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:  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.

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, 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:) 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Introduction

I've been meaning to do a series of posts analyzing Nimo's diet and discussing nutrition, but every time I tried to write the posts, I realized that it is a very complicated subject, and I doubted that I could even begin to do it justice.  However, I really need to do an analysis of what Nimo is eating.  I think it is particularly important for performance horses to have not just good, but excellent, nutrition, but I've also come to the conclusion that even pasture buddies need to have owners who pay attention to what they eat.  Equine nutrition is no longer as simple as "throw the horse out in the pasture and if his weight looks good, everything must be fine."   I've been experimenting with a lot of different types of feeds and supplements, and I feel like I'm starting to narrow down what I think is working, at least for now.  But I also have a couple of concerns that I'd like to examine more closely and scientifically.  So the next step is to figure out if what I think is going on is related to reality or just made up in my head.  You get to follow along with me while I work through the process!:)

The first step is consulting Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition to find out what the basic nutrition requirements are specifically for Nimo.  If you have never read this book and you have a horse, my strong advice is to read it.  It is the source for almost every other equine nutrition book out there (at least the ones for lay people), and it has 341 pages of information on pretty much everything to do with feeding your horse.  If the price tag is too much for you, you can read it online for free here:  I also find the information published by Kentucky Equine Research (KER) to be helpful and sometimes more up-to-date than what is in Nutrient Requirements (which was published in 2007).  KER does manufacture and sell feed and supplements, so I'm not sure the research could be considered truly independent, but it seems legitimate to me and the company seems to be well-respected for its feed formulations here in Virginia.  KER's published research can be viewed here:  And a lot of universities with strong agriculture programs will publish staff papers online, often through their extension programs, so that can be another good source of information.  Plus, there are the veterinary journals, but I haven't had the time or money to do a lot of searching in those as of yet.

For the purposes of this series of posts, I will be relying heavily on Nutrient Requirements, although I will try to add in other sources as well.  I hope to provide enough information so you can follow along with me, if you like.  (Or even better, double-check my work to make sure I haven't made a mistake!)

To start off, I need to make some determinations about things like Nimo's weight, his work level, and the total volume of food that he eats.  The reason is because the way nutrient requirements are determined is through formulas that typically involve one or more of those parameters.  I'm definitely going to be estimating all three numbers and obviously if my estimates are significantly off, it will affect the accuracy of the results.  (Problem number 1 with trying to figure out what to feed your horse!)

Nimo's Weight
Ideally I would drive Nimo to one of the area equine hospitals and ask if I could borrow a scale.  (Note that I have seen "horse-size" scales at some endurance rides, but surprise, surprise, they look much too small to accommodate Nimo's not insubstantial size!)  However, most people don't have access to a scale, so I opted to try one of the weight calculators available.  There are some formulas out there, too, but for the sake of brevity, I used this online calculator:  Two measurements are needed to use the calculator:  the circumference of the girth area (as measured just behind the point of elbow and over the withers about one inch from their highest point) and the length of the horse from the point of shoulder to the point of buttocks.  The website has a short video to walk you through the measuring process, but I can see some room for error, which could definitely affect the results.  When I plugged Nimo's numbers (82" girth and 71" length) into the online calculator, I got 1447 lbs.  The calculator does note that it may not be as accurate for tall horses (is 17 hands tall?) and larger-boned horses, though, so I decided to bump the number up to an even 1500 lbs, or 680 kg (because all of the nutrient requirement formulas use weight in kg).

Work Level
Nutrient Requirements describes several work categories on p. 26 in Table 1-10, and I decided that Very Heavy is probably the best fit for Nimo based on the descriptions.  The Very Heavy category includes work that involves a mean heart rate of 110-150 bpm along with 6-12 hours a week of work.  Nimo is not always working that much, but right now, I'm riding 5-6 days a week with 4-5 days at 1-1.5 hours and 1 day at 2-3 hours.  The work involves dressage schooling during the week with a little hacking around the farm and endurance conditioning, including a lot of trotting and climbing, on the weekend.  The heat and humidity also add to the intensity of the work.

