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(re)Conditioning

I’m sure you’ll find a dozen or so similar posts in this blog’s history: after a round eight weeks off, I’m bringing Tristan back to work. Years ago this was not a huge deal; by week two or three we were doing light versions of what we’d done before.

Now, with Cushing’s and age, I take a much more measured approach.

This go-around is featuring lots of variety, because we are both bored, and not quite as much hesitancy as I might have had otherwise, because he was in very good shape when we pulled him out of work. So – I have already been doing a decent amount of trotting, and have already asked him to carry himself.

Conditioning generally is something I’ve spilled lots of ink and lots of tears about over the years. I firmly believe in a very slow ramping up of work for my animals. It’s one thing to go back to the gym myself after time away and go just as hard and know that I’ll be sore. It’s another thing entirely to expect that of a horse or dog.

Right now, my approach tends to be short bursts of correct, more intense work, and letting him tell me how he feels. Now, obviously I’m not going to let him gallop himself into a frothing sweat just because he’s being an ass, but if he is feeling good enough to pick up a strutting trot on the longe line, I’m not going to pull him back right away.

I’m also not doing 5 minute shots of full work; more like keeping overall rides to around 30 minutes, and when we do trot, asking him for a proper forward trot while reaching for the bit, rather than the long-rein loose trots I might have encouraged a few years ago. Then, my philosophy would have trended towards lots of loose, long work, and once he got up to 8-10 minute trot sets then I would have picked him up and put him into proper work.

I’m also tossing in more serpentines, more complicated lateral work, more backing up, more turns on the haunches, and so on. Mostly at the walk. I’m using foam blocks under his hind end while grooming, to work on his balance and spatial awareness in the hind end. I’m going to incorporate some hill work soon, hopefully – it’s a question of waiting for things to dry AND getting in a few more long walks in the outdoor to fully bring his outdoor brain up to speed.

It’s not a bad place to be in, this spring. I’m still getting in a few rides a week even with my work reaching a fever pitch, and I’m really, REALLY looking forward to June, when I’m taking two! whole! weeks! off for the first time in over a decade.

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Two steps back, two steps forward

Well, okay, when I left off, Tristan was having some weird lameness stuff and muscle twitching in his left shoulder.

We went on and off for a few weeks with different theories, different levels of work, ratcheting up or down and watching carefully, and finally I threw up my hands and added him to the list for the lameness vet.

And…he trotted out sound as a bell on the longe line – this after two days of relatively full work to try to draw out any stiffness.

In between all of this it snowed like three times. Sometimes Vermont works hard to make you love it.

The vet shrugged and said, “I’m going to say the same thing I always say to you, which is that his hind fetlocks look terrible but he’s so damn sound. And also he’s 26, I mean, of course he’s going to be a bit stiff and have off days.”

Nevertheless, we did full due diligence and flexed the shit out of his hind legs, and…he still trotted off sound and even.

JFC, horse.

The vet did watch some of the vides on my phone, so he saw both the hesitation in reaching with his front end and the muscle twitches. His thought was that it might be more neck than anything else. So he did a full chiro workup, spending the longest he ever has with Tris. Usually he looks him over and either adjusts one thing or says “I’m not adjusting him, you’d be wasting your money.” But this time he spent quite a while with him, and Tris was clearly a bit resistant and then licking/chewing after neck adjustments in particular.

We went back to work for two days, then he got a day off, and then three days after his vet appointment he rolled too close to the fence in turnout and got himself cast in a metal fence panel.

Luckily, the barn staff heard him get cast and got out to him immediately, so had eyes on him the whole time, and just as they were approaching he freed himself. But he was fully hung up for a few minutes.

All dolled up!

We went uber-conservative, full standing wraps and short, wrap-less turnout for an hour or two each day. I went every night to check on him, handwalk him, give him a full deep tissue grooming, and put his Back on Track sheet on. (That first night? Two minutes into handwalking he squealed, struck out in front, and launched himself into the air. TWENTY GODDAMN SIX.)

