Sunday, May 10, 2015

In which hindsight is 20/20

I've been having some trouble balancing riding and life the past few weeks, so I have to admit that I haven't been in the saddle as often as I should have been.  One thing I've made sure of, though, is getting Nimo out every weekend for some kind of conditioning ride. 

The first weekend after Foxcatcher, we went with a friend and did the spring Glenmore Hunter Pace.  It went fairly well, although it was a different course than the fall hunter paces I've done with this group.  The terrain was actually pretty technical at the beginning, with steep, rocky descents into narrow, leaf-covered ditches.  It was also significantly longer than the 6.5 miles I'm used to and had been expecting.  I think it was somewhere between 9 and 10 miles, which was longer than I wanted to do because it was in the mountains and I had been hoping for something a little bit less taxing for Nimo's first ride after Foxcatcher.  He did fine, until a couple of miles before the end, when our obstacle was not a jump, but a train.  We happened to be on a section of the course that was maybe 200 feet from railroad tracks, and the Longest Train Ever happened to come by when we were there.  And that was when I realized that Nimo has never seen a train before...He was quite terrified and I think my life is only intact because we were with another horse who kept it together.  But Nimo just couldn't come down after that, and he pulled and pranced his way back to the finish line.

The next weekend, I rode with a couple of friends out at the Shenandoah River State Park.  We rode 8-8.5 miles and because of who I was with (rider recovering from a medical situation and rider on an inexperienced horse), we kept the pace mostly to a walk with a little trotting.  Nimo was well-behaved, but very forward, and I could tell he would have liked a longer, faster ride.

Last weekend, I ended up just riding around the farm where Nimo is boarded because I didn't have the energy to haul anywhere.  I was dragging from trying to get caught up on house-work and laundry, and a high-priority work project had been sucking my mental energy.  My plan had been to put in about 8 miles of as much trotting as we could do on the trails and road that runs through the farm.  However, once I got out on the trails, I realized they were still pretty boggy and we couldn't get a lot of trotting in.  So after a couple of miles, I headed into the arena, where we had not been for weeks, and decided to just do super basic warm-up stuff and a couple of canter sets to set the stage for returning to dressage work for the next few months.  While Nimo has been feeling good under saddle on the trails, I found out after an 18-month hiatus from dressage lessons a few years ago, that he really does need dedicated and disciplined dressage work to be at his best.  I have been slacking on that front recently but I recognized it was time to get back to it because I could tell Nimo was a little stiff in the arena and he was having some trouble picking up his left lead.

I intended to get 1-2 rides in the arena on him during the week, but that didn't happen.  I had gotten wrapped up in how much my daughter was enjoying him and so I put off the necessary work that should have been done.  And, to be honest, it was so nice to be able to go out to the barn during the day and have my evenings at home instead of having to snarf down dinner and then go out to the barn, rush to get everything done, get home after 9, struggle to get my daughter to go to sleep, and then lay awake for hours trying to relax enough to fall asleep.  (I have trouble falling asleep if I've been exercising or doing horse stuff just before bed.)

Anyway, I was also having trouble getting motivated to find a place to ride on Saturday (yesterday).  The thought of going to one of our usual places wasn't that appealing.  Luckily, a friend suggested a ride with the Bull Run Hunt Club.  The club offers trail rides a few times during the summer for non-members, and I thought it sounded like fun, plus it was only a 40-minute drive from the barn.

So, I set my alarm for 5:45 am on Saturday morning.  Normally, I'm not a fan of getting up that early, but my daughter's restless sleeping and early waking (4:45) had me ready to get out of bed.  I drove out to the barn, hooked up the trailer, loaded tack and horse, and headed out.  As is typical for me, I absolutely missed the final turn and ended up backing down a narrow, curvy road for about a quarter of mile, but I figured it was good practice and I was early anyway.

I was still the first one there, so I waited a few minutes for someone else so I knew where to park.  The lady I met was super nice and directed me to a good parking spot, and I unloaded Nimo and got him brushed and tacked up.  While I was working, several people came up and introduced themselves and welcomed me.  It is one of the things I love most about riding with hunts - everybody is so friendly, even when you are dressed in breeches of a weird color and a shirt that doesn't match, and your horse is dirty.  My second favorite thing is that bringing a Friesian is no big deal.  A couple of people may ask about his breed or comment that he is pretty, but hunt horses come in every variety, so there are always lots of beautiful, unique horses, and Nimo doesn't stand out so much.

I opted to ride with the walk/trot/canter group because I really felt that Nimo could handle it.  The ride would include a mountain, but would otherwise be hilly trails over decent footing in the forest and fields.  I knew his conditioning would be up to it, and I really needed a ride to sort of kick me into conditioning gear again.  My friend decided to ride with the walk/trot group because she is a normal person who doesn't feel compelled to ride her horse as fast as possible over hilly terrain:)

We got underway shortly after 9 am.  And Nimo did really well.  It is a big difference to go from riding alone or with one or two other people to riding with an organized group of about 10 horses, and I always appreciate that Nimo can do both.  He was very forward, but respectful of my direction to stay with the group and he handled the close quarters and the frequent jumping of "small" logs pretty well.  My definition of a small log is 8-ish inches.  The hunt's definition of small log is 18".  We skipped the two biggest logs by using the go-around, but otherwise had no trouble keeping up.

In fact, I was happily composing my blog about the ride in my head and I was focusing on all the things that were going well.  But in my excitement over Nimo's progress, I missed something that turned out to be important.  He crow-hopped a couple of times over the first jump and again a little later while we were cantering.  They weren't big crow-hops, and I chalked them up to him feeling fresh (even though Nimo has never crow-hopped because he had too much energy) and didn't give them a further thought.

