Thursday, April 25, 2013

Working in the Lines

Since I am not riding at the moment, Harley and I have been doing most of our work in the lines: one or two.  On afternoons after work I usually lunge him and save the long line sessions for the weekend when I have more time.  Harley has been working like a champ.  Yesterday, I lunged him and he demonstrated his skills for a barn-goer who was interested in the art of lungeing.  Harley did all his transitions from verbal commands and stretched his head to the ground with this lovely springy trot.  He got compliments for being so obedient and relaxed.  Thinking back to how he used to motorcycle around me on the line and could not handle the balance to canter a circle that small, I realized that he has come an amazingly long way.  I never really considered him a model lungeing horse, but I guess he had other plans!

This past weekend we returned to the long lines for the first time since the failed experiment of raising the lines to the upper rings.  Thankfully, the experience had melted away and he had no resentment for the lines now comfortably placed in the middle rings on the surcingle.  We got right to work with some nice walking and stretching into the bridle.  I love how the long lines allow me to warm up my horse with circles and straight lines, just as if I were riding.  I try to turn my hips and shoulders before using my hands to turn my horse.  It is a fun challenge to see how little I can do and Harley understands.

In the walk, most of the changes of direction are relatively easy, but the trot is a whole 'nother thing.  I cannot allow Harley to trot straight ahead for very long, because I am walking with him.  My lines have to be organized and my hands nimble for clear communication.  Most of the mistakes that I make in long lining come from the lines getting too long or too short and trying to manage the whip.  I absolutely hate catching my horse in the mouth, because I didn't manage my lines properly or turn him soon enough to prevent myself from getting left behind.  His expression tells me that he understands that my intent was not to hurt his mouth or turn him rudely, but it still disturbs the flow of his work, which can be very nice.

I am trying to develop some strategies for effective long lining.  This is what I have so far:

  1. Give my hands separate jobs.  Keep excess line draped (not wrapped!) in one hand and the whip in the other.  The whip-hand is also responsible for re-draping extra line or letting more line out.  This is still not easy, because I have small hands and the whip gets heavy.
  2. Keeping the whip in my whip-hand (right), move the whip from one side to the other when we change direction.  This means that the whip is crossed over the lines when we are traveling right.  So far, this seems to be less awkward than trying to transfer the whip to my left hand, which is holding a bunch of line.
  3. Always have excess line available.  This is important if I need to let more line out so my horse has time to turn or so he can stretch.  This is also important if the horse jumps forward suddenly.  Thankfully, that is rare, but it is a possibility.
Long lining reinforces many concepts from riding and I really like how Harley and I can still share a connection through the bridle, but it is definitely a different art and has its own feel.  I am looking forward to finding ways to finesse our practice.

If you have any strategies to add to my list, please let me know!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Funny Face

You are one of a kind, Harley.

Animals are the best stress relievers.  I always felt that way when I lived with my two cats.  There was nothing like running my fingers through their soft fur or feeling my "Big Guy" purr after a bad day.  He had the best purr, loud and continuous.  I did not own a horse until I was married and in my late twenties, but lesson horses fit the bill up until that point.  I love how horses demand your full attention.  They can make you forget yourself.  This is especially true in a lesson or during a challenging ride or training experience.  The value of having something in your life that can truly make your brain stop running circles and just focus on the task at hand is immeasurable.

Considering all the life changes that are on the horizon, I wouldn't say that I am particularly stressed right now.  I can think of many much more stressful times in my life (high school, college, graduate school and student teaching-it was a bear) than the anticipation of our first child.  In fact, this is quite exciting and I feel like we set ourselves up pretty well for starting a family.  We are both employed, we have a house with empty bedrooms, and safe cars including a minivan. 

By the way, there seems to be a lot of resistance toward minivans.  I am not sure why.  They are like a truck and family car all rolled into one with better gas mileage than SUVs and a lower center of gravity.  Family and friends balk at the thought of owning a minivan until the necessity arises to transport a group of people, traveling baggage, or a large item, and then they like the convenience.  Anyway, we have been teased for years for having a van with no kids, so I guess we will finally install a car-seat and ease the confusion of those who have not seen the (minivan) light.  My husband jokes that we should get rid of the van now that we will actually have a child.

