Monday, September 30, 2013

15 Miles!

Interspersed with my crazed I-must-clean-the-house-because-my-mother-in-law-is-coming-for-a-visit-even-though-I-have-a-one-year-old-who-is-the-messiest-child-ever, the frantic I-must-clean-out-the-home-office-to-prepare-for-hardwood-floor-installation, and the constant end-of-the-fiscal-year emergencies for work, I plotted my ride for the weekend.  I managed to squeeze in a short arena ride Friday night.  That was possibly ill-advised because I hadn't actually ridden my horse in the arena at our new barn yet.  I had taken him in there one day and he acted like an unrideable maniac, so I decided to wait a week or so and try again.  My next effort was in the dark...The arena is lighted pretty well, but what I realized after having not ridden in an outdoor, lighted arena at night for several years is that the darkness beyond the lights is pretty frightening, especially for my big baby of a horse.

So, we spent a lot of time walking really fast and trotting really fast.  I think Nimo was trying to get away from the boogeymen that he imagined were out there (or who knows, maybe there were actually boogeymen...), but we kept going in circles.  I got zero engagement, about 10% bending, and a sore back from the ride.  I am reminded of why I don't like to move to new barns.  My normally placid, well-behaved companion acts like a complete idiot for several weeks or more as he adjusts.  So I can kiss any legitimate dressage work goodbye for awhile because I'll be focused on just keeping my horse under control.

Anyway, I wanted to get a ride in during the week after our 12 mile ride last weekend.  And, I knew I'd be riding Sunday, so I wanted there to be at least a short break, so Friday night was the best I could manage.

On Sunday, I hooked up the trailer, loaded my crap into a brand new SporTote Saddle Trunk, got my horse, and headed out the the Shenandoah River State Park.  I got the saddle trunk because it fits in the front of my horse trailer in front of the divider and acts like a mini-tack room.  This means that I will no longer have to load all my stuff in my truck and leave random dirty boots, whips, and stinky saddle pads that offend the non-horse people who have to ride in my truck on occasion (which is basically my husband and because he is otherwise supportive of my horse habit, I felt like I should make some effort to accommodate him).  It also means that I no longer have to unload stuff like my Easyboots that I only use out on the trail - yea!  The trunk was ridiculously expensive and I could have absolutely built something even better and much cheaper, but I have zero free time these days, and loading and unloading all my stuff was really getting annoying.

When we got to the park, I discovered that EVERYBODY had the same idea I did.  The parking lot was packed with trailers.  Luckily, I was able to maneuver just enough to park rather creatively.

My plan for the day was to ride 15 miles in 5 hours or less.  And this time I had brought a cooler full of food for me and lots of apples, carrots, and feed for my horse.  Because he didn't want his regular feed during our last ride, I took a riding friend's advice and got some Pennfield Fibregized.  It is a pelleted, no grain feed that relies predominantly on beet pulp for its formulation.  When I pointed out that it is pelleted and Nimo can't have pellets due to a past choke incident caused by pellets, said friend pointed out that they could be soaked.  Wow - sometimes I'm a bit slow.  Why didn't I think of that?  Anyway, I packed a couple of small bags of Fibregized with a bottle of water that I could use for soaking.

After carefully packing my pommel pack with Nimo's food, water for me, hoof pick, extra buckle pins for the boots, needle-nosed pliers for the buckle pins, and cell phone (I forgot my waist pack at home because I took it out of the truck and put it somewhere unbeknownst to me as part of my cleaning frenzy). The savvy among you will instantly realize what I forgot to pack, but I didn't notice I had not packed any snacks for myself until I was out on the trail.  I was close enough to go back to the trailer, but after all the effort it took for me to get out on the trail in the first place, I couldn't bear the thought of turning back.  I also could have changed my route to loop back to the trailer, but I thought that would be mentally hard for both of us.  So, I resolved to suck it up and pretend this was a real endurance ride and live with the fact that I forgot my tuna sandwich, and my chips, and my yogurt...

Again my plan was to ride to the river, where we would be about a third of the way through the ride.  I wanted to stop for a few minutes, let Nimo eat some grass, try out a bag of the new food, and see if Nimo noticed that I ate most of his apple.  Once again, the universe was against my plan.

Here's what happened.  I rode on a part of the trail that had a wooden bridge.  I could have gone around the bridge, but I didn't.  I decided it was something we were likely to encounter on rides, and we needed start working on our bridge crossing skills.  I walked Nimo up to it, and he made it clear that he would not cross it under any circumstances.  That was a lie and I knew it.  As soon as I got off, Nimo walked right behind me as if we cross bridges all the time.  There are some things he does better under saddle and others he does better when I'm on the ground.  Negotiating obstacles is something that often works better with me on the ground.

Guess what works better if I'm in the saddle?  Seeing other horses in the distance.  After crossing the bridge, I walked a short distance to a lovely bench off the side of the trail, stupidly thinking that I would be able to stop for a break.  I let Nimo eat some grass while I snuck bites of his apple.  He totally figured out what I was up to and stole the apple away from me.  As I was getting his bag of feed from the pack, he spotted several horses across the field...and he went completely nuts.  Prancing, snorting, circling, and pulling nuts.  I wasn't expecting the behavior because he'd been really calm when we encountered lots of horses on the trail, even doing very well when two horses had to practically touch him to pass on a narrow ridge trail.  Nothing I did made any difference and embarrassingly, I lost my temper and yelled at him and yanked on the reins.  This behavior led the other riders to believe I was in trouble and the poor bicyclist trying to pass to think she'd really spooked my horse.  So I was stuck between a bicycle and the sight of horses who weren't moving.  I was pissed at everyone, even though it was no one's fault, just a bad situation.  I finally convinced the bicyclist to pass and reassured her that she was not the problem.  Then, I yelled at the other riders that I was fine and could they please keep going because my horse was freaking out because he could see them and wanted to join up with them.  Then, I got myself under control and realized that the best thing for my horse to get his mind back was to start walking and get him out of sight of those horses.  Almost instantly he settled and do you think there was another bench or fallen tree I could use to get back on?  Nope.

