Retired Racehorse Program 2017

I have decided that dressage competitions are very much like weddings. Lemme show you:

If you get to the venue well ahead of time, you can usually get in a rehearsal or two before the actual event, but if nothing else, you get to scope out the location of the bathrooms. Once you’ve at least looked around and made sure that there was nothing horribly wrong with the venue, you spend the rest of the day making sure your partner took a bath and that his/her hair looks acceptable, and that they are going to sit quietly and eat food that will not leave sticky smears all over his/her face and that he/she will not go play in the mud in his/her nice outfit. Then you can go to the bathroom yourself and put on makeup and get your hair done and cinch yourself into the various slimming undergarments and layers of traditional white clothing. And as you’re doing that, you wish you had eaten a few less Almond Joys and gone to the gym a little bit more often, because this would be a lot easier if you had.

Then, if you have time, you sit and wait and try to ignore the 16 different things you could be doing right now that you are fairly certain no one else will be taking care of because no one else is as OCD about this as you, because this is YOUR day, dangit! And if your friends are good (mine are), they will be asking you how you feel and if there’s anything else you need and offering you a glass of wine or to slip you a Zanex to help you stay calm. And once all this is done, and you enter the venue, the whole event takes approximately 6 minutes, and you wonder what just happened and hope that it went alright and you didn’t accidentally make any heinous mistakes along the way.

Sound familiar?

But when it’s all done, you remember that as crucial as those 6 minutes were, that sweating the little things will turn you into a psychotic mess, and that when it comes down to it, there are only two things that matter now: that you have no regrets, and that you focus on the future.

I have no regrets.

Which is not to say that it went perfectly: it didn’t. Right off the bat we were facing a few additional challenges.

Number one, this was only Champagne’s third time offsite, and it was our first dressage test. Ever. I’m not talking “it was our first dressage test together,” I’m talking “Neither of us had ever done anything quite like this before, because he was a freakin’ racehorse, and the last time I competed was in 4-H almost ten years ago, and they did not offer a whole lot of dressage.” And of course, I already have a “go big or go home, fly by the seat of my pants” mentality, so I decided that if we were going to compete in dressage, a national training competition seemed like a good way to go.

Number two, we were working barefoot. When we got there, I discovered that most of the other trainers had their dressage horses shod, and when I got a good look at the footing, I realized why. It’s good footing: somewhere between sand and gravel, so it doesn’t fly away in high winds, and doesn’t cause pain like rocks. But there were still those slightly larger chunks that hurt poor Champagne’s tender feet, and shoes would have prevented that. It was just abrasive enough that my trainer said “You won’t have to give him pasture rolls for a while.” But we’re still working through some nutrition issues with his hooves, and we’re waiting for Champagne’s hoof walls to be thick enough and strong enough to hold a shoe. So when it comes down to it, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do to prevent it.

And number three (which I knew was an issue but didn’t realize exactly what it was until my trainer articulated it after the competition), the bit we’ve been working in is just a little bit big for Champagne’s mouth, so it’s inclined to slip. So there was no way to get as good of contact as we probably could have gotten.

All of these factors combined for a non-descript, less-than-stellar set of tests.

I still have no regrets.

Instead of focusing on getting high scores, I decided to make this a training experience, and I think that changed my attitude immensely. Once my attitude was in the right place, it made the whole thing so much better, easier, and happier.

My main worry was that since this was only our third time off-site, and that we were going to be working around a lot of horses that we didn’t know, Champagne might act like a bit of an idiot. It’s happened before: we go somewhere new and Champagne thinks that his job is still to race everyone else. And because the rest of the horses there were ex-racehorses, my worry was compounded slightly. What if one horse acts silly and the rest of them pick up on it? Worse, what if my horse acts silly, and the rest of them pick up on it, and someone gets hurt?

I didn’t need to worry. Champagne was a perfect gentleman.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t try to prepare. When we got there the night before, I took him to the dressage complex while my fabulous support crew was getting the stall ready. We practiced our heeding and took the opportunity to see where we were going to work and what kind of horses we were going to be working with. Of course, that was a bit intimidating, because there were some excellent dressage riders there. But Champagne was on my aids the whole time, and when I took him back to the stall I was satisfied with what we had done.

Saddling UpThe next morning, we saddled up and went to the dressage complex to warm up and stretch out. He wanted to look around a little bit, and that was just fine. I took this as an opportunity to let him see what the dressage ring looked like, because we had never seen one before. Thank goodness they had a line set up in the middle of the warmup area so that he could get so comfortable with the boundaries that he was trying to knock the pipes off of their posts. We also used this time to warm up, stretch out, and make sure that we could get correct gaits. Two days in a truck and trailer did not do either of us any favors, so that ride was absolutely vital.

Then after that, it was back to the stalls to take a bath, show groom, and put in button braids. That was a challenge all it’s own, because I had only attempted (and failed) to do button braids once before. My trainer had done them, but it had been a while, and since then she had developed carpal tunnel in her elbow, and I wasn’t about to let her try to take on the whole project and risk her making it worse. I needed her in one piece. Armed with a homemade braiding kit, YouTube videos, and experience from our practice run, we went to work. I did the braids and she sewed the buttons. And then we cemented the darn things in with so much hairspray I’m glad no one was holding a match nearby.

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I think they actually turned out alright. My tail braid failed miserably, but we took it out, so no one had to see my failure. But tail braids aren’t required for dressage, so no harm, no foul.

And then it was back to the campground and trailer to change into my new show clothes. It took me forever to find my way into them without dropping a white shirt on the dirty ground. I think getting dressed in show clothes should be a competition in and of itself. I decided to forego makeup, because makeup is exhausting, and getting dressed had been enough of a trial, thank you kindly. Instead, I returned to my trainer and driver to get help putting on my new half chaps.

That was totally the most entertaining part. For me, that is. Not for them. They were cussing me out by the end. But that only made it funnier to me.

And then back to the stall, where my trainer saddled and bridled for me and yelled at me to sit in the camp chair and to not move, because I was not allowed to get dirty. That was probably one of the weirdest things for me: I’m not sure I’ve ever been expected to sit still while someone else did the work. It was absolutely bizarre. And then once I handed my jacket off to our fabulous driver and mounted, my trainer was chasing after me with a microfiber cloth to brush the dust off of my new boots so that they stayed nice and shiny. I was like “Okay, this is weird, I don’t know what to do with this, but it’s time for us to go warmup for our tests, so BYE!” and Champagne and I escaped to the Dressage Complex.

The great thing about Champagne is that he is totally responsive to your energy, so as long as you stay calm and happy, so will he. Due to my determination to make this a happy experience (also, anti-anxiety medication is a beautiful thing: properly prescribed, that is), I was actually pretty happy and relaxed. We spent a while warming up in walk and trot to keep from draining or riling Champagne up, and my trainer snapped lots of pictures along the way. We worked our lateral work to get nice and stretched out, and then waited quietly and patiently for our turn.

 

It wasn’t a perfect test. I purposely rode him flat and with less motion, kind of like a western pleasure horse, because a) I knew that his feet were hurting on the footing, and b) my goal was to stay relaxed and happy. So I already knew that we weren’t going to score as high on Impulsion as we could. And then there was the thing where I lost my stirrup on the left lead and got distracted, because I really hadn’t planned for that and wasn’t quite sure what to do. My trainer missed that (she was calling the test for me), but there was a professional photographer who caught the whole thing. Not knowing what else to do, I slowed down the gait a little bit to get the stirrup back, got the stirrup back, and, now worried that we would down transition and break gait, I pushed Champagne forward and did break gait. Just faster, not slower. We lost points for that.

But when it was all said and done, when we walked out of that ring, I was very pleased. I couldn’t have been a whole lot happier if I had scored in the top ten (I was a very far cry from that), and I wouldn’t have been sad if I had placed dead last (As it was, we came in 70th out of 78). But we came in with scores in the mid-fifties, and while there were certainly criticisms on our scoresheet, it was nothing we didn’t already know and didn’t already expect. Actually, I was quite pleased that we had actually gotten something resembling a stretchy trot: we had never quite pulled that off in training. So even though the scoresheet said “Minimum stretch shown,” I was like “WAHOOO!!! The judge said we stretched! TEN POINTS TO US!” And of course, when the rider and the trainer can walk away from a test with a smile, you know that it doesn’t matter what the scores were: it was a good ride.

The demo ride was just a perk on top of that. It wasn’t perfect either: poor Champagne was getting tired and we were losing contact and connection, but he pushed through the tiredness and the soreness of his feet, and we walked out of that ring, satisfied with what we had done. After that, we took him back to his stall, loved on him, praised him, fed him, and left him be for some well-earned quiet time. And then we went out to dinner to celebrate, because we freaking survived. For our first test ever, that was as good as scoring in the seventies, if not better.

Would I do it again?

I would like to, certainly. But that may not be possible for us. Number one, that trip up to Kentucky from Louisiana was kind of brutal. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people coming from California or Canada or England. It was hard on my checkbook, hard on my horse, and hard on us. Number two, my husband is military, so we’re going to be moving soon. The fact that we were able to do the Thoroughbred Makeover this year was actually kind of miraculous. Our next posting will only last six months: not enough time for us to settle, find a good barn, and get set up to do the Makeover. So next year, I’m out.

Maybe in another few years, with another excellent trainer and a little more experience, we’ll be able to try it again. But for this year, I am absolutely satisfied.

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The Last Month

This is it.

I’m not going to say that our last month of work was pretty. I got too intent on getting canter departs and contact, and I messed up both. Essentially what happened was I got so focused that I started forcing contact from my hands rather than allowing it to happen because I had a good seat. I’m not saying that we didn’t get results: we did. And I think mixed somewhere in that mess was some stuff that we both needed to learn, although I can’t put my finger on what that might be. But whatever it was, it was painful for Champagne, and it was unpleasant for me.

18556738_1350166291733676_9220087377600275697_oOnce again, our saving grace was my trainer Amanda, who let me reach the peak of frustration, then after a few days off, put me back on the lunge line and schooled me. Half an hour later, the source of the problem was clear, and guess what? It had nothing to do with Champagne. It had everything to do with me. So she talked me through a solution, and low and behold, we’re now getting beautiful, exquisitely soft gaits and transitions. Our contact isn’t perfect or necessarily consistent, but every day it gets better as Champagne gets stronger and more limber. Today when we rode, he felt sooooo good: the kind of ride that makes you want to cry. It was that magical. We’re still not perfect, but in my opinion, we are exactly where we need to be. And honestly, I am thrilled.

