Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Horses and Safety: Bring A Cell Phone

Thankfully, I did.

I went on a nonchalant trail ride with some barn friends this afternoon.  It was very windy and I requested that we keep it slow, because this would only be Harley's second ride since being well.  And we did keep it slow.  The ride was uneventful with minimal trotting and mostly walking along very familiar terrain.  Harley led for most of the trip and did a cute, little trail trot.  I could sit it like a cowgirl and pick our way around trees and puddles.  I did not want to foster an exciting atmosphere since the wind was kicking up and some horses find this tempting for naughtiness.  Somewhere in the second half of the ride, we switched position and a different horse was in the lead.  We all decided to trot and before we really got anywhere there was a thunder of hooves and a yell to stop.  Just as we halted I heard the characteristic thud of someone biting the dust.  Although I do not hear that sound very often, it always makes my hairs stand on end.  Is the rider okay?  Who fell?

I turned around to see that my friend behind us had fallen and this was a surprise, because she has the calmest trail horse in the bunch.  He is absolutely reliable and steadfast.  She was probably the last one that I expected to see on the ground.  Thankfully, all of us stopped our horses right away, so there was no danger of her getting run over and she was wearing a helmet (We ALL do, EVERY ride.).  Another friend was already off her horse and crouching over the fallen rider.  Meanwhile, I turned my horse to block her mount and grabbed his reins.

My friend on the ground was mostly okay, but reported that her ankle was hurt almost immediately.  I suggested that she just be still for a moment and rest before she moved.  You always want to take it slow, just in case something else is hurt.  After we all stood our horses and chilled out for a minute, she sat up and found that she could not put weight on her ankle.  Something was definitely wrong.

I have a nice little inside pocket in my riding jacket that is perfect for a cell phone.  I try to remember to always keep my phone in this pocket when I am working in the barn, riding in the ring, and especially out trail riding.  My previous riding jacket actually had the label "phone" on the same inside pocket.  I thought that this was a nice safety hint for anyone purchasing the jacket.

I handed my friend's mount to the dismounted rider who was assisting her and I pulled out my cell phone and thumbed through the contacts as quickly as I could.  I called the barn owner and, thankfully, she was still home.  We told her we were going out, so she knew that a call from me was probably an emergency.  After a quick explanation of our location, she drove the Gator out and picked up our friend, towing her naughty mount alongside the motorized vehicle.  We were fortunate to have been in a vehicle-accessible part of the trail and to only have to report a "minor" injury.  Of course, my friend did injure her right foot, which means that she cannot drive.  Let's hope that she suffered a bad bruise, rather than the other options.  Her family came to pick her up and take her to the doctor as soon as they made it back to the farm.

I highly recommend always bringing a cell phone when riding out on the trail.  I have heard a few things about the dangers of falling on one's cell phone or the horse being spooked by a ring tone, but I feel that both of these warnings are rare or avoidable: make like the movies and put your phone on vibrate!  It is important to have a means to call for help, whether it be from the trail or from the barn, because accidents can happen there, too.  Despite our careful, non-yahoo intentions, a fall still happened even on a relaxed trail outing.  There have been so many more exciting rides, with lots of trotting and cantering in a big group, that have ended without incident, so you never know when the unexpected could happen.  And sometimes the unexpected includes the quietest horse in the bunch kicking up his heels!

Our typical trail riding scenery: scrub oak and pine, sand, river stones, and usually deer.  This time we saw a red-tailed hawk lazily soaring in the air currents just above the tree tops.  We also heard the motors of four-wheelers in the background, but they never appeared on our trail.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Riding Reflection: Downshifting In Canter

Harley has been on rest for two weeks since his vet visit.  Since he had a low grade fever, I decided that it would be good to play it safe and give him some time to recuperate.  After some reading online, I found a "good rule of thumb" regarding horses and fevers: give one week off for every degree above normal.  So that means Harley earned two weeks off.  Based on his expectant demeanor, I am not sure that he liked having two weeks off of "forced exercise" (he still had 24/7 turnout), but I know him well enough to realize that he would try to push himself even if he was not feeling 100%, so the safest thing was not to ride.  He was very happy when he saw the saddle pad come out of the tack room.  I cannot say enough how much I love owning a horse who loves to ride.

Yes, yes, I was a "Good Boy"; now put your money (i.e. treats) where my mouth is.

Hmmm.  These Christmas carrot treats from your Mom are pret-ty good, but I need to sample a few more just to be sure.

The goals of our ride were simple: see how Harley feels, stretch and limber up.

How did he feel?  In a word: Great.

Harley was ready to go and incredibly soft in the bridle.  He gave me some of his best walk-halt and trot-walk transitions to date.  While I kept a supportive lower leg on through the transition, he maintained his frame and even raised his shoulders in the trot to walk.  That was neat, especially for a horse who is built a little downhill.  I thought about not cantering, since I was not sure if his fitness would be there and I did not want to tax him, but Harley quickly reminded me that he loves to canter so not cantering at all conflicted with his wants for the ride.  A couple quick flicks of the ear back and forth conveyed his question,

"Do you want to canter?  I want to canter."