He cast himself on Monday, and on Friday we watched him in hand and then under saddle very lightly. He was pretty darn okay. He was a little less than thrilled about fully using his right hind, but not necessarily in an ouchy way – more of a weakness/stiffness thing. And it improved as we went on and focused on it. So he went without wraps from then on, and the little bit of fill we’d seen earlier in the week never returned.

One week after getting cast, the lameness vet was back for other horses and put hands on Tris. Same pronouncement as always – shaking head in bemusement, pronouncement of soundness. We also talked back and forth some plans for the future and I finally committed to an experiment for the future: we’ll inject his hocks later this month when he’s done his vaccinations for the spring.

Since then, I’ve been easing him back into work on a conditioning schedule. He’s holding up shockingly well, fitness-wise, for not having worked consistently for about eight weeks now. He was feeling spunky enough to try and dump me on Sunday when I did our first road hack / walk around the outdoor. Thankfully I had anticipated shenanigans and put in his kimberwicke for the occasion.

We made some nice ring art with all the leaping and flailing.

We’re easing back into lessons with half-hour sessions, and I’m trying to transfer some of the things I was working on with Crumble with some success. Fingers crossed that the hocks prove a good experiment and the rest of the spring proceeds uneventfully!

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House Post: Sleeping Porch Update

(I wrote this quite a while ago, as you can see from the snow in the photos, and am trying to clear it out of the queue!)

Well, we have a verdict about the sleeping porch, as discussed previously.

It’s a middle-of-the-road diagnosis.

We definitely need a new roof; not unexpected.

The trim definitely needs to be replaced; again, not expected. (Contractor said he was putting 4″ screws in to re-attach the failing trim that’s there and only getting bite at the very end, yikes.)

The good news is that the contractor is pretty sure the roof joists themselves are okay, and it’s a job he can handle himself, and he’s already given us a reasonable quote for it.

So, we’re talking schedule this now – for the summer. Stay tuned for many photos of that rebuild. Once those issues are taken care of, we can pivot to an interior repaint and perhaps do something about the windows. (It’s possible one of the reasons they’re so tough to open now is that the roof is sagging and weighing down on the windows juuuuuust enough to make them sticky, since they slide sideways to open.)

While the contractor was working on his proposal for the porch, he also tackled another small exterior project: replacing a rotting soffit board on the back addition.

The view out my office window earlier this week
Gutter going back up!

I’m pleased to finally be tackling some structural problems, and to have found a contractor that I like to work with after so many years.

We’re also starting to lay out the next projected work; beyond the roof, in the next 2 years we’ll be looking at an exterior repaint, the final interior cosmetic work, a new downstairs bathroom, and perhaps some foundation work. Yay, old houses…

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Different Ears

The less-than-great news first: Tristan continues to be slightly off, in slightly weird ways, all still (seemingly) connected to that left front. He’s on the list for the lameness vet for next week, and he’s getting regular in-barn evaluations in the meantime.

That left open the question of what to do with my standing Friday lesson spot; for a few weeks, that was changed over into a deep grooming session. I have a requirement to use one “service” each week as part of my board, so why not?

Two weeks ago, though, the barn manager (who serves as trainer while the main trainer is in Florida) texted me and asked if I wanted to ride Crumble in my lesson, to which my reply was a hugely enthusiastic YES.

For those who aren’t familiar with Crumble, or more officially Abercrombie, he belongs to fellow blogger Emilie, who is our barn’s main trainer’s barn manger and assistant trainer. Crumble stays in Vermont with us during the winter, teaching lessons and being adorable. (For those who didn’t know we share a barn, surprise! I try to keep my blog fairly narrowly focused on my own journey as a rider and horse owner and part of that means not sharing too much about others at my barn, partly for privacy concerns and partly because it doesn’t feel fair to me to put people on the internet.)

