Sunday, September 30, 2012

Flying Change Fix

I have not asked Harley for a flying change since the beginning of June.  That is about four months.  I wanted to take a break from this rather exciting movement and work on the quality of the canter: forwardness, obedience, straightness, and relaxation.  We also spent some time honing our counter canter.  I believe that is what you are supposed to do, when you are trying to improve a movement in dressage.  It is not about the movement itself.  It is always about the basics.

Four months later, my horse has no inclination to throw in an impromptu change.  His transitions in and out of the canter feel very nice.  His is relaxed and carrying himself.  I can throw in a little counter canter here and there without too much fanfare.  Admittedly, I have not practiced the counter canter as much as I originally intended.  The summer heat does not go well with lots of canter practice.

Yesterday we went on a trail ride.  I warmed him up in the ring to see how he was feeling.  He did not cough even once!  I was so, so happy.

I had been thinking that the time to ask for a flying change was near.  Apparently, Harley could hear my thoughts.  As we went to change direction in a figure-eight, I started to ask him to collect a little for a transition to trot and he offered a smooth-as-glass flying change from the right to the left lead.  It was gorgeous!  With the maiden change out of the way, I couldn't wait to get back in the saddle and try it again.

Today, we schooled flying changes.  I learned some interesting things.  Harley has not forgotten them and they still make him excited.  He is still much better at the right to left change than the left to right.  We did not get a really nice left to right today, but I can be patient.  After all, I waited four months with the hopes of improving them by working on just the canter and the transitions!

Harley bucked into the change a few times.  That is not gone, despite all the transition and relaxation work in the last four months.  I need to approach the change with more clarity.  I think "flying change" and he knows what that is, but what he gives me is not exactly what I want.  I want a balanced, calm change with his shoulders up, not his backside!  I need to start making that part of my mental image and riding the change like any other gait or transition that I want uphill.  I have been asking that of him for a while now.  I cannot forget it just because we are doing something exciting.

Things I Need To Do:
  • Ride for an uphill change.  Keep the backdoor of my seat closed and the front door open.  I know how to ride this way, but I tend to lean forward in anticipation.  I just need to stay focused on my position before, during, and after the transition.
  • Keep my legs forward and minimize the outside leg cue.  He does not change at all if I slide my leg back and push.  Just doesn't work.  I need to ride from my seat.
  • Imagine his shoulders up and ride them that way.  Do not accept a change that begins with his head, neck, and shoulders diving down.  I was able to stop him in the dive a couple times, because my position was really solid.  He was surprised and complained a little, but I need to make my expectations clear.  I want a healthy, balanced change.
  • Prepare for the change like any other transition.  The two best flying changes that he did were when I prepared like I wanted a canter to walk transition.  He stayed level and just swapped his legs.  He was light on his feet and it felt easy.  I tried to memorize the feeling.
  • Do not let him get too tired on the left lead.  He gets too heavy.  If he cannot do a canter to walk transition, he does not have the balance or strength to do a change.  Quit and try next time.
  • Praise him for the right kind of change and have fun!  Allow him to move out his canter or relax with a longer neck if he gets too tight.
I am really glad to be practicing these again.  So is Harley.  The first one that I requested had too much "fly" to it, but he was so delighted that he snorted with happiness several times.  We may never perform them in the show ring, but I still think that this is something within our reach.  I also love to make my horse happy and flying changes bring him joy.  His canter felt great.  I just need to remember my position and prepare like it is any other transition.  That is so much easier to write than to do!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Riding Refection: Borrowed Training Exercise

My horse really impresses me.  I guess that I make that readily obvious every time I write about him, but he does.  The school year has started up again, so I am not able to ride much more than a couple times a week, plus his allergies have been acting up so strenuous work is out of the question, but despite these things, we just seem to pick up where we left off each time that I sit in the saddle.

The last time that we rode, I decided to try an exercise which I saw on another blog, Dressage Mom.  Dressage Mom is an upper level rider bringing along her newest horse, a beautiful Arabian gelding.  She writes about their training and posts videos of their lessons from time to time.  I find this to be not only informative, but very fun to watch, as horse and rider are a talented pair.  The exercise that I decided to try is described by her trainer as the "Headless Snowman".  I think that is really cute and describes the figure-eight pattern perfectly.  Her blog entry includes a video.

My interpretation of the exercise:
The figure eight exercise is simple by design, but challenging in practice.  One half of the figure eight is a 20 meter circle.  The other half is a 10 meter circle.  Ride the entire exercise in trot or incorporate canter for the larger circle.  If I were riding a horse that could not handle 10 meters, I would just enlarge the second circle to a size that was challenging, but within the horse's abilities (i.e. 12, 15 , or even 20 meters).  If I needed to increase the challenge, I would ride the figure-eight in canter with a transition through trot or walk between the two circles or incorporating counter canter or a flying change (Wouldn't that be fun?).  The change in direction between the two circles is demanding for horse and rider, because the flexion, bend, and direction of travel must all change where the two circles meet.  The horse must stay balanced over his hindend in the change of direction to complete the exercise.  Too much weight on the forehand or displaced on one shoulder makes the change in direction and bend very difficult.  This exercise not only trains the horse and rider, it also reveals areas that need improvement.  I love dressage exercises that help the horse and are easy to modify.

I presented the figure-eight exercise to Harley first in trot.  He bounced along from one circle to the other with no problem.  I was careful to encourage him to maintain his energy from behind in both circles and to lift my inside rein in the new bend to encourage him to keep his inside shoulder up.  Then I added the canter on the bigger circle.  Wow!  Something about this exercise really helps the horse achieve a balanced uphill canter transition from trot.  Maybe the change in direction and bend helped him stay on his toes.  After cantering the large circle, I asked him to come back to trot and rode the smaller circle.  Here is where the exercise was a good diagnostic exercise for us.

When switching from the left lead canter to a 10 meter trot circle to the right, Harley lost his balance.  He had trouble switching the bend and I could feel that he had fallen on the forehand.  This made the 10 meter circle difficult to begin, so the circle was not on the center line.  He recovered quickly, so the second half of the circle was better.  I kept him on the smaller circle to practice the feel of the balance required and then "released him"  onto the 20 meter circle: gorgeous balanced canter transition every time.

