Saturday, December 3, 2016

Blandy Experimental Farm Bridle Trail

I first rode at Blandy Experimental Farm back in June of 2013.  I posted about the ride here.  It was basically a short trail ride that was organized as a practice session for an upcoming Judged Pleasure Ride, and the fee for the ride went to a therapeutic riding school.  Apparently, I had intended to come back to the park for some additional conditioning work, but I just have never gotten around to it...until today.

Blandy Experimental Farm is part of the University of Virginia, although it is located in an out of the way place just north of Sky Meadows State Park (northern VA for those who don't live here).  It is a 172 acre arboretum that also hosts workshops and other learning opportunities for both kids and adults and plant-related research is conducted there.  It has about 7.5 miles of bridle trails that are pretty quiet most days and the trails are well-maintained with mostly barefoot-friendly footing over gently rolling terrain.

A friend of mine had reminded me that the mowed paths on part of the bridle trail would be great for some trot sets.  The paths are set up in sort of a grid pattern in that section of the park, and are straight on gently rolling terrain.  I was all for some conditioning work, so we met there this afternoon.  I should mention that my friend is considering conditioning her horse for an endurance intro ride next spring, but much like me when I was just beginning, she isn't really ready for the more hardcore conditioning work, so I knew that Nimo would probably have a pretty easy time today.  However, I have been wanting to work on consistently slowing his trot speed, and my friend's gaited horse provides the perfect way for me to calibrate a slower trot because her horse gaits in the 6-7 mph range instead of the faster 10-12 mph range that Nimo often prefers.

So we headed out on our ride with one other lady who is also at the point of wanting to get her horse in better shape and the three of us spent about 2 hours roaming the park.  We ended up not doing the disciplined trot sets that I initially envisioned; instead opting for a more casual approach.  But we did get some trot work in and I could tell Nimo was still pretty fresh after our 7-mile ride.  Which was kind of nice to feel, because I've been kind of bummed about all the conditioning that he has lost due to my focus on  Science of Motion training.  I know it is for the greater good, but the thought of all those miles that we've done and the resulting fitness slipping away has been a bit painful for me to think about.  So, knowing that Nimo can still do 7 miles with some trotting and be ready for more was enough today to ease my mind about his loss of fitness.

Posing near the end of our ride.  The Blue Ridge Mountains are in the background.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Horse-Free Day

My original post for today has been delayed due to technical difficulties, so given that I have about 20 minutes to post something before it is tomorrow and I miss a day of my daily posts, you are going to get something a bit different than what I planned.

I don't often have days that are completely horse-free.  Even on a day like yesterday, which involved commuting for 2 and a half hours in the morning and the same in the evening, so I could attend a training class in DC, I still find time to get out to the barn for at least a few minutes.

Today, though, I was going to be in DC for the second day of my training class and a friend had obtained tickets to the U.S. Army Band holiday concert at DAR Constitution Hall (also in DC) for the evening.  The tickets are FREE, but have to be reserved well in advance because they get snapped up quickly.  So I agreed many, many days ago that it would be a good idea to just stay in DC after my class and go to the concert.  Apparently, I forgot that my age is ever-advancing and that my bedtime after training is about 6 pm.

I managed to suck it up, though, and met my friend for dinner at the Founding Farmers restaurant before heading over to the concert.  I didn't really know what to expect, having never been to an Army Band concert before.  I have to say that it was a lovely event.  There was quite a mix of music, from bluegrass to traditional Christmas songs to more contemporary songs.  The musicians and the singers were quite talented and there was a bit of humor worked into the program as well.

The stage at DAR Constitution Hall
After the 90 minute concert, we made a quick run to the National Christmas Tree display near the Washington Monument before heading home.

The National Christmas tree is surrounded by smaller trees, one for each state and territory
A closer shot of the big tree
I did miss my horse time (even knowing that my husband and daughter went to the barn earlier in the day to give Nimo some love), but it was nice to do something that wasn't horse-related too.  While I would never give up having a horse and riding, there are certain sacrifices that I make as part of my commitment to a horse-infused life, and taking advantage of the many events in the DC area is one of them.  Luckily, I have a non-horse friend who can find the time to get together occasionally so I can glimpse the other side of life:)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Farmington Hunter Pace 2016

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you may remember that a couple of years ago, I started incorporating the scrapbooking idea of December Daily into my blog. December Daily is basically any kind of scrapbook, pocket page album, or photo journal that documents at least one story for each day in December as a way to remember both holiday traditions and everyday life.  I do a December Daily scrapbook for my daughter each December, and I wanted to do something similar for Nimo.  I have really enjoyed the process for the blog and want to do it again this year.  So my first post in December is about the Farmington Hunter Pace.

I've posted several times about doing hunter paces with Nimo over the years and they have mostly been pretty great experiences.  For those unfamiliar with hunter paces, there are basically two types in Virginia:  the fun hunter pace and the competitive hunter pace.  I only do fun hunter paces with Nimo because he really prefers not leap over anything when there is a perfectly good path for going around it, and I really cannot blame him for that attitude.  Fun hunter paces have evolved a bit over the years and the rules can vary a bit depending on which hunt is hosting the ride.  But, hunter paces typically allow 2-4 members on a team that completes a 5-10 mile course through the countryside, with probably at least 8 obstacles like coops and fences to either jump or go around.  At least 3 divisions are included:  Jumpers (at least one team member must jump each obstacle), Pleasure (jumping is optional and western tack is permitted), and Juniors.  Some hunter paces include a division between Jumpers and Pleasure called Hilltoppers, for which jumping is still optional but riders typically compete in English tack and move out at a bit faster pace than the Pleasure division, but aren't as fast as the Jumper division.  Other paces call the Pleasure division Hilltoppers just to make things interesting:)

Winners are selected based on the optimum time for the course.  Whichever team comes closest to the optimum time, regardless of whether they were slower or faster, wins, and ribbons are awarded to either 4th or 6th place (depending on the hunt).  How the optimum time is set, though, is a mystery.  It can vary by course by year, depending on weather and footing conditions.  And it can vary by how fast each year's competitors finish it.  Some hunter paces set the optimum time as the average speed of all the competitors in the division that year while others seem to use times that are close to the fastest time, maybe because they are basing it on what a "hunt" pace would be or maybe for some other logic that will always remain unknown to competitors so no one really knows how fast they should cover the course.  This unpredictability is part of the "fun" for me, but it can be a bit aggravating to those who might be more competitive:)

This year, I found a steady partner (or rather, she found me!) and we did four of the seven hunter paces in the 2016 Fall Fun Hunter Pace Series in northern Virginia.  The final hunter pace in the series was held on November 6 by the Farmington Hunt down in Free Union, Virginia, which was easily the most out-of-the-way place we traveled to for the hunter paces.  The majority of the trip was on major roads, but the last 10 miles or so involved a lot of turns and one completely confusing section of road, which in good Virginia fashion was paved and then intersected with another road, after which it took a bit of a dodgy turn to the right for 15 feet on the intersected road and then a left onto a gravel road into nowhere without any kind of road sign to designate the path.  My GPS failed utterly and the only reason I made it was because my riding partner was right behind me and had been to the location the year before.  She had spent the better part of half an hour repeatedly turning around until she figured it out last year, so she was able to point me in the right direction.  (I have come to the conclusion that many horse events in Virginia are actually some kind of test to see how much you really want to ride your horse in the event or on the trail.  It can be so exasperating to find the darn places and get parked that only the most motivated people end up riding.)  Once on the gravel road (which was only wide enough for a truck and small car to pass each other but thankfully no traffic came from the opposite direction), we drove for a couple of miles in the wilderness and finally arrived at the location.  It was a field, which is normal, but there were so many people arriving at the same time that there was a traffic jam and lots of maneuvering required to finally get parked.

By the time I got parked and climbed out of my truck, I was sort of ready to call it a day.  My brain was fried from the crazy directions and driving for an hour and a half, and I wasn't sure I had much energy left for the ride.  But, I went through the motions of unloading Nimo and getting him set up with some hay, although he became immediately concerned because as I was leading him up to the trailer to tie him, a horse unloading in the trailer next to us fell on the ramp (which was a bit slippery from shavings and manure and at a very steep angle because we were parked up hill on a steep hill - and that is why I do not have a ramp on my trailer!).  I could tell Nimo was pretty freaked out by seeing the fall so close to him, and it took him a good 15 minutes to settle.  (The horse that fell was scratched from the ride even though he did not appear to be injured because his rider was worried about him.)

