Forget New Year’s resolutions, I never keep them anyway. This year I’ve decided just to be more thankful for the things in my life. Like the one who turned 30 today, January 1. She might not be the fanciest horse or have a “10″ jump, but I’m certain she is the BEST horse I will ever have the pleasure of owning. She never once let me down, never let me fall off, always got me home safely and always made the right decision (especially when I made a bad one, like pulling when I should have kicked). I am grateful that I can return the favor. She’s seen me through losing loved ones, going to college, getting married, two military deployments for my husband and countless bad days. On those sleepless nights, she doesn’t mind a late-night grooming and could have a second career as a counselor. I’m thankful for the ribbons we brought home and remember some of those trips like they were yesterday. What I most thankful for is that she came into my life. I’m lucky to have her, and I’d like to think she feels the same way. Either that or she just loves the endless cookie supply. Happy New Year!
I just finished proofreading our upcoming November article on the USHJA Hunter Derby Finals and it reminded me of the night my friend Stephanie and I watched the Derby.
I’ve never been a big fan of watching sports on TV. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio – home of some of the best fans but, ahem, not the greatest sports teams. As a teenager, I can remember hearing my parents and brothers yelling and cheering as the Browns or the Indians scored…but more often than not, they grew quiet as the game wore on and our team lost. I think the most excited I ever got about football was in 1980, when the Cleveland Browns became known as the “Kardiac Kids” because of their habit of winning games in the final seconds.
So when Stephanie and I were invited to a party on the night of the Derby, I wasn’t in a quandary about whether to go to the party or watch the Derby, but Steph was. Her friend, Susan Baker, had a horse named Tell All that was scheduled to be ridden by her trainer, Peter Pletcher. Unfortunately, Pletcher pulled out due to a back injury, but Susan, an amateur rider, had bravely decided to ride Tell All in the Derby herself.
So, shortly after our arrival, Stephanie deftly snuck her laptop into a quiet area, we grabbed a few beers and pulled up the USEF Network live feed. Now I know how guys feel when they sneak away to watch the football game. The unique, farm-like course design and beautiful horses were mesmerizing enough, but I loved the rider-supportive commentary and was so excited for Susan. She ended up with a 14th place finish which just put her out of the final round, but it was still a job very well done and she was awarded Top Amateur Rider. Young Lillie Keenan, who beat out 59 of the country’s top hunter riders (including her coach Patricia Griffith) to win the Derby, made it all that much more exciting to watch. Thanks to USEF Network, I’ve definitely become a fan. Steph and I are already trying to figure out how to hook the laptop up to the TV and we’re thinking that maybe next year we’ll have a Hunter Derby party so we won’t have to hide in the corner.
My dog Barney is the ultimate barn dog. He loves going out to the farm with me, doing a happy wiggle when he sees me pulling on my breeches. He hangs out in the arena while I ride and dances with excitement when I head out the back gate to go on a trail ride. He’s also epic for his groundhog-eradication skills, having sent at least three to rodent heaven so far. His favorite treat, though, is when he gets to stay with my coworker and friend, Traci, who happens to live at the farm where we board our horses.
Late summer and fall are busy travel times for us at Practical Horseman. Earlier this month I attended the AETA trade show in Pennsylvania, and less than a week later repacked my bags and flew to Lexington, Kentucky, for the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. My husband, who usually looks after Barney when I’m away, was also going out of town, which meant that Barney got to visit with “Aunt Traci” for a few days.
Traci has two cats who, when they first met “B-Dog,” set stringent ground rules. One swat across the nose with a claw during that introduction, and Barney developed a healthy understanding of where he stands with them. Since then, they’ve become best buddies. In fact, Barney and Traci’s younger cat, Miles, have an ongoing game of hide-and-seek. Falfie, the older cat, likes when Barney visits, too—mostly because she loves to sleep on his bed.
When I came to pick him up this last time, Barney was enthusiastic to see me and join me for a ride. As I trotted around the arena, I was a little perplexed when he started sniffing around the flower boxes under one of the jumps. I took a break to watch him for a few minutes as he got more insistent. He was digging under the boxes, pulling at the rope carry handles with his teeth, snarfing into the holes in the top where the flowers go in and swatting the boxes with his paws. All of a sudden, I saw his quarry: a little mouse popped out from under one box and disappeared into a hole in the top of the other. Barney was hot on its trail. With his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth and spit flying, Barney became obsessed. I doubted much would come of his actions, so Wowie and I went back to work.
A few minutes later, I heard a kerfuffle coming from the direction of the flower boxes, and I looked over to see what was happening. I was shocked to see Barney standing there looking quite smug with a tail hanging out of his mouth! He proudly paraded his prize around the arena, looking like he had a squeaky toy in his mouth. (I guess, technically, it was.) I praised him when he spit it out under the tree in the middle our arena. Then he headed back to the flower box, and I went back to work.
Beginner’s luck, I thought. And what are the chances he’d find, much less catch, another one? At least it would keep him occupied until I finished my ride. A few minutes later, I heard another scuffle. This time I turned around just in time to see him snag a second little rodent on the run. I think the poor thing was dead before it left the ground. Barney ran up to me, eyes sparkling, as he showed off his trophy. I made a note that he wouldn’t be giving me kisses for awhile and called it a day.
It left me wondering what kind of school Traci’s cats are running upstairs in her apartment. Whatever it is, Barney has some pretty lucrative skills. I’m thinking of renting him out. He’ll happily work for biscuits.
