Unlucky, just for a moment

img_5725

Never a sight you want to see.  For starters, the shoe is hanging upside down, so the luck can run out.  Another, more obvious problem is the fact that it’s no longer attached to the horse.

God, I was grumpy today. I’ll chalk it up to sleep deprivation and an abrupt return to reality after a blissfully disconnected four-day weekend in the Florida Keys with old friends.  Driving to the barn after work, nothing was making me happy, but I was looking forward to re-starting Fred’s fitness program. I had a great playlist in mind and was looking forward to the ride.

What’s the saying?  Man plans, God laughs?  That’s a little hyperbolic, but when I saw the shoe hanging on Fred’s stall front, I thought I’d pull out my hair.

So much for the ride.  I fumed for a minute, texted the farrier, and then gave Fred a good ear rub before clipping on the lead rope and heading to the arena for a walk, taking minute first to find some some slower-paced music to walk by.

I selected Stop Time, an album by my friend Lara FilipStop Time is classified as alt-folk, and and if you had told me six months ago that a bunch of alt-folk songs would be found at the top of the “favorites” list on my phone, I would have questioned our friendship and mentally accused you of not knowing me well.

However, you would have been prescient, because since downloading Lara’s album, I play it more frequently than anything else.  It’s catchy and quirky and addictive.  The music sticks with you and there’s not a bad song in the collection.

Here’s one favorite:

And another:

Lara, I should mention, is an actress, cancer survivor and fellow equestrian.  She’s a badass, and I love her.  Give her a listen, I bet you will, too. You can find her music on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Apple Music and pretty much anywhere else you can buy digital music.

Macro-equine-omics

img_5176

Unfit, but nice hind leg, Fred.

It may be time for me to rename this blog, and not just because I’ve branched out from TBs. “The Mystery Lameness Chronicles” or “Venture into Saddle Fit Hell” are both recurring themes that don’t vary from horse to horse. I could also go with “Sometimes a Lady Chases You With a Whip and It’s OK. (You’ll need to keep reading for that story.)

Calculating GHP (Gross Equine Happiness)

I know I’m not alone in these travails or in the frustration they cause, because I see other bloggers wrangling with the same issues, and I have picked up more than one good idea from my coterie of equine digerati over the years.

This story is a bit more of the same, but with a twist.

Getting your horse happy, healthy, sound and outfitted with a well-fitting saddle is an exercise in scenario testing – with a lot of variables. Over the years, I’ve learned a few truths:

  • Horses can communicate but it’s on us to observe their responses, and the subtle variations they display;
  • When you start testing your scenarios, be darn sure you only change one variable at a time, otherwise you will go crazy;
  • Gaping mouths are not bitting problems, they probably stem from the back or the hocks. Or both. Or maybe you’re just really hanging on the horse’s mouth, that’s a distinct possibility.
  • Your own shitty riding is an amplifier, and a highly variable one.
img_5144

Happy.

It reminds me a lot of macroeconomics class, and the variables we consider when calculating Gross Domestic Product. GDP is a function of a set of variables, and how they interrelate. It’s the same with our horses.

I’ve spent the last few weeks banging my head against the problem of Fred’s discomfort, driving myself to near-distraction trying combination after combination of shim, gullet and therapeutic pads in an effort to find the combination that worked.

However, I knew – I SWEAR I KNEW – that I wasn’t on the right track. Fred was being resistant but it was different. Instead of being unwilling to go forward and frozen in his shoulders, he was somewhat willing to go forward, OK in his shoulders but fifteen kinds of wonky with his head – gaping his mouth, pinning his ears, and twisting.

While horses can’t verbalize, they can communicate, and Fred’s message was clear – he was NOT comfortable with any of the options I was presenting. Nothing and I mean nothing made any difference. Finally, I called Dr. Nicky and asked for a lameness workup – again. She went over him thoroughly, found bugger all, and even sent video from her eval. Fred looked great.

But put a rider on his back and things just went to hell. I was well and truly stumped, but had a niggling idea that the saddle wasn’t the issue, because Fred was equally uncomfortable going in the ThinLine. This was an important indicator, because previously, when the saddle has been the issue, jumping on bareback is transformative. It wasn’t this time.

