Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reflections, part 2

Having a baby was actually something that my husband and I planned for very carefully.  In fact, as a way to escape my stressful government job, I had taken all but three courses needed for a masters in secondary education.  My goal was to be teaching before I had the baby, so I could have better hours and probably work much closer to home (my commute to the office was about 1:45-2:00 EACH WAY) after the baby was born.  But after completing all my hours of observation, plus a couple of job interviews, I realized that while I absolutely loved the coursework and adored preparing lesson plans, I wouldn't fit in at all in the public (or even private) school world.

It isn't my intention to offend those who are strong supporters of compulsory, state-sponsored education, but my observations, including those at one of the top high schools in the country, led me to conclude that schools are nothing more than prisons for children where psychological abuse is quite common.  Many teachers, even those at the elementary level (I observed some 6th grade classes too), use sarcasm and humiliation as weapons to induce compliance, and that is incredibly damaging, especially to more sensitive kids.  My classes had taught me all about research-based methods of teaching, that were based on how kids really learn, but public school systems as a whole disregard those methods and replace them with teaching to the test and rote memorization in a desperate attempt to improve standardized test scores.

After watching some 8th grade special needs classes, 10th graders in a "team taught" interdisciplinary class of 65 kids where I couldn't even hear what the teachers were saying in their constant lecture mode, and some 9th graders in a history class where their teacher constantly called them names (even the department chair acknowledged the teacher was probably doing illegal things in the class room, but nothing had been done to start the firing process), I felt so sick about our education system, that the thought of participating in it was too much for me.  I have many friends and family members who are teachers and school administrators, and I know they try hard to do the best they can.  But it is a losing battle.  I think there are some alternative private schools (and probably a few innovative public schools) out there, but it was one thing for me to work in an environment where Federal dollars and fellow co-workers were abused, and it was another to do that to kids.  So I dropped out of the masters program, and I was angry.  I felt like my dream job had been taken away from me.

Meanwhile, my husband and I continued to talk about timing for the baby, and as I mentioned in my last post, I did get pregnant.  It was about the only thing that worked out as planned for me, except that it didn't in the end.

For the first trimester, we only told a few close friends, wanting to save the big news until after the first trimester had passed.  And those first many weeks were wonderful.  I was excited to be pregnant and while my husband became focused on finishing up a variety of home improvement projects, I just loved reading about how the baby was developing.  I was also fantasizing in a real way about leaving my job.  My husband and I had agreed that I would quit after having the baby, and I was so thrilled to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel for leaving that world behind.  I couldn't wait to be away from the constant stress and long hours.

Unfortunately, one of the close friends that I told got angrier and angrier with me as my pregnancy progressed (she had a young son of her own).  She was constantly offended by my thoughts on baby-raising and at the end of my first trimester, she broke off our friendship, accusing me of being a "hateful" person.  I was devastated and so upset that I thought I had a miscarriage the next day.  As it turned out, I didn't, but for her to deliberately put me through that kind of stress when my pregnancy was still vulnerable made me very angry (I hope you're starting to see the theme here...)

Once my pregnancy was announced to the world, I realized that my body wasn't my own anymore.  I had been going to see a local midwife with a birth center in hopes of having an attended home birth (the nearest hospital is only 10 minutes away and paramedics could be to our house in 5 minutes).  I despise doctors and hospitals and my research had led me to believe that I would be much better off with a midwife to assist with the delivery of the baby than with a doctor.  But as my pregnancy advanced, the constant tests got frustrating (blood tests, pee in a cup, etc.)  And everyone seemed to have advice and opinions for me.  I just wanted to enjoy the wonder of a new life, but I kept getting the life sucked out of me by people who couldn't help but criticize my choices, especially the one to keep riding Nimo.

It was my intention to ride as long as possible into my pregnancy.  In fact, during the first trimester, I took Nimo to a cross-country jumping course for the first time.  I was careful, though.  I choose a course that had tiny jumps (maybe 12") and I brought a close friend for supervision.  Nimo was awesome and we had so much fun.  I continued to take lessons until the end of my first trimester, when they just got to be too much for me.  The new trainer I'd gotten the year before was descending into the same hell pit as my previous trainer with the constant circles and minute "fixes" of my position and Nimo's headset.  I had made it clear I had no intention of showing, but she couldn't stop herself, I guess.  Anyway, this time I recognized the problem much sooner, and I stopped taking lessons, although I continued to have her ride Nimo once a week.  She seemed to do a good job with that and I wanted to keep him in some work while I ended up doing shorter arena sessions for my second trimester.

Then a heat wave hit in July and I stopped riding because it was literally over 100 degrees outside plus high humidity.  And then my in-laws came to visit for some final home improvement tasks.  And work hit a zenith of stress too.  And that trifecta was too much for my body.  I got my first high blood pressure reading at 31 weeks, and my midwife dropped me like a hot potato.  I got thrown into the medical system with an obstetrician who I believe was a misogynist, and because I was an "elderly" (yes, that's what my medical chart said) first-time mom, with the high blood pressure reading, I was treated like I was on death's door.  When my tests came back normal, I just had to repeat them, because there must be something wrong with me.

And finally there was.  I started excreting extra protein in my urine.  For those of you who don't know, high blood pressure plus extra protein equals PRE-ECLAMPSIA.  Pre-eclampsia is considered to be a very bad thing because it can mean that the placenta won't provide enough nourishment to the developing baby and the mom's kidneys and liver can be permanently damaged, particularly if the condition worsens to full blown toxemia.  It's not something to scoff at, but my research uncovered that there is no standard for diagnosing it (which means medically it's not a real disease) and that a lot of the care practices, like full bed rest, are misguided and may even be harmful.

I was ordered to go on bed rest anyway, and to be honest, for the first week, it was actually pretty nice.  But full bed rest means that you're likely to develop gestational diabetes, which I did.  (Note, for some reason that there seems to be no scientific basis for, pregnant women are subject to a different standard for blood sugar levels than normal people.  My blood sugar levels were actually fine for a normal person.  And I discovered that there were some researchers who believed that gestational diabetes didn't exist - that it was literally made up...)  Now I had to see a nutritionist because I couldn't possibly eat on my own.  When I refused to see the one my OB referred me to because she wasn't covered by my insurance (I said I would go see a different one who was covered instead), my OB issued a "termination" letter for noncompliance.  You see, I wasn't allowed to question him.  Or see my own nutritionist.  (Or my own endocrinologist).  I wasn't allowed to do my own research and take care of my own body.  So as shocking as it seems, OBs can just get rid of the patients they don't like.  Even more horrifying is that you can't get another one.  OBs will not take on new clients once they get much beyond their 4th month, particularly if they already have problems, for liability reasons.  So, in the United States of America, late-term pregnant mothers with fabulous insurance can end up with no medical care.

So, I kept my endocrinologist, who encouraged me to get off the bed rest and to not take the drug prescribed to me by my OB (it was not approved for pregnant women and was contra-indicated for women in the last couple of weeks of pregnancy).  Luckily, I had never taken the drug in the first place, and I took walks around the neighborhood and hung out at the barn with Nimo for exercise.

And shortly after I lost my OB, I lost my perinatologist (because I was old, I had to have a specialist in addition to my OB), who was told of my noncompliance and who informed me that at 37 weeks, I needed to just go to the nearest hospital and demand an emergency c-section.  When I refused, I was told not to come back to the office again.  That didn't bother me too much because the doctors there were so awful to me that I had to bring my husband with me for protection.  At one appointment when I refused to just have a c-section (I think at 35 weeks), I was told I was playing Russian roulette with my health and my baby's life and the doctor pantomimed putting a loaded gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

So, with no doctor for the last couple of weeks of my pregnancy, I got my own blood tests and checked them myself.  I had found a lab that would do blood testing for a reasonable price (because it wasn't through my doctor's office, my insurance wouldn't pay for it), and I knew what to look for to check to see if my organ function was affected.  My plan was to go to a nearby hospital for care (they had to take me - if a pregnant women shows up and needs medical care and she has insurance, they cannot legally deny her service) if anything looked off in my blood work or if something seemed wrong with the baby.  Ultrasounds up to that point had shown her to be above average in size, so I wasn't too worried about her nutrition, and I was determined to carry her as close to term as possible to ensure the best brain development possible.  I should note that I went to this hospital several times for monitoring throughout my pregnancy and I did find that one of the OBs there was actually pretty reasonable and she supported my decisions, although I did have to check myself out Against Medical Advice twice because one of the other doctors was nuts.  She tried to give me an emergency c-section at 31 weeks for no reason other than that my blood pressure was slightly elevated.

