SUBSCRIBE TODAY Smiley face  Get updates via email! 




We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label young horses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label young horses. Show all posts

May 18, 2019

Progress And Setbacks

Because you can't have one without the other, at least when it comes to horses.

As I mentioned in my last post, Echo recently got a pretty big chiro adjustment.  Twice in a week, actually, because it didn't hold the first time.  I did notice some initial improvement, but there are some lingering issues that I sure wish would just quit.

He's still a little bit puffy around that side of his SI & when I was riding him last week, I could definitely feel that he wasn't quite comfortable back there.  The feeling would come & go at the trot, but was most noticeable when he swapped behind twice on his right lead canter, which he's never done before.  Nothing like a new thing to make it harder to wait & easier to worry.

See, not a waste
I talked to Dr. Bob & gave Baby Monster the rest of the week off, in combination with some bute for the inflammation & Dr. Bob's Magical Steroid Creme that he concocts.  We're supposed to give it one more week & if it doesn't improve, we'll reconvene. 

Yeah, yeah, mantra.  I still hate waiting.

I don't think it's anything huge, the adjustments were pretty dramatic.  It does bother me a bit that he still feels uncomfortable with certain things.  But I also know that the unevenness was going on for a while, so those are big muscles that have to be retrained & retoned to do their job in a different way.  I'm pretty squarely on the worry seesaw, so am trying to be patient & not imagine too many nightmarish scenarios.

Trying.

In positive news, y'all, this horse looks really good.  Finally!  He's 99% shed out & his summer coat shines like a new penny.  I can no longer count his ribs from any angle & am at long last able to reduce his rice bran helpings.  And...there are muscles!  And a neck!!!  The vienna reins are such a wonderful tool for this, if you aren't familiar with them, you can read our primer on them here.
Getting even sexier
Under saddle, he's now working easily for 40 minute stretches, sometimes a little longer, without brain dissolution.  Yay for aging (I don't get to say that very often)!  Our skillset now includes:
  • Working on a steady contact & able to bend (mostly) through our body both ways at walk & trot,
  • Up & down transitions W/T/halt are prompt & balanced, no bracing in bridle, back stays up,
  • Confirmed lateral aids for basic leg yield at the walk, they exist at trot, I think they'd be better if rider was a little more organized about them,
  • Turn on forehand (one step at a time) with minimal fussing (this was very irritating for him for whatever reason),
  • Picking up both canter leads correctly without a ground pole (I think, haven't had too many tests yet),
  • W/T/C in a steady rhythm with reasonable balance, while remaining light in the bridle,
  • Jumping small x-rails & logs with no rushing,
  • And we are dang ground pole champions -- with sproing!
Showing that ground pole who's boss
This may not seem like a lot for 15 months, but I'm pretty happy with it because (a) we had a lot of other body challenges to deal with & (b) this has been what HE was ready for.  I want to do a separate post on that topic, but it really is different for different horses.  I also work my horses in my top field -- there are slopes, uneven footing, clumps of grass -- but I welcome these challenges because it helps me a build a stronger, more balanced partner in the long run.  If he can maintain himself on a bumpy, downhill slope, he will find a flat, boring arena so easy, he won't even have to think about it.

I've also spent a LOT of time on basic details, having learned from Solo & Encore that any training holes will always catch up later.  Things like maintaining balance in the down transition to walk without me holding him together, like freeing up & gaining control of each individual leg so I can move it where I want, like making sure a half halt gets a clear & instant response in every gait.
Plus lots of this for strength & well-roundedness
Spending time on these not-very-exciting details now means that I don't have to backtrack later.  It means that if I need to leg yield out in canter to get a better line to a jump or rebalance a gallop on course or teach walk-canter-walk transitions, the building blocks are already there to make my life safer & easier.

Now I just need his bum (well, the top of it) to chill & be happy so we can get back to it!

May 11, 2019

Just Wait

I am trying to adopt these two simple words as my Equine Mantra. 

Sigh, the gaping chasm between "simple" & "easy."

As you spend time trying to get horses to do things or, you know, keep them alive & healthy, you soon realize that patience is indispensable at every step of the process.  It's a near-guarantee that if you attempt to rush something, be it healing or trailer loading or a jump, the horse deities shall be vexed & it will now take you twice five times as long.  Doubly so with young horses.  
I excel at vexation
I am not always great at patience.

To summon it, I need reminders that are easy to remember.  Bonus if they are something I can chant softly (or loudly, as the case demands) to myself, which forces me to inhale AND exhale.

