Sunday, November 30, 2014

December Daily

(Note to horse lovers, there is a horse-related point to this post, but bear with me for a couple of paragraphs!)

If you are an avid scrapbooker, you may be familiar with Ali Edwards' December Daily memory-keeping system.  If you are not an avid scrapbooker, I congratulate you on avoiding yet another time-consuming and expensive hobby!:)  Essentially, December Daily is a system in which you document one story (or more) each day from December 1-25 in a scrapbook album.  Some people add December 26-31 to their albums and others even start documenting at Thanksgiving.  The scrapbooking can be digital or the more traditional paper and the size of the album is typically smaller than the old standard of 12x12.  Other scrapbooking companies have come out with their own versions of December Daily and there is even a similar year-long scrapbooking concept called Project Life.

I tried the system last year for the first time with my daughter, Gemma.  I've always loved scrapbooking, and having a baby generates enough pictures to keep even the most prolific scrapper in business for the next century, which is a big problem.  Because when you have a baby, you don't usually have time to scrapbook that much.  And once your child is old enough to stand and walk, there are very few places for ongoing scrapbook projects that are safe from prying hands.  So, I've done some digital scrapbooking and tried to at least keep my pictures organized for future scrapbooking.  But, when I committed to doing the December Daily project last year, I was able to keep up and by the first few days of January, my December scrapbook was DONE.  Plus, I was able to upload the pictures I used to Shutterfly and create digital versions of the scrapbook for the grandparents and get copies to them by Valentine's Day.  It was such an awesome feeling to have an album that was truly finished and now we have a wonderful reminder of both our special Christmas-related activities as well as our routine life.

Anyway, I plan to do a December Daily album for my daughter again this year.  But, I got to thinking about another special "person" in my life - Nimo.  Having a blog has definitely allowed me to document many of our stories over the past 18 months, but my blog posts tend to be focused on bigger or more significant events. I thought it might be nice to record some of the routines that we have or even just smaller stories that normally wouldn't rate a whole post.  So, for the month of December, I'm hoping to be able to post something every day that is related to Nimo.  It might be just a picture with a caption or a quick journal-type entry, but it could also be a more significant event, similar to what I already post.

I'm really looking forward to capturing the little things this month and I hope you enjoy a closer look into Nimo's life!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dressage Milestone: 10 meter canter circle

I've been spending the month of November getting re-focused on dressage.  While we're still doing at least one trail ride a week, those rides are shorter and less intense than they would be if we were actively conditioning for an endurance ride.  In place of all that trail conditioning, we've been working on our dressage schooling, which definitely got put aside pretty much all of October as we ramped up for the Fort Valley ride.

We've had two lessons in this month, and both have been just what we needed to check our progress and get back to being more disciplined in our arena work.  Yesterday's lesson, in particular, ended up being amazing.  I was riding in my new dressage saddle for only the second time (yes!  FINALLY!  more on that new saddle in the next few weeks), so I was still fine-tuning the fit for Nimo as well as thigh block and stirrup position for me.

As a follow-up to our last lesson, we were continuing to work on making sure Nimo was responsive to my leg aids.  As he sometimes will do when we are working a little outside his comfort zone, Nimo was substituting a transition to the canter in place of more forward engagement at the trot.  Usually, once we work through a few of those substitutions, he'll settle into work and really lengthen at the trot.

This lesson was a little different.  The canter substitutions just kept coming.  And, in fact, he threw in a couple of decent bucks (also a sign of work outside his comfort zone) and even walk-to-canter transitions (when I asked for walk-to-trot).  The canter was of very nice quality and the transitions felt and looked good, though, so we decided to just let Nimo do what he felt like he needed to do.  My instructor said that as long as he was giving us forward motion, we'd take it and see what happened.  (This is why I love working with my instructor so much - regardless of what her plans might have been for the lesson, she is so willing to work with the horse that I have that day, and it can lead to breakthroughs like the one we ended up having.)

We settled into working on 10 meter trot circles where the objective was to keep our tempo and pace consistent the entire way around the circle.  10 meter circles always seem so small to me until I have to work on something while we're doing them - then they seem endless!:)  Anyway, as I asked for more trot because Nimo has a tendency to fade a little during the second half of the circle, Nimo was still throwing in some canter strides, and then it happened.  I was really focused on making our 10 meter circle with a nice bend and good impulsion and as we started the circle, Nimo cantered.  It was a nice transition, he had good bend, and the canter felt smooth and balanced.  So we went with it.  And Nimo did his very first 10 meter canter circle - I'm not counting the one he surprised me with during our dressage show in September because it was supposed to be a 15 meter circle and he did it while leaning on his inside shoulder and being completely unbalanced and running around like a lunatic.  (For those unfamiliar with dressage levels, a 10 m canter circle is introduced in competition at 2nd Level.  We are in the stage where we are competing at 1st Level, so we want to school at 2nd Level where possible.)  This is a HUGE deal for us.  Nimo and I have struggled with canter so much for so many years, and to see him finally working with what seemed like minimal effort in the canter and advancing was just about enough to make me cry.

My instructor didn't really say much about it until the end of the lesson because we were in the middle of some kind of crazy pattern that involved doing 10 meter circles as we progressed down the long side of the arena and then there was crossing the diagonal, trot lengthenings, and leg-yields-to-canter transitions.  After both Nimo and I were good and tired, my instructor and I chatted about the lesson and this is what I think was going on with all the unsolicited canter work.  While it isn't uncommon for Nimo to offer canter instead of more engagement at the trot, in this case, I think it was actually that somehow my aids were getting communicated to him either a little more forcefully with the new saddle or the change in my position due to the new saddle was causing me to give the aids a little differently.  There was one time where I thought I was asking for a little more trot, and I literally got an explosion in forward movement, as if someone had literally lit a fire on his butt.  I am the last person to give any advice on what the proper aids are for any transition or movement in dressage because half the time, I don't even really think about them.  But because all the unasked for canter transitions were occurring while we were on a circle, I think that the aids I was using for the circle (inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth, outside hand making good contact, and inside hand asking for bend) were getting meshed with the aids for "more trot" (basically just squeezing with both legs) and that was pretty much exactly what I'd do for a canter transition (except I will usually move my outside leg back just a bit when I ask for canter on the circle), so Nimo was giving me what he thought I was asking for.  The reason he'd bucked a couple of times at the beginning of the lesson was because he thought I was asking for canter before we'd fully warmed up at the trot (he's very particular about that) and he was letting me know his back wasn't quite ready for the quality of canter he thought I was asking for (we usually warm up in the canter on a longer rein and we don't go right into 20 meter circles).

I'm sure many of you are wondering if the fact that I was riding in a new saddle that may not have been properly fitted for Nimo might have been the cause of the bucking and the confusion about the aids.  The main reasons why I don't think that is true is because the bucking stopped after the first few minutes of the lesson and the quality of the canter that Nimo was offering was just so nice - nicer than anything he'd given me before.  And I find it improbably that Nimo would offer a more advanced movement in a correct way if he was really uncomfortable.  Also, the first time I'd ridden in the saddle, Nimo hadn't given any signs that he was unhappy.  While it is my practice to take things easy the first time I ride in a saddle in case there are fit issues, I rode for over an hour at all gaits and over a few small cross-rails at both trot and canter without any issues.  However, I'm the first to admit that I don't work nearly as hard in our schooling sessions as I do in a lesson, so the degree of effort required in our lesson yesterday was leaps and bounds above what we'd done in our previous ride.  I guess time will tell if there are any fit issues with the saddle that I'm not seeing, but for now I feel comfortable that the saddle is OK.

If I'm right about what was going on, I'm seeing an interesting result from switching from my endurance saddle to a dressage saddle.  I have always believed that dressage is something that can be done with any saddle, but this new saddle definitely made a difference (in a good way, I think).  And Nimo's reaction to my aids forced me to think about them more carefully and play around with them a little to see what worked best for him.  I think it's going to be really useful for me to spend some time focused on how I'm communicating with Nimo and I'm hopeful it will result in a higher quality of work from both of us.  I was pretty impressed with the quality of his canter yesterday, which leads me to believe we are moving closer to collection.  I'm really looking forward to spending the next couple of weeks experimenting with aids and Nimo's movement and I'm hoping that we're really going to make some progress over the winter!:)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Glenmore Fall Hunter Pace 2014

Last year, a friend and I competed in the Glenmore Hunt Club's Fall Hunter Pace.  And even though it took us about 2 and a half hours to get there (it's near Staunton, Virginia), we decided to go again this year because it was a lovely ride, with a yummy lunch (it's amazing what I'll do for food that someone else makes these days!), and great volunteers.