And then Nimo added to the fun by getting a nasty case of choke 4 days before my due date.  It wouldn't resolve on its own, so I had the vet out at 9 pm to take care of it.  A good friend came with me and I made sure she knew how to take care of Nimo for the next few days in case I went into labor.

The next morning, I was feeling light-headed.  That can be a sign that a person's blood pressure is too high, so I packed my hospital bag and headed to the hospital to have the staff check me and the baby.  My blood pressure actually wasn't too bad (it never worsened from the first reading), but they found that the baby's heart rate was depressed with a couple of contractions.  (Apparently, I was having contractions but didn't know it, they were so mild.)  Anyway, that was all she wrote.  Because I was already starting to dilate and was 100% effaced, I was a good candidate for induction, and that's what the doctor attempted to do (I got the good one, thankfully.)

But after several hours, I was no farther along in dilation.  I could feel the baby jammed up against my left side and I knew she wouldn't come out without me walking (which I wasn't allowed to do because then they couldn't constantly monitor the baby and pound her with high-intensity ultrasound waves that I expect will eventually be determined to be only used in extreme cases, due to the FDA's recent statement on not getting medically unnecessary ultrasounds) and probably massage from a midwife, which I no longer had.  I resigned myself to the inevitable emergency c-section that is quite common after failed inductions.  But first, the doctor raised the dosage of pitocin (an induction drug).  She wanted me dilating on a set schedule and she insisted on raising the dose.  Well, that led to me having incredibly painful contractions every minute and a half.  Let me say that those kinds of contractions are meant for the end stages of labor and are designed to get the baby out.  They are not meant to be endured for hours before the baby is ready to emerge.  So after 30 minutes of the most pain I've ever had in my life, I was forced to accept the constant drug-pushing by the nurses, even though I'd said I didn't want any drugs.  I have been run over by horses, and had the crap kicked out of me, but I've never felt anything like induction contractions.  I'm told they tend to be stronger than regular contractions and I believe it.  But the anesthesiologist was busy, so I endured the powerful minute-and-a-half contractions for an hour and a half before I got relief.

Shortly after getting the epidural, the baby's heart rate started to decrease (likely due to the massive amounts of pitocin I was getting plus the epidural), so the doctor finally gave up on the pitocin and that stabilized the baby's heart rate.  I'd already had an epidural, so preparations were made for a c-section.  In the meantime, I could tell that the epidural was wearing off (I guessed there was a problem with the catheter).  The anesthesiologist was sent for to fix it.  But instead of fixing it, he just gave me another dose.  A full dose.  Too much of a dose.  And paralysis began to creep upward from my waist while my arms and head started flailing on their own.  I was freaking out, but the nurses said it was normal, while quietly conferring with each other about getting the anesthesiologist again.  They thought he'd given me too much medication but he hadn't written the amount on my chart, and I could tell they were concerned.

But then, my baby's heart rate plummeted toward zero, and my husband started yelling, and the nurses started running.  I was wheeled into an operating room a short distance away.  All I really remember is feeling the numbness creeping up to my neck and the constant twitching of my arms, and the horrible knowledge that I was going to die and that my baby might die too.  I didn't know if the paralysis would affect my heart and lungs but I wondered what it would feel like if it did and whether death would hurt.  I wondered how my husband would cope with having a baby without a wife.

There was no time for proper sterilization, but the image of betadine being splashed everywhere is burned in my brain.  The doctor made the incision, and pulled the baby out.  I heard her cry shortly thereafter, and I was so grateful that she was alive.

After the surgery, I was given another drug to counteract the negative affect of the epidural, and after about 45 minutes, I felt better.  But because my arms didn't work, I wasn't allowed to hold my baby right away, as I'd requested.  And the cascade of problems continued.  My daughter wouldn't nurse properly and the hospital lactation consultants were useless at providing advice.  She started to lose weight and I was forced to start using formula because my milk wasn't coming in and my colostrum dried up, even with breast pump usage.  My blood pressure continued to climb instead of starting to go down (although it is supposed to come down over a period of weeks, not hours).  The nurses were constantly interrupting my sleep and the baby's sleep, and they wouldn't let me sleep with her, despite her insistence that she wanted to be near me (and my insistence that I wanted her near me and not in the nursery).  So, I stayed up, taking short catnaps while my husband held her.  Day after day went by and my health was not improving (probably due to lack of sleep and stress), so I told the doctors I wanted to check out.  They advised against it, even going so far as to say my insurance company wouldn't pay for the hospital stay if I checked out AMA.  I called their bluff and contacted my insurance company, which was horrified to find out about the lie the hospital had told me.  Of course they would pay for my stay and they were thankful if I could make it cheaper by leaving.

So I left the hospital.  And within one day, my milk came in and I started getting more sleep and life was OK for awhile.  But I was so angry about what had happened to me throughout my pregnancy and delivery.  I was sad to lose out on having a natural, drug-free birth, and it felt like a physical loss.  But at least I could have some time with my daughter and be away from prying and incompetent doctors.  Except for the pediatrician.

It never ends.  Once you are pregnant, it seems that society and the state have more of a claim on your baby than you do.  I was subjected to frequent pediatric appointments for a baby that was completely fine.  My daughter seemed to have survived the horror of the delivery just fine - no jaundice, no fluid in her lungs, no other indications that anything was wrong.  She was born at a very healthy 9 pounds, 11 ounces, and she had excellent motor skills for her age.

But I was still having trouble breastfeeding (likely due to the introduction of formula in a bottle) and additional consultation with a specialist and the pediatrician yielded only the assessment that I either wasn't trying hard enough, that my breasts were deformed, or that my daughter needed surgery on her mouth.  None of those things was true, but they were demoralizing to hear.  And the pediatrician didn't like my questions anymore than my OB had.

And after several weeks on maternity leave, my husband told me that we couldn't handle it financially if I quit my job.  That was the final blow.  I was so angry with him.  I mean very, very angry.  A kind of slow, seething anger than consumed me and made me hate him.

I went back to work for two hours a day for several weeks with the rest of my paycheck being taken up by leave that I had saved, so I could keep a full salary.  By 15 weeks after Gemma was born, I was on a part-time status and on leave without pay for the rest of my time.  I didn't need a full salary, not even a half a salary, just enough to cover my horse expenses.  Because that is what my husband said we didn't have enough money to pay for.  The implication was obvious to me.  Keep my job or get rid of the horse.

Well, I wasn't getting rid of the horse, so I worked a deal where my position would be converted to part-time and I would be able to telecommute most of the time.  Everyone said how lucky I was.  Just like they said how lucky I was to have a healthy baby, despite some challenges in the delivery room.  But I didn't feel lucky at all.  I felt consumed by anger, and hate, and grief.  I was getting more sleep than when I was pregnant, but it still wasn't enough, so I was constantly exhausted.  And my daughter wasn't an easy baby.  From the very beginning, all she wanted to do was eat and move.  Well she couldn't move much or well, so she was frustrated a lot.  And she didn't nap like the books said she would.

And that was when I realized that my feelings weren't normal.  That something might be wrong with me.  Something like postpartum depression.  Women who get c-sections are more prone to it, and I knew that, but I assumed it wouldn't happen to me.  Because I ate all the right foods and did everything that the attachment parenting books said would yield a happy baby.  But I knew I needed help, and I couldn't get it from a doctor.  (Note: I am not saying mothers with postpartum depression shouldn't see a doctor, but I hope you'll understand why it wasn't a good choice for me.)

I knew that I would find my salvation in my horse.  I always had.  Through all of the crappiest moments in my life, my horse has always gotten me through.  My mom had given me some money for Christmas and combined with some savings I had (in preparation for no job), I had enough to buy a horse trailer.  I wanted to get away from dressage for awhile (no more circles for me!) and getting a trailer (I already had a truck) would mean I could go on trail rides without having to borrow a trailer.  So I ordered a trailer (I had to get extra height and length for Nimo's size) and while I waited for it to come, I looked at trail riding options in my area.

