dressage · stupid human tricks

Current Schedule

I seem to have – somewhat by accident – fallen into a riding schedule.

This is not a bad thing! Though I do occasionally wonder if it will get stale. So far, so good.

Sunday: hack (20 minutes or so, usually bareback, focused on mental health)
Monday: dressage intensive (40+ minutes, drilling down on one specific thing)
Tuesday: OFF
Wednesday: longeing (20-30 minutes, side reins)
Thursday: light dressage (20+ minutes, focused on getting in & getting out to nail an overall feel)
Friday: fitness (40+ minutes, hill work, trot sets, long canters, whatever needs tweaking)
Saturday: OFF

last week’s dressage intensive

Tristan has always been a harder horse to manage mentally than physically. He just does not love to work, and he really does think things over and benefit from that during time off. At the same time, he’s 22 years old, and he is healthiest when kept in regular work.

I am constantly playing catch-22 with his work ethic. His first answer to everything is NO. It has been for over a decade now. That’s never going to change. However, his confidence in the work that follows my YES is a really tricky thing to manage. The better his work is going, the more confident he is, and after a warmup he can be downright pleasant if we’re on a good streak. The opposite is true: if we’re on a bad streak, the ride is just a slog from beginning to end.

springs!

The only way to fix that is to get good work back again, but then you’re fighting an uphill battle. How do you get back to good with a horse who is in a grumpy spiral? Time off. Lots of finesse. Backing off intensity – but not too much, because muscle melts off his Cushings body like butter. Lack of muscle means he’s less confident in the work, which puts us back at square one. In that same vein, getting too excited about good work means I push too hard, which leads to a backlash.

It suits me, in a way. I would not do well with a horse that has to be ridden every day. My life is too unpredictable. Similarly, the careful constant management teaches me so much as a rider and a horseperson. I’m a really practical person and that sometimes leads to a lack of empathy on my part. Tristan teaches me every day that each small action and decision I take has bigger ripples.

adventures with the vet · stupid human tricks

Lessons Learned After Illness

So a couple of weeks ago Tristan was really, really sick. He’s totally fine now; the last vestige of that week is his IV site, and even that’s halfway grown back in already.

Which means it’s time for some reflection. What went right, what went wrong, and what can I do better next time?

First, things that went right.

You may remember that about two years ago, Cob Jockey did a blog hop about taking your horse’s resting temperature, pulse, and respiration so as to have that information on hand. I did the blog hop, though too late to enter to win a prize, and learned that Tristan’s average temperature is pretty reliably 99.5. So when the barn started taking temperatures regularly, I knew where he stood. Some horses ran closer to 100; others, closer down to 99.

So when he temped at 101.4, I knew immediately that something was wrong, and we started treatment with banamine even though he hadn’t quite reached the threshold to start, per the vet’s protocol. I’m extremely glad we did start; we got a jump of about 8 hours, were able to give everyone a heads up that things might go south, and overall it was a managed problem rather than a true crisis.

Everyone should spend a week and get this basic information and write it down somewhere safe. It’s really, really important. I’m extremely glad that I did that blog hop.

Other things I’m glad about:
– I am a close observer of his regular behavior and attitude, and could usually tell even before temping him again whether his fever had gone back up.
– He is an impeccably well-behaved horse on the ground. I’ve worked really hard on this over the years that I’ve owned him, considering when I first met him he could barely be touched. It paid off in spades: he was easy and pleasant to handle even when he felt awful, he stood quietly to get treatment even when he did not like it one bit, and everyone’s life was a lot easier than it would have been if he’d been a more difficult horse. The best argument for putting (and keeping!) good ground manners on your horse is not the everyday stuff – it’s moments like these.
– I was able to react quickly and be flexible. I have a demanding job but an understanding one, and it was easy to communicate with my boss to let him know when I couldn’t be in. Modern technology also helped; I could check emails and respond to anything urgent during downtime. This isn’t an accident; it’s important to me that I have a job that treats me like an adult and a human being, and it’s a crucial factor to me in choosing an employer. Sooner or later, we’re all going to have an emergency, and life is easier when you’re confident that your job can be put on hold for a few days and they have your back.