I gently moved my legs into canter position and he picked it up in the exact same moment.  He also lifted the saddle up to my seat in a lovely way and stretched in canter left.  In canter right, he needed a little help from me to stretch.  I opened my inside rein and applied a supportive upward nudge with my inside calf.  This coordination of aids was also supported by my seat, which joined the rein and leg aid, and moved Harley's nose and face an inch or two to the inside.  My outside rein was still, as both of my outside aids kept him straight on the circle.  Just a couple of these gentle suppling movements allowed him to release his neck and ribcage.  He relaxed into canter right with an appreciative sigh.

Harley gave me some really slow, balanced canter before the canter to trot transition.  Dare I say "collected canter"?  I half-halted to ask him to shift his weight back before the transition and he did the horse version of shifting down a gear, but stayed in canter.  I sat totally still with my hands just above his withers and my seat following the very small circular motion of his canter.  It felt like my seat was the fulcrum or the central gear in a horse/human machine.  His canter was wonderful and felt easy.  After a balanced canter to trot transition we went to the left again and Harley showed me that he can create nearly the same small canter going to the left, as long as I ride it exactly as I do going to the right.  Being the central gear is a big responsibility, but that canter was more than enough of a reward to keep my coming back for more!

We kept the ride under an hour, with lots of walking and gentle circles on a long rein in the beginning.  We also walked slowly over some ground poles to get the synovial fluid warmed up in his joints.  We trotted figure eights and soft teardrops to get his ribcage swinging into each bend.  I think it so interesting that we can go out and have so much fun together, even though he is on turnout all the time and could trot and canter to his heart's delight on his own.  I believe that this is why he likes riding as much as I do.  I can (hopefully) make moving about more interesting for him with challenging figures or movements and changes of scenery on the trail.  He has learned how to engage the muscle groups for carrying, which probably feel good to use properly.

I think that we both get something out of this partnership and that is where riding crosses into art.  Together the horse and rider are able to be something that separately is impossible. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Blogosphere Holiday Card



Wishing a safe and happy holiday season to you and yours, 
whether they be of the two-legged, four-legged, 
or winged variety!


And a Happy New Year to "Avery"-one!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rider Confessions

My car smells like a tack room.

I know that to horse people, this is no big deal, so maybe I should clarify.  We have been putting our cars in the garage at night, because scraping frost off the windshield in the morning is not fun.  My husband is very sweet and less deterred by cold (He can wear shorts and move the cars in the cold.  Not me!), so he has been moving my car into the garage for me.  The first time he did this, he walked into the kitchen and said,

"Did Harley use your car as a bathroom?"

So maybe "smells like a tack room" is not the right description.  You might be thinking of freshly cleaned leather or the subtle, sweet aroma of horse cookies, but this would not be accurate.  Actually, I do not know how to describe the odor in my car, but it is bad and the problem seems to be coming from my trunk.  I own one horse, but one saddle pad is just not enough.  Apparently, the lesson goers at the barn did not think it possible to have so many pads and only one horse, so I noticed that my pads started migrating to the wrong side of the tack room.  Who can resist a quilted, navy pad with silver piping anyway?  I decided that the safest thing to do was to put my spare pads in the trunk of my car, along with the spare tire.  Some of them were clean, others not so much.  Honestly, I did not notice any odor migrating from the trunk until a few weeks ago.  I went to retrieve my trimming rasp (my trunk doubles as a farrier's box) and discovered that it was hiding under a damp saddle pad.  This was strange for two reasons:

  1. I had only used that pad once the entire summer and
  2. I did not put a damp saddle pad in my trunk.  Come on.  I do have limits.
This means that my trunk must have leaked during rainy November.  I drive an older Honda Civic, which is not exactly an ideal barn car and definitely getting on in years.  A leaky trunk is very likely.

And smelly, now that there are damp pads in there.  Or were.  No, I did not clean out my trunk.  Again.  I have limits and cleaning my car is very, very low on the "to do" list.  The truth is that none of the pads are wet or damp, so they must have air dried during the past couple weeks, slowly diffusing their noxious vapors into the cabin of my car.

My tack room on wheels.  Honda calls the color "Inca Pearl", but I call it "Metallic Mustard".
So let me rephrase.

My car smells like a really, smelly tack room, BUT
I cannot move "clean my car" up on the "to do" list,
because I have to ADD "do horse laundry". 

For the time being I should reframe from offering rides to nonfamily members.  As for family members, a tack room/farrier box/smelly car is part of the territory.  Sorry!

Dressage Civic

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Say Hello to Alfalfa and Science

I finally connected with my vet.  Harley's blood work indicates that he had a viral infection.  My assumptions that we had fallen to the bottom of the triage list were most likely accurate, as no medication can be given to assist the body in fighting a virus.  Fever reducers and anti-inflammatory medication (i.e. bute) can make him more comfortable as his immune system fights off the infection.  Like people coping with the common cold or the flu, it is important to drink enough fluids, keep warm, and rest to allow the body to heal and to prevent secondary bacterial infections while the immune system is taxed.  Since stopping the bute, Harley's legs are still tight, he does not have a fever, he is alert and looking back to normal.  He has his blanket at night for added warmth along with his thick hair coat.  Our nights have just started to drop to freezing; in fact, the first hard frost was the weekend of his mystery illness.  I am so, so glad that I bought him a blanket this year.  Besides keeping him warm and helping him maintain condition, having that blanket was so important for his bout with a virus.  I am thinking that I was very lucky to not have needed one until this year, as Harley has never been sick before.