For those unfamiliar with hunter paces, they are essentially a cross-country jump course of at least several miles that you ride with a partner.  Different hunter paces have different rules about who has to jump what and how often, but this particular hunter pace is pretty low-key.  There are 3 divisions:  one for super fabulous hunters who can jump 3-4 foot coops without a problem while maintaining a pace of mostly trotting and cantering, another one for less capable jumpers or green horses/riders, and one for "trail riders" who ride in western (or endurance) tack and for whom jumping is optional and not really expected.  The other interesting thing is that placings are determined by who rides closest to the optimum time.  The optimum time is a secret, and in fact is unknown until all riders have come in.  It is based on the average time that it takes the riders in that division to complete the course.  It's kind of a neat idea because it means you are really just competing against the riders in your division for the conditions (footing and weather) of that day.  My friend and I did the trail division last year and actually got 3rd place (out of 5 teams, so don't get too excited), but we were only 5 minutes off the optimal time, which I thought was pretty cool.

Anyway, I got my trailer loaded and we were on the road by about 8 o'clock this past Sunday morning.  I admit that I was a little less enthusiastic because colder temperatures were moving in and the air had that bone-chilling cold feeling that comes with winter rain.  It wasn't supposed to start raining until later in the day, but the humid cold that precedes rain always makes me feel chilled.  The temps were in the upper 30's, though, and I was hopeful that they'd get into the 40s by ride time.

The drive looks like it would be nice on paper - it's almost all state highways and interstate - but in practice, it's a bit of a pain because it involves driving through Charlottesville (and not the pretty part; instead it's the strip mall part) and some mountains.  For some reason, there is some kind of unwritten law in Virginia that when multi-lane roads are built, there can be no consistency.  For example, if as a truck and trailer, you want to hang out in the right lane to let other people move around you in an expedited fashion, you will inevitably find yourself trying to go across three lanes of heavy traffic in a desperate attempt to make a surprise left exit with less than a quarter mile's notice.  Or the right lane AND THE ONE NEXT TO IT just disappear or go off in another direction on a highway that will take you to West Virginia when you really wanted to go to North Carolina.  This is why I am now skilled at turning my trailer around in tight quarters or in the middle of a cramped Food Lion (regional grocery store chain) parking lot.  Because traffic was pretty light for this trip, I in fact made all the turns correctly and didn't miss any exits, but I'm still not enthralled with driving through Charlottesville.  On the up side, I now know where the Dover Saddlery store is in that area:)

The other super fun part (not!) about this drive is what I shall now refer to as Death Mountain.  There is a stretch of about 30 miles on I-64 that goes through what I guess is probably the southern end of the Shenandoah Mountains (I'm not that good at figuring out which mountains are which).  During that stretch is one mountain in particular which is transmission-killing and gas-guzzling.  I'm sure there are much worse mountains out west, but I found myself anxiously watching as the needle on my transmission fluid temperature gauge kept climbing and the needle on my gas gauge kept creeping downward while this stupid mountain climb went on FOREVER.  It was miles and miles, I think.  Luckily, the transmission gauge needle didn't quite make it to the High level, but it was close by the time we finally got to the top.  I can't imagine how rigs hauling more horses manage it...

But we finally made it to the parking area for the ride, where I was parked on a steep enough slope that I thought my parking brake should help out.  (I just got it replaced and I think I'm going to have to get it replaced again, because it was definitely not as helpful as I would have expected.)  I got Nimo unloaded and set up with some hay and went to register.  I would like to note at this point that while the temperature had fluctuated between 38 and 41 degrees on the trip, it was now firmly ensconced at 39 degrees.  I get that it isn't That Cold compared to the crap weather that has been going on in other places, but it was mid-November, where average high temperatures hover in the upper 50s to 60s for this area and I was not lovin' the new normal for this year.

Once my friend and I got registered, we tacked up and got on the course at 11:11 am.  The plan was to do the trail division again this year and just enjoy ourselves.  Last year, for some unknown reason, both of our horses were complete nitwits at the start of the ride and we ended up doing a lot of trotting up the first hill to get them to settle down.  This year, however, they were both calm and forward, which was perfect! 

The course was the same as last year, taking us through fields, forest, roads, and cattle pastures.  There is so much history in Virginia and we caught glimpses of it throughout the ride.  I am especially fascinated by old barns and houses, and there is one house on the route that is clearly from another lifetime, with part log and part stone and brick assembly.  I like to think about what the owners' lives were like many decades and even centuries ago, before modern conveniences made life in the mountains a much different experience than it is now.  These people must have been tough to endure a challenging lifestyle with no major cities nearby for supplies and endless forest to clear for crops and livestock.

I have to admit that at one point I was kind of disappointed with Nimo.  He was sort of acting like the ride was a bit challenging for him (the terrain actually is at least as difficult as endurance rides in the area, with the exception that the footing is much less rocky) until we were passed near the top of a small mountain by a couple of other riders.  When two relatively tiny horses zipped on past us and continued trotting up the mountain, it was like a switch flipped in Nimo's brain and he was like, "OH!  This is an Endurance Ride!  Why didn't you say something earlier?  OF COURSE I can trot up the rest of this hill!  I'm not really tired - I was just faking..."  We actually made the horses walk as a lesson in manners and because we were close to the finish line too, but I had to laugh a little at the quick change in Nimo's attitude.

I totally sucked at taking pictures this year, so if you really want to see what the ride looked like, my post from last year is your best bet:)  Here's the only decent one I got from this year:


The terrain was pretty hilly/mountainy.  At the start of the ride, I wondered if my assessment of the difficulty of the terrain would change from last year.  As we've done more rides, my perception of the terrain we ride on has changed and in many cases, what I thought was challenging really isn't anymore.  In this case, I didn't change my mind at all.  This terrain is hardcore.  The clearing of the land gives the impression that it's just rolling hills, but it really is mountainous.  There are very few level spots in the ride and a lot of the "hills" are quite steep.  The climbs aren't too long (by long, I mean more than a mile), but because they are steep, they get the job done for a cardio and butt workout.  At one point, as Nimo was carefully picking his way down a pretty steep decline, I remember thinking that I was glad we were going down instead of up.  The universe had a bit of a laugh when we got to the bottom, went through a gate and then were directed right back up again and I'm pretty sure I heard Nimo crying a little bit.:)  It was an awesome conditioning ride, even though it was only 6 miles.  It ended up being a great way to keep some of Nimo's fitness without doing a lot of miles.  I don't know how we did in terms of placing (last year, I just got a random ribbon in the mail a few weeks after the ride), but it was just a great experience regardless of any competition.

After the ride, we had a lovely warm lunch of tacos with shredded beef and chicken, refried beans, sauteed onions and peppers, salsa, sour cream, and other fixin's plus yummy tea and cookies and brownies.  The hay bales we had to sit on were warm, which was nice because the temperature had increased about one and a half degrees from the start of the ride and the wind felt like death.

And then it was time to head back.  I have to admit that the 2 and a half hour drive was not nearly as fun going back, especially when it started to rain and get dark.  The good news was that after we got out of the mountains, the temperature went up to 50 (yay!), but of course the weather rapidly deteriorated later that evening as a cold front moved in.

Anyway, I feel like I can now officially say that Nimo and I do hunter paces in addition to our dressage and endurance stuff.  We definitely still need to work on jumping cross-country obstacles (the little ones, not the giant coops) because Nimo is still pretty suspicious of logs, but I love the idea of cross-training him over some low jumps and I think it adds a nice dimension to our trail work.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Whole Bitless Better

I first had an opportunity to ride with an endurance rider a little over a year ago.  She had gotten in touch with me and offered to show me some of the trails in the area that endurance riders train on.  One of the things I noticed was that she rode her horse in a hackamore (I think it was an s-hack).  When I asked about it, she explained that while she used a bit for dressage lessons, she always rode on trails with the hackamore because she thought it was easier for her horse to eat and drink.  Her explanation got me to thinking and I decided that using a hackamore with Nimo out on the trails was something we should aspire to.  But I figured it would probably be years before I felt safe enough to go without a bit in the wilderness...

I put the hackamore idea on the backburner, although I still thought about it every once in awhile, particularly when I was ordering a new bridle from Taylored Tack.  At the time (which was about 6 months ago), I decided not to even think about ordering anything remotely related to a hackamore because I just didn't think Nimo was ready to make the switch.

And then a couple of months later, I was at the Dover Saddlery store looking for a new bit.  Swapping the bit from my dressage bridle to my trail bridle was getting annoying and I wanted to get a second bit so I had one for each bridle.  I had every intention of getting the exact same bit I already had, which was an eggbutt Myler snaffle with the MB-02 mouthpiece.  It was the first and only bit I'd ever used with Nimo, and I prided myself on my responsible choice to get a bit that was made to fit a horse's mouth better than many on the market.  I admit to nearly complete ignorance about how bits really worked and I honestly believed that because I was using this simple snaffle that had a shaped mouthpiece to provide tongue relief, I really didn't need to know anything else.

As it turned out, the Dover store didn't have my eggbutt snaffle.  They had D-ring snaffles.  I hate D-ring snaffles.  I can't really explain why; it doesn't make much sense.  The only thing I can think of is that the D-rings always seem so big.  And yet, I don't hate full cheek snaffles, which probably have at least as much of a cheek piece as the Myler D-rings.  I also hate loose ring snaffles.  Again, I think it's the size of the ring.  The eggbutt just seems so much more civilized.  Anyway, I digress.  So there I was in the Dover store just mad because they didn't have an eggbutt snaffle and I noticed these Myler pamphlets that described different levels of bits.  And being a curious sort, I opened one of the pamphlets up and read it.

