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We Are Flying Solo

January 13, 2019

Bridging The Space Between Us

Echo & I had physical & mental assignments to tackle.  Both would take time, but that was a resource I had available, particularly that first winter, when you don't feel like you're missing out if you can't ride in the cold/dark/wind. 

Welcome Home To Prison

As mentioned, Echo had some sesamoiditis in one ankle.  This was a new one for me.  You can google it, but as I quickly learned after diving into vet textbooks & scientific literature, there are many uncertainties around this condition.  In brief, it's an inflammation within the bone itself which creates mysterious channels (unknown exactly how they form), usually related to excessive concussion (so not uncommon in racehorses).  The sesamoid bones are strange free-floating bones at the back of the fetlock (under the yellow bulge in the graphic), wrapped in the suspensory branches where they split to go around the ankle.  As such, they have a poor blood supply & are among the slowest in the body to heal.

Of course. 

It's often separated into two grades of severity, based on whether or not there is associated soft tissue involvement (i.e. suspensory branch desmitis).  The prognosis is better if it is caught early & there is no ligament damage.  Echo had a clean ultrasound of the suspensory ligament in that leg, so the prescription was rest.  And no more racing.

Love his white dot
I was ok with both.  I needed to put several hundred pounds on him, so it's not like we were going anywhere in a hurry anyway.  I conferred with Dr. Bob:  his radiograph showed the bone channels were more pronounced than originally thought & he had a little chunk of cartilage floating around.  He's a lucky horse:  he was raced by his breeder & retired just in time.  From what I saw on the rad, his next race could have ended with a sesamoid fracture across that weakened channel & his story would be very different.

Fortunately for us both, the cartilage would be re-absorbed by the body, causing no concern, & soft tissues still all looked good, so Dr. Bob agreed we still had a good prognosis.  And it was already becoming apparent to me, even in the first few weeks, that this horse was going to be well worth some effort.

Echo had developed some minor fill & warmth in the ankle around these stressed structures, so Dr. Bob prescribed 6-8 weeks of small pen rest with wrapping as needed.  He injected it to help bring down the inflammation, preventing joint damage.  He wanted to take the most conservative approach to ensure we protected those critical tissues & I was grateful for it.  We also had the advantage of a young horse body which was still developing & still had all those healing powers my own body has long since forgotten.

The cutest prisoner
Inmate Development & Rehab Programs

While I didn't love pen-cleaning or trying to figure out how to prevent a bored young horse from eating plywood (tip: you can't), or the inherent anxiety that comes with waiting for anything to heal, this time did turn into an opportunity.  Echo had enough space to not feel trapped (approximately 3x the length of that picture...the space in the picture...not the actual picture...you get it), but not enough to say, elude me across 2-3 acres.  We had nothing to juggle on the schedule but "eat & relax," & this intelligent kid needed something to engage him.  I began what I call Operation Farm-Breaking.

A racehorse knows how to lead, how to be groomed, how to be tacked up.  He's used to baths & farriers & (often) clippers & loud equipment.  He's not Farm Broke.  A Farm Broke horse gets blanketed at liberty in the dark after the headlamp-wearing owner trips over the fence wire.  He is approached & haltered in a large field by a woman wearing 7 different colours & a noisy, hooded rain jacket.  His rump is used for draping said noisy jackets or jangly girths, which often slide off & land under his feet.  His owner drops ropes, tosses brushes, splashes water, drags weird-shaped objects, & moves things without permission.

This monster may approach at any time & will definitely trip on something
I started small miniscule:  the lead-rope-touching skittishness.  After making sure he would let me touch every part of his body with my hands (he did), I began by draping the rope over his neck, about midway & sliding it back towards his withers, just until he started to get uncomfortable.  I'd pause for just a moment there, pet & praise (he didn't yet understand how to eat treats, also common with OTTBs), then move it back up to the "safe" zone as a release.  Rinse & repeat ad nauseum for a few minutes every time I caught him.  Eventually, I could swing the end of the rope all the way back to his butt (this is one of the many reasons I only buy 10' leads, plenty to work with). 

This was also the base of my pledge to him on which I was to build everything else:  I will never unfairly hurt you & I will never ask you to do something you can't do.