We have about two weeks left to set up a mock dressage ring and work on the finer points of corners and circles and so on, and that is actually exactly what I was hoping for. The way the Thoroughbred Makeover has it set up is that everyone does the training level test first, then has three minutes to show what else their horse is capable of besides walk, trot, canter. Then, if you make it to the finale, you do your freestyle test to music. I don’t have the highest hopes of making it into the finals, but I’m still going to put together a little test, just because how else am I going to show the world how awesome this horse is?

I can’t even begin to describe what an incredible journey this has been for us. Remember, this was basically supposed to be my senior project to show my best work, and then to show that I was ready to go out into the real world as a professional. But the learning curve for both Champagne and I has been unreal. Champagne went from being this skinny, broken little thoroughbred to this unbelievable athlete. When we had the equine dentists out after six months, they didn’t hardly recognize him. We’ve gone through two saddles and at three half pads as we’ve adjusted for his growing frame and back, and we’ve switched from a regular snaffle to a French link snaffle, because his mouth has changed along with the rest of his body.

59ef4b39e0a09600a245e37730edb3f5But none of that came easily. We’ve battled tight hamstrings, pulled back and leg muscles, tight muscles, weak muscles, hot joints, cold joints, soft feet, flat feet, thrush feet, long toes, short toes, locked up poll, horrible teeth, nutrition issues, mounting issues, riding issues, lunging issues, trust issues, and the list goes on and on. Every step of the way it was a balancing act to figure out how much to push him and how much to baby him, because too much of one or the other would destroy any hope of him being sound enough to work, let alone sound enough to compete. I made piles of rice bags to heat in the microwave or freeze in the freezer for the bad days, and we ended up using a good number of muscle relaxants and bute on the worst days. It was about three hours a day, four to five days a week, for seven months, of physical therapy and massages and rehabilitation. So far, I’ve logged over 260 hours of hands on work. Then there were the hours of research and tack repairs and putting together supplements on top of all of that, and there’s no logbook for all of those hours. I can only describe it as physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.

But we’re here.

It actually seems kind of surreal. I worked so hard to not get my hopes up because there was a good chance that Champagne would get injured or sick or something long before we ever got close to the Thoroughbred Makeover. But my fees are paid. We have a friend in the area letting us stay with her. We have an RV hookup on site reserved so that we have somewhere to hide and take naps during the day (a staple of my mental health). I even received my stall assignment a few days ago, which was super exciting. I’m setting up the last of the necessary appointments and compiling the last of the required documents. Every day we check off one more thing on the list, and I’m starting to get excited.

The biggest downside right now is that I had to put together a sale ad. It’s not like I’ll be heartbroken if he doesn’t sell right away: but this is part of my grad project too. My husband is in the military, and it’s not really fair to him or the horse to haul Champagne around the country when we can’t always be certain that I’ll be able to give him the time or care that he deserves. So I feel like it’s important to give Champagne a chance at the ever elusive “perfect” forever home. Besides, I think there’s someone out there who will be able to grow with him and love him the way that he deserves, and I think that’s an opportunity that’s just too good to pass up.

123951There’s always the chance that we could get there and fail miserably. Champagne might pick up on my anxiety and leap over the barrier, or decide that one judge was particularly terrifying, or just decide that he’s had enough of me after seven and a half months and that since I’m wearing white breeches and a $100 show jacket that it’s time to buck me off. We might get the worst marks from the judges, telling us that we clearly did not put in the necessary time or effort and that we should never have even bothered coming to the competition.

I don’t care.

I do hope that there’s a chance for me to talk to the judges, if nothing else because this will be my first dressage competition ever (go big or go home, right?), and I want to talk to them about what they saw so that I can get better. But I also want to brag.

I want to brag to the whole world that I have the most spectacular thoroughbred. Someone thought he was worthless and sold him to a kill pen. Look at him now. He wasn’t really up to cantering, and he had no idea what this trotting thing was. Look at him now. He was terrified of even flicking an ear around people because he was certain he would get spanked. Look at him now. He was skinny and improperly developed. Look at him now. 

Because when it comes down to it, what can I say that you can’t see for yourself?

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Month 0- Best Side
Final Conformation
Month 7- Final Conformation

Crunch Time

We are now at the Month 6 Mark, and I’m starting to feel like we’ve settled into a nice routine. Not that we didn’t have one over the last six months, but we were having to experiment along the way as we added in new things and tried to figure out what worked best. But now we’re done with that and we have the day to day things pretty well figured out: Wear front boots for turnout, felt padding backed with yoga mats make the best boot pads that don’t wear out so fast, mix supplements for a 12 day span, add calf manna back into his feed for the extra protein boost, mix gelatin into his supplements last so that it turns into a jello-y mess after the nutrients are mixed together evenly, and so on and so forth.

And all in all, Champagne is looking pretty good. When I came back from vacation Amanda managed to get the muscles in his back loosened up, (I tried for three months to do that, and she managed it in three weeks! What a punk.) and while he still has typical thoroughbred feet (flat, thin-walled, and tender), they are soooo much healthier and nicer looking than when he first came to us. Hopefully they continue to get better: it takes about a year for hooves to go through a full cycle, so we might start seeing the effects of the nutrition fed by Gulf Coast Thoroughbred Network in a few weeks, but won’t see the effects of our own feeding until February of this next year. But with regular farrier work and a barn full of thrush-haters armed with bleach water, his hoof care is fairly stable. His weight is good, he’s building muscle, and we’re no longer seeing the aches and pains from old injuries that were so prevalent in the first four months.

Basically, I feel like it’s safe to say that we’ve successfully undone 80-90% of the damage done on the track. I’m not quite willing to say that we’ve rehabilitated him 100%, because a) he has some tight spots left in his haunches that we’re still working out, and b) I have no idea what his x-rays will look like after 30 starts over 5 years. I don’t think he qualifies as a warhorse, but I’m still guessing his joints and bones took quite a pounding. But even though he is still not as strong as he could (or probably should) be, he is absolutely sound enough to be worked like a normal horse again, and that is a HUGE relief.

And I’m starting to push him, because not only has it been six months since I got him, but it is now approximately six weeks away from the Thoroughbred Makeover Challenge, and the terror lodged somewhere deep in my cerebellum has made its way to my frontal lobe and is sending out blaring warnings. So in spite of the heat and humidity and the mold that keeps trying to grow on my equipment (stupid Louisiana), you can pretty much bet that Champagne and I will be sweating our hineys off in the arena, five days a week, almost up until the moment we enter the dressage square.

In a lot of ways, I feel wildly unprepared. I have essentially given up on the idea of taking him to new arenas because I don’t have my own trailer, and the people who do have trailers have lives which (funnily enough) don’t revolve around my own. So I fully expect that we’ll get to Kentucky and Champagne will go “New place! New horses! MUST RUN!” and I will be left sitting in the dirt going “I promise, he’s usually pretty laid back.” I also strongly suspect that he will flip out at the sight of a pretty, white, dressage square, and a judges table (with people!) will be the absolute end of the world. I’m praying that we’ll have an opportunity to go look at the dressage arena ahead of time so that Champagne doesn’t lose his marbles completely, but I don’t know if that will happen. There’s also the thing where I haven’t competed since I was in 4-H, and that was eight or nine years ago. And that was the County Fair, not a national training extravaganza. Oh, and of the 509 trainers that will be there, I will be competing against 51. 27 of those dressage trainers are registered as professionals. But of course, I know exactly what’s going to happen there. The two junior competitors in the dressage category are going to school us all.

On the other hand, I’m starting to get really excited. Champagne is at a point now where I am no longer focused just on training him. Now he has enough knowledge to where I’m having to work on myself in order to ride him to his fullest potential. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exciting.

So during this last month and a half, Champagne and I will be working on two main things.

For Myself: Contact. If someone tells you that contact is easy, tell them they’re full of it. Good contact is hard. Having a consistent, elastic connection with the horse’s mouth is not easy, because it’s soooooo easy to lose the steadiness of my seat and the softness of my elbows and shoulders. If nothing else, I spend forever trying to find the right rein length to where Champagne’s head can sit at the vertical and not be cranked behind it. And then there’s the thing where you are supposed to be riding the horse forward into the contact. I’m discovering that it’s a little trickier than it sounds when you’re riding a racehorse, because if you don’t get it just right, your horse can and will go from 0 to 50 in exactly half a second. But fortunately, I have good teachers and friends who are able to guide me through it. And with practice, Champagne and I are getting more and more consistent results. There’s something really magical about feeling your horse lift himself up into your aids, and even if we lose every moment of that progress when we get to the dressage ring, I think it’s absolutely worth chasing that feeling.

For Champagne: Canter Departs. I think I’ve had about two or three acceptable canter departs each direction. They’re getting better, but Champagne almost invariably does two things when I ask for the canter depart into a circle. The first is that he bucks. I think this is mostly his way of initially loosening his lumbosacral joint and haunches, so I’m not too fussed about that. It will disappear as we continue to practice and he develops the strength and flexibility that he needs. The second is that he’s not very fond of picking up the left lead. This is partially because my hip alignment is tilted slightly to the right, so I’m throwing him off, but he consistently blows his shoulder out, grabs the reins out of my hands and braces, and then shoots off in a line, usually straight out of the arena.

Now, I’m figuring out how to combat it, which mostly involves a) trying to align my hips correctly for the canter depart, b) more outside aids to keep him from running out to the right, and c) changing the angle of my inside rein to help him balance a little more to the left. But he’s surprisingly creative about avoiding the aids. Recently he quite literally went out of his way to run to the mounting block and then jump over it, so I had to give up the left turn to stick the landing safely. Since we landed straight, he then took over our course navigation and shot off in a straight line, right out of the arena, looking for more things to jump.

I think he wants to be an eventer.

But it really is getting better. Every single day I see a significant amount of progress: not necessarily from myself, but absolutely from Champagne. Despite my complaints, he is getting a little quieter in the canter departs, and absolutely more balanced and rhythmical on the canter circles. He loves good contact and a steady seat, and that gives me a lot more motivation to get things right. And honestly, I’m feeling pretty optimistic: not particularly about our chances at the Thoroughbred Makeover, but absolutely about the odds of being able to successfully perform a training level test by the time the Thoroughbred Makeover comes around. The fact that we only have to confront canter work and contact in the last month and a half makes me feel kind of proud, because it means that we successfully took on a lot of crap already.

So even if we end up going to the Thoroughbred Makeover and make absolute and total fools of ourselves and finish dead last and go home in tears:

I will have shown up and participated with a rehabilitated racehorse who is going to be ready for a second career.

