Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blackwater Swamp Stomp 2017: T-1

Back in December, I found out about a new endurance ride that would be offered in Virginia: the Blackwater Swamp Stomp (BSS), which would be held in what is called the tidewater region of Virginia, not too far from the famous (or infamous if you are trying to drive there) Virginia Beach.  Virginia currently had four endurance rides and all of them were in the mountains.  Don't get me wrong, the mountains are beautiful, but after awhile, it gets a bit tedious to always be worrying about hoof protection and hauling the longer distances to train in the mountains.  So when I found out that the BSS would be held over easy, barefoot-friendly terrain, and offered an intro ride of 13 miles, I couldn't help myself but to sign up.  I also convinced a friend of mine that it would be a good idea to go, and she signed up too.  We trained together once a week (except when Nimo was out of commission due to the abscess) and by some miracle, I deemed us and our horses ready about a week before the ride would be held, with one exception - clipping.

Weather predictions for the day of the ride about a week out indicated temperatures in the 60s, which meant clipping would be a primary concern for me.  However, given that Mother Nature has been unwilling to provide either seasonal or consistent temperatures for months, I opted to wait until as close to the ride as possible to commit to a clip for Nimo.  As the days went by, the expected high for the day of the ride crept downward.  I decided to get a head start on clipping by doing a trace clip three days before the ride.  The weather was gorgeous, with highs near 70, so I knew a trace clip would not mean I would have to blanket and Nimo would probably appreciate some relief as well.  And even with cooler temps, a trace clip would be helpful for cooling without taking too much hair off for Nimo to need a lot of blanketing.  Two days before the ride, I finally committed to doing a modified chaser clip and as temperatures plummeted below freezing (remember I said Mother Nature was a bit off?), I shaved more hair off of Nimo in anticipation of a high of 46 degrees on ride day.  I should emphasize that my experience with Nimo is that if he gets overheated on the trail, he will slow down, never to pick up a decent pace again, and no amount of ice water or other cooling technique is going to perk him up.  It is critical that I keep him from overheating in the first place and that means clipping fairly aggressively and blanketing in cold weather.  This is what I ended up with:

Not the prettiest clip I've ever done, but I figured it would get the job done!
With the clipping out of the way, I went home to finish packing the few remaining things that could be packed the night before, and enjoy a night of the usual tossing and turning and frantically making a note to myself every time my brain remembered something I'd forgotten to pack.  (I keep my phone next to me and type in any item that I remember during the night, so in the morning I don't forget!)

Bright and early on Saturday morning (the ride was on a Sunday), I got up, made a quick cream cheese-based filling for the dish I'd be bringing to Saturday evening's potluck dinner (it turned out great, so if you are interested, click here for the recipe), packed the last few things that needed to be packed, and headed out down the road.  One minute later, my husband called me to tell me I'd forgotten my kindle, so I turned around and stopped by the house to pick it up before once again heading down the road.

Luckily, I'd padded my schedule with about 15 minutes, so having to go back for the kindle was not a big deal.  Plus, I'd already loaded everything and had the trailer hooked up already, so when I stopped by the barn, all I needed to do was fill a water container and load Nimo.  He was already in his stall eating breakfast, so my timing was perfect.  While he finished eating, I got the water, double-checked a couple of things, and then loaded him.

My friend and I planned to caravan most of the way to the ride, and my friend came up with a route that completely avoided I-95.  It would take us a little longer (assuming there was no accident or any other of the many completely random delays that tend to plague I-95), but we would be able to avoid driving amongst all the people who are idiots who also tend to plague I-95.   So about a half hour after I loaded Nimo, I met up with my friend and followed her for the next 3 1/2 hours as we wound our way south through Virginia.  The trip was pretty uneventful.  We stopped about halfway through for gas and to check the horses.  Both were blanketed, but the temperature seemed to be warming up, so I wanted to make sure Nimo wasn't too hot (he wasn't) and give him a quick snack.

In keeping with my usual custom of traveling to new places, we missed a turn near the end because the sign was crooked and we couldn't see the name of the street we were supposed to turn on.  (This happens ALL THE TIME in Virginia and it is beyond annoying when you are hauling a trailer.  I spend a lot of time furiously hoping that the idiots who flip the signs will spend an eternity in hell where they have to travel places and all the signs are messed up or missing...)  But we were able to find an abandoned business parking lot to turn around in, and we were back on track within in few minutes.

And then about 20 minutes later, we were within a mile of camp.  I found myself getting excited as we drove down the gravel/sand lane to the park where the ride was based.  I could see the ribbons marking some of the trail and we passed the separate ride 'n tie camp on the way in.  Even though I have struggled so much with whether the effort to train for endurance rides is worth the sacrifices, on that day, with the sun shining and the air crisp with spring, it was hard for me to deny that all the conditioning and clipping and blanketing and packing and planning was worth it for the opportunity to see new trails and catch up with fellow riders.

We arrived at camp just after 1 pm, and we managed to get the best parking spots ever.  Literally.  Parking was incredibly limited at the ride and it had filled weeks before, so I had expected we'd be crowded and parked inconveniently.  Instead, the ride management had carefully arranged and numbered parking spots and were making sure everyone was parked appropriately, so each rig had enough room for ample pens for the horses and maneuvering room to get parked.  My friend and I parked across from each other because she had a bigger trailer and there was separate parking for bigger trailers to make sure they had enough room.  To my left was the check-in camper and tent for food, as well as the camp fire.  Talk about conveniently located!  I was also close to the vetting area, so if I'd been doing a longer ride, I could have easily crewed from my trailer.

After I got parked and took a couple of minutes to be in awe of how lucky I was, I unloaded Nimo and tied him to the trailer so I could unload the livestock panels I use for his pen.  A minute later, the ride manager herself stopped by to say hello and asked if it was OK if she walked Nimo while I set up his pen.  I was so surprised, I kind of didn't know what to say.  (I mean surely the ride manager has more important things to do than to help me?)  After stuttering for a minute, I finally agreed that yes, she could take Nimo for a walk (apparently she had a friend who loved Friesians and wanted to introduce them).  So Nimo got to socialize and eat grass while I set up his pen.  And about 20 minutes later he came back to me attached to someone else who loved him and I got him set up with hay and water.

Then I went to check in, which was easy because I'd already submitted all my paperwork, and then I spent some time chatting with my friend as well as others I knew in camp.  I think all but 2 or 3 of the regular riders that I know ended up being at the ride, and I have to admit that it made me feel right at home.  Then I got my tent set up despite the fact that I apparently completely forgot the process I had come up with, so I spent a lot of time swearing and looking harried while I tried to remember how to get the *&%$ing thing up.  Eventually, I decided it was good enough and got the rest of my stuff in the tent and set up for the night.