Over the following days & weeks, we learned plenty, using the same gradual approach, including:
  • Blankets cause no actual physical harm, despite sliding across your rump like a two-dimensional cougar.  Same goes for rain jackets, plastic bags, & other loud crinkly things.  You don't have to love it, you just have to accept it.
  • Headlamp-wearing human is not a disembodied orb seeking to extract your soul; in fact, she often produces delicious morsels
  • Small objects presented under nose by owner's hand are actually delicious morsels for nomming.  Except apples, we still don't understand apples.
  • No human parts go in your mouth unless the human puts them there herself.  This includes clothing.  Owner may dress like a homeless person, but the clothes are not actually disposable.
  • Strange human presents no real threat & does speak rudimentary Horse.  Should always be investigated for morsels & can generally be counted on to provide some form of entertainment.
April: Learning is exhausting. Also, he is not a graceful sleeper.
Along with this went Bodywork By Me.  I had wanted Dr. Bob to do a chiro adjustment with spring shots in February, but he recommended waiting until fall:  Echo's body was so tight that any adjustments would probably just get pulled right back out until we retrained that muscle memory.  I re-toned my forearms with liberal application of massage to all those tight tissues & slathered SoreNoMore on that pulled butt.  Producing many sighs, drooping ears, lip licking, & reinforcing that most of the time, contact with Weird Human is a good thing.

Awakenings

As days became weeks became months, I began to see the returns on my investment.  Echo's initial guardedness melted away into an enormous, gregarious personality who wanted his nose in the middle of everything.  I didn't have to walk up to him in the pasture because he came to me as soon as he spotted me (which Solo has rarely done, he maintains that the world should proceed on his terms).  Each barrier we conquered made the next one easier as I gained his trust.

July 2018:  I can haz morsel?
His body made progress too.  That ankle was cool & quiet & we graduated back to normal turnout.  Butt muscle healed uneventfully.  The feet, well, I think that will have to be a whole 'nother post.  But they were stuttering forwards (and backwards...and forwards...and backwards) too.   His rangy frame began to fill out, drifting from "whippet-shaped" to "horse-shaped."  I'm not sure if it's because he's dark brown, but he has more substance to him than first appears.  He has nice big cannon bones & roomy joints & his head is FULL full-sized.  It was very obvious that there was going to be plenty more "filling out" in our future, but at least I could brush him without feeling like I was going break the edge off some sticky-out-y part! 

Feb vs Sept:  please don't ever make me add up that feed bill
My favourite part, though, & the most rewarding by far, was the change in his expression & overall demeanor.  As I've said before, he was always friendly, always curious, but you could feel a reserve there, as if he was withholding judgement pending further review.  I felt like he was filing away experiences in labeled boxes or making a pro & con list on me:  "Hmmm, the blanket thing ended up fine & I got lots of morsels, file that under 'pro!'  But she occasionally has sparks on her fingers (winter static is begrudged), NOT COOL, that is a 'con!'"

After nearly 13 years with emotionally intuitive Solo, I am sensitive to (or try to be) the nuances of horses' personalities & reactions.  No, they aren't human (thank goodness), but they absolutely have both emotions, intuition, & intent, along with the ability to read that of other animals -- a necessary skill for a prey animal living in a herd.  Pondering how to reach across Echo's moat of reserve & knock on the door meant also examining myself & the signals I was sending.  The more I observed him, it felt like he was waiting.  But for what?

Cautious reservation
I realized I was withholding too.  In my fear of "something bad" happening, in my compensatory attempt to protect my battered self from more disappointment, more sadness, I was keeping my own heart at a distance & trying not to get too attached to this fragile animal, just in case it didn't work out.  I enjoyed Echo, I was kind to him, but in a rather businesslike manner.  And I think this very intelligent, very sensitive horse, who was already responding to my purposeful changes in projected mental energy in groundwork, also picked up on that distance. 

He was waiting for me.

With a deep & shaky breath, I leaned my shoulder to the heavy lid of the box around my heart.  I haven't gotten it all the way open, I don't think that setting exists anymore.  After all, Solo is already in the box, so I can't let him escape.  But as Johnathan Safran Foer sagely wrote, "You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness."  With some metaphorical & actual fresh air & sunlight, I am making some tentative forays into the edges of hope & trust.   

As I do so, Echo is lowering the drawbridge & opening the door to reveal a cool, confident exuberance paired with a desire to please & venturesome spirit that I can't wait to keep exploring.  And it's written all over his face.

The world?  Bring it.
     