Mission accomplished.

The Break

I missed my five month post because something rather unexpected happened.

We went on vacation.

For three weeks.

So that’s almost a month where I wasn’t riding and training Champagne, and that freaked me out. It was really hard to wrap my head around not working with him for three weeks, because training has been my whole focus for almost six months now. Which means that it was probably time for me to step away for a little bit, because I’m sure that kind of obsession over that period of time can’t be too good for me either. The only reason I could do it was because I knew I could ask Amanda to work with him while I was gone, and she would do wonderful work. But there was still a lot of preparation I needed to do before I felt comfortable leaving Amanda alone with a spoiled thoroughbred, including

-mixing up supplements-

-mixing up supplements even more (my husband was pretty much convinced that I was absolutely nuts)-

-repairing and ordering a new hoof boot (because Champagne is getting some range of motion back, and he’s stepping all over himself and breaking boots)-

-putting together new hoof boot pads (sewing works much better than epoxy, by the way)-

-and of course, handing it all off to Amanda, with two months of board, a notebook to track all of the time she put into him, and a new boot coming in the mail. From there I had to leave it all in Amanda’s hands and be satisfied with studying a textbook on equine nutrition in the car with a bag of horse riding equipment stuffed in the car on the off chance that I might get to ride.

By the way, textbooks about equine nutrition are no substitute for horses.

Fortunately, I did sneak in three horsey experiences, which is not a bad average when you’re on vacation. And I think it was a very valuable thing for me, because I was quite literally going back to a place where I had started learning about horses. It made it very easy to compare where I was and where I am now.

Experience One

My mom, my sister, my brother’s girlfriend, my husband, my two dogs, and I all piled into my mom’s SUV one Saturday morning to go up Nine Mile Canyon in Utah to go look at pictographs. This was fun, except that I had failed to realize two things in advance, so I couldn’t do anything about them until it was basically too late. The first was that we would be in the car a lot, whereas I had assumed we might be going on a hike. The second is that my mom’s SUV has five seats, and there were five of us and two dogs. This meant that being the one with the shortest legs, I was stuck in the middle of the back seat between my husband (who sprawls out all over the place because he has long limbs) and my brother’s girlfriend (who doesn’t sprawl, but also has long legs) with two dogs running back and forth on our laps. This in itself isn’t a big deal: I’ve been on enough plane flights where I’ve sat in the middle, and I had dogs on my lap for a good portion of the drive down. The problem was that I was sitting in the middle of the back seat: a part of the car I lovingly (ha) refer to as “The Hump.”

Whoever designed car seats did not think about the comfort of the person sitting on the Hump, because there is absolutely no leg room whatsoever, and the seat itself is essentially a big bump that’s meant to set the boundaries of the two seats on either side. It’s like sitting on the arms of two chairs that are sitting side by side, except that I have been more comfortable sitting on the arms of two chairs that are sitting side by side. Being the youngest of five kids, I have been condemned to sitting on the Hump since I outgrew car seats (which I don’t even really remember sitting in, so really, I’ve been stuck on the Hump for as long as I can remember), and I. Am. Sick of it. So after a few hours of this, I was starting to get pretty grumpy, and while my mom was kind enough to switch me places so that I could drive and she could endure the Hump, I was still feeling a bit unpleasant because no one should have to sit on the Hump.

Fortunately, as I was driving along, there was a little herd of horses that decided to block the road.

They weren’t wild horses by any means: just free range ranch horses. But I still have no idea where they came from or where they went (I couldn’t see them on the way back), so I consider it an act of divine intervention because it cut my toxic grumpiness short. So I got out of the car to “push the horses off the road,”  and I figured that this was an excellent time to practice my equine communication: basically to test out my heeding and listening skills on horses that I didn’t know.

I approached the alpha first: an older gray gelding who clearly had more experience with people than the younger bay or the two black yearlings. He checked me out for a moment to make sure I wasn’t going to be mean, and then went “You’re human? You have hands? Excellent, my chin itches. Could you scratch it please?”

By the time I took care of that my sister and my brother’s girlfriend both climbed out of the car and had the supply of baby carrots ready to go, so we stood in the middle of the road talking and feeding carrots to these horses for a good few minutes.

Eventually I figured that my husband and my mom were getting a bit bored with sitting in the car with the dogs (who were not happy that the three of us girls were paying attention to someone else besides them), so it was time to actually do my job and push the herd off of the road so that we could move on. So I used my body language and pressures to gently push them toward the grass, and then they quietly followed me off of the road.

I guess my family didn’t pick up on the (apparently pretty subtle) body language I was using to ask the horses to move.

Now my family thinks that I am a magic horse whisperer.

I attempted to demonstrate that it wasn’t magic by heeding the bay (who was beautifully sensitive) in a circle around the rest of the herd. The heeding worked. Whether or not it convinced anyone that I wasn’t magic is debatable. (Actually, my sister knows that it’s basically just using body language, but she still thinks that it’s super cool. Which makes me feel super cool.)

Experience Two

On our way up to stay with my husband’s family, we stopped to see my friend Sam, who was my first horse crazy friend and one of my first riding teachers (along with the rest of her family, because they all took me under their wings and let me bounce around on their horses for a good number of years). I was a little bit nervous about coming to see her because so much of my technique and style has changed in the last few years, and I wasn’t sure how she would respond. I shouldn’t have worried: It was Wonderful. She gave me the biggest hug, she didn’t fuss at me when I started trying to give her barrel horses massages, and she laughed as I jabbered on at approximately 500 mph talking about biomechanics like somehow it’s the coolest thing ever.

Sam also let me hop on Summer bareback, which was pretty fabulous. Summer was her first training baby, and when Sam first got her, Summer was about as flighty as they come. Some idiots got drunk and thought it was a good idea to run around trying to rope her when she was a yearling, and so at the time she was (understandably) not the biggest fan of human beings. The fact that Samantha let me hop on her bareback with a halter is pretty incredible, because if I had tried that when I knew Summer before, Summer would have probably flipped out and left me in the dirt.

I think my favorite thing during the whole hour that I was there (we had another 5 or 6 hours on the road to confront still, so an hour was about all I could get away with) was that Sam asked me questions. She didn’t ever assume that I was coming in to tell her that she was doing something wrong or that I was ever trying to put myself above her. She asked me questions about what I was doing and why, and I think if my explanations weren’t up to par, she would have called me out on it. I love that. She just treated me like a fellow crazy horse lover, which is all any of us really want. And when I apologized for talking so fast and for telling her things that she probably already knew, she waved it off and said, “No, you’re giving me words for concepts that I didn’t have words for before.”

It was fabulous.

I wish we had stayed more than an hour. But my husband promised that next time we’ll plan things a little better and get a hotel for a night or two so that Sam and I can play with horses for at least a day.

I think we’re holding him to that, whether he remembers it later on or not.

Experience Three

This one I have no pictures for because I was wearing the wrong pair of pants (Why do women’s pants so rarely have useful pockets?), but I still have to talk about it because it was probably the most challenging of the three experiences for me. And please bear in mind that in spite of the way I may talk about some of these people, I did not see any signs of animal abuse. I think I’m just seeing more than I used to and it makes me a little bit more irritable.

*****

My poor in-laws were condemned to listening to me jabber about horses for about a week, and the fact that they didn’t throw anything at my head was very sweet, because none of them are horse lovers. My mother-in-law took it a step further. Knowing that I am basically addicted to horses and require a fairly frequent fix in order to maintain my sanity (and to not drive my husband crazy), she paid for a little trail ride for my husband and I. It was just a tourist thing: an hour up, dinner over a campfire (well, reheated over a campfire), and an hour back. My husband was constantly reminding me that these weren’t my horses, this wasn’t my business, and I wasn’t here to judge, so please try to be polite. I nodded and blew it off, thinking that I could resist the urge easily enough.

So our guide came out on his horse and gave use the tourist crash course in horse riding (kick to go, pull back to stop, pull the left rein to go left, the right to go right, etc.), and explained that the horses had empty feed bags on their noses to keep them from eating grass along the way, and that these horses could be pretty stubborn, so when you kicked to go, you might have to kick pretty hard. I was thinking “Yeah, okay, that’s all fine and dandy, this is a tourist attraction, what else do you expect?” And then they put the smallest girl up on the porch to make it easier for her to get on (alright, mounting blocks are good, no complaint there) and started bringing around the horses to put us on so we could head up the hill.

I almost lost my self control right there.

Ignorance truly is bliss.

A few years ago I would have thought there was nothing wrong with these horses: that they were just big, decently fat, stubborn horses who took tourists up and down the hill. And yes, I think most of them were half drafts, and they all were at a good, healthy weight. These people were clearly feeding them alright, and they all had shoes (not that they were very well done shoes, but shoes is a start) to go up and down the hill ten times a day, and I would definitely say that these people were not mistreating these horses. These horses were all in good enough condition to work.

But I was suddenly extremely offended that the guide had called any of these horses stubborn. Not that I can blame him: the problems were not visible unless you’ve been trained to look for them. But none of these horses were stubborn: they were in pain. I think every single one of them had some sort of residual injury from some earlier event, so of course there are probably times when they don’t want to move: I wouldn’t either. But they still carried tourists up and down the hill, day after stupid day. Honestly, I can’t call that a stubborn horse. I’d call that a very sweet horse.

So they put me on a gelding named Jim, and we sat at the end of the line because the guide said that Jim did better in the back (aka, he was slow and would hold up the line), and my husband is sitting on a mare in front of me, and in every single stride I’m feeling how stiff and sore Jim is in his right shoulder. Trying to look up to ignore it does me no good: now I’m staring at my husband’s mare’s butt, and she’s obviously sore in her left hip. I’m sure the scenery was beautiful, but I just couldn’t pay attention to it.

Within the first hundred yards I wondered if I should get off and just lead the poor horse. By the time we’re halfway up the hill my poor, sweet, wonderful husband is looking back at me and asking if I’m happy to be back on a horse, and I’m almost in tears because I feel so bad for Jim. When we’re almost to the top, the guide stops us and offers to take pictures. Since neither my husband nor I have our phones, we decline, but the other family wants a picture taken. So while the guide is attempting to line them up, I hop off to adjust my stirrups and start massaging Jim’s shoulder because I just can’t stand it anymore. The guide looks at me, and I think he’s going to say something, but I guess I must have had a scary look on my face, because he didn’t. But when my husband went to get off of his horse, the guide yelled at him to stay on.