There wasn't a huge amount of information in the pamphlet, but it was enough to make me think that maybe I should be buying Nimo a different bit.  Maybe a LEVEL 2 bit.  I mean, he was 12 years old and he did actually seem capable of doing some legitimate stuff in the dressage arena (this was before our dressage show in September...).  So, I ended up buying a Myler Low Port Dee Snaffle with Hooks (the MB-04 mouthpiece).  For those of you unfamiliar with Myler bits, here's what the Dover catalog has to say about this particular bit:  "It's designed for horses with basic training established and uses more bar than tongue pressure. Independent side movement allows the rider to isolate one side of the bit for bending, balancing or lifting a shoulder. It features a low port that offers tongue relief and optional hooks for leverage." I mean, it sounds awesome, right?  I imagined I'd be able to do all sorts of fancy things with this bit.

OK, so at this point, you're probably wondering why I bought a D-ring snaffle when I just said I hated D-ring snaffles.  You might also be wondering when the heck I'm going to get to the bitless part.  I'll answer the first question shortly.  You'll have to wait a bit (ha, ha!) for me to get to the second - this is a journey after all:)

The reason I got the D-ring snaffle was because that was the only cheekpiece the tack store had for the Myler bits (except for the combination bits, and I wasn't ready to experiment with that yet), and I was too impatient to go home, look through the catalog and be overwhelmed by choices that would paralyze me.  Some things are best purchased when you can hold them in your hands and be convinced by the flashy marketing:)

Anyway, I immediately put the bit on my dressage bridle and ventured forth into the arena. I wasn't sure what to expect, though.  I'd never used a different bit on Nimo and while there were definitely similarities between the old bit and the new bit, I really had no idea how he'd react.  As it turned out, he didn't really care.  So after wandering aimlessly around the arena for a few minutes, I figured I'd put the bit to the test by taking him out in the woods for a ride around the farm.  No problemo.  The new bit was absolutely not on Nimo's radar.

So, it was back to the arena over the next few days and a lesson that weekend.  What I found before my lesson was that Nimo seemed to like the bit a lot.  He stopped trying to rip the reins out of my hands at random moments (something that I knew he did and was kind of annoyed by, but had become so commonplace that I think I stopped really thinking of it as a problem) and he seemed to be more responsive to rein aids.  Then, at my lesson, before I'd had a chance to tell my instructor that I'd gotten a new bit, she exclaimed over how really, truly "on the bit" Nimo was.  While I'm not going to say that miracles occurred, Nimo was definitely a better, easier ride with the new bit.  And I discovered how much I missed that new bit during our ill-fated dressage show in September because the new bit is not currently "legal" under USEF rules.

I was so excited about this new bit that I bought a book, called The Level Best for Your Horse, to read more about bits from the Myler company.  I realized that maybe I'd been doing my horse a terrible disservice by not being more knowledgeable about what I was putting in his mouth.  And then I read the section on Bit Resistance and Tongue Pressure.  In this section, the authors (the Myler brothers) say that after analyzing a lot of different types of bits that use a lot of different types of pressure, they concluded:  "excessive tongue pressure is the source of most bit resistance...To understand the importance of tongue pressure, try this simple test: stick your finger in your mouth and press down on your tongue.  Hold that tongue pressure and start running.  How far did you get before you had to swallow?  Swallowing is a reflexive action -- your body does it involuntarily, as does your horse's body.  The tongue is a muscle, attached to muscles in the horse's neck and consequently in his back.  Inhibiting its ability to swallow impedes the performance of that entire group of muscles.  As you found when you restricted your own tongue, you must be able to elevate your tongue and swallow in order to continue moving forward.  Anything that interferes with your ability to swallow also interferes with your ability to move forward."

Well, I think that section did a lot more for me than the Myler brothers intended.  It was like a slap in the face as I realized that I was asking my horse to perform not only dressage movements but soon 30 plus miles on the trail with something in his mouth that was impeding his ability to swallow.  He needed every advantage I could give him, and the thought of him trying to swallow with constant bit pressure was too much for me.  But what was I supposed to do?  It was literally a month out from from the Fort Valley ride and I had read enough endurance books to know that changing a major piece of tack right before a ride could have disastrous consequences.  But I couldn't stop thinking about the bit in Nimo's mouth and how awful it must be for him to give his best physical effort without being able to swallow properly.

I started doing some reading and I found quite a bit of compelling information about why bits should be used with care or not even used at all.  Most of the research I read is listed on the Bitless Bridle website.  I didn't even have to read the full text of the articles to get the gist of Dr. Cook's perspective.  Waterlogged lungs, asphyxia, bleeding from the nostrils, and serious behavioral issues are all identified as related to the use of bits in horses.  Some of the information is speculative, but some of it does appear to be based on reasonable research.  However, because Dr. Cook also sells a bitless bridle, I felt like there was a conflict of interest in what I was reading, so I searched for some other sources of information.  That lead me to Dr. Gerd Heuschmann's books, Tug of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage and Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport - An Irreconcilable Conflict?  Dr. Heuschmann does not advocate for riding horses without bits; in fact, he lumps bitless riders into a group of unacceptably extreme natural horsemanship nutcases.  I got the impression from reading his books that if you aren't a dressage master with the foundations of your training in "classical dressage," you probably shouldn't be riding because you just aren't capable.  That begs the question of how you get to be capable, which is presumably riding with one of these lauded masters.  And of course, we all know how easy it is to find a capable dressage trainer that meshes with you and your horse, is affordable, and is within a day's driving distance... (if you missed it, that was heavy sarcasm) Anyway, he does write something interesting in the Tug of War book.  Here's an excerpt:

"The length of the lever that the rider has available for his rein influence extends from the poll to the bars of the mouth.  A pull on the reins in order to bend the neck acts on the bars of the mouth.  The connecting line between poll and bars is between 11.8 and 15.7 inches (depending on the length of the horse's head).  This creates a lever ratio of approximately 1:7 to 1:10.

"To simplify matters, calculating with 1:10 yields 66 pounds of force (lbf) on each rein, which creates a pull of 132 lbf on each bar of the mouth.  If the mouth of the horse doesn't yield to this pressure, a force of up to 1,323 lbf occurs on the occipital bone--approximately 10 times the amount acting on the bars!  Now, how can a horse's back swing if it has been fixed by hundreds of pounds of pulling action via the back's ligament and muscle system, as explained to you earlier?  How can this horse possible allow its rider to sit comfortably with such tension?  And, how can its back--and legs--remain healthy?"  (see p. 104)

I think those are good questions and they might explain a lot of the physical issues that performance horses have.  And I think those statistics probably apply, with respect to the occipital bone, even if you are riding with a bitless bridle.  Anyway, they made me really question the physics of what is going on when I ride.  If I could find a way to communicate without putting pressure on the bars of Nimo's mouth and find a way to lesson the pressure I'm putting on his head in general, I would be doing a Good Thing.

But I didn't stop with Heuschmann's books.  I kept going...and part of me wishes I hadn't.  There are two books that I almost hesitate to mention, simply because I cannot bear to re-read them right now to provide you with citations or to do some independent confirmation of the information. One book is Equestrian Sport: Secrets of the "Art" by Alexander Nevzorov.  In it, the author presents a study he put together on the kind of force that can be applied by a bit if the rider jerks the horse's mouth and, assuming his results are even remotely accurate, it is not pretty (I think it might have been about 300 pounds per square inch on the bars of the mouth).  The author also wrote The Horse Crucified and Risen.  I don't recommend reading either of these books unless you are prepared for an emotional onslaught and have a support network in place.  The author is not particularly gifted in terms of writing (although that might be partly because of the translation from Russian) and he is arrogant and chauvinistic at best, but the content is so compelling and thought-provoking that I couldn't stop reading.  The fact that he basically pummels his readers with a very one-sided view of history and human interactions with horses does not diminish the importance of the information he does present.  One of the reviewers on Amazon said something along the lines of there being a Before and After in terms of reading these books and I think that is true.  There are nightmare-inducing images burned into my brain now that I can't get rid of and that I desperately wish I could.  As I read these books, I alternated between wanting to annihilate the entire human race and shooting myself so I could stop turning the page and reading about one more horror.  If you are a horse-lover and you want to continue your happy life with your horse, don't read these books unless you are prepared to spend some time soul-searching.  Someday I may be able to write about my thoughts, but I'm still pretty raw right now.

The research that I was doing convinced me that at least trying some kind of bitless bridle would be a good idea and sooner would be better than later.  And if I decided to continue riding in a bit, I needed to think through exactly how I was riding, because the information I'd read gave me a cause for concern.  I don't have awesome, soft, consistent hands.  They aren't bad, but I'm not going to sugar-coat the fact that Nimo has probably gotten slammed in the mouth because I made a mistake.  I don't use the bit as punishment, but I still struggle with making sure my contact is consistent, and to be honest, the idea of contact was making me uncomfortable now because I wondered about how even light pressure was acting on the bars of Nimo's mouth.