And somehow, I came across Haiku Farms' blog.  And then I found Funder's blog.  And then I started reading the blogs on their blog rolls.  I loved reading the stories - some were moving while others were hysterical and still others were so informative (thank you Mel for posting so much!).  And all of these ladies sounded like the kind of people that I would love to be friends with.  Then I discovered Aerene Storms' Endurance 101 book.  I didn't know much about endurance riding until I read it, but the concept really appealed to me.  I devoured all the information I could find and when my trailer was ready in early April last year, I was ready to commit to conditioning Nimo for endurance riding.  But I was worried about being able to stick with it.  So I decided that writing a blog would help keep me on track.  I honestly never expected anyone to read it, but when I did a Q&A from Funder's blog, she commented on it, and I was beyond excited.

But lest you think all was well with my world, let me assure you that it was not.  Conditioning Nimo for endurance rides gave me something to hold on to - a definitive goal to work toward.  In fact, it felt a little bit like I had been drowning and my research into the endurance world gave me a handhold.  Depression isn't something that gets better overnight, and I struggled with being overwhelmed as a new mom, continued stress at my job, being unhappy in my marriage, grief at the loss of my sense of self, and anger toward the people that I believed took it away from me.  Every day when I drove to the barn, I would sob all the way there and all the way back.  All the emotion that I was trying to keep inside would leak out when I was by myself in the car.

With every mile that I rode, though, I could feel myself changing.  Every time I overcame a challenge, whether it was a crazy ride on a mountain in a thunderstorm, being attacked by horseflies and gnats, forgetting to drink enough and getting deydrated, or tack issues, a little bit of me was resurrected.  But it wasn't until after we completed the Fort Valley ride in October that I could tell there was a light at the end of the tunnel for me.  Going those 30 miles with Nimo when I didn't have faith that either of us would really make it fundamentally changed something for me.  The ride also reminded me that I am not alone in this sport.  From the lady who got in touch with me to help me learn where to condition my horse to the new friend who motivated me to ride even when it was cold or or I didn't feel like going, from the wonderful volunteers who helped us to the complete strangers who were genuinely interested in my horse, from the Ride 'n Tie rider who stopped to wait for me on the trail to the complete stranger who rode over 20 miles with me, and from all my fellow bloggers who had written about similar struggles to the readers who commented on my posts, I finally realized that the isolation I had been feeling for years at this point was self-inflicted.

Being part of the endurance world has had a profound effect on me.  I don't mean to say that any woman who is feeling depressed should try it (but postpartum depression is SERIOUS and any woman who has it needs help to get through it).  But no medical professional or drug could have had nearly the same effect on me.  I learned to question everything I thought I knew about horses.  I now have two new saddles, I switched from riding in a bit to a hackamore, I found a new dressage trainer, I moved my horse to a new barn, I trim my horse's feet myself, and I rode more miles in this past year than I probably have in Nimo's whole previous riding life.

The grief that I felt at losing the pregnancy and delivery that I wanted was gone.  The anger at my husband has evaporated.  I stopped crying when I drove to the barn and listened to my favorite songs instead.  My relationship with my daughter improved - I felt more comfortable with what I was doing and she seemed happier too and I started enjoying time spent with my little family instead of feeling an intense need to escape to the barn.  During my most recent performance evaluation at work, I was complimented on my outstanding communication skills (WHAT???  I somehow changed from being sarcastic, insubordinate, and too-honest to diplomatic.)

And my relationship with my horse has changed too.  I had become desensitized to his beauty and personality, even maybe feeling like they were negatives.  But seeing Nimo through the eyes of my readers and other people I've met has renewed my appreciation of him as the unique individual that he is.  I no longer view him as an obstacle to overcome, but as a partner on my journey.

So, dear reader, as 2014 comes to a close, I reflect on the person I was before and the person I have become.  And I couldn't be happier with who I am now.  I am still very much a work in progress.  I will never be perfect and my life will never be the same.  But that's OK.  I no longer want perfection.  I want a messy life that is complete with experiences worth having, friends worth having them with, and a family to share them with.  My happiness is my responsibility, not someone else's, and I have learned how to get my groove back.  The process was not easy - there were so many times that I wanted to quit and there were so many days, weeks, and months when I didn't know if or when I was going to make it to the other side.  But each time, I imagined the supportive comments I would get from all of you when I explained why I wanted to quit.  I knew all of you would understand if I explained it.  But that was the very thing that kept me going.  I could never have imagined how wonderful this endurance-related equine blogging community would be and I owe all of you who blog about endurance and read and comment on my blog a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.  I don't know where I would be without my endurance experience, but I don't think it would be a good place.

For the first time in a long time, I am looking forward to a Happy New Year and I wish it for you as well.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reflections, part 1

As 2014 winds to an end, I think it's time that I shared the story of how Nimo and I came to the world of endurance.  I think I can pinpoint the beginning of our journey to the time that I almost attacked my dressage trainer with a whip.  It was many years ago - maybe October of 2010.  I had been riding with the same trainer since just before I had gotten Nimo in the summer/fall of 2003, and while things had gone well for the first couple of years, over time I noticed that our lessons kept getting more and more micro-focused.  We went from working on leg-yielding, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and lots of patterns in the arena to mostly trotting circles and transitions between the walk and trot (we almost never cantered).  My trainer's justification for this focus was that we shouldn't be doing anything more advanced until we had mastered trotting circles (he even said I shouldn't be riding outside the arena because Nimo wasn't balanced enough to be able to walk up a hill).

To this day, I'm still not sure if what my trainer did was on purpose to see how long it was until I couldn't take it anymore (as some kind of sick psychological experiment) or if it was just that as the trainer got older, he got lazy about teaching.  It is one of my few regrets that I didn't see what was happening much sooner.  But I think it was a case of something that Temple Grandin calls "bad becoming normal."  The negatives incrementally crept into our work, and we moved away from progressing to regressing.  My trainer blamed it on my poor riding.  He called me names, which I brushed off, thinking it was just his way of communicating.  I felt lucky to be able to work with someone so accomplished in dressage and so I took what amounted to mental abuse because I thought it was the price I had to pay to learn and get better.  I saw so many other trainers who did nothing for their students, and I felt privileged to have avoided the plight of their students.

But what was happening to those students was the same thing that was happening to me.  I was the victim of a trainer's ego and much like a frog put in cold water, I couldn't tell that the water was gradually getting warmer until I was in danger of boiling to death.  Until the fall of 2010.  I had become increasingly frustrated with all the trot circles we were doing.  It felt like 30 minutes each week of endless circling while I could not figure out how to ride my horse.  Riding had become torture, and I was actually considering selling Nimo because I felt so awful about my riding skills. 

Work was also not going well.  In 2008, I had finally reached my breaking point for my job with the Federal Government managing a popular and politically-controversial grant program.  My health was poor - I was sick all the time, I had 3-4 migraines a month, I had panic attacks, and I couldn't sleep.  Almost eight years of working on that program was killing me just like it had almost killed a co-worker of mine (who became an alcoholic until he got a new job).  So, I found out about a detail opportunity and took it.  The detail meant much lower levels of stress, but after 8 months it ended, and I was thrown back into a highly stressful environment as I attempted to clean up a mess years in the making.  The stress at work and the inability of being able to use riding as a stress relief valve was making me more and more miserable.

And so it was that as my trainer kept hounding me about my position for the 100th circle that day, something inside me shattered.  I felt this rage inside me like nothing I'd ever felt before.  And I turned Nimo to the center of the circle, raised my whip, and rode at my trainer with every intent of hurting him.  Luckily, somehow I was able to catch myself and I stopped Nimo just short of my trainer.  I'm sure there was no mistaking my intent, but my trainer very gently told me that maybe we needed to wrap up for the day.  I agreed and got out of the arena as fast as I could, feeling a little embarrassed and a little shocked at my behavior.

But I knew I could never ride with that trainer again.  I finally woke up and recognized the boiling water around me.  I immediately went searching for a new barn and a new trainer.  I found both fairly quickly and by mid-December, I had moved Nimo and was starting lessons with a new trainer.  The other thing that I did was to buy Jane Savoie's Happy Horse program, which provided a lot of tools for me to use when schooling on my own.  Those tools helped convince me that maybe I wasn't such a bad rider after all, and all of a sudden, riding was fun again.  I was still very much a "dressage queen," but the barn I'd moved to had a couple of fields to ride in as well as a neighborhood that was safe to ride around, and I began incorporating small amounts of work with Nimo outside the arena.  It was pretty scary at first, though.  Nimo was not reliable either inside or outside the arena - he spooked at everything and it wasn't uncommon for him to spin and bolt.