The last time I rode here, it seemed like they were everywhere, but I couldn't find a single one.  And as I walked, I got pissed all over again.  I was mad at the other riders who had stopped to watch my disaster (even though they had no way of knowing I didn't need help - I'm sure I looked like I needed help), I was mad at myself for losing my temper with my horse - I know better and he doesn't deserve to be yelled at for acting on instinct nor does it help the situation, I was mad because the sun had started beating down and it felt like 100 degrees instead of 75, I was mad because I forgot my tuna sandwich, and most of all, I was mad because I could not find a damn bench anywhere!

Finally, I found one, got back on and contemplated my situation.  There was no question I felt like turning back or cutting my ride short.  I was hot, tired, thirsty, hungry, and mad.  My horse hadn't had much of a snack nor had I.  We still had almost 2/3 of the ride left.  How were we supposed to keep going?

I checked my GPS, and we needed to go another mile and a quarter before turning around.  I knew that instead of turning around, we could just take the trail back to the trailer and be back in much less time.  I decided to postpone my decision and focus on getting to the turn around point first.  I wanted to do some trotting, but we encountered so many other people out walking, biking, or riding that we had to keep slowing to a walk.

Once I got to the turn-around point, I was so tempted to just head back to the trailer.  I wanted to go back to the trailer.  A little voice in my head said, "What's the big deal?  This is just a practice ride.  Things aren't going well.  Just quit and try again later."  But another voice said, "This is what is going to happen to you on a real ride.  You're going to be tired, hot (or cold or wet), or you'll have forgotten something.  Are you really going to quit every time something goes wrong?  If you are, you might as well give up endurance riding and go back to something that doesn't require as much commitment."  And the second little voice was right.  Either I'm an endurance rider or I'm not.  I don't do things half-assed.  I either do them or I don't.  I had already put in over 7 miles and I needed to finish my ride.

So, we turned around.  And about 2 minutes later, we got to another bridge.  I thought we'd try to go over it with me still riding.  Nimo was not happy about this option, but after several minutes of discussion, we made it.  Then we saw the riders who were the unknowing cause of our difficulties earlier, and I gave them a wave to let them know all was good.  Then we got to another bridge, and Nimo dropped his head and walked right over it.  WhooHoo!

Then, we encountered a couple out walking.  I'm sure they thought they were doing us a favor by ducking off the trail to one of the bench rest-stops that had been so few and far between when I needed one.  The problem is that the benches are near the river and hidden by bushes until you get right to them.  So, I knew instantly we were going to have a problem.  Nimo saw the couple literally disappear into the bushes.  He knew they were lurking somewhere and when he saw them, he was going to spook.  Grrrr...Then, my stupid brain kicked in and I moved him off the trail and well into the field, so there would be more distance between us and the lurking people.  I try not to ride off trails because I know hooves damage terrain, but honestly, what was the park thinking when they hid benches in bushes?  My need to live was greater than the grass' at this point.  My "quick" thinking prevented the crisis and we continued on...and on...and on.

Eventually, we got close to the wooded trail and I saw a sign that said the Big Oak Trail was .2 miles to the left.  Hmmmm...once again, the little voice told me I could take a shorter route back to the trailer.  Nope.  I kicked my horse into a trot and headed for the long way back.

We headed up back into the woods and saw this:

The picture isn't that great, but let me assure you that the view reminded me why I ride.

By now, we were over 9 miles and I started thinking about where we could stop for a break.  I wanted to try to make 10 miles and then give Nimo a snack and take a short walk to relieve the increasing pain in my inner thighs that was suggesting I buy a skinnier horse to ride.

And guess what happened at 10 miles?  More horses.  Gaaaa!  No stopping now.  I kept going.  My GPS died at 10.7 miles (note to self, pack batteries), but by this point, I knew how many miles we had left, so I really didn't need it anyway.  I found a place with lots of fallen trees to use as mounting blocks and tried the new grain for Nimo.  I was a huge hit.  I poured water over it and let it soak while I fed him some carrots.  Then I poured the feed on a paper plate I had brought.  The plate worked OK, but I had to manage Nimo's snarfing and managed to get completely slobbered on.  No big deal, but maybe I'll look for another container:)

Anyway, we were fed, hydrated, and I got back on.  I did notice that while Nimo's walk had been pretty motivated before we got off, the stop did seem to slow him down a little.  Just something to file away for later.  Maybe try to feed him while we keep walking?  Maybe try the snack break a little earlier?

And finally, 15 miles and 5 hours after we started, we made it back to the trailer.  It was great to know that I hadn't turned around early.  Nimo was definitely tired, but I think he could have kept going for another 2-3 miles without much difficulty.

So, I gave Nimo more food, sponged him off, put away the tack, took off the boots, fantasized about the food in my cooler, and hit the road.  I would have stayed a little longer, but I have a deal with my husband that if I don't call by a certain time, he needs to send a search & rescue team for me, and there is no cell reception at the park.  In fact, cell reception is pretty iffy for quite a few miles, so I wanted to make sure I got in touch before there was any sort of panic about my safety.

As it turned out, I probably should have just camped at the park.  Just after I got on the interstate (and still had a good 45 minute drive ahead of me), I saw a sign that said, "Accident.  Right lane blocked in 4 miles."  Please understand that I was out in essentially the middle of nowhere.  At least 60 miles from DC, so the idea that I could be stuck in traffic at 6 pm on a Sunday night DID NOT OCCUR TO ME.  It should have.  Because that sign wasn't there for sh*ts and giggles.  Less than a mile later, traffic was stopped in both lanes and looked something like this:

It took 50 minutes to go 3 miles.  What was left of the accident when I got to it looked pretty bad.  One SUV was still being towed and it looked sort of like it had hit the car in front of it going 50 plus mph and it also looked like someone had rear-ended it.  All I can say is thank God it wasn't me and my horse.  On the other hand, I plenty of time to work my way through my cooler full of food.

It was after dark when we got back to the barn.  I can't explain why it is depressing to unload a horse and unhook a trailer in the dark, but it is.  Anyway, I got Nimo turned out, unloaded most of my stuff, but got to leave some of it in the trailer, which was nice, and headed home.  It was 8:45 when I got home, over 12 hours after I left in the morning, and I was bone-tired and thinking that it sucked that I had to work the next day, but that I did what I wanted to do and I was glad that I didn't give up.

Things I Learned:

1.  Pack snacks for the human in the saddle bags.
2.  Pack extra batteries for the GPS.
3.  Find a new container to feed Nimo with on the ride.
4.  Make sure there are no horses within sight if I want to actually do anything on the ground with my horse besides spin in circles.
5.  Work on my temper when things aren't going well.
6.  Check for accidents on I-66 before heading home.