At that point, it was time for the vetting in to start.  The line was pretty long for about an hour, so my friend and I just chatted and watched while we sat at my trailer because I had a lovely view of the process.  I have to admit that I have never had a chance to really watch so many horses do their trot-outs, so it was definitely a great opportunity.  Lots of beautiful, fit horses.  Finally, as the line dwindled, we decided to get our horses and vet in.  And of course, because I finally remembered to both order and bring a dozen grease markers with me, the ride management had plenty and were marking horses for everyone.  Nimo was letter A.  Letters were used for Intro riders, and I think we must have been the first to register.  We vetted in without any problems, and then I ran my friend's horse for her because she has a bad knee.  Her horse vetted through just fine too, and we put them back in their pens.

By then, it was getting close to dinner time, so I finished making the appetizer I had brought and before long, it was time for dinner, followed shortly by the ride meeting.  The ride meeting was pretty short, with the trail manager explaining how the trail was marked.  I did have a feeling of foreboding when he said, "Only a real idiot could get lost out on that trail because it's been marked so well."  If there is anyone who can miss a perfectly well-marked turn, it is me.  And if there is anyone who can't read a map to save her life, it is me.  And I have a horse who isn't much better.  So there's that.  The pulse criteria was the standard 64 bpm for the holds and 60 for the finish.  There was also a post-ride meeting just for new and intro riders, so I stayed for that.  I wanted to make sure my friend got the full experience and also, while I have accumulated quite a bit of knowledge, it had been 10 months since my last ride, so I figured a refresher was not a bad idea, especially given the previous situation with my tent.

The new rider briefing was sort of the usual stuff - basically going through much of what had been said at the ride meeting because new riders always seem to need the extra confirmation of the information they thought they heard and offering some basic tips.  The only thing that I really remember standing out to me was when one of the speakers (maybe one of the vets?) said that trotting was a much more efficient gait than walking and that a person's horse would actually stay cooler and in better metabolic shape if she trotted him than if she walked him (at least that is how I perceived what she said).  I'm not sure I've heard it said exactly that way before, but I have heard something like it in the past.  Here's the thing: I'm going to need some scientific evidence for big black horses before I believe it.  I'm not sure if this idea is more relevant for Arabs, and I will admit that Nimo pulses down a lot faster than I expected, even when I trot him almost all the way in to the vet check, but I really struggle with the idea that going faster is easier than going slower.  Sure, trot is an efficient gait in terms of movement, but that doesn't mean it is always the best gait.  I know some horses who actually seem to do better at the canter, and for Nimo, it would be abuse if I asked him to keep trotting when he was tired.  (Plus, let's not forget all the gaited horses who don't have a trot.)  It is certainly possible that I've missed a nuance with the concept, but I'm not sure it is the best advice to give to new riders, whose horses may not be as fit as they need to be.  In my opinion, every horse is different, and it is paramount that a rider learn to pay attention to the horse rather than apply one-size-fits-all rules.  Anyway, I don't bring it up to criticize the person who said it, but rather as a reminder for myself to keep it in the back of my mind to think about and do more research on.

Everyone went their separate ways soon after the ride meeting ended because the cold was creeping in.  The expected low was 25 degrees and the temperature was well on its way to that end by 7 pm.  I got my trusty heater running in my tent and snuggled in for a bit to read before I took Nimo on his usual pre-bedtime walk.

My trusty propane heater
I also checked email and Facebook and discovered that a fellow rider had posted pictures of what looked like a full-blown forest fire right next to ride camp.  I was kind of surprised because I hadn't noticed anything (note to self: learn how to be more observant when in ride camp...), but I figured the ride management would let us know if there was an emergency, and I had what I considered to be pretty good emergency transportation in the form of Nimo (who I'm pretty sure would turn into an endurance horse of Tevis caliber if faced with an out-of-control fire).  I later discovered it was a controlled burn, but the pictures were definitely a little scary.

At about 9, I pulled myself out of my toasty warm cocoon to walk Nimo for about 20 minutes and make sure he had hay and water for the night.  Then I tucked myself into bed, read for a bit more, and turned the lights off at about 10, hoping for at least a little sleep before the ride the next morning.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

HIghs and Lows

I can't believe it's been over two months since my last post.  I've been thinking about writing a lot but the words just wouldn't come out right.  After struggling and struggling with how to write this post, I've decided I'm just going to sit down and write and see what comes out.  So why don't I start from the beginning?

The new year started out great.  I joined three other ladies at Phelps WMA for a lovely 8-mile ride.  I knew one lady well, but the other two were new to me, so we spent most of the ride just walking and chatting.  As it turned out, one lady knew part of the park very well and I knew another part of the park well, so between the two of us, we managed to create a wonderful figure-8 that would be perfect for conditioning purposes - lots of small to medium-sized hills, a couple of water crossings, and a few places to let the horses stop and grab a bite of grass.

Nimo and I after our ride

The Figure-8
After the ride, I was really excited to let a friend who was interested in doing an intro endurance ride know that I'd found a great trail for us to use for conditioning purposes, and I was looking forward to riding with her as we both prepared for Virginia's newest endurance ride - the Blackwater Swamp Stomp.  The ride was scheduled for the first Sunday in March, so I figured we had plenty of time to make sure the horses were ready.

During the first week of January, I didn't get any riding in until Saturday.  At the time, I was starting to putz around with a new aquarium, and I admit my focus was on that instead of riding.  By the time Saturday rolled around, the very lovely 40s and 50s we'd had all week plummeted to the low 20s and we got a bit of a blizzard.  Because I'd procrastinated about riding all week, I sucked it up and rode during the snow for about an hour.  I had planned to take Nimo around the trails on the farm where he is boarded, not realizing that apparently it was the last day of deer season, so there were several hunters out.  I tried to move to a different section of the farm to stay out of their way, but Nimo threw a fit at a water crossing and absolutely would not go across it, even though he's done it dozens of times.  I either had to get off and drag him across or head back to the arena.  I decided that I would try to salvage the ride with some arena time.

Riding out in the woods at Nimo's barn
It was a disaster.  I could not get any suppleness from him no matter what I tried.  It was quite possibly the worst ride I've had on him in recent memory.  I was frustrated, mad, and tired when we were done and really questioning what had happened to my riding skills.

The next day, the temperature barely cracked 20 degrees with winds only someone from North Dakota could love.  Thankfully, I had already planned to have lunch with a couple of friends, so I didn't feel compelled to ride.  Not so thankfully, as I was leaving the restaurant, I got a call from the barn - something was wrong with Nimo.  The staff working that day were not knowledgeable about horses, so the best information I could get was that Nimo had eaten his breakfast, there was no sign of trauma, and something wasn't right with his hind end.

