longeing · massage · pergolide

Wheeeeeeeeee

You may have noticed an excess of non-current postings last week; sorry! I did that thing where you’re not supposed to tell the internet you’re out of town, so no one robs you. Or something. Anyway, I was off all last week for my brother’s wedding out of town, and I’m back now, and I have 567 blog posts to read. O.o

Last night, I swung by the barn to longe Tristan and loosen him up before his massage, since he hadn’t been worked in a week. The barn manager warned me that he had been a jerk on the way in – stopped to eat some grass, and when he was reprimanded started rearing and bucking. She said they’d had a discussion, which I am 100% ok with – good behavior is his #1 rule.

So I put him on the longe line and foolishly did not take that into account and he was a LUNATIC. Not even for Tristan, for any horse. I lost count of the good back-cracking bucks and kicks out and half-rears and sprinting around and whooooooo boy. What was supposed to be a 15 minute loosening turned into a 30 minute schooling, followed by 15 minutes of walking up and down the driveway to cool him out. I have some charming rope burns on my hands because I got complacent and forgot my “always wear gloves” rule for handling horses. That’ll teach me.

J. noticed immediately during his massage that he looks brighter, his muscle tone is dramatically better, and he just has a spark back to him.

We are at 5 weeks into the pergolide, and I’m declaring victory. 😀 Tonight I get on and see how he feels under saddle. This could be fun…

blanketing · massage

A Massage for Tristan

Whenever I tell people I’m headed to the barn so my horse can get a massage I get such a sideways look. I usually halfheartedly grumble and say that I haven’t ever had a massage, but my horse gets them monthly, spoiled brat, sigh.

The truth is I feel very fortunate to have a good friend who is a talented massage therapist, and a horse who responds very well to the practice. I get to spend an hour or two with one of my favorite people, and get to have a monthly conversation with her about how Tristan is going. One of her daughter’s horses was the first horse I’d ever met with Cushings, and she is a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and pragmatic horsewoman, and has been a source of comfort and information for me as I feel my way through managing the new Tristan.

This month, there was pretty much no bad news. Tristan’s muscle tone has improved dramatically, and she confirmed that my eyes do not deceive me: his topline is returning. He was tight only in his gaskins, from all the hill work, when in the past he has had ongoing hot spots related to his RF and that whole drama. We agreed that he needed a little bit more weight, so he’ll get a little bit more grain and we’ll add some alfalfa pellets to the mix.

Perhaps best of all: J. arrived with two blankets that used to belong to her Standardbred, who was just the most wonderful horse and about Tristan’s size. They are much-loved but perfectly serviceable, and fit him very well. So he has a stable blanket and midweight for the winter! I will take pictures for a fashion show at the earliest opportunity.

massage · topline · winter

Back in the saddle agaaaaaain

I rode my horse!

Well, we walked around bareback for 40 minutes, but damn it, I sat on him and he went. 
I canceled my lesson on account of not being able to take a deep breath, but I forced myself to the barn, got a bridle and a quarter sheet, and kept Tris at a lively forward walk for 40 minutes. The last 10 I even picked up the reins and we had some small but accurate steps of leg yield and some thoughtful serpentines and changes of direction. Victory!
Then he got a massage. Despite having the previous week entirely off, J. was still pleased with his muscle tone and the places he’s added muscle. He’s clearly getting a ridge of muscle along his spine, and adding some bulk to either side of his withers. He’s starting to get that butt groove in his hindquarters that shows separate ropy muscles. He’s also added weight, finally. He was never what I would call worryingly thin, but I kept wanting just a touch more…and now he’s pretty much there. His ribs are buried, the top of his butt has smoothed out. He’ll stay on his elevated levels of grain and hay through the winter and then we’ll take another look at him in the spring when the grass comes in.
Another positive (?) sign was that he was much more sore and tight than he has been, in front of his shoulders (his usual) and in his hindquarters, particularly his hamstrings. That said to both of us that he’d been in hard work before his break. Which is kind of what I wanted to hear.
We also talked a bit about how his right shoulder is consistently more tight and sore than his left shoulder. It’s been 18 months since that first abscess but J. thinks at this point it’s residual; there’s nothing new brewing in the RF (THANK GOD) but more that it’s in the “old injury” category at this point. If he were being pointed at the Olympics or WEGs, we’d be on it every day with massages and stretches and cold laser therapy, but…he’s not. I’ll stay on top of it in our daily work and I’ll be more careful about working on it a bit before and after our rides, and we’ll see where we go from here.
Then I went home and did not move from the couch for the rest of the night. Oof. Today, highs in the mid single digits; tomorrow, the forecast keeps changing. But starting Thursday, we’ll be reliably double digits again, so back to work for both of us!
conditioning · massage · topline

Topline Exercises

Every time I handle Tristan – whether it’s just a grooming day, a longeing day, a hack day, or a riding day – I’m doing a series of exercises with him to work on his topline. They’re like strength or core building exercises that isolate the right muscle groups. I’ve been really, really pleased with the immediate visual way I can see his muscles engaging with both of these.

