Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Price of Domestication

I had been planning on writing a couple more posts along the lines of, "This is how my week in riding went…" when something happened at the barn that made those posts seem sort of irrelevant.  It was Sunday, February 3.  I had had a lesson earlier in the day that went really well (I promise to give you the highlights soon because we totally rocked!), and I came back out to the barn late in the evening to give Nimo his second dinner (he's like the horse version of a hobbit!).

After I turned him out, I settled into the car.  My husband got a new car last year because the old one's transmission died a very permanent death, and it has an exciting gadget in it that allows me to plug in my iPhone and play my Napster playlist over the speakers.  (It also has Bluetooth capability, but my husband and I have agreed that we are too old now to take advantage of that technology, so we still plug things in with cords...)  I got my playlist going and was happily nodding my head along with ACDC's "TNT" when my headlights flashed on the thing that is probably among the top three Worst Things That a Horse Owner Can Ever See - a horse was down and there were three legs stuck through a fence.

I screeched to a halt, unplugged my phone and experienced that sense of time where everything seems to be moving too slowly.  I frantically scrolled through my contacts list for the barn owner's number while running to the fence.  I immediately knew which horse it was despite the mud and blanket he was wearing.  He was a lesson horse leased by the barn.  Sometimes he would be in the stall next to Nimo and he hated being in a stall.  He would bang on the door and use "the Eye" to convince someone to either turn him out or to give him more hay.  By all accounts, his ground manners left something to be desired, but he was a capable jumper.  And now he looked like he was dead.

While I waited for the phone to connect with the barn owner, I assessed the horse.  At first glance, I wasn't sure he was still alive.  The eye that I could see was mostly closed and lifeless.  One hoof was caught in the bottom wire that typically has electricity running through it and my first thought was to get that hoof off the wire.  I pinched the phone between my cheek and shoulder so I had both hands free and I moved his hoof off the wire.  I didn't get shocked so either the electricity was off or it had shorted out.  Both hind legs were up in the air - one above the first board from the ground of a three board fence and the other above the second board.  His body still felt warm and I eventually identified breathing.  He was still alive, but I didn't know for how long.

The barn owner answered her phone and I explained there was a horse stuck in the fence and that I couldn't help him by myself.  She said she would be there as soon as she could (she lives 10-15 minutes away).  After I disconnected, my brain tried to remember anything I'd read or heard about rescuing a horse stuck in a fence.  Nothing.  Not a goddamn thing.  I will forever hate my brain for that failure.

While I waited for the barn owner, I decided to grab some lead ropes from the barn.  I couldn't picture a rescue that wouldn't involve hooking ropes to his legs and turning him over.  He was so close to the fence that there was just no leverage to move him without flipping him over to the other side.  I prayed the horse wouldn't think I was abandoning him, and ran to the barn for ropes.

When I got back, nothing about the situation had changed and no bright ideas had occurred to me about the logistics of getting the horse untangled.  But as the seconds ticked by at what seemed like a million miles an hour and I envisioned the horse getting ever more closer to death, I realized I could call someone else.  The maintenance guy for the farm lived on the property and had given me his cell number (something he does not do for everyone) in case of emergency.  I figured if there was ever an emergency, this was it.  I called him and thankfully he picked up and agreed to come right away.  (I found out later that he had actually been in bed and had gotten up for something he forgot which happened to coincide with me calling.  If he'd been in bed, he would never have heard my call.  Sometimes the universe doesn't suck.)  His house is about a half mile away from the barn and the location of the horse and so I used the time waiting for him to ponder what to do.

The maintenance guy got there within a few minutes and the two of us messed around with the horse's feet and legs for a few minutes.  We moved them around to see if we could at least get them out of the fence, but they were too jammed up.  That left only one option.  We had to cut the fence.  Thankfully, this lovely man literally had a box full of all tools imaginable in his truck bed and he pulled out a little saw.  The horse had gotten stuck in the fence near the run in shed which had an electrical outlet that worked, and with an extension cord, the saw could reach the section of fence that needed to be cut.

The maintenance guy cut the bottom board (it was the white plastic kind of fencing) and pulled it out.  Now one of the horse's hind legs was free.  We waited a minute to see if he would struggle, but he stayed still.  We moved the legs again, but there was still not enough room to move him or flip him.  So the middle board was cut and pulled out.  Now we had some room.  In fact, I thought if the horse struggled a bit, he might be able to get himself up, although a big part of the problem was that his hind legs were on one side of a post and his front legs were on the other side.  Trying to get the post out would have been a nightmare, but I worried that we might have to try.  The horse showed no sign of wanted to move.  I imagine his hind legs were full of pins and needles from being wedged up against the fence.  And his eyes alternated between looking terrified and praying for death.

By then, the gentleman who rents the house next to the barn had noticed the commotion not far from his house and he had come out to help too.  The three of us were in the process of putting ropes over the horse's legs to turn him over when the barn owner and her husband pulled up.  The husband offered to bring one of the farm's tractors over, thinking we might need a lot of power to move the horse.  I said that I didn't think we should use one because it would probably terrify the horse and it might have too much power and injure the horse.  Everyone else agreed that we should try without the tractor first.  We finished getting the ropes around the horse's legs and I was preparing to help pull the front legs over when the barn owner's husband diplomatically told me that I was absolutely not allowed to help with that task.  We were all worried that the horse would start kicking or struggling and someone would get kicked, but so far, he had been very quiet.

I moved away to take over holding the other horse that was in the paddock.  She had mostly stayed out of the way, but as we got ready to move the horse from the fence, she'd become aggravatingly inquisitive and was definitely not helping.  I could only watch with hope as all three men first tried to pull the horse over (pulling horses is apparently still Man's Work in Virginia).  I could tell they were straining as hard as they could, but it wasn't enough.  The barn owner saw the difficulty they were having too so she rushed to grab the rope her husband was holding to help pull.  Her extra effort finally was enough to pull the horse over and he was clear of the fence!

He quickly got to his feet without hurting anyone and walked over a few steps to start eating hay as if nothing had happened and it was totally routine for a bunch of people using a saw and ropes to extract him from a fence.  The rest of us needed some time to decompress.

The barn owner asked me if I thought she should call the vet (she is a good barn owner but doesn't have a huge amount of knowledge about horses).  I told her we should wait for about 10 minutes to see how the horse moved and then she could decide if she wanted the vet out that night or the next day for a check up.  The horse did move a bit funky on one hind leg for a few minutes, but as the barn owner started walking him to the barn for a session in the wash stall to check for scrapes, he seemed to be doing better.  I recommended she have the vet out the next day just in case soreness or injuries became apparent overnight.  (The horse continued to be fine and was back to jumping in short order.)

I headed home shortly after that.  And I did not hook up my iPhone or listen to the radio.  I needed some quiet to mull over the event and try to get my adrenaline levels back down to somewhere resembling normal.  When I got home, my husband took one look at my face and immediately asked what happened.  I told him the story, hoping it would help settle my brain a little, but it really didn't.  Sleep was a long time coming that night.

You might be wondering why I was so wound up about a situation that turned out OK.  Well, there are a few of reasons.  One, that horse could have been any horse, including mine.  I think we've all heard stories about horses getting caught in fences and being injured.  The idea that there could be a point in time when Nimo might be caught in a fence and reach a point where he doesn't think he is going to untangle himself and quietly waits for death is about more than my heart can bear.

Two, based on the horse's manner when I found him, he had probably been stuck like that for awhile.  Maybe even before I got to the barn.  But I didn't see him when I drove up the driveway because I was busy looking for the renter's dog on the other side of the road.  The dog was a rescue, I think, and when she first came to live at the farm, she was really awful about cars.  I almost ran over her once when she darted in front of me.  She's gotten much better, but the renter leaves the porch light on when she's out so I know to look for her.  But if I had just been more observant when I got to the barn, I might have seen him sooner and saved him about a half hour of suffering.

Three, the situation has me thinking about the price horses pay for domestication.  If they lived in the wild, there would certainly still be bad situations.  Nature pulls no strings and seems as happy to feed her animals well as she does to kill them by the millions (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/feb/10/floods-fire-and-drought-australia-a-country-in-the-grip-of-extreme-weather-bingo).  I've read stories about wild animals, including horses, getting trapped because of flooding or quicksand or some other unforeseen problem.  But our domestication not only adds hazards to horse's lives like fences and small stalls, it may also rob them of the problem-solving skills to handle the hazards.