Echo, still a 3-yr-old when he came to me, is both the youngest horse I've owned & the first I've gotten less than 30 days off the track.  As a result, we are both learning a lot.  And in the process of all these "firsts", which of course come with their share of stress, I am seeing over & over & over that if I can just take a breath & wait, if I allow time its own pace, progress will, well, progress.  

Example 1:

Echo has been painstakingly slow to shed.  Dull, ugly, fuzzy winter hairs clung stubbornly to his withers, back, & sides.  Solo has already completed his transition to his slick, shiny(er) summer coat.  I glared at Echo's offending fur as I scraped & scraped with the shedding blade & the grooming block & the Tiger Tongue & the curry comb.

Maybe his thyroid is all messed up!  My brain effortlessly channels my old friend Anxiety Girl at the least opportunity.  Maybe he has freakishly early Cushings!  Maybe he has some weird glandular tumour!  Maybe I need to get him tested for All The Terrible Things?!!  

Just. Wait.

A few weeks later, with the help of my trusty Slick N' Easy, he is finally blowing out the last of those dull hairs.  The sleek, bay shine underneath is a brand new first for us, thanks to 15 months of Triple Crown & rice bran.
Freshly rained on, with a few, uh, nibbles from Solo
Example 2:

Two weeks ago, Echo got his second chiropractic adjustment.  His sacrum was all kinds of cattywompus, the reason he'd been tracking short on his left hind for several months.  Dr. Bob did lots of stretches of his haunches, hips, & back, but it was still a big adjustment, with lots of mashing.  Some soreness afterwards was to be expected; not a big deal, I had to be out of town for work anyway.

After a week, he was still really tight in that whole quadrant & moving stiffly in the hip.  I had been massaging & stretching, but... There were some improvements, but some things seemed almost worse.  I should probably just wait, but just in case, I'll call Dr. Bob & ask.  Guess what he said?

Just. Wait.

Today, another week later, he is more fluid in that hip & stepping under himself better with that left leg.  He's more willing to bend left through his body & stretch the tight right side.  Both trot diagonals now feel pretty similar.  I bet he'll feel even better a month from now & that's just exciting.
More of this, please! Except without my leaning.
I could list at least 87 more examples.  Hooves could probably be a treatise in themselves.  But you get the idea.  Sometimes, many times, things just take time.  Not the time that we WANT; in my experience, part of my brain nearly always expects things in an unreasonably short time.  Often, digging out just a little more patience can carry us through to the other side.

I'm not going to say, "Don't worry!"  That would be laughable -- if you have a horse in your life, worry is practically a job in & of itself!  It would be nice if they didn't feed our neuroses by fulfilling them quite so often. I can dream. And of course, waiting is not always applicable, use of judgement is required.
Truth for all vet things
But I can honestly say it is helping me to worry a little tiny bit miniscule amount (hey, baby steps) less in many equine situations by giving myself this simple, even if not easy, assignment:  before unleashing apocalyptic reactions...

Just. Wait. 

You just might be pleasantly surprised.
It's all good (for now, heh).  Just slightly blurry.

April 29, 2019

A Muzzle Saved My Relationship

Hmmm, that title could be true for so many scenarios, however, in this case, I am referring to a certain Baby Monster.  Who is basically a mouth with legs.

Echo has learned that human parts do not go in his mouth.  He even abides by the rule, with occasional exceptions when life is just too exciting to process without MOUTH ON ALL THE THINGS.  However, one loooong exception has become nearly insufferable:  trail rides.

I am currently ponying Echo out on trails while riding Solo.  Echo, at just-turned-5, still funnels all his curiosity & energy through his mouth.  Which translates to nipping Solo's neck, nipping Solo's rein, nipping Solo's bridle, nipping Solo's shoulder...every 2 minutes.  It's maddening for all of us. 

I have tried all manner of scolding, cursing, rope-halter-snapping, with the end result of discovering that Echo can react faster than I can possibly hope to move while attempting to smack his naughty nose.  I can see that he knows he's not supposed to do it, he jerks back so quickly he's scolding himself, but 90 seconds later, he does it again.
But mom, he's RIGHT BY MY NOSE!
It's an energy outlet for him.  He is walking next to a horse who is slower than him & while he politely matches the pace, he has all this life & inquisitiveness fair to bursting out & it finds a channel at the end of his adorable but infuriating face.  He alternates with sucking on & playing with his tongue, but apparently that is not sufficient.

A couple weeks ago, I got fed up with spending the ride scolding my horse & tired of rope-bruised hands beneath my gloves.  And I bought a muzzle:  Tough 1 Easy Breathe attachment.