Here comes the science.
If you would like to read about the alfalfa instead, you will have to scroll down...a lot.  
I hope you choose to read!

I was surprised that a couple people have asked me if the vet prescribed antibiotics for a viral infection.  I decided to mention it here, because overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics is a community health concern.  Medicinal antibiotics are typically derived from naturally occurring chemicals secreted by fungal organisms to prevent competition with bacteria for food sources (both are decomposers) or to prevent infection.  The most well known is probably still penicillin, which is produced by penicillium, a genus of fungi which are commonly recognized as including fruit and bread molds, but also include a wider range of fungal organisms.  Antibiotics specifically attack bacterial cells and have no effect on viruses, which are not classified as "living" since they require host cells to reproduce.  The body's immune system can be trained to recognize specific viruses through vaccination, but this must be prior to infection.  A "trained" immune system will recognize an invading virus and produce memory immune cells with the appropriate antibody very quickly, usually fighting the infection off before symptoms affect the host.  This can be described as "learned immunity".  The immune system is an awesome mechanism, as is vaccination.

The trouble with antibiotics stems from something called "antibiotic resistance".  As a science teacher I have realized that this is also not well understood by many people.  Antibiotic resistance is not something that the host (person, horse, dog, etc.) or the infective bacteria develop.  Antibiotic resistance is a naturally-occurring trait in a certain percentage of infective bacteria due to genetic variation.  Antibiotic resistant bacteria are always present, by chance and mutation, but the hope is that they are far outnumbered by bacteria who are susceptible to antibiotics.  When a sick animal or person receives antibiotics, the chemical helps the immune system fight off the bacteria.  The antibiotic resistant bacteria that happen to be present will not respond to the antibiotics, but will be taken down by the immune cells of the host.  Working together, the antibiotics and a healthy immune system can fight off the infection and restore health to the host.

So what is the problem?

If the antibiotics are not taken as prescribed or when necessary, the antibiotic resistant bacteria may have a chance to outnumber the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria.  For example, a doctor prescribes antibiotics for ten days.  The patient starts taking the medicine, but feels better within four days and decides to stop the medication.  This is a classic situation for antibiotic resistant bacteria to thrive.  The antibiotics were taken long enough to kill off some of the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria, but not long enough to support the immune system while it handles the resistant invaders.  By removing the antibiotic supports, the immune system may falter and a population with a high percentage of antibiotic resistant bacteria blooms in the host.  The patient feels sick again, returns to the doctor, receives more antibiotics (or starts taking the remainder of the original pack), but now the balance between resistant and susceptible bacteria has been shifted and the medicine is unable to assist the immune system effectively.  A different or stronger antibiotic will be required to fight the increased population of super bacteria which multiplied from an initial small percentage of infective organisms.  Of course, these super bacteria can be transmitted to new hosts who will suffer the same difficulty in fighting off the resistant bacteria.  The situation escalates and will be especially dangerous for weak hosts or hosts with an already-compromised immune system.  In (human) hospitals, I have heard of this situation progressing with Staph infection (Staphylococcus aureus), which is notoriously infective and dangerous.  Yikes.

The moral of the story is to always take or administer antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your doctor or veterinarian as preventative measures and to promote complete and timely recovery.  Giving antibiotics for a viral infection is setting up the conditions for an antibiotic resistant bacteria nursery, because the immune system is already tackling a viral infection and any infective bacteria which may also be present will have its susceptible bacteria killed off, creating open season for resistant bacteria to multiply as the immune cells attempt to divide their efforts. 

I love biology, by the way.  :)

Hello Alfalfa...

My vet has made a recommendation to aid Harley's condition. 

Alfalfa pellets. 

Ideally, we would like to offer him an alfalfa-mix hay, but since I do not own my own farm and I am not (even slightly) in control of the hay we receive, that is not going to happen.  Also, if Harley was eating alfalfa, his pasture mate (who is plenty round) would be eating alfalfa and that is frowned upon.  My dentist had already mentioned alfalfa cubes or pellets, as he has thoroughbreds and supplements their diet with the pellets.  He said that Harley's molars are very good and perfectly able to chew hay, but alfalfa delivers more protein for the quantity.  The hay which my barn feeds is coarse and could not be described as "rich".  While this might be fine for the majority of the horses, my vet feels that Harley would benefit from a higher quality option.  Of course, he will still receive his normal long-stemmed hay ration, since pellets do not qualify as roughage and cannot contribute to gut mobilization.  He also needs to burn hay to keep warm and mentally sound.  I have seen horses who cannot have hay.  They were not really happy and always looked at least a little frustrated, especially when the hay truck drove around and all they got was soaked cubes.  Unfortunately, sometimes this is the only management option for very old or allergic/asthmatic horses, which was the case with the animals to which I am referring.  Thankfully, Harley is perfectly capable of eating hay.  Let's hope he stays that way until he is thirty and then we can switch to cubes.