My partner and I went to check in and get our number and were surprised to learn that we were the last of the pre-registered entrants to check in.  But, we figured that would be OK because we wouldn't have to worry so much about being passed on the course.  We have been moving at a pretty good pace and quite close to the optimal time at the other paces that we did (and actually have only been passed 3 or 4 times total at all the paces we did this year), but we had an unsettling experience at the last pace where we were just walking along though a field while approaching some woods and two teams with 5 total riders galloped from behind us and past us without slowing down and without calling out to let us know they were behind us and planning to pass.  Both of our horses were so solid and completely non-reactive, but a green or sensitive horse could have really reacted and someone could have gotten hurt (which is why we reported the team to the ride management for unsportsmanlike behavior - obviously passing is OK, but even hunt riders should have the etiquette to at least call out to make sure the riders in front are aware).  It is actually the only time something like that has happened in all of the probably 8 or so hunter paces I've done, and I do realize that etiquette varies between different disciplines, but I'm going to draw a line and say that galloping a group of horses past other horses who are walking without at least calling out should be a violation in every discipline.

Photo by Rick Stillings Photography (cropped by me to protect my riding partner's privacy)
Anyway, we ended up being maybe second or third to last on the course, but that did not dissuade us from keeping to what had become our usual pace.  I have not clocked us, but my endurance intuition tells me that we ride somewhere between 5.5 and 6 mph.  On this ride, I think we ended up being closer to 5 mph, but that was solely due to the sheer number of gates.  This is the only hunter pace I've done where the competitors are responsible for opening and closing ALL of the gates.  (There are typically quite a few gates on hunter pace courses because the trail goes exclusively through private land that is often used for grazing cattle.)  Most of the gates only needed to be negotiated if you weren't jumping the obstacle, but there were others that all competitors had to do.  At the other hunter paces, the ride management stationed volunteers at the gates to open and close them, but apparently Farmington Hunt thought it added something to have the competitors do the gates themselves.  Or they just couldn't find enough volunteers, because there were literally at least 15 gates (I stopped counting because it was becoming too mentally taxing for a Sunday morning).  I was lucky to ride with someone whose horse actually competes in trail classes, so he is good at opening and closing them, but it took both of us to handle one gate that was on the side of a hill and about 12 feet long and heavy.  My partner stationed herself next to the post while Nimo and I pushed the gate up the hill.  Once we got the gate to the top, my partner moved her horse in to hold it while she did the latch.  Talk about teamwork!

With the exception of the gates, the course was lovely.  Some open fields and some wooded trails with almost no roads.  The terrain was quite hilly, though, so lots of good conditioning work for the horses.  The temperature was about 70 degrees and it was sunny, which to be honest, was a little much at one point.  I actually started whining briefly about the piercing sun beating down on me - it was the first weekend in November and I was really ready for fall!

We finished the course in an hour and 17 minutes (I'm pretty sure we used about 30 seconds to one minute per gate) and I think the distance was somewhere around 6 miles.  The winning time was an hour and 27 minutes (which I'm assuming is within a minute or two of the optimum time because the Hunt never published the optimum time - to keep us guessing for next year?), so we actually came in a full 10 minutes ahead and did not place.  But with 25 teams competing in our division alone, placing would have been a surprise no matter what the optimum time was.  (At one ride, we finished a mere 4 minutes ahead of the optimum time and still came in 8th place!)  Luckily, I don't do the hunter paces for a ribbon; instead, I do them because they are an opportunity to ride on land that is otherwise not available on a safe, well-marked course and to hang out with a friend and maybe even to get a bit of conditioning in for Nimo.  Plus, a couple of the rides are less than a half hour away from the barn where I keep Nimo, so the short travel time is a nice change.  Overall, it was a fun ride and provided the added challenge of the gates to keep us doing something different.

Photo by Stephanie Guerlain
 We did miss out out on most of the really good food for lunch because we came in a little later, but there were still some yummy desserts (homemade apple pie!).  The hunter paces I've been to often (although not always!) have a nice lunch for competitors after the course, but riding late tends to mean that the best food has been eaten by the people who must have gotten up insanely early or live close by.

My riding partner and I had such a blast doing the hunter paces this year that we are planning to try to get to all seven in the series next year.  Maybe Nimo will even consent to doing a jump or two!:)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Progress!

When I first started working on the Science of Motion course, I got this sinking feeling that it was going to take me at least years before I was able to master even the simplest task of walking Nimo around the arena.  As it turns out, things are progressing a bit quicker than I expected.

A little over a week ago, I was working Nimo in the arena and I could tell he was a bit more "up" than usual.  I think it was probably attributable to riding at night with the arena lights on combined with some sort of animal noises coming from the darkness that even I had to admit sounded horror-movie creepy.  I decided to use the extra motivation to my advantage and we worked on walk to trot transitions quite a bit.  Nimo was doing really well, so the thought occurred to me that maybe I should try the canter.  At that time, I hadn't cantered Nimo for over two months, and I admit to being worried about what the consequences of taking such a long vacation from the canter would be.  Nimo has always really struggled with canter and you may recall that it was his increasing stiffness in the canter that played a big role in connecting me with SOM in the first place.

Anyway, I figured the worst that could happen is that I would ask for canter and wouldn't get it, so I decided to give it a try.  Then I remembered I didn't have my whip.  I don't ride with a whip in the arena anymore because I don't feel like I need it for communicating with Nimo, and it seems like a distraction that I don't need as I focus on learning a new position and way of communicating with Nimo.  But having it would have made me feel more confident about getting a solid canter transition.

As it happened, I shouldn't have worried.  Nimo picked up the canter the very first time I asked.  He didn't crow hop or buck or fishtail his hind end - all things he would have done in the past after having had lots of time off of cantering.  It wasn't the most beautiful canter ever and he could only hold it for a few strides, but it wasn't an unmitigated disaster either.  So I tried asking again and again and again.  And Nimo was amazing.  He picked up the canter at least 90% of the times I asked and got the correct lead too (another issue we'd been having a few months ago).

However, I discovered that the canter started feeling heavier instead of lighter the more we worked, so it occurred to me that instead of asking for canter from the trot, I could ask for it from the walk.  I was a bit apprehensive about how that would go, but again I shouldn't have worried.  It was clearly more effort for Nimo to canter from the walk, but he also gave me better quality transitions and movement.  In fact, I ended the ride when I got a walk to canter transition that felt pretty much perfect to me.  It was lovely to feel and certainly a higher quality transition than I have ever gotten on Nimo.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to reproduce that perfect transition later in the week, but we did still work quite a bit on the canter transitions.  Nimo did feel a bit heavier on the forehand during the week, although I was still able to get some good work from him.  Looking back, I suspect I pushed a bit too much during the ride where I first started asking for canter, and he was probably a bit sore.

Luckily, whatever was causing the issue had cleared up by this past Saturday, in time for my monthly SOM lesson.  I was interested to talk to my instructor about the canter transitions and get her feedback on them, but the thing that I was most excited about was learning more about the Pignot jog.  You may remember that I mentioned in my last post that there is a concept in the SOM course that I suspect is a gold mine for endurance riders.  I wasn't sure when I would feel comfortable blogging about it, but it turns out that my comfort level increased faster than I expected.

You can read more about the Pignot jog in this article, but here is my basic understanding.  The Pignot jog is a trot in the horse's natural cadence.  Because it is the horse's natural cadence, it is theoretically sustainable for an indefinite period of time without undue stress to the horse (assuming at least some level of pre-existing fitness, I think).  Unlike much of the other SOM work, the Pignot jog is not done in collection.  Instead, it is a more forward movement (think somewhere between 6 and 9 mph, depending on the horse and his fitness level), although the horse is still in a balanced frame.  The neck is lengthened (not stretched) and carried more forward than in collection, but it is still elevated (not long and low).  The rider shortens her stirrups a bit (my instructor recommended 2 holes for me) and leans forward enough so that her hands can rest on her horse's withers.  And instead of posting or sitting, the rider goes into what I have always called a half seat.  It's similar to a two-point position, but you stay much closer to the saddle.  I think of it as floating over the horse while he trots, using my knees to absorb the motion of the trot.

The reason that I was excited to learn more about it is because by this point, I was pretty sure I understood the Pignot jog well enough to realize that it was really close to what I was doing with Nimo out on the endurance trail.  The only thing I wasn't sure about was how to determine natural cadence.  And I'm still not sure about that, but I think one determining factor is how long the horse can continue in that cadence without speeding up or slowing down.  So, essentially if you are constantly nagging the horse to go faster or slower, the horse is probably not in his natural cadence.