You may remember the study that looked at the way domesticated dogs and wolves handled a problem when their ability to access food was impeded.  The dogs would often not even try to solve the problem, simply looking to the nearest human for help immediately.  While the wolves never looked for help from people.  Wild animals learn to solve problems for themselves because they don't usually have the luxury of someone checking on them every day to make sure they are fed and safe.  That doesn't mean they can solve every problem nor does it mean they never get into trouble, but they do possess a certain aptitude for problem solving and independent thinking that I don't think is as common in domesticated animals.

You might point out that you know one or more horses who are perfectly capable of getting themselves out of trouble or solving problems, and I believe you.  I've seen Nimo actually put his foot through a fence and then take it back out all on his own.  He is also quite capable of climbing with all four legs into a water tank and getting back out again.  He can even dump said water tank and drag it all over his field (thankfully he does not do this anymore, but for many years, it was a common occurrence).  And there have been times out on the trail when his ability to work with me and think through the situation has helped us get out of trouble.  I've seen horses who have a good sense of where their feet are and negotiate difficult terrain or untangle themselves from ropes or wire.  I've also seen horses permanently damaged because they couldn't extricate themselves.  And then there are the escape artists, who can open latches and let themselves and their barn mates out to freedom.  Those same horses may become injured as a result of their efforts, though, which means their problem-solving skills may not be well-suited to their continued survival.

Anyway, my point isn't to insist that domesticated horses can't be problem solvers.  Nor is it to say we shouldn't put horses in fields with fences.  But I wonder if we shouldn't be doing more to mitigate the impact of domestication.  Breeders breed for things like temperament and athleticism and color and tiny noses.  But I'm not sure how much attention most of them pay to the ability of their breeding stock to solve problems or think for themselves (working ranch horses may be an exception).  And I don't know how many horse owners do either.  For as long as I have ever been involved with horses, I have heard people say over and over again that obedience is a good thing and disobedience is bad.  Yet, for a horse to always be obedient (i.e. doing what you say when you say it), I expect he gives up his ability to think for himself in many ways.

I don't know that I can ever really prepare Nimo for getting stuck in a fence or that I can train him to develop the skills to get himself unstuck.  But it occurs to me that I can support him when he does think for himself to encourage the development of more independent thought.  I can't take down his stall doors or give him the freedom to be wild.  But I can let him know that he can have his own thoughts.  That he can experiment with ways to do things without fear of punishment.  That not everything we do together must be my way or not done at all.  One thing I've always loved about endurance riding is that there is room in the sport for those horses who are good problem-solvers.  Not the kind of problem-solving a show jumper or eventer would do, but the kind of problem solving that comes about because a trail is blocked or the horse got caught in sticker brush or the rider is having a problem.  Or even the problem of how to move more efficiently to conserve energy.

That horse who got stuck in the fence may actually have been better off because he didn't keep struggling, but he sure spent a lot of time in a mental place that probably wasn't very much fun to be in while he waited.  Or he might have managed to extricate himself with a few serious scrapes and a broken fence if only he had struggled more.  I don't have the omniscience to know what could have happened, but I do know that the experience of helping him has given me some things to think about.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Week 3 Review

It's good that the first two weeks of the year went well, because this past week did not.  I started off the week with every intention of riding on Monday.  But, before I could do that, I had to repair at least one billet strap on my saddle.  You may remember that one broke a couple of weeks ago.  Well, after my ride on Sunday, my back-up billet strap had broken too.  That caused me quite a bit of concern. and I was debating whether repairing the strap myself was a good idea.  I thought that maybe the saddle was older than it looked and the thread was deteriorating.  In the end, I did decide to do the repair myself, and I will do a separate post about how I did it because I learned something pretty important that is worth sharing on its own.

But by the time I had fixed the billet strap and done all the other things I needed to do, I was wiped out.  Plus, I'd ridden four days in a row the previous week and there was still snow on the ground in the arena, so I told myself that it was OK to skip riding.  Even though I knew that riding during the rest of the week was looking iffy.

As it turned out, Gemma's lesson was cancelled on Wednesday because the footing was bad in the arena (which meant I didn't get to ride either).  We tried again on Thursday, but there had been no noticeable improvement in the footing, so it was a no go.

Finally, on Friday, I headed out to the barn in late afternoon with the intention of riding no matter what.  There was still maybe an inch or two of snow on the ground in the arena, but the temperature was warm enough that I wasn't worried about ice.  In fact, that was why I couldn't ride in the fields anymore.  Once again, they were a soggy mess, so it was either ride on the gravel driveway or see what we could accomplish in the arena.
The arena under snow
If you look closely you can see two deer on the right toward the bottom of the picture.  There were actually two herds of about 7-8 deer each and they took off running when Nimo and I came into the arena.
I started off the ride thinking we'd maybe just walk, but Nimo seemed comfortable with the footing and as far as I could tell, the sand was holding up well and Nimo's hooves were not punching through to the base of the arena.  So I thought we'd do some Pignot jog to warm up like we usually do.  And then I remembered why I'm supposed to be riding more frequently pretty quickly.  Nimo acted like it was the hardest thing ever (which maybe the snow had something to do with) and I admit it felt harder to me too.  We took several short rest breaks, but managed to get our 10 minutes in.

Then I contemplated cantering.  We've never cantered in snow.  In fact, I think this was probably the first time I'd ever schooled in the arena with snow.  In the past, I would just write off days where snow was on the ground, but Nimo has demonstrated that he can move in the snow quite well, and I didn't want too much down time after all our recent successes.  I figured the worst that could happen was that Nimo wouldn't want to canter when I asked and that would be that.

So I asked.  And Nimo cantered.  In fact, he cantered all the way around the arena just fine on his right lead.  So I asked him to canter left.  That direction gave him a bit more trouble.  Right now, he is definitely more confident and better-balanced to the right.  So we ended up doing two half laps around the arena to the left.  Yay for cantering in the snow!

My next task was to try to work on collected trot.  Again, with the snow on the ground, I wasn't sure how Nimo would handle it, but I asked anyway.  I did get a few strides of collected trot, but Nimo was generating so much amplitude!  And he seemed to want to move out a bit, so I let him, and I got the most glorious trot ever!  I can't say for sure, but I think it was pretty close to a medium trot.  And not just any medium trot - the medium trot that super impressive, expensive dressage horses do.  The kind with extra spring and smoothness.  It was so amazing to feel it!  It was incredibly easy to sit, and I could feel Nimo's back muscles moving under the saddle.  It was a very unique experience!

In Science of Motion, medium trot is considered a very advanced gait, so I knew that it was likely that Nimo had been able to do it largely because of the snow.  I think having it on the ground was causing him to lift his legs higher and generate more activity, but I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to feel it, even if I probably won't feel it again for awhile.

I didn't ride on Saturday because my mother-in-law had come for a visit, and I'd taken her and my daughter out for several hours of shopping.  While I do enjoy going to stores to actually look at things in person sometimes, I prefer online shopping because physical shopping exhausts me.  By the time we got back, I was ready to pass out for the day and I still had lots of things to do.  So riding got postponed until Sunday.

We were expecting some really cold temperatures (for us, anyway) to arrive by Sunday night.  We'd gotten a bunch of rain on Saturday night, which had melted most of the snow, but left the arena in a swamp-like state.  So I knew that once temperatures dropped below freezing, the arena would be an ice-skating rink, as would just about everything else.

I decided to head out to the barn on Sunday morning to get a ride in before the crazy wind that was blowing brought in the Arctic.  The arena was definitely still a swamp, but I rode in it anyway.  Thankfully, the footing was still holding up and as long as we didn't turn too sharply, Nimo was able to keep from slipping in it.  We went through basically the same routine as on Friday.  Walk a little.  Pignot jog for 10 minutes.  Work on canter.  See how collected trot is coming along.  Nimo wasn't able to reproduce the medium trot from Friday, but I did notice that his collected trot seemed to have a bit more amplitude (which is a good thing!).  I suspect he remembered the movement from Friday and was trying to repeat it.  But without the snow to help him, his back just wasn't strong enough yet to recreate the movement.