Over time, though, my confidence increased, and Nimo got better - not great, but better.  In fact, he improved enough that I decided to take him to his first real trail ride.  I e-mailed the organizer to explain that it would be our first trail ride and to ask if the ride would be appropriate.  She said it would be, so I happily loaded Nimo in a trailer borrowed from a friend and hauled him to the ride.  After missing a turn and learning that it is possible to turn around with a loaded horse trailer on a narrow mountain road without taking out anyone's mailbox, I finally arrived at the location, only to find out that the ride was actually the next day (I guess the date was misprinted on the website and everyone figured that out but me...).

So, the next day I took Nimo to the ride location again and met up with 4 crazy ladies.  They were hard-core trail riders and fox-hunters on thoroughbreds or other well-conditioned horses.  And Nimo and I spent the next 2 hours trying to keep up with them (the ride was not appropriate for a first trail ride at all...).  Nimo actually did a great job - even launching himself over a 6-foot vertical embankment into a 4-foot deep river and impressing the hell out of the other ladies because their horses had gone an easier route.  Of course, then because it was a hot and muggy August day and Nimo had been working really hard, he laid down in the river.  To be honest, I didn't really begrudge him the dunking.  He'd outperformed my highest expectations and he deserved a cool-down however he wanted it.  Looking back on that day, I wish I hadn't let him work quite so hard, but he did recover OK.

And the seed for trail riding was sown.  I'd done quite a bit of trail riding when I was growing up, including an annual 2-day "wagon train" ride through the Badlands and other North Dakota wilderness for a few years, and I'd always loved it.  But when I moved to Virginia, the opportunities just weren't there, so I ended up leaving my western roots and converting to dressage.  But this ride reminded me how much I loved riding on the trails and missed it.  And apparently, my horse wasn't as defective outside of the arena as I thought he was, especially if he had company.

So, I continued to ride a lot and went on a couple more trail rides with one of the ladies I met at this ride.  But then she moved away.  And then I got pregnant...

Monday, December 29, 2014

Year-end Mileage Summary

This post will be short and sweet - Nimo and I put in 740 miles this year. Those miles do include all of our work, whether it was handwalking, lungeing, dressage schooling, trail riding/conditioning rides, or competitions. The bulk of the miles were conditioning miles, though. The one thing that I want to improve on for 2015 is keeping things more consistent - I noticed that there was a lot of variety in my monthly totals, ranging from 30 to almost 120. Ideally, I'd like to put in more like  80 miles a month with maybe a little more on months leading up to an LD.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bareback Milestone: Riding Outside the Arena

I didn't have a lot of time for a ride this morning, so I decided to throw the bareback pad on and take Nimo for a short ride.  I debated about whether I should ride in the arena for safety reasons, but I finally decided to see what happened if we went down the road that runs through the farm.  It's about 2 miles to go out and back and I figured that would be about perfect for the time I had.  So, for our third bareback ride, we ventured outside the arena.

And it was great!  We just walked because the footing is really not good in most places.  Virginia mud is so slick, and I wasn't excited about trying to balance while bareback with Nimo struggling to keep his footing while trotting.  But, at the last minute, I asked Nimo to duck into the woods for our last few minutes before we turned around and headed back to the barn.  I expected that the trails in the woods would be pretty boggy and not that much fun, but there was a short, steep incline into the woods from the road and I was feeling brave enough to see how negotiating it with no saddle went.

It was surprisingly easy.  I didn't feel like I was slipping off Nimo's back and Nimo didn't have any trouble either.  WhooHoo!

I think bareback riding is actually starting to grow on me - thanks for the inspiration, Liz!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Hoof Tools

I really only use a rasp and a hoof knife to trim Nimo's feet. The nippers are useless to me for removing any hoof because Nimo's feet are so hard. I just use them for trimming ergots because it turns out that if I use a hoof knife - for example, a brand new, very sharp hoof knife, I will slice my finger open (because why would I be wearing gloves just to trim an ergot?). So far, I've managed not to injure myself with the nippers; thus, they've been promoted from crap-that-I-don't-use-in-my-tack-locker to something-that-keeps-all-my-fingers-attached-to-my-hand.

I also bought a special radial rasp from Jaime Jackson's website a couple of months ago. It is supposed to help rough-in a mustang roll. I have only been beveling the hoof from the bottom, and I wanted to expand my skills a little to include the mustang roll. Well, I've used the rasp a couple of times and I don't like it. That is pretty typical for me, though. I am used to the tools I have and learning a new way of rasping has been challenging. I think the rasp does what it purports to do, but getting the hang of moving it smoothly is currently evading me.

What tools do you use?

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Christmas Day Ride

There are a lot of days when I wish I could have Nimo at my own place (plus maybe another horse or two, and a cow, and some chickens), but yesterday was not one of those days. We finally had a break in the rain and it was 55 degrees and sunny. I put the ham in the oven for dinner and headed out to the barn for a ride. I had made an adjustment in my dressage saddle that I wanted to check out, and I couldn't resist the sun:)

So I decided to take Nimo for a 2 mile walk down the road that runs through the farm. Anything that wasn't gravel was a swamp, but the road was halfway decent, although still slick in some places. The saddle felt good, so after our walk, we headed into the arena for some more disciplined work. I especially wanted to work on leg yielding at every gait, and after a brief warm-up where Nimo tried to insist that cantering on wet sand is just too difficult and he should only have to do a little bit, we worked on leg yield exercises at the walk, trot, and canter. I was really happy that Nimo did a good job on the canter leg yield because I want to start really working on counter-canter. I introduced it a couple of weeks ago to see what would happen, and it was promising, so I want to make sure I'm strengthening his inside hind in each direction to give him better balance for the counter-canter.

Anyway, after cooling down, we walked back into the barn and one of the other boarders was there getting her horse ready for a ride. She asked if I had time to walk down the road again with her and another lady who was trying an older OTTB for a possible purchase. Apparently, despite his advancing years, he could still be a bit of a pistol, and she wanted some company while she took him outside the arena. The other boarder had volunteered to go with her but she was worried because her horse could be unpredictable, so she was looking for more reliable company - aka Nimo.

I decided I had time, so after waiting for the other two horses to be saddled (Nimo was being a good endurance horse and took the opportunity to stuff his face with hay), we all went down the road. Nimo was a little confused about going down the road again, but he settled into the ride and was completely unphased when the other boarder's horse spooked at possibly nothing and took off bucking and cantering. The OTTB also did great and he looks like he'll be a nice trail horse. Nimo led the way back to the barn and there was no more excitement from our riding buddies.

What made this ride so nice was the company. I ride by myself a lot and it was awesome to have company. I like both the ladies I rode with and we had a fun conversation. Definitely not something I would get at my own place and it was such a great way to spend a Christmas afternoon.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

In honor of all of those lovely beasts that fill our lives with joy:

-Quotation adapted from Lord Byron by Unknown

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Rain, rain go away...'s hard to be in a Christmas mood when everything is wet and muddy. But we finally got the tree decorated (with no decorations on the bottom because of a certain curious toddler!) and I guess Mother Nature is giving us a Christmas present tomorrow with no rain! I hope all of you are finding time to enjoy your loved ones:)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bareback Milestone: Trotting

You may remember my post from earlier this month when I wrote about my new bareback pad. I had been meaning to fit in a bareback ride each week, but I haven't had a chance to try it again until today.

We got more rain yesterday and constant mist today, so the arena was pretty sloppy. I didn't feel like trying to work Nimo too hard in such crappy footing, but I did want to do something. So I got the bareback pad out, rigged up my super special mounting block, and hopped on.

I was surprised to find that I felt a lot more comfortable than I did the first time, and after walking around for awhile and then working on leg yielding and serpentines at the walk, I felt brave enough to give the trot a try. Nimo was pretty hesitant to trot at first - I'm sure he was reading my own insecurity - but I got him going in a slower trot and it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, we worked on trot several times, and each time felt better.

I'm definitely warming up to the idea of riding bareback and I'm pleased with Nimo's reaction. He didn't act like an idiot at all - even when the two mares in the field next to the arena started racing around like lunatics. So, I'm hopeful there will be more bareback milestones in our future:)

Monday, December 22, 2014

101 Apps for Schooling Inspiration

A few months ago, I found out that the 101 Dressage Exercises book that I love so much has an app for iPhones (I think there is also a version for Android phones).  I love the book, but it's kind of a pain to bring out to the barn and if I bring it to the barn, it ends up staying at the barn or in my truck and then I don't have it at home to look through for ideas before I go to the barn.  This app solves all that.  It is a bit pricey at $19.99, but it was worth it to me to have both the book and a way to remind myself of the exercises when I didn't have the book.  The only thing missing from the app is the intro and chapter narratives, which is not too big of a deal.  The narrative material is nice to read, but it isn't really necessary to use the app.