January 3, 2019

Buy A Horse, Lose Your Mind

I got ahead of myself a bit, but I've had "young horse ponderings" on my mind a lot.  I will backtrack now, though, because I can't leave out the past 11 months of madness.

I certainly can't skip the story of how Echo hurt himself after less than 24 hours of being owned by me.  Actually, it was more like 16 hours.  You can't make these things up.

Benchmark had told me that this was one extremely body-tight baby.  I expected a certain amount of knotted-up muscles - even though Echo only shambled though four races in his short career, he still went through training & gate-breaking. 
What do I do with this?
What I saw as soon as he walked off the trailer was that every muscle in his rail-thin body was strung so taut that it made me sore & a little tired just watching him move.  It's hard to describe, but it was apparent even in the way he held himself that everything was just TIGHT, like all the muscles just contracted at once & then never let go.

But he didn't limp (yet...) & he was still brightly curious about this new world.  And I planned to make exactly zero demands on him in the near future other than that he stuff his (rather large) face & entertain Solo.

Upon arriving home after our walk through the woods, I led Echo into the run-in shed (where Solo had followed us along the fenceline).  I took it slow since I have a collection of possibly scary things just inside the shed including a blue shopping cart for holding brushes & flapping black tarp over hay.  He couldn't have cared less.

I have my central paddocks & run-in set up so I can divide each horse into their own space when I want to, so I put Echo in one half while Solo craned across the tape from his side.  The divider in the shed isn't hot, it's just a visual barrier.

Who're you??
What have you done, mom??
The rest of the tape is hot though.  I left it on because Echo needed to learn that tape should be respected & he had already lived in electric fencing for the ten days he was at Benchmark's farm.  Enter young horse curiosity. 
More sniffing of the new not-orange interloper
Right after I took the above picture, Echo decided to see if this new fence was interesting.  So he sniffed it & put his nose on it.  As it zapped him, he jumped back & sideways.

And then he took a few hobbling steps on 3 legs, with one hind leg barely touching the ground.

And I melted into a puddle, wailing faintly, on the ground right there & ceased to exist.

At least, that's what it felt like.  After inspecting now-even-more-pathetic baby, I surmised that said ridiculously tight muscles, when introduced to sudden contraction & loading, had more than they could take.  As soon as I placed my hand on his hamstring, he winced & I could feel the rippling spasms of a muscle flipping out.  Echo said he would like me not to touch that please.  I appreciated that he said it very politely.

What IS this place?
I didn't see any issues anywhere else, so I decided to apply a tincture of SoreNoMore & rest & leave it be.  This horse had just gone from a racetrack in Florida to a snowy farm in Delaware to a paddock in North Carolina in less than two weeks.  He'd gotten on a trailer around 3 am the day before & spent the night surrounded by horses he'd never met.  That's a lot for anyone.

In addition, even though he was polite & friendly, he was rather stand-offish about his space, which would continue for the first week or so.  He seemed concerned that I was going to try to trap him in the shed, so he would make a quick exit if I came in.  He was very sensitive to any ropes & skittered off like a deer if they even hinted at touching him, especially any farther back then about mid-neck.

I was caught a little off-guard by this.  Encore had been an in-your-lap Labrador from day 1.  With Echo, I had to leave a halter on him in turnout, which I hate (yes, it was a breakaway, but still).  But while he'd let me come up & pet him out in the open, he'd scoot away backwards if I tried to put a halter or rope over his head.  Once I had one on him though, he was perfectly fine to lead & cross-tie.
Eating his first snack with grave suspicion about the new human
I persisted in tiny increments.  I wasn't asking for any work, not even real groundwork.  But it was January/Februrary - I needed to put blankets on this skinny thing (which he thought were terrifyingly loud & offensively touched him ALL OVER, the horror), I needed to check his feet, apply more layers of SoreNoMore.  And I wanted to teach him that I brought good feelings, warmth, comfort, &  food.  Lots & lots of food. 

I also wanted to teach him that I respected his needs & that his space was indeed safe & he was guaranteed to get it back after he tolerated my brief ministrations.

Part of that Look I saw in the first pictures became even clearer that first week:  this was a very intelligent & very sensitive horse.  He watched every move I made & responded to shifts so small that I hadn't been previously aware I was making them. 

We had a lot of work ahead of us.  Not least of which included the manifestation of four equally functional legs.
Echo:  I don't know what we're looking at, but I'm looking at it