Crumble is many things that Tristan is not: smaller, for one, but also a different breed (Haflinger) and build (much more solid), and, of course, much, much, MUCH better trained. (They are similar in other ways, though; both have clear and distinct personalities, both are very easy to handle, and both are generally cheerful around people.)

It is literally impossible to overstate the cuteness of his ears.

I’m still chewing over lots of the things that I’ve learned after just two rides, but my chief takeaway is this: it feels really, really good to know that I can be good at riding horses. I generally think of myself as a mediocre-to-poor rider; there are some things I can do (sit a buck and grit through, mainly) and so many things that I cannot, especially not with any finesse.

You can imagine it was revelatory and quite nice to sit on Crumble and get ready to struggle and…not. Oh, I don’t mean for a second that I magically became a brilliant rider, but all of a sudden having a willing and educated dance partner felt…amazing. I could ask for things, and get them, and learn that I did know how to ask for them. I could use my seat and learn that I DO have a mobile and communicative seat. I could rely on him to keep a gait and then experiment within that gait, and have a conversation of which one side wasn’t entirely fuck you, no. I don’t want to flatter myself too much, but the barn manager said a few times that she was struck by how well he was going even in my first ride and that usually people take longer to figure him out. We clicked quite nicely, and I have really, really enjoyed him.

It’s also incredibly useful to be able to quickly pinpoint things that are either bad habits from Tristan (inside leg in the canter, I’m looking at you) or simply personal weaknesses that show up obviously in both horses (left hip flexor, you suck).

I don’t know how long this will last – obviously I want my own horse to be sound again! – but I am enjoying the hell out of it in the meantime.

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Two steps forward, two steps back

Well, last time I updated, Tristan had put a foot wrong during a lesson and came up a little off.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. We gave him about two weeks of time off, with stretchy 20 minute walks bareback every other day, and about 10 days into that I was sitting on him in the middle of the ring, watching another rider go, when I glanced down and noticed that the large muscle over his left shoulder was spasming.

Big, full-muscle twitches, sometimes such that he would shift his weight. Now, he shifts his weight a lot; he doesn’t like to plant his feet and stand still. Our agreement is that shifting is fine, actual steps are not. So that’s why it hadn’t registered to me before that there was something else going on.

Once I noticed that, I had the barn manager watch me walk him and she agreed with me: he was still a bit off and his shoulder muscle was twitching weirdly. By “a little bit off”: she described and I felt that it was like he was reluctant to fully extend that left front leg into a good forward walk stride. Better on straightaways, much more noticeable on turns, and much more noticeable left than right.

With some probing, she identified a large knot in his shoulder muscle, a few inches below the wither and back from the shoulder point. I checked in with the vet, and we worked out a plan.

For the next 10 days, Tristan got a regimen of bute + Robaxin (methcarbamol). The former to hopefully ease him over the pain and the latter to loosen his muscles overall. He got 20m walks every day, and I worked on him with a curry with a massage side (like this) and Sore No More liniment.

During that time, I was able to get a short video of the shoulder twitching; you can see it here.

I felt like he was getting slowly better over this time. He was more willing to walk out, and the twitching was less violent and fewer and further between. Last Wednesday was his last day tapering off the drugs, I gave him two days of rest, and then we pulled him back out on Friday to look at together…

…and he was as lame as ever. Whomp whomp. It did seem to get worse with more work, so that’s a useful data point.

He’s going to get one more week of lighter work (only a few rides), massages, and his new Back on Track mesh sheet, and then we will check again on Friday, and if there’s no improvement, we officially get the vet out, one month to the day after he came up lame.

For those wondering why I am playing it so conservatively, because the internet: he has been entirely comfortable, happy, and sound for turnout, and he is 26 years old. He is not a high performance horse that I want to get better next week. If we can let him rest and chill for a few weeks to resolve this, that’s fine by me. We are pretty darn confident that it’s a strain in that big shoulder muscle.

In the meantime, I’ve started riding other horses for lessons, and I’ll write about that in a little bit. Fingers crossed that we either see some improvement, or the vet comes out to do one of those “meh, just keep doing what you’re doing, it’s just time” visits.