I did demonstrate our endurance trot in the arena for my instructor, although Nimo's trot in the arena is slower than it is out on the trail when he's motivated.  It was my instructor's opinion that the trot he showed in the arena (which I'm thinking was about 7 mph) looked like a natural cadence for him.  The only adjustment she had me make was to lean a bit more forward, so I could rest my hands on Nimo's withers (not something I normally do).  And that was it.  We had the Pignot jog!

It was my secret hope that we were already doing the Pignot jog, and to have confirmation was so motivating.  It means that I can continue that work in the arena and out on the trail without guilt and actually do legitimate conditioning work with Nimo.  I'm not sure I can convey how that makes me feel.  I am definitely committed to the SOM work, and I can already see positive results from it, but it is wonderful to be able to do something that feels more natural instead of constantly reminding myself about position nuances.

The reason I think the Pignot jog is such a great concept for endurance riding is because of the sustainability of it.  If you read the article I referenced above, you'll see this quote:
They concluded that, “there was a speed where the amount of oxygen used to move a given distance, (rate of oxygen consumption divided by speed,) reached a minimum value.” (Hayt and Richard Taylor, 1975) The two scientists concluded that the horse selected naturally a speed within each gait around the energetically optimal speed. Earlier on, Milton Hildebrand studied the phenomenon form the perspective of muscle fatigue. There is more energy in the cycling leg as a mechanical system when a horse walks fast than when it trots at the same speed.” (Hildebrand, 1987)
Essentially, there is a trot (as well as a walk and a canter) at which the horse operates most efficiently.  I think a lot of endurance riders and horses probably find this speed intuitively, and it is probably a huge component in their success.  But imagine if you could find this optimal cadence and your horse has additional education about how to balance and coordinate himself so that minor gait abnormalities don't develop and cause some kind of compensation that eventually can lead to lameness.  (Remember that balance and coordination under saddle is different than without a saddle and I have come to believe that the vast majority of horses won't intuitively know how to change their way of moving as a result of carrying a rider.)  It is my current speculation that most of the injuries seen in any discipline (including endurance) are the result of a long-term gait abnormality that caused a minor compensation in the way the horse moved.  That minor compensation then eventually created a clinically observable lameness, which resulted in a temporary or even permanent removal of the horse from competition or even riding.

Obviously there are injuries that can't be prevented because they occur due to a spook or a bad step or poor footing or some other plain old accident.  But if you can prevent performance-related injuries and find the optimal speed for your horse, how amazing would that be?  I can't think of any endurance rider that I know who has been doing endurance for more than a couple of years who hasn't had at least one horse out with an injury like a suspensory ligament tear or even an undetermined lameness issue that improves with rest.  So I can't help but wonder if those horses had a gait abnormality that contributed to the injury.

Anyway, this idea is something that will be on my mind for the indefinite future and I may write more about it as I learn more in the SOM course and as I work with Nimo.

Back to my lesson:  In case you are wondering, we worked on canter transitions too.  My instructor agreed that doing the walk to canter transition was best for Nimo right now because he is actually going to have more trouble doing the transitions correctly from the trot for awhile.  She also gave me some tips on my position and I discovered that instead of going through this whole process to get Nimo to canter, he actually has an easier time if I just ask for repeated transitions quickly.  For example, if I ask for a canter and either don't get it or the transition is poor, I should immediately bring him back to a walk and immediately ask for canter again.  I had been taking a lot of time to set him up in between failures and that was actually not helping him.  When I started asking for canter transitions quickly instead of overthinking them, they came much easier and more quickly.

The other thing you might be wondering about is that I had previously written that my instructor noticed a gait asymmetry during our last lesson.  Nimo was leaving his left hind on the ground a bit too long in the walk.  Our homework to address that issue was to do what SOM calls quarter pirouettes at the walk and conventional dressage would probably call quarter turns on the haunches.  The reason for the difference in terminology has to do with bend.  Conventional dressage uses the term turn on the haunches to designate the horse turning on its haunches with no bend in his body.  Pirouettes are similar except that the horse is bent in the direction of the turn.  SOM maintains that the bend may actually be harmful in some cases and uses the pirouette as a more general term that includes no bend, some bend (although not as much as you'd see in the dressage show ring), and even counter-bend/flexion, depending on what is most beneficial for the horse.

Regardless of the term, Nimo and I did lots and lots and lots of quarter pirouettes (and eventually even some 180 turns).  We did a quarter pirouette at every single blessed corner in the arena plus I made up patterns with diamond shapes and squares so that we could do even more of them.  We also did significantly more turns to the left than to the right because it was Nimo's left hind that was having the problem.  In SOM, the exercises are often very specific to a particular direction unlike more conventional dressage, which typically advocates for giving equal weight to both directions.  The thing to remember with SOM is that it is considered therapy for the horse, so I think about it like a situation where a particular limb has been out of commission for awhile and any physical therapy for rehabilitation will focus on that limb because the other limb is doing OK.  Because Nimo's left hind was the leg having trouble, the idea was to find a gymnastic exercise targeting that deficiency.

During our most recent lesson, my instructor said she didn't see a single case of Nimo's left hind dragging or moving abnormally.  I'm not naive enough to think that the problem is permanently resolved after such a short time, but it is rewarding to think that the work we did during the previous month really addressed the issue. 

The other thing my instructor had suggested we work on was zig zag half passes at the walk.  At the time, Nimo was literally incapable of doing a half pass.  He would try, but could not maintain his balance at the walk and move laterally in that way.  Over the course of the month, though, I was able to develop the half pass a bit, and Nimo can now do the half pass zig zag at the walk.

It's been so motivating to see Nimo's progress over the past few months.  We still have a long way to go, but I have hope that we will be doing amazing things in the not so distant future, and it's even possible that I have tentatively put an intro endurance ride on our ride calendar for March...

Sunday, October 16, 2016

State of Mind

I haven't written for awhile.  Part of the reason is that September was the month from hell with respect to my job and part of it is that I've been having trouble figuring out how to express some thoughts.  I'm not sure how much I can say on a public blog about the first reason, and I'm not sure that I've really remedied the second reason, but I'm going to try to explain where I'm at.

Over the past few months, my motivation to continue to condition for endurance rides has waned.  I was in a pretty good place at the beginning of the ride season this year, but after failing to complete either ride that I entered in the spring and having to scratch from the ride I'd hoped to do in June, I admit to feeling a bit forlorn about the possibility of us ever completing a ride other than the one we finished almost 18 months ago.  I can't count the number of times I've read about someone's successful ride and wondered why it seems so easy for so many people and not for me.  (I know that plenty of people out there have overcome far more than I have, but the brain sometimes doesn't remember those things when adversity strikes.)  Part of it is my choice of riding companions certainly, but there must be other factors too because there are plenty of non-Arab horses competing in endurance.

My husband would say that it is possible that I'm making things more complicated for myself, because I do have a tendency to do that.  For example, why use regular paint to paint a wall when I can use a two-step faux-finish process that still isn't done over 9 years after I started?  (I adore that faux finish on the walls that I have done, and I'm glad I haven't yet succumbed to the easy painting, which has no character.)  Why buy jewelry when I can make it myself after spending weeks searching for all the items and suffering through the endless hassle making it for 3 times what I would have paid if I had just bought it already made?  (Because learning how to made something yourself is rewarding all on its own!)  And don't even get me started on the mess I made in my kitchen the first time I made butter.  Just a word of advice - don't dump the cream in a large mixing bowl and use a handheld mixer to make butter.  The cream will splash EVERYWHERE and it will take days to realize the extent of the disaster.  Do yourself a favor and use a blender or - gasp! - an actual butter churn.  There is a reason for that design:)  (But OMG, fresh butter is amazing!)

In terms of how I've made things more difficult for myself (and Nimo), the hoof boot issue is the one that springs to mind first.  Hoof boots are flat out not working for us.  There are assorted reasons for that, but the most recent problem (the boot literally just slides right off his foot even though I am convinced that it fits properly and I've got it tightened as much as is reasonable) has nearly sent me to the loony bin.  At this point, I have tried several brands of hoof boots with frustrating results.  The Equine Jogging Shoe is fiddly to put on, seems to turn on his foot even on easy terrain, and doesn't seem like a good design; the Cavallo Simples barely fit his front hooves and seem to rub the hoof wall in addition to making the most annoying clonking sound with every footfall that makes me want to stab my eyes out; the Renegades just don't quite work for his spade-shaped feet, despite some expert assistance and getting the fit so close I can almost taste success; the Easyboot Trails had velcro that simply would not stay fastened; and the Easyboot Epics, while seeming to fit beautifully, are either breaking gaiters or just coming right off the foot - both new problems that didn't used to happen.  Any other brand (e.g. Scoot Boots) that I haven't tried is because it doesn't come in his size or because it is clearly not appropriate for endurance riding.