3am checks suck, but they’re better when you know your horse will behave.

Second, things that did not go so well.

The most important of these is that my first aid kit was a bit lacking. I’ve written before about spring cleaning checkups for my first aid kit, but when I sold my trailer I got a little over-confident and slacked off on checking regularly. The barn has ample first aid supplies, and I knew I could fall back on them if I needed to.

Well, I needed to. The most egregious thing I had never replaced was my roll of Elastikon, that miracle fiber. I had to buy some from the vet, at a premium, and then I didn’t have any to replace/update the bandage for his IV, so we resorted to over-taping it with duct tape. It worked ok, but it was considerably less than ideal.

I also quickly discovered that one my thermometers had a dead battery, that my paste banamine had expired, and that things in the kit itself were in disarray – I’d bought a box of new gauze, for example, and had just shoved it in the box instead of fitting it in neatly. When you’re panicky and looking for supplies, you’re already going to make enough of a mess. It doesn’t help for things not to be orderly to start with!

So, terrible job to me. I’ve rectified the most urgent pieces of this – new Elastikon, new thermometer battery, new banamine – but I need to spend some quality time looking through the kit and re-evaluating each piece of it and either upgrading or downgrading things now that my situation has changed slightly. I did spend some downtime going through my tack trunk and throwing away expired and empty things, but need to allocate more time to this soon.

Other things:
– My mental state was…not great. I’m really embarrassed that I basically had a meltdown at 3am about the bubbles in the IV line. Horse care and on the ground handling is one of the things I take pride in, and am generally very competent at. It was really frustrating that my anxieties took over my brain and prevented me from doing the best job that I could. Yes, I was sleep-deprived and terrified and doing new and tricky things, but I still let myself and a lot of people down. I need to either be more ruthlessly honest with myself OR find ways to work through that much better. Preferably the latter; I think of myself as someone who’s good in a crisis and I need to do more work to keep that up.
– My emergency fund is in shambles. I’ve been dipping into it a little too freely lately, for really-wants rather than actual emergencies. Yes, it was more than adequate to cover the cost, and yes, I have had a lot of really bad financial challenges this spring/summer, but I can and must do better about building this back up.

Finally, what can I do better?

A few things.

– Commit to more regular cleanouts/checkups on the first aid kit.
– Work on some anxiety-reducing techniques that aren’t just crash-and-burn-and-sleep-like-the-dead.
– Build the emergency fund back up: no more discretionary purchases. At all.
– Good biosecurity is important even when no one is sick! No more grabbing a brush from the schoolie shelf just because it’s closer and easier than bringing down Tristan’s whole grooming kit.

Do you have any lessons learned from a crisis that you always implement now?

stupid human tricks

Gang Aft Agley

Man, June has been one long rolling disaster in terms of horse time. Either I’m working insane hours, out of town, or, well.

So, back up. A week ago, I had it on my schedule to longe Tris, but there were lessons in the indoor. Given his continuing shithead behavior in the outdoor, I dragged my feet, but the lessons ran super long and eventually I just said screw it and went up to the outdoor.

He was, predictably, an ass. He spent the first solid 15 minutes galloping around, and then when he realized he was attached to me, he did several circuits of a 20m circle bucking and squealing and kicking out.

But he settled in nicely, and gave me some really good work.

I took him back to the barn and hosed him down thoroughly in the wash stall. He hasn’t yet exhibited any Cushings-related heat intolerance, but I am neurotically careful in this weather, so he only gets worked into a light sweat, walked out thoroughly, and hosed down ASAP.
While hosing him down, I discovered that he had somehow taken a nick out of his LF – right on the back of the leg, just above the fetlock, directly on top of the tendon. I was a bit nervous, but he had to have done it in his initial flailing around and continued quite sound. There was no swelling, the wound was clean, and I’d used apple cider vinegar to help rinse the sweat off, and he hadn’t reacted to it at all. So I wrapped it with Corona and a little bit of vet wrap to keep it clean. Friday, there was still no heat or swelling or any indication of unsoundness, so I rode for ~20 minutes in miserable humid heat, and when he was done covered it in Swat.
I came out on Sunday to find localized heat and swelling and to find him off at the walk and the trot – more like slightly stabby with that LF than truly off.