Prior to doing my research, I was already aware of four different types of hackamores just through life experience or seeing someone use one.

  1. The mechanical hackamore.  I've seen two versions of mechanical hackamores.  One version is a noseband connected to metal shanks (often quite long) and a chin strap/chain.  It seems to work by creating pressure on the nose and chin and possibly the poll, depending on how it is adjusted and how the hackamore is designed.  I've ridden in one (a long time ago) and I found the action to be potentially quite severe. Another version is the s-hack, where there is still a noseband attached to metal shanks and a curb strap, but the shanks are shorter and angled well back toward the horse, which I think has the effect of lessening the severity of the hackamore.  These types of hackamores appear to be commonly used by endurance riders.  You can read a review of one by Ashley at Go Pony to get a little better idea of how they look.  The s-hack was the type of hackamore I was leaning toward at this point, although I was concerned a little about the potential for "nutcracker" action if I used it too forcefully.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_hackamore
  2. The bosal.  The bosal is typically a pretty sturdy noseband made out of rawhide that has a large knot under the horse's jaw where the reins connect.  It is used almost exclusively in the western world, I think.  I didn't really consider a bosal as an option just because it doesn't seem like a tool that can provide much finesse in terms of aids.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosal
  3. The cross-under/over bridle.  I think the most well-known model of this type of hackamore is The Bitless Bridle by Dr. Cook.  This is how the website describes the action of the bridle:  "The Bitless Bridle distributes its gentle pressure to far less sensitive tissues and distributes even this amount of pressure over a wide area. It does this through two loops, one over the poll and one over the nose. Essentially, it gives the rider an inoffensive and benevolent method of communication by applying a nudge to one half of the head (for steering) or a hug to the whole of the head (for stopping)."  I've also seen versions of this bridle on various endurance tack websites.  There's obviously been a lot of research done on this bridle, but there were three reasons I didn't really consider it at this point:  1) There are a lot of straps on this thing.  I didn't want to be messing with a cumbersome headstall; 2)  Dr. Cook states that the noseband/chin strap portion of the headstall should be adjusted pretty snugly, so that one finger can fit between the chin strap and the horse's nose - that is tighter than the USEF's position that a cavesson noseband should be adjusted no tighter than so that 2 fingers can fit between the noseband and the horse's nose, and I worried the tightness would interfere with eating and drinking; 3) The noseband rests pretty low on the horse's nose and I was concerned that the adjustment process would be finicky - too low and there is no structural support or too high and the bridle loses its effectiveness.
    http://www.bitlessbridle.com/index.php?main_page=page&id=1#q1
  4. The sidepull. The sidepull appears to work simply by pulling on the reins to create direct pressure on the horse's nose.  I've also seen this type of hackamore used by endurance riders and it appears pretty widely available on endurance tack websites.  My only concern about using this type of hackamore was that it just seemed like riding in a halter.  I was looking for something with a little more to it.
    http://www.horseforum.com/natural-horsemanship/tell-me-about-bitless-63257/
None of the above four options was a clear winner.  While I liked the s-hack better than a regular mechanical hackamore, I still felt like the principle was more like a nutcracker than a communication tool, and I also felt like the design compromised steering ability.  And, while the sidepull hackamore seemed less severe and like it would provide better steering, I wondered how easy stopping would be without putting in some transitional training.

It wasn't long before I stumbled on something called The Horse's Hoof, probably because of either an ad or a friend's "Like" on Facebook.  If you haven't seen it, The Horse's Hoof is a quarterly e-magazine about barefoot hoof care and trimming and the website also hosts a membership forum with additional hoof trimming resources and a forum.  I ended up subscribing to the magazine (which is worth taking a look at if you do your own trimming) and then I explored the website a little more.  (There are a bunch of interesting articles that are worth reading.)

That was when I discovered this story and this additional information about riding bitless.  Eureka!  This lady (who was one of the owners of The Horse's Hoof) trained in dressage and rode out on the trail and she had found a bitless option that seemed to work as well as a bit.  That was exactly what I needed.  The problem was that I discovered that her preferred bitless option, called the LG-Zaum Bitless Bridle, was no longer sold by The Horse's Hoof online store due to some kind of issue with the manufacturer.  As far as I know, this is the only place you can order it in the U.S.:  http://shop.nwnhc.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=95.  It's not cheap and I was worried that if I ordered it, this company would tell me they were having trouble keeping it in stock too.

LG Zaum: http://shop.nwnhc.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=95
Another good option seemed to be the Orbitless Bridle.  In fact, I liked the way this one looked even better - the slots seemed neater and less cumbersome that the wheel of the LG.  The problem?  It has to be ordered from the UK.  I was in a serious time crunch and didn't want to have to wonder when my bitless bridle was going to arrive.

Orbitless Bridle: http://www.orbitlessbridle.co.uk/

Finally, the current issue of The Horse's Hoof came out and it had an update on the bitless option that this lady was using.  She'd tried Zilco's Flower Hackamore and pronounced it comparable to the LG Zaum.  The Zilco hackamore is available from a bunch of different reputable companies in the U.S. for between $40 and $45.  Ding, ding, ding!  We have a winner.  I ordered mine from Riding Warehouse because I needed a couple of other things and I had enough stuff (but not too much) that I could get $5 two-day shipping.

Zilco Flower Hackamore: http://www.ridingwarehouse.com/Zilco_Flower_Hackamore/descpage-ZFH.html
And so it was that less than a month before our first real ride, I received the flower hackamore in the mail and was ready to try it out.  My plan was to get it fitted to Nimo and figure out how it worked.  Then, the next day I would ride him in the arena to try it out before hitting the trails with it over the weekend.  Step 1 worked out great.  I put the hackamore on Nimo's trail halter/bridle and got it adjusted the way I thought it should be.  But, the next day, it poured rain when I was at the barn, so I couldn't ride.  I did put the bridle on and practice walking Nimo up and down the barn aisle to see if it would really bother him, but that was the most I could do.

So that's how I ended up at the Phelps Wildlife Management Area, planning to do a conditioning ride by myself, with a new bitless thing on my horse's head.  A little over a year after I sort of thought that maybe I should eventually, in a few years, try to ride Nimo out on the trails with no bit in his mouth and here I was thinking that it was a good idea to try going bitless for the first time out in the middle of nowhere by myself. (I was definitely channeling my inner Funder!)

As luck would have it, I parked in a little-used parking lot because the one I usually parked in was jam-packed with trailers.  I know that doesn't sound lucky, but it is.  As I was saddling Nimo, a lady on a horse came up to me and asked if I would like a riding buddy.  I guess she lived across the street from the park and had been complaining to her husband about not having anybody to ride with that weekend.  His response was, "Well, why don't you go over and ride with that lady in the parking lot?  She looks like she's  by herself and could use some company."  Yay!  Now I had someone to ride with who could either call 911 or at least help me catch my horse if he freaked out and dumped me in the middle of 4,000 acres.  As a bonus, she was very familiar with the trails at the park, which was so helpful because they aren't marked and I've spent innumerable hours aimlessly wandering around trying to put together routes with a decent distance for conditioning.

Here's what happened.  Nimo was absolutely, totally, 100% fine.  At no time did he act like there was anything weird going on.  He just accepted the hackamore like it was his normal bit.  I think we ended up riding 8 or 9 miles, with a fair amount of trotting, over a variety of terrain.  He spooked a little at some logs, which was normal, and I had no trouble keeping him under control or steering.  It may be that having a buddy helped, but there was no drama at all.

Nimo wearing the flower hackamore
So I kept riding in the hackamore.  I rode a few times at the barn and even did a dressage schooling session one night.  I didn't do anything too motivated because my heart just wasn't in it (I was too busy having a panic attack about our impending Fort Valley ride).  I also took Nimo out the following weekend with a couple of fast-paced endurance riders for a 15-ish mile ride at Andy Guest.  No issues.  In fact, Nimo finally started eating and drinking a lot better on the trail.  Up to this point, he'd been inconsistent about drinking and wouldn't eat grass much at all (although he would eat carrots and mash).  I followed up with an 18 mile ride the weekend before Fort Valley where we were by ourselves and had to deal with a lot of trail traffic as well as busy highway crossings.  Again, no problems, and he rocked on eating grass and drinking!

I did have to play around with the fit a little bit and there is no real guidance from Zilco on how to adjust this hackamore.  Here is where I ended up for the Fort Valley ride:  I moved the halter noseband up so that it was just below the bony point of Nimo's cheek (so a little above where it is in the picture above) and I tried to keep the flower of the hackamore in the middle of the bony point of the cheed and Nimo's mouth (again, I moved it just a smidge above where it is in the picture).  I wanted to be sure the noseband was firmly in the territory of bone and not cartilage and that it was below the halter noseband.  In terms of the tightness of the noseband, my goal was to keep it loose enough that Nimo could eat and drink comfortably but tight enough so that it didn't move around on his face if I pulled on one side of the hackamore.  I ended up with a good eight flat fingers worth of space.  So I could insert both my hands (fingers only) flat in between the noseband and Nimo's face.  I think I could have adjusted it a little more snugly, but that was where I felt comfortable at the time.