Then we headed out down the driveway so we could get a little time outside the arena and get Nimo's hooves on something that isn't a bog.  Plus, I want to ride around the farm a little more frequently so we can work on Nimo's anxiety.  We just slowly walked the half mile to the main road and then turned around.  Another boarder arrived just as we got to the road, so we chatted for a minute and then she drove toward the barn.  Well, Nimo decided he'd really like to follow her truck, so I thought I would try to turn that attitude into Pignot jog.  I told him he could trot, but he had to trot slowly.  We were mostly able to agree on a pace that made us both happy, which was great.  We didn't trot the whole way back to the barn because I wanted to make sure Nimo was not working too much to sweat, but it was a great start to my plans to use the road that runs through the farm as part of our conditioning work.  Before I can do that, though, I need to get Nimo feeling comfortable enough to focus on working instead of worrying.

So I only rode twice this week for a total of an hour and a half and five and a half miles.  But we cantered in the snow for the first time and we got to experience medium trot and even a little Pignot jog outside the arena.  I'll take those little victories and hope that I can use them to progress more during the next week:)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Week 2 Review

I started off the week by not riding:)  I'd ridden three days in a row the previous week and a total of five times, and I figured that Nimo might appreciate a day off.  Plus I knew I was going to be able to ride on Tuesday again this week, which is a day I normally can't ride.

I had arranged to share a babysitter with another boarder who has a young child while the two of us rode.  As a concept, this one seemed like a great idea.  Our two kids could play together and probably be happier than they would be on their own.  They would both be at the barn, so the time needed for the babysitter would not be nearly the same as if I had someone come to my house, which meant it would be cheaper.  I would have company in the arena which I normally don't have.  I'm not a huge fan of riding with other people in the arena, but the one where I board is pretty big and even my introverted self likes to see another human being from time to time:)

Everything started off great.  We all got out to the barn, including the babysitter, at just before 1 pm.  We introduced the kids to each other (both already knew the babysitter) and got them situated.  Then I retrieved Nimo from his paddock, brushed him, and put his tack on, before heading out to the arena for what I expected would be a great ride.

As it turned out, I probably should have communicated my expectations or at least asked about the expectations of the other mom before engaging in this endeavor.  I was surprised to see both kids with the babysitter come out to the arena and play in the arena while we rode.  I guess the other child was young enough that being separated from her mom for too long could create problems.  Had I known to expect that, I might have skipped this session.  You see, when my daughter is in earshot or within the range of my vision, I can't turn my mom brain off.  I am constantly checking to see if she is OK and listening for any sign of trouble.  I cannot ride effectively that way.  I did the best I could, but I found myself interacting with Gemma every time I passed her.  She and the other girl were playing in a huge puddle in the arena and clearly having a great time and I enjoyed watching.  But I was supposed to be riding!

The other issue was with the use of the arena.  When I got out to the arena, I was so excited to see that the entire jump course was set at Nimo height - that is, the lowest height the jumps could be set at.  I even said something to the other lady I was riding with about it being great that the jumps were so low because Nimo and I could try the course.  So it was with great surprise that I noticed not five minutes later that every single jump was being reset to a height of 3'6".  It was then I realized that of course the other lady would want to work on jumping her much more athletic horse, who wins at local shows frequently.  All riders that I know who jump only jump when they ride.  They never do flat work beyond warming up or to take a break from jumping.  It is a mystery to me.  Even if Nimo was a good jumper, I still can't imagine jumping him as often as what I see other riders do.  Especially because the other riders probably have some things they could be working on besides jumping to improve their jumping.  Like some circles or some shoulder-in, or even a balanced canter.

So as I watched my dream of being able to try a whole course of jumps with Nimo fade, it finally occurred to me that there was one jump that looked out of order, so to speak.  It didn't look like it was part of a line and was sort of sitting by itself.  I asked the lady I was riding with if I could have that one jump saved for Nimo.  She agreed (and even used it several times as a warm up jump).

Then began the torture of me trying to figure out how to ride with this lady.  She did the usual warm-up of walk for a few minutes, trot for a few minutes, and canter for a few minutes in each direction.  There is nothing wrong with that but because of all the jumps as well as some spots in the arena that didn't have good footing, it was hard to avoid her or stay out of her way, especially while she was zipping around the arena lap after lap in the canter.  What I decided to do was to canter Nimo behind her.  That way, I would know where she was and definitely not be in her way.  So as she passed us, I waited a couple of seconds to give her horse some space and then asked Nimo to canter.  Which he did.  And that worked great for about a half lap around the arena.  We were probably about 7-10 horse lengths behind the other horse when he threw a fit.  Apparently he was upset about Nimo cantering behind him.  I assumed that because of all the horse's show experience, he had done some kind of flat class with multiple riders who all go at the same gait around the arena for judging, but maybe not.  So that plan didn't work.  No cantering behind the other horse.

Then the other lady started jumping.  I've ridden with her once or twice before as well as other jumpers and in my experience, they will call out when they are going to start jumping so I know which line they are taking and can avoid that area.  Well, this time, the lady never called out her jumps, so I never knew where she was or what she was doing.  It was nerve wracking as I tried to stay out of her way, and I did cross in front of her once, although there was enough distance that it ended up not causing a problem.

In hindsight, all I needed to do was ask her to call out her jumps.  But I keep having this expectation that other people will pay attention to someone other than themselves and make adjustments in their behavior.  I don't know why I continue to think this.  It almost never happens.  And I'm certain that this other lady probably was irritated with me for something I was doing because I wasn't used to working with a jumping horse in the arena.  Give me dressage people any day - the rules are simple!  Pass left shoulder to left shoulder, give lateral movements the right of way, and if someone is cooling down or taking a break, move to a place in the arena that is out of the way of the other rider.

Once I realized how she was training, which was to divide up the jumps into three separate lines and work each line on its own, I also realized I could have asked if Nimo and I could work on a line other than the one she was doing.  (She also could have offered that, and I am making a mental note to myself that if I am ever working with someone less experienced than me in the arena, I will ask them what they want to work on, so that they don't get edged out of their ride because of me.)

Anyway, I spent most of my ride distracted by my daughter and trying to stay out of the other rider's way, so it really wasn't that effective.  My daughter did have a lot of fun, though, and I got about 10 minutes to myself at the end when the girls had gone back to the barn and the other rider had finished.  The babysitter didn't have a set time that she needed to leave and we were already into the second hour, so I took a few minutes to work on things we were having trouble with.  And all of a sudden, once all the distraction was gone, Nimo and I were able to get our canter transitions and collected trot without a problem.

So the lesson learned here is that if I ever do this again, where I bring my daughter and share a babysitter, I need to head out to the woods or down the road, so I can work on what we need to do.  Otherwise, I feel a little bitter about wasting my ride time.  And I don't want to feel that way at all.  The other lady I rode with is a mom of a young child.  She deserves time to ride and train her horse just like I do.  We simply have very different goals that don't work well together.  I chalked this ride up to a learning experience and looked forward to my next one.

I had planned my next ride for Wednesday, but Mother Nature had other plans.  It had been about 60 degrees on Tuesday, but by Wednesday afternoon, which was when Gemma's lesson was scheduled, the winds were gusting 40-50 mph and bringing Arctic air to the region.  The instructor asked if we could reschedule to the next day.  I agreed, although I knew the next day would be cold and windy too, but Gemma could ride earlier in the day instead of as it was getting dark.  I know from experience that the same weather conditions always feel better in the daytime than at night.

So I didn't ride on Wednesday and planned to ride Thursday instead.  My husband would also be home, so that was how I got the video of the Pignot jog that I posted last week.

Gemma gets ready for the cold and wind.  She got a helmet cover and winter riding breeches for Christmas and a pair of fingerless mittens that a friend of mine made which she put over her regular gloves.  Also the cat helped.
I'm not quite sure how she can see, but she's warm!
Gemma rode in the round pen for most of her lesson while I rode in the big arena.  Then she came out to the arena for the last few minutes of her lesson to work on steering across a bigger space and to practice going over some ground poles.  I was cooling down by that point and waited for her to finish so we could ride back to the barn together.  (I don't know why that makes me so happy, but I love getting the chance to ride with her even if it is just for a short distance.)

We survived the wind!  And if you look closely, you can see that our breeches match!
On Friday, the weather had improved, although only for a brief period because a significant winter snow was headed our way.  Because I didn't know how much snow we'd get or exactly when it would fall, I took the opportunity to head out to the barn as soon as my husband got home from work to get a ride in.  We worked for about an hour and finally got in a ride that went according to plan.  We worked on our Pignot jog.  We cantered.  We jumped.  We did figure-8's in collected trot.  Hallelujah!