When I went to get back on, I stuck my foot in the stirrup that was higher on the hill. The guide started flipping out because it was the right side, not the left. Being a little bit pissed off at this point, I asked him if these horses really were incapable of being mounted from the right, because Jim didn’t seem to have a problem with it. The guide sort of stumbled and relented, but remembering my promise to my husband, I turned the horse around and mounted from the left.

So we go the last ten minutes up the hill to where they have dinner set up, and everyone dismounts. One of the two guides who had taken a gator up to the top (so that they could bring up the big dutch ovens with food) takes Jim and asks me how he was. I tell him that Jim’s shoulder is sore. And he just stares at me like I’m an idiot, because how could a tourist know anything about horses? Trying desperately hard to be polite (as per my husband’s request), I walk away and my husband and I sit down with the other family, and we talk to them during dinner. Meanwhile, the guides are all sitting next to the fire and ignoring us. It wasn’t because we were ignoring them. I know, because I asked them to come sit with us (I was trying to be polite, remember). I don’t know if it was company policy to associate with customers as little as possible (I’ve heard of crazier things), but mostly I felt like they were isolating themselves. But whatever, it’s not my place to judge, they’re just doing their job. So I sit quietly and make small talk through dinner and pray that the ride back is more pleasant.

Fortunately, it was.

So these horses, after however long of walking up and down the same hill, had developed a plodding, sideways gait. In humans it’s called a waddling gait. It’s like watching a pregnant woman or an old man walk, where she/he doesn’t have mobility in the hip or knees when walking: instead she/he seems to rock his whole body from side to side, and it sort of resembles a bird walking (penguins are the cute example). But when this occurs in horses who are (literally) saddled with beginner riders, the riders only feel the sideways drop of the hips and shoulders. When that happens, they drop their weight to the side too, which only aggravates the problem. penguin waddle

So, being a young dressage rider who apparently just can’t leave things alone, I decide that I’m going to try to do what I can to make this more comfortable for the horse. I start to really emphasize the forward swing of my hips to encourage Jim’s. I start using the reins just a little to help him balance over the rougher terrain. I start asking for a little bit of bend in the rib cage to help him stretch out his tight shoulders and hips and back. It wasn’t much: I got maybe an inch or two of bend to either side.

But I saw results.

His gait was a little less sideways and a little more forward. His right shoulder was ever so slightly less stiff. His steps were ever so slightly more sure, and his balance was ever so slightly better. Unlike all of the other horses on the trail, who were bored with their baggage and had their attention turned elsewhere, this boring, “stubborn,” dead-sided trail horse turned his ears back to me and started listening to my balance and my aids. And best of all, he was in slightly less pain.

That made just about everything better.

Did the head horse wrangler listen when I told him that Jim was a good boy, but his right shoulder was a little stiff?

Heck no.

But I did what I was able to do, and that was something.

Why does any of this matter?

Well, I didn’t learn anything particularly new or profound. I didn’t save or change anyone’s life: horse, human, or otherwise. So why does this matter so much to me that I would write a blog post about it? After all, it was just vacation.

Because I got to test what I’ve learned.

Now, I know I’ve learned a lot, and I know I’ve learned a lot of good things because it feels good to me. And I know that the stuff I’ve learned works, because Amanda has given me the opportunity to test it out. But for the last few years I’ve been testing this stuff out on trained horses, under controlled conditions, or under the supervision of a more experienced horsewoman. There have been times in the past where I learned something about horses, and later discovered that the skill or method in question does not work on untrained horses, or under uncontrolled conditions, or without the supervision of a better trainer to fix my mistakes. So when I went back to (my) beautiful mountains and started playing with these different horses, I got to ask myself some new questions and do my own experimentation. For example:

Will this heeding thing work on a (most likely) untrained horse who I’ve never met before, and in a place with no fences or training tools to help me?

Will understanding a little bit of biomechanics and equine massage really give me that much insight into a horse’s training and condition?

Is dressage really something that (when done correctly) could be beneficial for every horse- even the dead-sided, sore ones?

Am I listening to the horses I meet more than I was?

Am I seeing more than I saw?

Have I grown as a horsewoman?

Strangely enough, I think the answer to all of these questions just might be “Yes.”

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The Halfway Point

I’ve now owned Champagne for four months, which is the halfway marker for RRP. I’m supposed to have him ready to go to the Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in October, and barring any unforeseen accidents (knock on wood), I think we can make it.

In terms of physical rehabilitation, I’m down to two final battles: his back and his hooves. Champagne’s lumbar region, particularly on the right side, is still pretty tight and sore. His hooves are soft and grow in unforeseen ways. The tricky part is that his back and his hooves are affecting each other. When the angle of his hooves change (aka, when his toe gets too long), the strain it places on the tendons in his legs (particularly the deep digital flexor tendon) runs all the way up his legs and into his back. And until he develops the strength, flexibility, and muscle memory in his back to move the way that nature intended, his hooves won’t grind down at the angles that they should, so I have to attack them both simultaneously.

So, here’s a quick idea of what we’ve been doing this month to battle those two issues.

  1. Booting consultation and trim: His hooves are probably too soft to hold a shoe, and they need protection, so Miss Sybille was kind enough to come do this for me and get me set up with a pair of good boots.
  2. IMAG1438[1]Hashing out nutrition: First time I’ve done this for a horse, and there was definitely a lot of math involved. It was sort of terrible. Necessary, but terrible. Now I know what I’m missing so I can fix it.
  3. Ordering supplements: I’m still waiting for some of them to come in so I can get Champagne’s nutrition balanced. I’m going to be adding in Lysine and Methionine, which, funnily enough, both have to do with hoof health. I’m also going to be adding in some flax seed as well, as per Miss Sybille’s suggestion.
  4. IMAG1451[1]Lots of rice bags: I built some new ones to wrap around legs, because it looks like Champagne might have an old injury in his right front pastern that flares up from time to time, especially after a lot of hard work. Turns out, they’re pretty great for ice wraps, because the rice gets cold enough to help bring down any swelling and pain, but not so cold that it burns the skin. He looks a little silly with a cold ice bag on his leg and a hot one on his back, but you know what? It’s another tool to help keep him comfortable while we keep working.
  5. Staying in work: Essentially, what I’m doing is physical therapy. There’s a lot of bending and lateral work to strengthen his back and return some mobility to his lumbar and hips. As much as I would love to let him take a year to be in turnout and be a horse and hopefully undo some of the damage that was done, a) I don’t have enough time for that before the Thoroughbred Makeover comes around, and b) his muscle memory and development is all messed up. I think the only way to fix it is by doing what we’re doing: Physical Therapy and Massage Therapy and more pampering than I’ve ever given a horse in my life.
  6. Canter departs: It’s definitely a gamble, but I’ve started adding them in during the last week or two. I have to be careful, because his back is only just strong enough to handle it, so I can’t overdo it, and I’m having to very carefully monitor how it’s affecting him. The reason I’m taking the gamble is because the canter is a gait that naturally requires a lot flexion in the lumbosacral joint. That’s exactly where Champagne is most tight and weak right now, so if I can get him working in a nice, relaxed, rhythmical canter, that should do a lot for him.
    horse canter gif
    Movement in lumbosacral joint

    I feel like I have done a lot of what I can do in walk and trot (doesn’t mean that I’m not still doing it), and it was time to push the boundaries a little bit more.  We’ve been getting the departs over the last week without bucking, and he’s always significantly looser afterwards, so I’m taking those as signs that it’s helping him get stronger in the right ways. But I am being very cautious about it.

There are still training and behavioral issues that I have to confront. For example, Champagne definitely had me in angry tears after he pulled back about thirteen times in two days, snapping a leadrope, flipping on his back, and giving himself rope burns. I was angry because the thing that scared him so much while tied is that I was trying to brush his mane. Which I have done before. About a million times. So I’m having to go back and start over and reteach him that tying is not scary and no one is actually trying to eat him. Which is exhausting and heartbreaking, because if he’s that scared of standing tied, someone really screwed up.

It’s also time for us to travel more. Number one, he needs to learn how to back out of a trailer, because he squashed me when he tried to turn around, and it was uncomfortable. Number two, he’s still pretty much convinced that at every new place he must run and race the other horses, because that’s what he was taught. Unfortunately, I can’t teach him that he’s not going to be eaten in new places when I don’t take him to new places. This is mostly frustrating because I don’t have my own trailer, and it’s not fair to ask everyone else to go out of their way to help me transport my horse once a week to different places. I need to ask people if I can bum rides off of them to different events, just for the exposure, but… I haven’t done that yet. And I don’t know who is going to which events, and whether said events will be regulated to stop the spread of diseases (because Louisiana has a lot of them). And finding out requires talking to people, which I don’t like doing. So yeah. Either I have to suck it up and be an adult and learn to talk to people, or I have to look at finding a little one or two horse trailer that I can haul with my husband’s twenty year old V6 truck.

Basically, being an adult sucks.

When I first got him, I thought that Champagne’s main issue was that he had tight hamstrings. The last four months have been frustrating because once we worked through one issue, another two would pop up in its place. It’s a bit like taking the top off of an anthill, only to realize that the anthill actually runs four feet underground and you just opened a very angry nest. Buuuut, all in all, I’m pretty pleased with the progress we made this month. I feel like we’re at a point where we’ve confronted a lot of his issues, both physical and emotional, and the ones that are left no longer seem totally insurmountable. I think as long as we keep taking things day by day, we just might make it.

The School of Recreation

The year is 1684, and the Age of Enlightenment has begun. The Americas have been colonized, but have about 100 years until they start taking steps towards independence. Shakespeare has been dead for 81 years; Rembrandt for 15. Bach will be born in the next year. Guns have long since made armor and heavy cavalry obsolete, but gentlemen still carry sabers and daggers, just in case they need to duel. A gentleman wears stockings and heels, and occasionally white, powdery makeup, but poofy white wigs are not yet the height of fashion. Vertical stripes and bright, rich colors are highly fashionable (particularly when combined). In the midst of all of all of this, a book called “The School of Recreation” is written by Robert Howlett and printed in Fleet Street for Henry Rodes.

Fast forward 333 years, and I’ve downloaded a free copy from Amazon onto my cell phone. How times have changed.

If you are in the habit of looking for books about horsemanship on Amazon (as I am), this book may pop up as a suggested purchase. Thus far, it has only a single review (one star) which reads “The book has nothing but outdated useless information. Reading it is a waste of time. I found nothing of significance in the book.”