The exercise was much easier when switching from the right lead canter to the 10 meter trot circle left.  This was not a surprise, since the right lead is his more balance lead and the left side is his more bendy side.  He swapped flexion and bend so quickly that he offered to canter the 10 meter circle.  I let him do this a couple times, but asked him to trot the smaller circle a few times as well.  The transition to the right lead was not as expressive as the transition left.  He also sneaked in a nose flip once or twice.  I need to make sure that he is forward into that transition and stretching to the contact.  This is the challenge with the right lead.  He feels really balanced and maneuverable, but he is less keen to stretch and reach over his back.  He stretches and reaches more easily in the left lead, but also tends to lose his balance on the forehand and into the trot more easily.  The lopsided figure-eight was a fun way to work on these areas.  Harley learned the pattern very quickly, which was a good thing in this case.  It gave him confidence and anticipating the transitions actually encouraged him to shift his weight back and stay balanced between his shoulders.  I think that I need to ride the canter all the way up to the change of direction.  I tended to ask for the trot about a quarter circle before the smaller circle.  I think the downward transition should be closer to the circle change to reap the full benefits of the exercise.

...holding the canter that long is asking Harley for a flying change.  We have not practiced those since June.  I have been working on the quality of the canter and obedience to my aids.  I want to return to the flying change and see if he will continue to listen, rather than turn into a flying change machine.  I think the time to ask is near.  I would be lying if I said that I am not itching to go for it!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Riding a Big Horse

When my Mom tells friends or acquaintances about her daughter's riding habit, sometimes they ask questions like,

"Don't you worry about your daughter riding that big animal?"

My Mom knows that I have been riding for a long time and that I do not take unnecessary risks (i.e. I ride with a helmet and I do not just jump on any old horse that comes my way.) and she trusts that Harley is a good boy.  She usually tells people these things and then adds,

"Harley is not that big anyway."

At 15.1 hands, I have to agree.  Harley is rather short, as riding horses go, and also of lean build.  I used to ride a couple warmbloods that were a hand taller and had much more substance.  I liked them, but I like riding Harley better.  He fits me like a glove.

Occasionally, I have an opportunity to ride a big horse.  I have ridden a couple Belgium-crosses, a Percheron-cross, a Freisian-cross, and one full Perch that was just massive.  I have also ridden a handful of Fjords, which are not tall, but can be very wide in the shoulders and barrel, which categorizes them as a draft-type riding horse, in my book.

Recently, my farm acquired a big horse for lessons.  As an instructor, one of my responsibilities is to evaluate the horse on the ground and under saddle.  After working with the horse in various ways on the ground, I decided that it was time for a ride.

The Big Guy: For a Percheron, 16.1 hands is not that tall, but he makes up for it in bulk.  I am not sure if he is a pure Perch or a cross.

No matter how nice the horse, working with a new horse always makes me appreciate my own horse more.  I know that my horse is not perfect, but he is perfect for me and we have nearly six years of understanding and communication between us.  I missed this rapport as I was cleaning up the Big Guy and getting his tack together.  The Big Guy likes to dance around a little in the cross ties.  He fusses and walks forward when I brush him or leave to go in the tack room.  I also discovered that he will paw with his front foot when he gets impatient in the aisle.  I corrected him gently yet firmly for these things.  I understand that in his fourteen years, he has not been taught to stand nicely in the barn, which is not his fault, but I would be lying if I said that it didn't test my patience.  I tried to remind myself that Harley didn't stand well when I first got him either.

Saddling was fine, but then I went to bridle him and he walked away when I took off the halter.  When I take off Harley's halter, he drops his head and then opens mouth for the bit.  I do not have to reach up to put the crown piece over his ears, because his ears are right in front of me.  Having a much larger horse not only keep his head up, but also walk away and try to enter my horse's empty stall is not cool.  The good news is that the Big Guy is a fast learner and obliged when I brought him back to the original spot where I started bridling him.  He stood still for take two, but needs work keeping his head low for bridling.  I could barely get the crown piece over his outside ear.

I brought him outside and did some leading work in the ring.  I tested his response to the bit, the dressage whip, and rein pressure.  This was as much a skills test as a safety test and allowed me to develop more of a rapport with the new horse.  I like to be prepared.  Everything looked good, so I brought him to the mounting area and got on.

And he was great.  The Big Guy moves off of light leg pressure, which was a huge relief.  I used to work with a super-lazy draft-cross that took all the fun out of riding, because he just would not move without a strict progression of aids and relentless repetition.  That horse eventually would canter off of just my leg, but I noticed that he "forgot" his training if anyone rode him between our training sessions.  He was the master of dogging the rider into working too hard.  Thankfully, this horse is very different.

The Big Guy also has a nice, soft mouth and lovely, smooth gaits.  Of course, riding him is a lot like sitting in an easy chair, so I am not surprised.  I can see why draft owners like to hack and school bareback so much.  His back was seriously comfy.  The downside is that his body is so wide for my conformation, that I lose a lot of leg and my right hip was hurting a little bit shortly after we started trotting.  I dropped my stirrups a couple holes, which helped, but my legs need a lot of bend to wrap around his barrel.  This is why Harley's barrel shape is so nice for me.  I actually feel like my legs are longer when I ride him.

Draft horses are bred to have big, heavy shoulders, so shifting their balance back and getting power steering can be a challenge, but this horse was not too bad.  He would get a little stuck on his shoulders in turns, but if I lifted the inside rein and supported with the inside leg or tapped his shoulder with the whip, he was able to straighten up.  I use this same technique to help Harley lift his inside shoulder.  He was also surprisingly balanced in the downward transitions.  He runs into the canter a little bit, but I was tickled pink that he was willing to pick it up and will keep the canter all the way around the ring.  He can even canter a circle with a little extra encouragement from my voice and taps from the whip.  This Big Guy is the nicest draft horse I have ever ridden.  Forward and sensitive, yet calm.  I guess I will forgive his manners in the cross-ties, but continue to educate him.  I would like to see the Big Guy learn to stand still next to the gate while under saddle, so that gates can be opened and closed from his back.  And he tosses his head from time to time in the walk.  I suspect that he has learned to snatch the reins from inexperienced riders.  This is something to work on, but it is pretty minor.  The dentist will check his teeth.