I did, however, discover a new hoof boot that is not currently being manufactured, but just launched its Kickstarter campaign.  The boot is expected to come in Nimo's size and the shape of the boot looks like it can accommodate Nimo's hoof shape.  It can be adjusted in shape/size to a small degree and there are no gaiters or hardware.  You may have heard about it already, but if not, check out the Megasus Horserunners at:  http://horserunners.com/.  The big potential issue with this boot (because there is always something), is that it relies on a velcro strip adhered to the hoof wall.  The intergrity of that velcro strip and the effect of the adhesive on the hoof wall are both huge considerations in terms of the usefulness of this boot.  That said, I'm thrilled that there is continual innovation in the hoof boot industry and maybe this boot or the next boot will be the one that works for us.

Why don't you just put shoes on your horse? you ask.  That is a fair and reasonable question.  I've considered it many times.  I know Saiph and Liz have both had really good results with switching to shoes for competition, and I also have access to the same farrier (bless his heart for being willing to come to me!).  I believe that the two of them were very thoughtful about switching from boots to shoes, and I believe that the farrier would do a good job with Nimo.  But...the only reason Nimo needs hoof boots in the first place is to do OD-sponsored rides, like No Frills, The OD, and Fort Valley.  He doesn't need them for other rides like Foxcatcher or Mustang Memorial or Rabbit Run, and probably a whole lot of other rides that don't have rocky trails.  As for conditioning rides, I can just slow down for rocky areas on the trails, so I don't necessarily need the boots/shoes for those, either.  And I need to really think about why I am going to put metal on his feet and pound nails into his hooves for what might be at most 3 rides a year.  In the end, it isn't enough.  Nimo has good, healthy feet that are perfectly fine to do 90% of what he needs to do and the rest of it is just me wanting something more.  I cannot justify putting shoes on him so I can compete in 1-3 rides a year, especially when there are other options for rides, even though they are farther away.

If you are pounding your desk in frustration as you read my explanation, I get it.  I really do.  Sometimes a certain path is easier and any normal, sane person chooses the easier path.  Why continue to struggle with hoof boots when that struggle interferes with achieving my long term goal?  Well, because it only became a long term goal a few years ago and it is my goal, not Nimo's.  And I'm not even sure anymore if it is a good goal for me to have.

What do I mean by that?  Two things.  Well, maybe three.  Possibly four.  Sigh...I don't know.  Here's where I'm going to try to express some thoughts, so bear with me.  First, conditioning through the summer in Virginia is miserable.  It is hot and humid.  There are lots of bugs that bite me and bite my horse.  The sun is unrelenting in its brightness.  I hate it.  Nimo hates it.  This year, I gave us both permission to back off on miles and pace because I could not handle the torture anymore.  That helped, but riding still sucked.  On one particular conditioning ride, I think I killed over 100 horse flies.  We cannot make good time when I'm constantly whacking at the blood-sucking little vampires.  Normally, Virginia summers aren't that long in terms of the true misery.  But this year, we basically went from cool and wet to 90+ degrees within less than a week and stayed there from mid-May to the end of September, when it got cool and rained for a week straight (apparently there were only two options for weather in Virginia the past few months).  Now we are back to seasonal temps and it has made a huge difference in how both of us feel about our rides.  But if I can't condition properly for four months out of the year, that means that I may not be able to have Nimo in good enough shape to do fall rides, especially because Mustang Memorial moved its date from mid-November (oh, blessed freezing temperatures!) to early October (too soon to have recovered from the summer slump).  But that's OK, maybe I can just focus on spring rides.

Except...when I first started this journey, I didn't mind riding alone.  In fact, I preferred it for the first year-ish.  I was still getting Nimo and me in shape and I also needed the time alone to think and to get back in touch with myself.  But over time, I made friends and found new people to ride with.  Let me emphasize that I really enjoy riding with all of these people.  They are thoughtful, fun people, who have taught me things or have simply been a great support system to help keep me motivated and give me someone to talk to that isn't work-related or four years old.  None of them, however, have horses that are a good fit for Nimo's pace.  Most of them go a little too fast.  A few too slow (they aren't endurance riders).  But most of the time, that is OK.  Because riding with faster partners helps us condition better and riding with slower partners means mixing things up a bit.

However, at actual endurance rides, I've really had trouble finding a good fit.  The one ride that we actually completed was in large part because I found a great partner to ride with (Saiph and her lovely mare, Lily).  It was so much fun and it was what I imagined endurance riding would be.  Except that that particular ride turns out to be the exception rather than the rule for us.  I have recently realized that I don't want to do an endless number of rides in the future years by myself.  I don't want to "ride my own ride."  I want to ride with one or two (or even more) people who feel comfortable out on the trail and with their horses and who do not want to set speed records, but who also know the value of moving out a bit occasionally.  I want to ride with people that I know and get along with and like (and who hopefully like me too!) and whose horses are a good match for Nimo's pace.  And that just isn't happening.  Nimo is simply not confident enough at this point to be fully motivated for an entire ride on his own.  He needs a buddy.  And without one, he can be difficult to ride, which quite honestly is not fun for either of us.

I will be the first person to say that fun is not the only consideration for why I do things.  In fact, I tend to think that fun doesn't happen very often without a lot of work beforehand, so it doesn't bother me that some rides might just be miserable or a lot of work, but it does bother me that I see nothing but unpleasantness in my future because all of the people that I know in the endurance world ride much faster at rides than I do or are doing different distances.  And I need to seriously consider why I would subject Nimo and myself to repeated rides that don't add much value.

And then, there is the Science of Motion issue.  I think I mentioned in my last post that I've begun employing Science of Motion (SOM) principles in my work with Nimo, in part because I suspect a sub-clinical physical issue.  But the deeper I go into those principles and the more I learn about them, the harder it is for me to 1) ride with anyone and 2) condition for endurance.  The reason is that SOM isn't like a typical dressage-type training course or set of steps.  It is a fundamental reworking of the way that I ride and the way that Nimo moves.  That kind of drastic change doesn't happen overnight nor is it easy or even well-understood by someone who isn't also working through the same thing.  There is no quick fix, like dropping my stirrup a hole (although I've done that) or moving my stirrup bar back (did that too).  My position has changed in such a way that I must consciously think through the placement of every part of my body all the time (plus, even a 5-mile ride makes me sore).  And the way I communicate with Nimo is different too.  I use as light a contact as possible (the weight of the rein is the ideal) and there are no rein aids (like the indirect or direct rein aids most people learn about in dressage).  I must use incredibly subtle changes in my body (such as a slight rotation of my upper body to indicate shoulder in) to communicate.  There are no spurs and I ride without a whip unless I'm in a lesson where we are working on advancing or learning something new.  But the whip is held differently and it is used with a light-as-a-feather flick.  I've been experimenting with bits (probably more on that in a different post) but have found that the hackamore is still the best thing for us at this point.

As for Nimo, he is learning to move his body in a different way too.  The simplest explanation is that SOM is about balance before movement, unlike the more common approach to dressage which asks a horse to move out before asking for balance.  I am now horrified that I used to chase my horse around the arena, asking for more and more movement.  (And in fact, it was that chasing that eventually turned me to SOM as an alternative because it was making me uncomfortable.)  That was not a helpful approach if my goal was to achieve a more supple and athletic horse (which it was).  Instead, SOM asks that I slow Nimo down to the point where he is walking one step at a time and each footfall is analyzed in how it feels and looks to determine where there is gait asymmetry and what the horse is trying to protect - a discomfort or even pain - through that asymmetry.  As of my last lesson a week ago, it has become clear that his left hind leg is not moving in a balanced way.  The biggest problem is that he is leaving it on the ground too long in what would normally be considered the propulsion phase of that leg's movement.  Essentially, that means that he becomes unbalanced as his left hind leg gets strung out behind the movement.  It could mean his stifle is bothering him or it could be something else.  We haven't gotten that far in the analysis yet, but it's good information to know.