Generally speaking, there is not much to recommend this book, besides the price. Frankly, the title is not what I would call “catchy.” “The School of Recreation: Or, The Gentlemans Tutor, To those Most Ingenious Exercises of Hunting. Racing. Hawking. Riding. Cock-Fighting. Fowling. Fishing. Shooting. Bowling. Tennis. Ringing. Billiards.” does not exactly feed the imagination. However, because I did have the opportunity to study history and literature in college, I suppose I have a stronger stomach when it comes to books like this. Most people (very wisely) find it dull. I think it’s hysterical. Do I recommend it to the casual reader? No. But that’s why I’m giving you the highlights: so that you don’t have to endure it yourself.

The trick to reading books like this is to approach it as a historian, not an equestrian. The information is 333 years old, and it’s not really written to be about good horsemanship that will last through the ages. For that, consider reading Xenophon’s “On Horsemanship.” At its core, this is really a book about how to be a fashionable gentleman, and fashion has the approximate lifespan of a mayfly. So instead of asking “How can this improve my horsemanship,” we have to ask something a little different. How did these “ancient” people think? What is a load of bologna? (My favorite part.) What carried over? And of course, is there anything that we can take from it that actually might still benefit horsemen and women today?

How did these people think?

Within the first sentence of the book, Robert Howlett describes man as “the Abridgement of the Creation” and “the Compendium of all God’s Works.” He then goes on a rant about how even though mankind is inherently sinful because of the fall of Adam and Eve and is therefore doomed to labor for their daily bread by the sweat of their brow (etc, etc), God also made man the “Lord of the Creatures” with a “Superior Authority and Dominion over the Beast of the Feild, the Fowl of the Air, and the Fish of the Sea.” (And yes, that is how he spelled “field.”) He goes on to say that therefore every creature should become submissive, tame, and “court favor” from man.

You read right. This guy basically just described man as “God’s Gift to Animals.

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As far as I can tell, women aren’t mentioned anywhere. I’d say that this is because the book is about Gentlemen’s sports, but aristocratic women went hunting and hawking and riding too. But there’s still no mention of them: not even about how you might catch a glimpse of a lady’s ankle when helping her to mount a horse or climb into a carriage. BORING.

Historical artwork of the four humoursThe rest of the introduction is spent talking about how all of these pursuits are natural, necessary, useful, and commendable, in that order. It’s healthy because “brisk and violent Exercises” (I get a kick out of them being described as “violent”) cause you to sweat and “exhale those black and fuliginous Vapours which too much oppress some men.” It keeps the humors from stagnating and helps men keep from becoming dull and numb from idleness. Strangely enough, Howlett correctly talks about equine therapy, and I quote “Riding was used by the great Drusus for the Strengthening his weak and small Thighs and Legs.” Of course, then he goes on to say that riding is a good thing to do especially after dinner, and that shooting bows helps with squinting. He places an emphasis on the sports that can be learned and practiced, not just those that happen because you’re wealthy. He says that some of these activities “acquaint a man with Numbring, and quicken the Fancy and Memory, and recreate the Mind.” Which I suppose is true enough. When you play billiards or pool, you do learn something about geometry and physics, and any kind of music (in this case, Ringing) will teach you some math, whether you like it or not. But what on earth cock-fighting has to do with any of this is still beyond me.

What is a load of bologna?

Oh, this is my favorite part, and where to begin?

  • I’m pretty sure there is no scientifically or genetically sound reason to choose hounds based on their color. Build, yes. Color, no.
  • Breeding dogs in January, February, or March is all fine and good, but I’m pretty sure that having the parents conceive a litter while the moon is Aquarius or Gemini will not actually increase the size of the litter or keep the pups from ever getting rabies.
  • I seriously question any treatment for sore eyes that involves chewing up ivy and spitting the juice in your dog’s eyes. Even if it’s not poison ivy, it still sounds awful.
  • When your dog gets bit by another dog with rabies, the answer is not to wash the wound with Sea-Water or strong Brine and feed the dog some wine with hazelnut mixed in. The proper remedy, in fact, is to have your dog already vaccinated for rabies and give him/her a booster vaccine when bitten by questionable animals.
  • Please, for goodness sake, do not EVER pee in your horse’s mouth for any reason.
  • Cock-fighting is in no way noble, delightful, or simple. The proper way to take revenge on a chicken that has attacked you is to eat it for dinner, not to pit it against another chicken in a death match. (Yes, I’m being a bit facetious. But there’s really nothing nice about cock-fighting.)
  • Don’t feed any animal bread, corn, or anything else that has been steeped in human urine. That’s disgusting.

Aren’t you glad science has advanced in the last few hundred years?

What carried over?

Actually, quite a few things, but I’m only picking a few. Let’s start with martingales.

I imagine that the shape of the martingale might have changed somewhat, but the author describes it as “the best guide to a Horse for setting his Head in due place, forming the Rein, and appearing Gracefull and Comely; it corrects the yerking out his Head, or Nose, and prevents his running away with his Rider.”

Well, that’s what it still tends to get used for. I wouldn’t say that it’s the best use for a martingale (or training fork or tie down), but it definitely gets used for that. (Hint: Good training for any discipline does not make headset the primary focus. My understanding is that martingales are used in jumping as an extra aid to help balance the horse going over the jump. Tie downs are meant to do the same thing for roping horses when they have to jerk the calf or steer to a halt. Which means that they really should only be used on occasion, not every single ride. If you’re using it to change the horse’s headset or keep the horse from running away, it’s no longer a training aid: it’s a Band-Aid that may not be helping to correct the actual issue but to merely disguise it, and it’s time to address that instead.)

Howlett actually seems to describe a pretty good serpentine. The problem is (and this is where being a historian gets a little tricky sometimes) that I’m not entirely certain what kind of a serpentine he’s talking about, because I can’t be sure which direction he’s actually going. “Now walk about it (the arena or ring) on the right seven or eight times, then by a little straightning your right Rein, and laying your left Leg Calf to his side, make a half Circle within the Ring upon your right down to its Center; then by straightning a little your left Rein, and laying your right Leg Calf to his side, make a half Circle to your left hand, from the Center to the outmost Verge, and these you see contrary turned make a Roman S.”

When he says “walk about the arena on the right side” is he saying “track right” (so the right hand is to the inside of the arena) or “have the wall of the arena on your right” (which means he’d be tracking left)? If it’s the first, it could be a counter-bent serpentine. If it’s the second, it’s a normal serpentine. The rider is only holding the reins with one hand, so does that impact how he “straightens” the reins? Is he actually straightening the rein, or just using it to apply pressure to the neck, as in neck reining? And just where on the horse’s side is the rider applying the leg? Is it at the girth or further back?

But hey, guess what? We’ve been practicing serpentines for at least 333 years now. I guess that’s what you could call a legacy.

The next concept Howlett calls “Stop Fair, Comely, and without Danger.” Essentially what he describes is trotting the horse for about fifty paces, then drawing back on the reins, and then “ease a little your hand to make him give backward, and in so doing, give him liberty, and cherish him; then drawing in your Bridle hand, make him retire, and go back… and thus he may Learn these Two Lessons at once.”

Sound familiar? It should. Basically everyone in every discipline ends up using some variation of this exercise at some point. Think of some of the horses that get so obsessed with what they’re doing that they forget to listen to the rider. What do we do? Trot, stop, back. Ask him/her to give through the poll. Walk, stop, back. Canter, stop, back. Transitions, transitions, transitions.

There are some other exercises that he puts out there, like “To Advance before” (Rearing on command) and “To Yerk out behind” (kick out on command). Obviously those two we don’t use very much anymore (because horsemanship is dangerous enough as it is, thank you kindly), and the way Howlett suggests training for them involves a lot of spurring in the flanks and flailing whips while yelling. I’m hoping we’ve developed some other methods in the last 300 years, because those sound… messy. But what he does write about “To go aside” (Side pass), and to “Carreere” (Sliding stop) is pretty much dead on. Oh, and by the way, “To go aside” and “Carreere” are both military maneuvers. So to the Reiners and Trail Riders, I salute your combat prowess.

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Is there anything that we can take from this book that still benefits horsemen and women today?

Surprisingly enough, yes.

First, let’s talk a little bit about whips and spurs.

According to Faith Meredith, there are two main categories of aids. The first is natural aids, which is anything that comes directly from the rider’s body. These (generally speaking) consist of seat aids, leg aids, and hand aids. The second category is artificial aids: whips and spurs. I think that these are historically some of the most poorly used aids in all of riding history. If you read Black Beauty as a child, you may have developed some serious distrust of whips and spurs because of how many descriptions there are of harsh riders who use them to abuse their horses. Essentially, whips and spurs have a tendency to become extensions of our own frustration and anger, and that is not their purpose.

If this book is anything to judge by, these guys relied pretty heavily on whips and spurs. But what I find impressive is how they’re using their whips and spurs. And no, I don’t mean the stuff about spurring your horse in the flanks to get a literal rise out of him/her to teach rearing and kicking. Please, for the love of all that smells like horse, don’t do that. We tend to be somewhat more timid riders in this day and age, and I think we should keep it that way. It saves us from lawsuits. What I mean is that as far as I can tell, nowhere in this book does it say anything like “And if the horse, by refusing thine aids, pisseth you off, beat his butt with your whip so he knows what he did is unbecoming and that he should be more submissive in the future.” Instead, every touch of the whip or spur has a distinct purpose, and none of them have to do with the anger of the rider.

The correct use of whips and spurs is as an extension of the natural aids; a reinforcement for the natural aids. If you are asking your horse to side pass and he/she ignores your leg aids, you can reinforce the aid by gently applying a spur or lightly tapping behind your leg with a whip. I say “gently” and “lightly” for a reason, which is that you should expect them to respond. A gentle reminder is like clapping or snapping to get someone’s attention: it asks them to respond appropriately to normal, everyday requests, like moving quietly away from the pressure of your leg. If we want our horses to be quiet and responsive, we have to set the tone with our aids. If you wind up and smack your horse with every ounce of strength in your body, well, you better be able to ride what you dish out.

Is it better to never have to use whips or spurs? Yeah, generally speaking, I would say so. I certainly wouldn’t recommend handing them to every inexperienced or untried rider who comes to the barn. But the reality is that we may not be able to always ride or train without them, because every horse is an individual and has to be trained and ridden with that in mind. But here’s the thing: if fashionable men from 333 years ago could use their artificial aids correctly, I think we should at least strive to do the same.