The other thing about adjustment that I want to note is that there are some options in terms of how the noseband, chin strap, headstall, and reins are positioned relative to each other.  Different configurations can create different amounts of leverage as well as differing amounts of pressure on the chin and poll.  Because there are some similarities between the Zilco flower hackamore and the Orbitless Bridle, I used the Orbitless guide for adjustment, which is located here:  http://www.orbitlessbridle.co.uk/orbit.html#configurations.  The setting I used for Nimo is quite similar to the second option described on the Orbitless website, which gives the action that you'd get from a sidepull, with the addition of minor leverage from the position of the reins.  When I pull on the reins, the chin strap tightens ever so slightly, but I don't think that there is any poll pressure.  However, I plan to experiment a little to find the adjustment that Nimo seems to like the best.

Anyway, I started the Fort Valley ride worrying about anything and everything except the hackamore.  You may remember that the first 9 or 10 miles of the Fort Valley ride were brutal in terms of Nimo acting like a nutcase and believing he could keep up with a bunch of Arabs.  The pulling Nimo did was exhausting, and I've thought about whether I should have done what some riders do, which is to use a bit for the first loop and switch to the hackamore for the remaining loops.  My conclusion is that Nimo would have acted like an idiot regardless of what was in his mouth and if he had been wearing a bit, all that pulling would have put a lot of pressure on the bars of his mouth and his tongue.  I don't think that kind of damage would have been conducive for encouraging him to eat and drink and so I think starting with the hackamore was the right thing to do and will continue to be what I do.  There is no question that he eats and drinks so much better with it and that is so, so important for him.

So great, the hackamore works for the trails, but what about dressage?  Good question.  Aside from one basic schooling session, I hadn't done any dressage work in it and I was curious too.  After giving Nimo a week off from riding after the Fort Valley ride, I started with really basic work in the arena.  The first day, all we did was an extended warm-up and cool-down, so just basic walk and trot in big circles, with a tiny bit of canter.  The second session, I asked for a little bit more.  And by the third session, I was working on circles, serpentines, leg-yields, transitions, shoulder-in at the trot, and more canter work.

Then, I had a lesson this past Saturday.  I have to give my instructor credit.  She didn't even blink an eye when I walked into the arena with Nimo wearing his endurance halter/bridle and the hackamore.  I think a lot of dressage trainers would have balked at working with me and I know a trainer that I worked with for many years would have yelled at me and refused to teach me until I put a bit in my horse's mouth.  There is an overriding belief in the dressage world that dressage cannot be done without a bit.  To even suggest riding bitless is anathema in many circles. To be honest, I'm too new to the world of bitless to know what can and can't be done at higher levels, but I do believe that at least lower-level stuff can be done without a bit, just based on the limited work I've done with Nimo so far.  As of right now, the Netherlands is the only country where bitless options are legal for competing and that is only at the levels below FEI.  A few other countries are looking into it and I really believe that it won't be long before at least many countries allow bitless dressage.  However, I think hell might freeze over before the FEI allows bitless dressage. Of course, that only reaffirms my suspicion that the FEI as an organization is composed of many, many people who have anything but the welfare of the horse under consideration.

Anyway, I explained to my instructor that I'd recently started using the hackamore with Nimo for our endurance work and that I really wanted to continue that work in the arena so that I could be sure that we had the most effective communication out on the trail.  She was totally supportive.  I think her support came easier for her because her mother is a distance rider who uses an s-hack and she has done work with jumpers in the past and my understanding is that hackamores aren't all that uncommon in the jumper world.  I also think she's just a good trainer and believes that there is more to doing dressage than the bit.

And exactly what those other things are became apparent in my lesson.  It's hard to know how Nimo would have done if we'd done the lesson in his regular, sort of newer, bit.  We hadn't done much work since the show and our last lesson was almost 2 months ago, so it's entirely possible he and I would have been rusty anyway.  But I like to think that riding in this hackamore uncovered a couple of issues that had been hiding.  First, Nimo was just not reacting to my leg for bending exercises like he should have been.  Our circles were wooden and our leg-yields were more like leg-drifts.  So, we worked on my leg aids and voila!  Beautiful, forward circles and lovely, engaged leg-yields.  (If you are curious, to improve Nimo's response to my leg, we did quick transitions between all gaits as well as some uneven cavaletti at the trot with immediate canter after the last step of cavaletti.)

Second, I quickly found out that I can no longer use my third finger to "massage" my horse's jaw through the  reins to get him into frame.  There is no question that using that technique is a bit of a cheat.  Ideally, you should be riding your horse back to front and the impulsion of his movement should push him through to your hand where he then yields to contact from the bridle and miraculously holds whatever frame is appropriate for your level because you are such a gifted rider.  It's possible that this kind of thing has happened to me by accident, but I am definitely guilty of not riding back to front as well as I should.  Well, with the hackamore, there is no cheating.  If I rode Nimo properly and "on the aids," I got a nice contact and frame.  If not, well, my failure would be obvious to a 4-year old.

Some other things I discovered.  You have to use two hands together on the reins.  If you let one rein go or even have significantly uneven contact, your horse might possibly either stop and look at you like you are an idiot or aimlessly wander around looking for direction from roosting pigeons.  So, for circles, both hands move over slightly in the direction of travel.  Same thing for shoulder-in.  And the opposite for leg-yields.  For example, if you want to do a leg-yield to the right, you move both hands just an inch or two to the left, keeping them the same distance apart as you would when riding straight.  You also need leg aids.  Like functional, clear leg aids.  No fussing with the reins or massaging of the jaw will get you anywhere.  Also, Nimo's canter improved virtually immediately even though we've done diddly-squat with it for weeks.  I noticed the improvement the first time that I cantered him:  he stopped being so high-headed and seemed much more willing to move into contact and maintain an even rhythm.  My instructor noticed that during our lesson too.

All in all, I really like this hackamore.  Nimo has responded quite well to it, including being willing to work on contact.  In addition, I am already becoming a more effective rider because it seems to highlight any ineffectiveness in my leg and seat.  Plus, Nimo eats and drinks on the trail so much better than with a bit.  At this point, I have no intention of ever using a bit for our trail work again and I'm seriously considering not going back to the bit for our dressage work.  That last consideration could be problematic for our budding dressage career, though.  (After our last show, we really have nowhere to go but up!)  As I mentioned before, bitless options of any kind are not legal for dressage competition.  So that leaves me two options if I want to compete:  I can switch to the bit for brief periods right before a show and compete in the bit or I can ride hors de concours, if allowed.  Hors de concours is a French term meaning "out of the competition" or something like that.  In dressage, it basically means you can show and your test will be scored, but you cannot be placed or receive points or awards or whatever for your test.  I think it might be used more in cases where someone is trying out a new musical freestyle or maybe doing some kind of demo ride, but I think it is available to regular people too.  Because I couldn't care less about getting a ribbon (as demonstrated by my repeated willingness to compete on a crazy animal), I like the second option.  I'd still get a score, so I could gauge how well we compared to the standard and if we did well, maybe that would encourage more people to consider bitless options for their horses.  On the other hand, I don't want to completely rule out using a bit if it seems like the best choice at a later date.

There is one other thing that I want to share with you that just didn't fit well into the narrative of the post, but is worth mentioning.  There is a questionnaire designed by Dr. Cook as part of his research on the effectiveness of the Bitless Bridle.  Here is the link:  http://www.bitlessbridle.org.uk/docs/Bitless-Questionnaire.pdf.  To read a little more about Dr. Cook's philosophy and the survey, click here.  Even though I decided not to use the Bitless Bridle for our endurance work, I'm not ruling it out to try for our dressage work.  I never want to be in the mode that I was before, where I stay away from trying new things just because what we have is working, particularly if there is a possibility it could improve Nimo's comfort.  Anyway, Dr. Cook's research has investigated a lot of behavioral issues that horses have and he has linked many of them to the use of bits.  I encourage you to take a look at the questions to see if your horse is demonstrating any behavioral issues that are linked to the use of a bit.  There are some issues that Dr. Cook believes are 100% caused by bits and others that he believes could be caused by bits or something else.  I answered the questions for Nimo before I put the flower hackamore on him with the intent of checking to see where he was after using the hackamore for awhile.  Because this post is already so long, I don't want to go through the whole list, but I identified 35-40 behaviors on a list of 114 that Nimo was either a Yes or a Maybe on.  Some of them were bit-only induced behaviors and others were not.  What I'd like to do is a follow-up post that goes through the questionnaire for Nimo and then discusses what improvements, if any, were made by using the flower hackamore.  Ideally, then I'd like to follow that up with a re-assessment after trying the Bitless Bridle to test Dr. Cook's claim that the Bitless Bridle is really the ultimate solution for a bridle.