I threw up my hands and decided that doing nothing would be a reasonable course of action for a few days while I traveled for work. When I did finally make it out to the barn upon my return, Fred was off on the longe line. I skipped another day.

When I started to work cleaning him up the following day, I got a surprise that almost made me faint. A massive abscess had worked its way out through one of the heel bulbs on his right front. The bulb sported a two-inch long wound, which was probably a combination of the exit point for the infection, and the splitting of his coronet band due to the shocking amount of inflammation present. That hoof bulb was the size of a golf ball and it was hot and the skin showing through the hair was angry and red.

It was revolting, but that didn’t stop me snapping a quick picture and sending it to Dr. Nicky.

“Awesome!!!” was her reply. She also noted that deep abscesses frequently evade detection, and can take weeks to resolve.

Want to see it? Fair warning before you scroll down.

img_4989The abscess resolved in about a week, and last weekend, Fred was good to go. Clearly, that was good news, but it also meant that I’d have to go once more into the breach of saddle fit.

The first ride back was in a lesson, and I was grateful for the extra set of eyes. Christy and I decided to start with the Verhan. It’s newly reflocked, and even though it’s not great for me (the knee blocks are all wrong for my long femur, and can act as fulcrums, threatening to pivot me out of the saddle, it’s great) it has worked pretty well for Fred previously.

Fred signaled his improved opinion quickly with deep, relaxing breathing, floppy ears and pleasant demeanor. With all the time off, however, and the fact that he’s no longer keeping himself fit ripping around a pasture with a bunch of loonies, his fitness has taken a dive. We decided that a “Couch to 5K” program was in order, mixing in plenty of walk breaks between trot and light canter work. Importantly, together we concluded that Fred was in fact sound and comfortable. This is an important point, because it gives me the confidence to get after some behavioral issues, some of which can look a lot like resistance related to discomfort. It’s not fair to punish legitimate complaints, and I err on the side of caution in this department.

Sometimes a lady chases you with a whip and it’s okay

Which leads me to my ride last Tuesday night, when I was sharing the arena with Alice, an upper level rider with a gorgeous horse who has been doing all of this much longer than I. Fred and I were chugging around, him on his forehand, me happy that he was just moving. However, apparently the sight of us caused Alice pain, because she finally blurted out “You’ll never get him fit if you let him go around that way,” and then proceeded to channel a German Dressur, following us around, arm raised and brandishing her whip.

She was all over my ass, no other way to put it, but five minutes of following her moment-by-moment instructions (“Leg leg WHIP BEHIND YOUR BOOT THERE GOOD BOY leg leg GET HIM FORWARD WHIP AGAIN There! Good boy give him a pat NO NO DON’T LET HIM DO THAT leg leg leg THERE GOOD”) we had great forward momentum, and when I asked him to canter, he gave me a hand gallop, and I let him roll.

None of this was anything that I’ve not been told by Christy, who has been dying to carry a longe whip during my lessons. Alice, bless her, just isn’t into asking permission.

I grudgingly admitted all of this to Christy, who as much as I love her still scares me when she gets a particular look in her eye which foretells an extended trip outside my comfort zone. Thankfully, no really vigorous riding was required, so alas, Christy will have to wait before she chases me around with a longe whip.

Fred’s feeling pretty good – out of shape, for sure, and I can’t wait for warmer weather so we can get outside. We’re on a trail system, and there’s a nice bridle path around the farm, as well as a lovely outdoor – all of which will be useful in fitting up the redhead.

Not Again. (Yes, Again.)

img_4875We’re two weeks into our sojourn at the new barn, and we’ve had some really fantastic rides – better than I have any right to expect, in fact, given how out of shape Fredders is after his assorted lamenesses.  I mean, look at him.  He looks amazing, despite the monkey on his back hauling on the right rein.

Unfortunately, the quality of our rides plummeted this week, marked by a sour attitude and resistance.

img_4873 He’s not lame – I threw him on the longe on Tuesday and was treated to a display of remarkable athleticism that lasted 45 minutes.  A horse needs to be entirely, wholly sound to pull the crap Fred did on Tuesday.

We worked through the issues last night, and ended up with some decent work, including some very decent trot/canter transitions on a 20M circle.