The last piece of advice I could really glean from this book is actually rather cynical, although I doubt the author meant it to be. Howlett actually tells the readers that he “would not have them (the sports) made a trade, instead of a Divertisement.” Now, I’m guessing that he mostly says it because at the time doing anything to excess was considered a type of gluttony or lust, and that was sinful. And of course, it’s also probably a social standing thing as well: young men of good breeding should not spend their whole lives hunting or playing tennis or cricket or pool. They should be taking on adult responsibilities and building the family fortune and finding wives to produce well-bred worthy heirs. Pomp and circumstance aside, Howlett actually might have a point.

So, here’s the cynical advice that I now must (sadly) give to the new generation of the equine industry: Don’t set your heart on becoming an equine professional.

Bear in mind that I am giving this advice while at least partially ignoring it myself. But becoming an equine professional is a bit like moving in with your best friend: Starting out, it seems like a great idea, and you’re sure it will be super fun. But the odds of it actually working out and you still liking your friend afterwards are pretty slim. When it comes to the horse industry, there aren’t actually that many jobs that put food on the table: most of us are lucky if our horses manage to pay for themselves, and paying for your next meal really isn’t a guarantee. And to be a successful businessman or businesswoman in this industry means putting in way more time and effort than a 9 to 5 job. 18882286_10211730281306954_2361515969697798052_nIt means 12 or 18 hour days in the heat and cold and constantly putting the physical and emotional wellbeing of thousand pound animals above your own. Your horses will need visits from the farrier every six weeks, visits from the vet and dentist every six months to a year, days off when they’re sick or tired, balanced nutrition, and constant monitoring for injuries, illness, unexplained grumpiness, etc. That’s without adding in all of the extra stuff, like visits from massage therapists, chiropractors, or acupuncturists. I generally spend anywhere from 3 to 6 hours on one horse per day. When you’re giving it all you have, this job is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and it could be very easy to start hating it.

So here’s what I suggest doing instead: Get a job that pays the bills. Not a job that you hate and you only do because it pays the bills: try for something that doesn’t make you want to drown all of your sorrows when you come home every day. At least have a stable source of income that can cover the cost of owning horses. If you need it to be a job that allows you to work with horses, try going to veterinary school or working at a veterinary clinic. Consider going to school to become a farrier or equine dentist. If you want to be an instructor or trainer or exercise rider, try to always use or ride someone else’s horse: then you’re not having to take on the costs of care, and sometimes you even get paid to work with other people’s horses. And above all else, never, never, never get a horse job for the money. It will make you angry, bitter, and unwilling to learn anything new. Instead, learn to be an amateur: do it because you love it and you care about the horses. I will take an eager amateur over a sour professional any day of the week, because in the end, we all know which one will do the job right.

Month 3 Check-up

Month 3 was moderately disastrous.

Just before the last week of April Champagne had his first creek crossing, which really went surprisingly well. His second creek crossing (back over the same creek) did not go so well. He banged up his leg and pulled his back, which wasn’t particularly strong in the first place.  I spent a week stretching him back out and getting smooth motion again, thinking that I could go back to riding gently.

Those hopes and dreams were crushed when the farrier came out and holding up his feet restrained his back. So we spent a week on muscle relaxants, bute, turnout time or light lunging, and massages. This was then followed up by a week of normal lunge work, including work in walk, trot, canter, up and down hills, over poles, lengthening and shortening strides, etc.

During that time, I saw some of the hoof peeling away on the lateral side of the left front heel and saw that there was some thrush underneath. I pulled out my hoof knife and decided to open it up to help deter the thrush and make it easier to treat. I didn’t quite comprehend how deep the thrush really went though, so opening it up landed me with a mostly open, thrushy wound. Confused about whether to treat it as an open wound or thrush, I called Amanda. We didn’t cover it, which was actually a wise decision (two or three hours of bandaging made it pretty soft and thrushy and icky), and treated it with a funky combination of:

  • Tomorrow- technically meant for cow udders, but handy for treating thrush when it’s found in tight or deep spots, such as split bulbs
  • Iodine- good for sterilizing both thrush and open wounds, which was nice
  • Scarlet Oil- a pretty good antiseptic that also keeps the flesh supple enough to keep from cracking and bleeding in order to promote even healing of open wounds

I’ve dropped the Scarlet Oil from the treatment routine as the open wound part of the equation has healed well. The thrush part I’m still treating with Tomorrow and Iodine, but it’s actually healing remarkably fast and well. Once the last of the thrushy split tissue heals, I think I can drop the Tomorrow from the treatment routine and only use the Iodine for a few more days after that before allowing it to heal up the rest of the way on its own. Thank goodness Champagne has remained sound on that hoof and has been healing quickly so that we could keep working. I’m not sure how much more time off I could handle.

This week we’re kicking it up another notch and adding in more canter work, more stretching, higher poles, more transitions, changes in the size of the lunge circles, and so on. I’m still giving him massages to keep him comfortable so that he can get stronger faster. Theoretically by the end of this week he should be strong enough to take my weight again, and we can go back to riding. I can’t wait: a month of not riding is giving me the jitters.

The optimistic side of me says that this has all been a great learning experience and I will definitely benefit from it further down the road. The pessimistic side of me says that I would have preferred fewer life lessons and more ride time.

By my calculations, I have now owned Champagne for 91 days. During that time I have recorded 96 hours of work, making an average of 1 hour 3 minutes 18 seconds of training per day. In reality, I have actually only recorded training  for 63 days out of those 91, which means that on average training sessions go for 1 hour 31 minutes 26 seconds.

Has all of the lunging, riding, massaging, hot rice bags, muscle relaxants, vet consultations, extra feed, farrier appointments, dental visits, physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion been worth it?

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Month 0
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Month 3

I don’t think he’ll ever bulk out the way a quarter horse would: his build is just a little too refined for that. But he looks and feels much better, so yes, I’d say this has been worth it.

13 Weeks Down. Approximately 20 to go. I think we can make it.

Small Changes

A little while ago I was bragging to someone about how much progress my little RRP horse was making and how proud I was of him. And then this person asked what I’ve done with him so far, and my answer was so spectacularly profound, thoughtful, and clearly inspired by that moment that it is burned into my memory.

“Eeeeerrrrgh.”

Fortunately, we changed the subject right after that.

But this bothered me. After a month of work I knew that Champagne had made a lot of positive changes, but trying to put them into words made them seem absolutely insignificant. Unlike many of the RRP trainers I see who are already taking their horses to competitions; my successes seemed so small in comparison. What was I supposed to say? “I taught my horse how to trot!” “He let me touch his ears!” “We walked around the arena today and didn’t die!” I’m not doing flying lead changes or half passes or jumping or cutting cattle or anything so big and flashy and praiseworthy. There are plenty of days when I’m lucky to work with Champagne at all. But after a few weeks of feeling ridiculous, I finally remembered something.

This is my journey. I’m not a professional with a $4000 horse training a world class jumper. I’m an amateur taking a $500 Rescued OTTB with all kinds of physical and emotional baggage and rehabilitating him. I’m using whatever knowledge and skills I’ve managed to acquire to give Champagne a life that doesn’t end at the kill pen. Champagne and I are genuinely doing our best, and to pretend that we should somehow be giving more would be doing us both a disservice.

So now we’re at about week 10 of our training (22 weeks to go!), and I can give a much clearer answer about the changes that we’ve made.

Training

In terms of traditional training, I started with a horse that could be groomed and saddled and bridled and walk and gallop in a straight line. In all fairness, it’s not a bad place to start. Now I have a horse who can:

  • Quietly allow a rider to mount (not his strong suit starting out)
  • Walk, trot, canter, and halt calmly according to my aids on the lunge line
  • Walk, trot, sidepass, back, do turns on the forehand and haunches, and perform some beginning lateral work
  • Hack out solo
  • Ride in groups without being absolutely convinced that he must race the rest of the horses

Physical Fitness

Teaching a horse a particular set of movements is easy. Teaching a horse to perform those movements athletically and correctly is an entirely different story. The movements can be learned in a pretty short time. Athleticism can take years to develop, and training a horse to carry him/herself correctly is a work of art. This has been a lot of the emphasis of our training (which is why Champagne and I haven’t even started cantering under saddle- he’s not quite strong enough yet). Coupled with good nutrition, a much needed visit from the equine dentist, and massage therapy (just what I can do myself- I dream on a budget, remember), the changes in just two months have been phenomenal.

When I first got him, Champagne had horribly tight hamstrings and his poll was essentially locked into one position. Trying to ride him was like trying to maneuver box springs up three flights of stairs and through two narrow doorways before realizing the room you were going to put it in is too small. He would be heavy on the forehand and yank you forward with the reins, which was impressive considering how high he usually carried his head. On the rare occasion that he did bend his neck, it wasn’t pretty. It mostly resembled three jagged lines dispersed somewhere between his head and his shoulders. Sure, he could run for a good long while (not because I asked, mind you), but a half hour walk/trot lunge session over poles would be absolutely exhausting. I had to focus on stretching and strengthening and developing his musculoskeletal structure if I wanted to even have a rideable horse, let alone one I could ever hope to take to a competition.

Now Champagne

  • listens first to my seat, not my hands
  • moves quietly off of my legs
  • seeks contact, but no longer braces
  • is supple
  • is quick on the aids
  • can stretch
  • is starting to lift his back
  • can lengthen or shorten his gaits somewhat
  • is significantly more balanced
  • has developed flexibility in the poll and hamstrings

And of course, in terms of what it’s done for him physically, well, the lighting isn’t good, but take a look.

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Week 1
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Week 8

I think that Champagne looks much less like a stick horse and much more like the real thing, and my boss no longer cringes when she looks at him. I think he might even be slightly less cowhocked than before, but that might be wishful thinking.

There’s still plenty to be done (another 50 pounds would be a nice addition), but I think we’re off to a pretty good start.

Emotional Health

One of the most common things I hear about horses is that they have about the mentalities of two year old children. They’re brutally honest, they poop everywhere, everything goes into their mouth, and when there’s something they want, they can be surprisingly creative about how to get it. And just like two year old children, I’m learning that it’s important to nurture healthy relationship skills with our training horses.

Champagne is a bit of a timid soul and not particularly inclined to express himself. As a matter of fact, when he first came in, I’m not entirely certain that he actually knew how to express himself. One of the first days I had him I brought him inside and had him in the cross ties for grooming. We had some kids around the barn, and as soon as a new horse appeared, they were instantly fascinated and everyone wanted to come and pet his face and be his friend. Champagne was still for a few minutes, and I thought he was okay. Then suddenly he freaked out, pulled backwards, and slipped right out of the halter and ran to the back of the barn to hide. Amanda herded all of the kids away and I herded my horse back to his stall, shaking my head at this disaster and thanking the powers that be that it wasn’t worse.