The SOM work is very mentally demanding and while it is a relief from a cardio perspective to slow things down, the change in my position and the way Nimo moves is physically demanding too.  And, as I mentioned above, it is incompatible with endurance conditioning.  I still do short rides once a week out on the trails.  I even did a Hunter Pace with Nimo a couple of weekends ago and it was literally the perfect ride.  I had a great riding partner who was confident and having fun.  Our horses (despite one being gaited and one not gaited) were able to pace each other very well.  I was able to slow Nimo's trot to match my partner's horse's gait and my partner was able to canter her horse to keep up with Nimo's bigger trot when he was leading.  The horses were mentally stable, despite being passed by a group a couple of times and Nimo was completely under control with minimal pulling even when watching another group go faster and disappear into the distance in front of us.  This experience refers me back to my sentiment that having a fun and well-matched partner on an endurance ride is one thing that will be important for us continuing in endurance.  I also think that the previous work on SOM was useful in helping Nimo and I communicate better.

My short trail rides, though, are compromise rides.  They are not truly compatible with the work we are doing in our schooling sessions, because in our schooling sessions, we are mostly still walking (although we have recently started brief interludes of trot and my instructor has agreed to doing a trail lesson as well as helping me with achieving a sustainable trot in the arena to aid with cardio work - more on that in another post too).  Nimo's walk is painfully slow at this point because he is learning to place each foot.  It will not always be slow, but there is a progression that he is going through and it will be awhile before he moves out at the walk again.  And his new walk will never look like a big swinging dressage walk.  His new trot may not look like what he does now and his new canter will hopefully be 100x better than what he does now, which is quite out of balance.

My point is that I can't condition for a 30 mile ride in the mountains and also work on correcting Nimo's balance and coordination under saddle.  I have to deal with the balance and coordination first, and then I can start conditioning again.  I fought against that notion for months and have only recently come to the conclusion that there can be no situation where I do SOM work in the arena and non-SOM work on the trail.  There can only be SOM work, with the understanding that I may be compromising for short distances to give us both a mental and physical break out on the trail.

You may be wondering if I would recommend or even advocate for the SOM philosophy, and my long answer is complicated.   My short answer is "No."  From what I can tell, people come to SOM through a variety of ways, but it is typicaly the result of either an epiphany or a serious physical issue with their horse.  I think of it almost like an addiction situation.  You have to hit rock bottom and want help before you can break the addiction cycle (and even then it is hard).  If you don't feel like there is anything fundamentally wrong with the way that you ride or the way your horse moves, SOM will do you no good.  It can only help if you believe that you must make a fundamental change and if you agree with the science and philosophy behind the SOM program.

What is the science and philosophy? you ask.  Well, you can read a lot of information about it for free on the website (which is actually unusual when there is a paid service/class offered).  There are a few books for sale, several clinics around the country (and the world), and the big ticket item is the online class, which also comes with a certain level of feedback from Jean Luc Cornille himself on videos of you riding your horse.  There are a few instructors too, but there is no certification yet for them, so they can be hard to find because they can't advertise as SOM instructors.

From my perspective so far (I'm only on the 5th installment of the course), the science is based on a lot of studies that have been done over the past several decades on the biomechanics of the horse as well as research that Cornille has done through case studies.  There is also a horse skeleton that is used frequently to demonstrate many of the scientific findings in a more tangible way.  I can't even begin to describe it all, but it addresses things like the stance and propulsive phase of a stride, how long and low movement affects a horse's back, and the connection between lameness and other areas of the horse's body that may be in pain and causing the lameness or even behavioral and performance issues when a physical reason doesn't seem evident.

In terms of the philosophy, there is no natural horsemanship technique to learn, no special equipment to buy (except perhaps some specific guidance on bits and saddle fit), and no set of 10 steps to a perfect horse.  There is no discussion on how the horse must be submissive to the rider's aids or lectures on how you need to teach your horse to respect and trust you.  The philosophy is based on educating the rider in such a way that the rider understands equine biomechanics so well that she can choose not only the best gymnastic exercises for her horse but she can choose the way she implements them.  The rider develops a sense of feel for her own position and that of her horse so that she can tell immediately if the horse is in balance or not, and if the horse is not in balance, she knows what to do to help the horse become in balance.  Dressage principles from many decades past are touched on and some are supported while others are not, based on a scientific evaluation.

All that may sound awesome (or not, depending on your perspective), but it is actually really frustrating.  Shedding decades worth of thinking is not the easiest thing, and those of you who believe that a shoulder in must be done at a 30 degree angle, that a half pass is haunches-in on the diagonal, and that long and low work is good for your horse will find that SOM is impossible to even comprehend and you will likely think it is garbage.  Please understand that I am not criticizing you if you believe those things.  As I mentioned above, SOM is for those who have come to a point where they realize things aren't working and they need to try something different very different.  If you have a good relationship with your horse, your horse is moving well and sound, and you are where you want to be in your competitive or other goals, SOM would likely not be worth your investment because it would frustrate you beyond belief.  I want to learn about it, and I've been pulling my hair out for months with only a recent breakthrough that has kind of started some forward progress.

So I've got all this stuff in my head right now.  I'm simultaneously thinking about how to condition, when to condition, which rides to do and also thinking that I can't think about any of that now because I need to focus on our SOM work.  I don't want to give up on endurance, but I think I have to for the short-term.  That said, I do think there is at least one SOM concept that is potentially a gold mine for endurance riders, and after I know more about it, I hope to write about it.  But there are issues beyond the SOM work.  Assuming I manage to retrain Nimo to move differently and then manage to condition him well enough to do an endurance ride, I still have hoof boot issues to deal with as well as riding partner issues, plus one other issue that I haven't written about yet because I haven't been able to find a good way to work it into this post.  I don't know how all that is going to play out.

And all of this stuff was really getting me down until two things happened.  The first was the hunter pace I mentioned above.  Having an hour of actual fun in the saddle really changed my negative perspective! 

The second is more complicated and is more about the release of a negative than the application of a positive. I already said that September was unpleasant because of my job.  I am a Federal employee who works with grant programs, and while there is often a certain amount of craziness at the end of the Federal fiscal year (which ends on September 30), the program that I was working with this year far exceeded the normal crazy.   A couple of particular highlights (actually better described as low points) were when I had to continue to work for a full week not just my regular hours but extra hours despite having a severe case of food poisoning and possibly follow up stomach virus (I'm so sorry I missed your call, but I was busy repeatedly vomiting) and the day I worked from 9 am to midnight with only 2 breaks in a desperate attempt to get caught up.  The stress and pressure were unbelievable, and I doubt any of my other coworkers would have even bothered to suffer through it. 

I have realized that I have developed a particular tolerance for job-related suffering, and I have also realized that this last September is the last time I will suffer through it.  I forget exactly how the saying goes, but the concept is that if I am miserable, it is because I let someone else make me that way.  The big reason for my epiphany is because I saw what working crazy hours did to my relationship with my daughter, who is 4 years old and doesn't understand why her mom couldn't spend the usual time with her.  And the explanation that somebody higher than I am in the management chain didn't follow my recommendations and basically deliberately created an intolerable situation (for me and a few others) didn't cut it.  I don't save lives through my job, but my agency sometimes seems to act like that is the case, and from now on, unless there is an actual fire to put out, I won't be putting forth the effort that I did in September anymore.  I don't know exactly what that attitude means for my continued employment in this particular field.  And that means a lot of uncertainty.  But for now, the extreme pressure has been released, which has freed up my brain to occasionally think about things unrelated to how I'm going to overcome the latest job-related challenge.

In terms of where I am today, well, I just came home from doing another Hunter Pace, which was equally as fun as the last and Nimo was even more of an amazing ride.  He was completely unphased when passed by other horses and even consented to slowly trot behind a group while letting them get out of sight.  We rocked the 6-ish miles of the course, which were quite hilly, and finished in an hour.  I can't get over how wonderful it is to be finished in an hour!

I have also noticed that there is something going on with my connection with Nimo.  He loves people, so he is generally easy to catch and always comes when called in his field.  But the last couple of weeks, he has been either waiting at the gate for me (even if it was late when I got to the barn) or he hears the car and starts coming to the gate (even in the pitch dark) and I never have to call him.  It could be that I've switched his treats to the Mrs. Pasture's brand (a serious upgrade from the uber-expensive, but healthy, marshmallow treats he was getting) or it could be that the SOM work has done more than just affect the physics of our work.  Many SOM participants have reported that their horses seem significantly happier to work with them over time, but I didn't expect to see that type of result with Nimo because he is already a pretty congenial horse to work with.  I think it's too soon to draw a definite conclusion, but it is an interesting development.