Weight of Food
Some of the formulas used in Nutrient Requirements use the total amount fed to the horse each day in terms of kg of dry matter (DM).  What that means is you can't just weigh the amount of food you feed; instead, you have to weigh the food (or estimate consumption for things like hay and pasture) and then convert that weight into dry matter.  Dry matter is basically the weight of the food after all moisture has been removed.  It allows all types of feeds to be compared equally, but it can be a bit tricky to calculate.

To come up with a reasonable estimate, the first thing I did was weigh the amount of concentrated food that Nimo gets each day.  (Note that while he does get a few supplements, the amounts are quite small and it didn't seem worth it to include them in this process.)  He gets:

Beet Pulp: 2.25 lbs
Oats: 3.5 lbs
Triple Crown Growth (textured feed): 4.125 lbs
Total concentrates =  9.875 lbs

Then I assumed that Nimo is eating about 2% of his body weight each day (typically horses eat between 1.5 and 3%), which is 30 lbs.  I subtracted the total concentrates from that amount to get 20.125 lbs.  From there, I decided to split that amount into hay and grass because Nimo spends about half his time in his stall eating hay and about half his time out in the pasture eating grass.  To make things slightly easier, I decided to use 10 lbs for hay and 10.125 pounds for grass.

So here's where we are in terms of total amount of food eaten each day:

Beet Pulp: 2.25 lbs
Oats: 3.5 lbs
TC Growth: 4.125 lbs
Hay: 10 lbs
Grass: 10.125 lbs

Now we have to convert all of those amounts to dry matter.  I found a couple of sources to help me estimate the dry matter of each type of food because I didn't want to spend my time using one of the assorted methods out there to actually evaporate the water myself.  If you are so inclined, though, check out this article for how to do it:

For beet pulp, I found this article that describes how beet pulp is made and it states that the shreds are dried to 10% moisture, which means beet pulp is 90% dry matter.  So 2.25 x .90 = 2.025 lbs.

For oats, I found this article that lists oats as 90% dry matter (along with some other grains, if you happen to feed something other than oats).  So 3.5 x .90 = 3.15 lbs.

For TC Growth, I couldn't get any number off the feed bag or the Triple Crown website, but I did find this article that mentioned wet corn has a DM value of 74%.  I'm not really sure if wet corn and textured feed are quite the same in moisture content, but it seemed like a reasonable starting point. So 4.125 x .74 = 3.0525 lbs.

For the hay, I found this article that said hay is typically about 90% dry matter.  So 10 x .90 = 9 lbs.

And finally for the grass, I used the same article as for the hay.  The article stated that grass is typically 20% dry matter, so 10.125 x .20 = 2.025 lbs.

Now, I need to add up all of the DM values and convert the total to kg:

DM (kg) = 2.025 + 3.15 + 3.0525 + 9 + 2.025 = 19.2525 lbs x .45359237 = 8.73 kg

And finally, I have the three numbers that I need for calculating nutrient requirements!

Nimo's weight = 680 kg
Nimo's work level - Very Heavy
Nimo's food on a DM basis = 8.73 kg

That's it for today, but my next post will discuss energy requirements.  And if you notice any errors in my calculations or process, please let me know:)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Catching Up...

It's been awhile since I posted, not because I have nothing to say, but more because I had so much to do that I lacked the time/motivation to post.  Life got a bit crazy starting in mid-May and I've been struggling just to remember what day it is since then.  Many of the things that have happened have been house-related, so I'll spare you the tedious details except to say that we now have a new kitchen faucet, a new dishwasher, a repaired roof beam, a repaired porch ceiling, a repaired roof leak, patched dry wall around the front door, patched dry wall in our downstairs hallway, an almost completed renovated guest bathroom, a new garage door opener, a new kitchen ceiling light, some new paint and baseboards in our family room, lots of new bookshelves and other storage capability to keep toddler toys off the floor (ha, ha, ha, but we tried!) and to get some of the stuff that belongs to my husband and I out of storage and available for use, a new dresser for our daughter's room, and some assorted decorations that have started to make the house feel a bit more like home.  My parents also came to visit for a week and then my in-laws came to visit for several days just 3 weeks later.  All of the home improvement plus home organization plus home decorating plus guests plus crazy work stuff plus all the regular things I try to do like cooking and cleaning and laundry and scrapbooking took their toll a few days ago, and I am currently on what I think might be the recuperating side of a nasty cold that resulted in conversations like this one:

My husband to my prone-hasn't-moved-in-several-hours body:  Do you want something to eat or is death so close that food would be wasted?