There is something that I find really amusing about riding big horses and riding Harley.  I look at the  big horse's size and I think, "Oh my gosh, that horse is so powerful."  But what I have found, is that few horses can match the turbo engine in Harley's hindend.   Even when this big horse was cantering, the energy behind the gait does not come close to my little horse.  The canter might look bigger, but the movement feels "deflated".  Harley can push with those hind legs like few horses I have ever ridden.  My trainer said that it is his "biggest problem" and his biggest asset.  When he uses that power to propel his front end forward and with an uphill balance, holy mackerel!  I guess with horses, bigger does not necessarily equate with more horse.  That is probably a good thing from our perspective!

Even though the picture is dark, you can get a feel for his size.

The neck.

He is a beautiful horse and barefoot!  He is going to work out great for lessons.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Harley and I have been doing a little trail riding lately.  Riding him is a sure way to see if his allergies are under control and regular exercise seems to help.  I have taken him out for a couple light hacks behind the property.  We usually walk a short loop and then trot a little behind the paddocks or down the sandy road that follows the power lines.  Even though we are hackin', we practice some dressage-ing.  I usually ask him for a particular lead or alternate between right and left with the curves of the trail or along a straight line.  Some times he fusses and throws a little fit, because he remembers being a "yahoo" horse (he is reformed).  He did this yesterday when I asked him to canter home on the left lead.  He wanted to go on his right lead, so he sidestepped and danced away from my aids, trying to position himself for the right lead.  I turned him around and asked him to pick up the left lead going away from home.  After about ten strides, I stopped him, and turned him left, toward home again, and asked for the left lead.  This time he picked it up right away.  Then I brought him back and asked for the right lead.  He picked it up happily.  That was his reward.

Once back in the woods, we alternated leads a few more times.  His canter got quieter and more balanced with each repetition.  It felt really easy and did not require much more than a thought to get him to take the canter.  I sat the trot and let him open up his stride a couple times.  He really likes doing that and seems to prefer me to sit.  I like hacks that are fun and feel productive.

Two fawns and a doe

Harley is such a cool dude.  He likes investigating the deer.  They are not usually scared of us.  I think "mildly annoyed" might be a better description.  Apparently we interrupted their grazing time, but hey, they get to eat all day long.

Harley's paddock buddy

The new horse.  He looks much bigger from the ground!

Just an all-around fun horse.  Love you, Harley!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Health Report: Half Halt

I am reeling a bit from yesterday's post.  I am so grateful for the immediate feedback and suggestions that I received from so many of you.  I feel very fortunate to have such knowledgeable and caring horse people just a few mouse clicks away.  Thank you so much for reading and caring enough to offer some help.

When I start worrying about Harley's weight, I go into "action mode".  This sounds like a good thing, but in some ways it is not.  I tend to get a little impulsive.

Yesterday, I went out and bought a bag of hay cubes.  Our feed store only offers alfalfa cubes.  I have to admit that this is not my first choice.  I would prefer a timothy or timothy/alfalfa mix, but I bought it anyway.  I brought it to barn and did some taste testing with Harley.  He likes the taste of the cubes and eats them when I offer them by hand.  I decided to put about fifteen cubes in with his dinner last night.  I had read that some people feed them dry, so I decided to try that.

Harley ate all of his grain first, which was what I expected and then started eating the cubes.  The cubes were so difficult for him to eat, that he had to hold them against the sides of feed trough and bite them into pieces.  It takes him about three minutes to eat one cube.  I realized right then that the cubes are not going to work.  The barn owner even called this morning and told me that the cubes should be soaked.  There are several reasons why I do not want to go the soaking route.

To make matters worse, by the time I brought Harley to the paddock, it looked like there was only one flake left to split between the two horses.  As he was trying to finish his cubes, his paddock buddy was eating both their rations of hay.  I put out more hay and moved the cubes to a wheel barrow in the hay shed.  Looks like the local horse rescue will be receiving some donated hay cubes.  Last winter I sent them leftover alfalfa pellets.  Oh well.

This morning I have been reading about Blue Seal Sentinel Performance LS, flaxseed, and Cocosoya oil.  I calculated the quantity and concentration of selenium that Harley is getting in his diet, which is well within the safe range.  I think the selenium calculation warrants a separate post if I can find the time this week.

There are some things about each option that look really, really good.  There are also some things that seem to overlap what I am already feeding him or create new management challenges that may not fit into my boarding situation or feed availability.  For example, Ultium is also an extruded nugget, like Performance LS, and they have similar protein/fat/fiber percentages.  The dentist tells me that although his molars have good occlusion and grinding surfaces, he just can't hold his mouth closed due to the overbite.  This causes him to drop food, which he has to pick up again.  And oil would be an effective way (if he can lick it up) to get more calories and Omega-3's into his system, but I am pretty sure that will get it all over his stall, again because he drops food.  And then there is the whole flaxseed (linseed) vs. freshly-ground/boiled/ground-stabilized flaxseed (linseed) debate.  It is so difficult to find consistent information online.  My head sort of feels like it is floating above my neck at the moment, so I am going to employ a mental "half halt".

I am going to wait for my vet's body condition evaluation before I make any changes.  I have some extra things in my back pocket, thanks largely to the feedback which I received here.  I really do appreciate your comments, advice, and commiseration.  I must consider that fact that this may really be as good as it gets for Harley, weight-wise.  There are a couple overweight, easy-keeping horses on the farm and the owner has the challenge of meeting their nutritional requirements and reducing their weight at the same time.  Ironically , that might be even "harder" that what I am trying to accomplish with my horse.  It is just so difficult to shake that "I could be doing more" feeling and not wanting to be seen as a neglectful, uneducated, complacent, or blind horse owner.

I am really trying not to beat myself up about it.  I know deep down that I am not an ignorant owner, but my confidence takes a hit every time someone sees Harley and says,

"He's loosing again.  Isn't he?"