Things That Went Well:

1.  We did the distance!
2.  When under saddle, Nimo handled the comings and goings of other horses very well.
3.  The Fibregized was a great snack for Nimo.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Breaking the 10-Mile Barrier

I realize that for people who routinely compete in 50 mile rides, 10 miles probably seems like nothing.  But for someone who has mostly done arena work and 3-5 mile trail rides for years and years, 10 miles seems like a big deal.  It didn't used to be a big deal for me when I was a kid and probably rode my horse 10-12 miles several days a week.  But, now that I'm older, any ride that lasts longer than an hour and a half starts to tread on the territory of "Are my hips supposed to feel like that?" and "Why is my back sore?"

Anyway, I decided to take the plunge this weekend and break the 10-mile barrier that is mostly in my brain.  Last weekend, we put in 17 miles, with 9 on Saturday and 8 on Sunday, so I thought we were ready to transition from spreading the miles over 2 days and just do longer rides on one day, with more of a rest during the week.  I originally planned to do 11 miles at the Shenandoah National Park and do some serious climbing.  However, the weather forecast changed my mind.  Apparently, the area was expecting a mild cold front preceded by a lovely band of storms.  The meteorologist explained that the storm was moving at an unpredictable speed, but his best guess was rain starting around 10 am on Saturday in the Shenandoahs with rain hitting DC around 3 pm.  Great.  I wasn't super comfortable with the idea of being by myself out in the mountains on the longest ride I've done yet over pretty rugged terrain.

So, I opted to ride at the Shenandoah River State Park, which is actually near the National Park, but has much less rugged terrain.  Plus, the trails are looped in such a way that if things got bad, I could get back to the trailer within 2-3 miles at any given time.  And since the trails are easier there, I decided to add another mile to the ride.  (At this point, if Nimo could read this blog, he would be demanding input into the decision-making process...)

Because I still am not focused on speed, I knew it would probably take us about 4 hours to do 12 miles, so I packed a variety of horsey snacks and a PB&J for me.  I had thought about bringing a beverage other than water for me, but the coconut water that I bought as a healthy option turned out not to be something that I enjoyed.  I figure the most important thing during our rides is to bring snacks and beverages that appeal to both of us, so we keep hydrated and fueled.  I also had to be cognizant of the fact that it was likely to be raining/storming during our ride, so I unearthed a supposedly water-proof light jacket and some plastic bags to keep my cell phone and map dry.

After throwing a bunch of crap in the truck, I headed out the door.  I had initially imagined that I might get out to the park before 10 am so that I could at least get saddled and start the ride while it was still dry out.  This was a serious miscalculation on my part.  Apparently, I failed to factor in that I have a one-year old who eats a better variety of foods than I ever have and a husband who is baffled about how to select such foods.  So, after solving a multitude of household problems, I finally headed out the door around 8:30.

And I soon learned that the meteorologist didn't know anything about predicting weather.  It was already raining as I drove to the barn.  Luckily, it was light rain and sort of let up while I hooked up the trailer and loaded my tack.  Nimo definitely gave me the eyeball look that said, "Did you know it's supposed to rain today?  Why are we riding in the rain?  I think that you might be an idiot.  Why didn't I get a better owner?"

But, I'm an endurance rider now, so I ride in anything, right?  This is what our destination looked like as I drove out to it.

It still looked like that as I got closer:

I did take heart because the sky was more of a pale, cloudy color rather than the deep blue-gray of an angry storm, so I hoped that we would just have rain and not storms.

As an aside, here is what my horse looks like after he has apparently fully recovered from his weight-loss incident:

As you can see, he is a perfectly good weight now.  I wish I had taken a before photo to show how sunken his flanks were and how his back was a shelf with no muscle or fat over it at all.  I am so surprised at how quickly he bounced back.  And of course, he's busy stuffing his face like he'll never see food again, which is pretty typical.

Back to the ride...I recently got a Deluxe Stowaway Pommel Pack from Easy Care when I ordered a bunch of other stuff.  I needed something a little bigger so I could start packing snacks for Nimo, and I figured this would work.  Here's how it looks on Nimo, although it's a little hard to see with the jacket I strapped to it.

I packed three water bottles, a small ziploc bag of feed for Nimo, an apple, 4 carrots, a random plastic bag in case I needed to try Funder's idea of lining my helmet so I could offer my horse a drink of water, a paper plate that I sort of folded accordion style to use to feed Nimo off of, a hoof pick, needle-nosed pliers, and extra buckle locking pins for my Easyboots, just in case.  There was still a little bit of room, but I ended up packing my sandwich in my waist bag, along with my cell phone, map, and pocket knife.

I should mention that it was not, in fact, raining yet at the park.  I drove through some rain to get there, but it looked like the rain hadn't gotten to this area yet.  Whew!  So, off we headed on our journey.

The ride pretty much went as planned until I got to the river section of the trail.  My plan was to do about 9 miles in the forest with the more difficult trails and do about 3 miles in the middle of the ride by the river.  The river trails are pretty flat, so it would be a nice break.  Plus, there is a lot of nice grass, and I figured we could stop for a snack there.

That didn't happen.  For one thing, when we got to the open space, Nimo acted like we were in some kind of danger zone.  He got hyper-alert and snorty, which was weird.  The only thing I can think is that we could hear some people obviously having a ridiculous amount of fun on the water, but we couldn't see them, so maybe Nimo was having trouble figuring out what the sound was.

I had planned to do some trotting since these were easy trails, and what we did instead was amped up trotting for 20-50 feet followed by an unpredictable and abrupt halt as Nimo repeatedly tried to tell me that I was asking him to go into unsafe territory.  It was totally obnoxious.  And, as it turned out, completely on the mark.

As we were getting close to the point of turning around, we happened upon a group of people sitting by the river with their very large Rottweiler.  They were partially hidden by bushes and just as we came into view of the dog, I thought, "I wonder if..."  I didn't have time to finish my thought because that dog jumped up and came at us snarling, growling, and barking.  Any thoughts I had were left in that spot because Nimo did an abrupt 180 spin and bolted for the next county as the dog chased us, still growling and barking.

