Friday, August 12, 2016

Writing about Riding

I find myself struggling with this blog lately. Not due to lack of material. We've got plenty going on at the barn lately. This week, we've gone out a couple of times after work. On Tuesday, I rode Buttercup and Brian rode Stormy. Yesterday, I rode Stormy. Brian worked with King and his owner.

King? Buttercup? Stormy? I have not mentioned any of these horses here before. They are not ours, but we're doing some work with them. Which is a bit ironic because we've never set out to position ourselves as expert horsemen. I know my level of skill at riding and handling horses is light-years behind the true masters of horsemanship I aspire to learn from.

And yet, it seems we frequently meet people who are struggling with their horses, and the things they struggle with are things we can easily help with. So we end up helping. And suddenly Brian and I both have multiple students, and we're putting time into horses that aren't ours.

In many ways, it's great. Every horse we can work with is an invaluable opportunity for new learning. And any person we can teach to get along with a horse even just a little better is a net gain to all. What's tricky is I don't necessarily feel comfortable writing publicly about the details of what we're doing. I don't want to say anything a student might read and misunderstand.

Because, really, that's the crux of it. It's so hard to talk and write about horses in a way that conveys the meaning you're after. This is true with teaching also, of course. It often takes multiple attempts and analogies to get an idea across the student. But with a student, you are there with them, in the same place. You've got a living, breathing horse providing instant feedback. You both know where you're starting from, and what your goals are.

The internet is a mushier place. It seems I often write or post things people misunderstand.

So much of it is context. It's like reading ads about sale horses. Perusing the classifieds, you'd think every horse is the same. "Very quiet. Soft on the bit. Moves off the leg. Good for the vet and farrier. 100% sound." And yet, anyone who has ever shopped for a horse knows the high probability of showing up and discovering one or more of these classic sale ad statements not to be "true."

The problem isn't that all horse owners are liars. The problem is "soft on the bit" is a subjective statement. What is soft? What is light? What is quiet? What is good? I know what these words mean to me, but there's no way to convey my understanding of them to another person through language alone.

So basically, I'm finding it impossible to say anything at all about a horse without leaving the door open for someone to come in and point out how my choice of phrasing is incorrect or inaccurate, or I'm not doing justice to the horse because I'm pigeonholing him by defining him with a certain term, or how if I did X differently, Y wouldn't be a problem anyway. This, of course, always comes from people who have never even seen me handle or ride a horse, much less observed the situation I'm writing about. And the vast majority are responding to what they think I mean, which is often light years off from what I'm actually trying to say.

The result is lately I feel stuck and exhausted the moment I sit down to blog. I find myself rereading every sentence I write for how it might be twisted into something I don't intend. After a while, I lose motivation to dodge my way through the proverbial minefield, and just don't post anything.

I started blogging about Steen all those years ago because I felt like I was learning a lot. Recording my experiences felt both fun and useful.

I still feel like I'm learning a lot, but increasingly I'm finding the things I learn very difficult to put into words.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Navicular Diagnosis

When I started Piper in early 2015, she was sound. However, as we moved past the first few rides and got going a little, at times I felt she was a little off at the trot. It was always really hard to pin down, or even be sure of. Some days it was maybe, maybe there. Some days it definitely wasn't. It was never anything as distinct as a limp or a head bob. It was just this feeling I had that her movement was mildly inhibited, or a little hitchy at times. I could always come up with a plausible explanation. She is small, and wasn't yet used to carrying a rider. The sand in our arena is a little deep and uneven in places, so she had to work harder in those spots. She can get tense in new situations, and that leads to choppy or uncertain movement at times.

So, the spring turned into summer. When I started riding Piper outside the arenas, exploring the grassy pastures we like to ride in, she seemed much better. I thought she'd gained strength and confidence and whatever had been maybe a little wrong was a thing of the past.

Then, in late November, one day she was suddenly mildly but definitively off in the left front. We couldn't find any evidence of why. No injury, heat, bumps, swelling, sore spots, stone bruises. Nothing. We figured she'd strained a muscle or a tendon, and decided to give her some time off.

All through the winter, the problem would come and go. In January we had a few good rides with no sign of the problem. A few weeks later, I got on her back and felt it - this hitch in her step. So I got off again two minutes later. We tried TheraPlate treatments, massage, linament rubs. Nothing made any difference.

Finally, about a month ago, the horses got turned out into the bigger pasture. And suddenly Piper was limping even at the walk, even without a rider, even on grass. It seemed to get worse by the day. We still couldn't find any sign of why. We had the farrier look at her. He was perplexed. We called in a vet. And yesterday, Piper was diagnosed with navicular syndrome.

The causes of navicular are unknown, though there are plenty of theories. Piper is not a classic risk case. She wasn't even started (much less ridden hard or jumped) until she was five, and we rode her very lightly. She's a small horse, with good-sized feet that aren't excessively upright or narrow. But she is a Quarter Horse, and some Quarter Horses get navicular.

Navicular cannot be cured, but it can often be successfully managed. Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, I see that stickiness I felt on and off riding her last spring was probably the earliest signs of the condition. She's a textbook case. What starts as mild and intermittent offness progresses into a horse that's in constant pain.

While this is not good news at all, I feel oddly relieved to have a definitive answer and explanation for what's been a protracted and confusing situation. Now, at least, we can make informed choices about where to go from here. Fortunately, a shoeing strategy that lifts the heel to reduce pressure on the navicular bone can often help. So our next step is to get back with the farrier.