Tonight we had a lesson, and it was a different story. Fred was clearly uncomfortable, curling behind the bit even on a loopy rein, gaping his mouth and in general registering his unhappiness in every way he cold muster.

img_4874I hopped off, and Christy and I looked at the saddle.  I had been over his back before I tacked up, and found no soreness, but we determined that it was pinching on either side of the wither.  So I slid the ThinLine I use out from underneath it, which would free up quite a bit of space around the head of the saddle, and got back on.  Well, that was a bit too much of an adjustment – the saddle was now sinking in front, and definitely was impinging on his shoulder, especially when I asked him to bend.

“If you got on him without the saddle, that would tell you clearly if that’s what’s bothering him,” Christy ventured.

I’m not a huge fan of riding bareback. Horses are smooth and slippery.  My Thoroughbreds all had prominent withers and spines that I wanted no part of.  But Fred is kind of like a couch.  I got over myself, took off his saddle, and slithered aboard.

bareback-2To give his spine some relief, I stuck the ThinLine under my butt, and off we went.  Fred is actually super comfortable, and I stunned Christy by trotting him a bit.  He was pleasant and willing.

Christy and I agreed that my next step is to break out the gullets and shims and go to work.bareback 1.jpg  I’m going to start with some 8 mm front shims under the panels.  If that doesn’t work I’ll switch gullets, but I think shimming will do the trick.

Oh, and I’m going to buy a bareback pad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Touch Wood

img_4827

Admiring himself.

It’s been a bit more than a week since we moved into the new barn, and for the last four days, Fred has been moving soundly.

*touches wood.*

Fredders is in an individual turnout, however, time outside has been limited due to extremely cold and icy conditions.

IMG_4730.JPG

He has a spacious stall, hay to chew on throughout the day, a window to peer out of and best of all, a friendly mare (with whom he is in love) in the stall next door, so staying inside is not the worst thing that can happen to Fred.  In fact, it’s probably been the best, as he’s acclimated to his new surroundings and hasn’t managed to re-injure himself in the process.

While he is still giving me a little grief at the beginning of each ride in the form of some balking, we get through it pretty quickly and the rest of the rides have been forward, frisky and fun.   I’m focusing mostly on trot sets with some easy bending, because more than anything, he needs conditioning. That said,  we did some of the easiest canter transitions we’ve ever done last night – simply sitting a beat and a slight raise of my inside hip and we were off.

I’m going to continue to ride with Christy, however, our lesson last night was canceled due to the aforementioned icy conditions. I’ll get something scheduled this weekend and maybe we’ll have some video to share soon. 😁

 

 

Course Correction

img_4782

Second ride (and first selfie in the arena mirror) at the new barn.

Good God. It’s been nearly eight months since I posted here. It’s funny how changes in unrelated areas of your life can ripple through your entire personal ecosystem, but that’s the best way I can explain my silence.

The long and short of it is this – 2015 is a year I am still trying to forget. Fate dealt me a series of punches to the gut, ranging from my mom’s diagnosis with a very scary cancer to losing Derby.  2016 was my rebuilding year of sorts. Very simply, I decided there was a lot in my life I wasn’t thrilled with (Mom being the exception, she’s doing really well) and it was time for some course correction. I’ve made a couple big changes and more are in the pipeline.

In the “Done” column is a biggie – my career. I spent the better part of the last year in a job that was a spectacularly bad fit. Having a strong dislike for my work was an entirely new and wretched experience, and I didn’t realize how exhausting the attendant stress and frustration were until I got out of Dodge. Late last year, I landed a fantastic new job, and couldn’t be happier – both with the work itself, and the fact that I got this item off the to-do list. The job change is foundational to my other plans.

bareback-2

I’m 70% of the way to achieving my fitness goals, and it shows (even when wearing puffy winter duds.)

In the “Homestretch” column is another biggie – my fitness. There’s no sidestepping the fact I really let things slide in that department. I’m not going to talk numbers but let’s just say this: I am 70% to a goal I set for myself last April, and I will achieve it before April 2017 rolls around. My pants are smaller, my endurance is greater and I’m a lot stronger across the board – core, arms, back, you name it.

Some other course corrections are still in the works, but let’s leave those for another time, because it’s past time for me to be talking about the horses.

img_4750

Uulke Farm in Barrington is Fred’s new home.