To avoid the heat and pounding sun this weekend, I opted to ride in the indoor arena. As we walked around, though, I could feel Merlot tense up. The large door at one end of the indoor had recently been slid open to let in a breeze, and like many horses, Merlot tends to overreact to any change in his environment. (Clearly the boogey man had opened the door, and I hadn’t gotten the memo.)
It didn’t help that just outside the open door, a group of horses were playing in a nearby pasture, and Merlot really, really wanted to watch. Also, shortly after we arrived, one of the trainers started to longe a horse at the other end of the ring. Let’s just say the horse was being a little “dramatic,” which also caught Merlot’s attention.
Merlot finally settled at the walk, but as soon as I picked up the trot, he put his head in the air in a good imitation of a giraffe and started to jig. I brought him back down to the walk, but every time I picked up the trot, the jig returned—and it was escalating. I’ve owned him long enough to know that he wasn’t just being naughty—for whatever reason he was heading toward frantic. It was like he just couldn’t control himself and had mentally checked out. Now what, I thought?
Then I remembered something dressage rider Katherine Bateson-Chandler discusses in the upcoming September issue. In her article about how to develop a “happy athlete,” she says you need to be the boss of your horse, adding that, “You have to be loving, and your horse has to trust you and look to you, but you also have to be firm, clear and consistent.”
I know this is true, but sometimes I forget about it in my efforts to maintain the partnership I have with Merlot and the relaxation that is the foundation of the German Training Scale.
So while I usually try to start out my rides with a soft rein and on large circles, I eschewed those methods and instead took a firm feel of the reins and bent Merlot away from the open door. Then I asked him to trot in small circles and figure eights. He tried to put his head up and jig, but after a little bit of work, he dropped his head, and his trot smoothed out a bit. Every time his mind (and body) started to wander, I’d take a firmer feel, change direction and say, “I’m in charge. Listen to me.”
Slowly, I felt his mind refocus more on me. Inch by inch, I was able to soften my contact and made the figures a little bigger. I’d love to say we finished the ride in a fluid, relaxed state, but we didn’t. I was pretty much on my guard the entire ride and telling him what to do every step of the way. We did, however, end in a better place than we began. Merlot was calmer and more focused—like his brain had checked back in again.
Back on the cross-ties, he let out a sigh and nuzzled me a little as I groomed him. Maybe he was just happy the ride was over, but I like to think he also was saying, “Thank goodness you were in charge in there.”
I often read comments in online forums that make it sound like the editors at Practical Horseman are oracles when it comes to the stories we publish. For example, a reader discovers her leg is sliding back over fences and, BAM!, we just happen to have an exercise on how to fix it in the next issue. Darn, we’re good!
The truth? We don’t have special powers—nor do we have cameras set up in your arenas, barn aisles and tack rooms. Strangely, the Prac editors experience the same phenomenon. For example, an article on joint health that’s coming out in the September 2011 issue is really timely for my own situation.
Until a few weeks ago, my 8-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred, Wowie, had been going pretty well. We’d moved up to the 2-foot-9 divisions at shows, and we were schooling 3-foot-plus at home. He was hacking better than ever and even taking blues in flat classes. Part of our success, I felt, was I’d started having a vet who specializes in chiropractic and acupuncture work on him. This after my trainer had commented that Wowie’s left hind wasn’t coming under as well as his right and suggested I have him checked out.
The chiropractic sessions were going well: Ruth worked on a few areas, particularly his lumbar area, which was tight, sore and spasm-y. And she noted that his acupuncture points for his left stifle and right hock showed some soreness, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. He was enjoying the treatments: After an adjustment, he’d get a soft look in his eye, sigh heavily and nearly fall asleep. When I’d get on him the day after his sessions, he’d feel kind of stiff at first, but then he’d loosen up, get this wonderful stride and feel AMAZING for a couple weeks.
So it was disheartening when, after his last adjustment, I noticed something wasn’t right. It started out subtly: He “lost” his lead changes to the right. Then he started tripping over his left hind at the trot and would swap behind in the canter on a straightaway. Over the course of several weeks, he was having progressively more difficulty walking down hills and even refused to go to his favorite swimming hole because it’s at the bottom of a fairly steep slope.
Something sounded familiar here. I pulled out the story we just did and flipped to the section on signs. “Mild problems often creep up gradually, and early signs can be subtle: Your horse may have mild, on-again off-again lameness, with or without noticeable heat or swelling; he may start out stiff but seems to ‘work out of it’ as he warms up; he may resist certain maneuvers, such as turning or going downhill; signs may improve with rest but return when he’s back and regular work; and over time your horse’s stiffness and soreness increase.” Hmmm… that’s a lot of checkmarks. Methinks we may have some joint soreness.
Ruth came out last night and watched me ride to see if she could spot what I was describing. She noted that Wowie is moving very stiffly behind and that, instead of flexing his hocks, he’s compensating by moving at the hips only. Funny, that’s exactly what it feels like! She suggested holding off on any chiropractic or acupuncture work until Wowie’s regular vet does a lameness workup on him next week, but she seemed to think injecting his hocks was going to be the direction we needed to go.
Until reading the joint health article, I’d been wary of joint injections. I’ve seen too many trainers inject horses every time they didn’t perform perfectly in a competition, rather than questioning their own training or riding techniques. But in the back of my mind, I knew that it was probably going to be a reality at some point for my ex-racehorse. We’ll see what my vet says next week. I’ll keep you posted.
Oh, and don’t bother asking: We do not predict winning lottery numbers. If that were the case, we’d be out riding our horses instead of sitting in an office!