Horseback Hours YTD: 48:30

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Taking What's Offered

I thought I had a great ride on Nevada last Saturday, but Sunday's left it in the dust. Nevada and I had the kind of day together that leaves me grinning the whole way home. In the outdoor arena, we got great work done at all three gaits, and also continued our work with lateral movements.

The week was busy. We didn't get out to the barn again until Friday. It had rained, but the footing was ok in the outdoor arena, so we rode out there again.

The herds had just gotten turned out into the big pasture, which is wonderful, but this kind of change often gives rise to a little extra energy. When I got on Nevada on Friday, she was the most distracted she'd ever been outside - really wanting to stare at the horizon and the horses on the distant hillside. When we worked at the trot, it was the first time I ever felt her get a little forward, ahead of me, and unbalanced. So we worked on circles to balance her back out and after a little while she really settled. The ride wrapped up beautifully.

Saturday, it rained the entire day. Like, relentlessly. While we do have an indoor arena, when it's actively raining it gets so loud with the water falling on the metal roof it's pretty unpleasant in there. Multiple times Brian and I have rallied our enthusiasm on such days only to sort of end up wishing we'd stayed home. So we just skipped riding.

This morning things were still dreary, but we headed out early in hopes of beating another storm. We found the horses pretty happy to come in. Things were too sloppy everywhere to ride anywhere but inside.

Tacking up, Nevada flinched when cinched. Last year right around the period when she got explosive, she got super touchy about her girth area and flanks. So we rubbed her around there and she seemed fine. I'm pretty sure Piper is in heat, and while I haven't seen as much direct evidence with Nevada, we did think there was some connection to her trouble last year and her cycle.

She was fine with groundwork, so I got on, though she had another little moment of flinching when I touched her girth again. I explored the region more, and again she didn't seem bothered. As soon as I was on board, though, she felt more unsettled than I've ever felt her. When I'd barely nudge her with my calf to ask her to step over, she'd wring her tail. She didn't want to move out at first -- another behavior that preceded her bolting and bucking melt-downs with Brian last year. So I was pretty ready for things to get Western.

At the same time, though, I really didn't want to push her back over that edge. Steen has been Nevada's safety net since the day Brian got on her back for the first time, so we started off sort of following Steen and Brian around a little. Once she got going, she really wanted to keep moving. Brian suggested we practice some turnarounds when she got ahead.

So we played a super slow motion version of "cow." When Nevada got ahead of Steen, Brian would stop and step Steen's front around. I'd asked Nevada to do the same. Steen loves these games and gets super motivated by them. Nevada had never played one before. She got the idea quickly, and soon was giving me very light, fluid turnarounds, mirroring Steen. For a while I thought I'd misread all the signs, and she was totally fine.

We did that for a little while, then took a break. She spooked a minute later, hopping into the trot from a standstill when the wind gusted through the door. I was so ready for her to explode I just grabbed my night latch and settled in, but she only trotted about half a lap. I was able to softly bend her to a stop without further trouble.

We worked on more walking, bending, etc. for quite a while, and things stayed on edge. She was bothered by one end of the arena and by being on the rail. She prefers to watch the world out her left eye, so going in circles to the left she kept sagging through my leg and counter bending. At one point I decided I was one more sign away from getting off and doing more groundwork.

But then, she hopped into the trot of her own volition again when we were by the door. I decided just to take the trot and do some good with it. We trotted all over the arena for many minutes. Where I could get with her, I did so. Where I couldn't, we just worked on finding something positive - some yield, some give, some try. She came down bit by bit. Steen is like this also. Sometimes when he's all wound up and full of anxiety, the best thing is to just let him move out. None of our other horses have ever been quite the same. Many of them get more anxious if turned loose when troubled.

Today, though, it did the trick with Nevada. Our "togetherness" got more consistent. Soon I was able to start working in some lateral movements. Shortly after that, she remembered about my leg in left turns and not collapsing through it. After she settled, she was lighter to my legs than I've ever felt before.

After about 50 minutes had gone by, the trouble was a thing of the past. It's the perfect illustration of the kind of scenario I would have "gotten wrong" a few years ago. I used to think a nervous and distracted horse needed to be shut down, their attention brought back to me this instant at any cost. Because of this, I picked more than one fight that only achieved the opposite.

A year or two ago, we watched a few Joe Wolter videos that made such an impression on me. He was working with a couple really young, really energetic, really just-this-side-of-explosive mares. And he just kept talking about how you can take all the energy and you can oppose it or bottle it up and then you have a rough time and the horse has a rough time and if you're lucky you don't do any lasting damage. He said he preferred to take the energy and use it, and I was surprised at the number of little behaviors he didn't try to correct at all -- things I'd heard many trainers put in the category of "you can never, ever, let a horse get away with this." Because obviously horses who "get away" with these things turn into unruly monsters.

I've been thinking about this idea of taking what the horse can give for a long time, but I don't think I've ever had quite so clear an illustration of how well it can work. I've no doubt Nevada and I could have had our worst ride ever today. But we didn't. We actually had a great ride. By the end, all of the trouble was gone. She was soft, focused, lively, and happy. I was happy too. I never kicked, yanked, whacked, spurred, whipped, or got angry. I'm particularly encouraged by the way she held it together the couple times she got really close to the edge.

If this is Nevada on a bad day, I think we're going to continue to get along just fine.

Horseback Hours YTD: 42:25

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