For Saturday, I hemmed and hawed about whether I should haul out for a ride.  I really wanted to go back to the Shenandoah River State Park, but the forecast indicated that it would be snowing out there before 1 pm, and I didn't think I could get there and ride before 1 because my husband had a commitment in the morning that meant I couldn't leave the house until about 9.  Then I thought about riding at Phelp Wildlife Management Area, which is only about 30 minutes from the barn.  But conflict between the hunters and horseback riders there has led to horseback riders feeling unsafe riding there during any day except Sunday (when hunting is quite restricted).  I have typically had pretty positive experiences with the hunters I've seen (the only negative one was a lady who was actually hunting while riding), but I decided not to risk it.

I ended up heading out to the barn in late afternoon to get a ride in before dark in the arena.  It had already started snowing by then, but it wasn't the kind of snow accompanied by blizzard conditions, so riding it in was no big deal.  Here's a video from the start of our ride:


The footing in the arena was still quite good, with the top inch to inch and a half loose and the powdery snow on top.  But I didn't want Nimo to get too hot or sweaty because he would be turned out after our ride, so I took things a little easy with him and we kept our ride to half an hour.

The snow continued through Saturday night and early Sunday morning before tapering off for a few hours.  It started up again in the afternoon, but I decided to head out to the barn to ride anyway.  The snowfall was gentle and there was almost no wind, so I figured riding would not be unpleasant.  Aside from our street, which hadn't been plowed yet (and may never be), the roads out to the barn were in good shape.  I was confused at first when I got out there, though, because Nimo was in his paddock all by himself.  I had expected him to be in already when I got there because it was after 4 and the horses usually come in around 3 or 3:30.  And if he was out, then other horses should have been with him.  The confusion got cleared up when the barn owner arrived shortly after I did.  She was handling the chores herself so the staff didn't have to drive in the snow and was running a bit late.  I guess the horses had stayed in all day (except for Nimo and a couple of field-boarded horses) because of the snow.  (Why?  Why?  They all have blankets!  There is a nice run-in shed.  There are two round bales of hay.  I can't figure out why people think horses need to be inside when it snows out.  For a blizzard, maybe.  But not for just snow.)

I got Nimo his dinner and waited while he ate.  Then I tacked him up and headed out to explore the farm in the snow.  I didn't think riding in 5-6" of snow in the arena would be all that productive, and I thought it would be fun to ride off of the main road that runs through the farm.  We can ride around the perimeter of the hay fields, but it has been so wet this year and the farm soil drains so poorly that it's been inadvisable to ride around the fields.  I haven't even tried since April when it was already boggy.  But with the snow cover, I figured we wouldn't have to worry about mud (ha, ha, ha!).

One thing I didn't really factor in to my idea that this would be fun was that we haven't seen significant snow in this area for probably at least two years.  Last winter was a complete bust for snow and the one before that maybe had one good storm.  So Nimo was a tiny bit mentally unprepared for riding in a world of white.  (I just finished reading a Mark Rashid book which sheds some light on this issue and I'll try to write up my thoughts maybe next week.)  He was super anxious and full of adrenaline.  He kept trying to turn around and he was definitely on the edge of spooking and bolting.  Thankfully I have better skills now than I did a few years ago, and he is also more responsive to me than he used to be, so we muddled our way down the road and over to a field we've never ridden around before.  I had trouble keeping Nimo's walk from being rough and uncoordinated, but I reasoned that if we didn't at least try to work through his anxiety, it was never going to get any better.  So we trudged on through the snow and mud.  Yes, there was still mud.  The snow was still pretty wet and heavy, so Nimo was sinking through to the soil/mud in some cases, and we actually passed sections of the field where the snow had sort of melted and merged with water and mud  When we got to the end of the property, which has a beautiful pond, I stopped to take a picture.


I'm pretty sure I risked my life to get this picture because Nimo was so ready to head back to the barn that he couldn't stand still.  He was absolutely obnoxious.  So after I snapped the picture, we headed back to the field for some trot work.  I had really just wanted to walk because I thought the snow would add to the work and I didn't want him to get too hot.  But I know from experience that giving him some space to work out his adrenaline can really de-escalate the situation.  Nimo was torn when I told him he could trot.  He was still pretty spooky and convinced trolls were hiding in the woods next to the field, but he also wanted to move out.  In the end, he decided to trot.  I didn't hold out any hope that he would trot in a coordinated way.  We did it solely for energy expenditure.  And it was miserable.  I can't believe that we used to trot that way all the time.  After about two minutes, my thighs were burning with the effort and my lower back was killing me.  But we kept going and I tried to keep my body still with the tone I would normally use to ask for a more coordinated trot.  And finally, as we neared the end of the field perimeter, he let go of the isometric hold in his back and started trotting with more coordination.  It was the only thing that saved the ride from being a complete loss.  After that, I was able to get him to walk with more coordination too.  It would have been best if I could have continued working him in the field, but I was too worried about how to get him cooled down properly before turning him back out.  

I stayed with him at the barn for about an hour after the ride to make sure he was thoroughly cooled down and well-fed before turning him back out with a couple of flakes in the run-in shed so he could stay under cover if he wanted to.  I don't blanket Nimo at all unless he is clipped because he does very well with his own hair as long as I don't mess up his system:)  

Because the snow had continued to fall while I was at the barn, the roads had deteriorated a little and I decided to put the truck in 4-wheel drive for the trip home.  Luckily, aside from one very slow-moving car that I was stuck behind for a few miles, the trip home was uneventful and I didn't see too many vehicles out and about.  The condition of the roads was honestly no worse than what I grew up seeing in North Dakota on a daily basis for much of the winter, but out here, drivers are spectacularly unprepared to deal with any road conditions that aren't perfect.  I know that the rest of the country jokes about the school and government closures that are so common out here for seemingly small amounts of snow (I do too sometimes!), but it is one thing to have to deal with poor road conditions when there are 16,000 people that live in your town and the interstate has maybe 20 cars an hour go through and it is another to deal with poor road conditions when there are hundreds of thousands of people living in the area and people travel on major roads at a rate of hundreds or even thousands per hour.  And we don't get snow often enough to have the kind of infrastructure and capacity that cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York have.  So it really is better if everyone stays home for a day or two until plows can get the roads in better shape.

And that wraps up week number 2 for this year.  I managed to ride 5 times for about 14 miles, and I put in about 3 and a half hours in the saddle.  I did not really meet my goals for every ride because of weather conditions or riding with someone else, but I think I learned a few things about how I can be more strategic about keeping on track.  We'll see how the next week goes.  We will likely have snow on the ground for at least a few days and there is the potential for a significant blizzard over the next weekend that may impact us (or it will just be really cold and dry).  But I'm committed to continuing to ride!

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Pignot Jog

At long last, the time has come for me to post a video of Nimo and I working on Pignot jog.  I've written about it several times before, but without a video of it, I think it can probably be hard to visualize.  In fact, it looks nothing like what I imagined when I first read about it.

For those unfamiliar with Pignot jog (which is probably a lot of people because the only place I've ever heard about it is through my Science of Motion work), it is named that because Jean Luc Cornille learned about it from a fellow Cadre Noir member named Rene Pignot.  My introduction to the concept came from this article.  If you are confused after you read the article, I don't think you are alone.  It took me over 2 and a half years to learn how to achieve it with Nimo with any sort of regularity.  There are other articles where Cornille references the Pignot jog as well, but I don't know that they are especially illuminating if you don't understand what he's talking about.

Here is my understanding of it at this point in time.  The Pignot jog is a trot that is done at the horse's natural cadence.  What is my horse's natural cadence, you ask?  Cornille offers this explanation:
The concept of the horse natural cadence was explained seven years later. In 1975, Pennycuick observed that African migrating animals that were traveling long distances were always and within each gaits, sustaining the same range of speed. The biologist studied the observation for the perspective of oxygen intake. His findings suggested that animals were sustaining an energetically optimum speed. Hayt and Taylor extended the study to horses. They concluded that, “there was a speed where the amount of oxygen used to move a given distance, (rate of oxygen consumption divided by speed,) reached a minimum value.” (Hayt and Richard Taylor, 1975)  The two scientists concluded that the horse selected naturally a speed within each gait around the energetically optimal speed.  Earlier on, Milton Hildebrand studied the phenomenon from the perspective of muscle fatigue. "There is more energy in the cycling leg as a mechanical system when a horse walks fast than when it trots at the same speed.” (Hildebrand, 1987)  Basically Pignot observed that greater efficacy was achieved through working the horse at its natural cadence.  (source:http://www.scienceofmotion.com/documents/quolibet_z_part_2.html)
When I first read this article about three years ago, I thought I'd hit the jackpot for endurance riding.  I mean, finding a way for Nimo to travel at some kind of optimum speed would mean much more productive conditioning and much less risk of metabolic problems at competitions.  Why wasn't this concept blasted on the first page of every endurance conditioning book?  Why had I never heard anyone talk about it before?  This is literally the best idea ever, right?