He also seems to have an overall calmness that he did not have before.  At the first Hunter Pace we did this fall, he got excited when some riders began cantering around a field and he was tied at the trailer.  I just reached over and stroked under his jaw for a few seconds, and he settled down immediately and shifted mental gears back to hanging out and eating hay.  I'm not sure I could have done that even a few months ago.  And at today's ride, he was calmer than I have ever seen him at any kind of competition despite the unorganized milling of horses at the start area and that it took us over 30 minutes to get out on the trail while we waited for others to start and finish.  He felt good out on the trail, walking when asked and moving out when asked.  Plus, while the other horse was happy to lead the whole ride, I asked Nimo to move out in front in the woods (where he is less comfortable leading than out in an open field) for awhile, and he was really good about maintaining a trotting pace with just a couple of taps from the whip when we got to the top of a steep hill that he wanted to finish by walking up.

So, while I am a bit sad at what is hopefully a temporary suspension of our endurance activities, I think the improvement in our relationship, the actual fun rides, and the interesting biomechanics work are Good Things.  I don't know what the future holds anymore and I have tried to stop Planning Things, which is a bit disconcerting on the one hand and kind of exciting on the other hand.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Western Dressage

A couple of years ago, one of my friends went to a clinic on western dressage.  She was kind of excited about it because she liked the idea of working on dressage with her horse, but she rode in a western saddle and had no intention of switching over to a dressage saddle simply to do some basic dressage work with her horse.  At the time, I admit to thinking that western dressage was probably some kind of new way for quarter horses to gimp along in a pathetic, nose-to-the-ground, barely sound manner.  I'd shown in western pleasure and related classes at horse shows when I was a teenager and again when I was in my mid-twenties, and I eventually stopped because I couldn't stand the way the horses moved as well as some of the methods trainers used to get the horses to move that way.  So I didn't give the concept of western dressage another thought until recently.

I got this idea in my head that I wanted to do another local schooling show with Nimo.  Apparently the horror that was our last show had escaped my heat-fried brain, and I was under the impression that it would be fun.  (Why, oh why does my brain forget such important things!)  I've been feeling a bit ho hum about our dressage schooling and nothing perks me up and motivates me to practice like the fear of public humiliation, so I decided to enter a class in a little show that is part of a series held at the barn where I board.  But, in addition to being completely opposed to western showing, I've also become horrified by traditional dressage competitions over the past few years.  Of course, not everyone who competes ties her horse's mouth shut with a snug noseband or employs rollkur (i.e. hyperflexion aka low, deep, and round, which is now completely legal for the warm-up ring) or spurs her horse to the point of leaving blood, but the fact that so many top riders seem to do at least one of those things leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  And then there is my even more recently developed concern about the extended gaits (particularly the trot) not being that great for a horse's continued soundness.  Anyway, I've kind of sworn off the traditional dressage stuff and along with that, I've made the decision to sell my dressage saddle.  (That is probably worth a separate post, but the short version is that I like the saddle.  It fits Nimo and it fits me.  What I don't like is dressage and I have started to feel guilty whenever I use the dressage saddle.  Also, I can use the money I get from the saddle to buy a cart for Nimo...)

And that is when the idea of competing in western dressage occurred to me.  I did a little research and watched some YouTube videos and became reasonably assured that western dressage is actually a legitimate discipline that has so far escaped the long-reaching arm of the FEI and whose founders seem bound and determined to recognize the difference between a western horse expected to do a little work around the ranch or at least haul its rider around a few trails and a traditional dressage horse, whose movements should astound and amaze, but whose skills need not (and maybe even should not) surpass the way it looks in the arena.

If you happen to be interested in western dressage, there are a couple of books that you can get.  Well, actually, there are three, but I only got two of them because I was pretty sure the third was going to be superfluous, given that I already own about a million dressage books.  Anyway, the two I read are:

101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider by Jec Aristotle Ballou.  I have two other books by this author (101 Dressage Exercises and Equine Fitness) and I adore them both, so when I saw she had a book related to western dressage, I snapped it up.  This book doesn't have much information on competitions, but it does have a lot of good exercises if you're looking to spice up your schooling routine.

Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training, and Competing with Kindness as the Goal and Guiding Principle by Jessica Black.  This book gives a bit of the history behind the western dressage movement, which was apparently initiated by a gentleman named Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  It is also a big shot across the bow of traditional dressage and its associated competitions.  You can see by the title that western dressage started in part as a rebound away from the cruelty that is becoming so apparent at the highest levels of competitive dressage. 

However, much like with "natural horsemanship," I think there is a real risk that simply doing things differently (different saddle, different patterns, different thought process for developing patterns) can lead people to believe it is better, when over time, it becomes just as corrupt or abusive as the system it was trying to get away from.  I think there is a danger any time there is a competition associated with the activity because the competition becomes the reason for doing the activity, rather than being a place to showcase a particular horse's skill that has been developed as a way to improve its own athleticism in a specific job.

But, for now, it appears that the concept of western dressage is to utilize gymnastic exercises to strengthen a horse's working ability while riding in a western saddle.  I will point out that there are different ways to compete in western dressage.  The discipline formally called "Western Dressage" is sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation as well as several breed associations, so for those who must compete for not only ribbons, but also points and year-end awards, Western Dressage works well.  Cowboy Dressage is considered a different discipline.  It has different tests and competitions (which are non-existent here in Virginia) and does not have a sanctioning organization (which is actually kind of cool).  Then, there is the North American Western Dressage organization, whose main purpose appears to be to coordinate virtual showing and coaching, although it also has its own set of dressage tests as well groundwork tests and ranch horse tests.  I really like the idea of virtual shows because for $25-30, you can set up (or use someone else's) a dressage arena (using low-budget items like cones and buckets with letters on them), film yourself at your leisure (during a specified time frame), and submit your test for actual scoring and placing (with real ribbons) in a show.  It takes a lot of the stress out of the process and really reduces the cost.  You don't have to be a member of NAWD or USEF or any breed association or western dressage association to compete and you get scored by a real, licensed judge, with comments and maybe even a ribbon.  (And for those who still want to do traditional dressage, NAWD has an arm called Dressage on a Dime that also hosts virtual shows and coaching.)

I ended up going the Western Dressage (WD) route because the schooling shows in my area allow the USEF western dressage tests and do not appear to allow Cowboy Dressage or NAWD tests.  One thing I discovered is that WD tests are structured a bit differently than traditional dressage tests.  For one thing, there are 4 tests in each level (as opposed to the 3 tests at each level for traditional dressage).  The Intro level is only walk/jog (trot) unlike traditional dressage, which has incorporated canter into its third test in the Intro category.  The WD tests are a bit more fluid in terms of requirements as you go through the levels.  For example, there is a huge difference between traditional dressage's First Level, Test 3 and Second Level, Test 1.  It is a jump that is difficult to make because no collection is required in First Level, but you go straight into collected trot and shoulder-in for Second Level.  WD tests, on the other hand, seem to focus on helping horse and rider move up the levels by incorporating smaller-level changes as the tests progress, although the levels are not too far from traditional dressage in terms of requirements.

Of course, you're probably wondering about tack and clothing.  As it turns out, many endurance saddles (and even Australian stock saddles) are completely appropriate for WD competitions (but not necessarily for Cowboy Dressage, which takes a much stricter approach to tack).  Your saddle does not need a horn or any fancy silver - it just needs western-style fenders.  For example, my Specialized Eurolight is built on a western-style tree, so the addition of western fenders (as distinct from the 1 1/2" leathers that I normally ride in) makes it fit the definition of a western saddle for the purposes of competing.  I probably pushed the envelope a bit farther, but I ended up choosing to add the western fenders to my baroque, treeless saddle.  (I recently acquired a Barefoot Madrid, and I love it so much that I never want to sit in a treed saddle again!  I keep meaning to post about it, but haven't gotten around to it yet.)

The other great thing is that bitless bridles (with the exception of mechanical hackamores) are OK for competition, so I could continue using what I already ride in.  Most bits are legal too, although there are limits on the height of the port and length of the shanks for curb bits, and any bit that is traditionally considered an English bit is not allowed (think Kimberwick and Pelham), but the mouthpiece styles that are allowed are quite broad (much more broad than traditional dressage), which is great for people who ride horses with specific issues or sensitivities.

In terms of clothing, you need pants (doesn't matter what kind), boots (doesn't matter what kind), and a long-sleeved shirt (doesn't matter what kind).  You can wear a helmet (doesn't have to be western in style) or you can wear a traditional western hat.  Things like chaps, gloves, ties, jewelry are allowed, but considered optional.

