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We Are Flying Solo

June 24, 2012

Look Whose HelmetCam I Found??!

Remember how I said back here that I had tried and failed to turn the helmet cam on in mid-course at full TB gallop? 

Well, guess what?

I discovered last night that I didn't fail!

So hang on for the ride, because here are XC jumps 5-15 of Encore's very first Novice completion this spring!

June 22, 2012

Away Again IS Away Again!

That's right, baby Flying Solo is back in business and got the seal of approval from David last Saturday at our lesson.  I had hauled Encore up to Virginia where he was giving a clinic at a friend's farm because it was exactly three weeks after his injections, when the vets told me to evaluate -- I figured who better to evaluate than the man who had given me the plan in the first place!

A lesson with David is never easy, but he has an unfailingly quick eye and his worlds (literally) of experience always gets you where you need to go.

You start with what I like to call the David Circle Of Death -- while it looks deceptively easy, you are working HARD and it usually leaves me panting desperately, chanting Do not fall off your horse in front of him, do not fall off your horse in front of him....  I could still breathe at the end this time, which leaves me wondering whether my protein shakes are indeed working or David was just being easy on Encore.  I'll pretend it was the first one, it makes me feel better.

I barely managed to not squeal aloud with glee when David pronounced him better, but I couldn't contain a completely foolish grin of joy.

You then follow with an alluringly simple gymnastic, which you unfailingly override and then feel like an idiot.  But the horses do fine and get to thinking about picking up their feet and putting the jump in the middle of their bascule.

Next you begin to work a few lines.  As noted on the video, I really struggled with the grey oxer -- something about the colour and arrangement of the poles made it impossible for me to read and Encore seemed to struggle with getting a line on it as well.  It was a very odd feeling to turn the corner and see...nothing.  That has never happened to me before and as a result, I proceeded to mess it up many times.

Once your horse is traveling well through the lines, you put some courses together, increasing in complexity.  The jumps stayed low this time since Encore hasn't jumped in over a month, but he felt good and when I wasn't doing ridiculous things on his back, he jumped well.  No rushing, no anxiety -- the problem really WAS the pain and not my training.  Which makes you feel good.  Then bad.  Then good.  Then bad.  Then you just try to stop thinking about it.

During our last course, Encore's weak side got tired; you can see he struggles to pick up his left lead.  David still never fails to have a simple fix for me.  Everything goes smoothly when he is around -- I just need to somehow kidnap him and haul him around in my trailer to horse trials.  Except his wife would most certainly murder me in the night.  Dangit.

Thank you so much to Sue, the farm owner, clinic hoster, and mad tough eventer, for taping us!  After being gone all week chasing fish, I hope to spend the weekend getting back in the groove while trying not to die of heat exhaustion.  The lake just might win me over, though, when the Carolina sun gets brutal around 3:00 in the afternoons...

June 14, 2012

Equine Psychology And The Meaning Of It All

This will be a long one.  Hopefully it will not fall into the TL;DR category, but my brain has been busy in last 48 hours and we've made some exciting progress.

So now, I'm going to tell you what the meaning of it all is.  The meaning of life?  Ha, no, I am sorry, as a biologist, I must inform you that life itself has no meaning other than a fervent race of genes to survive amidst a sea of incomprehensibly random events.  I know, the truth hurts.

Rather, consider, what the meaning is behind all these tricks we do, all these little steps and coercions and coaxings that we present to our horses in the name of "training."

A friend of mine, a horse trainer for decades, encapsulated it in two words:  horse training is directing choices.  You have to think, to plan, to set a horse up to succeed and to find the right answer to your question.

Every step is a fork in the road.  If you choose the wrong fork, I will pelt you mercilessly with water balloons.  It won't hurt you, but it will sure as heck be annoying and soon you will miserably concede that you went the wrong way.

If you chose the right fork, I will instead walk quietly with you hand in hand, the sun warming our backs in a companionable silence.

When presented with these options, unless you are heinously stubborn and just want to prove a point (i.e. if you are pony, a mare, or simply a pain in the ass.  Or me.), you will quickly (or if you are Solo, eventually) choose the quiet sunshine over endless irritation.

Equine psychology itself fascinates me -- what on the surface seems to be a basic herd animal is actually, upon further exploration, a personality with complex, unique behavioural patterns with whom, if you take the time and effort, you can build an amazing relationship that will change your life forever.