One connection that I thought I made was that I'd read more than once that experienced endurance horses seemed to settle in at about a 9-ish mph trot.  I assumed this must be a horse's natural cadence.  This pace must be how horses get to be high mileage horses.  And then I made another leap in logic.  With enough conditioning miles, horses must figure out their natural cadence on their own.  I mean, the African migrating animals that were studied didn't have anyone to tell them what their natural cadence was.  They figured it out on their own.  So Nimo should be able to figure it out on his own too.  And I spent a lot of unproductive time pursuing that line of thought.  If I just rode Nimo enough and if I just gave him enough freedom to choose and experiment, he would figure it out.

Well, by July of 2018, I realized that line of thought was not working.  Nimo wasn't figuring it out on his own.  So I talked to my instructor about it and asked her why the pace Nimo was choosing for himself out on the trail wasn't working.  (The pace he was choosing involved him using an isometric hold, which is very bad for horses and is probably one factor in lameness issues.)  Plus the limited work that we'd done on Pignot jog in our lessons told me that there was a big difference between the 10-12 mph trot Nimo would use out on the trail and the painfully slow trot we were doing in the arena.  I will also admit that I couldn't figure out what value that painfully slow trot had.  After spending so many years zooming around on the trails, I could not imagine riding that slowly on purpose.  This was endurance not a western pleasure class!

My instructor explained that horses are often not capable of identifying their natural cadence on their own (although I still hold the opinion that some of those high mileage endurance horses do exactly that).  For one thing, the African migrating animals from the study were not ridden.  They grew up wild and learned from their mothers and their herd mates how to move.  Nimo has never been wild.  And because he was a stallion prospect when I bought him, he'd been kept isolated from other horses from after the time he was weaned.  And even if he'd been with other horses, unless they had lived in a vast tract of land requiring miles of travel every day, he still probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to learn his optimum pace.

So it was up to me to help him.  And up to that point, I'd been doing an awful job of it.  So I dedicated myself to figuring it out.  The most challenging part of it was overcoming my own assumptions.  I could not wrap my head around the idea that Nimo's natural cadence could be that pokey trot we were doing in my lessons.  He's a FRIESIAN!!!!  Friesians are bred to trot.  Nimo has this spectacular, ground-covering trot, and giving it up was so very hard for me to do.  (Not to mention that Nimo was confused after over a decade of me telling him that he needed to move out and use his big trot.)

It took an incredible amount of mental effort for me as well as some patience with Nimo, but we kept at it.  Nimo mostly gave me a few steps and then he'd stop just as he got to the point of achieving the Pignot jog.  It was frustrating as hell.  But we kept going.  And finally, at one of my lessons (I think it was the one right before Christmas), something clicked.  We spent the better part of the lesson focused on Pignot jog.  We jogged and jogged and jogged.  We did a lot of figure-8s because the change of direction was what was giving Nimo a hard time (and still does - you'll see in the video), but we were able to actually sustain the pace for multiple circles and even minutes at a time.

One other thing that I had assumed about Pignot jog is that it would be easy to ride.  It turns out that it was exhausting at first.  I would be out of breath in short order and so would Nimo.  How could something this difficult be an optimal pace for long distances????  But I decided to trust the process instead of second guess and question everything all the time because all my second guessing and questioning had gotten me exactly nowhere on this particular issue.

So we kept working on it.  As you know, using Pignot jog is now a specific goal of mine for every ride.  Some days go better than others, but I now feel much more comfortable recognizing it and Nimo feels much more comfortable doing it.  I wouldn't say that it is easy yet, but I'm no longer gasping for air after one minute of it.  Although if I was in danger of getting hypothermia while riding, Pignot jog would quickly warm me up!

The stars finally, sort of, aligned yesterday so I could get a video for you of what we are working on.  My husband and I were both off of work on the same day, which doesn't happen very often, and we both had time to go to the barn.  Actually, the conversation on Wednesday went something like this:

My husband:  Since we're both off of work tomorrow, do you want to try to do something as a family?

Me:  Sure!  What are you thinking?

Husband:  Ummm...what about going out to lunch?

Me:  Sounds great!  Also, Gemma's lesson got rescheduled to tomorrow because of the awful wind today.  Maybe we could all go to the barn for her lesson and stop for lunch on the way back?

Husband (totally unsuspecting):  Yeah, let's do that.

Me:  And maybe while we're there, I could hop on Nimo and you could do a quick video for me?

Husband (still clueless):  Sure - no problem.

As a note, the temperature on Tuesday this week was about 60.  By Wednesday night, the temperature had fallen to the mid-20s as winter finally arrived in Virginia, courtesy of North Dakota-esque winds that were gusting up to 50 mph and apparently bringing cold air from the icy reaches of hell.  Hence the rescheduling of Gemma's lesson.

On Thursday, the situation was only mildly improved.  I think it was about 35 degrees with winds gusting up to 35 mph.  Even in his winter parka, my husband quickly realized that agreeing to accompany me to the barn to shoot even a short video had been a huge mistake.  But he persevered anyway, with the idea that he would get a good lunch out of the deal.

And that was how I ended up heading out to the arena at about noon with Nimo.  Because I could tell my husband was struggling with the weather (mostly because he hunkered down behind one of the small sheds next to the arena to get out of the wind), I tried to keep things short.  So we didn't warm up and work on things quite like we normally do, but I think the video is pretty representative of the work that we do at the beginning of our rides.


This video is the first time I've actually been able to see us doing Pignot jog, and it was quite enlightening.  For one thing, it doesn't look as painfully slow as it feels.  For another thing, I think I should have encouraged Nimo to lengthen his neck just a bit.  But I was excited to see that my lower legs are pretty steady, and that I really nailed a technique that my instructor just taught me a few weeks ago.  You saw in the video where Nimo slows to a walk a couple of times as we are changing direction.  Instead of using my legs to cue him to trot again, which can shift my balance and disrupt our harmony, so to speak, my instructor recommended that I just keep posting through his walk.  I thought she was crazy.  I mean, who posts at the walk?  How do you even do that?  And, by the way, I have no coordination or rhythm.  But I've been practicing and you can see how effective it is at getting Nimo back to trotting.  I just keep doing what I've been doing, and let Nimo follow me instead of me following his movement.  It's actually pretty cool.

So now you know what I've been talking about, and I hope you enjoyed the chance to see what we've been working on:)  Time will tell if the Pignot jog helps us meet our conditioning goals, but I'm glad that I finally have a good enough grasp of it that I can use it.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Week 1 Review

I thought I'd start the year off by reviewing how we did this week in terms of my goals.  It has occurred to me that it would be great if I could do this every week, but we'll see...

Anyway, I posted my goals for 2019 several days ago, and the first thing I did for this month was set up my monthly goals to help keep me on track.  I should say that I normally don't set monthly goals; in fact, I'm trying to remember if I've ever set formal monthly goals before, and I'm thinking that I haven't.  I hate goal-setting in principle because I feel like it forces me into a linear pattern when I typically do best if left to my own chaotic devices.  But, I'm making an exception for this year because I have some specific things I want to accomplish, and if I'm really honest with myself, these specific things are not going to get accomplished if I don't set some sort of benchmarks.  Otherwise, I will procrastinate and then one of two things will happen:  I will either give up on the goal and decide to move it to next year or I will try to rush the process, which isn't going to do Nimo any good and it will stress me out.