I drove home, took care of a few things that needed to be done quickly and conscripted my husband into driving me out to the barn, so I could focus on diagnosing my horse before I'd even seen him.  By the time we got there, I was borderline hyperventilating and I'd convinced myself he was colicking and dying.  I cursed myself for not bringing the truck so I could quickly hook up the trailer and take him to the nearest emergency clinic and I mentally reviewed my parameters for what we could pay to treat any problem and where I would draw the line for euthanasia.

I tried to keep it together because my daughter was with us, but I was worried sick.  I grabbed a few treats from my tack locker in case I needed them to convince Nimo to move, checked his feed bucket to confirm it was empty (he was fed dinner between the call with the barn and me getting out there, although I wasn't sure if they had brought him in or fed him in the field), and walked as fast as I could to Nimo's field.  On the way, I caught a glimpse of him and saw two perky ears, which went a long way toward alleviating my concerns.  I came around the manure storage area, which has an 8 foot fence, and finally could see all of Nimo.  He was standing near the fence, alertly watching for me.  As I got to the paddock gate, he started walking toward me, and it became obvious that he was very lame on his right hind leg.

I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on what I was seeing.  He was happy to move forward, but he definitely had a grade 4 lameness (he was only using the toe of his hoof to bear weight and using it as little as possible).  As he got close enough for me to touch him, I looked for any obvious swelling or blood that would mean I shouldn't move him any more without stabilizing the leg.  I didn't see anything, so I decided that because he was willing to walk, I would lead him to his stall, which wasn't too far away, so I could do a better examination.

I got him to his stall and carefully palpated his whole leg.  I didn't find anything until I felt some heat and swelling at the coronet band.  At that point, I thought the diagnosis was clear.  Nimo had an abscess that was trying to burst out through his coronet band.  That probably explained his behavior the day before under saddle.  Even though I didn't feel an unevenness in his movement, that abscess was probably causing at least pressure and making him reluctant to move well.

Nimo has only had one other abscess, and that was about 10 years ago.  Interestingly, it was in the same hoof and I remember that for about 2 weeks before we knew he had it, my trainer had accused me of riding so poorly that I was making my horse lame.  Then, Nimo manifested the usual lameness that looked like a broken leg and the abscess burst out of his heel bulb in three days.  For that abscess, I kept him turned out and did no soaking.  My vet had advised no Bute, turnout as much as possible, and no soaking unless it didn't resolve fairly quickly or he was in too much pain to move and eat.  I know there are different ways of addressing abscesses, but I decided to stick with what had worked before for him.  So I turned him out, gave him a little more hay than usual in the run-in shed (there are round bales in his field, but I typically give him 2 flakes of alfalfa in his run-in shed at night because all of his field mates are stalled at night and it is a way for me to balance the orchard grass hay that the barn feeds), and let the barn owner know the situation.

After a couple of days, Nimo started to gradually improve with respect to the lameness.  After 6 days, he appeared sound at the walk to me, but I could find no evidence that the abscess had burst in the location I'd first identified in the coronet band.  We did have a lot of mud that week, so I thought maybe I missed it somehow because all of the hoof tissue was softened and maybe the abscess had come out a fairly small hole?

I had a lesson on January 15th, so I thought that would be a great opportunity to have a second pair of eyes evaluate Nimo's movement to make sure he was sound.  He felt great under saddle, and we had a really nice lesson.  We did lots of walk to canter transitions and he worked pretty hard.  My instructor saw no sign of lameness.

But it was weird - I mean, I had expected severe lameness for 1-5 days and then immediate soundness after the abscess burst and drained.  It was bothering me that I couldn't find the point the abscess had come out and it seemed unusual that he'd had an almost linear improvement in his lameness over the course of the week.  Yet, he seemed sound.  I rode him barefoot on gravel and rocks and he was fine.  I did a couple of conditioning rides and he was fine.  So I put it out of my mind.

View from the ridge at the Shenandoah River State Park
Until February 5th, when I got another call from the barn saying that Nimo was lame again, and he refused to come in from the field to eat his breakfast.  I was in the process of getting ready for a lesson when the call came, so I called my instructor to cancel the lesson, and headed straight out to the barn, expecting to find a similar situation to before, and thinking that I should maybe have the vet out to look at the hoof in question because something wasn't right.

I admit that I didn't take this call as seriously as the last one because I was convinced it was the same abscess that had somehow not come out the previous month.  When I got to the barn, there were indications right away that this was different somehow.  Another boarder was at the barn taking care of her lame horse and she mentioned that Nimo was laying down in the field and he didn't get up when she'd gone out to see him.  Nimo doesn't lay down in the field.  He rolls sometimes and there are signs that he does lay down for short periods, but I have never seen him lay down during the day and stay down.  I have owned this horse for almost 14 years, and I have never seen it.  Which is not to say that it has never happened, but I'm out at the barn a lot.

I grabbed some treats and his halter and asked if the other boarder would come with me.  She did and we walked out to the field together.  Nimo was standing when we found him, but he had clearly been laying down in the hay next to the round bale and he did not move forward at all when he saw me.  He was putting zero weight on his right hind leg.  It was just lightly resting on the toe, but I could see all his weight was on his other hind leg.  He took the treats I offered, but made no effort to move forward.  He was in extreme pain.

Despite that pain, I knew I needed to get him in his stall.  I palpated the leg before moving him in case there was trauma, but I found nothing specific.  He was, however, generally painful no matter where I touched the leg. He was very sensitive to even the slightest touch.

I asked the other boarder who had come with me if she would provide some encouragement from behind while I tried to lead Nimo.  She agreed, but we were largely unsuccessful.  Nimo did not want to move.  We got him a few steps forward and I sent the other boarder for a whip.  I hated to do it, but I needed to get him out of the field.  (Note to self:  Have multiple gates on each side of a long field for ease of removing an injured horse.  Nimo was literally right next to the barn, but I had to lead him around the perimeter of the field to get to the nearest gate.)

While I was waiting for the other boarder to come back with a whip, I realized I had fallen into an old habit - using force.  So I tried just using a super happy voice and asking Nimo to move forward and telling him how awesome he was.  Guess what?  He absolutely moved for me.  He sometimes just took one step at a time and then rested, but I managed to lead him what seemed like miles just with an encouraging voice.  (Note to self:  Trust matters with horses and it is worth spending the time to develop it for just this kind of situation!)  It became clear, though, that he could not put any weight on the right hind.  He was mostly hopping on his left hind.

It broke my heart to watch, but somehow, we got to his stall.  I set him up with hay and water and told the staff to leave him in.  I would come out in the evening to check on him and re-assess.

