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We Are Flying Solo

December 28, 2010

Headless Horsemen (And Horses)

I certainly hope this is not a harbinger of our coming season.  My sticker appears not to have survived the salt slush grind that was West Virginia mountain interstates yesterday.  Good thing USEA sees fit to send you a new one every year.

I hope Santa (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whoever) has graced you all with holiday pony hugs and treats.  I want to offer a congratulations to Allison who is the new owner of a dressage saddle!  Once worn by the legendary Solo, it is sure to bring greatness to any pair of equine shoulders beneath it.

If no one brought you a saddle for Christmas, our BO still has her two jumping saddles available.  I am sure she is open to offers as well, as the ponies always need hay!

Solo and I are plopping around in what's left of the snow, meeting some new neighbours, and scheming of a spring season (ok, maybe that last one is just me).  The days are getting longer (wahhooooo!) and with any luck, evil white precipitation will go back up north where it belongs!

December 25, 2010

Horses Love Candy Canes Too!

So take one out to Dobbin if you get a chance.  Happy holidays to all of you and give the ponies a smooch for me, as well.  I cannot smooch my pony at present as I am three states away, sigh. 

I hope you enjoyed our foray into equine nutrtion.  Some disclaimers:

(1) This was not intended to be an end-all discussion of nutrition.  My posts only cover a fraction of the variables which exist.  Google is your friend.

(2)  My perspective applies to the performance horse and specifically, to the eventer.  Please do not give a fat supplement to Fatty McFatPony who lounges around in the backyard and gets toodled around on once a week.  Both Fatty (in the long run, he will, anyway) and I thank you.

(3) I am fully supportive of fat supplements for people.  Especially if they appear in the form of brownies or other heavily frosted items.  If you cannot possibly bring yourself to eat them, please send them to me and I will be happy to take one for the team. 

Lastly, please send a kind thought to our wonderful dressage instructor, P.  She has laid to rest the mighty Reitz yesterday with a broken heart.  This giant white mare was phenomenal, trained through Grand Prix dressage, and noble of heart and spirit.  I was truly honoured to have sat on her and to have been tolerated by her.  She is buried in her favourite paddock where she thoroughly enjoyed retirement until her aging legs could no longer hold her up.  She joins our very special Ben in perfect freedom from pain forever.  

December 22, 2010

Filling And Refueling The Tank

Now we are all experts on equine metabolism, right?  And I am rolling in the glee of all my fellow science nerds who have come out of the woodwork!

We know that the horse must also be fit if he is going to do his job well. We know that he needs fat and glycogen stores in place in order to answer the energy demands of his muscles. He needs carbohydrates and fats in order to stock his larders and replenish his stores after a workout.

So should we stuff him full of fat and sugar so he will have fuel busting out his ears? Only if you want him to die of colic and laminitis at the same time. Equine digestive systems cannot handle "loading" of substances the way a human system would. Studies have demonstrated that it will take 24-48 hours for a horse to completely refill his glycogen tanks after a hard workout, so it's best to offer him a meal 60-90 minutes after he's tapped them and then, if he has really drained the well, a second meal can be offered about three hours later.

How much fat he will need on a daily basis will depend on your horse. I like to at least top dress feed during heavy work/competition with something that is around 22-26% fat. Fat supplies 2.5 times more energy pound for pound than starches. Solo's normal food (SafeChoice) is 7% fat and I can tell you, that even with 14% protein, it does not give him a big "bang" of energy. This is because protein cannot be stored and any that is not immediately used is just peed out. So I will add something like rice bran pellets or Empower at 22% fat on top of his meals in the spring and fall.

Here's another interesting little tidbit -- if you supplement a horse's diet with fat, he uses less energy for heat production in his body. He then has more energy available to do other stuff with. Like a lot more. Like up to 60% more.

OMG, fat is awesome!

But you don't want to go overboard -- if the fat content of the diet gets too high, you can actually inhibit the storage of muscle glycogen (that's that thing we really need for anaerobic activities like galloping and jumping, remember?). Which is basically shooting yourself in the foot.