For January, here are the goals that I set for myself (in no particular order):
  • Pignot jog for one mile during every ride.  I am hoping to get a video to you of Nimo and I doing Pignot jog if I can ever time a ride during the day when it isn't raining and someone is available to record it.  A full explanation might be better left to when you can watch it, but I think that this gait, which is essentially a slow jog with good suspension/activity, will help Nimo become fitter.
  • Canter one lap around the arena in each direction during all arena rides.  This goal is designed to help Nimo get to the point where he can canter a mile.  I think I mentioned that I roughly calculated that 7 laps around the arena is about a mile.  So I'm hoping to gradually increase the distance that I ask him to canter, until voila! we have a canter for a mile.  I will also be trying to work canter into my trail rides, but footing is so iffy right now that I don't think setting a specific goal will be useful.  I'll just look for opportunities and if I find one, I'll ask Nimo to canter, but I'm not going to stress about it until we get some drier weather.
  • Canter over a single crossrail each time we ride in the arena.  Much like my previous goal, this one is designed to help Nimo develop the comfort and ability to canter over a two-foot jump eventually.  We're starting at a height that pushes him just a little and I'm going to ask him to go over that jump several times during each ride, so he learns that it is no big deal.
  • Start doing figures in collected trot.  This goal is designed to help us get really comfortable in collected trot.  Until recently, we could only collect for a few strides, usually on a circle.  But we are both feeling so much more comfortable with the gait now, and I want to start using it more frequently.  To avoid boredom and also to strengthen Nimo, I want to start doing things like figure-8's, serpentines, spiral-in and-out, and maybe even random patterns.
  • Weekly trail rides in the 4-8 mile distance.  This goal is meant to help us with our endurance conditioning.  I'm keeping the distance pretty manageable this month because who knows what the weather will be, and I can get a 4-mile distance done pretty easily at my own barn just by riding on the road that runs through the property.  I'm also keeping the distance shorter because we are supposed to be working on correct movement and getting that down before increasing our distance and speed.
  • Ride at least three times a week.  I have found through trial and error that if I don't ride at least three times a week, Nimo doesn't make progress.  In fact, if I ride just once a week for, say two weeks in a row, Nimo will regress (ask me how I know that...).  While the weather may be a factor for the next couple of months, I need to have this commitment to myself to keep motivated.
  • Establish a base line pace.  This goal is needed for me to figure out how to structure our conditioning rides.  I've been intentionally avoiding any use of my GPS apps or my Garmin watch for months, so I wouldn't be discouraged by our slow pace and low mileage rides.  But, we are at a point now where I need to know how fast Nimo is trotting (I may not be able to bear knowing our walking pace) so I can figure out what we need to do to get to a good pace.
All right, so now that you know my goals for January, let me share how we did during the first week.  Note that I track my weeks Monday - Sunday because I found that if I track Sunday - Saturday, my weekly mileages are all over the place because sometimes I do a longer ride on Saturday and sometimes on Sunday.  I get much more consistent weekly totals if I track Monday - Sunday.

The week started on Monday, December 31.  It rained all day.  By the time I got out to the barn in the evening, the rain had turned into mist, but the arena was still pretty soupy from all the rain.  I opted to skip riding and reminded myself that failing to ride on Monday did not destine me for failure for the whole year.

On Tuesday, I went out to the barn in the morning to ride because we had a New Year's party to go to in the afternoon.  Nothing exhausts me more than a party (I am a confirmed introvert), and I knew I'd never have the energy to ride after the party.  The arena still looked pretty wet and a couple of the staff were also in it with the ATV setting up a new jump course, so I decided riding on the gravel road that spans the length of the farm would be a better choice.  The footing would be solid and I could even wash all the mud off of Nimo's legs without having to immediately put him back out in it and do a much overdue check for scratches.  (Also it was 60 degrees outside so using the hose while it was warm seemed like a good thing to do.)  Nimo isn't particularly prone to scratches in spite of his feathers, but I figured if he was going to have a problem, it might well be after the wettest year in recorded history.  As it turned out, though, his legs were in good shape, and we headed off down the road.

The barn is situated about a half mile in from the main road and the gravel driveway continues on for about another mile past the barn to the edge of the property.  I figured I would ride down the driveway to the entrance and back to get a mile and then ride down the other section of road and back to get in another couple of miles for a total of three miles.  That is not a long distance, of course, but I wanted to work on having Nimo move the same way on the road that he does in the arena, e.g. Pignot jog, collected trot, medium and collected walk, maybe even a few canter strides.  I expected to have some difficulty because Nimo had really been wanting to move out on the trail rides we've done recently and couldn't because of the footing, so I thought he might want to cover ground too quickly without paying attention to his balance.  This is a ride that I have needed to do for months and have procrastinated about, but I guess there is no time like the start of a New Year to check things off the to-do list!

The first half mile down the road went a lot like this:

Nimo:  I don't want to go down this road.

Me:  Sigh.  It's fine.  It's easy.  Why don't you want to go?

Nimo:  It's scary.  It doesn't look familiar.

Me:  We've ridden down this road dozens of times.  We drive down it every time we go some place.

Nimo:  I hate it.  Oh my God!  There is a fox!  It's RUNNING!  Like something is chasing it!  A bad something!  A HORSE-EATING SOMETHING!!!!  OMG!!!!  I'M GOING TO DIE!!!

Me:  Look, there is nothing chasing the fox.  He is just late to a fox meeting on who hunts where.

Nimo:  That is not a thing.  You made that up.

Me:  Maybe.  But there is no denying that there is nothing chasing the fox.

Nimo:  I still hate this road.

Me:  Look, we're almost to the end.  Just get to the pavement and we can turn around.

Nimo:  Fine.  But I want you to know that I am only doing this because I expect something good to eat soon.

Walking back on the road toward the barn went much better.  I was able to get Nimo to use a good pace and walk with his back lifted.  Then we ran into another boarder who was planning to handwalk her recovering horse down the driveway and back.  I enjoy chatting with her, so I asked if she wanted company and she said yes.  We walked with her back down the driveway.  Nimo was much more confident with another horse and we helped the other horse to keep walking steadily instead of constantly trying to snag a mouthful of grass.  Nimo's pace was good and it was a fairly easy time.

Then, we left the other boarder at the barn and headed down the road in the opposite direction to see if we could get another couple of miles in.  Nimo is always terribly spooky on this section of road.  I've never figured out why, but it's kind of stressful, honestly, which is why I don't do it as often as I should.  Also the road was under construction much of the past year and not passable for huge stretches of time.  One section was still a muddy mess, but we slogged through it.

These two miles were not fun for either Nimo or me.  We did do some trotting, but Nimo just could not grasp that he needed to slow down.  He had so much pent up energy.  I ended up using a lot more contact on the bit than I wanted to, and I think both of us were happy when the ride was over.  So, we are going to have to ride on this road over and over and over again while I try to explain what I'm looking for to Nimo.  I know that once he understands, he is going to be really solid, but it's going to take some time and effort to get to that point.  I also mentally made plans to get him up on a mountain as soon as possible so that he could burn off some energy on the trail.  The road through the farm where I board is virtually level, so it doesn't require a lot of energy to ride it.

I did track our mileage for the ride and we rode a whopping 3.78 miles in 75 minutes.  Not a great pace, but not bad considering we did a lot of walking really slowly.

Screenshot of the EquiTrack app that I used to track the ride

Not an exciting ride, but I'm thankful to have the option.
On Wednesday, we were back in the arena for a short ride while my daughter rode in her lesson.  We have exactly 30 minutes, so I spent the time working on Pignot jog, a little canter (it was awful - see my previous statement about how Nimo regresses when he isn't ridden at least three times a week). and some lateral work at the walk.  I also tracked the mileage and pace so I could get an idea of where we were at.  I'm not sure how accurate the app is in an arena, but I tried to do a lot of laps around the arena and big circles to give the app something easier to track than small circles.  I ended up with 1.93 miles and average speed of 4.4 mph.  Which kind of impressed me.  I mean, that is not far from 5 mph, which is totally respectable.  So, I filed that information away for future reference.

EquiTrack screenshot of the ride
I skipped riding on Thursday for no other reason than that I was planning to ride on Friday during the day.  My husband would be off that day and I was still furloughed from my job with the Federal government, so I wanted to take advantage of being able to ride during the day.  I originally planned to go out in the morning, but stuff happened, and by the time I was ready to go, it was already late morning, and I figured it would be annoying to go out and ride and then have to go back out a couple of hours later to do my evening care for Nimo.  So I waited until about 2:30 to head out, hoping that I would get out to the barn in time to ride ahead of the next round of rain that was coming.  I wore my heavy-duty, waterproof parka just in case, though, because I intended to ride regardless of the weather.  

It did sprinkle a bit before we rode, but I faced an unexpected challenge when I got Nimo from the field.
I think the photo is blurry because my phone could not focus due to all the mud!
The other side was just as bad.