I was convinced it was still an abscess, but the pain he was in was giving me second thoughts.  I could not find any other potential reason for the lameness, though.  No swelling, no specific area of pain.  Yet, the coronet band was not hot nor was there any evidence of any specific location on the hoof that there was an abscess.

I spent the day debating whether I should use Bute and eventually decided to give it 24 hours.  With as much pain as Nimo was in, I expected the abscess to be coming out any minute.

But it didn't come out.  The next day, Nimo was in so much pain, he was shaking and wouldn't eat.  I immediately started him on 2 grams of Bute a day and continued to keep him in his stall.  Except that I came out twice a day to "walk" him for about 20 minutes.  For the first few days, that walk was literally just him hopping a short distance from his stall to a small patch of grass in front of the barn.  I don't think I can describe how I felt internally when I asked him to walk in that much pain.  (I would cry all the way home from the barn because I felt so terrible about the pain he was in.)  But I knew that the less he moved, the longer it would take for the abscess to come out.  The Bute helped take the edge off of the pain, but Nimo was still at a grade 5 lameness.  He seemed comfortable enough to eat, though, so I decided to give it a couple of days and then talk to my vet about giving a stronger pain medication.

I also called one of my friends who has extensive experience with abscesses because her horse had them repeatedly for months until it was discovered that she had a tumor in her foot that grew from the coronet band to the bottom of the hoof.  (The tumor was surgically removed when it was discovered and the horse did recover and has been sound for years and is in light work with no issues at all, which is a whole other story.)  The reason I called her is because I wanted to know what protocols she had used during all those abscesses.  She also uses the same vet that I do, so I knew whatever they told her was likely to be what they would tell me.  What she said is that no matter what the vet did, she could not drain the abscess before it was ready to come out.  They soaked and poulticed and even drilled into the hoof to try to create a drainage path for the abscess, but it took 13 days for the first of several abscesses to come out.  Her recommendation to me was to save my money on the vet treatments in case there was a more serious issue (like in her case).  She'd spent thousands of dollars by the time it was all over, and having the vet out every other day to re-assess the abscess and try various procedures cost money that didn't need to be spent.

I spent the first 4 days of this situation second-guessing myself and worried that I was doing the wrong thing.  Should I get stronger drugs?  Should I have the vet do x-rays and an ultrasound just in case there was something I missed?  Also, after the first couple of days, the entire right hind leg swelled up from the stifle down to the hoof.  I started worrying that there was an underlying soft tissue injury even though logically it didn't make sense that the injury would happen on Sunday and the swelling wouldn't show up until 2 days later.

The other strange thing was that I couldn't find any specific swelling or heat indicating where the abscess wanted to come out.  Everyone who knew the situation kept asking why I wasn't soaking or poulticing.  Part of the reason is that my understanding is that soaking and poulticing can cause the entire hoof to weaken, making the hoof more susceptible to abscesses in the future, and I certainly never wanted to go through this again.  But I was desperate enough to do it if only I could find the specific location of the abscess.  I figured I could target a poultice to that location and then not weaken the rest of the hoof.  But at one point, I'd decided I would just poultice the entire leg and hoof to see what would happen.

Before I did that poultice, though, after 4 brutal days, I found swelling and generally yucky squishiness on the heel.  I had been expecting the abscess to come out of the hoof somewhere, but Nimo has hooves that are like rocks, so my guess is that the first time, the abscess tried to come out at the coronet band, but couldn't break through, so it migrated (temporarily relieving the pressure), and finally decided to come out above the hoof through actual skin.

Now that I had a location, I happily applied Ichthammol to the heel.  At about the same time, Nimo started to perk up and the barn owner was able to turn him out that Thursday (on Day Five of Abscess Watch).  He was still at a grade 4 lameness on that leg, but his attitude was much improved and he wanted to go out for the first time that week.

Over the next couple of days, Nimo was able to start walking a little better (although still grade 3-4), and finally on Saturday, the abscess burst out of his heel.  The location that it came out was HUGE (see below).  I can't even imagine what that must have felt like, and I have rarely been so relieved to see the end to a particular situation.

This is where the abscess came out of Nimo's foot
Nimo was still a little lame (more like grade 1-2) on the right hind, which made sense to me after all the pain he'd been in.  In fact, I was also concerned about his left hind, which had to bear so much weight.  I gave him a full week off of riding after the abscess came out and did some body work on him as well.  I've never seen so much tension in him.  I used the Bladder Meridian Technique from the Masterson Method, and he started yawning and shaking his head the second I touched him and didn't stop the entire time I worked on him.  The poor thing was sore all over.

On February 20th, I took him on what I expected to be a light conditioning ride using the 8-mile figure-8 trail at Phelps.  I rode with my friend who wanted to do the Intro ride the first weekend in March at the Blackwater Swamp Stomp, and we planned to do a lot of walking with some trotting, kind of based on how Nimo was feeling.  It was brutally hot that day (70 degrees!) and both our horses acted dog-tired the whole ride.  All I could think was that I was supposed to do a 13-mile ride over easy terrain in 2 weeks and my horse could barely manage to walk 8 miles.  I did not have a good feeling about the situation and I was struggling to understand how I'd gone from having a horse fit enough to do 30 miles in the mountains to one that could barely eek out 8.

I was depressed and upset at myself (even though I had made a concerted effort to decrease my training with Nimo, I still felt guilty).  But I knew my friend was really excited to do the ride, and part of the reason I was working with her was because I really wish I'd had somebody to ride with at my first ride.  It would have made a huge difference in my experience, and I was determined to help her.

So I spent the week doing short rides on Nimo in the arena with my bareback pad.  They were only about half an hour, which normally I wouldn't bother with, but something else that had been going on for months was that I was struggling to find time to ride at night.  I felt overwhelmed by all I had to do at home (we had contractors come over 3 times to do work on the house, and each time I felt compelled to have the house in what I would consider the bare minimum of cleanliness and it was sucking the life out of me.)  We'd also adopted 2 kittens in mid-January (super long story there), and while I adored them, they added more to my list of things to do.  Plus, I had two aquariums up and running and had just started a third (I have a problem, OK?), so I was still cycling 2 tanks and had a group of fish in quarantine.

The thing is, having a clean house is great.  Having kittens is rewarding.  I truly love my aquariums.  But, something had to give to accommodate all of that.  And that something was my riding.  I finally realized that even though my preference (and Nimo's) is that we ride at least an hour, 30 minutes is better than no minutes.  (I believe I've mentioned that I can be a slow learner sometimes!)  So, I got my butt on my horse at least a couple of times during the week and that helped me feel better.

A week before Blackwater Swamp Stomp, I decided that my friend and I would do an 11-mile ride out at the Shenandoah River State Park (aka Andy Guest).  Andy Guest is significantly more rugged than the trail at Blackwater would be, and it was my last-ditch effort to see if I could get Nimo ready for a ride that we could have done in our sleep a year ago.