I also want to note that I'm not really trying to convince anyone that bits are bad.  I do think there is some compelling information available that indicates that using a bit during an extreme athletic endeavor or using a bit with a lot of force (like as a punishment) is not in the best interest of the horse.  On the other hand, there are a lot of people with far more experience than me who claim that a bit is actually the best tool for communicating rein aids.  This is definitely an area that I want to spend more time researching and exploring and I'd love to hear your comments about things you've read or tried that either worked or didn't.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

USTR Blue Ridge Center Benefit Ride

'Tis the season for FUN rides!  I vowed that after the Fort Valley ride, we would take a couple of months "off" of conditioning rides, so Nimo and I could just enjoy each other's company and see areas that we don't normally train in, either because they aren't open to the public or are a little farther away than we usually travel.  I also wanted a break from constantly checking our pace and mileage and fretting about whether we were getting the optimal amount of miles in (possibly) and the best mix of dressage schooling and trail riding (probably not).

This past Sunday, we headed up to Purcellville, Virginia to The Blue Ridge Center for a USTR benefit ride.  The Blue Ridge Center is a privately held parcel of 900 acres that is not open to the public, although USTR members can ride there during designated times (which is most of the year).  USTR is a trail riding organization that I am a member of.  I've been a member of several different trail riding organizations in the area over the years, but USTR is the one that seems to be the best fit for me now.  There are monthly rides at a lot of different locations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and many of the members are avid trail riders and endurance riders, so the rides tend to be more suited for people who are serious about their trail rides, although almost every ride seems like it has a variety of options, including one for those who want to go slower for shorter distances.

Anyway, a friend and I met out at the BRC to do the ride together.  We haven't had a chance to ride with each other much over the past several months because of all my conditioning work with Nimo, so it was nice to have a chance to catch up.   The day was one of those perfect fall days: cool enough to wear a jacket, but not freezing, and sunny.

View from the parking area
We headed out on the trail at around 11:30.  Both horses were in good form and it was amazing to me how fast the trail went by.  The route was marked just like an endurance ride, which mostly worked well, except when my friend and I got to talking and stopped paying attention to the ribbons.  Luckily, I'm starting to develop a habit of subconsciously scanning for ribbons now, so while we did miss a turn once, we caught it quickly and got back on the right track.

The trail was in beautiful condition.  It was mostly in the forest like this:


There were also a handful of nice climbs, so even though we did mostly walking, Nimo still got a bit of a workout in (apparently it takes more than just wishing to turn off the pace and mileage calculator that runs in my head).  And there was this gorgeous little pond:

Gordon Pond

I think we ended up doing about 8 miles, and honestly, if felt like almost nothing.  We were on the trail about 2 hours and probably due to the chatting and the beautiful day, the time flew by and I was kind of sad it was over.  I know I've said this before, but I'm so amazed by how my perception of distance has changed and how much fitter Nimo is than when we started (we even did a short canter up a hill!).  And there was definitely a time when 2 hours in the saddle would have made me sore and miserable, but now, I don't experience any discomfort.

It is so freeing to know that we can handle any terrain and I never have to worry about whether Nimo is fit enough or if his feet will be sore (I booted his front feet only for this ride and that was just right).  This ride was a pleasant reminder that all we've accomplished in the past 18 months has had another purpose than just helping us to be ready for a 30 mile ride; it has given us the ability to explore new trails without anxiety and we've met so many truly wonderful people along the way.

Anyway, if you happen to live within an hour or two of the Purcellville, Virginia area, this annual benefit ride is a nice way to check out The Blue Ridge Center because it is open to the public.  The BRC trails would be a great place to condition for endurance rides, and while it takes me about an hour and 45 minutes to get there, I might add this place to my list of conditioning locations for the next year because there is a monster climb along the power lines that I think would be great for Nimo (it wasn't included in the benefit ride trail, probably because all but very fit horses would have keeled over and died if they'd attempted it).  However, it is possible that Nimo looked at that same climb and thought that it looked like a great place for me to practice getting off and walking:)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The OD Fort Valley 30 Mile Ride - What Worked and What Didn't

I debated about whether a full review of what worked and what didn't was necessary for this ride, but I realized that because I often can't remember what day it is, it might be a good idea for me to write up what I did at this ride, so I can remember for next time.  Hopefully, it will be helpful for some of you too:)

Note:  I'm putting links to products wherever I can, so you can check out the items for yourself if you're interested.  However, I bought all of these products with my own money and I don't get any financial compensation for a review or because you click on the link.

Pre-Ride Conditioning

I originally wrote up my ideal conditioning schedule in this post.  The short version is that I wanted to do 2 days of dressage schooling/lessons, one day of interval/strength training on the trail, one day of real trail riding/conditiong, one day of lungeing, and one day of handwalking each week, sort of interspersed so that tough schooling sessions or trail rides were followed by lungeing or handwalking.  The idea behind the lungeing and handwalking is a concept called "active rest," where the horse is doing something fairly easy, but still moving, to help maintain fitness.  I'm the first to admit that I don't know a lot about equine physiology or fitness progression (I still can't figure out what the heck a "negative split" is - I keep seeing it mentioned in both running and endurance blogs, but it doesn't sound like fun to me, so I don't like to dwell on it too much), but the idea that you do light exercise in between more challenging workouts makes sense to me.  For example, if I go hiking in the mountains and am really sore the next day, I might take a 20 minute slow walk around the neighborhood just to loosen things up and ease the soreness.  When a horse is turned out 24/7 on a big pasture, I don't know that active rest is necessary because the horse is already getting active rest just by wandering around the pasture for 10-20 miles a day.  But, if a horse is stabled for part or even all of the day, I really believe that active rest can play an important role in keeping the horse free from stiffness and based on some reading I've done lately, I think it could also contribute to overall health.  Anyway, the trick, I think, is to figure out what constitutes a challenging workout versus light exercise for your horse.  When you're first starting a horse or conditioning a horse after a long break, I suspect that there isn't much difference between the two, so giving the horse complete, or passive, rest between workouts probably makes sense.  However, once you have a horse that can do 30 or 50 or even a 100 miles, my guess is that a 5 mile ride of mostly walking would be considered active rest because it really isn't making that much of an impact on the horse's fitness.  In Nimo's case, I decided that active rest meant about 30 minutes of walking and trotting on the lunge, with a minute or two of canter or handwalking for 2-3 miles on flat terrain.  In both of those cases, I also would get some exercise, which I thought was a benefit too.

Regrettably, I fell short of my conditioning goals for most of the months leading up to the Fort Valley ride.  Weather, rain rot, footing, and life just got in the way of me being able to put in the kind of time riding that I wanted to do.  That said, there are a lot of endurance books that advocate riding 2-3 times a week, making sure that you leave time after longer rides for a horse to recover.  That ended up being my de facto schedule.  I would do 1-2 dressage schooling sessions/lessons and 1-2 trail rides each week.  The dressage sessions were generally about an hour and 15 minutes, which included about 30 minutes spent walking/trotting outside the arena around the farm as a warm-up and cool-down, leaving 45 minutes for actual dressage work.  The trail rides were typically between 8 and 12 miles and I tried to vary them by hauling to different locations each week, sometimes focusing just on mountain climbing and sometimes working more on speed over rolling hills.  As the ride approached, I added some additional speed (both on my own and by riding with more experienced endurance riders) and distance, particularly with an 18 mile ride the week before Fort Valley.

In terms of success, well, yes and no:  yes in the sense that Nimo was able to go 30 miles and finish close to the maximum time allowed without any metabolic issues or injuries and no in the sense that we went over the maximum time allowed.  We were close enough, though, for me to think that overall the conditioning we were doing was working.  For the future, I think I'm still going to keep striving for my ideal conditioning schedule, if for no other reason than that by trying to ride 4 days a week, I actually get 2-3 rides a week.  I'm also going to continue to add speed to our rides and make sure we are trotting hills as much as possible.  I think that working on climbing in the mountains is still very important and our previous schedule of going out to the Shenandoah National Park (or other mountain like Graves) every 2-3 weeks is sufficient as long as we can work in some shorter, steep hills in our other rides.

Nimo's Corral

I used 6 10 ft long by 5 ft high Economy Corral Panels from Tractor Supply to create a diamond-shaped corral for Nimo next to the trailer.  The reason I put the corral right next to the trailer was so that I could use the trailer to support the water bucket.  I was worried that 40+ pounds of water hanging off of a corral panel would be too much stress on the panel.  Why didn't you just put a bucket on the ground for Nimo? you ask.  That would be because Friesians are generally black Labs in disguise.  Nimo adores playing in water and I knew he would be too tempted if the water was on the ground.  (He no longer climbs with all four feet into the water tank in his paddock, but he still enjoys getting his feet wet.)  The panels weigh about 50 pounds each, so they aren't lightweight panels.  Instead, they are very secure, solid panels that are meant to hold in livestock that doesn't necessarily want to be there.  While not as heavy-duty as the non-economy panels, they were a little less expensive and still quite sturdy.  I was able to load and unload them from the trailer by myself and set up the corral in less than 10 minutes.  The pins that connect the panels are basically idiot-proof and will not become separated from the panels, which is a nice feature. 