Me, trying to remember how to use words:  No food...wait...watermelon.  (I was pretty sure I was on death's door, and the idea of watermelon being my last meal seemed like A Good Thing.  I instantly regretted my choice, though, because it meant I had to turn over to eat it and then my daughter stole most of it anyway - apparently there is no moral code when your mother is dying...)

Thankfully, I think I'm going to live, so I wanted to get caught up on some of the horse-related happenings.

The Devil's Backbone
The weather took an unpleasant turn in mid-May and went from the misery of London (cold, rainy, dreary) to the misery of the tropics (hot, sunny, humid) practically overnight, leaving us without any sort of transition.  It was definitely a shock to my system and I suspect, to Nimo's.  That didn't stop us from heading down to Graves Mountain to tackle The Devil's Backbone trail again on the first 90+ degree weekend day we had.  And it was brutal.

You may remember that Nimo and I attempted that trail earlier in the spring but had to turn back because of the trail conditions.  So when I had the opportunity for a guide to take us on the trail again, I couldn't pass it up.  But the new heat and humidity combined with the steepest trail we've ever done made for a Nimo who was the sweatiest I've ever seen.  When I pressed my legs against his sides, I could feel the coating of sweat just pouring off of him.

We took it slow, though, and stopped several times to let the horses take short rests.  But there was no getting around what I estimate to be almost 2 miles of the steepest trail we've been on.  There were no switchbacks, although there were occasional changes in grade that offered brief periods of relief from the climb.  My understanding from local endurance riders is that horses that can handle The Devil's Backbone as well as other trails at Graves Mountain have no trouble with OD endurance rides.  And I now suspect that is likely true, although the Graves Mountain trails are not typically as rocky as the OD trails and The Devil's Backbone may actually have been easier if it had some rocks on it.

I didn't take any pictures of the trail itself because honestly, it doesn't look like much.  It's just a slightly overgrown wide path through the woods that in a picture probably wouldn't look that intimidating or impressive.  I did, however, snap a picture of the view when we were probably 2/3 of the way up the trail:

You can probably get an idea of the steepness by looking at how the height of the trees rapidly changes
I also got a picture when we made it to the top of the mountain:

Yes, there is a picnic table at the top - no one knows how it got there though!
After we got to the top and rested in the shade for a few minutes, we mounted back up and had to turn around to head back the way we'd come.  Normally, The Devil's Backbone is on both sides of the mountain, but recent logging activity and wet weather had made one side of the mountain impassable.  At this point, I can say that going up the trail is actually easier in some ways than going down.  And the descent is what separates this trail from the mountain climb of the OD's 25-mile ride.  At the OD, there is a fair amount of climbing, although only parts of it are as steep as what we did at Graves Mountain.  Once you get to the top at the OD ride, though, there is a flat ridge and then several miles of logging roads to get down.  While those roads are steep for trotting work, they are wide and easily negotiated.  On the Devil's Backbone trail, there is no relief for the horse in terms of being incredibly careful about where he puts his feet.  Nimo, being a downhill horse, seemed to be happier going down, but I felt like I was in a pretty precarious situation the whole way down the mountain because there was no horse in front of me.  The steep trail and challenge in the footing (the ground was wet in some places with slippery Virginia clay and there were sections of the trail that were almost washed out, so there were deep grooves to struggle through) meant Nimo's whole front end was significantly lower than the rest of him and he often had his head down as well.

I admit to being glad that we'd done the trail and equally glad when we made it to the bottom.  We rested the horses in a small stream in the shade for a few minutes and then rode the several miles back to the trailers on what was basically rolling hills or even level terrain.  There was one section of trail that was above a road and it really was a narrow trail with the potential for a horse to slip off the trail and fall down the mountain onto the road, but I didn't even notice how precarious our position was until one of the other riders I was with pointed it out and we had a discussion about it.  I'm not sure if that is a sign of our experience riding in the mountains or just the fatigue of the climb taking its toll on my feeble brain.