Persistent soundness issues with Fred contributed to my frustration over the last year. He recovered nicely from the broken pelvis, but we never really got going in 2016 because one thing after another would knock us off track. A banged up ankle. Bowed tendon. Windpuffs. Bucked shin. Popped splint. Pinched nerve. One thing after another, cumulating with – horrifyingly – sore footedness that threatened to turn into mechanical founder, exacerbated by thin soles and irritation from the packing under the bubble pads I had put on for winter.

img_4734

Rumors you’ve heard about the place having chandeliers are true.  Prettiest barn EVER.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different outcomes. I am not insane, so last week I moved Fred to a new barn four minutes from my home. It has individual turnout – not my favorite but necessary at this juncture – amazing arena footing and top-notch care. It also has a chandelier in the foyer and a club room that looks like it was decorated by Ralph Lauren himself. Fred can’t believe his luck, and I can’t believe how much I’m paying to board there, but the proximity to home has been fantastic.

And best of all, Fredders is going sound (note: I just tapped wood after typing that.) It’s been very cold (low teens) for the last few days, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the energy he’s displaying, but as discussed previously, he’s not the most forward-thinking horse, so when I give him a little squeeze and get left in the back seat, it is surprising.

We’re not going to be doing anything too interesting very soon – he is out of shape, so we’re doing a lot easy work to put a good foundation on him. But I think we’ll get going with some lessons midweek. Fingers crossed for continued soundness.

In other news, Jag just turned 21. He’s fat, hairy, happy and apparently, semi-feral, as he got loose yesterday and ran his own personal Kentucky Derby around the property where I keep him.

I’m going to call it a wrap for now, folks, but I promise an update in short order. I’m well and truly back. I wish you all a belated but no less enthusiastic happy new year!

 

Why I Ride

This has been a tough weekend for equestrians everywhere, as another bright young light in eventing was extinguished when a rider died from injuries sustained during a prominent 3* event, and another rider’s horse was euthed, also from injuries sustained during the same competition. (Godspeed, Philippa and Ouija. #KickOn on through Heaven’s gate.)

I’m not an eventer, nowhere near it. But for the last week, I’ve been hobbling painfully around on a grossly swollen knee, having come off about ten days ago when my horse spooked just as I was mounting. I got hung up in a stirrup, and before it broke free, my left knee got a pretty good twist. A visit to the orthopod confirmed there’s no serious damage (thank you God) however, it’s still pretty swollen and sore, I’m in a brace and he put me on stall rest for a week.

Late last week, one of my coworkers asked me what happened, and when she heard I fell off my horse, she asked me point blank why I do it.  Why I, and otherwise logical person (her words) who is within spitting distance of her 50th birthday (some additional detail for you) would ride horses on a daily basis.

screen-shot-2013-08-04-at-9-48-46-pmI said something about it being fun and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream when I answered her, but there’s more to it – much more – than that.  Sitting on my couch, reading the sad news from Jersey Fresh, and resting after an early morning run to the barn to meet the vet (my retiree drove a stick into his head, into a sinus cavity – awesome) I’ve been reflecting on that question.  Why do I do this? Because I am going to be back in the saddle as soon as this knee allows.

Why do I do it?

I think the answer I would give would be the same answer that mountain climbers or avid downhill skiers would give: give: danger is no reason to quit, danger is the reason why we wear helmets. However, there’s a lot more to it than thrill seeking. When you get to that point where you’re operating on the edge of fear and performance, something magical can happen. This is the land outside your comfort zone.  

bad-and-naughtyI don’t think any of us seek danger for danger’s sake. However, when you get far enough outside your comfort zone to represent a real risk, that’s where development happens. That’s where learning solidifies. That’s where real success is found. I would also say it’s where confidence is born.

I’m not a great rider, and have achieved nothing noteworthy in the show ring.

The high point of my career on the dressage court is the free walk I got out of a difficult mare in our first test in front of a judge.  She scared the crap out of me, she tested me thoroughly, and she spent the hours before that test walking around on her hind legs. But I got on, and got it done. That was a seminal moment for me.

