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We Are Flying Solo

May 17, 2010

Always Expecting The Worst

I have a new horse.  My mild-mannered Quarter Horse seems to have wandered off in the night.  In his place is a somewhat more brash and opinionated creature.  He is just as shiny as ever, but he relishes pushing around Jeff, his pasture mate, with pinned ears and bared teeth.  Instead of meekly submitting to something he doesn't want to do, he boldly states his own opinion, which may include kicking out in symbolic defiance.  There's a hint of arrogance that just wasn't there before.

Because I am, well, me, I quickly surmised the cause of Solo's Big Change. He most likely had a brain tumour and would be dead within the month. This was obviously the most rational and readily available explanation for this new horse at the end of my lead rope.

I presented this information to our most logical of friends, lifeshighway, sure that she too would be puzzled by this turn of events.

lh: "Hmmmm. Well, he's fitter now than he has been since you have had him. Horses often exhibit changes in personality when they reach a certain level of physical fitness."

Me: "Oh. Well, that would make sense too."

I may have a tendency to leap to extreme conclusions in a few...ok, many...situations.

But I think lifeshighway has hit the nail on its proverbial head. Solo is indeed fitter than he has ever been; he is sleek, muscular, and holding the perfect weight and his wind is much improved. I noticed a marked jump in base fitness after doing our two horse trials this spring and it has stayed in place throughout April and May. And the collective "they" say that horses do indeed develop an arrogant confidence of their own, a certain extra vim and vigor when they go from pasture puff to competitive athlete.

So, my horse is kind of a badass now.

And I think I kind of like it.

May 16, 2010

Things That Make You Go Ew

Very few things gross me out. I'm a biologist -- my job is sex and poop. But I have weak spots. What can induce a gag reflex in someone who regularly gets spermed on by fish??

Because it's your lucky day, I will tell you!

(1) Having to touch dog poo. Even through a paper towel. Possibly the grossest substance on the planet.

(2) One day, my vet stuck her bare finger in my dog's ear, pulled it out coated with this black, yeasty substance, then sniffed it. I about lost my lunch on the exam table.

(3) Any kind of fabric in my mouth. Even thinking about it. Gack. Don't ask. It's a weird OCD thing.

(4) Working on a National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, we had collected a clutch of endangered prairie chicken eggs. I went to open one to examine it and it exploded. Grey-green liquified chick soup sprayed all over my shirt. Yeah, that'll do it.

And number five got me today. Because it's Weenie Cleaning Weekend for Solo. I broke out the KY Jelly (which won't burn like Excalibur can if you accidentally leave some on there) and lubed him up before the ride. And pulled out half a big white bean, knowing I'd have to get the other half out. That got the old heave muscles warmed up. Just be grateful I didn't succumb to the sudden urge to take a picture of it to post on the blog.

Ah, the things we do for our companions.

May 15, 2010

Stupid Circles

Sweat is pouring down my face.

It's approximately 95% humidity, 85 degrees of drip-inducing goodness out.

I am torturing Solo with some dressage schooling, his absolute favourite. If horses are capable of sarcastic glares, I think I got one when I got on.

One of David O's favourite exercises to torment warm us up with is flexing the poll while cantering on a circle. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Ha. It's not.

I am determined to conquer this exercise. Solo's interpretation of this little gymnastic endeavor is to either fall on his inside shoulder while lifting his head around the turn, or pop his outside shoulder out and ignore the outside rein. If you do get close to convincing him to bend, he feels it is impossible to do so while maintaining forward motion.

We've had a little success on a previous ride under jumping tack. Which means I had spurs and the elevator bit so it was easier to use a light aid that Solo could not simply brace himself against and ignore. Today, though, I was in dressage gear, so we had the plastic boucher and no spur.

The canter transitions were going well and the rhythm was cadenced and Solo's back was soft. We began our circle in good balance and I closed it down to 15 m while asking him to flex.

The sweat burned my eyes and my completely non-breathable polo shirt from work that I had been too hurried to change out of clung to my back.

Hot, sweaty Solo said, "No. Flexing is hard" and tipped onto his forehand and leaned.

It happened. I was tired and my patience buckled. I made that fatal riding flaw, goaded by the ugly monsters of heat and fatigue: I got mad.

"Good god, horse, it's not that hard, just BEND!!" I tried to insist with gritted teeth and an outpouring of frustration to the hand on the rein and the heel in his side.

Solo, however, is unfailingly honest in his assessment of my riding finesse on a given day. And he got mad right back, as they unfailingly (and rightfully) do when we try to force our hand too fast. And flung his head up in the air in protest and skittered off to the side.

Immediately I knew that I had pushed too hard and with too little patience. I went back to a walk, letting Solo stretch and myself try and breathe and forget about the swampy air wrapped around my brain.

When I attained some semblance of calm and thought through what went wrong, I picked up a soft contact and asked for our cadenced canter back.

Solo was wary, one ear cocked back, warning me that I better be good up there, he wasn't going to take any crap. I asked him to come into the outside rein a little and asked for a single circle, just 20 m this time, one challenge at a time. As he bent around my leg, I sat up and asked for only a step or two of poll flexion to the inside. I did not force him to hold it very long as he is not there yet. He gave me my steps, I rode him out of the circle and let him continue straight and then we quit.