What brings me to all this esoteric pondering today is a 15-20 minute session I spent in the round pen last night with Encore.  Like Solo, I have no idea how he was started or how many owners he has had.  Because he was a racehorse, I can make some educated guesses and based on what I have been told by CANTER and what Encore himself tells me, his trainer was a good egg and he has not been beaten or mistreated at any point during his life.

Not my round pen.  I wish.
This was only his second visit to the round pen.  Let me tell you how much I love round pens:  perhaps my favourite training tool, I haven't had access to one for three years.  But it was invaluable during my early years with Solo and building our relationship.

With Solo, though, in the pen I was dealing with fears and anxiety.  A three-year stint of "I promise I will not beat you with a whip EVER."  Defeating blue tarp terror.  Showing him a leader could be a benevolent friend and partner.  As a result, he gave me his whole heart and trust and we have never looked back.

Encore is different.  In our first session, it was clear that he had no concept of round pen work, it was just a small circular paddock to him, around which he trotted randomly while watching the other horses over the fence.  I felt him out, introduced him to the very basics of changing direction and stopping at liberty, noted his marked resentment toward the longe whip, and left it at that.

Last night, I focused on one goal:  you will not move into the pressure of my aids and you will stay out on the rail ALL THE WAY AROUND the pen.  He likes to trot the rail on one half, then cut across the other half on a dividing line between me and the rail.  If I push him out with my body, he just gets mad, pushes back and rushes by.

Now, I know how to round pen a horse.  I know how to train a horse to give to pressure (about which Encore is excellent in hand) and I know how to read a horse's body language.  I know how to wait the horse out and achieve the important "join up" moment in which the horse has recognized and accepted that you are, in fact, in charge and he is willing to concede the point and trust your leadership.

Yeah, pretty much like that.
But his belligerence about staying out of the center had me a bit puzzled.  He clearly did NOT respect the pressure of my aids and pushed right back.  And when I say pushed back, I mean he pinned his ears, wrinkled his nose, dropped his head and let fly with bolting bucks of rage like a rank two-year-old, both back feet pointedly flying in my direction at about my head height.  This is the equine equivalent of saying, "Lady, go f*ck yourself."  Not exactly what I expected from the doe-eyed pleaser and an obvious red flag that our partnership was not quite there yet.

One of the ladies riding in the ring next to us commented, "Oh my, doesn't he feel good tonight!"  I laughed quietly and said, "Well, he is certainly throwing an impressive temper tantrum!"  I am quite sure that to everyone in the arena, it looked like I was simply standing there while my horse frolicked around the pen, instead of the complex psychological dance that was actually occurring.

My response was to do nothing.  I simply stood still and maintained my body language of "I don't care how you do it, just keep moving forward in the direction I tell you."  I didn't have the longe whip this time; after a conversation with lifeshighway about a stallion she used to own and a lot of thinking, I decided to just use my longe line as a throw rope.

Horse is not thrilled with request.
After each bucking fit, he would return to the rail and trot quickly, head pointedly turned to the outside in case I didn't catch the fact that he was giving me the finger before.  Then, halfway around, he would swerve and cut off the end again.  I would take one quiet step towards his ribcage and swing the end of the line towards him about a foot; even these small aids were very clear to him.  This would set off another fit of bucking fury back to the rail -- he quite pointedly resented my assertion that I wanted to be the clear leader of the partnership; I wanted more than just him mostly going along with me simply because he is a kind, workmanlike type of horse.

This continued for about five minutes.  I admired his cat-like athleticism, but stayed completely nonreactive to his antics and just kept him moving in either direction I wanted with a simple step or a tiny swing of the rope.  Sometimes he would try to change direction on his own, another attempt to push back at me, which requires a quick response of cutting him off and keeping him traveling the way I chose.

Then, somewhere in his clever little brain, the switch flipped.  In the course of four strides, he sighed, his trot slowed and relaxed, his nose dropped and he conceded the point by continuing quietly on the rail all the way around the pen.  I quickly praised him profusely while keeping him trotting.  He dropped to a walk, chewing and flicking an ear towards me and I let him, accepting his relaxation by releasing a little bit of pressure, showing him that yes, he made the correct decision.

Photo by horsecentric.  I hope she doesn't mind me using it, it's an excellent example of submission from her great work with her horse.  I will remove it if requested.
I changed his direction and lifted him back to trot.  He pinned his ears for the first few steps, then his eye softened, his head dropped again and he agreed to trot quietly around the rail, even splashing through a puddle.