So we rode.  I planned to push the horses as much as possible to see what we really had.  And I got a huge surprise.  Nimo was on fire.  The temperature was in the 40s, which helped quite a bit, I think.  But mentally, he was back.  He took the lead right away and after about a mile and a half of walking (that section of trail is pretty rocky and Nimo was barefoot, so I didn't really want to trot it), I asked him to trot and trot he did.  For miles through the winding wooded trails and up and down the hills.  When we got down by the river, I turned the lead over to me friend, and we trotted the entire trail by the river (about 2.5-3 miles).  Then we turned up to the gravel road that runs next to the river, but has small hills, and trotted that for a mile before we headed back into the woods, where Nimo took the lead again.  After we climbed for a bit, I asked Nimo to trot again, and he did.  He led all but the last mile back to the trailers and basically pulled along my friend's horse, who was getting tired, for 2-3 miles.

Nimo rocked that trail.  He was confident, forward, and very adjustable.  He felt like a real endurance horse for the first time in a long time.  In fact, I'm not sure he's ever felt quite like that with only one other horse.  He does do better with a buddy, but pretty often, the buddy has to lead.  Especially through the the forest.  Not that day, though.  He was happy to lead through the winding, undulating trail and actually left his buddy in the dust a couple of times.  And I didn't have to encourage him or kick him to get him motivated.  In a lot of places, he would just start trotting on his own after he slowed down for a rocky or tricky section of trail.

And, as it turned out, those 11 miles were really almost 13 miles.  My GPS must have underestimated it the first time I'd done it a couple of years ago, and I never rechecked the distance until that day.  I double-checked my GPS reading with the map to confirm that it was somewhere between 12.5 and 13 miles.  So we'd done the distance of the intro ride at a slightly slower than ride pace, but I knew with the easier terrain, both horses would be able to handle as much as a 6 mph pace without any trouble.  Whew!

Our route at Andy Guest
So why did I have so much trouble writing about all of this?  That's a good question, and part of the reason I haven't written is because I was trying to figure out the answer.  In the end, I think it came down to my mental state during January and February.  Despite all the positive things going on - new aquarium and fun fish, new kittens, taking care of a few necessary things for the house, and lovely warm days - I was somehow in doldrums underneath it all.  January and February are often tough months for me because winter has lost its novelty and the days are still short and cold.  This year, though, we've had a lot of really amazingly warm and sunny weather, so that wasn't it.

Work may have been a factor - I had a certain expectation about how things would go between October 1 and mid-January, and that expectation was not realized.  Work was stressful and...unpleasant...I'm not sure I can say much more than that, but I'm sure it affected my mental state. 

And then there was the Facebook Factor.  If you engage in FB posting and commenting, you may have had a similar experience to mine.  I discovered that many of my friends, some of whom I've had for decades, turned into horrifying people for a couple of months.  I know that the transition to a new president was difficult for many people, and I am not trying to diminish anyone's feelings on the matter.  What did really bother me was the way anyone who remotely disagreed with someone was treated.  I've never seen such name-calling, swearing, not-so-veiled insults, and bullying.  I've always considered dissent to be valuable and have never thought that disagreement or even a heated discussion is a bad thing.  But after weeks of trying to engage, I gave up and got off of FB for several days to reconsider my friendships, the use of FB, and my own choices.  It was a very reflective time for me. 

Eventually, I decided to get back on FB, but I've severely curtailed my own posting, and rarely comment anymore on others' posts.  I think that I became hyper-aware of how others might view anything that I wrote, and I became extremely reluctant to express anything for fear of offending someone during a time that has become full of conflict.  (Again, I'm not saying there are no reasons to be concerned.  I certainly have my own concerns.  But I already know that not everyone agrees with me on certain issues - issues that have been a concern for me long before the current president - and I have yet to call anyone names, insult them, or unfriend them because they disagreed with me.)

In the end, though, this is my blog about my journey with Nimo.  This journey is unique, and it is full of the highs and lows that characterized the last couple of months.  I'm thrilled that Nimo has healed from the abscess and that it wasn't something more serious.  I have a new admiration for the gift he has given me by interacting with me.  And I'm excited to tell you all about our ride at the Blackwater Swamp Stomp in my next post:)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

At Year's End

And so it is time for that annual ritual of reflecting on the past year and setting goals for the future.  I kind of suck at the whole summary of great (and not so great) things because for me, I've already moved on (also my memory is one of the many things that seems to be going as I get older).  I also am terrible at setting goals because I have learned that stuff that seems like a good idea when I first think of it becomes horrifying in the light of day (why did I think it would be a good idea to drag out the elliptical and commit to working out on it 30 minutes for 5 days a week???).  But, just for the fun of it, I did a quick scan of my posts for 2016.  And they brought back a flood of memories, but also a reminder that my journey with Nimo is not the linear path I once thought it would be.

This past year, in particular, has brought about some significant changes in my thinking and an almost end to the endurance branch of the trail entirely.  But, try as I might to write the post that releases me from my commitment to pursuing endurance with Nimo, I cannot do it.  There are some very valid reasons for me to move on to other things.  I'd love to spend more time working on driving with Nimo and take away some of the pressure to condition out on the trails.  I even tried out my "So, I'm not doing the whole endurance thing anymore" with a few close friends and my husband.  My husband's reaction was the one that surprised me the most.  I really thought he would look relieved, and think, if not say, how it would be nice not to have me gone so much on the weekends for riding.  But instead, he looked almost disappointed when I told him.  I explained I would have more time to spend with our daughter on the weekends so he could get more breaks from the childcare role.  And he told me that I shouldn't be worried about it and that he was fine with all the time he spends with her and that I shouldn't be quitting endurance for that reason.  That was kind of a big "wow!" moment for me.  I had assumed he was growing internally increasingly bitter with all the time I was away and the increase in responsibility he had for caring for our daughter.  But it turns out that was all in my head.  And it definitely made me reconsider my decision.  (Note to self:  Talk to husband more than 5 minutes a day and discuss things other than the child's bathroom habits and what we need at the grocery store.)

Especially because I discovered that without the next endurance ride looming in my future, my motivation starts to wither away.  There is so much that the world of endurance has to offer and it constantly challenges my thinking about feeding, nutrition, hoof care, saddle fit, communication, and fitness (for horse and rider) that I have found that I cannot yet live without that challenge, even if all we are doing is really low level intro rides.  Not to mention that I love so many of the endurance bloggers and riders in the community.