I have read a lot about alfalfa.  Alfalfa has gotten a bad rap in many circles, but seems to be perfectly fine for feet and temperament, although expensive.  My barn owners are concerned that Harley will get hot on alfalfa.  I have read that if a horse becomes hot on alfalfa, he is probably allergic.  My vet was not concerned about allergies being a risk or hotness.  Harley is not exactly climbing the walls, so if he did gain some pep, I would not be upset about that.  After his body recovers from the virus, he will be redrawn for a full allergy panel, so we will know if Harley has allergies to hay, dust, mold, or anything else.

Do you have any thoughts on the effects of alfalfa on temperament?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Frisky Horse Is A Healthy Horse

At least that is what I am going with right now.  I am still waiting to here from the vet about Harley's blood work.  Usually no news is good news, so hopefully we have just been dropped to the bottom of the triage list and she will call me back when she has a free moment.  My vet is very, very busy.

I got to see my teacher today.  She was out giving lessons, which bummed me because due to Harley's bizarre health issue this weekend, I had to cancel our slot.  Even though I did not ride, I still spoke to her while she was working on a horse and it was very reassuring to hear her impression of Harley.  She said that he did not look like a sick horse at all.  She is suspecting allergy.  Maybe there was a funky weed in the hay or something else that elicited an allergic reaction.  Now this does bother me, because without knowing what caused the problem, I cannot avoid it for next time.  Since I personally get full-body hives from a sulfites overload, I know that weird food allergies can go undiagnosed for a long time before a pattern is determined.  And, if we are talking about a weed, it will be near impossible for me to prevent him for contacting the mysterious weed in the future, unless I do not feed him hay.  There are some horses that cannot eat hay, which is a management challenge (i.e. nightmare).  Let's hope that we do not have to cross that bridge.

Honestly, Harley looked really, really good today.  He was eager and alert.  His legs were tight as a drum and he was very social.  My teacher tried to resist petting him, since we do not really know if he is "clean" yet, but she quickly melted under his spell and ended up kissing his nose.  She lamented in realizing that she would have to change her clothes before her next client, but connecting with Harley is worth it.  I am telling you, he does this to people!

After grooming him, checking him over, and preparing his dinner to soak, I decided to put him on the line for a few minutes.  I did not bring a whip, because I expected to just move him around a little bit and see how he felt.  Harley had other plans.  He was frisky!  When I asked him to trot, he tossed his head in a very studly manner and jumped around before stretching onto a circle around me.  I had to laugh when we changed directions, because he repeated the stunt, but escalated his antics to a bouncyy canter.  He leaped and hopped and tossed his mane dramatically until I coaxed him into a trot.  He stretched his neck down and snorted with satisfaction.  I asked him to repeat the walk-trot transitions a couple times, so that he was not just burning off steam.  If he wanted to work, then that is what we would do.  He definitely had his frustrated look on,

"What are you waiting for?  Let's go."

Harley is tired of resting and I am very happy to see this.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There Is Just Something About Harley

I wear rose-colored glasses when I look at my horse. 

During our vet appointment, my vet challenged me to take those glasses off for a few minutes.  We discussed his weight and his inability to gain muscle mass in certain areas.  She pointed to certain parts of his body and said "this should really be filled in" and " his ribs are not showing, but he never gets any meater in his loins".  He's funny looking.  He's really funny looking.

Poor Harley. 

I knew what she meant, and I knew that she was being objective.  I can be objective, too.  I can see that my horse has a slight roach in his back, and knobby shoulders.  I would like his topline and butt to round out more, but they just don't.  He eats a high fat, relatively low starch feed and lots of beet pulp.  Unfortunately, the quality of our hay is a constant issue, but I pay for him to receive extra and I try to compensate with more reliable sources of nutrients, like a complete feed and beet pulp.  He has ample turnout (24/7) with a buddy and I work him.  During the summer we work 4-5 days a week and I do not mean little 20-minute jaunts.  We ride for about an hour with lots of variety in gait and exercise, transitions, cantering, and breaks.  He sweats and gets a shower and his skin shows the brilliance of his muscle tone complete with the bulging veins of a body builder.  Harley never bulks up, but he gets fit.  Really fit.  The kind of fit where he never seems tired and is always ready for more.  Although he is a quarter horse, I am certain that there is a fair amount of thoroughbred blood coursing through his veins and that this may contribute to his lean body type.  He is slap-sided and narrow-chested.  He has good sturdy legs, but his large quarter horse hindquarters accentuate his narrow frame.  He does not have a heart-shaped rump, no matter how much I feed him or work him, and was described by the saddle-fitter as "roof-backed".  In other words, do not ride Harley bareback unless you have installed some serious padding!  I am envious of riders who hop on their table-backed horses and go out for a little hack.  Harley and I both hurt if we attempt this.

I explained to the vet that I do have a trainer and I strive to ride him in a balanced frame with a lifted back.  I told her that he may not look like a dressage horse, but we did receive some decent scores at first level under two judges and he knows how to carry himself.  He wears a well-fitting saddle (after a long, long journey and several saddle purchases), but Harley will not develop the luxurious, voluptuous curves of a solid saddle horse.  He just will not.  We have tried bodywork and lungeing.  He is able to do what we ask, but he doesn't get any rounder and he stays lean.  I joked with the vet that there are horses who sit in the paddock and do nothing with more "topline" than my horse.  She has seen him for years, so she knows what I mean and she knows my horse.  She said that every time she looks at him, she tries to see why he is not quite the right shape.  He is not sway-backed.  He is sound and his joints are good.  She tells me that she is stumped in that regard.  I told her that he is a horse who looks better in motion.