So, in the end, it comes back to common sense -- all things in moderation. But if we understand WHY, we can better tweak the details of our management programs. Because it's just not as much fun when you are kicking your horse's guts out just to stumble across the finish line in cross country and slide off while he gasps in exhaustion. It's not very satisfying to try to pilot him around a challenging stadium course when he's got no gas in the tank and you wonder if the next set of jump poles might end up in your face. But if you give Dobbin the resources he needs to get the job done and condition his body so that he can maximize the energy you put in, then you'll still have plenty of gas left for that victory gallop at the end of the day.

December 18, 2010

Oxygen Optional

We were talking about nutrition. And you've been up for days waiting for the secret to growing that unicorn horn (don't lie, own it).

Too bad.

Here's another, possibly equally as important tidbit, though. Different athletic disciplines make different demands on a horse's body. I know, thank you Captain Obvious, right?

But here's the breakdown: there are two basic types of metabolism. (1) aerobic (the muscles use oxygen while generating energy; a slow process) and (2) anaerobic (yes, you guessed it, genius; the muscles generate energy without oxygen; much speedier).

A horse who is working in a long, steady fashion (think endurance racing or your dressage school) gets to create energy aerobically. He has an advantage because this is a much easier and longer-lasting method of working. You see, fat is a horse's go-to fuel and in order to burn it, his body must use oxygen (just like your fireplace must have a flow of oxygen to burn up your firewood and create heat).

However, if Dobbin has to work hard and fast (think sprinting or jumping), he cannot get oxygen into his body and burn fat fast enough to create the energy he needs. So his muscles turn to his glycogen stores, which can be burned anaerobically. In short, glycogen is a carbohydrate stored in the liver and in muscles that the body can convert to glucose (muscle fuel).

Glycogen is a finite resource, though, and stores are smaller than his fat supply. Burning it also produces lactic acid, which fatigues muscles. So, you, as pilot, want to save that glycogen until you really really need it. You want to save that hard sprint or gallop, which burns up those precious reserves, for your horse trial or other vital moment. And once he burns it up, you have to make sure to give him time to replenish the storehouse before you ask for it again. The more glycogen he has stored up, the longer he can go in a demanding situation before he fatigues.

If he gets really desperate, Dobbin can also turn to blood glucose for energy. His nervous system needs this to function, though, and there isn't much of it (about 1% of the body's fuel supply), so we don't really want to push him this far.

Is your brain fried by science-geekness yet? I could go into ATP and muscle cell pH, so be grateful...

Why the heck should we care about all this anyway? In my opinion, knowledge is ALWAYS power when it comes to horse management. If I understand what my horse's body needs to do his job and how it uses what I give him, I am better able to meet his needs and maximize his performance safely.

Because you need to understand all of that to understand this, the point we act on: the more fit your horse is, the better he is able to utilize his fat stores first. The unfit horse may have to get up to 40% of his energy from his glycogen reserves during even light exercise. When you fit him up, he can drop that percentage dramatically even during moderate exercise, meaning his body won't quit on him for much longer.

So should we stuff our horses full of lard? How do we refill his glycogen tanks? All this and more, tonight at 11. Ok, not actually at 11, but you clever ones out there got it...

December 16, 2010

Saddle Pictures

Ok, I'm really late, but here are the pictures of the sale saddles!

Phillipe Fontaine:

Crosby XL:
Shows the rip -- you can't feel it when you ride in it.

December 12, 2010

Want A Saddle For Christmas?

I have two more for sale (owned by my lovely BO).  They are looking for new homes.  I will upload pictures soon.  I have ridden in both, so I can add my impressions of each. I can ask for measurements if anyone is interested. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have any questions.

(1) Philippe Fontaine jumping saddle
BO says 17" seat. (I have ridden in it, feels more like 17.5 to me?)
Excellent condition -- and I will tell you this is a very comfy saddle, quite lovely, dark brown, very well cared for, beautiful shape.
I would call the tree a MW leaning heavily towards a W -- it's too wide up front for Solo, was bought for a very big Oldenburg.