And so, I do plan to stick with at least a little endurance (is that even possible?) during the upcoming year.  I also plan to continue the Science of Motion work with Nimo and I'm taking yet another class (this one focused on bodywork) to expand my knowledge of the equine body.  I hope to publish some more posts about nutrition and at least learn more, even if I don't develop any conclusions.

But most importantly, I will continue to blog.  There was a time earlier this year when I thought about giving it up because of the time it takes, and if you are a regular reader, I'm sure you noticed my posts were few and far between for a significant part of the year.  As I discovered this month, though, blogging is one of the most helpful things I can do to keep me motivated and in pursuit of knowledge.  In fact, I wish I had blogged more during the time when I was really struggling with how to proceed because it might have helped me figure out the right path, or at least get some encouraging words from my readers (you are simply amazing and never cease to impress me with your knowledge and kindness and support!).

I started out 2016 with a post called A Changed Mind.  I am in a completely different place now than I was when I wrote that post, but the idea behind it is still so, so important to me.  I want to continue to learn and write and think and experiment and keep my mind open to endless possibilities.  I have a wonderful horse, a wonderful family, and a wonderful network of friends and fellow riders, and all I can hope is that 2017 brings lots of new ideas and changes:)  I wish all of you an amazing new year!

A random picture from April that I took out at the barn.  The light was so beautiful that night and I don't think I ever posted the picture.  It reminds me of a happy night with Nimo:)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Festival of Lights

I know that it's after Christmas, and for some people, that means taking down the decorations and the tree and moving on.  We like to keep the Christmas magic going for just a bit longer.  So we took a trip to Bull Run Regional Park.  I've actually ridden Nimo there a few times now and I've taken my daughter for a couple of short hikes as well.  It's close to our house and it's a nice park.

In addition to water access for canoeing, hiking and horse trails, a water park, a shooting range, and lots of picnic shelters, the park offers a spectacular light display called the Festival of Lights from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day.  The Festival involves a 2.5 mile drive through some pretty amazing light displays and at the end of the drive, you can stop in a little Christmas Village/Carnival for hot chocolate, photos with Santa, and more lights.

I'm not sure when the Festival started, but I've been seeing some of the light displays from the interstate since I first moved to Virginia in 2001 and I've always wanted to get a closer look.  Somehow, though, it has never worked out for us to go.  Until this evening.  Gemma is old enough to really start appreciating the light displays now and actually makes us take her for a walk each evening around the neighborhood so she can see the lights, so it seemed like a good time to add a tradition to our December.

So at about 7:30 this evening, we all piled into the car.  And by all, I mean my husband, me, my daughter, our dog, and every single blessed one of my daughter's stuffed animals plus her imaginary cats (we aren't sure how many there are yet...God help us if they are breeding...).

It's a quick trip to the park for us and because it is after Christmas, the line to get in wasn't too long.  And then the sheer amazingness began.  The cars are not supposed to stop for gawkers like me to take pictures, so most of what I got is a little blurry, but I'll share the pictures with you.  I didn't even take pictures of a third of what was in the park, but hopefully you'll get a taste of the displays.  Very worth the trip (and the $20 entrance fee!).

Cool rocking horse near the beginning
Fun line of trees with lights
I love this wreath!
A moving snowman blowing snow!
Of course I had to get a picture of the horse!
I'm not even sure what this is, but it looks so colorful!
Pirate Santa?
Not sure you can tell, but this is a fish pond and the fish were flashing and moving!
So blurry, but it was such a cute display
I adore these trees!
The entrance to my favorite section of the drive
This picture fails to do this scene justice - the whole surrounding forest was full of these moving lights that looked like snow falling - gorgeous!
This tree looks creepy and Christmasy at the same time
More creepy/Christmas - there was a witch flying over the castle!
Near the end - Santa's house, I think
I hope you enjoyed just a little more of Christmas, and if you're ever near Centreville, Virginia during the holidays, make sure you add the Festival of Lights to your list of activities:)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Protein Requirements

In the fourth installment of my series on equine nutrition, let's turn our attention to the final source of energy:  protein.  It is at this point that something useful finally comes out of Nutrient Requirements of Horses in terms of a starting place, but it is only that, a starting place.  Because it turns out that not all protein is equal.  Horses don't really have a requirement for protein in general; rather, they have a requirement for amino acids.  Not all sources of protein have all the essential amino acids in the right amounts.  Plus, there is the matter of the digestibility of the protein as well as its bioavailability.  And, of course, it is difficult to measure the protein in food, so we don't always really know what we're feeding.

The best measure of protein for the average horse person is probably Crude Protein (CP).  You'll see this number (usually as a percentage) on feed and supplement labels.  CP tells you the level of total protein in the food, but it doesn't tell you how much of that protein the horse will be able to use or how complete it is (i.e. how many or which amino acids it has).  It does, at least, give you a maximum number, though.  If your feed has a CP of 8%, you'll know that it isn't possible for your horse to get more protein out of that feed than 8%.  And, according to some of the studies identified in the book, it's more likely that the true digestible protein will be somewhere between the 40 and 90% of whatever percentage is listed on the bag, depending on the source of the protein if it is a feed or the type of grass/legume if it is a hay.  So, if the feed has an 8% protein, but only 50% of that is digestible, now you're only feeding 4% protein, which is probably pretty low.

But there are formulas in this section, so I can at least get a baseline for Nimo.  Here's the one I choose for Nimo:

CP (g/d) = (BW(kg) x 1.44) + (BW(kg) x 0.354)

This formula includes the maintenance requirement at the elevated level (for working horses) plus the additional protein needed to support a horse in very heavy work.  If we plug the numbers in, we get:

CP (g/d) = (680 x 1.26) + (680 x 0.354) = 1,220 g

Thus, 1,220 g of protein is the amount of crude protein I should be looking for in Nimo's diet as a starting point.

Aside from this formula, I found a couple of other noteworthy pieces of information in this section of the book.  First, horses that are fed a ration that completely meets their caloric requirement but is deficient in protein will lose weight (see p. 58).  So if you have a horse that should be getting enough food based on your calculation of DE (that means Digestible Energy), but is still losing weight, it's probably a good idea to check not just the level of protein, but also the quality of protein.  But what is a good quality protein, you ask?  Nutrient Requirements stops short of giving us any ideas for actual food products, but it does tell us what the ideal amounts of amino acids are on p. 65.  Presumably, a food source with ratios close to these would be a great source of protein for the horse.  These amounts are based on the ratios of the amino acids in the muscle of the horse.  Lysine is set at a value of 100 and the other amounts are as compared to lysine:

Methionine: 27
Threonine: 61
Isoleucine: 55
Leucine: 107
Histidine: 58
Phenylalanine: 60
Valine: 62
Arginine: 76
Typtophan: Unknown

I'm not sure why lysine is used as the base for the ratios, but we do, apparently, have a good idea of what the lysine requirement is for horses.  It is 4.3% of the CP requirement (see p. 58).  So for Nimo, that would be 52 g/d.  The book notes that if the source of protein doesn't have close to the ideal relationship of lysine to CP, you may need additional sources of protein (see p. 60).

