The Little Unicorn

justin 1

As Derby’s ordeal progressed in June, I began looking around for a horse to ride. I needed to keep the rust from forming on the dressage muscles. Good fortune smiled upon me, as a woman Christy had been in contact with was looking for a share boarder for her horse, a handsome Andalusian. Pregnant with her second child, she was still able to ride, but dismounting was becoming a real challenge!

Christy and I went out to meet Elizabeth and her lovely steed Justin and see if we all clicked.  The polar opposite of my long-backed, long-necked, downhill Derby, Justin is compact and naturally inclined to use his back end. He is also very forward, but rideable and thoroughly pleasant.  At first, I floundered a bit on him, but Christy stepped in and with some coaching, Justin and I started to click.

I wrote Elizabeth a check and have been shareboarding him for the last few weeks. He’s about 15 minutes away from where I imagekept Derby, so I’m doing my lessons on him, and getting an extra ride or two in as well.

Riding Justin is like saddling a Ferrari.  In addition to being forward and enthusiastic, Justin is also extremely maneuverable. When I tighten a leg and think “Let’s do a shallow serpentine,” what I get is a 5 meter half circle. He’s got more education than the other horses I’ve ridden, and is proving to be a great teacher for me, providing a crash course in some totally new subject matter, especially important in the context of the search for my next horse.

With his white coat, flowing mane and dark, limpid eye, Justin is a perfect little unicorn – he’s just missing his horn.  He’s proving to be a great distraction from my current travails, and a good little buddy in the making.

My Sweet Boy

imageIt’s been an long time since I’ve posted, due mostly to a chaotic few months on the job front for me.  However, I’ve been settled in great new job for a while, and I’ve owed you an update on the progress Derby and I made.

However, this is not the update I thought I’d write.

After our last ride.  He was such a good boy.

After our last ride. He was such a good boy.

On June 17, we had a really nice ride, one that got me thinking about getting back into the show ring.  On June 18, Derby’s legs stopped working.

I received a call from my friend Liz, who was at the barn and could see that something was seriously wrong.  She left me a voicemail, and in the next minute called my vet.  She called me back, and this time I was able to pick up.  After listening to her brief explanation, I dropped everything and ran.

Arriving at the barn, I found Derby on his feet, but very very unsteady.  His balance was tenuous and he didn’t have control over his legs.  Still, he was calm and determined to graze, so we waited for the vet there.

Upon arrival, Dr. Nicky clearly did not like what she saw, and with help from her assistant, they got Derby safely into his stall. She took blood to test for EPM, East/West Nile and Rhino, and then started to treat the symptoms with IV banamine, a load of dex and a huge infusion of DMSO.  Once he was hooked up to the drip, Dr. Nicky and I were able to step away and talk.  That this was a dire situation was clear, and our immediate goal was to keep Derby from going down.  He was so unsteady on his feet, it was sickening to watch – with every move, I feared that he was going to fall and break a shoulder or hip.image

I also agreed to start treating immediately for EPM, because if he did have an active EPM infection, time was of the essence. So a loading dose of Marquis went down the hatch as well.

I was up before the crack of dawn the next day, and hot-footed it to the barn with my heart in my throat. When I looked into Derby’s stall and found him quietly snoozing, I was weak with relief. I texted Dr. Nicky with the news.  We had made it past an important hurdle.

That afternoon, Derby looked better. He got more DMSO and more banamine, and appeared much improved the following day.  We continued to treat for EPM while awaiting the results of the blood tests.   Derby’s condition was variable – some days he looked pretty good, and some days he didn’t.  My goal for him was a safe retirement.  He was a great patient, hanging out quietly in his stall, dozing during the day and not working himself up when the other horses were out.  I would pick grass for him and hang out in the evening, grooming him, picking his stall, feeding cookies and just puttering around.  Derby’s demeanor was bright and content.

Admiring his get well card

Admiring his get well card

After about a week of Marquis treatment, I noticed some changes in Derby’s neurological symptoms.  He was having considerable trouble moving his front legs, and was starting to drag his front right around from the shoulder.  I called Dr. Nicky and she put him on her schedule for that day, and then a new wrinkle emerged.  She received the results of the EPM test that morning, and Derby had zero exposure to the evil little protozoa that cause that debilitating disease.

NOM!

NOM!