I wasn't sure how it would go over.  I recently tried a fly mask with an extended nose on Echo - he decided it was trying to suffocate him & frantically rubbed his face on the ground until I removed it.  But I picked one with special big nostril holes & strapped it on just before we headed out.

Meet Horse-ibal Lecter: he's not enthused.
There was an initial period where he attempted to rub his face on things to get it off, but without the panicked edge of the fly mask.  And then...

We had a lovely, calm ride.  He walked & trotted nice as you please beside Solo with his face completely relaxed.  He could still take a big drink at his favourite water crossing.  He kept snorting occasionally, as if to reassure himself I wasn't trying to smother him again, but his conclusion seemed favourable.

His whole body was more relaxed & I think removing that nip-avoid-punishment cycle allowed him to find that place on his own in a way that we couldn't before.  Instead of having to resist the temptation to bait Solo into Nip-Tag, the option was never even on the table in the first place.  It's much easier for me to direct his choice towards "chillax" when there's fewer choices to begin with.
But...this face must be EVERYwhere...
The muzzle itself feels nice & sturdy & has a pretty big hole in the bottom, I quite like the design.  I added the extra velcro straps thanks to reviewer tips & they helped keep it in place.  I really really like the big nostril holes!

I'm dealing with some big problems right now (not horse-related), but this was one I was able to solve.  Not only was I happier, Echo was happier, & Solo was definitely happier.  Win win win.  I know Echo will grow out of the mouthy phase someday (omg, please let it be so), but until then, the muzzle is painless, easy to use, & at $20, doesn't break the bank.

How about you? How have you dealt with your mouthy babies mouthing the world?

April 14, 2019

Baby's First Lesson & Other Stories

Echo the Baby Monster has been busy -- sometimes even with things I actually want him to do.  More often, eating, more eating, finding ways to annoy both Solo & I, then eating some more. 

In mid-March, though, he survived his very first lesson!  It was a casual affair -- since I was pole-limited, I asked Trainer Neighbour to set up a variety of gymnastic exercises for us so I could continue building that hind end strength.  She created series of grids for him, including a couple of crossrails.  I'd been introducing him to some baby obstacles, so this was a nice next step for him to see some more colorful things.

Not sure we got enough engagement behind...
 He was surprisingly...slow.  I'm not sure if it was just the new scenarios or he was just very chill that day, but I've never before had to ride him with Solo-levels of leg.  He was very willing & attentive, though, & stayed soft the entire time.

I'm still counting this as uphill movement, LOL
My favourite part was watching him think & try all these new-but-not-quite-new questions.  This horse is so...earnest about this process, it makes me smile.  I apparently did TOO good a job teaching him that trot poles are for trotting, because his solution to the crossrail was this:

I couldn't stop giggling.  Neither could Trainer Neighbour.  Echo's little ears were flicking around going, What? I trotted your trotty poles, that's what they are for, right??!  If you want to see the whole "course," as demonstrated by sloowww baby horse, while humans cruelly laugh at him:

I really was very proud of him.  He was definitely exhausted by the time we got home, after that 30 minutes of intense training, hee hee.  But he continues to get stronger.

And we have sproing now!  After this lesson, I broke down & expanded my pole collection.  I hadn't found anything good in a ditch in a while, so I went to the hardware store & picked up 8 landscape timbers for just under $40.  A little white paint to maybe slow down the termites for four seconds & voila:
8' long, I like shorter poles to keep my steering honest
I'm calling it Echo's birthday present, he turned five on March 29th.  I continue to be glad I have taken it so slow with him, it really seems to be working for him.  Now that he actually has some muscle in the caboose, I can do things like trot down a slope without fearing for my life or teach him to do downward transitions without dumping on his nose.

We're still keeping sessions fairly short, too, as is key for baby brains.  I think we've had 2-3 rides in the past month which got to 40 minutes & I could tell we were at the absolute limit.  Which for Echo means the mental focus really deteriorates, he gets sloppy with his feet, & he just gets a little cranky.  Nothing dramatic, I get some angry ear twitches, head tosses, bit chomping, & dirty side-eye (rear-eye?).
Guilty party avoids eye contact
I appreciate his communication & I try very hard to respect those limits, balancing that with the incremental requests for progress I discussed in the last posts.  There is plenty of room to ask for more while staying within 30-40 minutes:  we're increasing the amount of trot work, asking for better quality transitions, engaging the topline, introducing lateral aids.