One thing that is addressed is excess protein.  I can't remember how many times I've been told that if you feed a diet too high in protein, it causes the horse to drink more to excrete the extra protein and it can even stress the kidneys due to the extra water and protein that have to be processed.  Nutrient Requirements, however, admits that "not much evidence exists concerning the effect of excess protein consumption" (see p. 65).  There may be an issue for growing horses in terms of reduced growth and increased calcium and phosphorus loss, though.  Additionally, one study found that excess protein "may interfere with acid-base balance during exercise (Graham-Thiers et al., 1999, 2001)" (see p. 65).  (Note:  Acid-base balance is actually a really important concept for endurance riders.  The best place that I know to look for information is on Mel's blog using this link:  Mel did a multi-part series on acid-base balance that is very informative.)  So, it's hard to know if excess protein really does strain the kidneys, and it's also hard to know exactly what constitutes excess protein.  That said, there doesn't appear to be a good reason to go overboard with protein either, so especially for growing and performance horses, more careful monitoring of protein is probably a good idea.

It does appear that exercising horses do need extra protein based on several studies that in particular found nitrogen loss during exercise through sweat.  (I didn't realize until recently that nitrogen is an important component of amino acids, so its loss apparently indicates protein loss.)  I already added the extra protein required for Nimo in my formula above, but if you are interested in knowing how much your horse's protein requirements increase based on level of work, check out p. 64.

So we know protein is really important for horses and we also know that horses need a certain composition of amino acids to get the best use of the protein they ingest.  But what sources of species-appropriate food contain a good ratio of amino acids?  Are there any particularly good sources of protein that we should be feeding?  Once again, I must throw my hands up in frustration.  Nutrient Requirements cannot recommend even one good source of protein for horses.  It talks a lot about swine and there was apparently one study done on the presence and ration of amino acids in mare's milk.  (Unsurprisingly, mare's milk fits the amino acid profile established as ideal...)  But there is absolutely not a single recommendation on where the wondrous food might be that you could feed your horse.

Just for fun, I googled the amino acid composition of duckweed.  The composition can vary depending on the water in which it is grown, but here are the values reported by one study in grams of amino acid per 100 grams of dried duckweed (Lemma gibba).

Methionine: 0.64 g
Threonine: 1.68 g
Isoleucine: 1.66 g
Leucine: 2.89 g
Histidine: 0.73 g
Phenylalanine: 1.75 g
Valine: 2.12 g
Arginine: 2.14 g
Typtophan: 0.40 g
Lysine: 1.85 g

Unfortunately, it's hard to compare these to the ratio reported by Nutrient Requirements as optimal for horses.  (It's late at night and my brain isn't working too well.)  So you don't have to scroll up and look, here are the values for horses again:

Methionine: 27
Threonine: 61
Isoleucine: 55
Leucine: 107
Histidine: 58
Phenylalanine: 60
Valine: 62
Arginine: 76
Typtophan: Unknown
Lysine: 100

However, my initial (and not super mathematical) assessment is that while duckweed could be a component of a horse's diet, it does not have the optimal ratio of amino acids.  If we use lysine as the benchmark, then we would expect all the amino acids except leucine to be a little to a lot below the level of lysine, and we don't see that in the analysis for duckweed.  It looks like the ratio of lysine to methionine may be pretty good in duckweed, but other ratios are not in alignment.  So there goes my theory of growing the perfect protein source for horses in my aquarium:) 

Here is Nutrient Requirements' conclusion:  "Several factors can affect amino acid digestion in horses...these include site of digestion, feedstuff variation, biological value of protein, protein intake, amount consumed, and transit time through the digestive tract" (pp. 65-66).  So your guess is as good as mine in terms of how you should assess protein in your horse's diet.

Going forward, I will turn my attention to vitamins and minerals, but I'm rapidly losing faith that all this reading and research is yielding any real benefit in terms of how I feed Nimo.  That said, I have been concerned about the quality of protein he has been getting in the primary source of his hay, which is why I've been supplementing with alfalfa and alfalfa/grass mix hay for many years.  I'm still a ways off from being able to do a true assessment of how necessary that supplementation is, but it is on my list of things that I hope to accomplish through this series of posts.

So next up in the series is Calcium.  If my memory is correct, there is some tangible information in the book about this particular nutrient, so let's hope that I can find something helpful:)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bananas for Electrolytes?

As you know, I'm always looking at ways to use real food to supplement Nimo's diet.  Something I've been interested in for awhile is looking at ways to provide electrolytes through food rather than the commercial electrolyte mixes available.  Luckily, I'm not in a situation with Nimo where he has demonstrated a specific need for a particular electrolyte mix (although that could change over time), so I can research and experiment a bit.

One food that I've been thinking about a lot is the humble banana.  Both my husband and my daughter eat a lot of bananas, so we always have some sitting on the counter.  Also, bananas in this area are definitely one of the cheaper fruits, even when we buy organic.  At $0.49/lb for regular bananas and $0.69/lb for organic bananas, the price rivals that of commercial horse feed.

So what is in a banana in terms of nutrition?  I used the USDA Food Composition Database to find out.  Here are the values for a pound (about 454 grams) of bananas (which would be about 3-4 medium to large whole bananas or 2 cups mashed):

Energy: 404 kcal
Protein: 5 g
Fat: 1.5 g
Carbohydrates: 104 g
Fiber: 12 g
Sugar: 55 g
Calcium: 22.7 mg
Iron: 1.2 mg
Magnesium: 122 mg
Phosphorus: 99.8 mg
Potassium: 1,623.9 mg
Sodium: 4.5 mg
Zinc: .7 mg
Vitamin C: 39.5 mg
Thiamin: .1 mg
Riboflavin: .3 mg
Niacin: 3 mg
B-6: 1.7 mg
Folate: 90.7 ug
B-12: 0 ug
Vitamin A: 290 IU
Vitamin E: .5 mg
Vitamin D: 0 IU
Vitamin K: 2.3 ug

While I haven't covered all of the vitamin and mineral requirements for horses in my nutrition series, let me just say that there isn't anything too exciting about the values above, except for the potassium, which is considered an electrolyte (along with sodium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium).  A typical pound of Nimo's regular feed (Triple Crown Growth) provides about 500 mg of potassium whereas the banana provides 1,624 mg (or 1.6 g), which is actually a significant amount.

To figure out if the potassium provided by a banana is close to what a commercial electrolyte mix would offer, I looked up the values for some commonly-used e-lyte mixes.