I wasn’t there for that exam, but Dr. Nicky went over Derby with a fine toothed comb, and found a very tender spot in his neck. In fact, during the exam, Derby actually bit Lainey, who was assisting Nicky. The two were stunned – they have known Derby longer than I have, he’s a favorite around the practice, and he’s not a biter.  Dr. Nicky hauled out her equipment and x-rayed his neck, and there it was – the culprit.

There was clearly an injury to the C4 vertebra. The bone quality was spongy and it appeared cracked, and the x-ray suggested that there was either significant calcification or a mass there too.  The whole mess was impinging upon Derby’s spinal column, causing the problems. I recalled that his racing owner had mentioned that he “hurt his neck” as a two year old, and mentioned that to Nicky.  She suggested we go after the inflammation, in the event it was a flare up we could knock down, while I sought more info from the former owner.

Such a stellar patient.

Such a stellar patient.

An email garnered a fast and detailed reply.  Derby had injured himself when turning to bite at his rider’s boot, he got his tack hung up and went over.  They rested him for few days and he seemed OK, but he showed neurological symptoms later in his 2 year old year when he went to the track and the trainer put a tie-down on him.  They feared he was a wobbler at the time, but with rest, chiro and not using the tie-down, the symptoms abated.

At this point, I could start to see the writing on the wall. Derby had lived with that injury for 13 years, but obviously re-aggravated it somehow out in turnout.  At this point, damage to the spinal column seemed likely. And even if it wasn’t, I now knew that he had this failure point in his neck. Even if we could get him to the point where he regained enough control over his feet to be safely turned out,  a future neurological event seemed to be a near certainty.  When we took another set of x-rays about a week later, we could see signs of healing, but we could also see that the damaged bone was healing into the spinal cord.

The night before.

The night before.

We can’t micromanage or bubble wrap our horses.  But in this case, I did feel like I could at the very least prevent a catastrophic end for Derby.  After a discussion with my vet, I made the decision to let him go.  He was euthanized last Friday, with the sun on his back, after being allowed to graze for a few minutes.  It’s what my grandmother would have called a good death, and that was the best I could do for him.

I miss Derby terribly and am still very sad.  He was a difficult horse to ride – getting him connected over his back was a bear, but he was a wonderful teacher, and I learned so much from him.  I’ll be forever grateful for the privilege of being his person.

More tools and tactics

late jan trot

Activating the inside hind

For the last week, I’ve been assiduously working on allowing my leg to drape around the horse, relaxing at the hip and stretching down through the ball of my foot.  This has really helped correct my tendency to curl my feet in, resting my weight primarily on my pinky toes.  It’s also a lot more comfortable!

We worked hard over the weekend and Derby was pretty sluggish and slow to get going last night, despite the fact that it was pretty chilly in the arena last night (and often, nippy air = sassy pony.)

As we worked through our warm up, Christy had me do a new exercise, asking me to throw in a stride of leg yield – first right, then left, then right – down the long sides.   By asking me to leg yield, she was also specifically telling me to ride from my seat and leg, and leave the horse’s face out of the equation.

This was a revelation, because  I started to think more about where and how the resistance was happening – whether it was on one side, or whether Derby was pulling from the center, from the underside of his neck.  Christy had me apply the leg that was opposite the resistance and within short order I had a much more compliant and soft horse.  (Related reading: Christy’s discussion of leg yields.)

As Derby started to move more up and out, Christy also noticed that I was impeding his ability to do so by carrying my hands low, and in so doing, I was inadvertently dumping him on his forehand.  She had me pay attention to moving my hands up, to accommodate Derby’s elevated posture.  Here’s a good snippet of her coaching us:

Joy, and Pain

ctbs 1 19 trot

We had our first lesson at the new barn with Christy last night. I’ve ridden Derby exactly once in the last two weeks, and prior to that, we had time off over the holidays, so I really wasn’t sure what we’d be able to do for her.  However,  all the rides we have had in the month since moving have been really nice, so I was optimistic.

Christy was really happy what she saw. She picked at a few things but for the most part we had a solid ride. She did find and fix issue that I had overlooked pretty quickly, however, and it made big difference.  I was allowing my legs to rotate outward from the hip, and not draping them around the horse.  I discovered that I had my feet cocked at an angle in the stirrup, too, placing more weight on the outside edges of my foot.  Focusing on stretching down through my leg, through and out the ball of my foot, solved the problem pretty quickly – my legs were draping and more effective right off the bat. I need to school this because I’ve let it slide over the last month, but it’s something I can work on independely.