(2) Crosby XL jumping saddle
BO says 16.5" seat. I'd agree, it felt small for me.
Needs seat repair, rip in leather, but rides fine. If you have a local saddler or leather working place, they can do it, or you can send it off to someplace like Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop, the rest of the saddle is in good shape. Also very comfy. A great deal.
Looks like a M tree to me.


December 9, 2010

Rocket Fuel And Other Stories

So I have been reading about nutrition (the horse's, not mine, who cares about that?).  Why?  Well, because I don't want to do the actual work I am SUPPOSED to do, so why not. And if it has the word "horse" in it, then it is a pre-ordained given that I must read it. Who am I to argue with those that ordain??

Lots of interesting things to share with you. How horses use their feed, what different types of feed items offer, and what magical food will make your horse grow a unicorn horn (calm down, lifeshighway, one of these items may or may not be fictional).

Those of us who grew up obsessed with horses learned many important horse-keeping rules that have been passed down through generations. One of those things that I always heard was that you never worked your horse hard right after he ate. Much like nagging Aunt Margaret told you never to swim right after you ate or else you'd surely get a cramp and drown. I always held equal skepticism for both. Turns out, I was partly justified.

After your horse eats, his body begins to metabolize his food. This means that his blood insulin will spike, which reduces the efficiency with which the body burns fat (fat is generally the go-to energy resource for horses). So, if they need energy when insulin levels are high, their bodies will instead turn to stored glycogen reserves first. While this is hardly deadly, glycogen is something you want to save until you really need it (I'll explore why in the next post).

So, what's a rider to do? Well, you have two choices. It takes about four hours for that insulin spike to return to baseline. So you can (a) wait four hours (Suck! Who wants to do that?!) or (b) ride immediately. That's right, the spike doesn't really get up there for about two hours, so if you hop on within thirty minutes, you can have your ride and then put Dobbin away before he has to switch over from fat metabolism. What you want to try to avoid is hitting it right on that two hour mark, when insulin levels are highest and burning fat is the most difficult.

Now, obviously, we're not going to get this right every single ride, but it's something to shoot for as a general trend and a handy bit of info you can toss out if someone tries to give you crap for riding your horse right after he ate.

Scorecard: Science, 1, Naysayers, 0!

December 7, 2010

Words To Live Up To

Today I sat down and read Kevin Baumgardner's last letter as sitting president of USEA.  His term ends on December 11th and Brian Sabo will take his place.  Normally, I don't spend too much time worrying about what the heads of our sport ramble about, but I was curious, as I have previously been impressed with Baumgardner's eloquence and thoughtfulness (and I give him kudos for his strong support of the long format events).  He wanted to share his thoughts on what he'd seen and where he felt the sport of eventing stood today.  And did he ever.

I wasn't sure whether to nod my head in agreement or cry at the passion bubbling out of it.  So I did both.  Then, I copied the link so I could share it with you, those of you who haven't already seen my link on Facebook.  Go.  Read.  Absorb.

It is not enough to turn in a technically flawless performance.  Our sport is about joy.  Joy in the partnership between horse and rider.  Joy in the freedom of riding across country.  Joy in the simplest sense of celebrating each day. 

THAT is why I get on my horse and THAT is why I love this sport so deeply. Thank you, Kevin, for putting it into words so well.

December 6, 2010

Just Call Me Snow Plow

Although I'm not sure that would have been Solo's choice of moniker, it became so when lifeshighway and I attempted to ride yesterday.  Final score:  snow-dumping trees:  257, eventer79:  0

December 4, 2010

1.5 Years + Magical Dressage Trainer = Whole New Solo

This is what our barn looks like right now. promised me light flurries with no accumulation. Me no happy.

We never saw it coming. This morning, we had a wonderful dressage lesson with P in the sunshine. Warmup started with a marching walk, bending and arcing around cones and jump standards, bringing Solo's respiration up slowly in the cold winter air to avoid the lung burning effects of sudden exertion on a chilly day. As his back and neck softened, we moved to a forward trot and it soon became obvious that my horse, already made more sensitive by the weather change, strongly objected to my spur-wearage today and I shed them after he skittered forward on his butt during a canter transition.