And of course, because variety is essential to prevent the souring of bright young things, I'm trying to take him out at least once a week on our trails, along with a couple days off weekly to rest muscles & prevent overwork of joints which are still developing.  Solo is loving the opportunity to get out on trails again, I feel him brighten as soon we step out.  I do too.

Ridiculous child loves the splashy
Solo sees your taunting...& he forgets nothing...

March 10, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part II

I broke this topic into two parts because my original post was so long that even I got bored halfway through.  But the following is the practical example of "eventer79 forcing herself to manage her expectations so her horse doesn't dread work," as applied to the Training Of Trot Poles.  My number one goal:  to recognize & reward the incremental steps of progress. 

Ribbon earned
Session 1

On the first attempt at trotting four poles, 5' apart, Echo trots the first two, then neatly canters through the second two, without touching any of them.  I say Good boy, great job going over them, but how about a little slower?

On the third or fourth attempt, he trots all four.  It's a little rushy, it's flat, & he clipped the last two.  I say GOOD BOY! You honestly looked for the right answer every time & you successfully trotted the trot poles!  You're a winner!!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 2

Today, he starts out taking the poles hell-for-leather, grabbing the bit for a run because it's a pretty day & he feels good.  I say I DIDN'T ASK FOR THAT, WHOA!  Thank you.  Now, about these poles, I just want you to trot softly.

We alternated with this similar exercise, apparently far more exciting
We scale back, approaching at a relaxed walk, halting immediately before & immediately after the poles.  The third or fourth attempt, he trots through on a very soft contact, then picks up an exquisitely balanced, very slow canter after the last pole.  I let him have four soft strides, then sit up & ask for a down transition with my body.  He obliges like a pro.  I say Great job staying soft in the bridle & not rushing.  Even though I didn't ask for canter, thanks for being polite, willing, & obedient.

The next attempt, he trots through on a soft contact & after the poles, when I sit up, he immediately hesitates for a breath to see if I want him to stop.  He is still flat-ish through the poles & the rhythm speeds up a bit to allow him to keep his balance.  I say GOOD BOY!  Great job staying soft & listening, while trotting all the poles!  You're a winner!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 3

He trots through the poles on the first try, but rushes quite a bit, clunking the last two pretty hard & bracing through his topline.  However, he does stay in trot after the poles.  I say Good job trotting!  How about thinking relaxing thoughts.

The next approach, I do a half-halt through his body a few steps out, then think the most yoga-breathing, stretchy, lifting, slow thoughts I can think of.  Ears focused on the puzzle like mini-homing beacons, Echo trots through a little slower, feeling a little less like he's rushing out from under me, with only a light toe-tap behind.  I say Great job!  Enjoy this mini-stretch break on loose rein for an excellent effort. 
He quickly learned to love the stretchies
After the stretch break, one more attempt.  This time I let him approach from a trot from father out (I had been just asking for trot ~4 strides out until now).  I focus on staying super soft on the reins & quiet with my body.  He trots through, stays soft in the bridle, & while he is still somewhat flat, his rhythm has almost no appreciable change, even though I feel him want to go.  He cocks an ear back at me & wags his head after the poles, his way of letting out youthful energy when he knows he is not supposed to speed up.  I say GOOD BOY OMG GREAT JOB! Excellent work trotting & waiting!  You're an amazing winner!!!!
Of course I winner

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

That's where we are now.  We don't have sproing, BUT we have:
  • a rhythm that's about the same as our approach,
  • trot with a soft contact,
  • ability to transition down to walk or balanced halt afterwards, &
  • we don't brace our back & sewing-machine our legs through puzzle as fast as possible.
Even more importantly, I'm not pulling on his face, I'm not shutting him down, I'm not fighting with him.  He's not hearing, "No, that's garbage!"  Obviously, he can't understand my sentences, but I'm rewarding each time some aspect, any aspect, improves.  From his perspective, he is being:
  • encouraged to try different solutions,
  • rewarded with happy voice & rests, &
  • given an end to demands...
...when he finds a solution that was better than previous efforts.  This motivates him to hunt for Better with every request, because he knows it is the gateway to pleasant things.

Better.  That is the brick upon which we must build our staircases to success.   

Not Perfect.  Perfect is a mirage, tempting us into quixotic quests, in the course of which we trample the blossomings of Better into oblivion.  And like all mirages, we discover that the dogged & inflexible insistence upon what we THINK should happen only leads us in fruitless circles or worse, dead-ends, chasing something that doesn't even exist (wait, this metaphor is sounding suspiciously similar to dressage tests...but I digress).
Resist the temptation
What did your student do Better today?  Have you remembered to give him a sticker for his efforts?  Even if he didn't get the right answer to the original question, award him with partial credit for getting it wrong differently than he did last time.
      