Since Harley and I have been a pair for while now, we are not at that stage where we are figuring each other out or tackling the next big training goal.  The boundaries of our horse-human relationship were established a long time ago and we are very comfortable together.  It is our silent companionship that lowers my stress meter and leaves me feeling refreshed after time spent together.  I like to think that my horse feels the same way.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rider Confessions

The last time that I rode my horse, I was hung-over. 

"Hung-over the saddle" that is and specifically the pommel.  I think that I might actually be hitting the stage where I no longer fit in the saddle.  I am about 31 weeks pregnant, for those who may be wondering what on Earth I am talking about.

I rode Harley on the last day of Spring Break, April 5th.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day and he was blissfully free of coughs.  I rode him for a short time after our (less than stellar) long-lining session and he wanted very badly to canter.  The canter was wonderful, but I chose to stand in my stirrups.  It just didn't feel right to sit anymore.  I could barely stand high enough to keep all of myself out of the saddle and off the pommel.  With dressage length stirrups, this was a challenge.  We returned to posting trot, as Harley offered a lovely stretch and I found that I was having the same trouble in trot.  Sure, I could raise my stirrups a few holes, but raising your center of balance is contrary to a balanced position and security in the saddle.  Obviously, giving up either of those things in not an option, especially when Harley is carrying two of us!

I think my saddle days are over until after our baby's birthday.  Tomorrow, it will have been two weeks since I rode my horse and I already miss it.  I know that this is for a very good reason, but it still makes me sad to think of not riding him for months.  I am also not sure when I will be able to ride him after the baby is born.  I really, really, really hope that I do not have to have a c-section.  Thankfully, so far there is no reason to suggest that I will.  I need my core muscles in one piece to ride my horse and I cannot imagine not riding for the entire summer.  Now that notion really makes me sad.

I have still been visiting Harley and working him from the ground.  We have had some really nice lungeing sessions.  He has been feeling good and so eager to work that his transitions have been spot on from just my voice.  He has also been stretching his topline and touching his nose to the ground as he trots around me.  He looks so beautiful that it just makes me want to ride him more!

I am really glad that I took the time to teach my horse and myself groundwork exercises long before I ever knew that there would be a time that I couldn't ride my horse.  However, this doesn't change the fact that I long for that swinging motion in the saddle.  Nothing else quite compares.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Towel Use #328

Equine Dust Mask

Cute.  Silly.  Mysterious.  Shy (He is anything but.).  Sneeze guard.  A veil?

Harley's simple, cheap dust mask has been described in many ways, but no matter how you describe it, the bottom line is that it is working!  No coughing during a grooming session means a happy horse and that makes me a happy owner.

Harley is such a good sport.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Long Lining and Allergy Update

Allergy Update:
Harley coughed so little yesterday, that I almost forgot to give him his allergy medicine!  We spent several hours together and he only coughed a few times.  We had a long lining session and I rode him a little bit and he barely coughed at all!  Yay!  Today could be totally different, but I am still going to celebrate yesterday.

I tried something new.  Grooming seems to send him into coughing fits, even if I groom him in the washstall outside, so I decided that he needs a "dust mask", just like I used to wear to clean stalls.  I draped a small towel from the noseband of his halter.  He looked kind of silly, but it actually worked.  No coughing!  I might try an old t-shirt next time, since it will be a lighter material.  He seemed to think that I "forgot" the towel and kept trying to grab it with his mouth.  So his dust mask doubled as a source of amusement.  I fed him some treats to inform him in terms that he can understand that towel = good.  I guess this is just one more use of a towel to add to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!

Long Lining:
Since I had a week off, there was a long list of things to get done that I normally do not have time to do.  With the baby coming in less than three months, it was more critical than usual that I take advantage of this time off from work to get some work done at home.  Of course, this includes Harley.  I trimmed his front feet and I am happy to say that the preemptive strike worked.  No hoof wall separation or flare developing and the trim was pretty fast and easy.  His hinds will be next time.  Re-introducing Harley to the long lines was also on my "must do" list.  Although I am feeling great, my saddle days are definitely numbered.  I needed a couple days where I did not have to rush to bring out the surcingle and lines so that Harley and I could get reacquainted with long line work, before I feel too much like "Humpty Dumpty". 