I waited; I wanted three things:  I wanted chewing, I wanted the inside ear locked on me, and I wanted his nose on the ground.  I wanted him begging to be allowed back in my herd.

Always a smart one, it didn't take more than a few minutes before I had them all and I quietly said whoa and removed all pressure by turning my back to him and staring at the ground.  He turned, walked up, then stood beside me with pricked ears, expectant, but unsure what would happen next.  I walked around his body, running hands and line over him.  Then I asked him to follow me at liberty in a few small circles, which he readily did.  But when we stopped, he dropped his head to snatch some clover, breaking his attention and showing me he wasn't quite done.

Not me.  White clothes around horses is crazy.
I drove him softly away again, getting another ear pinning and a wrinkled nose, but they were half-hearted now and his trot remained slow.  It didn't take more than a few laps before he showed me he was ready and I let him come back in.  This time, I could walk around him and control not only his head, but his hips and his feet with my eyes and body without touching him.  I could pivot him on the forehand or back him up or lead him forward in a circle and he stayed focused on me without my touching him or using a rope.

This was mission accomplished and it both thrilled and fascinated me.  While my sessions with Solo had been about luring an anxious horse into trust, this had been convincing a confident, sassy horse to accept and give over his body control to me.  Two different horses, two different personalities, and two different dances, but both partnership negotiations successful thanks to one small pen.

This won't be Encore's last session.  We will repeat it a few more times and each one should get shorter.  You may ask, why bother?  Just ride and train him.  To me, the psychology IS part of the training.  The partnership I want with my event horse includes his mind, his heart, and his trust.  This is the best way I know to acheive that, so I consider it an indispensible step in what I hope will be a long and fruitful journey with this continually surprising, ever-intelligent, unfailingly curious, and always wonderful horse.

June 7, 2012

Stop The Vampire!

Now that Solo has settled into his new home and stopped using Encore as a security blanket, he has gone back to being his old, bossy self -- which means he is a vampire, sniping pieces of Encore's skin when no one is looking.

You might wonder how a fit, young, clever, agile racehorse would fail to dodge the swipes of a teenage stock horse with a stiff back, but you see, Solo is a stealth vampire.  He will graze along, sweet as can be, and then BAM! with no warning, he strikes like a snake and then goes back to grazing like nothing happened.  If you blink, you'll probably miss it.

A poor photograph of both horse and sheet.
Since I prefer not to have Encore looking like a piecemeal blood donor who turns into a SWAT appaloosa after grooming, I am trying the flysheet approach.  I just had to wait until a quality one went on sale low enough to appease my budget. I knew my $20 cheapo in the trailer wouldn't last a day. 

I put it on with a sigh tonight -- it's, well, PRETTY, so I asked Solo nicely to please let me keep pretty sheet pretty. 

Only time will tell if the vampire can show mercy.

June 4, 2012

Baby's Got Back

Injections, that is.

I wanted to talk a little bit more about what steroid injections do, about where the science is today, & about what my experience has been within my sample size of n = 3.  Full geek-out links are included for your reading pleasure.

Yes, I used to be one of those people who said you should never puncture a joint capsule & introduce bacteria unless your horse was at death's door & blah blah blah.  I fully admit my lack of education on the topic & can gladly say that time, careful research & thought, & experience has changed my position somewhat.

While I still don't believe in administering "preventative" joint treatment, I have learned that, in a problem area, steroid injection can be a very powerful tool to keep your horse doing his job happy & comfortably over the years.

Why would I want to inject my horse's joints?

Most sporthorses (and humans, sigh) will experience a deterioration/roughening of their joint surfaces & sometimes a reduced production of synovial fluid (joint lube).  The results can vary from just a little extra warm up time to reduced range of motion & pain.

Sometimes that can be treated with a reputable feed-through supplement (I have gotten good results with SmartFlex Senior) or an intramuscular injection which addresses the body as a whole, such as Adequan.  These can increase production of synovial fluid & even help repair cartilage.

However, sport is demanding on both our bodies & sometimes we need targeted relief.  Arthritis is technically defined as joint inflammation, which causes the pain, & if you don't break that cycle of inflammation, the body will compensate, causing problems in other areas & the horse (or person, ow) will continue to degrade in condition.  So the key is breaking that cycle at the source.

What do they shoot in there with those big, fat needles?