When you open the app, you get a scrollable list of all 101 exercises:

When you select an exercise, you typically get a total of 3 screens.  The first one is the diagram and the next two are the explanation.  It looks like this:

You can also scroll through the exercises when you're already in one.  So, if you want to find out what the next or last exercise is, you can just flick the screen sideways from any one of the 3 screens within the exercise you're currently in and you'll see another exercise.  It's a great way to scroll through the diagrams quickly.  I think there are probably some other sorting and organizing features, but I haven't used them, so I can't comment on how useful they are.  What is nice, though, is that you can also buy apps for 101 Schooling Exercises (different from 101 Dressage Exercises), 101 Western Dressage Exercises, and 101 Jumping Exercises.  I don't think 101 Lunging Exercises has been made into an app yet, though.  I think you're supposed to be able to set up all the apps using a central dashboard and then sort through them all, but that feature isn't something that worked for me (although I admit I didn't try very hard).

Like I said before, the price tag is a little steep for an app, but I definitely use the exercises more than when I just had the book.  On the other hand, I do love having actual books to look through when I reference them a lot, so having both the book and the app is working well for me.  For the budget-conscious and/or the smartphone addicts, the app alone will give you lots of inspiration without losing out on too much from the book.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Yesterday's Lesson

I realized that I've been taking lessons with Allison Spivey, of Sprieser Sporthorse, for about a year now.  Some of you may remember my first lesson with her last December, which resulted in a wintery adventure.  Luckily, getting to yesterday's lesson didn't involve going through any nasty weather.

I wasn't sure how it was going to go, however, because I had an epic fail last week and didn't ride my horse at all.  I'm not sure exactly what my problem was, but I just felt uninspired and unmotivated and like I just wanted to sit around the house.  I had plenty of other things to be doing, and I didn't do those either.  I'm hoping it was just a case of needing some downtime as my brain was struggling with all the typical commitments and activities of the holiday season.  Last year, I was ridiculously organized and got everything done on time, but I think one year of that might be all I have in me:)  So I slummed it all week (although I did still go out to see Nimo - I just didn't ride.)

Nimo has historically not done well with time off.  He seems to be one of those horses who not only needs to be in constant work, but who likes to be in constant work.  The work doesn't have to be demanding, but without it, he can get a bit fussy when he comes back into work.  As I was reminded yesterday.  There were a lot of antics which centered around bucking while cantering.  At one point my instructor jokingly (I think) offered this helpful instruction, "Don't get bucked off!  It would suck to be in the hospital at Christmas-time."  I joked back that it was a new movement that we had been working on to see if it could be incorporated into the dressage movement canon.  I actually was not in any danger of coming off because the bucking was really not Nimo's best work, although he was pretty consistent about it.  In case you are worried that maybe his tack was ill-fitting or something else was bothering him, I don't think so.  This kind of behavior is quite typical after he's had time off and then is asked to do more disciplined work.  I've never figured out the reason, but it may have to do with his back or some other part of him getting stiff and him needing to work the kinks out.

Regardless, we were eventually able to get some real work done, like 10 meter circles, leg-yielding, shoulder-in at the trot, circles in haunches-in, and we even introduced shoulder-in at the canter.  We also continued our work on canter transitions and ended the lesson with the best trot-to-canter transition he's ever done.

There was also a level of merriment just because of the holiday coming up, I think, and we did our lesson while another lady was also having her lesson.  Another trainer was working with her student via the loudspeaker system while Allison and I had earpieces to communicate.  It's kind of a cool set-up, and the trainers are used to working with each other, so there ends up being some coordination to the movements of the students and it kind of looks like we know what we're doing:)  Anyway, I always have a little extra fun in these types of lessons because the other trainer is pretty funny to listen to (she cracks a lot of jokes and has her own brand of sarcasm) and she works really well with Allison, who is also funny.  And then, of course, I'm funny:)  So it was a little bit like a party, and it was a welcome change from the more serious approach I take when I ride on my own and don't have anyone to interact with.

I am going to do my best to get back on a regular riding schedule this week.  It looks like there is a possibility of thunderstorms this week (dear Mother Nature, what???), but I should be able to find 2-3 days to get in the saddle.

Friday, December 19, 2014

How Nimo Came to Be Mine

In June 2003, my beloved Appaloosa, Preacher, had to be put down due to a very traumatic and irreparable injury.  It was heartbreaking and Preacher's story is one that deserves to be told in a separate post because he was one of those very special horses who is beautiful on the inside in a way that is not common among any species.  Someday I may write that post, but even though it happened over 10 years ago, it is still painful for me to think about.

After Preacher's death, I mourned his loss for several weeks, but I knew that I had a horse-sized hole in my life that needed to be filled despite my grief.  At the time, the first Lord of the Rings movie was out on DVD and one day while watching it (probably in some kind of unmotivated vegetative stupor), I became absolutely infatuated with the horses that the Nazgul were riding.  They were big and black with long manes and wispy feathers on their legs.  I HAD TO HAVE ONE.  I didn't even know what breed they were, but as I searched, I found the Friesian breed.  (As a note, I don't think there are actually any Friesians in the LOTR movies, but my brain is funny sometimes...)

So in spite of the fact that I lived in northern Virginia, with every breed of horse imaginable, many of which were available for very reasonable prices, I became determined to get a Friesian.  The prices were staggering, though, and my budget, while reasonable, was not extravagant.  I thought that maybe a Friesian-cross would fulfill my fantasy, but I just couldn't get those big, feathered feet out of my head.  And then I happened across a listing for a Friesian yearling that was at the very top of my price range.  I couldn't believe it.  I called the owner and set up a time to take a look at the horse.

I brought a good friend of mine with me to my appointment because I wanted to make sure someone with a clear head was there.  Plus, as a barn manager of a riding school/boarding facility with 65 horses, she had developed a good sense about horse personalities and she could spot lameness better than any vet.  I planned to rely on her for feedback about any conformation issues as well as any behavioral problems.  As it turns out, Friesian yearlings are ridiculously ugly, particularly when you consider that they become so beautiful.  Regardless, between my friend and I, we were able to determine that this particular Friesian was sound and had a very quiet personality for a yearling.

I decided to make an offer on the horse, contingent on a per-purchase exam, and the owner agreed.  We signed the paperwork and I called my vet.  (It used to be you could just buy a horse without paperwork, but with the amount of money I was spending, I was glad to have it...)

My vet came out and did a basic exam (no x-rays because it didn't seem necessary) and pronounced my soon-to-be horse a beautiful mover and very healthy.  I was thrilled and made the necessary financial arrangements, which involved a wire transfer (something I'd never done before).  I bought my new horse some new brushes and a halter and labelled everything with his name.  I was so excited.

As soon as I confirmed the wire transfer had gone through, I called the owner to confirm that she had received it and to make arrangements to pick up my new horse.  And that's when the owner told me she had decided she didn't want to sell her horse.

I remember first feeling pretty sick to my stomach because I had just transferred a pretty good amount of money into this woman's bank account and next, I was really angry because I'd started to get attached to the horse.  In the few days that had gone by between when I'd decided to buy him and when I made the payment, I'd gone out to see him every day and started doing ground work with him.  He was a lovely horse and I could already tell he would be a good partner.

Despite my attempts to convince this woman that she really needed sell this horse to me, she refused.  She was in tears and just couldn't part with her "baby."  I should note that she had a couple of other horses, including a two-year old "baby" from her own mare, and I had found out that she was strapped for cash and behind on her board, so she really did need to sell this horse.  The money she got from me would bring her up-to-date on her bills and give her some to spare, but she was quite frankly, a crazy person, as I would later discover.

I was never more thankful that I had signed that purchase agreement because it gave me the legal standing to ensure that I got my money back.  And honestly, I think I could have hired a lawyer to try to enforce the agreement.  There were no clauses in the contract that gave the seller the right to refuse the sale if I fulfilled my end of the bargain, which I had.  But, I'm not really a suing type, and lawsuits, particularly with crazy people, can drag on, and that wasn't what I wanted.  So I got my money back, licked my wounds, was sad about losing out on a nice horse, and went back to my search.