I am sure there are plenty of horse owners who would see him and think, "I could do better than that."

Harley is a cute leaf, just the same.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Health Report: Hardkeeper Woes

First, Harley's allergies seem to be under control again.  I hope that he does not have another flare up, or at least not in the near future.  I definitely like to error on the side of caution, so the coughing he experienced was not like the horrible video clip that I have seen online of a horse wheezing with heaving sides.  Not even close, but I also do not want him to get anywhere near that scary situation

Second, fall shots and body condition evaluations are on the horizon.  I realized this when I looked at my horse and then looked at the large, new horse in our barn.  I think he looks like he weighs 1500 lbs, but the barn owner thinks he is closer to 1200.  We are going to have a little guessing contest and then tape him.  I do not think that tape is very accurate, but it will be interesting to find out.  I guess that I look at the new horse and figure that he could easily have 500 lbs on Harley, whom I think is around 1000 lbs, or, perhaps more accurately, he should be around 1000 lbs.

I think my horse is going to get a "4" on the body condition scale again.  Maybe a "4+", but that is probably wishful thinking.  I feel like I have made a huge effort to get him up to a body condition score of "5" this year, and we did accomplished it coming off the winter, of all times, but now he is looking boney again.  He is muscular and relatively fit, considering his coughing problem, but this horse will not build up fat stores.  He is even being ridden less since school started, but has not gained weight to show it.

Early October 2011: He looks particularly thin here.

September 2012: Not very good photos for comparison, but now I think that he actually looks better than last year.

Here are some things that should have improved his body condition since last year:
  1. More calories from grain: Last year he was eating 1 scoop Ultium and 1 scoop beet pulp at each meal.  Now he eats 1 3/4 scoops Ultium at each meal.  That is a lot of food!  I do not like giving him that much grain, but it is the only thing that has seemed to add some pounds.
  2. Prebiotics/Probiotics daily: We tried the SmartPak SmartGut supplement, but recently switched back to my trainer's recommended ABC's Plus, which contains less ingredients and costs less.
  3. He was blanketed during the winter, which we will do again this year.
  4. He gets extra hay at each feeding, which I pay for dearly.
  5. He is brought in before all of the other horses so that he has time to finish his meal without getting distracted or excited about barn routine.
  6. As always, he is on a regular worming schedule.
 Here are some things that do NOT help his body condition, but I cannot control them:
  1. He has a serious overbite, which makes him a very, very slow eater, especially with hay.  His dentist is awesome, but only so much can be done to correct the uncorrectable.
  2. His buddy is a very efficient eater and can mow down hay in record time.  They share hay.
  3. Only two meals a day
  4. Only two hay feedings a day
  5. We are at the edge of what he is willing and able to consume at each meal.
  6. He is a social horse and a busy body.  He does not like to be left in the barn after everyone else is put outside.  This can cause him to quit eating if he is not finished.
  7. Irregular feeding schedule and feeders: Since we are giving lessons several afternoons a week at our barn, Harley's nighttime feeding schedule becomes disrupted.  I also suspect that this affects the quantities that he receives and late feedings cause him to pace at the gate.  His buddy is usually busy in lessons which leaves him alone.
Here are some things that I could control, but may not be viable options:
  1. Alfalfa pellets: He ate them for less than three weeks and then refused to eat them, wet or dry.
  2. Beet pulp: He ate wet beet pulp for years, but I never saw an improvement in his weight.  He also started refusing it.
  3. Equine Senior: Harley is fourteen and has a dental "imperfection", so senior feed may be easier for him to eat, but his energy requirements demand that he eat obscene amounts of Senior to stay at a "4".  Forget about gaining on Senior.  I tried it for years and it didn't work.
  4. Hay net: Tried it.  Epic Fail.  He dropped below "4", because he could not eat effectively out of a net with 1.5" holes.  His buddy had no trouble and gained weight.
  5. I could wet his grain to make it easier to eat, but this makes a big, unhealthy mess, because he drops wet feed all over the floor of his stall.  He also started refusing wet feed this year.  He wants and needs to chew to produce saliva and buffer gastric acid.
  6. I pay for extra hay, but his buddy eat its.  Hay quantities also change do to differences in flake size and weight.
  7. Harley needs a slow-eating paddock buddy, but he loves his friend.  He would be miserable is we kept out alone.
  8. Harley would probably benefit from a softer, leafier hay, but I cannot control which hay is purchased.  I already ask that the hay not contain fescue and rye, because he is allergic to them.  A boarder can only make so many demands, if you know what I mean.
  9. Harley is a mover and a shaker and he likes to investigate and keep up with barn activities.  He has great work ethic under saddle and I love riding him.  He is exercised 2-5 hours per week and has 24/7 turnout.  These things make him a fast calorie-burner even though the workload is pretty light.
What is left to try?
  1. Move my horse.  I do not want to move and there is no guarantee that another barn will benefit his condition, in fact, the stress of change could makes things worse.  I do not think that I could possibly find a barn that would cater to his needs the way my current barn does.  They basically treat him like their own horse and they love him.  I am very, very lucky.
  2. Put him by himself and pay for constant hay in front of him.  This is not really realistic due to space, finances, and his need to socialize.  Having his face in a hay pile all day will probably not help his allergies and he may be so lonely and upset that he will not eat.  In addition, my vet thinks that he may not get adequate nutrition from hay alone, due to his teeth.
  3. Bring him in and put him in his stall early on lesson days so that he can eat early and not stress out.  (I tried this and it does help in some ways, but a horse with allergies should not linger in his stall.  Usually the aisle is also swept between lessons which will make him cough.  No good.)
  4. One new recommendation I received this year was to reduce Harley's grain meal and add a 30% protein ration balancer.  I understand the creative thinking and the good intentions, but decided that this was not something I wanted to try.
  5. Hay cubes?
I am thinking about the last option.  They are expensive.  I am concerned about quality control.  He would still have to consume them in his stall separately from his paddock buddy and during meals.  I am not sure how much time he will need to eat them.  I do not want to wet them for stall hygiene reasons.  There is no room to increase his meal size, so I would have to cut back his grain to accomodate some hay cubes.  If the cubes can do what the grain is doing at least as well, I would prefer that he have more forage over more grain, but...