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March 2020 Reading Roundup

At the beginning of the year, I set a few broad categories of reading goals. How am I doing?

This roundup will work for both February & March. In those two months, I read 15 books – most of those in March. I have been devouring books lately.

To recap my goals list:

  • one book in French (0/1)
  • five books about horses (2/5)
  • five books about Vermont (1/5)
  • five books from the “to be read” pile (2/5)
  • one book of poetry (0/1)
  • one play (0/1)
  • five books by authors of color (5/5 already!)
  • three books about museums (2/3)
  • five award nominees (Hugo, Nebula, Dragon, Pulitzer, etc.) (3/5)
  • two books about science (1/2)
  • three classics (0/3)
  • three books about organizing/politics (2/3)
  • three memoirs or biographies (1/3)

Some highlights:

One book about organizing/politics: Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America by Stacy Abrams. It is a bit painful to have read this so recently and then watched the news about the ways white Republican men in Georgia are currently fucking things up once again. One of my biggest takeaways from this book is that Stacy Abrams has a clarity and focus of thinking that translates into incredible writing. She explains things succinctly, and with impact. There were lots of things in here that I caught myself thinking about weeks later. It was a useful read as during this time I was elected to chair the board in my small city that oversees elections.

One book that didn’t fit any categories: A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas. I actually read this twice. Loved it both times, despite a few really, really awful plot choices. I adore this series, I adore the people I get to geek out about it with, and I am super excited about the upcoming tv show based on it. I’m writing this and I want to read it again. Maas isn’t always the best at writing, or plotting, but she has a really good handle on character, and where she really excels is emotion. There is always at least one moment – and sometimes several moments – in every book when I either start sobbing or cheering and forgive her every dumb choice she has made to that point.

One book about science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. I’ve read one or two of her other books, and I always come away having learned at least one thing about human bodies that I wish I didn’t know. In this book, it was about why and how humans sweat. There are certain facts just lodged in my brain now. At least I learned more about science – and, where she really excels, about the scientific process.

Also worth a mention, as they were quite good:

Circe by Madeline Miller: beautifully written, clearly realized, enjoyed it from beginning to end

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: I didn’t like this quite as much as everyone else did; not enough happened, and I wasn’t fully on board with the love interest. That said, I LOVED the ending.

Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck: I’m now on the Planning Commission and read this for a small “making better communities” book club through my local library. I really, really liked it and haven’t looked at a street or a downtown the same way since reading it.

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A Philosophy of Bute

File this under “things I think way too much about.”

When is the use of bute appropriate? Not medically, I mean, but philosophically.

It’s an anti-inflammatory that is relatively benign as far as things go; it’ll upset a horse’s stomach, and in true longterm use can cause other things like kidney & liver issues. (It is, after all, an NSAID – and there is no such thing as a drug with zero side effects.)

I tend to think of it as the equivalent of a human taking an advil or tylenol pill: something that’s perfectly fine in direct application, but a bad idea to do every day for extended periods of time.

I will use bute for Tristan in a couple of circumstances. If he appears a touch off, I’m happy to do an evening + morning of bute after he is a bit lame, and then wait and see. If he’s worked excessively hard in a lesson and seems likely to have a bit of soreness, I’ll do the same. He often gets a dose after spring shots to help with that. The key for me is as an acute response to a specific situation – not a coverup.

Go beyond that, however, and it gets into gray areas. I’m sure we’ve all known a lesson horse or two that gets bute the morning before a long day of work, or before a schooling show. I’ve once or twice seen owners be very liberal with bute in response to any possible pain or inflammatory response. I’m sure there are people out there who just bute regularly as a matter of course, in a neverending cycle of overwork and stress. I think that we can all agree that bute as a masking technique to enable high-volume work is definitely on the misuse side of things.

Where’s the line between acute and chronic, though?