As Nimo ran, I had time to wonder if he could actually outrun a Rottweiler because we don't actually practice running.  I also wondered how much longer I could hang on because Nimo's spooky gallop is ridiculously bouncy and wobbly as he tries to decide whether he's going to keep going in the direction he's already going or abruptly change direction.  I knew I'd be screwed if he did anything other than a straight line because my balance wasn't stable.

Luckily, the dog's owner managed to call him off.  I got Nimo slowed down and assessed the situation.  Boots?  Check.  Pommel pack?  Check.  Saddle?  Check.  Rider?  Check.  Extreme amounts of adrenaline?  Check.  What could have been a bad fall turned out OK, probably because Nimo has spent the majority of his life trying to teach me better balance by routinely speed-trotting and halting unpredictably and by performing the spin and bolt at unexpected moments.  He actually used to buck while bolting too, but apparently has given that up with age.  He has only managed to unseat me once during a spin and bolt and that was because the saddle slipped.  I'm pretty sure I owe my breastcollar a lot at this point because I don't think the saddle would have held otherwise.

I should also mention that Nimo is no longer prone to spinning and bolting and that it was absolutely justified in this case.  I think if he had stayed in place, that dog would have attacked him.  Honestly, I'm not sure if even a very seasoned horse would have stayed with such a large dog coming at him from behind bushes while growling and barking.  It was definitely the kind of situation where millions of years of instincts overrode any training.

After getting my wits back, I thought about whether we should just call it a day and head back or if we should return to the scene of the crime so I could listen to the dog owner's heartfelt apology for nearly causing a bad accident.  My husband and I currently have a very "special" German Shepherd who is now a lovely dog, but was a basketcase from puppyhood who took years of training before she would feel comfortable on walks.  She was absolutely terrified of new people and dogs and when I would be out walking her, trying to work with her on her fear, we would be routinely assaulted by other people's dogs who were off the leash and running for us.  These owners would always yell, "Don't worry, he's friendly!"  Apparently, they couldn't understand how how their dog could be friendly, but mine wasn't.  I once gave a lecture to a woman whose 2 energetic border collies came running up to my terrified puppy, but I doubted it made a difference.  Our dog is now a joy to walk because she absolutely ignores any dog who is hysterically barking at her.  And, if like our idiot neighbors, someone lets their dog or dogs run loose in the yard and they come after our dog, all she does is quietly move away onto the street.

Anyway, my point is that I have listened to apology after apology from people with loose dogs and have very little patience for it anymore.  And in this case, I don't think the owner could even say the dog was friendly.  The fact is that the park requires dogs to be on a leash and the guy shouldn't have had his dog near a trail without a leash.  In the end, I decided to go back to the people so that Nimo could see we wouldn't be attacked again.  And yes, I was subjected to the apology and the explanation that the dog had never seen a horse before.  (Well then, don't leave your dog off-leash next to a horse trail...)  I accepted the apology, listened to how beautiful my horse was, and headed back out.

Here is a shot from the River Trail:

Unfortunately, Nimo was now too rattled to take the break to eat that I had planned, so we started back to the trailer.  I thought maybe if we did a hard climb, he'd use up his adrenaline, and would be settled enough to eat when we got to the top of the climb.  That turned out to be a good strategy.

I got off at the top of what is probably the most difficult climb in the park and gave Nimo an apple and some carrots.  I also had brought some of his feed.  When I offered it to him, I got the instant message that any snacks on the trail are to be special and that his regular feed is unacceptable.  Apparently, I will be driving to the feed store today to find something tasty:)

I stayed on the ground and just walked Nimo for about half a mile while I ate my sandwich.  After finding a downed tree to use as a mounting block, I got back on and we started the last 5 miles of our ride.  At this point, it started raining.  Luckily, riding in the forest has its benefits.  The canopy kept most of the rain from reaching us, the temperature dropped a couple of degrees, and the extreme mugginess dried out, making the remainder of our ride quite pleasant.  I never needed my jacket, and Nimo was able to cool down after a sweaty climb.

We ended up doing 12.3 miles in 4 hours, and aside from the crazy dog, I was pretty happy with the way things went.  Nimo was a little tired, but otherwise in good shape after the ride.  I'm giving him a couple of days off and planning to try to hit 15 miles next weekend.  My strategy has been to get the distance before speed, so if we can do 15 miles next weekend, I will have 2 additional weeks to add intensity and speed before the Old Dominion Intro 15 mile ride I'm planning to do on Oct. 26.  I realize that isn't a lot of time, but the ride we're going on isn't competitive and is meant as an introduction, so I'm not too worried about having Nimo at the top of his game.  I just want to make sure he can do the distance.

One weekend before the Intro Ride is reserved for an endurance clinic.  We will be doing a short practice ride that weekend, but I don't expect Nimo to put in 15 miles after hauling to a clinic.  It'll be enough for him just to get the experience of going.  So, my plan is to do 15 miles of easier terrain next weekend, the clinic the following weekend, then 15 miles of real climbing, followed by 15 miles of easier terrain with some added trot work.  I'll probably just do one light ride in the middle of the week and then we're on for our first real ride!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

...And the Hopefully Not As Ugly As I Expected

OK, so I've convinced myself that my horse has an ulcer(s).  I've called the vet to set up an appointment for bloodwork and whatever other testing seems appropriate.  In the meantime, I need to do something to keep myself from spiraling into deep thought and overanalyzing every single horse care decision I've ever made in my life.

I happened across a website by a lady named Dr. Renee Tucker.  She has published a book called "Where Does My Horse Hurt?" and she has an Ulcer Report available on her website that purports to offer solutions for horses with ulcers:  I have to admit that: 1) I am a sucker for internet books and 2) I have never purchased an internet book that I thought was worth the paper that it would have been printed on if it had ever been published.  On the other hand, at least this lady had a published book with some positive reviews on Amazon.  And after reading about the usual treatment for ulcers, I had concerns.

I should preface my concerns by disclosing that I have had almost no positive experiences with human doctors, canine vets, or horse vets.  I think there are very good medical people out there, but I haven't run across any except for my chiropractor, who is the only doctor (human or otherwise) who has ever helped me or any of my pets.  I could write whole new blogs about my medical experiences, including the GP who spent more time trying to tell me what cosmetic surgery I needed instead of addressing my chronic migraines, the assorted vets who misdiagnosed my horse who actually had a textbook case of navicular syndrome, the assorted vets who after 3 plus years have been unable to cure my dog's chronic vaginal infection despite countless tests, antibiotics, Chinese herbal remedies, and even porn-star surgery, the gynecologist who happily dispensed assorted drugs to me over many years without telling me about any of the possible side effects and without trying to find out why I had recurring infections that never fully cleared up, and last but not least, the team of incompetent midwives, misogynist obstetricians and perinatologists, and emergency room doctors who nearly killed me and my baby (this last one is so common, many books have been written on it, and most women would be better off giving birth in any other developed nation besides the U.S. because our maternity care system is so bad).