August 2011: Harley demonstrates his ability to go long and low without any gear except a halter and a line.

My body position and energy seem to affect how well he stretches and engages.  Can you see my smile over his back?

He does this equally nicely in walk.

Canter right gives the least impressive stretch, but this is not surprising since cantering on the lunge calmly and in balance has been a very long project.  Good Boy.

A nice stretch in canter left.  On a smaller circle, he can collect his canter, which transforms his slight frame into a generous ball of muscle.

And he is.  When he is moving, Harley just looks amazing to me.  I see him on the lunge and he takes my breath away all the time.  I watch videos of us riding and I muse at his expression and drive.  He is one fantastic horse.  Is his conformation perfect?  Goodness no!  Does he give the picture of a horse that can really move?  Nope.  Even my teacher says that when she looks at Harley, she would never expect him to move the way he does.  I am not saying that he has some crazy elevated front end or extremely released shoulders, far from it.  There is just something about him.  Every clinician and trainer that I have ever ridden with has liked him.  Judges like him, even if he does not receive huge scores.  There is just something about Harley.  He has talent, even if it is not the textbook kind.  Something that makes people roll their window down and take a picture and makes neighbors hang over the fence and watch us ride for twenty minutes.  My Mom says that this is his gift.  He draws people with his good spirit.

I think that the vet's assitant had a sense of this, because she stroked his nose and consoled him, "Do not worry, Harley.  Looks are not everything."

The vet was wondering if he suffered an accident, in his life before ours.  Did he fall and suffer damage to the nerves in his back?  She explained that if the muscles are not innervated properly, they will not develop regardless of what you do to work them.  We will probably never know the answer to that question, but if the answer is "yes", that does not change a thing, because Harley obviously is coping with his body very, very well.  He is athletic and sound and seems to relish training challenges that are physically and mentally challenging.  I do not care if he does not own the picture perfect body.  Who of us does?  I love him and he is gorgeous.  I cannot believe that he is my horse.  My vet said, "Thank God you have him."  I hate to think of anyone taking him for granted or being dissatisfied with him, but I appreciate her sentiments just the same. 

My rose-colored glasses went right back on and they are not coming off any time soon.  Love you, Harley.

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Appreciation For An Awesome Vet

Sometimes I think that my teaching job is stressful.  And teaching is legitimately stressful for many obvious reasons, like lesson planning for an eclectic group and lunch duty, and some not so obvious reasons, like teaching in a building with malfunctioning boilers (hot!).  However, I am quickly reminded that my job is not that stressful when I spend a few moments on the phone with my vet.  She had to postpone our appointment twice today for two very unpleasant emergencies.  Unpleasant is an understatement, if you are the owner of the horse involved in those emergencies, but I am trying not to go into detail.  I want to keep this blog lighthearted!

Despite her long day, she arrived at our barn with all pistons firing and gave my horse her immediate attention.  She must have been tired, but she didn't show it.  Her and her assistant impress me with their professionalism and sheer endurance.  And we were not her last appointment of the day, even though it was after 5:30 pm when she left the barn.  How do they do it?  Needless to say, I was very happy to see them and very appreciative of their time.

Every aspect of Harley's strange illness and his management were discussed.  We covered a lot of ground and my vet analyzed every morsel of information, culminating in a few possible causes: 
  1. Harley could have come in contact with a viral or bacterial infection (at the Turkey Trot or just from barn visitors, which are numerous).  My vet was especially adamant that strep can be transmitted this way from horse to person to horse.  She looked at my temperature records from this weekend and says that it looks like a low grade fever.
  2. Harley may be suffering from an allergic reaction.  She listened to his breathing and said that there was some reason for concern.  There could be something in the new shipment of hay (or something else) that is aggravating his airways.  Remember the coughing, which I mentioned when he was stalled?  The leg swelling could be caused by allergies, or we may be looking at two separate problems.
So Harley got an early Christmas present: full blood work.
Merry Christmas, Boy!

My vet will send his blood out to test for infection and allergies.  The allergy testing results will take some time, but we should know if he was exposed to strep or something else within a few days.  In the meantime, he is comfortable, his legs are normal, and he does not have a fever.  He is also much more alert than he was this weekend and seems back to his old self.  I am thankful for this.

And I am so thankful that there are people who choose to dedicate their lives to helping sick and injured animals.  The commitment is palpable.  So is the love for the horse.  I am truly in awe of my vet.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Long Weekend (or The Worries of Having a Sick Horse)

When I wrote my last post about Harley's Five Year Anniversary, I was sick with worry.  Harley was not right, but I did not know what was wrong with him.  My "long weekend" began on Thursday.

On Thursday, I made it to the barn with enough daylight to ride for the first time since the weekend.  Since it had rained for most of the week, I had groomed Harley on Tuesday, but we had not been able to ride.  During our grooming session, he was totally normal, except for five or six yawns, which is not really characteristic for him.  On Thursday, I marched out to the paddock to find him waiting at the gate.  The barn was full of activity and his paddock buddy was giving a lesson, so Harley was eager to see his human.  I immediately noticed that his legs looked a little weird, but since he was standing in mud I decided to walk him to the barn before his usual health inspection.  He walked so normally to the barn, and there was so much going on in the riding rings, that I completely forgot what I had noticed at the gate, until I reached down to pick up his front leg.