Suppled up, we stopped for a contact response check. A year and a half ago, when P asked Solo to give to the bit on the ground, it took some finangling and a full minute of persuasion. Today, it was instantaneous and I couldn't hide my grin.

Then it was time to move to the next step. Forward was good, now we needed to be clear that half-halt meant half-halt NOW, not half-halt in five strides after you express your own opinion and we argue about it. So we worked transitions within the trot -- lengthening and compressing the stride.

Solo made it clear that since we had stopped earlier, we CLEARLY were supposed to be done and expressed his dissatisfactiion by throwing his head about in protest as we trotted. P mollified my laughing reprimands by letting me know that even though he threw tantrums, his ab and back muscles were flexed, engaged, and correct in their work. A year and a half ago, he didn't have ab muscles.

We finished with some transitions between gaits. Walk/trot/walk, trot/canter/trot.

"Well, look at him, he's starting to become quite the little warmblood. Why don't you try some walk/canter transitions?" P suggested.

"I don't know..." I responded, "We've left those alone because he'd just run onto the forehand and fall into it."

"Give it a try, get a nice marching walk, be soft, sit tall, and visualize your canter."

So I did. And in two steps, he was there. Not only was he there, but he came forward through the transition, soft and on the bit, stepping under into a lovely canter that made me feel like I was sitting on my own version of Ravel.

I couldn't help it, I grinned like a fool. A year and a half ago, "on the bit" was not even in my horse's repertoire.

And Solo, my dressage-hating shiny beast, was even enjoying his canters and I think his solace came in finally beginning to understand what I was asking him to do. He finally was comprehending the structure I was asking him to fit into and with his comprehension came security and appreciation of a job description he figured out how to read.

I thought to my red horse, "We've come a long way, baby."

I hope we still get to go a lot further.

December 2, 2010

Adventures In Hack Land

I've always wondered if Solo would jump well in a hackamore.  They seem to work really well for a lot of jumpers and eventers, so it's been on my "Things To Try" list for some time.  Some things on that list happen more quickly than others; for example, "ride a whale shark" is rather opportunity driven.

Well, since we are now in a barn where all of us are horse accessory junkies (the SO says "hoarders" but if he owned a horse, he would totally get it), I borrowed an English hackamore last night and buckled it onto a bridle.  It is usually worn by an Oldenburg mare with a head the size of a Tyrannosaurus, but thankfully, it is highly adjustable and I got it into approximately the right place.

So, how did it go?

Solo: Ok, time to trot, let me come down onto the bit. Hey, WTF, where is the bit. Mom, I am trying to do the right thing. Mom....? How about stretching? Ok, I can still stretch, now let me return to the bit...what the...where is it, what the heck am I supposed to do?

Me: Trotting. Now I will just...uh...well, I can't keep pressure on this thing so I will use leg and...uh...WTF, I hate this.

Lifeshighway (riding in the ring with us): *laughing* Solo doesn't look like he is too thrilled about this experiment.

Pete (lifeshighway's horse): Arrrrr, I am going to bite Solo! (he never can stay on topic)

Apparently, the hack is not for us.

December 1, 2010

Discover Eventing

First off, I must say THANK YOU!!!!! to everyone who voted for us in the Life's Highway Fantasy Yard Art contest -- WE WON! Which means not only does Solo owe you dressage karma, I also owe you fantastic photos of Solo leaping flamingo shaped obstacles. Ahhh, the possibilities.

I also wanted to share with you a fantastic resource USEA has made available in the form of Have you ever wondered just what the heck is three-day eventing? Needed a checklist for braiding or a first aid kit? Curious about what to expect at your first event? Well, it's all there and more in a well-organized introduction to the sport and all its rules and terms. I highly encourage giving it a good browse, especially if you are new to the sport or just curious about how it all works.  If there are any questions you can't get answered there, feel free to shoot them this way and I'll be glad to make up carefully research an answer for you!