I realize that not everyone has had those experiences and there are many people who trust their doctors.  Just know that I am not one of them.  I assume that anything a doctor or vet tells me is a lie or just ignorance unless I can determine otherwise.  So, my understanding is that GastroGard is the treatment of choice for ulcers.  My research indicates that the drug essentially works by stopping acid production in the stomach.  The lack of acid then allows the ulcers to heal.  That makes sense to me.  But, horses need the acid in their stomachs to digest food.  So, no acid = no digestion = no nutrients.  What I can't find is anything that really addresses what I see as not an inconsequential result.  What are the effects on the horse of basically shutting down digestion?  Oh, and how about the $45/day cost of the drug that is recommended for at least 28 days?  Not to mention that every time I hear about a horse with ulcers, it seems that the horse is on either GastroGard or its "preventative" equivalent forever.

Please understand that if I thought my horse was in serious pain, I would give him whatever painkiller he needed until I could address the cause of the pain.  And I get that ulcers can be quite painful.  But, as it turns out, my horse was not as bad off as I originally thought.

Back to the Ulcer Report I mentioned above.  Unlike the other internet books I've purchased, this one seemed to have a better level of info.  Not all of it was backed up by the kind of sources I like (I hate the "take my word for it, I've been doing this a long time" argument, although anecdotal evidence does often have merit), but a lot of things the author said made sense.  In particular, she said horses that have ulcers should not get grain or beet pulp.  The reference to beet pulp is what got me.  I've been giving my horse 1 cup of oats, 1 cup of Cool-Stance (essentially ground coconut meal), and 1 cup of beet pulp am and pm.  As I mentioned in my last post, he had completely stopped eating that whole mixture, along with the chopped alfalfa hay he was getting (which is normally like candy).  So, the first thing I did was cut the oats and beet pulp out of the feed.  I also took out the salt and trace mineral supplement, just in case, leaving just the coconut meal.  Instantly, my horse started eating again.  The other change I made was to have the barn wet the feed just before feeding instead of soaking it for several hours, just in case there was a palatability issue.  I've heard a couple of people say that their horses won't eat beet pulp that's been soaking.  And at the old barn, Nimo's food was soaked for just a short time before feeding.  I wanted to cover all the bases.

However, once Nimo started eating his feed again, he almost instantly seemed to get more comfortable at the new barn, and eat more hay and grass.  It was literally like turning a switch.  Just over a week after making the change, he has gained most of the weight back that he lost and is completely happy and calm in his stall, when before he was a basketcase.  I know many of you will be tempted to think that what happened is coincidental and that Nimo really just finally got comfortable in the new barn.  I would agree that is a possibility except for the fact that Nimo had already gone through a significant weight loss at his old barn and was already demonstrating a lack of willingness to eat grass in his field and during and after rides.  Whatever was going on started well before his move.

Before I realized that such a simple change would have such a dramatic effect, I had the vet out for a CBC plus another blood test for liver/kidney, etc. function, a fecal text, and a Lyme Disease test (vet recommendation, not my idea, and I may regret having it done...).  I forewent the scope that would send a camera down his digestive tract because it involved more money and even if no ulcers were found, I'd still get the whole, "Well, the scope can't see everything.  There could still be a hindgut ulcer that we can't get to."  I hate tests that aren't definitive.  Anyway, the test results came back with a normal CBC, except a red blood cell count slightly low (as in 6.5 when a low of 7 is normal).  That would make sense if there was an ulcer.  The GGTP (or GGT) was slightly elevated (as in 36 when the lab listed 35 as the upper normal), indicating a potential issue with the liver.  Based on my research, I think this reading would also support an ulcer because there can be some stress on the liver.  The fecal came back very low, which is typical for Nimo.  And the Lyme Disease test came back as equivocal.  Grrr...

I hate the Lyme Disease test.  My husband once had it done for our dog.  No reason, just because the vet wanted to charge us an extra fee, I guess.  I always had refused it, but my husband trusts the medical profession.  Anyway, the test came back positive for the dog.  And that meant:  she has Lyme Disease, or she doesn't have Lyme Disease but was exposed at some point, or she might be getting Lyme Disease at some point in the future.  I specifically addressed this concern with the vet.  She assured me that the test for horses is much better than the test that had been done for my dog.  She said it would come back with values that would clearly allow a determination of whether the horse actually had the disease. Right...Now, because of that "equivocal" result, I have to pay to get the horse retested in a couple of weeks.  I'm wondering if I have "sucker" stamped on my forehead.

I'll also need to have the liver test redone to see if the value is increasing, which could indicate a serious issue with Nimo's liver.  I am guessing that because he already looks like a different horse, there is probably no issue, but I'll get it done, just in case.

I also want to mention that the vet agreed that my diagnosis of ulcers was likely and promptly tried to prescribe GastroGard without even asking what my budget was or talking about any risks.  Luckily, I knew that there was another, much cheaper, although probably not as effective drug, called Ranitidine.  I asked about it, and the vet said it did work for many horses.  At $35 for a bottle of about 8 days worth of pills, I thought it made economic sense to at least try it.  If it didn't work, I wasted $35.  But if it did, I would save $1260.  However, again, there was no discussion of potential side effects or risks.  I think drugs are like magic (only those who watch Once Upon a Time will get this one).  They have a price, whether it is a side effect, adverse reaction, or just covering up the symptom so you don't look for the real problem.

I have taken both over-the-counter and prescribed drugs.  I have given them to my dogs and my horses.  And pretty much every time, one of the three things above happened.  Sometimes, especially if there is a lot of pain, there isn't much choice.  But, the problem is that relieving the pain doesn't solve the problem.  My concern is that I'll never figure out if Nimo really has an ulcer or something else if I use any ulcer medication.  And I'll never fix it.  And he will have chronic pain the rest of his life.