I mean, seriously, I've never seen so few restrictions.  I felt like a whole new world opened up.  I really believe that dressage can be done in pretty much any tack or clothing that is comfortable for the horse and rider and fits well, and I think WD gets about as close to that concept as is possible, given our insistence on identifying tack with a particular discipline.

So, with all these positive things, I signed up to ride a WD Basic Level (similar to Training Level in traditional dressage), Test 1.  I choose this test for three reasons.  First, I felt like entering a new discipline means I should start near the beginning, even though Nimo and I have competed in First Level traditional dressage before.  Second, given Nimo's propensity to completely avoid the section of the arena near the judge (which creates a few problems when trying to do things like steer or perform a circle), I wanted a test that had as much activity away from C as possible.  The Basic Level, Test 1 has all of the circles at the opposite end of the arena and very little happens near the judge.  Third, Nimo has been demonstrating some stiffness for awhile that I haven't been able to overcome.  I'll talk about it a little more later, but I wanted to choose something below our normal working level to make the test less stressful and easier for him.

The day of the show dawned bright and sunny (dear Mother Nature, why can't you send clouds if the temperature is going to be 90 degrees???).  An added bonus was that there was going to be a hot air balloon show nearby, which meant the possibility of dozens of hot air balloons hovering over the arena.  Apparently, a couple of years ago, the organizers had to stop the show and spend an hour shouting at hot air balloonists that they could not all congregate their balloons right over the arena and hover while watching the competition because it was upsetting the horses.  I had a run in with a hot air balloon the night before, when the lady piloting the balloon decided to hover over the arena while I was trying to work Nimo and then land nearby.  (I'm told that the balloons are difficult to land accurately, but I have no sympathy for the idiot who wandered over the arena while blasting the gas on and off.  Had my horse been of a different mindset, I could have been thrown due to her stupidity.  Luckily Nimo remained alert and distracted but not panicked during the whole ordeal, but nothing that anyone can say will convince me that this woman was not a horrifying human being who lacked basic consideration for other members of her species.)

Because my ride time was at 2:35, I got to spend many of my waking hours fretting about the heat and the balloons and wondering if I should just give it up and enjoy the air conditioning like normal people.  But a friend of mine had agreed to come to the show to take pictures of us and she put together a great snack/beverage bag for me (who knew I could get crew for a dressage show!), so I reluctantly dragged myself out to the barn and got my horse ready.

As luck would have it, I think it was too hot for the balloons, so none were in sight as I started my warm-up.  And it was a few degrees cooler than it had been for most of the summer (I guess 90 is really better than 95).  Plus, I'd opted to wear my Kerrits Hybrid Riding Shirt instead of a long-sleeved western-style shirt, so I felt a bit cooler (at least mentally) in short sleeves.  I did wear full chaps (the Hobby Horse Ultra Suede ones are super lightweight and I wore them over my favorite riding tights instead of jeans for comfort).  The chaps combined with the riding tights felt more comfortable to me than jeans in the heat and humidity and the chaps camouflaged my Ariat Terrain boots and half chaps (yes, I wore half chaps under my chaps, but I can't imagine riding without half chaps - I love the support of the Terrains for my foot and ankle combined with the support for my leg from the chaps).  It turned out that I didn't need to worry about my clothing because one lady showed in her white dressage breeches (I think she was competing another horse in regular dressage) and some people wore tank tops.  The judge didn't seem to be concerned in the slightest bit.

Heading to the warm-up area (photo by Leanne Edwards)
 As I warmed up, I asked my friend (who has an idiot-savant like gift for spotting lameness in horses - I've never seen anything like it, not even in vets) to watch Nimo for any gait asymmetry.  I first noticed a stiffness when we circled to the left in the arena (not so much out on the trails, though) back in January of this year.  I initially wrote it off as something that happens as you school your horse, because the stiffness usually doesn't last long and moves around as the horse learns different evasions to different techniques/movements.  Except that it didn't move around.  It stayed the same.  For months and months and months.  It didn't really seem to get any worse, except that I started noticing Nimo was having more trouble cantering, particularly on the left lead.  My dressage instructor didn't seem that concerned about it, but it has really been bothering me.  And during our warm-up, I couldn't deny the problem any longer.  Nimo was not only having trouble bending to the left, but he also had trouble bending to the right.  It was almost impossible for him to even pick up the canter on either lead, and I had to resort to using my whip a couple of times just to get a few strides of canter, which I really don't like to do.

I asked my friend what she saw and she said his stride looked even at all gaits, but he was holding his tail slightly to the right.  She thought I might be over-reacting to the situation when I said I thought I should scratch him from the competition and suggested that I do the test and if Nimo had trouble bending or cantering to just let it happen and decide what to do after the test.

I admit that I do have a tendency to overthink things and create a bit more drama than necessary, but I was worried about Nimo.  I did decide to compete, but I vowed I would not use the whip to get him to canter or hold his canter because I was pretty sure that he had something physical going on.  As the previous competitor exited the ring, I started walking Nimo around the outside of the dressage ring to see if there was anything that was going to bother him visually.  He did surprisingly well with the judge's stand and a circuit around the outside yielded no significant concerns for Nimo (that might be a first).  We turned around and headed back the other direction, when the whistle sounded, indicating that we had 45 seconds to get to the entrance of the arena and start our test.  It was kind of an awkward place to be, but I asked Nimo to trot, which he did, and he even trotted right by the judge's stand with a bit of snorting.  To make our 45 second window, I had to really push him out at the trot, and as we turned to enter, I pulled him back a bit, so we didn't blast into the arena.

And the second his head crossed into the arena, he got race brain.  I don't know how else to describe it.  He shifted gears and powered up his trot and went down the center line as if we were just starting a 25-mile endurance ride.  That was a bit problematic because we were supposed to halt at X, which is halfway down the arena for those who are lucky enough to have never tortured themselves with dressage work.  The problem was that we had significant velocity, and I was sure only a parachute shooting out behind us would be able to slow us down.  As we flew past X at the speed of sound, I was desperately trying to convince Nimo that we needed to do a halt and salute.  He didn't believe me at first, but eventually consented to slow down and halt somewhere significantly past X.  All I can say is that the judge must not have realized what happened and thought we did what we did on purpose, because we got our first 9 (out of 10 points for that movement).  Her vantage point may not have allowed her to see that we missed X by many, many feet (my friend watching from the opposite side said it wasn't as obvious as I thought it was).

I barely had time to salute and pick up the reins before Nimo was off again (although thankfully no longer at Warp 10 speed).  We trotted to C and turned left to trot down the long-side of the arena.  This WD test had an interesting way of changing direction.  We trotted to B (in the middle of the long side), crossed the width of the arena and turned right at E.

Trotting across the arena from B to E (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We continued to trot down the long side of the arena toward A, where our first two circles would start.  This test has a nice way of handling the trot and canter circles.  You trot a 20 meter circle at A and then repeat the same circle in a canter, so the rider and horse have a chance to set the circle while trotting and then they just have to hold the bend for the canter circle.  It's an easier way to accomplish the canter circle.

Coming down the long side toward A (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our first canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Maybe because the set up for the canter is so nice in this test, Nimo actually picked up the canter without a problem, and held it for the entire 20-ish meter circle.  He was definitely leaning to the inside, though, and he absolutely made the circle a bit smaller than 20 meters.

But we survived.  The next part of the test was to cross the long diagonal of the arena while trotting.  In traditional dressage, First Level, long diagonals are for trot lengthenings, so as we turned to cross the arena, I could feel Nimo gear up for a lengthening (we haven't shown in almost 2 years and the horse still remembers!).  I spent the entire diagonal arguing with him about whether we were going to do a lengthening, so I was thankful to get to M, where we could walk.

Crossing the diagonal (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Because we were also approaching the judge's stand, Nimo took the opportunity to putz around at the walk and try to avoid going past it.  I was able to keep him on the rail, but it took some effort and the judge absolutely noticed the struggle (curse you, white gloves!) and took some points off, but I was actually pretty happy with the improvement.  At the last show, Nimo would not go anywhere near the rail in that section of the arena, so I figured we were doing pretty good.

After making it past the judge's stand, our next task was to do a free walk to X and then back to the same long side of the arena (basically a zig zag).  The judge thought we could have had more movement, but I was glad for the calm horse and the chance to breath for a minute before our next canter circle.

Free walk (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We started with a trot circle at A.

Trot circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Then, we did our canter circle.  Again, Nimo picked up the canter just fine and did a little better job on maintaining an actual 20 meter size.

Canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Sigh of relief!  Then, we trotted halfway down the arena, crossed the arena, kept trotting around past the judge (Nimo did OK!) and then crossed the diagonal again, where I once again had to convince Nimo that we were not doing a lengthening.