The first is a belly lift.

Placing one knuckled hand – or stiff fingers – on either side of the tail, at the point of the croup, about 1″ to either side of where the tail begins. Draw a straight line down, with moderate to heavy pressure, to just under the point of the buttock, or about halfway down the gaskin. Watch your horse’s withers and back while you’re doing this; every horse will have a slightly different trigger point. As you trace down, his back will lift. When you reach the gaskin, it will be about as high as it can get.

I started doing 5 of these, and now I do 15 every time. I hold the lift in the back for a good solid 2-3 seconds. You can also adjust to focus on one side or the other depending on how your horse is standing, or where he’s turning his head. A head turned to the left will give extra lift to the left side of the withers; the opposite to the right. Ideally, they should be square for most of them but it’s fine to turn their head for some of the exercises if you’re trying to even out an imbalance.

This isn’t just a back exercise, either; though you can’t see it from the back, the back lift is at least partly because this technique causes the horse to tighten his abdominal muscles. It simulates crunches in humans. So it does double-duty, lifting the back and tightening the stomach.

The second exercise is a sternum lift.

Reaching underneath your horse’s chest, find the sternum with your fingers. It’ll be about midway, and when you push up through muscle/fat (and in my case, winter fuzz) you should feel a clear thin line of bone. Using stiff fingers, dig into that bone, perhaps wiggling your fingers a bit, and keep your eye on your horse’s back: it will not rise as obviously as with the belly lift, but it will gradually fill in and have more of a “finished” look than with the first exercise.

I do these for 10 seconds on, 10 seconds off, working up from 3 the first time to 5 now. This one targets different muscles (though there is some overlap) and activates them in a different way. In a way, this one teaches them to hold the lift themselves: watch closely, and you’ll see how long they hold after you remove your hand.

We’ll have to wait for updated topline photos in another few weeks to see if these are helping along with the rest of the work we’re doing, but judging by the evidence of my eyes, and the way the muscles are being used in these exercises, I’m very pleased with them.

lesson notes · massage

Lesson Notes

Hooray and huzzah, back in the lesson swing!

This was just a 30 minute one that ended in 40 minutes of work if you count the walk warmup and cooldown. I primarily asked for eyes on the ground to recalibrate our sense of forward: not to let me either get him almost there and then give up OR shove him into rushing instead of forward. End result, develop a more honest reaching connection to the bit.

It was a fast, energetic 30 minutes and we were both pretty tired at the end of it, which was great. It was my first lesson with the barn manager, who teaches through the winter, and I was glad that we clicked nicely and I saw a lot of things we can work on.

Takeaways:

1) Ask for acceleration when coming to the long side when first asking for more forward. Going forward out of the turn weights the inside hind, which helps develop lift, and gives him the length of the arena to really motor through.
2) Get transitions crisper; we worked on this on a 20m circle going walk-trot-walk-trot with a step or two in each, setting a baseline of a quick but firm aid. Our best transition was actually a bit muddled – there was a split second where I felt the offer of a canter in there – but that meant that the lift and the forward I wanted were contained in the transition, it just wasn’t quite clear enough.
3) Keep my hands further forward, and resist the temptation to fiddle with the reins just to get him stretching down and through. Leg, not hands! (Story of my life.)
4) Use cavaletti to encourage hind end action and stomach muscles, which will help make forward easier. Start with a regular distance and then shorten them slightly to make him think a bit harder and step a bit more quickly.

This was followed by a massage which had good and bad news. In good – he was quiet and responded really well, and J. confirmed that he’s back at a good weight. In bad – still not muscling up quite enough. Continue with tummy tuck and sternum lift exercises, and really commit to a regular exercise schedule with more work than he has been doing.

longeing · massage

Discouraging Developments

Tristan has been chuffing right along, but this week we were greeted with a setback. After some lovely long road hacks and some good flat work, two things happened nearly at the same time.