Fortunately, I at least knew that he wasn’t trying to be naughty or mean. All of those kids with all of their crazy kid energy freaked him out, and he was suffering from what I can only describe as “Stranger Danger.” He had never learned to express his discomfort quietly, like a toddler turning his head away from a new person and hiding behind his mom. Champagne had learned to bottle it up until it was too much for him, and then when he had passed his stress threshold, he exploded and ran. Essentially, he skipped right past “I can’t see you, you can’t see me” straight to screaming “Stop, Stranger, Stay AWAY!” and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

So essentially, I had to start this whole “human interaction” thing all over. For about a week or two, I just groomed him. That was it. I groomed him and I watched very carefully for any social cues telling me what he was feeling, and as soon as I saw them, I responded. It was extraordinary, because I don’t think that he was even aware of the signals he had been sending. Obviously I don’t know for certain, but I can only guess that no one had ever really listened to those signals, so he stopped using them. (Just to be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of abuse: I think that someone was probably a little too goal oriented about getting him on the racetrack. It’s an easy enough mistake to make, and one I am inclined to make myself.) But here I was, retraining him to know that I was hearing him, and I would do my best to do right by him. Basically, my goal was to remind him that he had a voice in this conversation too.

Here’s how I know that we made progress. Fast forward to week 9, and once again, he and I are working together while there are some kids nearby. Some of them ask me if they can pet him, and I say “Sure, fine by me.” Instantly, he’s swarmed by three at once. He pulls his face away and looks at me, feeling a little bit panicked. I stop the girls and start again. “If you want to pet him, you can try, but you should probably go one at a time and ask his permission first. Try holding out your hand and letting him smell you. If he doesn’t pull away, you can pet him. If he does, respect his space and maybe ask him again later.” (He’s pretty timid about even putting his nose near people, so I trust him to not nip anyone. If he was mouthy, I wouldn’t suggest holding out hands.)

It was wonderful to watch, for two reasons. The first was that he used a quieter behavior to display his discomfort. The second was that after I told them to ask for his permission first, the way the girls approached him changed instantly. He was no longer a curiosity to pet and snuggle, like a new stuffed animal. These girls suddenly approached him as an individual being with his own unique personality that needed to be respected. Looking back on it, I can’t help but cheer a little bit for that small, seemingly insignificant moment. Three girls started to learn how important it can be to listen when it would be easier to speak, and a horse learned that someone else besides his trainer was going to be listening too.

 

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Learning About Cuddles

 

Of course, with all of these areas, Champagne and I have a long way to go. Obviously there is more to learn (like canter departs, for one), more ways to strengthen and improve (more lateral work and pole work wouldn’t go amiss), and more things to talk about (he’s starting to tell me what he doesn’t like; now I’d like to find out more about what he does like). But if he improves at even half the rate that he has, I’ll be ecstatic. Meanwhile, I think I’ll learn to savor the small changes. They are pretty sweet.

The Hay Bag

Captain’s Log, Week 6: At this point, I think Champagne is exceeding my expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our bad days. We had two kind of rough days this last week. One day I asked him to work in the arena while another horse was there, and he’s still convinced that his job is to race any other horses around, so it took the whole training session to just get him to walk and trot in a straight line. The other day he tried using the other horses being turned out nearby as an excuse for not paying attention, but when he tried to rub his head on me and knocked me flying, that was pretty much the indicator that the other horses weren’t a good enough excuse; he was just being disrespectful. We had ourselves a little “Come to Jesus” that day. Thankfully, he cleaned up his act beautifully after that.

Overall though, he’s doing great things. He doesn’t always get quite what I’m asking for, since this whole “ride from the seat and legs” thing is definitely new to him, but as long as I give him clear aids, he responds beautifully. He actually side passed for me when I was demonstrating the importance of balanced seatbones when giving leg aids, and I really didn’t expect him to. We’re not really that far into our training for me to demand that. And while he doesn’t always understand exactly what I’m asking for, and he definitely doesn’t always have the strength or flexibility to do what I ask, he’s actually caught on beautifully to the WHY behind what I ask. He’s starting to figure out that I don’t ask him to do random crap just for the fun of it; I’m actually giving him exercises to help him stretch and give him some relief from his sore, tight muscles. In the same vein of thought, he’s starting to enjoy having his hamstrings massaged after every ride, even though it can be a little bit uncomfortable. He’s figuring out that he magically feels a little less sore afterwards. And on top of all of that, as he becomes more aware of what’s been going on in his body, he’s also starting to release a little bit of the tension on his own: yawning and stretching and so on.

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Pretty sure this picture describes our whole relationship so far.

We definitely have a long way to go before he’s strong enough and supple enough and understands all of my aids perfectly (the way that I’m hoping for), but he’s so smart and has so much try, and I can’t help but be super proud of how far he’s come in such a short time.

And of course, he definitely made me proud this week when he overcame one of the biggest, scariest challenges that man has ever conceived.

THE DENTIST.

Now, we have a lot of fun when the dentist comes. We probably shouldn’t, because this can be pretty traumatic for the horses, but… well, there’s so many good photo opportunities! Here are some of my favorites from this weekend.

I didn’t get any pictures of Champagne while his teeth were being done, because I was handling for the dentists, but let me tell you, I’m really glad that they came this weekend and took care of him, because this is what they ended up taking out of his mouth.

Now, Champagne was a champ about this whole thing. Even though they had given him a shot of sedation, he was still awake enough and miserable enough that he could have made our lives very, very difficult if he had wanted to. As it was, even though it was awful for him, he stood there like a perfect gentleman and let us do what needed to be done.

“Hey, LWR, I get that you’re trying to take care of your horse, but seriously? Those are some big teeth to take out of his mouth. Wasn’t that a little bit excessive?”

Not one bit, no. And to understand why, here’s a quick crash course in equine dentistry.

Horse Skull Teeth TypeThis is your horse’s skull. Well, loosely speaking, at least. In an adult horse with a fully developed mouth, you have 12 incisors (The purple ones; 6 on top, 6 on bottom), up to 4 canines (Marked in orange and often dependent on the sex of the horse), 12 premolars (The blue ones; 3 on top and 3 on bottom per side), and 12 molars (marked in red). In general, horse teeth follow the same rules as any other animal: Incisors are for ripping and tearing up grass, canines are used to show dominance (aka, nipping at other animals, horse and predator alike), and premolars and molars are for grinding up food before swallowing. So far so good. Probably the biggest difference is how their teeth grow.

Humans, dogs, cats, and I’m sure other animals all have their baby teeth, and then as they mature and their skull reaches full size, those fall out and our adult teeth come in, and they’re deeply rooted in our skulls and we’re stuck with brushing our teeth regularly to prevent cavities and tartar and plaque and whatever else, because once we get those adult teeth, that’s it, we’re done. Horses have baby teeth as well, and they do fall out before their adult teeth come in, but once their adult teeth come in, they keep “growing”. Actually, they’re not growing: the way a lot of dentists and veterinarians will describe it is as “Erupting.” Basically, the teeth keep descending (or ascending) until they meet an opposing force (which we hope is another tooth).  As they get older, they may look like they have the same size tooth in their mouth, but the tooth as a whole is getting shorter as it’s worn down on the surface.

In these pictures you can see a four year old’s tooth (it abscessed and had to be extracted, that’s why it’s so red and gooey looking), then in the second picture you will see (moving left to right) half of a three year old’s tooth (it fell and broke on the concrete), followed by the teeth of a 9 year old, an 18 year old, and a 30 year old. As a horse spends 30 years grazing and grinding away on those teeth, they don’t wear down quite so soon as if they were to have teeth built like ours. They keep on erupting, simply providing a fresh grinding surface.

horse grazingNow, because horses naturally spend most of their time eating grass and have their noses down, their teeth evolved to suit that fact. As their head is stretched down and their faces are about vertical, their teeth are pretty much aligned, and consequently their teeth wear down fairly evenly. This isn’t always the case, as horses have a lot of the same issues as us (overbites, underbites, etc.), but this is pretty much the optimal way for their teeth to grow. I think the average rate of growth for a horse’s tooth when it has a proper opposing force (aka, another tooth) is about 1/8 inch per year. But of course, being humans, we did something terrible that messed with that optimal growth rate.

We domesticated horses and put them into stalls.

Hay feederJust because I say that, please don’t take that as an insult or assume that you must now free all of the horses. We actually have a fairly symbiotic relationship going now. And the stalls aren’t really the problem (even though pasture space is much better). The problem is that we started feeding horses out of hay bags and feeders: specifically hay feeders that force the horse to eat at chest height or higher. I know that we all do it (I am guilty) to try to save hay to keep it all from being pooped and peed on, but when we invented this marvelous hay saving device, we failed to calculate the effect it would have on our horses’ teeth.

We always think that the jaw is just a hinged joint: that it just opens and closes like a door. If you ever play with a skull (human or horse), you’ll find that the jaw doesn’t “click” into place. There’s actually a lot of wiggle room, and if it wasn’t for the ligaments, muscles, and tendons holding it in place, we would have some serious problems. Come to think of it, I guess that’s pretty much true of most joints in our bodies, but the point is that the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) actually allows for a surprisingly wide range of motion.

Here’s a quick experiment for you. Drop your head to your chest, and relax your jaw. Do you feel where your teeth and jaw are sitting? Now roll your head upright and even back. What just happened? Did you feel how much your jaw shifted, just by moving your head up and down? Guess what? Horse’s heads do the exact same thing.

When we feed our horses with their heads up high, we throw off the alignment of their jaws, and consequently, their teeth no longer grind down evenly. Remember, when a horse’s tooth meets the opposite tooth, it grows at about a rate of 1/8 inch per year. When a tooth lacks the proper opposing force, its growth rate jumps to 3/4 inch per year. When a whole tooth, or even a part of a tooth, is growing 6 times faster than it should, you can bet there’s going to be some problems. The main ones you’ll usually hear about are hooks, ramps, and waves.

Hooks

hooks ramps redHooks occur when the top, front premolar is sitting slightly in front of the bottom premolar and starts erupting faster. They do also occur on other teeth, but this is where you will see hooks the most. Obviously this will be extremely painful if the horse bites his check or gum, and if it goes on long enough, that sharp point is going to drive its way right down into the bottom gum. If for some reason that doesn’t concern you, please note that it will also probably interfere with the bit, and you will wonder why your horse is always so grumpy when you try to go for a ride.