The other concern I had, which I also mentioned to the vet, was that I felt uncomfortable about giving the drug to Nimo before the bloodwork came back.  What if we were wrong about the ulcer and he actually had liver disease?  Giving him a drug would just be another toxin for his stressed liver to handle.  The results would only take 2 days to get back and given that he didn't seem to be in a lot of pain, waiting 2 more days seemed to make sense.  The vet said there was no need to wait, which I think is irresponsible, especially given the result of his GGTP.

If you've managed to stick with me this long, you can see where this is going.  I'm not giving my horse the ulcer medication as long as he looks like he is in good shape.  I will keep it on hand, so that if his health changes and we have reason to suspect that he is in real pain because of an ulcer, I can give it to him without delay.  I will also have the bloodwork redone in 2-3 weeks to check the RBC and GGTP to rule out other issues.

But, what about Nimo's weight loss, his poor appetite, his difficulty settling in at a new place?  Surely just changing his feed couldn't be the solution to what seemed like such a serious problem?  I don't really know the answer to that.  I do know that I am going to look into some digestive support supplements and be even more diligent about monitoring Nimo's appetite.  I've always made sure he gets at least a little hay before I ride, a snack during long rides, and food when he gets done.  But, I'm starting to bring a variety of foods now, so that I can make sure he gets something in his stomach, even if he's not crazy about eating.  I've never seen him turn down an apple or a carrot.  And apparently he loves bananas too.  I don't want to feed too much sugar, but I want to make sure he's got something to eat.  And, I'm going to look into some natural remedies that may help with stress.  He doesn't seem stressed in the trailer or on our rides, but I want to make doubly sure that I'm doing everything I can to help him.  I also believe that life at the new barn will be more stable for Nimo and that stability will help with any potential stress caused by deviations from routines.  And I have every reason to expect that he will always have hay or grass available to eat, so there shouldn't be any long periods with stomach acid being produced and no food to digest.

And for those of you who might question natural remedies, let me say that I have found some that do seem to work.  Of course, there are the many others that haven't worked for me, but none of them have caused my horse harm.  My favorite is the homeopathic remedy, arnica montana.  It got me completely off painkillers in less than 24 hours after my c-section and it helped my injured foot heal in a week when I had the exact same injury in my other foot at a different time that took 8 months to fully heal.  I'll keep you posted about what works and doesn't work for Nimo.

Monday, September 16, 2013

...The Bad...

I'm a little behind on my posts, so when I'm talking about last Sunday's ride, I actually mean September 8, not September 15.  As a reminder, our Saturday ride involved some climbing, but I try to do my Sunday rides on easy terrain and focus more on trotting.  My plan for this ride was to ride about 8 miles at the Manassas Battlefied and get in some trotting sets.

The day was definitely a little hotter and muggier than the previous day, which was kind of disappointing, because I was so ready to lose the August summer heat/humidity and move into fall.  My saddle pad choice reflected my feelings about the day:


And yes, the little design on the pad is a skull and cross bones with red hearts for eyes.  I have no idea what possessed me to buy this pad because it's kind of creepy if I think about it too much - maybe it's the novelty of the thing.

Anyway, we started our ride with the usual suspects of swarming horse flies, and I could immediately tell that Nimo was not feeling as fantastic as he had the day before.  There was a lot of plodding along, and even a little sensitivity on his feet.  I was riding bootless, but I figured that was fine because the previous week, Nimo had quite willingly trotted without boots.  Looking back on it, I think that may have been because we'd had quite a bit of rain before my last ride at the Battlefield, and even though most of the trail is pretty firm/gravelly footing, the added moisture probably made a difference on how the footing felt.

After prodding Nimo along for about 2.5 miles, I called it a day and headed back to the trailer.  And I got to thinking about a lot of little things that had been accumulating over the past few months.  Let me preface my mind meanderings first by saying that I do understand horses have good and bad days.  I have definitely felt fantastic one day and not the next, and it wasn't because I had a horrible illness.  It was just because.

But, my concerns weren't really because of the less-than-enthusiastic performance on this day.  In fact, overall, Nimo has been handling the work very well, and I'm really pleased.  It's just that this day made me start to reflect.  I had been noticing that little by little Nimo was eating less and less of the mash I made for him after rides and was now not eating any of it.  He also didn't want hay or even grass.  He would eat once I got him back to the barn, but my horse has always been a bit of a pig and something just didn't seem right.

It's actually one reason I got the stethoscope.  I was worried that I was working him too hard and not realizing it.  But the HR of 44 the day before and an HR of 40 about 5 minutes after this ride convinced me that the lack of eating probably wasn't related to an overwork issue, at least in the sense of an individual workout.

I had just moved him to a new barn because I got really unhappy with the management of the old barn.  I could probably rant for days about how aggravating it is to find out that you're paying above market pricing for full board only to find out that your horse is essentially on field board in a field with not-very-good grass and no hay and a barn owner who outright lies about how your horse is being cared for.  In the past, I have tried to work with barn owners/managers who start providing less-than-acceptable care for my horse, but I have learned the hard way that these people are not interested in the welfare of the horses in their care or in the happiness of their customers, so I bailed at the first opportunity and found what I think is a much better facility for my horse that costs me a lot less money (of course, you all know what happens when a horse owner has extra money...).  Unfortunately, that also means I added stress to a horse that was probably already under stress.  I don't know how I could have avoided it, though.  I guess I hoped my horse would think the new digs were so fabulous that he would settle in and those older, little problems would go away.

That didn't happen.  My horse, who normally settles in at a new barn pretty easily, was very stressed and anxious all the time.  He completely stopped eating his feed and would only eat some hay and grass.  He had previously lost a lot of weight over the summer due to the aforementioned bad management, but I successfully stopped the weight loss by hauling hay out to my horse every day.  However, just over a week after moving to the new barn, he was losing weight in a drastic way again.  And I knew it wasn't because he wasn't eating his feed.  He was getting a pretty small amount to begin with and can really maintain his weight, even with a fair amount or work, with just hay and grass.

I had watched him out in the field and I could tell he wasn't acting normally or eating enough.  I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking that it's normal for a horse in a new environment to be stressed and off his feed for even a few weeks, depending on the sensitivity of the horse.  And you're right.  If there hadn't been the previous weight loss and lack of interest in eating after rides, I probably would have dismissed the situation as just normal anxiety.  But something told me it wasn't.

