dressage · physical fitness (horse) · topline

Eating crow and why the internet is awesome

I am really pleased with the way Tristan is going right now. He’s really sound, he’s working well, and he is getting slowly but surely more fit. After a long and tough ride on Monday, he was quite tired but his vital signs returned to baseline much more quickly than they have before.

I’m working mostly on a day on, day off schedule to ramp up work and then give him time to rest. He’s always been a horse that has benefited mentally and physically from rest days. On days when I am out there back to back, I do another kind of work with him – I longe or we hack out.

He’s still very slow to build muscle. The Cushings has just really gone after that part of his metabolism, for whatever reason. It’s been a solid six weeks of very good work now and I’m only seeing the most incremental changes in his body. Physically, he feels like he should have more muscle than he does. I’m not sure what to do with that yet.

On Monday, I took some photos to show how his neck is developing basic muscle, and also to show how far we have to go.

As always, it does look better in person, but you can see some things. His crest is doing better, and he’s filling in just in front of his shoulder a bit.
There’s a problem, though. I couldn’t quite figure it out until I read Jenj‘s recent blog post and put two and two together.
Can you see it now?
Yeah. He’s developing a funny muscle bump in response to the way I’ve been asking him to bend. Exactly as described in Jenj’s blog post.
Knowing is half the battle, right? Back to boot camp for both of us.
topline · winter


It was above 30 yesterday. Snow melted. The sun came out. This morning, it was 20 while I had breakfast, and I saw a blue jay out the kitchen window. I know we will probably get another good storm or two, but – we might actually make it through this winter!

Last night, I rode. While grooming, I noticed that his fetlocks were puffy all around, front more than back, and he felt very stiff in the warmup. I had longed Thursday night, and spent longer on the trot-canter transitions than I intended. He was blowing through my commands and I kept him hopping until he got a few good, prompt responses, but that was more time cantering on the longe than he’s done in a while.

Lesson learned. Nothing permanent done: I did a long, loose warmup, and after 20 minutes jumped off to run my hands over his legs again. Cool and tight. He worked out of the stiffness and we worked on transitions, of all types. Into and out of lateral work – one step of leg yield, then straight. Two straight strides, two strides of shoulder in, and back. Off the wall, straight, back to the wall, straight. Then halt-walk-trot-canter, up and down. Transitions within the gaits: off his back for a bit of a hand-gallop and then back deep in the seat for a more settled canter through the corner.

It was easily 35 degrees in the indoor, and that combined with the length and intensity of work would have left him sweaty and puffing even 4 weeks ago. Last night he walked out of any puffing within a few minutes, and was only slightly damp on his chest. His weight is at a good level, and his topline is slowly, slowly filling in. I’ve been noticing his neck lately: that long connected muscle over the top is standing out again, creating that triangle instead of the long thin pencil. The point of his croup has almost entirely rounded back in with fat and muscle. The dip in front of his withers is rising, and his withers in general are thickening.

He’s shedding out in earnest now, and that combined with the muscle building is easing some worries I had about metabolic problems that might come with age. His injury, time off, surgery, and rehab were perfectly sensible reasons to have lost so much muscle, but I couldn’t silence that niggling voice.

Tomorrow, long hack – going to explore a new turn in the dirt roads, and then Monday, lesson.

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!
topline · winter

Change of Plans

I had a work schedule laid out for Tris for last night and tonight. Last night we got slammed with the tail end of Hercules and the snow was still blowing hard sideways and it was 0. This morning I woke up more hopeful.

Noooooooope. Day 2 of huddling under blankets at home, reading, and playing with crafts and baking.
Here, have some updated topline photos instead. There is definitely some improvement in person, but I’m not sure it comes through in the photos.

dressage · topline

Is your horse using his back?

With Tristan’s slow climb back to fitness, I’ve been working hardest on making sure he’s using his back effectively. I don’t have a great natural feel for how a horse is moving underneath me – in fact, I have zero natural feel. Everything I have has been drilled into me by many frustrated trainers.