There were three of us riding that day and we (and our horses) all made it back to the trailers in good shape after having done about 11 miles.  It was a really good conditioning ride and I admit that I had pushed Nimo a bit to ride in the heat and humidity without much time to get acclimated as part of my decision-making process for whether we would go to the OD 25-mile ride in June.  He did well and I was pleased with how he seemed to recover, but I knew I needed a different kind of test for the following weekend.

Conditioning at Sky Meadows
After checking Nimo's climbing skills in the heat, I wanted to check out his ability to handle climbing and trotting in the heat.  So the weekend after riding at Graves Mountain, I met two other riders at Sky Meadows State Park.  Sky Meadows also has a mountain to climb, but it is not nearly as difficult as anything at Graves Mountain.  It is a shorter climb and it has more variation in the grade, so there are opportunities for the horse to recover a bit rather than have to slog for miles straight up.  I'd ridden with these riders before and I knew they liked to go a bit faster than Nimo and I normally would go, but that was a good thing in this case.

The temperature was not as warm as it had been (I think low- to mid-80s), but the humidity was high.  We ended up doing about 11 miles again at a significantly faster pace up the mountain than we would normally do.  And we did the climb twice.  And Nimo was game and mostly kept up with the other two horses, but I could tell that his recovery at the end of the ride was not good enough.  His heart rate did come down, although a little slower than usual, but what did not come down was his respiration.  He maintained a breaths per minute rate of about 120 for at least 15 minutes and the rate was slow to decrease despite me continually sponging and scraping.  I don't know for sure, but I think that kind of inverted respiration to heart rate would have gotten us a metabolic pull at an endurance ride.  I will say that I was never concerned about him in any way.  Panting is a normal response for him to heat and humidity and heavy work and he was eating his post-ride mash and not displaying any other signs that there was a problem.  He continued to recover in the trailer and seemed completely normal by the time I got him back to the barn.  I did not notice anything post-ride that would lead to believe that I'd pushed him harder than I should have or that he was sore or having any difficulty at all.  Still...

Decision Time - The OD 25
We were now a week out from the OD ride, and I started monitoring the forecast like a crazy, obsessed person.  My mood was completely contingent on the expected high temperature for the ride and the forecast fluctuated from 79 to over 90 during that week.  Finally, two days before the ride, I had to make the call.  The expected high was now 91 degrees and high humidity was also expected.

I knew Nimo could do the trail, but what I didn't know was how he would handle the heat and humidity in terms of pulsing down.  We'd only had about 2 and a half weeks of hot, humid weather at that point and I was concerned that wasn't enough time to acclimate him to it.  When we'd done the first loop of the OD 25 trail the previous fall, it was actually quite humid despite cooler temps in the low-70s, so I figured there was at least a possibility he would be OK, particularly because we'd be able to get through the most challenging part of the trail earlier in the morning.  And I knew that he would not push himself beyond his limits, but as I mentioned above, I thought if he was panting too heavily coming into the vet check, it would automatically trigger a metabolic pull, and I just couldn't handle going through that.  I've written about some struggles I've had with even just overtime and rider option rides in terms of the way vets see Nimo, and I am really uncomfortable with the way that the vets have handled what they perceived as problems that weren't.  I understand that their job is very important and I also understand an overreaction is better than an underreaction, but I knew I would not be up to dealing with a vet insisting on treatment just because Nimo was breathing hard.  Of course, it is entirely possible that I've blown this whole issue out of proportion in my head and I am concerned for nothing.

Regardless, I decided to e-mail the ride secretary and pull Nimo from the ride.  It was one of the hardest things I've done.  I felt that aside from the heat, we were so ready for the ride.  And I knew that there was at least a possibility that we could get a completion.  But I reminded myself that my goal of doing the OD 100 is mine, not Nimo's.  He has been working his butt off for me this year in completely miserable weather, from the rain/sleet/snow at Foxcatcher to the rain and mud at Cheshire to the extreme climb at Graves in the heat and the extreme (for him anyway) speed at Sky Meadows in the humidity.  Also, I really don't handle heat that well anymore.  For both our sakes, I decided to skip the ride and let it be a mystery as to what would have happened if we'd gone.  I was pretty bummed about it because I had friends riding and I wanted to see them do well plus it felt like we'd done all this preparation for nothing.  But as I've posted before, even if we never do another endurance ride, the journey so far has been worth it in terms of all the positive changes we've made in our partnership together as well as Nimo's confidence.