Shortly after this incident, I e-mailed the owner of Wish Upon a Ster Farm in Maryland.  I was now gun-shy about dealing with private sellers, and I figured working with a breeder would be a better choice.  I also knew that the prices were likely to be much higher - the previous Friesian I'd looked at was priced well below market price - and I wasn't sure if I could make it work.  I was actually thinking about doing an in utero contract just to be able to afford a Friesian.

As it turned out, Steven Feys (the owner) was awesome.  I told him my budget and he didn't have any yearlings in that price range, but he asked me to come out to his farm anyway.  He said there would be no pressure for me to buy - I could just meet some Friesians and we could talk terms if I found one I liked or he would keep in touch with anything he had coming in that might meet my needs.  So, I brought my trusty friend as well as another friend (who passes up the opportunity to see a whole bunch of Friesians?) and we made a day out of visiting the farm.

I can't remember exactly how many Friesians he had, but there were quite a few, some mares in foal, some younger horses broke to ride, a couple of yearlings, and maybe a weanling or two, although not all of them were for sale.  There was one mare, Whinney, who was in foal, and she captured all of our hearts.  Her price tag was $40,000, though, so even if we'd pooled all of our resources, we couldn't have afforded her.  There was something about her, though, that still makes me think of her every so often.

I ended up turning my attention to the two yearlings.  They were out of my price range, but because I was there, I figured it couldn't hurt to look at them, right???  So we took each one out to the round pen and free-lunged them for a few minutes and just hung out with them.  As promised, Steven was totally low-key about selling them, and he encouraged us to look around and interact with the horses as much as we wanted pretty much on our own while he went off and did whatever chores he needed to do.

I asked my friend with the great horse sense how she felt about the two yearlings.  One was a filly and her evaluation was that this horse would be much like the yearling I'd already tried to purchase.  She would be easy to work with and quiet.  The colt, on the other hand, was going to be a "pain in the butt."  He was spunky and she said he'd be a bit of a challenge to work with.  Hmmmm....

I thanked Steven for letting us look around, but I didn't commit to buying any horses.  (I am, to this day, amazed and very proud of that moment.)  I took some time to think about what I'd seen and to continue horse shopping.  But that little yearling colt kept popping into my mind:)  And so, I think it was maybe two weeks after my visit, I e-mailed Steven to see if that yearling was still for sale.  He was.  And I was able to work out some terms to the sale allowing me to pay the bulk of the price up front and then take a few months to pay off the rest.

After I signed the paperwork, Steven and I headed back into the barn so I could hang out with my new horse.  The stalls in the barn were all steel mesh, which created great airflow and allowed the horses to see each other and make faces at each other when they were in their stalls.  I think it was set up that way more so that all the horses were on display for potential buyers, but it also created a very open environment that works well for Friesians.  Even the mares were friendly and liked being able to see their neighbors.  Anyway, there were two Dutch teenagers sitting on the concrete ledge below the yearling's stall.  They were there to work as part of an exchange program and they were taking a break at the stall of whom I learned was a barn favorite - the yearling I'd just agreed to buy.  I'm not sure if that yearling knew Steven and I were coming down the aisle or if we just caught him in a moment of deviance, but we watched as he grabbed a hold of one of the water buckets in his stall and dumped it on the girls sitting in front of him.  Because of the steel mesh design, they got totally doused in water.  And I was completely enchanted:)  Everyone laughed about what a clever horse he was, and he basked in the glow of knowing he was special.  I then learned that it wasn't uncommon for him to take an afternoon nap in his stall and while he was laying down, a young child would come to hang out with him.  He was then, and is still to this day, a strange mixture of gentle and devious.

And that is how I knew that his registered name of Geronimo was just not quite suited to him.  He was too much of an imp to carry the weighty, formal "chiefness" of the name, so after some debate, I decided to shorten it to Nimo.  Now that he is older, he has grown into Geronimo, but for anyone who has known him for many years, he is just Nimo.

And so, this is the story of how Nimo came to be mine.  As my friend predicted, he has often been a challenge to work with, but it is a price I am happy to pay.  He has enriched my life in ways I never knew to be possible and he is as special to me as the horse I lost before him.

Nimo a few days after I bought him.
Nimo being free-lunged.
That famous Friesian trot!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Night walking

Over the past several months, I’ve very inconsistently been doing some hand walking with Nimo on days that I don’t ride.  I really did quite a bit of hand walking for several days after our Fort Valley ride in October, and I realized that it might be a good way to incorporate some exercise for me too.  I used to think that running around after a two-year old should be enough, but over time, I have come to the conclusion that I really need to be doing something that is really designed as exercise.  Riding is certainly a work-out, particularly when we have a dressage lesson, but I feel like I need something that doesn’t involve me also paying attention to someone else (either my daughter or my horse).  Unfortunately, I really don’t have a lot of free time, and I don’t actually like going to the gym or running.  But I do like walking.

So, starting at the end of last month, I’ve really been making a commitment to hand walk Nimo down the driveway at the barn (which is a half-mile) a couple of times a week.  Sometimes I just have time to do a mile, but I feel like that is better than nothing.  I’m hoping to get up to doing 3-4 miles in the next couple of months, and possibly, maybe, adding in very short amounts of slowly jogging.  I really despise running, but I think it’s important for me to improve my fitness level and I’m sort of thinking that jogging/running will be helpful for cardio improvement.

You might have noticed that I’m still attached to my horse for this activity, but he’s really good at staying with me now that he’s used to what we’re doing, so he doesn’t require much of my attention.  And particularly when we’re headed back to the barn, he really moves out at the walk, so I use that as motivation to pick up the pace.  And there is something about the darkness that makes what we’re doing feel different, which I like.  Somehow it doesn’t seem as tedious to be doing the walking when we’re surrounded by the dark, and Nimo always acts a little more alert when we walk at night instead of during the day.  I also like hanging out with my horse when he isn’t under saddle.  I know that there is a saying about lots of wet saddle blankets being necessary for the training of a horse, but I feel like we might actually be getting enough of those now and it’s time to work on other parts of our relationship.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Haylage for Horses?

What is haylage, you ask?  It is basically fermented hay.  When grass or legumes are cut for hay, they are typically allowed to dry out to maybe a 20% moisture level.  When grass/legumes are cut for haylage, they are baled at a much higher moisture level (maybe 50-60%).  Then the bales are sealed in plastic wrap and allowed to ferment.  This type of product has typically been utilized more for cattle, sheep, and goats.  In fact, North Carolina State University's Cooperative Extension Service recommends against feeding haylage to horses because of the possibility of mold, which can occur if the haylage isn't baled properly or the plastic bag is compromised during fermentation. 

However, I came across an alfalfa haylage product called Chaffhaye.  The website has a lot of information about the product - more than is usually seen, in my experience.  I decided to drink the Kool-Aid and buy a couple of bags to feed Nimo probably almost 18 months ago.  He ate it well-enough, but I could tell it was not his favorite food and when he had the ulcer-scare a little over a year ago, I ended up taking him off all of his feed except for hay for a few weeks.  Because the Chaffhaye was kind of a pain for me to get - I had to meet a dairy goat breeder (the only dealer in my area) in the middle of a parking lot to make an exchange of goods for money.  It was making me feel a little bit like a drug dealer, and it really wasn't convenient at all, so I stopped using it until a couple of months ago when a feed store near the barn started carrying it.

Nimo still absolutely prefers regular alfalfa hay in a bale to Chaffhaye; however, I came up with the idea of letting him eat it out of the bag, so now he thinks he's really getting something special and wolfs down several pounds of it every day:)  (It turns out that Nimo is only smarter than I am sometimes!)