Consider that lesson pony, who has a lot to give still and may not mentally handle retirement well. Is it okay to do a little bit of bute if, say, the pony is going to do a small schooling show, to take the edge off a day of work that’s longer than usual?

What about an older horse turned out in spring for the first time, who’s likely to be a little bit of an idiot?

What about a horse who really needs to stay in very light work to keep healthy, but struggles through warmup – would making that warmup a bit more fluid be to his benefit, so he can get the physical therapy of a light ride?

In short, what about pre-emptive bute? Bute to pave the way to a goal, instead of as a reaction to a specific situation? How to define the guard rails there? Always, sometimes, never?

I don’t have a good answer. I’ve seen it done; I’ve never done it with Tris. I have no real plans to do it with him, but as he gets older, it seems likely to be something I’ll have to grapple with. So I wonder.

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Old Horse Woes

I mean, they’re the same as regular horse woes, really. Just with an extra tinge of desperation.

In our lesson a little over a week ago, Tristan took a funny step. I’ve always wondered about other people saying that. I know I’m not as sensitive or attentive as I could be in the saddle, and I know that Tristan trips A LOT, so I always figured I’d never be able to tell if he took a funny step.

Good news, I guess? I felt it and then his next few steps were just angry, and not in the “you’re making me work hard” way. With the barn manager’s eyes on us, I asked him for a little bit more trotting and we both agreed that he was definitely off, identified as left front.

I pulled him up and did a thorough examination; no heat, no swelling, nothing in his foot itself. He got liniment and Back on Track wraps, bute that night and the next morning, and 48 hours later was still clean, cool, and tight in both front legs but a touch off.

We’re now 10 days out, and he is definitely feeling a bit cooped up – yesterday I jogged him out and he took two steps and squealed and helicoptered up next to me. I snapped his halter a few times and growled at him, he put four feet back on the ground, and gave me side-eye while licking and chewing for a few seconds. I waited until he huffed in resignation, and then asked again and he gave me a lovely sound trot-out, nice big flowing strides and a very polite attentive head tilt. My horse in a nutshell!

When I brought him around a tight turn to the left, at the trot, he was still just a smidge off. Not lame, exactly – just a little funny about maneuvering with that leg. Fair enough. Back to his stall, more liniment, more Back on Track. We’ll keep rechecking.

If he weren’t showing improvement, I’d be more worried. Still, I don’t like that it’s been 10 days and he’s still a smidge hesitant. We’ll see what this week brings, I guess! One nice thing about older horses is that instead of fretting about lost time I can just shrug and really embrace the “long way from his heart” theory for things like this.

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Riding a new horse

If you’ve followed this blog for a time, you know that Tristan has been slowly evolving over the last ~2 years into a different kind of ride.

I’ve owned him for 15 years, and actually ridden him for a smidge longer than that. I put the very first rides on him in the summer of 2005, right after I graduated from college. He became my horse in January 2006. So – I know him pretty darn well. And for 75% of those years, he has been darn well unflappable.

here, have the first picture I ever took of Tristan from that summer

I really do mean unflappable. His fifth and sixth rides were in an open field in a hackamore. (God, to be 22 and stupid and fearless again!)

Which is not to say he could not be an ass at times. He spent weeks and weeks bolting and rearing on the longe line. He had a bolt in him that took me for many an adrenaline-pumping ride. But generally speaking he was a kick ride, observed everything but reacted to hardly any of it, steady good citizen. He just did not really have a spook in him. When he spooked, it was calculated – he would pick a spot in the indoor halfway through winter, just to spice things up. He would get pissy when I asked him to go more forward, so he’d seek out something and fake-spook at it.

(Please note that generally I think horses are honest when they spook. I have known this horse intimately for many, many years. He watches, he does his mental calculus, and he goes through the motions of a spook.)