The first is that I pulled off his saddle and finally, sinkingly, acknowledged that the white spot on his wither was not just an artifact of his winter coloring (which does in fact change from season to season) but an actual saddle rub/pressure point. Neither saddle interferes too much, and in fact both fit him well, but with the lack of muscling on his back (still, ugh) saddle pads are slipping down and pushing tight against his withers by midway through the ride.

Soon after that, he got a massage in which we confirmed that he was pretty tight and awful through his left side, in a triangle out from that pressure point, and his muscling is lopsided. My friend, his massage therapist, looked at saddles with me and agreed that they are both essentially good fits – the jump saddle perhaps a bit less so – but that saddle pads almost instantly want to slide back and down.

So a solution, in two parts:

1) A fleece half pad, to be his only saddle pad for a period of time. The idea is the fleece will be forgiving and cushioning and I’ll just have to stay on top of brushing it off/cleaning it regularly.

2) Longeing in a regular program. In an ideal world, this would be in side reins. In Tristan-world, this is simply not an option if I want him to develop proper muscles. He has never, ever, ever softened into side reins, and I made another attempt at it a few weeks ago and still he braced and flailed and fought through every stride. They don’t have the responsive give that he needs and also he’s kind of a jerk and stiff through the jaw anyway, and side reins are just not the right tool for him.

So for now, longeing nekkid, 2x a week, for 20 minutes at a time, 3 minutes per side. Friday night I brought him out and warmed him up at the walk and trot, then set out poles in a circle of death exercise. He started off tripping over them every time, but eventually softened into taking them in stride and doing some stretching over his back.

Here’s step 1, at the walk and trot (please ignore my sad pathetic graphic skills):

Then we picked up a canter and he bucked and farted and kicked in and generally was an ass and scared the small child on a pony at the other end of the ring. But he settled down for step 2 at the canter:
Then back to the walk and trot for step 3:
By step 3, he was really hunting out the poles, and with voluminous praise for a) going forward and b) taking the poles in stride, it was kind of fun to see him realize that it could be a game.
Step 1 was 3 minutes to each side, walk and trot, so 12 minutes total; step 2 was 2 minutes to each side (1 at trot and 1 at canter) so 4 minutes total, and step 3 was 3 minutes to each side (1 walk and 2 trot) so 6 minutes, for 22 minutes total. He was a bit warm and clearly a bit tired by the end from all the lifting over the poles and from the concentrated work, but he also responded really well to the exercise.
We’ll continue variations on this though probably only once a week because for now it is hard work. On non-pole days I’m going to do some experimenting: I’ve ordered a chambon from SmartPak after much researching and thinking and deliberating. I think it will help him reach in the right way to build his back, and it has the right give to reward him. We’ll only use it on the longe and only for short periods, but I’ll report back on progress.

dressage · lesson notes · massage

Inspiration

Last night, Tris had a massage scheduled (or re-scheduled, I should say, as it was meant to happen on the day his hives blew up, but thankfully that is in the past). My friend was running a bit late so I groomed him and then took the opportunity to wander into the ring to watch a lesson.

I’ve always loved sitting and watching lessons when I have some downtime, whether it’s friends, strangers, or the trainer him/herself. It’s a good bonding experience with others who are watching and I always come away feeling inspired by something I’ve seen.

Last night was a doozy. R. was giving a local eventing trainer a lesson in flying changes on one of her schoolmasters, a beautiful gray Lusitano who has been there, done that, and whose specialty is the freestyle. He’s a wonderful, kind soul that everyone adores.

Watching R. teach the trainer – who will be clinicing at the barn over the winter while she’s in Florida, and is my pick to re-start Tris and I over fences – was absolutely amazing. He is already an extraordinary rider, and watching him adapt his talents to a much higher dressage level than he was used to was amazing. R. walked him through Otelo’s gaits and had him collecting from his seat and then turned them loose to try a few single flying changes down the diagonal.

I’d never seen a lesson in flying changes before, not the dressage ones anyway, and watching her work him through the singles, then up to two tempis and critique the quality of each one and the way he rode them was breathtaking.

I don’t know if Tris will ever have a flying change, not from the aids anyway (he pops them sometimes when jumping or galloping), but watching the preparation to get there – the collection, the rocking back, the lift in front of the withers, the core strength and stillness to create a space to communicate: all of that will stay with me for a long time.

(Tris’s massage went well, he is feeling great all over save for some small tightness in his right shoulder but that has been slowly decreasing over the months and will hopefully disappear entirely when his foot finishes growing out.)