Why don't I just feed regular alfalfa instead, you ask?  It's hard to find a consistently good-quality alfalfa hay in this area.  Sometimes the bales are great, sometimes they are moldy and incredibly dusty.  Even Standlee's compressed bales that I had been getting from a local Tractor Supply store were a little dusty, despite looking really good.  And they were expensive (almost $20 for a 50# bale)

Here's why I prefer the Chaffhaye over regular alfalfa.
  • It's a little cheaper ($16 for a 50# bale).
  • It's not dusty, ever.  It is always nicely moist, but never wet.
  • It's never moldy.  The way Chaffhaye is chopped and bagged means the quality control is pretty good and I've never had a bag look anything other than fantastic.
  • The bags are rain proof.  You can literally store these bags outside in all weather conditions until you're ready to use them.
  • Because it is a bagged hay, I don't get hay all over when I haul it.
  • The Non-Structural Carbohydrate level is 3.5-4.2% on an as-fed basis.  I'm not an expert on insulin-resistance or Cushing's disease, but I think that level of NSC is pretty safe, even for horses that need a low-starch diet.  It's not an issue Nimo has, but I'd like to keep it that way:)
  • It's GMO-free.  In case you didn't know, alfalfa is often "RoundUp Ready," which means it has been genetically modified to not die when Monsanto's RoundUp herbicide is sprayed all over it.  I'm not a fan of GMO crops or Monsanto, so I am happy to buy a product that isn't a part of that cycle.  However, because Chaffhaye is also weed-free, I'm sure there are still chemicals used on it.  I'd buy organic if I could, but I suspect all the organic alfalfa ends up with the commercial organic dairy industry for the cattle and goats.
If you're thinking about trying Chaffhaye, here are a few things you should know.
  •  It's fermented, so that means it smells sort of sweetly sour.  I think it smells OK, but some picky eaters may get turned off by the unique odor.
  • Once you open a bag, you've got 7-10 days to use it up.  In the winter, you can push it a little because of the cold, but in the summer, using it up within a week or so is ideal because the warmer temperatures can push the fermentation process into overdrive and that's when mold can form.
  • The company reports that it does spray the chopped alfalfa with a molasses to jump start the fermentation process.  I mentioned the low NSC level above, but I think it's still important to know about the molasses.
  • There can be white yeast colonies located throughout the bag.  They are usually on the top or the sides.  They can be surprising, but they are totally safe, according to the company, and they are the good yeast just doing their fermenting thing.  Nimo has eaten many of the yeast colonies and never had an issue.
  • It can be hard to get - not very many feed companies carry it and shipping it from the one online place (Countryside Organics in Virginia) I know that carries it is so expensive that you might as well learn how to grow alfalfa in your yard.
So, I'm going to disagree with North Carolina State and say that haylage is OK for horses if you can find a good source like Chaffhaye.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Christmas List

As Christmas approaches, my husband reminded me that he needed some ideas.  Here is the list I gave him.  I don't expect to get everything on it, but I like to provide enough choices so that I am at least mildly surprised on the big day:)

  • 60" leather reins with handstops (I'm having trouble finding them, so if you know where I can get some, please let me know!)
What's on your Christmas list?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Initial Hoof Boot Review: Equine Fusion Ultimate Jogging Shoes

I've known for awhile now that I need to buy a smaller size hoof boot for Nimo's front feet.  I've been making the Easyboot Epics (size 5) work by using hoof pads (there will probably be another post about hoof pads at some point in the future), but the size 5s are definitely too big now.  I was hoping that I might be able to fit Nimo in either the Renegades or Cavallos or at least the Easyboot Trails, but his front hooves measure 6.5 inches in length and 6 inches in width, so the Renegades and the Cavallos don't work because they max out at 6" for length and the Easyboot Trails didn't have quite the right ratio of width to length.  I could have just bought a size 4 in the Epics, which would have been the smart thing to do.  The Epics have worked almost without fail for well over a year.  But...I don't like having to have both a special hoof pick and a pair of needle-nosed pliers and a set of spare cotter pins for every single ride.  I'd really love to be able to use a boot that doesn't have any hardware or gaiters, because the cables and the gaiters are the only things that have failed on the Epics for me.

I did try to put the Cavallo boots that I already have on Nimo's front feet, just to see how they fit, because I don't think they are going to be a good solution for his hind feet (interference scrapes).  The width is fine, but I had to wedge them on pretty tight to get them on, and then I had trouble getting them off.  So, no go on those because they are supposed to be easy to get on and off.

Then I came across hoof boots called Equine Jogging Shoes.  They don't have any hardware, like the Cavallos and Easyboot Trails, and are supposed to be lighter in weight and even machine washable.  The biggest size looked like a good fit for Nimo's measurements, and I managed to find them on sale during Cyber Monday (otherwise, they are a little too expensive for my budget).  I ordered them from The Horse's Hoof, although there may be other North American distributors.

They arrived from Canada last week and I decided to try them out on Saturday's trail ride at Andy Guest State Park.  It's a good place to test hoof boots because there are some rocky sections on the trails, a little bit of climbing, and a nice flat section to trot and canter.  Plus, if the boots don't work well, I can pull them and I know Nimo can handle the trail without boots pretty well.

Before I put the boots on, I held Nimo's hoof up to the outside of the boot to make sure it looked close enough in fit to try.  There was a little bit of space around the hoof in terms of width and just a tiny bit of space in length, so things were looking positive.  Then I had to use my rubber mallet to get them on, another good sign.  I should have taken pictures of the process, but essentially there are front flaps on the boots that open and another section on the front of the boot that pulls down.  There is a strap attached to the front section that goes through the toe of the boot and attaches to one of the side flaps.  It's movable, so it can be adjusted to help the boot go on easier and then pulled tight to bring the side flap against the hoof.  It sort of makes sense in terms of physics, but was there was a bit of a learning curve in using it.  It took me awhile to get the boots on and adjusted well enough for the ride.

The side flaps go up a little higher on the pastern than the Cavallos do, which I didn't really like.  On the other hand, the material was lighter-weight, so it seemed more malleable and like it would bend with the horse's movement.  The boot itself felt quite a bit lighter than either the Epics or the Cavallos, which was nice.  Additionally, the sole was lighter too, apparently in an attempt to get around the peripheral loading problem that using hoof boots can create.  If the sole can flex a little with the terrain, it helps alleviate the tendency for hoof boots to cause the same problem that shoes do, which is excessively loading the outer hoof wall.  I think you'd have to be riding on some fairly uneven and hard ground, though, before the additional flexibility of this sole would contribute significantly to solar loading of the hoof.  That's just my initial perception, anyway.  I don't have any way to really test that theory.

So, we did a 7.5 mile ride.  Most of it was walking, but we did do a little trotting and a short canter.  Overall, I felt like Nimo moved as well in these boots as he does in the Epics, which means pretty good, but not quite as well as he would move without hoof boots at all.  I think his knee movement tends to be slightly more exaggerated with hoof boots on, likely due to the extra weight on his hooves (same reason why Tennessee Walker show horses wear weighted shoes) and he is a little more uncomfortable cantering, although he will do it.  There was no rubbing that I could tell from the part of the boot that made contact with his pastern.

But...I think they are too big.  I could hear the tell-tale flapping sound that is associated with a loose boot after a mile or two into the ride.  It wasn't consistent, but it did occur often enough to be annoying.  I think a hoof pad would fix the situation, but my goal was really to get a hoof boot that fit well enough to not need pads.  The boots are too expensive, though, for me to just buy a smaller size, so I think we'll have to use these for awhile and maybe see if I can make some adjustments that will help them fit better.  One reason I suspect there may be a problem even though the length should be pretty close is that the back part of the hoof boot is not a really stiff material.  I wonder if Nimo's hoof is slipping back and out of the base of the boot a little, so I'm going to try to see if I can check that hypothesis and maybe contact the manufacturer or the store I bought them from for advice.  However, because that material is a little less rigid, I think it makes these boots a nicer choice for horses that have slightly higher than ideal heels.  Nimo's hind feet are closer to the ideal than his front feet are, and I know that additionally limits the likelihood that a Renegade hoof boot would work for him, at least up front.  With the less rigid material, a precise fit around the heel is probably not as important.  When I took the boots off after the ride, I felt pretty comfortable that there wouldn't be any rubbing from that material.

So, here are my initial conclusions.  The things I like about the boots:  they are lightweight, they don't need any tools to put them on (with the exception of a rubber mallet probably for the first few times until they are broken in), there is no gaiter to rip off while going down a mountain or during a particularly energetic trot or canter, and there is no hardware to break (although I suppose if you used the boots long enough, the stitching on the velcro could fail).  The things I'm not so crazy about:  the price (a pair of these at full price will set you back $236 plus shipping - if they last for a year, it's still cheaper than shoes, but it's quite a bit more than the main competitors), the height of the boot in relation to the pastern, the fact that there are no drainage holes on the sole of the boot (water can escape at a gap in the side flaps, but that still means about an inch of water could be slugging around in there until the horse's stride works it out), and the learning curve for putting on and adjusting the boot (the Cavallos are the the only boot I've tried that are actually easy to put on the very first time you use them).

I like them enough overall to keep using them for at least a couple of months to see if I can work on the fit issue, but I'm holding off on my final assessment until I can see them in action over more difficult terrain on longer and faster rides.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Ride by the Shenandoah

One of the places I ride at a lot is the Shenandoah River State Park, aka Andy Guest.  A friend and I met there yesterday morning to go for a relatively short ride and enjoy the slightly warmer, maybe even above 50 temperature.