Speaking of independent work, I diagnosed and fixed a saddle balance problem all by myself recently.  I’ve been well schooled in saddle balance by Christy, and I noticed a couple weeks ago that things were feeling a bit out of whack, as I was starting to try to climb over the top of the pommel when I posted.  I was on the lookout for changes in saddle fit, as Derby is getting better turnout (larger group, and larger paddock) and much better food.  I applied some of the tests for saddle balance I’ve learned from Christy, including her “stand-stand-sit” test which is a stone-cold truth-teller about how well your saddle was balanced, and yep, it was a struggle — when your saddle is balanced, you can do laps of stand-stand-sit easily, without batting an eye.

I took my saddle home, got a screwdriver and my shim kit (if you’re a new reader, I ride in a newer Bates Isabell with the Riser System) and swapped the 8mm forward shim for the 4mm version.

It’s only a 4 millimeter difference on either side but changing the shim produced a magic effect  – I’m in really good balance now and the horse also approves – he tells me by moving easily and giving me his back.

I’ve seen a big change in Derby since moving to the new barn.  He hasn’t put a foot wrong – no spooks – and seems relaxed and happy.  Our rides are our best ever.  I know the footing at the old barn was bad – it was hard, it would freeze, and the barn owner didn’t groom the ring regularly.  In retrospect, I think it make moving downright painful for the horses.  However, what I didn’t realize is the footing affected more than how the horse moved – it affected my ability to ride in a balanced, connected manner that was safer, too. Anyway, I’ll be apologizing to Derby for not moving him sooner. I’ve only recently realized how I dreaded going to the old place, if only because going to the new barn is a joy.

Playing in the Sandbox

I'm crazy about our giant new sandbox.

I’m crazy about our giant new sandbox.

Yesterday morning I went a spin class for the first time in about a decade.  I survived, and am very happy to report that I made it all the way through the class, kept up with the instructor’s instructions and most importantly I didn’t barf during (or after) the class.

So, yay me, but I won’t kid you – the class fried my legs, and left my hips  really really tight, so I wasn’t sure how much work I was going to able to do in the saddle when I went to the barn last night.

So I tacked up Derby and went for a long walk, taking a “wait and see” approach.

We walked and walked, flexing left and right, doing a little shoulder in here and there, and throwing in some little leg yields.  Eventually I started to really work on his responsiveness to my leg, and we wound up doing  quite a bit of lateral work.  Derby started to really come into my hand, stretched nicely over his top line.

I think it felt good to both of us, as in addition to stretching into the contact, he was staying there and lifting his back.  I was simply enjoying how the walking motion of the horse opens up tight hip flexors and warms up fatigued legs.  After a while, I started to feel kind of decent. After a good 15 to 20 minutes of walk work, I finally decided to go ahead and get a little trot work and try and as expected, my legs were like jelly, and it was clear I was not going to last long at all.

That said, the trot work I got was just lovely – Derby was round, maneuverable and on the aids.  It was another reminder to me that I need to spend more time really doing deliberate warm-up, using that time to train rather than just walking around and getting us both loosened up. I can still achieve that objective while using the time much more productively to test into my buttons and get Derby really working over his back and responding to my aids.

I’m not that into New Year’s resolutions – I think they’re kind of silly and as I think most of us know, they don’t stick.  However, I feel pretty good about resolving to incorporate longer and more productive warm-up time in my rides.

Independent Study

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Derby meets his new herd.

Boomer and Derby eb route to their third barn in one month. Good boys!

Boomer and Derby eb route to their third barn in one month. Good boys!

It’s been an eventful month – I’ve moved to Derby two different times this month, after the care at Silver Fern Stables really took a nosedive. Unfortunately, the second place turned out to be a dud, but the third barn has definitely been the charm.

His new room has a view.

His new room has a view.

It’s a significant upgrade for Derby, with much larger stalls, really good turnout and, most importantly, generous amounts of quality feed. He’s already gaining weight and his entire demeanor suggests that he’s happier and feeling good.

The new barn is also a bit of an upgrade for me, too – the barn is heated! Let the winter winds howl – I am not going to be freezing my tailfeathers off again this year.

Creature comforts aside, it’s been more than a month since I had a lesson with Christy, however, she will be training at the new barn so we will be picking up where we left off very soon. In the meantime, I’ve had some good practice riding in Derby in new environments, and I think that we passed with flying colors.

Barn number two was a small operation with a quiet, enclosed arena. It posed little problem for Derby, and he didn’t put a foot wrong while there.