The fluid injected is generally a mix of broad-spectrum antibiotics to prevent infection mixed with a corticosteroid.  For example, my own spinal injections were done with dexamethasone.  Encore's were triamcinolone.  If I remember correctly, Solo's hocks got cortisone.  All are the same type of drug & reduce the inflammation in the joint.

You can also include hyaluronic acid if you'd like to drop another $300 per injection, however, Dr. Bob says he sees little difference unless you are competing at the very top levels of your sport, i.e. if you are the 1%.

That sounds expensive.  Oh wait, it's a horse.

It can feel expensive.  A set of hock injections (doing both high & low hock joints) here will be $300.  That breaks down to $50 per month.  The cheapest I have found Adequan is $36 per dose & I used that approximately once a month, so the prices are not far off & the IA (intra-articular, or in the joint) injections were effective immediately & worked better.  A back or SI injection may range from $350-500.

Try to think in the long term & make fair comparisons.  That feed-through supplement may sound cheaper, but it may be costing you $40 a month & results may be something you can feel maybe if you close one eye & hold your tongue just right.  So it's all relative & in the grand scheme of a horse's career, it may not be as expensive as you think.

What's the point if I just have to do it again later?

Each horse is unique & each joint is unique.  Some horses can get one joint injection, the cycle is broken, & that joint will perform pain-free for the rest of their lives.  Others do have to be repeated.

For example, to compete, Solo needed his hocks injected every six months (a fairly standard interval for horses with mild to moderate hock arthritis).  But it is impossible to predict, because just like humans, the results will vary with each body.

I really want a full set of knitted bacteria...
But by breaking the joint capsule, am I not taking this huge risk of bacteria getting in there & killing my horse?

Every puncture of the skin can open a passageway for bacteria.  A fly bite, a scratch, a shot, all create a chink in the armour.  But any worthwhile vet should take every precaution to make sure your horse is safely injected.

As I mentioned before, antibiotics are usually included in the injection itself.  The horse's skin is washed & scrubbed repeatedly to sterilize it.  Often, the hair is clipped away to create a clearer work area.  It should never be a procedure taken lightly or performed quickly.

How soon will I notice a difference?

Like every biological process (engineers hate talking to us), it depends.  For Solo, within three days, he had power & loft back in his trot.  For me, the first 3-4 days after the injections were intensely MORE painful, then over 7-10 days the pain decreased rapidly, although there was some bruising, & by 2-3 weeks, I felt pretty darn good  That was a year & a half ago.

Encore is about 10 days post injection; he still has a sore spot or two if I hit it just right with the curry & if there are bone or connective tissue bruises as the vets suspected in the stifle or hock, those will take a few weeks to heal (yeah, I had those too last year, we REALLY match).  There were some really promising moments in the trot on Saturday, but I am taking it slow & easy & demanding little.  At three weeks, we will know more.

How do they know the needle is in the right spot?

Some injections, like hocks, stifles, & fetlocks, can be done by feel by an experienced vet.  Others, like vertebrae or SI joints can be guided by radiograph or fluoroscope (live video radiograph) because the target is small & surrounded by large muscle groups.

I hear all these condition names thrown around with injections, what do they really mean?

Science is a continuum -- it is forever evolving & forever learning.  Often, when something is not completely understood, vets toss it into a pre-existing bucket so that clients can have a label to hold on to.

Take "navicular" for example -- this is a convenient bucket that can contain all manner of arthritic & bony changes & inflammation to the navicular bone.  Some are very serious & career ending, others simply require a change of hoof angle or shoe.

Another growing bucket is "kissing spine" -- this is the one Encore got tossed into.  Right now, it is being used to contain cases where either arthritic changes or simply conformation or genetic misfortune cause the spaces between the vertebral processes to be narrower than normal.  The degree & effect can range from zero to 15....on a scale of 1 to 10.

This may sound frustrating, but it's because we are still learning.  But clients want a name, they want a definitive answer, heck, I want a definitive answer. Even though the name may not be a very accurate one, nor truly fit the original description of the condition.

I have come to really like a plain big ol' cut:  I can see it.  I know what's wrong.  I know how to treat it.  I can watch it heal.  And I know when it's fixed.

This internal stuff, well, I'm kinda over it.  Actually, I'm WAYYYYY over it.  From a scientific perspective, it is fascinating.  But I'd rather be fascinated by someone else's horse, thank you.  However, I hope this treatise, which escaped me & ended up longer than intended, can help you understand a little bit more about the process & why steroid injections can actually be your friend.

Or in the case of my back, your true love.