When I walked him through the barn from the field, it felt like there were a dozen people who just stopped what they were doing and looked on silently in horror as I walked him by (everyone else typically keeps sheets or blankets on their horses, so they don't have to deal with this kind of situation and I'm pretty sure some of them were judging me).  I extracted as much mud off of Nimo as I could, but a lot of it was still wet, and I literally combed wet gobs of it off of his spine and the top of his hindquarters.  But after doing what I could, I put the dirtiest saddle pad I could find on him so as not to contaminate anything reasonably clean, and did my walk of shame out to the arena.

The footing in the arena wasn't too bad in most places and Nimo felt more like his better-trained self.  I planned to ride for a full hour so we could work on all the things we needed to do.  I started off with about 8 minutes of walking to get Nimo oriented to the new jump course in the daylight (we'd ridden at night during our previous ride), and then we did 10 minutes of Pignot jog.  One thing I'd forgotten to do during my previous ride was to get an estimate of how fast Nimo's Pignot jog is.  I estimated it was about 7 mph out on the trail, but in the arena, it is slower, so I wanted to get an idea of how much slower, so I could use a timer to estimate how long it would take us to go a mile.  After 10 minutes of jogging, I checked the top speed on my tracking app.  It was 7 mph.  I decided his true jog speed in the arena is probably more like 6 mph because he tends to start a bit fast and slow down as we work on the gait.  That means 10 minutes of jogging should get us a mile in distance.

Then we turned our attention to the canter.  Nimo had struggled so much during our previous ride, I wasn't sure what I'd get, but we wouldn't get any better without working on it.  So, we worked on our transitions and I played around with walk-to-canter and trot-to-canter to see which was easier for him.  He quickly figured out what we were doing and tried to help.  It continues to amaze me that he seems to want to work on canter.  It is so hard for him, but he will give me dozens of transitions without me even asking as we try to find the right balance.  After bumbling more transitions than I care to remember, he finally got a nice, forward canter, and happily sailed around the arena for more than a lap before slowing down.  We changed direction and went through the same bumbling experiments and eventually got a full lap of canter in that direction too.  (Note to self:  It is not worth slacking on riding when the result is losing all our work on the canter!)

We worked on collected trot next.  Our collected trot outside of our lessons is still just shy of the true lightness I'm looking for, but it comes pretty easily now and Nimo can maintain it for much longer.  So I accepted what he's comfortable doing and asked for a few strides of increased lightness here and there, which he gave me.  We practiced circles and random patterns around the jump course.

And then it was time to work on that jump.  Nimo seems to prefer the one that has a more "natural" look to it.  The standards and rails are unpainted wood, and he takes less time to accept it than the ones that are painted white or red, which are my other choices.  I adjusted it before our ride, so it was ready when we got to the point of working on it, but I hadn't paid attention to the way it was situated in the arena with respect to the other jumps and the perimeter.  I later realized that the angle wasn't that great, especially because another boarder was lunging her almost out-of-control horse nearby, but I felt confident in my ability to steer Nimo now, and I decided to try the jump anyway.  We trotted over it a couple of times and Nimo was actually jumping over it instead of stumbling over it with a trot.  I asked for canter and we sort of bungled it, but technically we did canter over it with an odd placement of Nimo's legs - I'm still trying to work it out in my head.  And then all that craziness from the other horse transferred to Nimo and he did a little bit of airs above the ground out of excitement from the cantering, jumping, and seeing the other horse doing her own impression of the Spanish Riding School horses.  I am proud to say that I didn't even lose a stirrup.  Yay for improved balance!

Nimo's preferred jump
I decided our jumping was over for the day, though, and we went back to working on mostly collected trot and half-pass and shoulder-in at the walk.  We finished up our hour, and I think it is fair to say that both Nimo and I were pretty tired.  Nimo was sweaty too, but the temperature was near 50, so I wasn't worried about him getting chilled.

We sort of oozed our way back to the barn and I got Nimo untacked, brushed, and set up with his post-ride snack while I forced my arms to pick up a saddle that seemed remarkably heavy and my legs to walk the never-ending distance to my tack locker.  I can't remember ever being quite that tired after an arena ride before, and I think it was a good thing.  We worked hard and used our bodies and did all the things.

EquiTrack screen from our ride - look at our top speed of almost 14 mph!  Yay for cantering!
On Saturday, it rained most of the day.  But around 3 pm, the rain stopped and the sun came out and the temperature warmed up to almost 60.  While the almost constant cloudiness that has plagued this region for days and days and days (something like 10 or 11 days in a row, I think) hasn't bothered me like I know it does for some people, I was happy to see the sun.  I decided to head out to the barn a little early to take advantage of the daylight and get a quick ride in.

I knew I would be riding on Sunday too, and normally I would not have bothered with a ride on Saturday, given all the riding we've gotten in this week, but I honestly didn't feel like doing anything else.  And I've always said that Nimo tends to do better the more I ride him.  Plus it was almost 60 degrees in January for the second time in a week.  I couldn't pass that up!

So I went out to the barn and Nimo was already in for dinner (the horses come in early enough so that the barn staff can typically be done by 5, which is fairly common in this area).  While he finished eating, I got my tack and brushes out and started brushing out the additional mud that he had applied to his body.  I had recently read this article about grooming, and I was curious to use the information to pay more attention to Nimo while I groomed him.  I tend to start grooming at the shoulder area rather than the neck, although not always.  But particularly when Nimo is eating, I always feel like I should start farther back to stay away from bothering his head while he eats.  

That's what I did on this day.  I used a metal curry comb, which is what I always use during the winter.  Nothing works better to get the mud off of his coat and he seems to enjoy it, even on his legs.  I had only been brushing for probably 30 seconds, when he stopped eating and became very still.  I continued brushing and he started curling his lip.  A lot.  Over and over and over.  Then he moved away from his food and stood in the middle of the stall.  I kept brushing him and he kept curling his lip.  I admit to being a little concerned.  I've never seen him curl his lip more than once or twice when he smells something weird.  Smelling something weird didn't seem to fit the context of the situation, but I couldn't think of why else he would be curling his lip.  Yet it almost looked like a release of tension, sort of like yawning or licking or chewing.  His body was relaxed and by the time it occurred to me to take a video, I filmed him for 30 seconds standing completely still and looking like he was half asleep.  But when I started brushing again, he started the lip curling behavior again, although not to the same degree as before.  Here's what it looked like:


I wasn't sure I should ride without knowing what was going on, but I finally decided to do a short, slower ride to see if I noticed any issues with his movement.  I saddled and bridled him without incident and he seemed willing to walk out of his stall and to the arena.  I got on and we did our usual warm up of walking around the arena for a couple of laps to check out the sights and sounds and smells.  Then I asked for some Pignot jog, which he did well.  Then I asked for canter.  He felt a little slow, but still in balance.  Then we did some lateral work at the walk and some random patterns around the arena and called it good. 

Here are the stats from our ride.
When we got back to the barn, I untacked him and he started munching on his alfalfa hay (I keep a bale or two in front of his stall for just that reason).  Then I brushed him off again - no lip curling.  I decided to hang out with him while he ate hay for about half an hour to observe him (I admit colic was on my mind, even though I didn't have any real reason to suspect it but I worry about it anyway).  He seemed happy eating, so after about a half hour, I put him back in his stall to finish his dinner, which he did.  I added a little more because I typically give him additional feed after riding and he ate all of that too.  Then I took him out to graze for probably 15-20 minutes and he continued to eat and act normally.  Finally, I turned him out with a flake of hay in the run-in shed (there are also round bales in the field, but I always feel like the quality isn't as good and the run-in shed is dry, so I like to keep him standing on dry ground for a little longer before he goes back out in the muck to eat).

All-in-all, I probably watched him eat various substances for over an hour with no abnormal behavior.  Then I headed home and decided to spend some quality time with Google and a friend of mine to see if I could figure out what happened.  My friend thought he must have smelled something funny his food, but that didn't make sense because if he had, why did he finish eating it without curling his lip?  And would that really have made him not want to finish eating it and relax enough to start falling asleep?  Then I made the mistake of consulting Google, and I found a lot of articles and forum posts that said lip curling could be a sign of pain and could often be one of the symptoms of colic.