Our first shot was on Monday.  Unfortunately, Harley's allergies were not cooperating, but he was still willing and the work was not strenuous, so we were still able to have to some fun and accomplish my goal of re-introduction of the lines.

Harley was just about perfect.  Unfortunately, I cannot take photos while long lining and I did not think to bother someone else to take any, so you will have to take my word for it.  He looked great!  I had power-steering.  He stretched into the lines almost immediately and used his back and topline in some really beautiful ways.  We circled, we went straight ahead, we walked figure eights and even trotted figure eights!  The last time that I tried trotting figure eights we had some trouble maintaining the trot for the direction change (and I had some trouble keeping my lines from tangling), but this time Harley just marched right through the change and I managed to keep my lines in check.  It was too easy.  The grand finale was a little bit of canter.  Cantering in the lines is still new for us, but you wouldn't have guessed it by the easy way he picked up the gait and rounded up into the contact.  I was delighted.  Long lining this spring is going to be fun!

The only thing that did not go excellently was the trot-walk-trot transitions.  For some reason, he preferred to shorten his trot and do this beautiful little collected trot instead of transitioning to walk.  I am not terribly worried about fixing our communication for that one.  I rode him later and realized that I release the reins when I ask for walk.  In the lines I mistakenly increased the contact, which must have told him to stay in gait and collect.  What a problem, right?

Trial and Error with emphasis on Error:
Training a horse involves experience, time, and some trial and error.  I do not like to make training mistakes, but I also think that you have to make some, or you never learn what not to do.  I made a training mistake yesterday.

After Harley's hoof  trim, I decided to take out the lines again and re-test, but this time I got the brilliant idea to put the lines through the top ring on the surcingle.  I normally use the middle ring with him and he likes this very much.  I have tried the top ring before and it was a fail (he balked and felt trapped), but I was tempted to try again.

Why use the top ring?
  • The upper position is closer to my hand position.  Harley likes my hands carried above his withers.  The middle ring seems to pull down on him sometimes, which is contrary to our training MO.  
  • I drape the lines behind his butt and I thought the top ring would make it easier to keep the lines up and out of harms way.
Harley was very tolerant, but it became clear that the upper ring is still wrong for him.  He did not stretch into the lines at all and by the end of our trial period, his back was completely turned off.  There was no swing in his step, although it sort of looked like he had more suspension in his front end.  I think this was false suspension and result of him pulling his forehand up instead of lifting with his abdominal muscles.

Eventually, he sort of went "on the bit", but his neck was short and the bloom of muscle infront of his withers was missing.  My teacher and I have worked diligently to help him release that part of his neck, so that was pretty much a deal-breaker for me.  The look in his eye was unmistakable, too.  He gets this blood-shot looking edge to his eye when he is stressed and unhappy.  His mouth was also barely moist.  He usually has a nice rim of foam.  He did his best to work forward, but eventually started to tune me out and ignore my vocal commands.  I am not opposed to pushing my horse's comfort zone for the purposes of growth and improvement, but that is not what this was. 

The final straw was the line getting stuck up, under his tail!  I cannot believe that he didn't freak.  His tail was clamped down pretty tight, so it was just a matter of time before he gave the lines the "hoof".  I reset the lines to the middle ring after that and chastised myself.

"Never try the top ring again.  Never, never."

Oh well, live and learn.

It took several minutes for Harley to relax and get even close to the wonderful work that he did on Monday.  He stretched his neck and back in relief immediately, but was resentful of the lines.  He showed his resentment by rooting against them aggressively as he walked around.  I gave him as much slack as I could and told him "no", when he rooted.  My power-steering was temporarily gone.  Thankfully, he was mostly back to normal after a few minutes. 

Harley is a forgiving horse, but he did inform me that I owed him a canter under saddle after that.  I obliged and it was a wonderful canter indeed!  That was what finally made him (and me) feel better about the whole thing.  Some happy snorts and stretchy trot were my apology accepted.  Thank goodness!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Spring Health Report: Allergy Patterns

I am owned by a horse with allergies.