"OMG!  Harley, what the heck is wrong with your leg???"

Harley's left front leg was fluid filled up to the knee.  A quick glance around revealed that all four of his legs were stocked up like I had never seen before.  He had stove pipes for legs.  I looked into his face and nothing in his expression told me that he was upset or in discomfort.  I handled each leg, feeling for warmth, but there was none.  I did the same with his feet.  I gently squeezed the swelling and found that it was soft, when a small indentation remained where my fingers pressed into his lower leg.  He did not flinch or show any pain.  My next instinct was to test his soundness, so I grabbed my lunge line and whip and marched him out to the big ring.  Once on the line, I felt much better, because Harley looked fine.  He was sound as a whistle, walk, trot, and canter.  In fact, he even stretched his neck and back in trot after a nice canter.  He was more than willing to move out with long, pretty strides.  After a trip in both directions, I inspected his legs and found that the filling was going away.  He had been out 24/7, but I suspected that he had planted himself in the shed and stayed put during the rainy evening.  I tacked him up and rode for a little while.  He moved quite nicely under saddle after the lungeing, and I found myself making a mental note to try lungeing before riding when I have more than two minutes of daylight to rub together.  After the exercise his legs were about 80 percent normal.  He looked a little tired, but we have not been working that much this month, so I chalked it up to that.  He ate his dinner and went out with his blanket.

On Friday, I left work as quickly as I could and headed out to check on Harley.  Any semblance of reassurance was lost when I saw his legs.  They were worse than the day before!  There was still no heat, but the filling was severe in all four legs and clear up through his hocks in the hind legs.  My heart was in my throat.  Something is really wrong.  I walked him back to the barn and noted that he was walking normally with no signs of unsoundness or soreness.  Despite the impressive edema in his legs, he was not even noticeably stiff.  Meanwhile, I felt like I was going to be sick.  Fat legs are not something that any horse owner wants to find waiting at the gate.

I called the vet and left messages on two of her answering machines.  I resisted calling her emergency number, because I did not feel that he was really in an emergency situation.  I do not want to block up the lines for a horse that is colicking or seriously injured.  As luck would have it, the barn owners were away, so I could not go to them for help, but they left a very competent, wonderful horse person in charge and she helped me with Harley.  We took his temperature and respiration and she found his heartbeat with the stethoscope.  All of his vitals were normal.  His eyes were clear and his gums and tongue were pink.  He had some condensation in his nostrils, but no gunk or mucus.  We listened to his gut, which was the typical orchestra of bubbles and gurgles.  That is a beautiful sound, isn't?

I asked him to walk and trot on the lunge for a couple minutes and although he did seem a bit lethargic, it was not dramatic and he was, again, totally sound.  After this exercise, his legs were about 50% better, but this did not reassure me much.  It was our five-year anniversary, and I was worried instead of celebrating.

"What is wrong with you, Harley?"  His liquidly, brown eyes told me nothing.  At least they did not convey pain or distress.  He ate most of his dinner and went back out with his blanket.

Then I went home, waited for the vet to call, and searched the internet for ailments which cause fat legs.  This was a bad idea.

Most of the hits come back with scary things like "heart failure" and "kidney failure".  I basically made myself sick with worry.  I checked my cell phone for messages.  I watched a movie to try and pass the time and then I sat and soaked in my own despair.  What if my horse drops dead tonight?  Is this what parents feel like when there is something wrong with their child?  I was utterly miserable.

Saturday morning did not come fast enough.  I drove to the barn and reinspected Harley's fluid-filled legs.  I took his temperature, which was a degree and a half lower than the night before, and I called the vet's numbers again.  I left a message explaining that I was going to call her emergency number if I did not hear from her in the morning.  She called about an hour later.

We discussed his symptoms and she did her best to reassure me that he was not going to drop from organ failure.  I tried not to sound like a horse owner hypochondriac, but I think that I lost that battle when I mentioned kidney failure.  Sigh.  My vet was very helpful and assured me that we could set up an appointment for Monday.  In the meantime, I was to check on his manure, reduce his feed as a precaution, remove his supplements to eliminate variables, and give him bute and light exercise to bring down the filling.  Within an hour and half of force-feeding him applesauce and bute (which he actually seemed to like) and light exercise, his legs looked 95% back to normal.  I started to breath easier, but I did not sigh with relief until I saw his legs today.  He had joints again!  I took his temperature and it was almost a degree less than the morning before and two degrees less than the first time that I took it.  Maybe Harley had a low grade fever, afterall?

By this evening, he was heartily eating his dinner and eagerly looking to go out for his evening hay.  I was taken by how much pep he had.  Oh my.  Maybe he was down in the dumps before, just not like other sick horses I have seen.  My friend who was caring for the horses mentioned that he was walking out to the paddock much more quickly this morning than he had in several days.  Usually he walks much faster than his paddock buddy, but lately he had been dragging behind.  That is definitely not Harley.