...but, that is another change.  Change is tough on him and I do not want to upset his eating if he is doing well.  Or annoy the barn owners.  Or try to find room for the hay cubes in the feed room.  I mean I want to do those things, but there have been so many attempts and reverts back to the original plan in the past that I am sort of feeling like staying in the same place is better.

...BUT, I want my horse to be as healthy as possible and live to be thirty or beyond.

Maybe we have hit the ceiling and I should just accept that.  Or maybe, I just haven't quite found the right combination.  Should I try hay cubes?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Importance of Following Through

I do not play golf, but I have heard the age-old advice to "follow through with your swing".  I suspect this advice applies to baseball, shooting baskets, and lacrosse.  I have little to no experience in those areas, but I do have experience with horses and here is where I believe the importance of the "follow through" rings true.

I worked with a new horse today.  A very big horse.  He is a good horse and I like his curious, sweet personality, but I did notice something about him within the first minute that I met him.

He likes to invade my space.

I greeted the horse, but before I could even open the gate, his nose was up my sleeve.  Cute, right?  Wrong.  I do not think this is cute.  I do not mind if a horse sniffs me and I do not mind if a horse who knows the boundaries of being around human beings places his nose in my hand.  I pet Harley's nose this way all the time.  However, I do not like a new horse who knows nothing about me getting so personal.  I want a new horse to be a little more cautious, like the kids on the first day of school.

I started leading this nice horse and found that his leading habits mirrored his "nose up the sleeve" habits.  I had to hold the lead line on the right side of his chin, while leading left, to keep his face out of my lap.  Let me reiterate that he is a very nice horse.  Bully would be too strong a word, but when a creature weighs 1500+ pounds (I said he was big!), it doesn't matter how nice the creature is, if he is walking on top of you.

So after testing his leading habits in both directions and attempting to get a trot in hand, I decided to re-educate this sweet guy.  My technique is to swing the leather popper at the end of the lead line toward the horse's shoulder.  If the horse understands this cue, he moves his shoulder away from the line.  If he is really in tune, the line does not even swing.  I just move my arm or my hand or direct my intent at his shoulder.  This horse did not know the lesson yet, so he ignored the swinging line.

The next step was to let the swinging line hit his shoulder.  If he did not respond, then the line kept swinging at his shoulder.  If he responded by walking into the line (into the pressure), the line swung with more intensity.  If he tried to back up or planted his front feet and swung his quarters away from the line, the swinging continued.  Basically, the horse had to figure out that the only way to get me to stop swinging that pesky line was to step his shoulders out of my space.  This required persistence and timing on my part and here is where the follow through comes in.

The horse initially walked into me with his shoulder when I asked him to move away.  I swung the line more intently and he threw his head up and braced his body.  He made that horrified face that horses make when they really want you to stop whatever it is that you are doing.  I think this is where a lot of people lose their follow through.

The worst thing that I could do at that moment, is stop swinging that line.  If I stop swinging that line, I am telling the horse that planting his feet is the response I want.  I am also telling him that acting scared is a valid coping mechanism.  I am also telling him that it is safe to hang out in my lap.

I do not know about you, but I do not want a 1500+ animal to prefer my lap to any other place on this planet, because let's face it, that would not be safe for me!

So I followed through.  I swung that line and when the horse looked horrified, I swung it some more.  After ten long seconds, he decided that standing in my face was not a good idea and hopped his shoulders away from me.  He hopped away and took off at the canter.  Luckily, I am used to the feel of a cantering horse at the end of a line, so I turned his face and allowed him to canter around me.  As soon as he jumped away, my line went dead.  The swinging stopped.  I did not punish him for running.  I didn't say anything.  I just let him canter until he wanted to stop, which was within half a circle.  Twenty minutes later he was walking next to me, but at the end of three feet of line.  Now he would trot when I asked and no longer made the scared-face.  He even stretched his neck down and started to look quite pretty.  Best of all, I no longer had a nose up my sleeve.  If I had given in to his incorrect responses when I started swinging the line, I would still be walking with a giant in my pocket and very little control of his feet and body.  In other words, I would not be safe.

The fact that he learned the lesson so quickly shows what a really nice horse he is.  I just like to admire him with some space between us.

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Barefoot Horse: Rolling Along, the Experiment, and some Philosophy

I have officially ended the brief experiment with my rolling technique on my horse's feet.  For those of you who might just be stopping by, I decided to a try a less aggressive bevel on his hooves by rolling to the water line (unpigmented hoofwall) instead of through the water line up to the white line.  The "white line strategy" (See Pete Ramey and Marjorie Smith for more information.  My trim has also been influenced more recently by James Welz, particularly rolling the wall all the way to the heels.), which I originally learned had served me and my horse well, but I am all in favor of allowing my horse to dictate how his feet grow and change.  I decided to back off the technique a bit and see if positive changes occurred.  Since I trim my own horse's feet, I could see these changes happen very quickly at three weeks.  I posted about this last time and already did some corrective work by relieving mechanical pressure at the hoof wall where separation was occurring at the quarters of his front feet.  Three weeks later, I can see that this change is continuing and is not beneficial: hoof wall separation compromises the connection between the wall and internal structures of the foot and makes it possible for bacteria or fungi to enter to foot.  Obviously, this is not acceptable.  The only reason that I would have hoped for anything different, is that I did not want to assume that I knew what the best shape of his foot for him should be.  What if he needed a wider foot and I was preventing this somehow with regular trimming?  I now know that is not the case, at least as far the bevel is concerned, and I have observed the changes that can occur when the "white line strategy" is not employed.  I feel that I have earned some of my own knowledge in this exercise.  I am no longer limited by regurgitation of something that I have read or been told by another person.  For that I am grateful for the experience, BUT I am also on a mission to help him continue to grow his foot with correctly attached hoof wall.  The time to hesitate has passed!