That said, I’m no daredevil. But there’s something deeper, more fundamental, that happens when you break through your fear, and you grow as a result. The product of that is self confidence, and I guess that’s what makes riding (and other challenging endeavors) addicting.

whoopsIn addition to growing your confidence, this process also generates another important byproduct: grit. As you learn to manage fear, and improve your performance, you also become a grittier person. And you learn that fear can be vanquished.

I remember one ride on the scary mare in particular.  I was learning how to package her power, and during one lesson, I got this absolutely monster trot out of her – it was actually intimidating. I remember shouting my fear to my trainer:
“What is going on with this trot?!?” I spook(probably) shrieked at her.

“You’re getting suspension!!!” she was delighted.

“I don’t like it!!!” I insisted as I went down the other side.

“YES YOU DO” was her unequivocal response.

I eventually did learn how to generate and hold that power, and I’ve learned to seek it and love it. In that moment, your horse transforms into a Maserati with a tuned suspension, super-car steering and power. Wow, the power. It’s intoxicating.

spooky

For me, the Maserati moments are the Promised Land, and getting there is a constant uphill climb. And that climb requires I face my fears, and let me tell you, they are abundant, because the disappearance of confidence in the saddle is a well documented phenomenon amidst women of certain age.

But I don’t want to quit. I’m not going to stay on the ground, brushing my horse’s tail. (Except for when my knee is the size of a cantaloupe, then yes, I will do that.)

Point is, if I’m not going to quit, I have to ride, and that means getting outside my comfort zone on a regular basis.  Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it flat out hurts, but what’s the alternative?  Sitting at home watching sitcoms at night?  Oh, hell no. If you need me, I’ll be at the barn.

Kick on.

 

The perfect dressage saddle for Thoroughbreds

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 9.46.30 AM

This used 18″ Bates Isabell is in excellent condition and is for sale at Saddler’s Row in Palatine IL.

It took me a while to find the perfect saddle for my OTTBs, and here it is – my beloved Bates Isabell.  It does not fit Fred, who is a draft cross and requires an extremely wide tree. However, if you’re looking for a saddle that accommodates a wither for a horse with a more normal width, take a look at the Bates Isabell. Specifically, my Bates Isabelle, which is now consigned at Saddler’s Row in Palatine, IL.

I really can’t overstate how much I’ve enjoyed this saddle, and how sorry I am that it just didn’t work for my new extra-wide horse.  In addition to being the most soft, grippy and comfortable saddle I’ve ever sat it, I also really appreciated the fact that it’s super adjustable, featuring both the  Easy Change Gullets and the Easy Change Risers.

The Bates gullet system is well known, but the Risers are a more recent innovation, and I loved the options they gave me.  It’s amazing how much impact a tiny change – adding or removing a shim that changes the saddle fit by mere millimeters – can have on the way your horse goes, but I am here to tell you – the Risers are a genius invention.

 

ecrs_products

Instead of trying to “pad up” a saddle that doesn’t quite fit, adding the Risers – which fit between the saddle and the panels – creates a streamlined way to make the changes we all need from time to time, as our horses’ shapes change.

Need to raise the cantle, level the panels or lower the pommel?  Need to fill in those gaps on the side of the withers?  No problem.  The Risers enable you to do that easily, so you’re not messing around with folded towels or a plethora of pads and shims and whatnot.  I simply can’t say enough good things about the Riser system.

screen-shot-2013-08-04-at-9-48-46-pm

The Isabell saddles put you in such good balance that you’ll find that you can ride spooks with a lot more confidence (and grace.)

I also love the way the Isabell puts the rider in a balanced, rock-solid position.  No chair seat here – you will be on your seatbones, in good shoulder-hip-heel alignment, which comes in dang handy when riding a spook.  If you are balanced, spooks aren’t nearly as scary.  This I know from considerable experience.

Anyway, my beautiful saddle is in great condition and was meticulously cared-for and stored out of the elements in a heated tack room. It is just a couple years old, an comes with both the large and small Bates Flexiblocks, which attach by velcro so you can move (or remove) as you prefer.

Saddler’s Row takes credit cards and also has a generous 7-day trial, so you can get a few proper rides in and decide whether or not the saddle really works for you and your horse.

http://www.saddlersrow.com/18-bates-isabell-dressage-saddle-consignment-d20831/