So, although my horse is feeling much better and no longer has elephant legs, we are seeing the vet tomorrow morning.  After reading and searching and trying to ignore articles and links about organ failure, I think that I may have come across a plausible affliction: a virus.  Harley's dentist was here at the beginning of the month.  Did Harley catch a virus from another horse outside our barn?  Hopefully, he will continue to be on the mend and maybe my vet will be able to put my worries to sleep, because this has been a very long weekend!

The nights are finally cold enough for his blanket.

And his body can use the extra help while he is getting well.  Stay cozy Harley!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Happy Five Years Harley!

Five years ago today, I sealed the deal and purchased my first horse.  I fell in love with horses at age three, as young as I can remember that is, and wished for one ever since.  It was not until my 27th year that I was finally able to realize my dream with the support of a wonderful husband, of course.  He was the one who gave the final push.  He told me that if I thought he was a good horse, then I should buy him.  He didn't have to tell me twice.

December 2006: I love this picture, because my husband is like "what have I gotten myself into?"  I am just delirious with joy.

August 2008: I never gave up on my own pony.

December 2011: Thanks for the wonderful journey, Harley.  Here's to many more!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Barefoot Horse: November 2011 Trim and Dental Appointment

Don't listen to her.  I am perfect.

I am sure that you have heard the expression "no foot, no horse."  Anyone who has owned, ridden, or worked with horses for any amount of time will no doubt agree.  I have friends whose horses have foot issues, and more than a couple of them have drooled over Harley's nice set.  But fear not, dear readers, there is balance in this world.  Harley does have his own physical dilemma.  I have joked with Harley's original trimmer that "my horse's foot problem is a tooth problem."  Harley's major maintenance challenge is his teeth.

I would like to add a new expression here:

"No tooth, no horse."

Harley has an overbite.  He needs braces.  Big time.  Harley's condition is considered a conformational flaw and is called "parrot mouth".  This is somewhat amusing to me, since I live with four parrots who possess their own "parrot mouths".  But in all seriousness, parrot mouth is no laughing matter.  When I purchased Harley, I was aware of his dental condition and willing to assume the responsibility of caring for his very special (expensive) mouth.  There were so many other wonderful qualities about him, which easily overshadowed his dental handicap.  Let us not forget that one can search forever and never find a flawless horse.  I accepted the bad with the good.

Now, you may have seen an overbite on a horse before.  You may have visions of what this looks like.  So just let me add a few details:

1) I am not going to post pictures of Harley's condition.  It is bad enough that I do not want to see pictures of his mouth showing up all over the internet as ridiculously, horrible horse dentition.  I also feel like it would be kind of mean of me to publish his worst quality for the world to see.

2) Two dentists have described his teeth as "the worst overbite I have worked with".  Although since then, Harley's dentist told me that he did see a more severe case.  Yikes!

3) Harley has had not one, but two incisor reductions.  Which means that I have paid for two incisor reductions.  Specialty horse shoes, anyone?

4) Mt. Everest-sized hooks were removed from his upper front molars (a three-hour procedure without a speculum or power tools) and a few years later he had good-sized hooks removed from his rear lower molars (this time with a speculum and power tools, which was much faster and less stressful).  The upper hooks were so large that they were interfering with the bit, which was a serious safety hazard, not to mention the impact it had on his ability to eat properly.  Since I bought him in December, I had the dentist out as soon as possible and then he promptly told me that he would have to return with specialized tools.  Harley's first Christmas present was upper hook removal.  Not very exciting, but definitely necessary.  Merry Christmas!

Good News on the dental front (pun intended)!

Harley's latest dental appointment, on the first of December, revealed that his teeth are maintaining!  This means that he is not redeveloping hooks and his lower incisors are not assaulting his palate!  The dentist explained that this wonderful news indicates that we have finally caught up to the years of minimal (no) dental care from before he was my Boy and his mealtime routine of only eating from the ground (dinner and hay) is keeping his genetic predisposition for hooks at bay.  A round of high fives are in order, as this type of success is thanks to the combined efforts of Harley's dentist and caregivers!

His overbite will never go away, and he will need special attention as long as he has teeth, but it is worth mentioning that all horses can suffer from hooks and malocclusions if their teeth are not properly floated and evaluated on an annual or semiannual basis.  I am proud to announce that Harley has graduated to yearly appointments!  I am relieved.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled hoof trim...

Right front, 2 days post-trim: My camera was having some trouble in Harley's shadow.  The outside bar is still a work in progress, as are the outside bars on the hind feet.  Just trimming and waiting.

Left front, 2 days post-trim: There was a little bit of chalky sole in both fronts.  The bars on this foot are looking straight with an open central sulcus.

Right hind: Before trim

Right hind: After trim.  The white line was super tight all the way around the hoof.  All four of his feet had a nice, healthy connection.  I am hoping that this is more magnesium magic.

Left hind: Before trim

Left hind: After trim.  This hoof was equally nice.  If you compare the frog to the summer pictures, the asymmetrical groove (thrush of some kind) is gone.  Harley, would you like some hoof with that frog?

I try my utmost not to take Harley's positive genetic traits for granted.  Combating a genetic defect, like his overbite, is no simple matter.  I am very grateful that he has inherited healthy feet, as any predisposition to physical problems is draining for horse and owner on a number of levels.  All one can do is take advantage of the resources at hand, educate oneself, and make the horse's well-being the first priority.