I will continue to trim his bars short, keep the toe back, trim his heels as low as he wants them according to the live sole, and treat the frog as needed to prevent thrush.  If his foot is to widen more at the back, these things should support that change, not a more conservative bevel.  This experiment does not stand alone as the only evidence that the strong bevel is a beneficial technique for his feet.  I have observed similar hoof wall separation when the rapid growth of  his hoof walls got away from me in the spring and early summer.  I have also seen this effect on one other occasion when I tried a slightly different technique (from a professional how-to DVD) for judging how much bevel to put on the foot.  This also produced a more conservative bevel.

His hind feet were not affected as quickly as his fronts, but I can see some separation developing there at the quarters as well.  Interestingly, the hinds are more likely to chip at the quarters or do so much sooner.  I am sure that his fronts would do the same, but I am not comfortable with allowing that much time to pass knowing that a cavern is developing along the edge of his precious feet.

Left front: This is what mechanical hoof wall separation looks like.  The wall at the quarters was supporting too much weight, because the bevel was not strong enough to keep the wall off the ground.  The hoofwall flares away from the sole and becomes separated from the lamina, which make up the white line and are the "velcro" holding the external and internal structures of the foot together.  Please do not think this is a condition only seen in bare horse feet.  Horses wearing shoes may have the same separation present, but the shoe would obstruct our view.  It is also worth noting that the shoe encourages peripheral (i.e.hoofwall) loading by design, which is exactly what is causing the separation in my bare horse's feet.  Consider it food for thought.

The crevice seen here cannot be repaired, it must be replaced with new hoof wall growing from the coronary band down toward the ground.  While I wait for the new growth to reach ground level, I beveled the hoof wall so that the pressure on the wall is relieved and the mechanical separation should not worsen.  I expect it to take about two trims for this to grow to out, which would be about six weeks.  I am fortunate that Harley's feet put out well-connected hoof wall from the top.  This is no small feat and the challenge of getting a horse to grow a nice hoof capsule can be very frustrating for the owner.  Professionals recommend things like diet and turnout condition changes, but there are rarely easy answers to a challenging pair of hooves.  I am well aware that I am very lucky with Harley's feet, but remember that I have "hoof problems" in other forms with my horse (his teeth, his weight, and his allergies).

Left front: The separation is not as wide on the inside/medial side of the foot, showing that the horse puts more pressure on the outside of his feet when he moves.  This crevice may be gone as soon as the very next trim.

Unfinished right front: I despise how the separation has reached the medial heel on this foot.  It is shallow, but I will be biting my nails until it is replaced by new growth.  This effect makes me want to kick myself for even trying to alter my technique.  Hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Right front with half the bevel complete for comparison.  I thought it would be interesting to see the difference.  The outer (dark) and inner (unpigmented/water line) hoof wall on the right side of the photo is no longer resting on the ground.  The bevel on the left side of the photo was from my last trim and is less round, only keeping the dark, outer wall off the ground.  This is the difference in technique that led to the hoof wall separation now apparent at the quarters.  I want to say "less is more", but with regards to the bevel, "more is more and less is not enough".  ;)

One done and the next to follow shortly.  Depending on how accustomed you are to looking at bare feet, I could see how it might look like I didn't do much to his left front.  When I look at this photo, I am amazed by the difference in the two feet.  I think it looks like I took quite a lot of hoof wall off.  These photos are from Sept. 9.  I rode him immediately afterward and he was wonderful.  In my opinion, a barefoot trim should leave a horse "ready to ride".  For a sound horse, there should not be a waiting or "give him time" period between a maintenance trim and riding.  In my book, those are red flags that something, which is open to interpretation, is not right.  If anything, a trim should make him more sound and happy to work.

I found a Pete Ramey article from 2005 which discusses hoof wall separation.  There are some interesting points about the differences between a hoof in a hard, dry climate and a hoof in a softer, wet climate.  I am sure that I have read this article before, but what caught my attention was the notion that flare and hoof wall separation are necessary side effects of overgrowth.  Furthermore, the invasion of fungi or bacteria is also necessary to weaken the excess hoof wall and allow it to break away, keeping the coffin bone (P3) at ground level.  This time around, that concept pretty much blew my mind, but I think I understand.  Mr. Ramey is not advocating that you let your horse's feet go, just that there is a purpose served by the flare and separation seen in overgrown hooves. 

I am not about to allow Harley to go down that "natural" a road, because he is NOT a wild horse and if flare and separation are indications that he wants to relieve himself of that hoofwall then that is precisely where me and my rasp come in.  As a domestic counterpart, I want to help him to trim MORE efficiently than a wild horse, especially because I expect things from him that a wild horse would not be required to do, like power trotting up the diagonal while carrying his petite friend around on his back.  I seek clues from his feet to tell me where to help and where I can rasp away what he would break away himself many weeks later.  The wild/natural horse model only goes so far, in my opinion, whether it be for training or care and management.  For example, a horse in the wild must be on high alert all the time to avoid predation.  I do not want my riding horse to behave that way.  I want him relaxed and free to think about my attempts to communicate riding exercises to him.  And let's face it, Harley probably would not have made it past age 10 in the wild, because his overbite is so severe.  I do not just want to give him what a wild horse would have, I want him to have it much, much better.

Cosmetically, his feet will look very nice with the strong bevel, but I am thinking more about preventing the invading fungi or bacteria.  Even if they serve a purpose in nature, those microbes can easily get out of control and I am just not willing to roll those dice.  I'll stick to rolling the hoof wall instead!

Ready when you are!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Health Report: Allergies

This was not a good weekend for allergies even though the weather was gorgeous, the humidity low, and the temperature danced around 75 degrees.  I went out to trim Harley's feet on Saturday.  He coughed several times in the aisle.  He has been doing great with very minimal symptoms, so this took my notice.  I put him on the longe line after his trim and he moved out happily.  He coughed a couple times and then stop completely.  Exercise seems to help him clear out the airways.