I was a little concerned about how Nimo would react to being in the corral.  He's never camped before and I absolutely did not follow recommendations to practice with the system at home before the ride.  The big reason I didn't practice (aside from the fact that I didn't even buy the panels until a few days before the ride) is that Nimo is a huge lover of routine.  It doesn't really matter what the routine is (as long as it involves him eating most of the time), but any deviation will cause him stress.  So, if I'd set up the corral panels at his barn and left him there overnight, he would have had a nervous breakdown.  By doing it for the first time at the actual ride, I created a new routine for him where one had previously not existed (unless you count last year's Intro Ride where we hauled in the day of the ride, but Nimo clearly didn't.)  And it worked.  He was very calm in the corral until early the morning of the ride when he sensed activity in the camp and heard other horses being fed and even then, he wasn't a basketcase, just definitely wanting to be fed and walked.  Conclusion:  This system is a keeper.  I will definitely be using it from now on.

Human Sleeping Arrangements

After initially thinking that one of those campers that fits on the bed of a truck was a good idea, I discovered that a person needs to be independently wealthy to purchase one, especially if said person also owns a truck, horse trailer, horse, and all associated gear, so said person has already spent the equivalent of a developing nation's GDP.  Then, I thought I would just sleep in my trailer.  I could get a cot or hammock and just set it up after getting to camp.  But to be honest, I just ran out of momentum as the ride approached and I was incapable of making yet another decision about which product was best for the money.  (I've read a couple of studies about how repeated decision-making - even if the decisions seem minor like what to have for lunch or which socks to wear - literally exhausts the executive function of a person's brain, and I had definitely reached my quota of decision-making.)  So I decided to sleep in the backseat of my truck.  I have a 2004 Nissan Titan with a crew cab, so the backseat is pretty spacious, and then I could run the truck if it got too cold, plus have a place not recently coated in horse manure to keep all my stuff.  It turns out that the seat is not really that wide, especially if you've got a giant sleeping bag wadded up in it and the seat is also really hard (I prefer a softer surface as my years advance).  But, I did like being able to have all my stuff with me and easily accessible and being able to run the heater kept me from being a Popsicle by morning.  My solution:  a truck bed tent.  These nifty things do not appear to cost more than a regular tent and by all reports, they are fairly easy to set up, provide good protection from the rain, give a nice amount of space, and with a portable propane heater certified for indoor use, should be nice and warm.  Plus, at least a couple of models don't have a floor, so you can pack all your stuff in the truck bed and just set the tent up over whatever is in the bed.  These are the options I'm currently looking at:  Kodiak Canvas Short Truck Bed Full-Size Tent, Backroadz Truck Tent, Sportz Truck Tent, Rightline Gear Truck Tent.  They are available from Amazon, REI, Cabelas, Pro Bass Shops, and probably other stores that have good camping equipment.

For the actual sleeping part of my experience, I bought the Teton Sports Celsius XXL 0 Degree Fahrenheit Flannel-Lined Sleeping Bag, which was favorably reviewed on Amazon and was rated to zero degrees, which I figured was just enough overkill to make it work for a 35-40 degree night.  I was very wrong.  I needed an extra blanket in the sleeping bag with me, two pairs of pants, a t-shirt, fleece jacket, hooded sweatshirt, and light winter jacket plus a Back on Track mini-blanket on my pillow to stay warm.  Because I slept in the back seat of my truck, I wasn't subject to the additional cold from the ground or an air mattress, but overall, the whole situation is not one that I care to repeat.  I think I got maybe 1-2 hours of sleep, which is not really great when you have to be both mentally and physically prepared for a long ride.  The bag itself seems to be of good quality materials and well-made, but it just didn't work for me in the unheated conditions of my truck.  That said, if I can get a tent and a portable heater, I think the bag will work just fine in the future.

Horse Gear

Saddle - You may remember that I got a Specialized Eurolight saddle a few months ago that I really like (click here to read about my demo experience).  After a 30 mile ride, I still like it.  As far as I can tell, Nimo had no back issues or rubs from the saddle.  Almost as important, I had no soreness or rubs from the saddle either.  I don't understand how my inner thighs could not be sore, but they weren't.  Not even a twinge.  I had no issues with the stirrups either.  They are just the inexpensive plastic, wide endurance stirrups with a cushion on the foot bed (and no cage) that came with the saddle.  And, while my calves were a little sore after the ride, it wasn't a big deal, and they were much less sore than after a 15 mile conditioning ride I'd done a couple of weeks before Fort Valley.  And, there were plenty of d-rings on the saddle to attach all of my saddle bags to.  So far, so good.  This saddle is a keeper.

Saddle bags - I used the Snug Pax Slimline English Pommel Pack and two Easycare Hoof Boot Stowaway Packs strapped to the back of the saddle.  The pommel pack held two bottles of water, a hoof pick, a pair of needle-nosed pliers (to put in and take out the cotter pins on Nimo's Easyboot Epics), a spare pack of cotter pins, my rider card, and 6 carrots (to feed Nimo throughout the ride if there wasn't any grass).  One of the hoof boot bags carried a spare hoof boot.  The other hoof boot bag held a Collapsible Travel Dog Dish that I have started carrying as a way to feed a small mash out on the trail or as a way to hold water for Nimo to drink if he can't access the water himself.  The mash also fits in the bag, or I could put another water bottle in it.  It has become part of my standard gear, so even though I wasn't sure I'd need it for this ride, I left it on the saddle anyway.  The pommel pack worked great.  I've been using it for over a year and I think it has just the right number of pockets and it stays fairly stable even when Nimo is trotting.  The hoof boot bags worked OK, but I felt like they bounced around too much, particularly the one with the hoof boot in it, so I'm going to try to find a way to get them strapped down a little better.  Other than that, the system worked well and I'm planning to keep using it.

Bridle - Earlier this year, I got a halter bridle from Taylored Tack.  (You can read my post about it and see pictures here.)  It was custom-made, but it is basically the Classic Jubilee Halter Bridle with the addition of double ears and Horse Shoe Brand hardware.  When I got the bridle, I was riding in a bit and it worked great.  For the Fort Valley ride, I actually used a Zilco flower hackamore for Nimo and the bridle still worked great.  I will probably devote a whole post to the hackamore in the near future, because it is an unusual type of hackamore and I also want to share my thought process and Nimo's reactions to the switch, but I have no complaints.  This set-up worked really well for the ride and I love that the beta biothane material is so easy to clean.

Breastcollar - I've had a Nunn Finer Hunting Breastplate for many years now.  It is brown with brass hardware and I have never really liked it, but it was all that was available in Nimo's size when I first went to the tack store.  It fits Nimo OK, but the straps that connect the neck strap to the saddle are a bit short and it is my plan to replace this piece of tack sooner rather than later.  That said, Nimo did not get any rubs or soreness from it and it definitely did what it was supposed to do.

Girth - I first got a County Logic Dressage Girth when Nimo was probably 4 years old.  I'd had trouble with the saddle sliding forward and this girth seemed to help with that.  As it happened, it also worked well with the Eurolight saddle, so I've been using it for our conditioning rides too without a problem.  For the Fort Valley ride, it worked great.  Nimo had no rubs or sore spots from it.  However, I once read somewhere that endurance riders are never truly happy with their gear.  They are always looking for something that's more efficient, more comfortable, more durable, etc.  In keeping with that thought process, I am planning to try a mohair girth at some point in the relatively future.  My reasoning is that my current girth is getting on in years and has been used pretty heavily.  The leather feels stiff to me and is starting to show cracks on the inside of the girth, so it will likely need to be replaced soon anyway.  And while Nimo has never really indicated that he finds the girth uncomfortable, I think a mohair girth would conform to his body better than a bulky leather girth and it might even be a little cooler.

Hoof Boots - I used the Easyboot Epics on Nimo's front feet and the Cavallo Simples on his hind feet.  I've been using the Epics for over a year and aside from snapping a cable on one of the boots at last year's Fort Valley Intro Ride, I can't remember having a problem with them.  I find the buckles and cotter pins annoying, but annoyance at the beginning and end of the ride is better than boot issues during the ride.  On this ride, the gaiter on one of the Epics broke going down the same mountain that caused a snapped cable at last year's ride (stupid mountain).  Admittedly, the boot was over a year old and Nimo was doing some kind of crazy 10+ mph hour trot on a fairly steep section and that was probably a lot of force for any material to handle.  I replaced the boot and had no other issues (which was good because I didn't have a second spare that was ready to go without making some kind of repair).