I figure at the very least, this will dissuade him from plotting my demise next time he sees me.

Everybody wins.
Ok, human, I let u live another day

March 6, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part I

Echo continues to make clear to me the importance of recognizing progress as a true journey, not a single leap.

An equine student is just like a human student:  you may have an over-arching goal, but in order for your student to keep working towards that goal without souring, you have to hand out plenty of stickers & extra credit along the way.  Echo reminds me that is doubly important when dealing with young things.  Trust, confidence, enthusiasm, try - these are fragile items.  Handle with care.

It's about making sure our conversations are dominated by "Yes!" Not a new topic for this blog, but a reminder that is always relevant. 

Think of it this way:  when you decided to learn how to ride, you likely had a vision of yourself soaring over a course of jumps or cantering a victory lap with a blue ribbon or trotting up to the summit of a mountain trail...all with glorious views.

You won...something...
But this is not a feasible skillset to learn in a week.  First you had to learn how to get on a large creature with questionable judgement.  Then you were expected to guide said fur-covered bag of opinions with squeezes of your legs & fingers, whilst balancing yourself over its bouncing spine.

I don't know about you, but I didn't execute those tasks with instant grace & poise.  Fortunately, my teachers were kind enough to exclaim, "Good job!" when I successfully posted the trot on request...even though I was on the "wrong" diagonal, my reins were flapping in the breeze, & the horse meandered drunkenly between the quarterline & the rail.
Details...

Taking heart from that initial success, I could then turn my attention to improving other items on the list, each in their turn. If, during that first trot, the instructor had instead bellowed, "That was garbage! You didn't steer the horse, your reins were a mess, the diagonal was wrong - that's not what I asked for!!  Do it again, & this time you better do it right!!"

If the 2nd scenario had been repeated each time, without stopping, when I didn't ride the posting trot exactly right...I never would have made it to "doing it right."  I would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & would have soon given up this obviously impossible quest.  I probably would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected me to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Our horses are no different.  Case in point:

I'm using trot poles as one tool to develop Echo's hind end strength, particularly to tighten & build his stifles.  Given the eleventy billion inches of rain, my steeper hills will not be usable for some time.

My "poles" are really an assortment of heavy duty PVC pipes found or scavenged, of varied diameters up to about 6-8".  I like the extra challenge they provide the horse in asking him to flex all his joints without my having to build extra pole lifters.  Bonus:  they fit exactly within my training budget of $0.

They even come in different colours
We began at a walk with the poles ~9' apart.  Echo being the clever creature that he is, quickly progressed to 5' spacing (this is my standard for a true trot pole).  My expectations were for him to walk through four poles (this is how many poles I possess), with an even rhythm, without tripping on them or kicking them out of whack.

This was achieved in about three to four sessions, primarily because I am not going to climb on & off the horse a bunch of times if I don't have to.  So I just introduce changes in each new session & I only spend a portion of the ride on them -- in a 30-minute ride (as calibrated to 4-yr-old horse brain), this is 5-10 minutes at most.  Keepin' it fresh.

As Echo locked in on the task quickly each time, as we built up from two, to three, then four poles, this is where it became CRITICAL to manage my expectations & reward incremental progress.
Random stills from one video of us are all I have so far - but he be tryin'
If you have ridden a fit horse over four sequential trot poles, you have felt that delightful sproing-sproing-sproing-sproing-yippee (yes, that is exactly the noise it makes, including human punctuation cheer) as the horse coils his leg joints & butt muscles collectively & gains an extra moment of suspension.

There was a part of me that set this feeling as my expectation, but I had to check myself, because guess what (this shouldn't really have been hard to guess) - Echo is not strong enough to sproing yet.  It takes a loooong time for a horse to develop the strength to have that kind of cadence & balance, which is generated through the powerful coil/release of muscular energy.  It would have been easy for our sessions to devolve into me simply telling him, "No, that wasn't perfect, do it again slower & just right," on repeat.

Had I done so, as his muscles got tired & as the demand got repeated again & again & again, he would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & he would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected him to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Bc this is his face with almost no contact (ignore my out of shape issues)
I think this is a concept that is easier to recognize in retrospect, though, & a line that can be very, very thin depending on both the challenge & the horse.  I have to watch myself very carefully & make sure I don't get greedy, make sure I don't fall into the trap of "one more time, surely he'll get it just right if we go one more time."

What does this look like in practice?  Well, that's part II...

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