Today I went back to see him and the red flag was immediately raised.  He was waiting for me at the gate and coughed a few times before I even put his halter on.  I walked him to the barn and he proceeded to cough in the cross ties.  Rather than groom him and stir up more dust, I just cleaned his feet, threw on his tack and took him to the small riding ring.  We walked for a few minutes and then I asked him to trot.  He moved off readily and assumed a pleasant stretch in his neck and back.  I got him moving in both directions, expecting him to do a couple big coughs and then be fine.  The big cough never came, so I moved him up to canter.  He cantered almost as soon as the idea entered my mind and I started to think that he was going to be fine.  It was not until we had made a few circuits in both directions that he finally let out a couple productive sounding coughs.  I patted his neck and made some soothing sounds.  Unfortunately, his coughs did not subside this time.  He would be fine for a couple minutes and then start up again.  After ten minutes, I decided to call it quits.

What makes this even more heart-wrenching is that I know my horse was not feeling his best, but he wanted to keep going with our ride.  As soon as a coughing fit stopped, he would surge forward in trot.  He did not want to let me down.  I did my best to let him know that he was not letting me down and that he is a wonderful horse and a sweetheart.  He still got his carrots, which he was happy to eat.  That was a good sign that he was "okay".

Allergies are an immune response that amplifies.  Saturday was not particularly bad by itself, but Sunday was definitely worse.  I realized that I was probably going to have to give him steroids to break the cycle.  I do not know what exactly set him off.  That is one thing that can make allergies such a frustrating condition to manage.  I checked the weather channel website and it said that weed pollen was high, but it has been high for most of August, so I am not sure if that is the trigger.  I do not like to give him steroids, but getting the inflammation under control is necessary.  We had a really good summer and despite the humidity, he only coughed a few times a visit.  I did not have to cut any of our rides short.  But today?  He has not coughed that badly since February, when he was first tested for allergies.

I called the vet and she gave me the green light.  I watched him eating his hay about twenty minutes later and he did not cough even once.  This makes me feel much better.  I hope tomorrow brings more of the same.

No matter what, you are a good, good boy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Relaxing and Thinking It Through

Lately, my rides on Harley have been about relaxing, partly for him and partly for me.  This has been driven by my mood more than a training regiment.  We have still been working on the exercises from our last lesson, but with a larger dose of joy than determination.  Our focus on relaxation has not been without energy and our rides have been quite peppy in tempo; it is just that I started work again last week and feel the need to be comforted by my horse and riding time.  I just want to enjoy it and the beautiful autumn weather, before we change the clocks back and the cold creeps in.  I want my horse to enjoy himself, too.  I am sure that he has noticed the sudden decrease in my barn visits.  Harley is attentive, but not an overly affectionate horse.  Recently, he has seemed a little more so.  Sorry, boy.  Gotta work to pay your feed bills!  We are lucky that we get so much time together during the summer months.

During our last relaxing ride, we had a wonderful trot warm up.  Harley's strides felt sweeping and fluid.  We changed direction with lots of variation: tear drops, small figure eights, large figure eights, three-quarter circles that change direction at the rail, and looping serpentines.  I practiced holding the reins a little more up and insisted that Harley maintain his energy with taps from a sturdy whip (rather than a "whippy" whip, as recommended by my teacher).  I really started feeling what my teacher meant about the horse slipping into the "on the bit" groove.  I was getting better at transferring the responsibility from one inside rein to the other with each change of direction without locking my shoulders and Harley was getting more and more fluid in his strides.  This was all done in rising trot.  How would it feel while sitting?

After a break, I asked Harley to trot and remained seated.  Harley felt pretty good, but something about his movement was different.  There wasn't the same fluidity and surge.  I tried riding a few circles and transitions to see if that would help us regain our forwardness and balance, but it still wasn't quite right.  I thought about what I was doing and realized a big difference in my riding.  When I was riding all those changes of direction in rising trot, my eyes had been looking ahead and tuned into our next destination.  Where were my eyes now?

Staring at my horse's neck and, worse, at my hands!  Oh dear.

No wonder Harley was not feeling it.  My intent was gone.  I was not thinking forward.  I needed to ride the sitting trot exactly as I rode that lovely, flowing rising trot.

I tried it again, but after a few strides of looking where I was going, I found myself staring at Harley's pretty neck again.  Darn.  Why was this so difficult?  I struggled with it a little longer and than took a break.

I thought about what I was doing.  I knew where I wanted him to go, but I had stopped thinking about how I wanted him to go, at least beyond the part of him that I could see.  I thought about his feet.  I needed his hind feet to step energetically forward, lifting his back and freeing his shoulders to move with those big sweeping strides that I had felt earlier.  I decided to imagine that the only thing I was riding was his hind feet.  I even imagined that his hind feet were stepping from my belly.  That sounds really silly, but it did wonders for my position.

I started off with a couple short trot sets, the length of the short side or halfway down the long side.  As long as I pictured his hind legs stepping through my stomach, I kept my hands up and my chest open.  I stayed more on the back of my seat, because it felt like I had to make room for his hind legs.  I remembered to keep my belly button back toward my spine, even though I was sitting taller.

The result was beautiful, flowing movement from my horse.  He felt like he was in rear-wheel drive and the transitions back to walk kept that forward feeling.  I tried it in canter and imagined my belly cantering behind my horse's shoulders.  The sensation was so carefree that I couldn't stop grinning.  Each time we surged forward in trot or stepped into the canter, my horse felt light and easy and so much fun to ride.  Every single time that we lost that wonderful movement, I lost my image.  This was most likely to happen in the trot after the right lead canter.  I am not sure which one came first, but they were definitely influencing one another.  My eyes dropped, my position dropped, and my horse did the same.  When I succeeded in holding that image in my mind, my position felt rock solid and I finally had the feeling that I was riding my horse uphill in the sitting trot.  My hips even felt like they were ahead of my shoulders, but I do not think that I was leaning back.

My horse was quite happy to carry me this way.  I was being rocked along as his hind legs stepped through me.  Relaxing is not the word.  It was mesmerizing.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Riding Reflection: Using the Inside Rein

The inside rein is almost taboo in dressage.  At least, that has been my experience.  In the past, I have heard more riders scolded for using the inside rein than anything else, myself included.  Subconsciously, I have held onto this.  I do not want to pull my horse onto his inside shoulder and I do not want to be guilty of the cardinal sin of using the inside rein to turn.  During my last lesson, my teacher essentially gave me permission to use my inside rein in the exercise she prescribed for us.  I was a little hesitant at first.