The Simples had no issues during the ride, for which I was thankful because I didn't have a spare at all for those boots.  They have to be purchased in pairs and then go through a break-in process, and that was just too much money and effort for me to go through for one ride.  Not to mention that Nimo doesn't really need hind boots.  I understand that the good people running the Fort Valley ride strongly believe that no horse can do the ride without hoof protection on all four feet, but Nimo could have easily done the second loop with no hind boots and maybe without front boots.  The first loop does have a few rocky places where hoof protection is very nice for the horse, but I would say that Nimo could have done the vast majority of that loop without boots at all.

Anyway, the only issue I ended up having with the Simples was that Nimo got an interference scrape on the inside of his left hind fetlock during the first loop.  It doesn't look like he reinjured it on the second loop, so my guess is it only happens when he's really moving out or dealing with more difficult terrain.  My options are to put interference boots on his hind legs or to get different hoof boots.  Neither option really appeals to me because interference boots are just one more thing I'd have to buy, test, and maintain and buying new hoof boots so soon after I just bought a fairly expensive pair is more than irritating.  So, my plan is actually to just leave the boot issue alone for awhile.  I don't normally ride in hind boots, so I'm just going to let Nimo's feet do what they need to do over the winter and then re-measure and see where he's at a couple of months before the No Frills ride in April next year.

Rider Gear

Boots - I have been riding in a pair of Ariat Terrains for more years than I can remember.  They are reasonably priced, durable, and comfortable even if I have to do some walking on the trail.  The boots I rode in at Fort Valley were sort of falling apart and really need to be replaced, but I didn't want to have to break in new boots just before the ride.  The boots continued to work well for me and I had no rubs or blisters from them.  I am thinking that when I buy new ones, I will get the waterproof version because I do seem to find myself walking through wet grass, small creeks, or mud so frequently and it would be nice if my feet stayed dry.

Half chaps - I know that many endurance riders do not ride in half chaps and I cannot understand why.  I love the protection from the stirrup leathers they offer, the support they give to my leg, and the protection from brush, stickery vines, and branches that they give.  I guess they are one more thing to put on and if you're planning on running some of the trails with your horse, they would add extra weight, but so far I consider them worth it.  I have been riding in the Tredstep Deluxe Half Chaps for probably at least 3 years and I really like them.  They are on the expensive side for half chaps, but they are very durable and the stretch leather panel makes them fit really well.  For the Fort Valley ride, they performed as well as they always have and I plan to keep riding in them.

Breeches - I wrote a blog post in July about three pairs of new riding tights that I tried.  My choice for conditioning rides was the pair of Soybu tights.  They fit well and didn't cause any chafing.  These tights were my choice for the Fort Valley ride as well.  And they were great.  I slept in them the night before and they were so comfortable and they caused no problems during the ride.  In fact, I think I ended up wearing these tights for almost 24 hours before I took them off, so I feel like they were tested pretty well:)  I will absolutely continue riding in them and will probably buy another pair.

Helmet - After last year's Fort Valley Intro Ride, I realized that my Charles Owen Wellington Helmet was too heavy to keep wearing for rides longer than a couple of hours.  It fits my head really well and has survived being rained on and baked in the heat for probably 3 years now, but I really needed something lighter and cooler for longer rides.  So I got an inexpensive schooling helmet many months ago and I used it for my conditioning rides only.  I'm actually not sure what kind of helmet it is (I think I looked through the Dover Saddlery catalog and picked the one that was the lightest weight), but I've never liked it.  The helmet is rounder than my head and the dial-system for adjustment is irritating and I'm convinced that it will shatter and stab me in the head if I fall.  Plus, the visor on the helmet broke after less than a month of riding.  The problem is that I didn't really want to spend several hundred dollars on a helmet and I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to if I want one without an adjustment system that really fits well and that is still lightweight with good ventilation.  I don't know anything about helmet manufacturing and testing, but I can't believe the prices of helmets.  It is ridiculous to pay $600 plus for a helmet!  Anyway, I've been boycotting the helmet industry because I'm just aggravated by what I perceive to be highway robbery.  But, it's possible that I'm going to have to bite the bullet before my next ride and start looking for a good helmet in earnest because I was not happy with the one I used at Fort Valley.  The fit issue meant that I spent a lot of time moving the helmet slightly on my head to try to find a more comfortable position.  And the part of the helmet at the back and bottom kept touching my neck, which I found colossally irritating by the end of the ride.  Bottom line:  A helmet that fits well is essential to my happiness on these longer rides, so I'm going to have to spend some time and money trying to find one.

Other stuff - My other clothes are probably not worth spending a lot of time analyzing.  I started the ride with an old cotton t-shirt, a thin long-sleeve button-down shirt, and a Columbia fleece jacket because I knew temperatures would start in the upper 30s and end in the low-70s.  That system worked very well.  I kept the fleece jacket on during the whole first loop, but I unzipped it toward the end.  Then I left it behind for the second loop as temperatures rose.  I ended up just riding in the t-shirt and long-sleeve shirt the whole second loop.  I could have taken the long-sleeve shirt off, but the sun felt strong and judging by the minor sunburn on my face and desperate need for chapstick at the end of the ride, leaving the long sleeves on probably kept my arms from getting sunburned.  For socks, I just wore inexpensive cotton socks from Target and they caused no problems.  In terms of underwear, I'll just say that what I wore worked and leave it at that:)

Electrolytes and Cooling

I hesitate to even address this part of the ride because I feel so out-of-my-league when it comes to deciding on an electrolyte protocol.  I am convinced I need to use them, but my understanding is that over-using them (or using them at the wrong time) or using the wrong kind can cause more problems than it solves.  What I've been doing is adding about a 1/2 to one tablespoon of Daily Red Equine Minerals to Nimo's post-ride mashes, depending on the weather conditions.

(I realize this product is not marketed as a performance electrolyte supplement, but I like it because it isn't as processed as many other salt products.  I don't know that there is a huge benefit to going into my concerns here, but I know for humans, processed table salt is not a healthy option, and I suspect the same is true for horses.  So, ideally, I'd like to use a product that has not been created through a harsh chemical stripping process.  That said, I also want to do the best for my horse and it may be that there is an electrolyte product out there that will work well for him and I won't not use it just because I don't like the processing method.) 

Hot weather (over 80 degrees) means I add more and cooler weather means I add less.  (I also add some to his regular feedings to make sure he is used to the taste.)  For Fort Valley, he got a 1/2 tablespoon in each of his pre-ride feedings and in the feeding he got during the vet check after the first loop.  I continued the practice for his post-ride feedings as well.  Nimo's recovery for the first loop was quite honestly pretty amazing to me.  He was pulsed down within a couple of minutes of arriving at the vet check and getting all A's on the vet check tells me things were going well.  I didn't expect him to be as fit as he was.  That said, he did recover more slowly after the ride, and while I don't think it was anything to be concerned about (and neither did the treatment vet), I do want to try to improve his recoveries at the end of the rides because for limited distance rides (rides under 50 miles), we won't necessarily have the luxury of taking 30-60 minutes for him to recover unless I push him on pace, which sort of defeats the purpose.  What I don't know is if adding more electrolytes or a different kind of electrolytes (for example one with more potassium) would help or if this is just a conditioning/fitness issue.  I'm planning to spend the winter doing more electrolyte research and my first sources are going to be Mel's blog, where she has written quite a bit about electrolytes, and hopefully a post/link to an article by Saiph, who is working with one of the vets from the Fort Valley ride to get more information about using electrolytes.

There are also other things I can do for Nimo with respect to cooling.  I can clip him, I can sponge him, and I can get off and walk with him either during the ride or near the end of the ride.  I didn't do any of these things at this ride (with the exception of getting off and walking him the last 1/4 mile at the end of the first loop and walking up a steep climb with him during the second loop).  Part of that was because I wanted to see what his baseline was.  And his baseline wasn't too bad.  For the first loop, things went really well.  For the second loop, it is possible that if he'd been clipped or I'd gotten off and walked him more, that would have helped, but it's good to know where he's at if I don't do those things.  Sponging probably wouldn't have done much for him because despite the warmer temperature, I was able to keep him from working so hard that he was sweating a lot.  Plus, Nimo's coat has become so dense, that actually getting water to penetrate to the skin is impossible without 2 rounds of soap.  Cold water still might have helped a little, just by getting it on his coat, but he's actually kind of fussy about cold water unless he's really hot, so I may have to think a little on how I might achieve lukewarm water at the vet check and trailer and maybe test a little portable shower system like this one to help get water in difficult to sponge places like under his tail and belly.  I probably will plan to do at least a partial body clip for the No Frills ride in April, unless the weather is supposed to be really cold (which is definitely possible), but otherwise, I think my main goal for now is just to improve his fitness, so he can handle the miles more efficiently.

Overall, I think the majority of equipment and gear that I used worked well and the things that didn't work as well weren't deal breakers.  There are some improvements I can make, but I'm pleased with the way things worked for our first ride.  Practicing with as much of the gear as I could before-hand really made a difference and writing things up for the blog helped too.  Writing forced me to think more analytically about why things worked and why they didn't and that definitely helped my decision-making process in terms of choosing products.  Now, here's to hoping that my inner procrastinator doesn't wait too long to research and buy the things I think I'll need for the next ride!:)