In fact, after mulling it around for awhile, I came up with 2 possibilities:  ulcers and cancer (I like to imagine the worse case scenario so that I'm happy when it isn't that and prepared when it is).  I suspected ulcers, but I didn't want to rule out something more serious, so I did some quick research on ulcers, brainstormed with a friend, and called my vet...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Good...

I decided to back off on the climbing work a little this last Saturday and work on adding some distance (and by adding distance, I mean adding a mile...).  OK, really, I was just having horrible flashbacks to the horsefly infested Shenandoah Forest ride of last Saturday, and I couldn't stand the thought of going through that again.  So, I headed over to Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Shenadoah River State Park, which is actually quite close to the horsefly infested neighborhood, but the trail is not as rugged or as deserted, so I figured even if we were pestered by horseflies, we'd be less exhausted and we'd have company:)

I've ridden at this park once before, and I really liked it because the trails are so well-maintained and marked.  You'll notice a little blue marker on the tree to the right of Nimo's head in the photo above, and all the trails are marked by color-corresponding markers with the name of the trail on them.  It's an amazing system that I've never seen anywhere else, and it's so easy to follow.  There are also these great post markers anytime trails intersect:

Nimo totally stalled out for the last quarter mile of our 10 mile ride the last time, and I wanted to see if there was any improvement in his conditioning over the last 7 weeks.  I didn't plan to do 10 miles again; instead, I wanted to do 8.  But, rather than having several of those miles be flat next to the river like they were before, I wanted to stay in the forest and make the miles harder.

The park actually classifies the bulk of the equestrian trails in the forest as difficult.  After having worked on actual mountain climbing, I can truthfully say that none of the trails at Andy Guest are difficult.  At their worst, they are moderately challenging.  However, I would not recommend that a horse that didn't have at least some baseline of fitness climb these trails.  When I took Nimo the first time, we'd been focused on trail riding for 3 months, and he had a hard time on the forest trails (the river trails are completely flat).  I think that is because there are a lot of short up-and-down climbs.  It really doesn't look that hard, but climbing the trails is probably a little like doing an awful lot of short intervals, and I think that constant up-down motion takes a toll, especially when it's hot out.

Luckily, we had beautiful September weather, and we set out to explore the trails on our own.  The best thing about this ride was that we did do the 8 miles I planned (despite me leaving the excellent map in the truck and winging it), and Nimo kept an incredibly consistent walk pace of 3.2 mph.  That may not seem like that big of a deal, but first, we were on our own, and Nimo always walks slower when we're on our own (like 2.8 mph slow).  Second, the trails do involve a lot of climbing, so keeping a steady pace over uneven terrain is more challenging.  And third, my horse is the slowest walker I've ever ridden with the exception of my last horse, who started his young life being trained for western pleasure futurities.  I don't mean to offend western pleasure riders here, but I can find nothing remotely enjoyable about walking slower than a 95-year-old with a walker.

Anyway, my eventual goal is to get my horse to maintain a walking pace closer to 4 mph over easy to moderately challenging terrain, and this ride definitely made me think we might get there before I die.  We also did a little trotting on the easier sections of the trail, which I hadn't initially planned on because I thought walking would be a sufficient work-out.  But Nimo felt good and I took advantage of his willingness to trot over terrain that we hadn't ridden on before (another thing that typically slows him down).

Once we got back to the trailer, I pulled his tack off and then got out my brand new stethoscope.

I absolutely got an unnecessarily advanced stethoscope, but in my defense, I thought that I might possibly want to do more with it than just find a heart rate.  And I just like gadgets, even if I never figure out how to use them...Just in case you are interested, this one is a 3M Littmann Classic II S.E.  It has something called a tunable diaphragm, which apparently allows switching between high and low frequencies.  I may never even learn what that really means, but if I have to, I guess I can listen to high and low frequencies...

Anyway, at precisely 10 minutes after our ride, I checked Nimo's heart rate...and got a little surprise.  It was 44 bpm.  I'm not really sure what I expected, but I guess I was thinking something closer to 60 bpm.  It was a warm day (mid- to upper-70s, 50-60% humidity), we did some trotting, we did some climbing, and we did a decent amount of miles for us, so I thought I'd be pushing him a little for cardio.  But apparently not.  However, it did occur to me that I did not know Nimo's resting heart rate and that possibly because he is a bigger guy, his heart rate might naturally be slower than a lighter horse.  So, I did what I always do.  I googled it.  And, I didn't really find anything definitive.  As luck (or lack therof) would have it, my vet was out a couple of days ago (you'll find out more about that visit in a subsequent post).  She measured Nimo's heart rate at 32 bpm, and confirmed that larger horses tend to have slower heart rates.

This information kind of knocked me for a loop.  While I know that my training strategy may need to be modified because of my horse's breed and size, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to use the same fitness measure as what I've read in books (i.e. 60 bpm or less within 10 minutes of stopping work).  I asked my vet (who is not an endurance rider) what she thought, and she suggested a rate of 52 bpm after 10 minutes of stopping work might be more reasonable, but she also said it would be best for me to really monitor his heart rate during and after work to get a good feel for what is normal for him.  That is good advice, but I was really hoping to avoid the whole heart rate monitor thing until we were competing in 25s and training for 50s.  I'm already messing around with hoof boots, breast collar, and pommel pack, and I'd like to not have to add one more thing until I get used to the crap I have.  So I'm wondering if I should just get the heart rate monitor now or if I should stick to my original plan to use my perception of how hard Nimo is working until we get to more challenging distances.  Gaaa!!!!!

But, overall, this was a great ride.  My horse is definitely in much better shape than he was 7 weeks ago, which means that what I've been doing is working.  Whether he's getting into shape as efficiently as possible isn't really a concern for me.  I really don't want to push too hard, and I'd rather take longer to get the conditioning level than risk an injury because I did too much.  I've at least got a stethoscope now, so I can start monitoring heart rate recovery and my initial impression is that I can probably push a little harder than I have been, especially as the weather cools down.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

And more of those pesky horseflies...