Harley started coughing last winter at the end of his thirteenth year.  After ruling out illness and infection, my vet recommended allergy testing.  His blood work came back with a long list of offending allergens and a short list of things to avoid (like apples, sorry Harley).  My horse's number #1 persistent allergy symptom is coughing.  Thankfully, he does not suffer from itching, irritated eyes, sneezing, hives, or whatever else allergies can plague us with.  As an allergy-sufferer myself, I can attest that my horse is lucky to have a short list of symptoms, however, any knowledgeable horse owner or riding enthusiast will tell you that a horse coughing is a big problem.  There is also the fact that there is no cure for allergies.  My vet tells me to think of "escalation" when I think of allergies.  Symptoms tend to worsen over time so speedy intervention is key to keeping an allergic horse comfortable.

Allergies are frustrating, because the onset of symptoms can be unpredictable, but I am well aware of the things that trigger my allergies.  When I was growing up in northern New Jersey, I had terrible seasonal allergies.  I was also allergic to dust and my two beloved cats.  I had to wear a dust mask to clean stalls or dust furniture in my bedroom or I would become a raging-sneeze machine with watering eyes and an insatiable need for tissues.  I worked on a 400-acre produce farm with hundreds of acres of sweet corn.  My allergies exploded on the days when the corn was pollinating, making it almost impossible for me to survive a work day.  When your work environment harbors offending plant-reproductive cells in the very air you are breathing, working in an open-air facility is not a good thing.  Did I mention that all of these symptoms arose while on a daily pharmaceutical for allergies?  When you have strong allergies, nothing can prevent a serious allergy attack.  Benadryl remains the only medicine that can truly halt an allergic reaction for me, but it also puts me to sleep.  Once I had to warm up Harry, the Haflinger stallion, at a horse show while in a Bendryl stupor.  I had made the mistake earlier of visiting the beautiful and immaculate show barn on the grounds.  As clean as it was, the histamine still flowed freely in veins.  I was not a happy camper.

By college, I discovered that my allergies were not limited to pollen and cat hair.  A steady diet of cafeteria food supplemented by much tastier fast food, culminated in full-body hives.  That was horrifying.  I have since discovered that sulfite preservatives were most likely the cause and I now avoid them like the plague.  Oddly my husband suffers from the same sensitivity, so we scour food labels together looking for any additive including the word or suffix "sulfite" or sulfur dioxide, which is what your body produces by metabolizing sulfite (Since sulfites are not proteins, my reaction is not a true allergy, but I describe it this way, because the suffering is the same!  Chemistry Note: "Sulfate" and "sulfite" are not the same polyatomic ions.)

Potentially Interesting Allergy Fact #1:
Sulfites are found naturally on all types of grapes and in pretty much every wine, although you can find a couple labels in liquor stores which claim not to have sulfites.  My body shows some warning signs when I have ingested sulfites (in lieu of hives) and this occurs if I eat raisins or fresh, washed grapes.  So, no more grapes for me (and I rarely drink wine).  Too bad.  Grapes and raisins are some of nature's candies.

Potentially Interesting Allergy Fact #2:
There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog (or cat, if those exist).  This is a hugely false assertion made by those who breed and sell poodles, Bichons, and the like.  So-called hypoallergenic dogs have hair that grows like human hair and must be groomed and trimmed regularly.  The hair sheds very little and what does shed, has to be brushed free of the rest of the dog's coat.  This might be enough to prevent an allergic response in those with mild symptoms, but strongly allergic individuals will not be so lucky.  Those of us who are allergic to animals are usually (there are always exceptions in biology) responding to the skin cells of the animal.  The hypoallergenic dog will still shed skin cells even if he or she is not leaving much hair on your floor or furniture.  The dog's saliva is also full of epidermal (skin) cells.  I get (often immediate) raised hives on my skin from a friendly lick from a dog.  As another example, my eyes itch and water and sometimes I sneeze from my in-laws' Bichon and this is just from being at their house.  I rarely touch the dog.  Before I realized that the hypoallergenic dog claim was really false, I tried to be helpful and trim their dog's coat.  I had to leave the poor guy half-trimmed, because I literally could not continue to groom him.  My allergies were that bad.

