Saturday, December 31, 2016

At Year's End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 30, 2016

Festival of Lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Protein Requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bananas for Electrolytes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Risk and Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

Conditioning at Pleasant Grove Park

A friend of mine recently told me about Pleasant Grove Park, near Palmyra, Virginia.  Pleasant Grove Park is an 800 acre park that includes an historic home/museum, dog park (and separate off-leash area), community garden, butterfly garden, soccer and baseball fields. community center, picnic area, and 18 miles of multi-use trails that horses can be on (although I believe at least some of the trails are prohibited to horses).

Much like many other smaller parks in Virginia that allow horseback riding, the information on the website is pretty stingy.  So, for those who might be interested, here's the scoop.  Horse trailer parking is located in a grassy lot to the left shortly before you get to the visitor's center.  So, if you use your GPS to get directions to the visitor center at 271 Pleasant Grove Drive, Palmyra, VA 22963, you will get to the right place.  (There is a separate trailhead with parking for cars only that is about a half mile or so before you get to the main park entrance and that is primarily for the dog park.)  The cost is $8 per person to ride (except if you live in Fluvanna County - then the cost is free as long as you get a pass) and you need to fill out a waiver and deposit cash/check at a little registration area that is in the middle of the parking area.  Trail maps are also available there or you can download one electronically here.

I had a chance to check out the trails earlier today and they were quite lovely, although a bit slick and muddy from the recent rain we've had in many areas.  The trails are almost exclusively in the woods with views like this:

The terrain varies from flat to gently rolling to steep hills, so it is a great place to condition.  Which is probably why we ran into six endurance riders who were also out on the trails today.  We kept our pace a bit slower due to the sometimes slick conditions on the trail.  I think Nimo would have been fine to trot most of the trails, but the two ladies I was with are less experienced at faster speeds and were reluctant to do too much trotting.  Although at one point, all three horses just got in a groove and trotted up a couple of pretty steep, slick hills without an issue.  Even without much trotting, though, the hill work gave us a nice workout and aside from the other six horses and 4 trail runners, we had the trails to ourselves.

In terms of trail markings, the trails are fairly well marked, but much like Virginia road signs, the trail markers did not immediately seem all that relevant because there were weird loops and lots of short segments of trail, each with a different name and arrows pointing in two different directions.  All those signs were complicated by some Heritage Trail signs that seemed kind of random.  So we mostly wandered and explored and then when we got hungry after about 2 hours on the trail, we asked a group of endurance riders which way was the fastest back to the trailer, which got us to a point in the trail that we recognized and were able to follow back.  Here's what our meanderings looked like:

We only did about 7.5-8 miles, but it was great to get out and see some new trails.  And now that we know how things work a bit better, I think we'll really be able to use this park as a great place to condition!