Well, joke’s on me. We’ve been doing such good work over the last few months that two things have happened: even on a lighter schedule, he’s as fit as he has been in years, and he has learned whole new ways for his body to work and move.

what 95% of our rides look like right now: bareback, quarter sheet, big thick coat, insulated Dublin boots

After so many years of knowing what I’d get every time I swing a leg over the saddle, I suddenly have a reactive horse.

Let’s be clear: “reactive” Tristan is still pretty darn chill. I’ve ridden nuttier horses. But there’s a reason I enjoyed my kick ride straightforward horse! I don’t love riding hot horses. But I do love Tristan. So, I’m working on it.

An example: when I got on him again after 3 months off from his surgery, it was a non-event. I was back out hacking him on roads within a week. Last night, after 10 days off from weather, I got on bareback and I swear to you his ears were so pricked forward and focused at everything that I thought he would sprain something. Everything was pretext for a high-headed snort, or a scoot sideways, or a little bit of striking out with his front legs. Someone sweeping in the back aisle. The hay cart in the main aisle. The door to the hay shed opening. The door to the hay shed closing. The velcro on my gloves.

When we’re actually schooling, it means I’m constantly riding a fine line between forward and out of control. I get a lovely, big, powerful trot, he’s sitting more and more, and it’s 50/50 whether I can count on a nice light soft rein or whether two seconds later I’ll be hauling his head up out of a crow hop. And of course, a few weeks ago he dumped me fast and hard and dirty. So I’ve got that in my brain.

I’m ashamed to admit that for little things – like last night’s ride – my reaction is to mostly get pissed off. The snotty little leap and buck when we got closer to the person sweeping earned him a hauling around on the reins and a couple of harsh words. I’m sure that’s not ideal. My instinct at least is to go hard, fast, and then release just as fast, and as soon as he gave even the slightest hint of easing up he got a ton of praise and pets.

I’m working on it. It doesn’t make me terribly inclined to ride during my usual time, at night after everyone else is gone. It does, however, make me a little more keen on riding, because I can’t resist a challenge.

Has anyone else had their horse change under them? Especially after so many years?

(I do want to clarify up front that this is not pain. He is regularly, obsessively examined and is sound as a bell and in great condition.)

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Hoof update, winter 2020

I bet you thought you would never have to read an update about Tristan’s feet again, huh? Joke’s on you, Tristan’s hoof saga will never end.

Quick recap for those who might be new: in the summer of 2012, Tristan sustained a stress fracture of the coffin bone in his right front. A piece of the bone separated and became badly infected. In March 2013, he had surgery to remover dead bone and clear out the infection. (You can search for “hoofgate” or “surgery” or “coffin” in the side of my blog, since apparently all my tags did not transfer from Blogger, a thing that I only just noticed now, several years later. I’ll work on that someday.)

Since then, he has gone through a variety of permutations to keep that hoof stable. For a while it was glue-ons; then he went back to barefoot for a while. For a few years now, he’s been in front shoes with pads because the last, lingering problem is that the spot on his sole, near his toe, where the surgeon went in to clean out the coffin bone has never quite been the same. Our best running theory is that the scar tissue grew back just a smidge more porous and less stable. If he goes barefoot for too long – two or three cycles – it invites bacteria and things go downhill from there. Basically, guaranteed white line in that spot with no real way to stop it except covering it up.

For the first time in a very long time, a week or so ago I was at the barn at the same time as the farrier, and Tristan was on the list. So I got to see his foot naked, which I haven’t seen in over a year.

If you look just to the right of the notch (an unrelated carve out of a spot of white line), you can see a patch near the toe that’s a subtly different color and texture. That’s the spot I’m talking about.

Overall: the farrier is quite happy with it! We did talk briefly about a possibly future solution for when Tristan retires: he’s been experimenting with doing a deeper carve out and then filling the hole with sturdy wax. He’s had success with that in horses with keratoma scar tissue, which is a very similar profile to what happened to Tristan. I opted against that because Tris is going so darn well right now; I don’t want to upset the apple cart. It’s definitely something we’ll experiment with in the future if he needs to step down in work, though.