I took Nimo to the Manassas Battlefield on Monday for some more conditioning work because I was committed to getting some trot work in, and I tried to block Saturday's miserable experience from my brain.  The day before, I'd gone to the Visitor's Center to pick up an annual pass, so I didn't have to keep buying the daily passes, which can only be purchased at the Visitor's Center, where there is no horse trailer parking.  And, if any employee from the Battlefield is miraculously reading this post, please understand that it is stupid to require that passes be purchased only at the Visitor's Center (instead of online, like many other parks) when horse trailers cannot park there (except briefly to buy the pass).  It is also stupid that the map of the horse trails is not published online, like the map for hiking trails.  I was able to obtain the map below from the Visitor's Center when I purchased my pass, and it is significantly more helpful than just hoping that the signs will provide trail information along the way.  According to this map, the Main Loop is 10 miles, the Brawner Loopis 8.5 miles, the Portici Loop is 3 miles, and the Matthews Hill Loop is 5 miles.  Of course, it is not quite so clear where each of loops actually starts, so I brought my GPS to help with mileage readings again.

We were once again on our own for this ride, which was actually a good thing, as much as I would have appreciated company.  The Battlefield trails are active enough that they probably come close to simulating an endurance ride.  Riders are coming from both directions, there are some hikers, and sometimes you are either passing or being passed.  So one great thing that came from this ride is that I learned a little bit about how my horse reacts to passing and being passed.

Our ride started off hot and muggy at about 9:30 (I meant to start earlier, but I dinked around because I wasn't meeting anyone), and I had killed 7 horseflies within the first 8 minutes of the ride.  The horsefly population was definitely lower than on our ride on Saturday, but they were still pretty bad.  However, I was insistent that we were going to be doing trotting work...until I realized that Nimo just didn't have the energy for it.  He was moving well at the walk, even a little faster than usual, but he was really lackluster at the trot.  After pushing him for a couple of miles, I gave it up, and figured we would just walk for awhile and maybe turn around before the 4 mile mark (my goal was to do at least 8 miles).  The heat and humidity were just too awful.

However, after we walked for probably about a mile and half, Nimo seemed to really perk up.  This perkiness may have been due to the constantly biting horseflies, but just when I was thinking we needed to turn around, he took off trotting like a bat out hell (my horse rarely canters unless he has a really good reason, like thinking he will be attacked by aliens or I'm threatening to beat him in the arena).  I think what happened was that he got bitten by a bunch of horseflies at the same time.  I think this because shortly after he started trotting, he also started bucking and weaving, and then darted up a rocky trail we hadn't been on, and that possibly was not even a horse trail.  Out of the corner of my eye, while dodging tree branches, I caught a sign that said "Winery Access."  I admit that I briefly contemplated the chances that I would be able to get to the winery, that they would serve my sweaty, stinky self, and that I could convince my husband or a friend to bring my trailer to pick us up.  Then, I was forced to pay attention to my immediate problem of a semi-out-of-control horse on an unknown and ungroomed trail.  Luckily, Nimo's antics must have worked, and he slowed down, free of horseflies.

We walked for a little bit while I contemplated the winery again and tried to decide if we should keep going a little more.  I finally decided that we should turn around because I was pretty sure that the distances listed in the map were wrong and what I thought might be a 10-mile doable loop was likely much longer.  So we turned around, and my horse surprisingly maintained his perky attitude.  So we trotted.  And trotted.  And trotted some more.

And by trotting, I mean something that went like this:  Horse trots for 30 seconds or so.  Horse abruptly halts and tries to buck horseflies off his butt.  Rider pitches forward and then flails around trying to kill the offending horseflies.  Rider manages to kill one or two horseflies.  Horse resumes trotting for 30 seconds or so.  Horse abruptly halts and nearly unseats rider...and so on and so on until I wanted to lie down in the leaves in a fetal position and cry because I was so hot, sweaty, and ANNOYED.

Then, finally, we got a break from the terrible Reign of the Horseflies, and we pretended to be a real endurance team.  And by that I mean that we allowed someone behind us to pass.  And then we walked for awhile even though Nimo wanted to trot to catch up.  And then we trotted and we got to pass someone - WhooHoo!  And then we walked and got passed again.  And then, somehow during this leapfrog game, Nimo actually settled into this great trot.  It was probably about 9-10 mph and he maintained his pace very consistently despite a winding trail and changes in the footing from gravel to mud and he was on a loose rein!  It wasn't a very long time period, but it was there.  And then he did it again a little later.  I have to say that getting that trot, even for a short time, made every misery all weekend totally worth it.  I was able to relax a little and let my shoulders lose some of their tension and just enjoy the lovely trail.  And I hope Nimo was able to do the same.

We did do a little more trotting after that, but we were getting close to the trailer, and I wanted to make sure we walked the last 15-20 minutes to give Nimo a chance to cool down.  Unfortunately, we were passed by a group near the end and while I tried to maintain a respectful distance back (because of course, Nimo picked up the pace a bit with horses in front of him), the group inexplicably decided to trot the last 1/2 mile back to the trailers.  So, I got to spend some time working on the collected trot as Nimo fought to trot back too.  Luckily, another group soon passed us from the opposite direction and Nimo was torn about which group he'd prefer to follow, so he walked slowly the last few minutes.

However, when we got back to the trailer, he was still panting pretty hard.  I knew he was ultimately going to be fine because he is actually pretty good about telling me when he's had enough and his motivated trotting told me that he was still feeling OK, but I did want to get him cooled down fairly quickly.  He never drinks water at the trailer, although he will out on the trail if he gets hot and thirsty, so when I filled a bucket for him, I honestly didn't expect him to drink, but he did.  Which was great, because now I know he will drink if he's thirsty.

The problem that I have discovered with a lot of trailer parking areas is that they seem to be some kind of vortex that sucks in heat and humidity to make them feel like saunas.  I'm not sure this parking lot is usually like that because it seems open enough, but the sun beating down on us was HOT!  And there wasn't much of a breeze either.  After sponging Nimo off and walking him for a few minutes, I decided the best course of action was to load him and head home.  I've got a pretty open stock trailer, and I thought the breeze created when we were traveling might help cool him better than wandering around a sauna.  So, I loaded him up and headed home.

I think that strategy worked well.  By the time we got to the barn (about 30 minutes), he was cooled down, breathing much better, and starving.  So I tucked him in his stall for a few hours of resting and eating before turnout and called it a day.

So that wraps up my holiday weekend of riding.  Nimo definitely earned a few days off before some arena work on Thursday.  Thankfully, the temperature and humidity has come down significantly and evenings are actually a little cool now.  With any luck, we won't see the crap we saw this past weekend again until next June or July.