But that didn't make sense to me.  He didn't look like he was in pain.  He looked relaxed and much like how he does when I do body work on him.  I finally thought to search the SOM-IHTC forum and found one post from a lady who said her horse curled his lip a lot when she groomed his shoulders.  She didn't seem to think of it as a way of expressing discomfort and no one else commenting on the post did either.  I finally decided to let it go for the night and just watch Nimo more carefully in the future for signs of discomfort or issues with eating.

On Sunday, I headed out to the barn at around 8:30 to pick Nimo up.  I had originally scheduled a lesson, but had decided to cancel it due to the continued government shutdown.  Without knowing when or how much I will eventually be paid, I figured reducing my expenses seemed like a good idea.  I could ride at the Shenandoah River State Park (SRSP) for $8 instead of the $100 I would have spent on my lesson, and it was closer, so I'd be saving time and gas.  A friend of mine had invited me to ride with another lady at Whitney State Forest again, but we'd been there a lot lately and I knew Nimo was anxious to move out more on the trails, which we couldn't do at Whitney.  Plus, I really need to start riding by myself a little more often so I can focus on the work we need to do.

The SRSP (or Andy Guest as it is known around here) is my favorite trail riding spot and Nimo's too.  It surprises me that he likes it so much because it is mostly wooded and Nimo usually prefers open grassy fields.  But for whatever reason, he seems comfortable there, and I thought that would be good for what would be our first ride by ourselves in months (except for around the farm).  Plus, I was hoping the trails would be in decent shape.  They tend to be hard packed with some rocks on the mountain and then there is a gravel road and a bluestone trail by the river.  I checked the park's Facebook page to see if there were any trail advisories or requests to not ride and there weren't, so I headed west to enjoy what was looking like a bright, warm, sunny day.

There were a few other horseback riders at the park when I got there, but nothing too congested.  After giving Nimo a few minutes to eat some hay and grab a snack for myself, I saddled up and we headed out on the trail.  Nimo was perky, but very well-behaved.  I wasn't sure what to expect after having spent so much time in the past couple of years riding only with other people/horses, so I was relieved when we encountered our first mountain biker, who thoughtfully rang a bell to let us know he was behind us.  Nimo already knew he was back there and when I heard the bell, I moved off the trail to let him pass.  He got off his bike, talked to Nimo the whole time while he passed, and we exchanged information about how many other bikers and horses were out on the trail.  And then he was on his way.  

One thing I love about this park is how courteous the bikers are.  They always stop for the horses.  They always get off and walk their bikes when passing and even while waiting for the horses to pass them.  They are friendly and just lovely people.  If all people on the planet were like these bikers, we wouldn't have any of the problems we have today.  I credit these people for helping Nimo become as solid as he is around bikes (which would be very important later in our ride!).

We continued on the trail, just walking for now while we got a feel for how slippery the clay was with the rocks and leaves.

The reason Nimo's head went way up and he stopped at the end of the video was because there were two riders cantering their horses just out of sight.  I didn't hear or see them at first, but we waited for a few seconds until they came into view and saw us.  Then they slowed down and moved off the trail (it was easier for them then us) and we proceeded on our way.

And then it's possible that Nimo and I fell off the SOM wagon for a few minutes.  I found a section of trail that looked good for trotting.  I admit that I was planning to work on a slower jog trot, but when I asked Nimo to trot, he took off like a man just released from prison.  He happily zoomed around the trees and was clearly enjoying himself.  I didn't have the heart to ask him to slow down, so I decided to hold on and have fun while Nimo did the Friesian equivalent of zoomies as we negotiated the winding, undulating trail through the forest.  I'm honestly not sure there are too many things more fun than a Friesian trotting at almost 13 mph through the woods.  He remained completely ratable and the second I asked him to walk, he did.  And his back was still lifted and it felt good to me.  I've learned that when the walk feels like Nimo's back is moving a lot or my own back is uncomfortable, it's not good.  But as long as his back feels stable with little movement, we are doing well.  So I filed that information away for later.

We climbed to the top of the mountain and got a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside and the Shenandoah River as we started our descent.  I think my favorite season in the park is winter because most of the trees are deciduous and have shed their leaves so there are such beautiful views.

Once we got to the bottom, we headed over to the "snack area" which is a small grassy area that I like to let Nimo eat at while we take a short break.  Normally this is his favorite part of the ride, but he was too impatient to keep going to stop and eat (wow!).  Our next challenge would be to cross a wooden bridge.  I remember that when we first started riding at the park, getting Nimo across those bridges took a lot of time, even after we'd been riding there for awhile.  So I wasn't sure how he would react this time.  But he barely hesitated.  He sniffed the ground before walking on to the bridge and was clearly being careful, but he handled it really well.

And then we were off.  We had reached the River Trail which runs parallel to the Shenandoah and we have often used it for trotting as part of our conditioning routine.  It's a bluestone trail and very level, so it makes a great place to move out.  This time, I did work with Nimo to slow his trot just a bit and he settled into something that I estimate was about 8 mph.  It was a little faster than what I was thinking but it felt balanced and I could see from our shadow that Nimo's leg movement looked good.  That is, I could see a certain deliberateness to it, if that makes sense.

Our trot work met a bit of a snag when we got to one section of trail that had clearly been completely destroyed by nature.  It was under water and the entire trail was just washed away.  I'm guessing the river must have overflowed its banks by a huge amount for a significant amount of time to cause that kind of damage.  We ended up slogging through it because I figured we couldn't do any more damage than had already been done, but I would recommend skipping that section of trail for the indefinite future.  There is a way to use the gravel road to get around it and connect with the River Trail farther on, and that is what we'll do the next time we ride.

As we continued, we intermittently trotted and negotiated minor pooling of water on the trail and two more bridges that Nimo crossed without a problem.  It was so lovely.  Nimo felt really solid and while he was definitely alert, he did not spook at anything and he kept his pace pretty consistent unless he was dealing with some suspect footing.  He even crossed through another section of flooded trail, which was deep enough to come up to his knees, with barely the flicker of an eye.  It was amazing to be trotting him by ourselves alongside a rushing, huge river while the sun shined on us.  A simply wonderful place to be.

Once we reached the end of the River Trail, I realized that for the first time, neither of us had remembered the section of trail where an off-leash Rottweiler had tried to attack us several years ago.  Nimo has always been reluctant to go through that area since then, but I think we trotted right past it without noticing!  We turned to head back to the trailer parking lot, which was about a mile away.  We had to cross a park road and then we were back in the woods again.  I was reflecting on awesome our ride had been, when two kids on bikes came flying over the top of the hill in front of us.  As soon as they saw us, they slammed on their brakes, but the clay trail was slick and they were coming down a steep hill without much distance between us, so I could instantly see that they might not be able to stop in time.  I figured in a wreck that involved a child of about 10-12 and a Friesian, the child was going to be much worse off.  So I was thankful to see that we had room to move off the trail; that way if they couldn't stop in time, we could avoid a collision.  I asked Nimo to side step over, which he did, and we both watched as the kids tried to get their bikes under control.  They skidded to a halt about 10 feet in front of where we had been on the trail.  And Nimo, bless his heart, did not even blink an eye.  He stood quietly and didn't move a muscle.  And that is why I love this park so much.  Because Nimo had had such great experiences with bikes for years, when something unpredictable happened, we were able to avoid the possibility of an accident without a problem.

I think the kids were pretty relieved that it all worked out OK, and they went on their way in the way that kids do after close calls.  And Nimo and I continued back to the trailer without any more excitement.  Although there could easily have been more, because I saw this right after I dismounted:

One of the billet straps had broken, or rather the thread that held the billet strap on had broken.  The strap itself was still fine.  Thank God for the redundant system of two straps plus an unused third strap on all-purpose saddles.  I will never curse those short billet straps again because the strap should be easy to repair (I might even be able to do it myself because I think I have the right thread and needle already) and there is a spare for me to use until I can get it fixed.  And apparently I did not notice and the saddle stayed on just fine.  Whew!

The EquiTrack screen of our ride.  Note the top speed is not cantering, but trotting!
Satellite view of our ride.
So that wraps up the most overdocumented week of riding in this blog's history.  This is what happens when I am unemployed:)  If the shutdown continues, who knows what I might be able to accomplish!

In terms of how we did this week, I don't think we could have done much better in terms of being on track with my goals.  We rode five times and we worked on everything that I wanted to work on.  Plus, we got ourselves back into the habits we need to have for successful rides.  Now we just need to repeat this every week for the next 51 weeks, and we're good!:)