Despite my apparent allergic sensitivity to dogs, I tolerated my cats for nearly fifteen years.  Living with them dampened my allergic response and I loved them enough to ignore the constant, underlying symptoms they created.  Even as a child, I refused to give them away.  Thankfully, I am not allergic to my birds or Harley.  I really appreciate not being allergic to my own home and horse.

I wish there was a magic pill for allergies.

Speaking of Harley, this post was supposed to be about him.  The difference between me and Harley is that I could tell quite easily what was contributing to my allergic reactions, especially after repeated episodes.  If I avoided or minimized my exposure, I was mostly okay.  Since moving to southern New Jersey (far less variety of trees down here and no pet cats any longer), I do not need prescription allergy medication and I do not even take over-the-counter meds unless I have a hive attack.  Oh right, and I was never allergy-tested.  Harley, on the other hand, was allergy-tested, but it is extremely difficult to tell what will trigger his coughing.  He is mostly allergic to tree pollen, but his symptoms are not limited to high pollen or dry days.  Sometimes he coughs outside, sometimes in the barn.  There have been times when I thought the gasoline or diesel fuel vapors from an idling vehicle made him cough and other times when he did not respond to them.  I thought the same thing about a pungent hoof dressing that was being used on another horse (coughing fit).  I keep him away from all of those things just in case.  Sometimes he barely coughs for an entire ride, other times he has persistent fits and we have to cut it short.  I have watched him eat hay many times and this does not seem to make him cough (so we do not wet it down), but yesterday I let him graze a bit on succulent, new grass and he had a coughing fit.  Was it the dry leaves he pushed aside with his muzzle?  I have been searching and record-keeping for patterns, but they are so difficult to nail down.

Until now.  I think I finally have a reaction timeline.  Harley needed to go on medicine (in addition to his regular immunotherapy shots) in September, January, and now this week, in April.  Those are about four-month intervals and approximately in line with seasonal climate change and the growth that ensues.  I know that fall and spring are high pollen and mold times, but the January one still makes me scratch my head.  He had coughing trouble right after the New Year.  It was very cold.  He also had a day of coughing here and there when we had a warm spell and then it would go away when the thermostat dropped.  Isn't that weird?  I thought his airway was sensitive to the cold.  Could it be the change in temperature that bothers him?

I rode him lightly from February until the end of March with minimal symptoms.  In fact, he seemed to be coughing less and less as we approached the end of March.  And then quite suddenly on Monday, he was having multiple coughing fits and I had to start a round of medicine to get his coughing under control.  The temperature was 60 degrees and we had absolutely beautiful weather, but the pollen was high.  Grooming sent him into coughing fits on Monday and Tuesday.  I certainly hope my horse is not allergic to himself.  I am only half-joking.

What do September, January, and April all have in common that could make a sensitized airway upset?

Monday, April 1, 2013

My Barefoot Horse: Staying Ahead of the Ball (Hoof)

Spring is here.  Do you know what that means for hoof trimming enthusiasts?

A hoof-growth EXPLOSION!!!

My horse's feet grow at a snail's pace all winter long.  I inspect his feet regularly and ask myself if a trim is necessary.  Most of the time (during the winter only) I put his foot back down and decide that he can go another week.  Sometimes I just touch up the bars.  I can wait four and even five weeks at times to do a complete trim without issue or much sweat.  This winter has been no different.

Usually the first spring trim sneaks up on me.  I become complacent and lackadaisical, because he puts out so little hoof for months and then all of the sudden there is flare popping up at the quarters and I have a long arduous trim ahead of me.  I cannot let that happen this year.

Let me repeat.

I CANNOT let that happen this year.

I will be forming a preemptive strike this week, because I am off for Spring Break.  The pictures in this post are from a couple weeks ago.  I have already noticed that the bars on his front feet are starting to pick up speed.  He is getting a touch-up trim this week no matter what!

Left front: Hoof photos are taken fast and furious these days.  Some will be blurry!

Right front: This frog is having the hardest time with the mud.  Those deep crevices are not good.  I have opened them up a bit with my knife and have been cleaning and treating every time I see him.  He does not show any soreness, thankfully.

Show-off: He always poses when I try to photograph his hind feet.

Right hind

Left hind

You're looking less woolly these days, Mr. Harley!

Harley's feet are not the only things growing this spring!  My feathered friend pictured here is Avery.