I have no idea what part of the test this is, but its a pretty good picture (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We finished up the test by heading up the center line (at a more moderate pace this time!), halting for approximately half a second and saluting before Nimo took off again.  In the picture below, my friend was off the center line, so we look at bit more crooked than we actually were, but you should be able to see that Nimo's tail is held slightly to the right.

Final halt and salute (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our overall score was a 63.870, which is a decent score, and earned us a second place finish in our division.  But we should have been able to do this test in our sleep.  The judge's comments centered around needing more bend and a more consistent pace (that was probably due to our repeated discussions about lengthenings, so doesn't bother me too much), which are appropriate comments.  A few months ago, we probably would have score in the mid- to high-70s on this test.  And while scores, points, and ribbons don't matter that much to me (I did the show as a motivational tool rather than to get a ribbon), my horse's physical condition does. 

I know if you look at the pictures, Nimo probably looks like he's doing OK, but he isn't.  Something is really bothering him, and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.  I'm glad I did the show, because it helped confirm that there really is something going on, and I'm also glad that whatever it is isn't enough to affect the evenness of his gait...yet.  (Although if you blow up the trot picture just above the halt picture just above, you can see that his right hind leg is going to land just before his left foreleg - maybe not a big deal, but worth noting.)  But I'm sure it will if I don't address it.

I do have a plan, and it's one that I've been working on for awhile (because the stiffness I felt has been bothering me for awhile).  I started taking the In-Hand Therapy Course offered by Science of Motion several months ago.  You can read quite a bit about the SOM theories on the website (which is very unusual for something like this - usually you have to buy the class to learn much), and the class delves into those theories quite a bit more deeply.  Essentially, the course focuses on the biomechanics of horses, as determined by scientific research as well as on-the-ground work by Jean Luc Cornille.  It is not a course for the undetermined or easily frustrated, but I am learning a lot.  One of the things I've learned is that Nimo likely carries himself asymmetrically through his spine (although you don't necessarily need this course to figure that out - most horses are asymmetrical to some degree or other - the benefit of the course is that you learn how to correct the asymmetry and better understand why certain commonly applied theories don't make a lot of sense). 

To begin addressing that asymmetry, I recently began working with an instructor who understands and knows how to apply the SOM theories to riding (and in-hand work).  I intend to suspend regular dressage lessons and any intensive conditioning work for the time being as we work through the issue(s).  I am hopeful that through changing my position and the way Nimo moves, I will be able to correct the stiffness that I'm feeling in Nimo. 

I'm also planning to get Nimo's chiropractor out for a visit to see if he can identify a specific adjustment that is needed.  I know chiropractic care for horses is controversial, but this is someone that I trust and have used before.  I also believe that one adjustment is probably only a temporary fix.  A more permanent solution can only be obtained through correcting the cause of the misalignment, which is often easier said than done.

I will still be keeping our 5-6 days a week riding schedule, and I will still be out on the trails each weekend unless I discover a medical reason not to do those things.  I think too often, we think a horse needs rest to address a physical problem, when a different kind of motion may actually work better.  Time will tell if my plan helps, and I will, of course, post my discoveries on the blog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Energy Requirements

Last week, I started a series of posts on analyzing Nimo's diet.  (You can read the first post here.)  You may remember that my primary resource is Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition, which you can read online for free here or purchase here.

I began my analysis by calculating two numbers and choosing a category to use for the formulas I'll be selecting for different requirements as I go through the book.  As a reminder, they are:

Nimo's weight: 680 kg
Nimo's work load: Very Heavy
Nimo's food amount/day: 8.73 kg DM (dry matter)

After making the calculations above, the next step is to look at energy requirements.

Energy
When we think of energy requirements for people, we typically think in terms of calories.  The calories we see on food labels are actually kilocalories (see http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/question670.htm), but kilocalories are probably too small a measurement to be practical for horses.  Instead, megacalories (Mcal) is the measurement used.  A Mcal is 1,000 kilocalories. 

But, there is another layer to figuring out a horse's energy requirements, and that layer is a concept called "digestible energy" (DE).  Technically,
The apparent digestible energy (DE) content of a ration is calculated by subtracting the gross energy in the feces from the gross energy (intake energy) consumed by an animal.  The term "apparent" is used because some of the material excreted in the feces does not originate from the feed but from cells sloughed from the gastrointestinal tract and digestive secretions.  The true DE of a feed may be calculated if fecal endogenous losses are known.  Endogenous fecal energy losses are not routinely determined in studies with horses and thus most DE values represent apparent DE, not true DE.  (see Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition, p. 3)
Clear as mud, right?  And determining DE can be complicated by the chemical composition of a particular feed as well the digestibility of what is in the feed.  Plus, calculating the DE of a feed can only determined with real accuracy through a feeding trial for horses (different species will get different levels of DE from the same feed!).  Nutrient Requirements does offer some formulas that can be used to estimate the DE of a particular feed on p. 4, and I may be coming back to those at a later date because the feeds that I use do not provide DE on the feed label.

To start with, though, I just want to figure out how many Mcal Nimo needs each day, with the understanding that a Mcal is not just a Mcal, every horse is different, horses heavier than 600 kg may need a different formula for estimating energy requirements, the environment the horse lives and works in may change caloric needs, and the degree of difficulty of exercise each day may vary depending on footing, intensity of work, weight of the rider and tack, and temperature, so the calories needed will vary too.  For the sake of developing a baseline, I will be using this formula for horses in Very Heavy work from p. 26:

DE (Mcal/d) = (0.0363 x BW(kg)) x 1.9

Essentially, this formula calculates how many Mcal Nimo needs each day, based on his body weight in kilograms and given that he is working at the Very Heavy level.

The result is:  DE = 0.0363 x 680 x 1.9 = 46.9 Mcal

Now you might think that if Nimo is getting 46.9 Mcal every day, he should be in good shape.  As it turns out, not so much.  Certain things like the ratio of calcium to phosphorus can cause problems like weight loss if it isn't appropriate, no matter how many calories Nimo is eating.  In fact, deficiencies in protein or any number of vitamins and minerals can lead to serious physical symptoms no matter how much Nimo eats. 

Of course, the simplest way to figure out if Nimo is getting enough to eat is to look at him.  Nutrient Requirements doesn't go into body condition in this section of the book, but I think the vast majority of horse owners are aware of body condition scoring, where a horse is scored from 1 (emaciated and death is imminent) to 10 (put this horse on a diet now!!!).  Endurance horses typically score in the 3-5 range (at least based on what I've seen), and my preference is for Nimo to be at a 5.

Earlier this year, a vet scored Nimo as a 4 at the Cheshire CTR in May.  That kind of bothered me, not because the vet was necessarily wrong, but because I really do want to make sure Nimo is getting enough to eat and Friesians are not known for their super model slimness.  At the time, I was suspicious that Nimo was not getting enough to eat, not because the barn wasn't providing enough food but because the grass in his field was nonexistent due to overstocking and Nimo just didn't seem to want hay when he kept seeing grass growing on the other side of the fence.  The barn has since changed its management of the fields, and Nimo does have decent access to grass now, which made a nearly instant change in his weight and attitude. 

Here is how he looked last night:

The lighting isn't that great, but hopefully you can see that he's in pretty good shape:)
I'll come right out and say that I'm happy with his weight now.  Interestingly enough, when he was a bit thinner, tons of people felt compelled to tell me that he needed to eat more.  Now, at a body condition score of at most 1 point higher, a bunch of people have felt compelled to say things like, "Wow! He's not missing any meals, is he?"  I'm not sure if it is the body conscious society that we live in that compels us to constantly be looking at weight or if some people have even fewer verbal filters than I do (even I know not to comment on weight unless directly asked and then only if it is about an animal), but the constant comments about Nimo's weight are bizarre.  Anyway, I think that body condition does impact performance, and I think that carrying around as little weight as possible while still being healthy, well-nourished, and fit for the job would be a good goal.  Which is pretty much why I'm taking the time to do this analysis.

Even though I like the way he looks, I still want to make sure I'm looking at more than just the amount he's eating and the way he looks.  So, the next thing to do is to figure out how much Nimo needs of different nutrients and then analyze what he is eating to see if his diet is even in the ballpark. 

Before we get to vitamins and minerals, though, I want to spend the next three posts going through the main sources of energy:  carbohydrates, fat, and protein.  Horses need a combination of these sources, but it can be hard to know what the optimum combination is, and that is what I'll be trying to figure out during those posts:)