Buckeye Perform 'N Win: 910 mg potassium per oz
Adeptus Persevere Low Sugar: 1,928 mg potassium per oz
Kentucky Performance Enduro-Max: 3,657 mg per oz

I should note that different electrolyte mixes include different amounts and ratios of electrolytes and most endurance riders I know end up experimenting with different products to find the one that seems to best fit their horse's needs.  The reason is likely because electrolyte supplementation is still poorly understood.  There are no simple formulas for what endurance horses (or other performance horses) really need despite a lot of research on the topic.  Endurance vets can often see a horse come into a vet check with an issue like a hanging heart rate when everything else seems OK and will diagnose a specific treatment like a dose of potassium.  But messing around with large doses of electrolytes can really get your horse in trouble if you don't know what you are doing (and even if you do!) and can't closely monitor the horse.  Which is one of the biggest reasons why I would rather use food whenever possible.  Because food is less likely to stop a horse's heart (which an overdose of potassium can do).

So, from my point of view, it is at least theoretically possible to come close to the supplementation of potassium provided by commercial electrolyte mixes through the use of bananas.  Obviously there is still salt and calcium and magnesium to worry about, but Nimo will usually eat a banana even if he doesn't want a mash after a ride, so I think there is real value in having a food source that is particularly tempting for a horse that may need an extra boost of e-lytes for recovery, but who may be tired and not want to eat well.

You can, of course, force feed electrolytes through a syringe, but that can come with a price too.  You may overdose your horse on something he doesn't need.  The horse may also experience digestive upset or even burning in his mouth if the e-lytes aren't diluted enough, which can lead to some additional problems.

On the other hand, bananas generally make horses (and people!) happy, so I think they are at least worthwhile to have around, even if you choose to use a commercial mix.  You could even choose a mix like Perform 'N Win that has a lower amount of potassium per oz and supplement with the bananas when you feel like extra potassium could serve a purpose.

I am, of course, neither a vet nor an equine nutritionist, so this post is just me speculating and thinking and researching an alternate way to get decent amounts of potassium into Nimo in the event that I think he needs it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Risk and Responsibility

Today I read a post published by fellow blogger, Hannah.  Hannah is a former eventer and endurance rider who currently blogs about hiking with her dogs at Bully and Blaze.  (Hannah's blog about her endurance adventures is well worth the read even though it is no longer active.  In fact, it was one of the handful of blogs that convinced me endurance was a worthwhile endeavor.)

I'm not sure I can really categorize Hannah's post, except to say that she continues her unique and thoughtful perspective after finding out the result of a search and rescue operation at a location she was hiking at.  Her post reminded me that it is important to acknowledge the risk I take every time I get on my horse and the even bigger risk I take when I ride him on a trail like the Devil's Backbone at Graves Mountain or go on an endurance ride.

I think it is too easy for horse riders to think their risk is mitigated because they wear a helmet or a safety vest.  It isn't.  At all.  It only takes a single missed step on a slick trail on the side of a mountain for death to come on swift wings.  No helmet can save you from the weight of a 1500 pound horse falling on you and tumbling down a mountain.  And for those of us with kids (or spouses or plain old people who love us deeply), the question becomes, "Is the risk worth it?"  How will my husband explain my death to my daughter if that fateful event occurs?  How will she view me as a mother if I don't live to see her college graduation because I died in a horse riding accident?  And God help me, what will her father feed her if I'm not around to cook?

The truth is that I don't know the answers to those questions (except the last one - and the answer is pizza and cookies and hot dogs) and a part of my brain is constantly engaged in thinking about them.  From the moment I knew I was pregnant, I began developing milestones for my continued existence.  First, it was to live long enough so that my unborn baby could survive on her own if I died.  Then, it was to live long enough to give birth.  Then, it was to live long enough to breast feed my daughter for six months.  Then it was to see her walk.  To hear her talk.  Now, it is to get her started in her early education years, so she isn't damaged by the public school system, or at least gains the skills to take on a world that is becoming a stranger to me.  But what about her first date?  Her first break-up?  Her first true failure?  College?  Marriage?  A baby?

And what is my responsibility to keep myself alive for all of those things?  Do I shut myself away from anything too risky so that I'm guaranteed a death from natural causes?  (It would be so much simpler if I could just live forever!)  Or do I live life to the fullest to show my daughter that there is something to be gained from overcoming adversity and even fear?

I think those are questions we all have to answer for ourselves.  And it is worth thinking deeply about those questions and coming to a decision.  I have chosen to continue to ride my horse.  In fact, I've chosen to put my daughter on that horse to ride too (within some pretty specific and careful parameters, though).  Nimo is not a beginner horse.  He is a lovely animal with a beautiful personality who is smart and funny and gorgeous and worth every moment I spend with him.  But he is not bombproof or even comfortable to ride.  He can be spooky and unpredictable.  He is awfully tall and a fall at speed is nothing to joke about.  I still have what may be permanent nerve damage from a fall from him about a year ago.  It's not a big deal and doesn't bother me, but there is a small spot on my lower back that doesn't feel right anymore and it is a constant reminder of the risk I take when I ride.

But here's what I think about risk.  If you don't engage in some kind of risk-taking physical behavior on a regular basis, you may very well not engage in risk-taking behavior in other parts of your life either.  You may not take on the risk of a relationship or a new job or a business venture.  I'm not talking about riding a motorcycle without a helmet on the Beltway here, but I think we are biologically programmed to need a certain amount of risk in our lives.  If we never have to overcome fear or survive a challenge, I wonder how it affects the way we face all of our decisions and the impact it has on our happiness.

There may be safer things for me to do, but none of them carry the sheer joy that being with horses does.  None of them challenge me in the same way and none of them fulfill me or make my heart feel as full.  And the legacy that I want to leave my daughter is for her to know that taking a risk for something she loves is worth it.  I want her to know that it is OK to be absolutely terrified and that going forward may be the very thing that she needs to do.  But I also want her to know that it is OK to listen to her inner self, that is OK to fail, that it is OK to go in a new direction, and that it is OK to walk away from something that doesn't feel right.  And even that it is OK to not know the answer or to change her stubborn, stubborn mind.

It's a tall order to be a parent these days.  Somehow, we have to find a way to be true to ourselves and be true to our children.  Luckily, I think there isn't necessarily a right answer for all of us; rather, there are possibilities and choices.  And finding our way begins with acknowledging the difficulty of the path that we must take.

So tonight, I'm going to go hug my daughter and be thankful for every last moment I've had with her so far.  And tomorrow, I'm going to ride my horse and tell my daughter how wonderful it was.  And when she asks me if she can ride too, I'm going to say yes.