I grant you that it’s not exactly a fat leg, but you can see it best on the bottom picture – mostly to the inside, just above the fetlock. His fetlocks tend to hold fluid anyway, so checking on it was a lot of comparison to the other leg, not to a perfect leg. You can’t even see the cut with the way the shade is falling – it’s maybe 1/4″ around. TINY.

Since then, I’ve been cold-hosing, doing standing wraps overnight, and doing a light vetwrap during the day to keep it covered. It’s been going down steadily. My gut says it was actually a reaction to the Swat more than anything – when that thought occurred to me, I looked at the container, and while I couldn’t find an expiration date, it had a label on for a tack shop I haven’t visited in at least 7 years. So…yeah. That prompted me to clean out my tack trunk very thoroughly and throw the Swat – among other things – away.

The fashion statement known as “somehow my mom arrived at the barn with only one black standing wrap.”

In the bigger picture: this was totally my fault, and totally preventable.

I’ve known for a few weeks now that Tristan is moving bigger and bigger. That’s a good thing! That’s what we’re working toward! I’ve put polos on him for his lessons for precisely this reason, and in the back of my mind I thought I should pull his splint boots out of storage for other work. I had not yet gotten around to it (part of my brain was engaged in some magical thinking about buying him some nicer Majyk Equipe boots rather than the $10 Dover specials I own right now, stupid brain).

I’ve pulled the boots out now (they were neatly packed away with his bell boots, my medical armband, and my XC gloves in a neat little XC box in my traveling tack trunk, sob) and he’ll wear them as soon as he goes back in work – which I hope to be this afternoon, fingers crossed, with a long walk and some trot to see how he feels.

Fuck June, anyway. I’d like to get back on some semblance of a real schedule, now.

stupid human tricks

Dual standards

For about a month now, I have been limping around. 

At first, I thought that I had tweaked something in my right ankle when I made the switch to wearing winter boots. It happens. Big stomping boots change your gait, and I always buy winter boots slightly too large for my feet, because I always end up layering socks within a week or two of wearing them.

Time marched on, I kept limping, and I learned through trial and error that the problem was not my ankle, it was my heel. Specifically, it was the back of my heel, and it was not getting better.

Whatever: I walked less, and I was riding without stirrups anyway.

You can see where this is going, right? It didn’t get better. It’s still pretty definitively not better. I finally, grumpily, started googling, and pretty quickly made an armchair diagnosis of achilles tendinitis, pretty classically right where the achilles tendon connects to the bone of my heel.

Unsurprisingly, diagnosis did not actually change anything. In fact, things continued to get kind of worse, with the pain sharper when the tendon was expressed and a low-grade burning sometimes even when at rest.

So, for the last 10 days or so I’ve been resting even more (so many extra holiday pounds that are just not getting worked off, ugh) and icing it every night. That has helped a little bit, but do you know what uses your heel? Driving. And putting stirrups back on your saddle to get ready for a lesson.

I have a doctor’s appointment next week. Since I can still flex my ankle just fine – well, it’s painful, but mechanically sound – it’s definitely not ruptured, but there is a nagging sense in the back of my mind that it’s a partial tear. Best case, I’m still looking at quite a while of restricted activity and icing because soft tissue. Damn it.

Sometime last week, while icing my heel and reading, it finally occurred to me.

If this had happened to my horse, I would’ve had the vet out to ultrasound him a month ago. I would be icing every day, monitoring bute, working to get the inflammation down and watching every step he took with an eagle eye.

It’s one thing to vaguely and intellectually know that I treat my horse far better than I treat myself. It’s yet another thing entirely to have it so cut-and-dried in front of me. If my horse had a strain of his digital flexor tendon, I would be FREAKING OUT. My own foot? Meh. I’ll gimp around some more and after 3.5 think about icing it.