What's Next?
Missing the OD means that our next endurance ride on the schedule will likely be Fort Valley in October.  There is a tiny possibility of doing Ride Between The Rivers in August (it's in WV and often a bit cooler there, making it more doable), but it is a tough time of year for me to get off of work, so I'll have to play it by ear.

Harness Work
In the meantime, I have been getting at least the occasional ground driving session in, and I'm hopeful that I'll have a harness that fits Nimo by the fall.  I ordered the reins in May and they arrived in early June, so I've been excited to try them out several times.  My next steps will be to order things like a neck collar, saddle (name given to what the riders among us might call the surcingle part of the harness), headstall, and then the rest of the harness parts.  I'm ordering things piecemeal in part to spread the cost out and also because I just want to take it slow and make sure each component fits really well as opposed to trying to fit a whole harness at once.

Nimo graduated from the arena to the parking lot in front of the barn
Solving Crime
We are also doing fun stuff like the Glenmore Hunt Murder Mystery ride last weekend.  I rode with a couple of friends as a team.  The way it worked was much like the board game Clue, if you've ever played that (I hadn't).  There were quite a few teams (maybe 20-30) of between 2-10 riders each and we rode around to different "fixtures" on a farm.  At each fixture, we could ask the volunteer a question that identified a potential murderer, weapon, and location.  The volunteer had three cards that listed who was not the murderer, what was not the weapon, and where the murder did not take place.  If our question identified any of the things on the volunteer's cards, he/she could tell us, and we could cross that item off of our list.  We couldn't stay at any one fixture and keep asking questions.  Instead, we had to go to at least one other fixture before coming back.  There were seven fixtures located at the potential murder locations around the farm and the trail that included all the fixtures was probably a couple of miles or so.  We had two hours to figure out who the murderer was, as well as guess the correct weapon and location.

The three of us gamely wandered from fixture to fixture with our team captain formulating our strategy for our guesses because the other two of us were "clueless" (pun absolutely intended).  As our time wound down, the pacing part of my brain kicked in, and my sole contribution to the effort was to make sure we got the maximum number of fixtures in while still making it back to the finish on time. I think I did pretty good.  We made it back at 3:27 when the cut-off was 3:30 and I think we stopped at three fixtures in the last 12 minutes, all while keeping mostly to a walk, with just a short trot to energize everyone:)

Our team did correctly guess the murderer, but we were wrong on the weapon and location.  Still it was kind of a unique way to get 7-8 miles of riding in on a Saturday afternoon, and it was a nice way to break up our conditioning rides.

Nimo thinks he has spotted a clue!  Photo by Glenmore Hunt.

Nimo is tired of standing around waiting for clues and would like to get to the end of the trail!  Photo by Glenmore Hunt.
Nimo's Future Home
And last, but not least, a tiny amount of work has taken place on our much-in-the-future horse farm.  My dad helped us use what is often called a brush hog (e.g. giant lawn mower that can take down shrubs and small trees) to mow the front acre of our property.  It was quite overgrown and I was anxious to uncover what was underneath as well as to start more actively formulating a pasture-development strategy.  We have been hampered by a very wet spring and things finally dried out enough during my parents' visit so that we could get the truck in without danger of getting it stuck.

The Billy Goat, as rented from Home Depot - it has lots of work to do!

My dad showing us how it's done!

We got almost everything mowed, but a sudden storm meant having to leave a little for the next time.
Our next task at the property is to get a shed built.  Back in February when we ordered it, it seemed that June would be a perfectly reasonable time to build it, but time moved more quickly than we expected.  So the shed kit was delivered about 10 days ago and is now in a pile at our house while we figure out where we are going to put it and what we are going to put it on (poured concrete foundation, wood foundation, concrete blocks, concrete footers, bare ground, gravel...the choices are endless!)  I've got ideas of course, so it is merely the "small" matter of implementation.  Hopefully, one way or the other, the thing is built by the end of August, though, because we have a whole bunch of crap to put in it!

So that's it.  The last six weeks have flown by, and I'm hoping things will settle down a bit, so I can start posting regularly again:)