind! And after the 3rd session he was significantly improved, tracking up with both hind feet evenly and performing the lateral work more easily.   I am going to see how much improvement I can get with just basic lateral work a few times a week, if he doesn't significantly improve then I will schedule an osteopath. appointment. 

Rogan's homework
  • Try to ride for 10-15 minutes 2-3 times/week 
  • Warm-up walking the rail with a shoulder-in circle about 4x each direction, then repeat with 3-4 travers (haunches-in) circles each direction.  I really need to insist he engage his hind leg for this and likely will need to lightly tap him with a stick to insist!
  • Trot the rail for a lap or two, insisting on 'neutral' neck and relaxed back (no tension/brace allowed!).  He also can't always go along stretching his neck to the ground as we need to build up his back. 
  • Trot shoulder-in on the circle 3-4 x each direction
  • Trot cavaletti a few times (spaced about 3 1/2' apart, and an odd number of poles)

Claire swimming Rogan