So I’m always looking for ways to learn more. A friend on Facebook linked to this article, which does a good job of describing what I’m looking for but the real gold is in a video the article linked to. It’s really outstanding. It’s given me things to think about and a much more clear visual reference for what to look for. (I probably could’ve picked these things out before but I don’t think I could have really listed off why I thought a particular horse was better through its back.)

Here it is embedded for reference.

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.

conditioning · longeing · topline

Tristan’s new least favorite torture device

I mentioned once before that I have a new technique for making Tristan work harder. I’m really pleased with the way it turned out, actually: it does exactly what I hoped it would, and it will be a great tool for those winter days where it’s too flipping cold to work for a full hour.

When I was first putting it together, the barn manager walked by and I explained it to her and she exclaimed “It’s like a redneck Pessoa system!” Well, sort of. It has more in common with a TTouch bandage wrap. I like to think it combines the best of both. In essentials: it’s a resistance band that loops around his hind quarters and attaches to a surcingle, making him work twice as hard with every step, strengthening his hind end, stifles, and lower back.

I can’t necessarily take credit for this. I read that someone on the COTH forums had tried it and loved the idea immediately, found it was quick, easy, and inexpensive to put together, and worked exactly as advertised. Ready?

Step 1: Two carabiners, purchased at the hardware store downtown. My hand will show you their approximate size. They’re not large, nor are they mountain-ready, but they did the trick nicely. $1.49 each.
Step 2: 8 feet of surgical tubing, purchased at a local medical supply store. (And if I have a local medical supply store in freaking Vermont, you have one nearby you too.) There were two widths; I went with this one, which is about 1/2″ in diameter. $14.00.
Step 3: Tie the surgical tubing to the end of the carabiner. Get a nice, tight knot. Pull the surgical tubing around the hind end, under the tail, tucked in that groove just above the hocks, and around to the other side. It helps if you have it attached to a surcingle or girth already for this step. I pulled until it was fairly snug, and it took a bit of muscle to pull it back, but it wasn’t so tight that it was hard to pull. More like, I could just feel resistance. I tied it off on a carabiner attached to the other side, and had about 1 foot of tubing left. (So I’d recommend closer to 10 feet for a larger horse; Tris is right on the line between cob and horse sized for many tack fitting things.)
Step 4: Torture your pony. When I longe him in this, he oversteps 2-3X more than he does without it. He also gets tired much faster, so I limit the use of this to 10 minutes, max, and only 5 of that in the trot. 
I am still feeling out when I think it is most useful; I tend to use either this OR the chambon, because I don’t think it’s fair to isolate two muscle groups at once right now. If he were more muscled up, or in better shape, sure, I’d double up. I wouldn’t use either until he’s warmed up, but that’s my own personal neurosis.
I’ve used it both in longeing and under saddle and I almost like it better under saddle, because I can direct that hind end push more effectively. He is a more forward horse on the longe line, and that’s when I tend to use the chambon to help him reach and develop back muscles without interference from the saddle.

longeing · topline

More Longeing & Topline Photos

Longed again today. He’s starting to really stretch out nicely and get the hang of it. I punched about 5 more holes in the chambon…and it’s still too long. Whoops. Punched three more after the session and hopefully next time it will actually kick in.

We did: 3 minutes walk both directions; 3 minutes trot both directions; 3 minutes trot both directions over cavaletti (set up in alternating half-heights, about 6″ up, 4 poles in a row), then put the chambon on and did 4 minutes in each direction: 1 minute walk, 2 minutes trot, 1 minute canter.

He was definitely getting a little tired by the last session but still did nicely. A little warm, but thankfully not sweaty – but then again it had just hit 20 as our high of the day when I got to the barn, so there wasn’t much heat transference going on.

My sad moment for the day was when I took a step back while longeing and felt a crunch on my boot…and realized my camera had fallen out of my pocket and in the whole entire indoor, I put my foot on top of it at that moment. I loved that camera. I took it by the computer repair place on the way home and got a repair estimate…that was 2X what a new, nicer camera would cost. Ugh.

Before longeing, though, I finally got topline photos, so here’s my baseline for comparison.

You can see the white spot from the saddle rub here. 😦