Me: "Wait.  You want me to keep full contact with the inside rein for the entire circle?"

My instructor: "Yes."

Me: "Like this?"

My instructor: "Absolutely and rotate to the inside of the circle."

Me: "Really?  What about my outside rein."
Me thinking, "There must be something with the outside rein, right?  What's the catch?"

My instructor: "Keep your outside elbow and allow with your outside shoulder."

So there you have it.  No "half-halt on the outside rein", no "hold the outside rein steady", no "inside leg to outside rein", counter-flexion, or anchoring of the outside.  I was instructed to lift both reins up a little, especially the inside, so that the bit works in the corners of my horse's mouth.  My elbows were to be bent and, most importantly, my shoulders down and mobile.  I tapped Harley's inside hind with a long, sturdy whip if he started to lose energy and the rest of the responsibility was up to my inside rein.  If really felt wrong at first, but different always feels wrong.  It is important in riding to ignore this feeling in the face of change and read your horse.

Inside rein in use in our August lesson: Even though I said that I was lifting the inside rein, look at how dead-on straight the line is from bit to elbow.  I also like the reach in Harley's frame and movement.  Notice how my leg is not back, as is often taught in dressage.  This would tip me onto the fork of my pelvis, pressing Harley down in front and dampening his energy.

Harley is engaging the inside hind, but I have dropped the rein and my position a bit.

Harley pushing his nose forward and opening his throatlatch area as he stretches into the rein.

A few strides later, he has rebalanced himself in a more uphill frame.

Harley told me very clearly what this exercise did for him.  He flowed right around that circle in trot.  He lengthened his neck.  Contrary to my fears in using the inside rein, he was less likely to tip onto his inside shoulder and if this did happen it was almost always because I let the inside rein drop.  Nearly instantaneous change.  How's that for cause and effect?

The more I allowed my shoulders to move, the more he fluid he was in his stride.  I tapped him with my whip as needed, but my legs were completely passive.  I kept them under me and my pelvis in neutral.  If we lost the flow it was usually indicative of a loss of energy (Harley's job), a loss of neutral pelvis (my job), a dropped inside rein (me, again), or tight shoulders (you guessed it, me).  If I kept these things correct, everything moved along effortlessly and I literally felt like I was doing nothing.

Nothing!  Just try doing nothing.
Now try hard to do nothing.
It is incredibly difficult, especially for people who like to "try hard".
People like me.

I have revisited this "new" exercise of using the inside rein on each previous ride.  Harley loves it!  He is so flowy and relaxed.  His canter has been amazing.  Now that I have tried giving the inside rein the responsibility it deserves, I think that I have been annoying him with the outside rein in canter.  I like to half-halt on that rein nearly every stride, especially going left.  I had not realized that I was doing this until I started focusing on the inside and felt the urge to hold the outside at the beginning of each stride.  At first I wondered if Harley was going to barrel out of control without the "support" I had been offering him.  How wrong was I?

Not only was Harley's canter more fluid and consistent, he was lifting in front, shifting his weight back for turns, smaller circles, and transitions, coming down to a balanced trot with ease, all without the "help" of my half-halts or the outside rein.  Instead, my inside rein was there in the corner of his mouth the entire time.  He was even giving these cute little snorts with each stride, the hallmark of a relaxed horse in canter.  For a self-proclaimed dressage enthusiast, that was a really weird revelation. 

Correct use of the inside rein does not equal evil and does not make my horse angry, annoyed, or off balance.  Quite the opposite.

I am loving this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My Barefoot Horse: Hoof Wall Effects

The hoof wall on my horse's feet, particularly the front feet, has changed a bit since his last trim.  I decided to roll the hoof wall less aggressively and see if this allowed his foot to begin widening at the back.  I also wondered if it might make him more comfortable, if that is possible, as he moves along wonderfully without a hitch.  I do not know if the back of his foot wants or needs to widen, but I do not want to inhibit this just in case he is trying to grow his foot differently than I am trimming it.  I am always hoping that my horse will be able to self-trim.  I do not want to deny him the opportunity to try.

The lighting and shadows made taking clear photos challenging that day.  Here goes nothing.

Right front, three weeks of growth

Left front, three weeks of growth

Blurry right hind, three weeks of growth

Left hind, three weeks of growth

I noticed that the hoofwall of the front feet is spreading at the quarters.  I hate to use the word "separation", but that is what it is.  I am not really surprised to see this, because a while back, I tried backing off trimming the hoof wall and this was exactly what happened.  I considered it unacceptable and immediately went back to beveling the hoof as I had been before.  But now I am wondering if I should wait a little longer.  If his foot were to widen, wouldn't the sole need somewhere to go?  Maybe this is the horse's way of making room for a wider palmar foot?

Check out the fronts post-trim.

Blurry right front: Unfortunately, this photo is not very clear, but I do like the outline of his bars.  I trimmed them after this photo and again a week or so later.  They look more defined than they have in the past and I swear this foot looks wider.  Am I seeing things?

Left front: The space between the wall and the sole is noticeable at both quarters even after I relieved mechanical pressure on the wall with my bevel.  The central sulcus looks nice and open.

I found this crack in his right front, medial heel.  Um, not cool.

The hinds look good, even if the photos are subpar.

I am trying not to overreact and bevel his walls like crazy, but I do not like the hoof wall changes that I am seeing in his front feet.  If this continues, I am going to return to my previous technique.  At least now I have documentation to show the effects of backing off the bevel in a barefoot horse.  Despite the lack of perfection, he is sound and wonderful, especially since we have been working on new stuff from our last lesson.  His canter has been so fluid and free and he seems to be hinting at a cadenced trot.  Is this a coincidence or does it mean keep letting his feet change?

Super treat-face

Monday, September 3, 2012

Girth Check Video

I filmed a short video to demonstrate how I check for girth tightness at the horse's sternum starring Harley, of course.  I hope you enjoy it and remember, safety first!

See Rider Confessions for the back story and more information.