Waves

I don’t understand waves as well as I probably should, but my main impression is that this mostly occurs when the main bulk of the premolars and molars aren’t grinding evenly against each other. If there’s not a flat surface to grind against, your horse will probably have a lot of problems chewing and digesting his/her feed properly, and the odds of choking or colic are greatly increased. Also, with all those sharp points along the edge, that horse is going to be miserable every time he tries to chew and catches his cheek instead.

Ramps

received_1911424982477707Ramps usually occur under the same circumstances as hooks: the top layer of teeth are sitting forward of the bottom layer, and that back, lower molar starts to erupt at a quicker rate than the rest of the teeth and starts to slope upward. Just like with hooks, it will eventually grow into the upper gum. However (as I learned from our dentists this time around), ramps can actually kill a horse. As the ramp grows upward and eventually wears away whatever opposing tooth there may be, it will actually pierce through the roof of the mouth and puncture the palatine artery, and the horse will bleed out and die. On the right is a picture of the skull of a horse who actually died this way.

“Okay LWR, that’s scary. But still, taking that much tooth out of the mouth seems really aggressive. Couldn’t the dentist have just filed them down and made him feel better?”

Most of the time, yes, you can do that and be okay. But Champagne’s ramps were too far gone: they couldn’t even fit a file between his upper and bottom molars in the back. Even if they could have, can you imagine how long it would take to file those down to size? And I don’t think that this was a job that could have been done halfway, because let’s go back and take a look at those teeth. Bear in mind, they were cut to sit flush with the rest of his molars and premolars. The red circles show the chewing area, and the yellow lines show the back of the teeth.

See what I mean? He had had ramps for so long that as his teeth continued to erupt, they could no longer erupt upward, the way that they were supposed to. The back continued to erupt faster than the front, and the front had nowhere to go, and eventually, it actually changed how those back teeth were sitting in his skull. That’s gotta be excruciating. Cutting it down and relieving that pressure was about the only way to start the healing process. They said that if he had gone untreated, in about another year, he would have been absolutely miserable and it would have been almost impossible to save his mouth. If it had gone on for another 4 years, he would be dead. As it is, with dental appointments every 6 months for the next year or so (probably longer), they said they can fix all of this and get it healthy again.

The thing is, I don’t think that his teeth would have naturally grown in this way. Granted, I didn’t get to stick my hand in his mouth this time around to feel, but I think if he had grown up grazing in a pasture or eating hay off the ground, or heck, having the opportunity to eat below chest level, this wouldn’t have happened. Or if it had, it wouldn’t have been nearly so extreme. Think about that. At least 50% of this whole nightmare is because some humans decided to feed their horses too high, just to try to save a few bucks on hay.

 

horse eating hay on ground
Feeding hay on the ground isn’t as big of a deal as we think.

 

One final thing before I can get off my soap box.

There are a lot of old school trainers out there who may be saying “I feed my horses off the ground, and my horses eat well and maintain a good weight and ride well: I don’t need a dentist to come out.” And to you, I must say… That’s wonderful! I’m so glad that your horses are doing well! But please do call a good vet or dentist out anyhow to at least evaluate their teeth and clean up some sharp edges. Champagne was actually gaining weight and riding fairly well, but I think that’s because he’s a fairly easy keeper and because he’s just a really good boy with a really sweet personality. But even if your horse is fat and happy and willing to do whatever you ask, do at least let a dentist do their job, and see what happens. I guarantee you’ll get better work than before, and here’s why.

Imagine that your horse has waves or hooks or ramps, and their teeth have been grinding in the same pattern for years and years. As time goes on, their teeth and jaw sort of get “locked” into that pattern and position. It’s sort of like a key, but with a lot less mobility and proper function.

Now having the TMJ locked in one position is bad enough, but imagine that it’s locked with the jaw sitting too far back. This is going to cause all kinds of problems. You might see the effects with your horse’s head stuck in the air or with excessive chewing, dry mouth, etc.: all of these behaviors that we often think of as “naughty” but usually tend to speak more to “discomfort.” Even if they are not showing any of these signs, you may see it as a failure to perform: an inability to form a connection or contact, a sliding stop that bounces along on the forehand, a tightness in the back as the horse tries to jump, or a stop that is never quite square in the dressage ring. The horse is doing their best, but they just can’t quite get it. Here’s why.

One of the main things that the horse uses his head and neck for (especially when he has a rider on his back) is balance. This 100 pound head swinging along in front of you helps to counteract all of the crazy motion that is going on in the other 900 pounds. The best way that a horse can use his head to balance requires that his head be free to hang from the first cervical vertebrae, rather like a chandelier. It’s actually the kind of physics that sometimes gets used in architecture to balance a building that is inclined to sway in high wind. Essentially, that free hanging weight is able to “center” the rest of the body. This is (partially) why we always talk about the importance of “bending” or “breaking” at the poll.

A good portion of bending at the poll depends on the TMJ being soft and the jaw being able to hang loose. I’m not entirely certain, but my educated guess is that when the jaw is locked back, it actually creates an internal tension that is similar to what happens when we force a horse into Rollkur. I’m not sure how it would affect the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the neck, but I’m fairly certain that like Rollkur, it would put additional and very unnecessary strain on the horse’s airway and spit glands, both of which would be (politely put) quite uncomfortable. As much as your horse is willing to try for you, they’re in pain. Ever tried playing basketball on a sprained knee? No one performs well when they’re in pain. Don’t expect them to “walk it off,” because they can’t.

Basically, here’s what this whole blog post comes down to: it’s easy to neglect getting a horse’s teeth done. It sometimes seems too expensive or too much of a hassle or just plain unnecessary. Maybe your horses do have incredible teeth and they never have problems chewing and they’re soft and flexible and supple and quick on your aids. Matter of fact, I think my first horse was one of those. 30 years old and I hadn’t gotten his teeth done in 5 years (I didn’t know any better), and when the vet checked them, he said they were great. It does happen.

But get them checked anyhow.

Getting your horse’s teeth checked regularly is just like getting hooves trimmed or having them vaccinated or getting an annual Coggins test done. It’s one of those acts of maintenance that does great things. It could save you money, because your horse will drop less feed when he/she can chew correctly. It could save your performance, because your horse will no longer be in unnecessary pain. And most importantly, it could save your horse’s life.

Month 1 Check-up

So we returned from the More Miles with Mimi Clinic, and we got the horses unloaded and put away and fed and all of that good jazz, and as I was starting the ten minute drive home, something absolutely terrible happened.

I started sneezing.

My husband had come home from training for less than 24 hours and had managed to give me his cold. It stayed away through the clinic weekend, but as soon as we were done traveling, my body said “Great! We have time to take care of this now,” and my week was essentially kind of ruined. Many decongestants and Kleenexes died to bring you this post.

Rather than go out to the barn every day and stress my body out and run the risk of passing a cold to Amanda as well (I think she would shoot me: she doesn’t have time for colds), I went out on Monday (to clean out the trailer and make sure horses were all happy) and on Friday (to clean out the barn). Outside of some mounting work on Friday (Champagne isn’t sure whether to run from the mounting block or eat it), Champagne essentially got week 2 1/2 to 3 off.

We’re now solidly into week 4, and I still haven’t gotten to do as much work with Champagne this week as I would like to, because my oldest brother and his girlfriend came out to visit, and spending time with my brother who I haven’t seen in almost 3 years kind of takes priority. I gave up some training time in favor of social visits and taking them to eat some true Louisiana BBQ and Crawfish. However, I also got to take them out to work and show them a little bit of what I do (I’m slowly debunking the myth that I don’t do anything productive with my life), and they even got to have a bit of a lunge lesson from Amanda. They were both super brave, because they were both willing to groom and saddle by themselves (we taught them how, but they did all the work) and to climb into dressage saddles, which neither had done before. My brother made all kinds of funny faces as he was concentrating on what he was doing (it’s a family trait: I totally do it too), and his girlfriend actually seemed to have a bit of a knack for it; but she does have that tall, athletic build that always makes me jealous. My brother has officially set a record for the biggest head that Amanda has tried to shove into a helmet, and we had some great help from one of our Horse Team girls during their lesson, as well as the lesson afterward. They said that they had fun and that it was really interesting, so I like to think that we did something right.

I’m a little irritated with how little work Champagne and I have done so far: We only have about seven rides under our belts (but the two weeks of ground work leading up to those seven rides was totally worth it), and I’m starting to stress about how much we have to get done before October. I’m starting to have funky dreams where I think it’s September and we still only have a few rides and we’re just not ready for RRP. I’m really having to remember to not demand perfection right now: Champagne is still too weak and too new to this whole “not racing thing” to cope with the weight of those expectations. I’m really trying to focus on the smallest, almost insignificant victories, like 1) Sighing, grunting, licking and chewing, 2) relaxed stretches forward into contact, 3) The slightest correct positioning of the head, 4) NOT bracing on my hands, 5) practicing and setting a rhythmical gait, particularly in the trot.

However, training anxiety aside, one of the things that I am planning on doing through this whole process is to take a picture of Champagne every month for the 8 months that I have him, and essentially try to document any changes that we make through feed or training. I don’t see a whole lot of changes so far, except that he’s (hopefully) put a little weight back on, and that he’s almost done shedding from the constant grooming, but it’s only been a month so far, so I don’t expect miracles. Hopefully we see some really positive changes by about month 6.

In other news, I’m starting to follow Amanda around to some of her Equine Massage appointments and trying to pick up whatever little tidbits of knowledge that I can. I need to steal some of her massage therapy papers from Meredith Manor and study them, because in spite of how much I do already know, there are a lot of complexities that are beyond me without some very active studying. That said, I did purchase some essential oils in order to make a massage liniment for Champagne’s tight hamstrings. I sat down at the dinner table to make a nice, oily concoction, and it was… underwhelming. I’m not sure why I thought mixing smelly stuff together would be satisfying, but still… I guess I had hoped for inspirational music or angelic voices to be heard when I got the proportions just where I wanted them.

This evening after I finished with my ride with Champagne, I slathered some of my new concoction all over his hamstrings and rubbed them out a little bit. He doesn’t quite seem to know whether he likes the smell of the liniment or not, and he’s definitely not sure what to think about me trying to massage it into his butt, but there seemed to be some things that he did like about it. From here on out, I’m hoping to not postpone any more training, and I’m planning on rubbing on his sore muscles, even for five minutes, after every work out, so… Well, best case scenario, it will work wonders and I’ll somehow magically get a superb performance horse. Worst case scenario, I think I’ll at least have a very happy, spoiled pony.