Not that I have any intentions of changing this pattern, mind you.

no stirrup november · stupid human tricks

No Stirrup November

I’m still struggling, but on Tuesday I suited up for my first ride of November.

I actually thought, well, I should make my body hurt as much as my heart and brain. Maybe that will be distracting. So I took the stirrups off my saddle.

Confession time: I’m kind of loving it.

Yeah it’s not this green anymore. Mostly putting this in because I need something to break up the text and we both look happy and focused.

I longed him first, to warm up his back. I pushed him through his fussiness, let him get a few good bucks in, and once he was moving freely and easily I brought him back in and jumped on.

I didn’t quite plug in to my seat in the trot, and as a result he never really came through his back. I get that. I was ok with it – I was not exactly helping him.

But it felt good to just focus, fiercely, on something. I didn’t check my phone. I didn’t swallow back bile thinking again and again about people I love(d) who have embraced hatred. I just kept pushing myself to keep trotting, to follow the motion.

Wednesday, I was sore. I worked a 13 hour day, so no barn. Thursday, I went back out and did the same thing: longed, got on, pushed myself through.

Both rides mapped out about the same, 10-15 minutes longeing, 25-35 minutes riding, 10 minutes cooldown. Both times I was glad I had clipped him – he was warm but cooled out quickly.

[repeat caption from above]

Thursday, things went better. I felt more plugged in, had found a better way to engage my core and soften my shoulders to follow. I asked Emilie and the barn manager if I was leaning too far back; consensus seemed to be that I was sitting too far back in the saddle, but not necessarily leaning.

I spent a few minutes thinking that through as I listened to my body’s feedback, and I found that I wasn’t engaging my core quite enough and was sitting just a hair behind the motion. I settled my seatbones in but kept my upper body soft, and worked that through for a bit.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that toward the end of that trot work – which I interspersed with short canters whenever I was getting too tired – I got a couple steps at a time of lovely soft throughness.

I’m sure it’s also no coincidence that last night was the first in 10 days I haven’t woken up with an anxiety attack from a nightmare.

stupid human tricks

Horse Instincts

One of the best things about horses, for me, is how they force me to develop certain qualities.

For one thing, horses do not cope well with equivocation. They want clear, firm direction. They want steady commitment. They don’t do that whole “well, I dunno, what do you want to do?” conversation well at all.

I think that’s something that so many people who have those “that one time I rode a horse, he bolted/bit me/flipped out for no reason!” stories just don’t get. Horses are generally very clear in their communication. You just have to pay attention. Learn to read them, and you can see something coming from a mile away. (Which, ok, is not to say that sometimes they don’t flip for no reason – but that is the definite minority of instances.)

see, for example, a horse that is unhappy with literally everything in his life in that moment.

So in order to become a person who works well with horses, I have had to develop those qualities: be clear, be decisive, be firm. I’m not great at them yet, but I am lightyears better than I was. I think it’s one of the reasons that horse people are often difficult (from society’s point of view) to get along with. People who are in deep with horses, and who relate really well to horses, are often blunt, straightforward people who don’t always have patience for the you-first-no-wait-what-now dance that society values. Oftentimes, they’re women, for whom being blunt, clear, and not wholly sympathetic is considered a negative.

Here’s another thing: horses teach you to be still and to wait.

I suck at this. I am a person who wants to practice frenetic energy in all that I do. I multitask, cubed. I need a million projects. I need to fidget. I need to constantly poke at things.

But I’m learning. For me, the epitome of this feeling lies in the perfect half-halt: that quiet, still, gathering, that moment when you communicate a complicated idea to a horse that you should hold, wait, be still. I think of a good half-halt as a spot deep in my stomach, in my core, that for one split instant contains everything and makes everything possible as a next step.

The more obvious, outward example of this is the ability to stay the calm center of the storm, to hold your body and your mind still when shit is going down. You can do it from the saddle, riding a buck or a bad moment. You can do it on the ground when you’re dealing with or approaching a horse that’s frightened or cartwheeling around on a longe line. Horses need that. They can read us way better than we can read them. They see our tension, they see our fear, and they feed off of it. But they can do the reverse, too. They can see a person who has let tension drain from their body, who is holding still, who is waiting quietly, and they respond to like with like.