Thankfully, Harley is able to maintain decent condition, despite his dental handicap and his high metabolism.

My barn owner says that he copes with his disability very well, always picking up dropped grain and taking his dear, sweet time eating his meals (20 minutes!). 
He is no less cute with his flaws.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Riding Reflection: Energizing, Flying Changes, and Shoulder-in to Renvers

Although the title of this post may suggest otherwise, Harley is on a mini-vacation.  At least, that is his perspective.  Between work and shortened periods of daylight I have not been able to ride my lovely boy nearly as much as I would like.  Unfortunately, this is to be expected this time of year, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it!

Just to give you an idea of how crunched for time I have been, I actually went on a short trail ride at dusk and ended up riding in the dark.  Do not be alarmed.  We went with our trusted trail buddies, Cisco and his mom, and we stayed close to home. This is not the first time that we have explored the darkened trail, familiar yet surprisingly mystical as the sunlight disappeared between the trees.  The best part of our walk was the end, because when we turned onto the sandy path in the clearing, we found ourselves facing a beautiful sunset.  The orange horizon called us home.  Harley was marching with the most gorgeous walk ever.  If only he could reproduce that in the dressage arena!

A few days later I made some time to ride while the sun was still up.  After a little walk around the paddock, we entered the riding ring and began our warm up.  Harley felt...

...like he was on vacation.  He was walking at a snail's pace, although he did stretch to the bit when I picked up the reins a little, but unfortunately for him, I remembered that awesome walk during our nighttime trail outing.  So I proceeded to energize my horse.  I walked energetically with my seat and if he did not match my energy (he didn't) I nudged with my legs.  If that didn't motivate him (it didn't either), then I tapped with the whip and I did not stop tapping until he was trotting.  With repetition, Harley finally decided that it was okay to work again.  His forward-thinking kicked in 100% once we started trotted and I repeated the energizing by tapping him into the canter.  Then his motor shifted into overdrive and we were officially ready to ride!

Our canter warm up included practicing flying changes.  Although this may not seem like a warm up activity, Harley really enjoys them so these serve as a motivator as well as training in their own right.  I love how I can feel him thinking when we work on flying changes.  We often practice on the straight away of the diagonal (purist dressage-style), but lately I have been using a large figure eight instead.  The circle helps me help him to remain balanced and consistent in his tempo.  The right to left change is nearly reliable in the figure eight exercise and has improved in smoothness.  I do not have to prepare by putting my current outside leg on to engage his future inside leg before the change.  Instead, I sit tall in the saddle and very clearly switch my legs as I look in the new direction.  He does a flying change nearly every time.  Sometimes I feel that he changes behind first and then in front in the very next stride, but many of the changes are in one jump and feel clean.  I expect the consistency to improve with practice.  His anticipating in this direction is just about gone.

If I approach the left to right change in the same nonchalant manner, he does not do the change.  He may do a cute little one-trot-stride change or he changes behind before I ask.  I have found that if I offer the outside leg preparation as described in the previous paragraph, then he is able to make the change with a nice strong jump.  The left lead is his less balanced leg, so I imagine this is why he has more difficulty switching leads.  The circle definitely benefits our training in this direction, which is why I am taking advantage of this school figure.

A nice walk break followed our warm up.  Once I picked up the reins again, Harley was completely with me.  Yes!  We continued in walk and practiced the shoulder-in to renvers exercise from Second Level.  I love this exercise.  When we ride shoulder-in in walk, I can visually evaluate his bend from nose to tail by looking back at his tail.  Then I reverse my bending aids and he assumes renvers (haunches-out).  I can see and feel the new bend.  It is really neat and an excellent suppling exercise.  I am so grateful to have learned these lateral movements when I was training with my original dressage instructor.  They are invaluable.  At first, Harley adjusts his head carriage in the bend change and comes above the bit.  Except for some gentle requests to flex at the poll in the bend change, I allow him this adjustment room as long as I feel the bend changing behind the saddle.  With repetition, the exercise improves his suppleness, throughness, and response to my aids which is readily visible as the carriage adjustments and coming above the bit melt away. 

Dressage movements do not need to ridden perfectly to be beneficial.  Often signs of resistance are really just signs of stiffness, which the exercise brings to light and then targets and benefits.  This is one of the many reasons why I love dressage.

We repeated the shoulder-in to renvers in trot.  In some ways this was easier, because Harley had impulsion to carry him through the bend change, but there is also less time to make adjustments.  I try to keep the transition of bend slow, because he tends to get a little over-reactive and swing his quarters around rather than softy changing from the middle.  Like the flying change, this type of exercise is challenging, but seems to be very motivating.  Harley is definitely a thinking horse.  Some of his apathy at the beginning of our ride was probably in part due to the fact that the short rides we have gotten in have been little walk/trot/canter jaunts to keep him loose and somewhat conditioned.  Harley's attentiveness increases with the difficulty of the exercise as does his forwardness.  These qualities make him very enjoyable to work with, as long as the attentiveness does not boil over into over-reactiveness and hotness, which are both destructive to learning.  Thankfully, Harley has discovered how to be effortful and calm at the same time.  I am very proud of this, but it is never far from my mind how many years it has taken for us to develop this working relationship.

Post-ride cooler.  Harley is ready for a black-tie affair!