This is a lesson I must learn over and over and over. A lesson that I know, but that is so hard to stay true to when things get gritty. The moments when I lose it are rare indeed, but serve as an important reminder that impatience has no place in riding and training. If we find ourselves angry or frustrated, we MUST stop, breathe, and jump start our brains because that's where the solution is. Not in force, not in brawn.

We are making progress. We'll get there. As P says, one step at a time. If you get three good steps going one way, and three good steps going the other way, well, then that's six good steps. Maybe next time you'll get eight, then next time eleven and soon, you'll have a whole circle...

May 7, 2010

Canters And Connections - Simplified

Work is crazy, I've been driving around doing field work all week, so hence no Solo updates.  But we've been doing a bit of schooling here and there.  Had a good dressage lesson late last week where we began talking more seriously about staying in the outside rein.  A concept I have known for a long time and understand in theory, but like just about every dressage concept, actually making it happen on a horse who doesn't know how is a whole 'nother basket of eggs.

So I played with it a little, using my usual amateur-rider method of trial and error (poor Solo).  As it happened, there was a discussion on the Chronicle of the Horse forums in the dressage folder about this very thing.  I read an interesting tip and decided to give it a try.  And voila!  We have outside rein connection and even MORE fun, after two years of really working on it, we finally have some lovely canter work coming out!

Oh, I'm sorry, did you want to know what this little outside rein tip is?  Would you like me not to be cruel and leave you hanging? I would never do such a thing...

It's just a little body imagery. Imagine your outside elbow is super-glued softly to your side with a contact to your horse's mouth. Take a feel with your inside rein and do some flexion/leg-yield/shoulder fore to ask him to move into that outside rein. He might resist it at first and pop his nose up in protest. But then he will give in the jaw and flex at the poll oh-so-loverly at which point you do not open your fingers but just do a little soft give from the elbow -- do NOT throw away that connection.

I summoned up my super glue and it really did help. Before, I would get the connection but give too much and lose it on the next stride. Focusing on keeping my elbow back and quiet and not giving away the rein allowed me to KEEP that connection and I could feel Solo THERE in the rein. The hardest part for me about really learning how to keep a horse on the bit has been realizing that you have to give them a bit to be on. In other words, if you just have limp reins and keep giving the bit away away away, there is nothing for them to move and push into, nothing to harness and direct the energy from the hindquarters.

This also helped in our canter work and at the end of our school, I did a 15 m circle at the canter to set him back on his hocks and lift his front end, as assigned by P, then did a lap of extend the stride on the long side, collect it on the short side.

OH! All of a sudden, my horse was a delight -- his back was up and strong and he lengthened and shortened his strides from behind as he should without falling on the forehand or losing the rhythm of the canter. I believe I was grinning stupidly as we walked down to the barn. I like to think that Solo was rather pleased with himself as well...

May 1, 2010

My Vet Has Mystical Powers

Not too long ago, I took Solo in to Dr. Bob to have his Coggins pulled.  Dr. Bob LOVES to talk, so inevitably we end up chatting about 14 different things at each appointment, as he throws out his rather impressive depth of knowledge on all things equine.  On this particular day, he displayed his uncanny ability to read a horse's body like a newspaper without laying a hand on it.  Just standing there, eyeing Solo as he was tied to the trailer, this is what Dr. Psychic shared with me as my mouth was hanging open in awe.  Apologies if it's a little disjointed, I came home afterward and frantically wrote down everything I could remember, he threw a LOT of information at me!!

It appears that I have been riding him much more round (here he points at a muscle at the base of the neck in front of the withers that apparently gave us away) and we have moved up a level over the winter (OMG, um, yes, yes we have).

Occasional back soreness is due to that fact that while the front end has developed muscle brilliantly, the back end needs to catch up; this is probably why back toes are dragging so much too. But he shows no sign of stifle issues (fighting farrier, refusal to pick up canter leads, extreme handedness, strong toeing out), which I had asked about just to make sure that any resistance I was feeling wasn't coming from this.  His body at this point plateaued until his hind end can catch up to the front and middle.

There may still be a little scar tissue inside the foot from the low heel problem we've spent the last many moons fixing.  The outside looks great, but the internal structures take much longer to heal.  This tissue will eventually break up and heal completely and is probably pretty close to complete already since his angles have been looking great.

We should do a blood panel this summer to check cell counts, etc. This will also show any parasite loads since stuff encysted in intestines will not show up on a fecal. Horses generally have a drop in cell levels in summer due to heat stress. For older horses a steroid shot can help boost these cell levels so they thrive under a workload better.  (me back in:  I intend to do some research on this one.  I don't want to be shooting steroids into my horse on a whim, but I want to know for the future if this could be a useful tool.)

These days, we can help our horses stay more active and be healthier longer.  Medical advances have allowed us to provide better living through chemistry.

Use different exercises to help build a more balanced body (me again:  Dr. Bob has evented his own horses, which I love as it means that he understands the needs and development of the eventing horse).  Extended gaits work the gaskin and forearm. Collected work works the butt and abs. Use lots of hillwork always.

After your last spring competition, give Solo a two-three week break in summer to just bum around. Let any internal stress injuries which have not presented settle and heal. Do occassional light walking hacks only, no effort. After such a break, it takes about 4 weeks to bring back into condition.

Whew, I think that was it!!