Last week, I took the dog for a short hike down a rail trail near our house.

alerting very hard to something I never did see

I love my dog, but she is not always easy. She is fast, strong, and very tricky to keep focused. She is not great on a leash, but she is absolutely forbidden to be off leash except in enclosed areas. She bolts, instantly. Her recall is not good; she simply doesn’t have the self-discipline to have it nailed down yet.

So on this beautiful, sunny day, we went about three miles, and on our return, when we were about half a mile away from the trail head, which was on a very busy road, she took a flying leap off the trail into a muddy ditch. She loves splashing in mud puddles. She was flailing around, sprinting back and forth, and then all of a sudden she was no longer on her leash.

There was no tug, no warning; she wasn’t even at the end of her 30′ lead. One second she was frolicking, the next she was a brindled blur and the next second she had vanished into the trees.

I ran forward down the trail, yelling for her. She reappeared out of the woods about twenty yards down the trail, crossed the trail, and then disappeared into the woods on the other side of the trail.

Between the moment when she first got loose and I panicked and the moment she crossed the trail again, I fell back on those horse instincts. I could feel my body grow still and quiet, and time slowed down. I saw that when she had crossed the road again she was actually angling in my direction. I saw how amped up she was, and knew that she loves being chased.

I jogged a little bit further in an unhurried way, watching the brush where she’d disappeared, making noise so she knew I was there, and then paused, waiting, called her one more time – and she exploded out of the brush right toward me and flung herself down at my feet.

I grabbed her harness instantly with a shaking hand, twisted my hand around a few times so she’d have to pull it off to get away again, and praised her to the skies, fed her half the treats I had with me.

The harness (her ususal Ruffwear) was in perfect shape. The leash was in perfect shape. The hardware wasn’t twisted in any way. There were no tears or loose spots. There was no earthly reason for the leash to have separated from the harness, but it did.

If I had panicked, she would’ve thought it was a game, and kept running. In fact, she did that once before, two years ago, the first time she slipped her leash (and her collar; it’s why she only goes in a harness now). But because Tristan – and the other horses I’ve learned from – has drummed into me that need to be still and wait, I caught her less than two minutes after she bolted.

Hopefully, I’ll keep working on those lessons. They’ve served me well.

stupid human tricks

discouraged.

Last night, I left work on time solely due to my bargain with the devil of bringing my laptop home and planning on about another few hours of work later that evening.

It was a beautiful day. I didn’t hit any traffic. (Such as it exists in Vermont.) I got to the barn right when I wanted to. Tristan was looking great. I got out my tack, and put together my old figure 8 bridle for an experiment.

I had a good riding plan: I put his old kimberwicke in the figure 8 to see if we could nip the bolting and jackassery in the bud, and settle down to actually schooling outside. If – as past experience indicated – he hit the curb chain once or twice and then settled down, then I had a conditioning ride planned with some long canters. I wanted to get some of the fuss out of him before trying an actual dressage ride in the big outdoor the next day.

I buckled the last strap of the figure 8 and stepped back to take a picture of his new bitting getup, because blogging.

Then I saw that I had missed three calls from my husband. I called him back.

He was stuck in non-moving traffic because of an accident on the main road of the city he worked in. Even if he got on the highway literally that moment, he was still 45 minutes away from home.

I had dropped the dog off at daycare that morning so she could get some exercise and socialization on a beautiful day.

He called at 5:30. Daycare closed at 6:00.

I hung up and stood there for such a long moment, just staring at Tristan’s face, at the bridle I had just finished putting on him. I had to focus on breathing deeply. I could feel tears stinging, but I fought them. It was one of those moments of perfect, exquisite misery, when there is only one thing you can do but every fiber of your being is screaming that you don’t want to.

I took the bridle off. I took the saddle off. I put my tack away. I put Tristan’s sheet back on. I fed him his grain. I closed the barn door. I picked my dog up from daycare, and I went home.

I opened up my laptop, and I worked until 9pm.

I am so tired.