Barn number three is  a different story. It has the largest indoor arena I’ve ever seen, and has a couple potentially spooky areas. At one end, there’s an open space between the arena rail and the building’s exterior wall where people keep tack trunks and where hay and feed are stored. Because the barn is heated, there are also large plastic flaps on that doorway, as well as the doorway entering the arena that horses need to pass through, to prevent heat loss.

I was determined to not let any of these things become a problem for Derby. I knew that from the get-go these things had to be schooled and accepted with no questions from the horse. Donna and Boomer moved with us, and on the first day, Donna and I took turns schooling the boys in the arena.  While one of us lead our horse around in the arena, the other went in and out of the flappy doors, making a racket, slamming tack trunk lids and making the plastic flap.

Enjoying his much larger stall.

Enjoying his much larger stall.

This little extra bit of schooling paid off, because both boys were on their best behavior on their maiden voyages around the big indoor.

In fact, Derby has not put a foot wrong in the rides that I’ve had subsequently. He’s working really nicely, staying quiet and focused, and moving beautifully, which is testament to his appreciation of the significantly improved footing the new barn offers.

However, I’m going to take a little credit, because I’ve been giving him rides that are as good as I can muster.  We’re focused in our warm ups, starting with loosening his poll and then bending, stretching and incorporating lateral work.  I’m insisting that he stays responsive and on the aids.  We’re working a lot of half-halts and transitions within gaits to keep his attention and to allow me to maintain control over his inside hind.

Between more active riding on my part and the improved footing, we’re getting some very nice work – he’s through and into the bridle, working nicely over his back.  We’ve even been able to produce (and maintain) some lovely connected stretchy trot, for which I was rewarded with flecks of foam around his bit.   We even earned a compliment from one of the other trainers who gives lessons there, which was really nice to hear.

Cloudy Boy and me.

Cloudy Boy and me.

As if all this isn’t enough to love, the new barn has one other bonus.  My friend Liz and her darling gelding Cloud are there.  It’s great to see them again – I missed them when they moved away a couple years ago.  Cloud was happy to see me (or, more realistically, he smelled the peppermints in my pocket) and obliged me in a selfie on our first day. :)

All in all, I’m thrilled with the move and how we’re both handling it.  We’ll get going again with lessons soon. Stay tuned!

A simple but momentous fix

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I have been working hard to get control over (and response from) those hind legs.

 

Wow, it’s been two months since I’ve posted.  October wasn’t much to write home about.  Derbs had another abscess – a dramatic one that caused one of his hind legs to blow up worryingly.  It was slow to resolve, so between that and my travel schedule, riding was spotty though we did continue to make some progress.

However, things have changed dramatically in the last two weeks and for the better due to one important change – hind shoes.

It has been so very difficult for me to put Derby together and really get his hind end engaged.  It’s been a constant struggle for years.  I can get moments of connected work but God, it’s hard and it takes complete vigilance to maintain.   Offhandedly one day, our farrier mentioned to Christy that he thought some of the horses would benefit from hind shoes, which would provide more support for their hocks.

Given that we have a barnful of ex-racehorses, who put more stress on their hind ends breaking from the gate as two year olds than your average riding horse, it makes sense that supporting their hind ends would make them more comfortable.  But honestly, this never occurred to me – Jag only ever wore shoes in front, and Mads was barefoot.

But the difference that shoes in back have made for Derby and others is (in my mind at least) pretty amazing.

I could feel the difference immediately, and in ways I didn’t expect.  Right off the back, the walk was swingier.  Half way around the arena, on our first lap, Derby strrrrrretched down and out to the end of the reins.  He stayed there, stretching all the way through his top line,  in the nicest free walk I’ve ever ridden.  And it got better – I could put the trot together and keep it together.

Over the last few lessons, Christy has ratcheted things up now that I don’t have to struggle to keep Derby on the bit.  Last week’s theme was re-installing all the buttons I had dulled, and in particular, developing responsiveness.  That really means paying attention and issuing corrections and rewards in the moment.    Here’s an interesting snippet from one of these lessons, in which Christy was first and foremost schooling me to recognize a correct response to my aids (or lack there of.)

Last night and tonight, we broke through to a new level, staying smoothly connected, round and engaged for minutes at a time.  Change of bend, leg yields – you name it, it’s easier now.   I’ll get some updated video next week.

I am regretful and feel silly that I didn’t recognize the benefit of hind shoes before this, but better late than never in this case.  The horse is providing unequivocal feedback in the positive, so I know it was the right decision. :)

 

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