This is how Nimo likes to show his love for me:

Muddy beast
I literally didn't notice how filthy he was when I got him from his field.  I was so distracted when I went to get him by the mud on his feet and legs that I couldn't wash off because it was 26 degrees outside.  I try not to hose his legs off when it gets below freezing because it seems a little mean and also because the hose can be a little finicky and I didn't feel like messing with it.  Anyway, when I unloaded him, I realized he was objectionably dirty.  Luckily, I got to the park a few minutes before my friend did, so I had some time to start scrubbing.  But WHY WOULD HE ROLL IN THE MUD WHEN IT IS SO COLD OUTSIDE???  I don't understand...

Once Nimo was slightly more presentable, we headed out.  There weren't any other horses on the trail, but we did meet a pack of mountain bikers dressed really colorfully.  Nimo is getting to be pretty good about bikes on the trails, but this group had him questioning their sanity.  Apparently no one should be wearing SO MANY DIFFERENT COLORS AT ONCE!

We encountered a few hikers too, but except for one biker who did not even slow down for us until my friend made it clear she wasn't moving her horse off the trail until he did, everyone was very polite and moved off the trail so they didn't scare our horses while we went by.  Nimo even tackled two of the three wooden bridges that are on the trail.  He is terrified of those bridges and typically needs to follow another horse, but we've been working on it and this time after he saw his buddy go over the first bridge, he was pretty good about taking the lead on the next two.

One of the offending bridges
We also took time to stop by the Shenandoah River and just hang out watching the water go by.  We like to speculate about times gone by and wonder how people decided to cross the river.  It's not huge at this point, but the current moves at a pretty good clip and it's hard to tell how deep it is.  I'm pretty sure I would have been the whiny settler who said things like, "Why can't we just stay on THIS side of the river?  Who cares if there might be better grass over there?"

Shenandoah River
It ended up being a nice relaxing ride and it was even sort of warm by the time we were done.  I also got the chance to try out some new hoof boots for Nimo, and I'll tell you all about them tomorrow:)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Boot Review: Dublin Pinnacle

The State of Virginia is generally a giant mud pit from November through April, unless we have colder than normal temperatures, in which case we get Snowmageddon.  I think the state averages around 50 inches of rainfall a year and it feels like most of it falls during late fall, winter, and early spring.  Coming from a state like North Dakota, where the area I lived in was very dry (something like 12-14 inches/year), all this rain takes some getting used to.  In fact, despite living here for over 13 years, I still have not gotten used to it.  Don't get me wrong, it's nice that things like trees grow here and that the grass is green for 9 months out of the year, and that there are never watering restrictions, but 50 inches of rain creates a lot of mud.

So last month, I was on the hunt for boots that I could use around the barn and that would work for cold weather riding.  Tall riding boots are OK, but they usually aren't waterproof, tend to be pretty expensive, and really aren't comfortable for anything other than sitting on a horse and not moving.  That said, I did have my eye on a couple of Mountain Horse brand boots that are not real leather and are meant for cold weather riding, so I headed over to the Dover Saddlery store to check them out in person.

As luck would have it, Dover didn't have my size in the Mountain Horse boots, but they were having a sale on the Dublin Pinnacle boot.  I tried on a pair and I decided they would work.  The big reason I liked them was because they had lacing on the side instead of a zipper, so I figured they would be much more adjustable.  The foot part of the boot was supposed to be waterproof and they were advertized as a "light riding" boot.  They seemed comfortable enough, so I decided to test them out.

I've been doing barn chores, riding, and running errands in them for about a month now and here's my assessment.  They are a great all-around boot.  They are, in fact, waterproof on the bottom portion of the boot (below the lacing).  I know this because I've been traipsing through mud puddles and hosing them off while my socks stay dry.  And while not advertized as a winter boot, they have a liner which seems to have an insulating effect, and I've been getting by with pretty thin socks in temperatures down to the mid-20s and my feet have stayed warm.  Now, if I'd been sitting doing nothing, I'm not sure if they still would have been warm, but as long as I'm moving or riding, my feet have been in good shape so far this winter, and I have enough room in the boot to wear a thicker sock if I feel like I need it.  Plus, they work pretty well for riding.  They aren't as tall as a tall boot would be, but that means that the boot doesn't irritate the back of my knee and I can easily move around in them.  They also have an extra layer of leather on the inside of the boot, so it can stand up to the extra stress of rubbing against a stirrup leather.  The lacing system works great, especially because I have wider calves and I no longer have to worry that if my breeches are an extra millimeter in thickness that my boots won't zip up.

In terms of what could be better about the boot...I think having the shaft be an extra inch or two in length would be nice.  When riding, there is some drop through the boot, so there are several inches between the top of the boot and my knee.  It doesn't really bother me in terms of rubbing from the stirrup leather, but I'm used to riding in tall boots or half chaps that come up to my knee, so it's kind of a weird feeling to have extra space above the boot.  Also, when I put them on, the inner liner catches on my sock as I'm putting my foot in, so I have to do some wiggling and adjusting to get the liner to stay in place.  It's not a deal-breaker, but maybe the liner could have been made out of a less "sticky" material.  And, when I'm sitting in my truck, the little bit of velcro that isn't covered by the top strap sticks to the seat.  That doesn't happen when I'm in my husband's car or a friend's truck, so it may be that the seat covers in my truck are the kind of material that sticks better to velcro.  Again, not a deal-breaker, but kind of annoying.  The only other comment I have is that if you intend to wear the boots all day doing barn chores, you'll probably want to add a sole insert because there isn't any arch support and the foot bed is a little on the clunky side.  I wouldn't want to do any hiking out on the trails in these boots unless it was a short distance, but I can wear them for several hours doing all-purpose type activities without a sole insert and still be reasonably comfortable.

Overall, these boots get 4 out of 5 stars.  They are well-made, seem quite durable, and if you can find them on sale, they are a pretty good value.  And they really do go from mud to riding, so I don't have to constantly be changing footwear, which I hate to do when it's cold outside.  These boots definitely get my recommendation, but I'd love to hear from you about what you use for winter boots:)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Dressage Schooling Routine #2

Yesterday, I mentioned one of the two regular routines I use when I work on dressage with Nimo.  Today, I'll talk about the second one.  I still do a 10 minute walk on a loose rein (outside of the arena when I can manage it), but instead of focusing so much on the walk, I'll go right into the trot for about 10 minutes.  I start out with a couple of big ovals around the whole arena (165' x 235') in each direction and then I'll start doing more like 20 meter circles with frequent changes in direction.  I'll follow that with a couple of canter ovals (again around the whole perimeter of the arena) and then take a short break.  (Cantering is hard work!)

At this point, I vary the work we do quite a bit from ride to ride.  I rely pretty heavily on 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider for inspiration.  I'll usually pick one or two exercises that are new to us and maybe one other one that is an old favorite and try to work on those.  Sometimes I end up doing something completely different, depending on how the arena is set up (sometimes there is a full jump course, and that makes it hard to do dressage patterns) and how Nimo feels (if he's really forward, I might take advantage of that and do more walk-to-canter transitions and more canter work in general or I might throw in some lengthenings).

Another thing that I may do on days where both Nimo feels good and I feel especially motivated is run through everything we know how to do one time in each direction.  So I'll do skip-a-gait transitions, lengthenings, laterals (mostly just at the trot for leg-yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and haunches-out and at the walk for half-pass), serpentines, counter-flexion through corners and on circles, spiral-in/spiral-out on circles, and whatever crazy pattern I can think of to really push both Nimo and I.  If we don't do something well, I'll file that information for the next ride instead of working on it then.

I have found through lots of error that Nimo cannot be drilled on anything.  His max for repetitions is probably 5 and he prefers 3 or less.  If I do something with him over and over, he literally shuts down and will get worse and worse.  I once allowed a trainer I was working with to ride him almost every day for 10 days.  At the time, he was doing very well and she wanted to use him for a demo.  Well, all she did was drill him for 20-30 minutes each day and when it came time for her demo, he refused to canter or even walk on the rail.  It was a terrible performance.  Nimo requires long (like an hour or more) sessions that are varied and make him think or he doesn't improve.  It took months to get him back to almost where he was before that trainer rode him.  Lesson learned:)

I'd love to hear about any particular exercises you like to work on or sources of inspiration!