So when we were cantering in a field up a hill about 4 miles into the ride, and he crow-hopped again, I wasn't ready for the giant buck he threw in just after it.  It was such a big buck, that even my endurance saddle couldn't hold me in, and I had what felt like a couple of seconds to understand that I was coming off and I was going to hit the ground hard, with my head.

I haven't fallen off a horse in several years, and I was unprepared for how hard even a grassy field is.  I hit the ground pretty hard and my head took the full impact, so when I tried to get up, I couldn't.  In no time, though, one of the other riders was with me, explaining that she was a nurse and was going to help me.  She asked if I knew where I was (I did).  Then she asked if I was nauseous (another yes).  She had me sit for a few minutes while someone else got Nimo (he hadn't gone far and was really calm).  After a few minutes, I tried to stand and couldn't, but I kept trying until I could.  Then the nurse moved me a little to check my balance and I would have fallen if she hadn't been holding me up.  At that point another rider explained that she had sent someone for my truck and trailer and that it would just be a few minutes.  I told her where the keys were, and that was when she gently told me that I'd already told her where the keys were a few minutes ago.  I have no memory of that and still don't.  (I always keep my keys in the same place so they are easily accessible in case of just what happened and I guess that consistency paid off.)

Four of the group had stayed back from the ride to keep me company and I chatted with them while we waited for my trailer.  By the time my trailer got there, I actually was feeling OK (no nausea or dizziness and the brief feeling of disorientation I'd had earlier had passed) and even mentioned continuing the ride, but everyone correctly pointed out that my helmet was damaged and that if I fell again, it wouldn't offer much protection and a second head injury so soon after the first could be really bad.  I was convinced, and loaded Nimo on the road without incident.  I wanted to do the short drive back to the parking area myself and I guess I looked OK, so I was allowed to do that (medical professionals who are reading this, I get that people who have concussions are not supposed to drive, but I was in denial that I had a concussion and I HATE not being able to do things for myself).  I had company for the drive, though.  The very nice gentleman who brought my truck and trailer to me stayed with me while I drove back and chatted with me (probably to make sure I was OK).

When I got back to the parking area, I unloaded Nimo, and gave him his post-ride mash, loaded up my stuff, and not long after that, the walk/trot group with my friend got back, and apparently somehow news of my fall and already been passed around.  Lots of people came to check that I was OK.  And my friend offered to take Nimo back to the barn in her trailer, so I wouldn't have to drive and she even worked out a scheme involving my husband to get the truck and trailer back without me having to drive.  I deferred a decision on it until after I got something to eat and drink (there were snacks after the ride).

We hung out for awhile after the ride, fueling up on fried chicken, chips, watermelon, and cookies, and I really felt OK.  What we decided to do was to have my friend follow me in her trailer back to my barn, so at any time, I could pull over if I didn't feel well and we could put Nimo in her trailer.  Then I called my husband so that I would be on the phone with him the whole time and be able to give him benchmarks of where I was in case something happened.

That plan ended up working really well.  I completed the drive just fine, although the conversation with my husband took a decidedly morbid turn (although in a funny-but-you-had-to-be-there sort of way).  I'm pretty sure it is one of his worst nightmares to get a phone call that I have been injured (or worse) while riding, so when I called to explain what happened, after his initial horror, he went into problem-solving mode by offering to come get me and the horse and drive us home.  I managed to dissuade him and kept him contented by talking.  We don't get a chance to talk much these days because of all the time we spend taking care of our daughter, so we had to laugh as we awkwardly tried to find a substantive topic of conversation.  Because of my injury, we naturally settled on how we would handle our care if we were in a bad accident or became demented in our old age.  Part of our conversation centered on how we could scheme to live in our daughter's basement when we felt the dementia kicking in, so we wouldn't have to go to a nursing home. 

Anyway, after about 40 minutes, I made it back to the barn, safe and sound, thanked my friend for her help, and got Nimo unloaded and in his stall with lots of hay.  It was at this point that I finally started thinking about what caused Nimo to buck in the first place, and I realized I should check his back for pain.  I palpated and didn't find anything, so I checked the pad and the saddle to see if there was anything that shouldn't be there, but again, nothing.

After I unloaded my tack and unhooked the trailer, I called my husband so I'd be on the phone with him for the 30-minute drive home.  Again, I felt fine, but I was definitely getting tired.  The drive home was uneventful, and after I got home, I showered, and snuggled with my daughter on the couch, where we both slept for a couple of hours.

After my nap, I could feel the soreness creeping in, so I got up and moved around a little.  Then I sent my husband out for Red Robin burgers (so yummy!) and we had dinner.  I spent the evening trying to relax and not doing anything too taxing.  I noticed that looking at the screen of my phone or tablet bothered my eyes, so I decided to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation re-runs while my husband and daughter went for an evening trip to the park.

I spent the night tossing and turning because my neck got really sore and I started to notice a sore spot on my head as well (probably the point of impact).  And now, I'm up and typing up this post for you because I had an epiphany about what went wrong during yesterday's ride.

Friesians in general have great work ethics and temperaments.  While they can be spooky, they are reasonably easy to train.  However, several years ago, I read an article (which I can't find to save my life) that talked about how you have to be careful when training Friesians because it can be easy to push them to a breaking point.  Their easy-going nature and hard work can mislead a trainer into thinking that the horse is handling the current work and is ready for more even when the horse is not.  The article helped me make sense of something that happened when I first started riding Nimo as a three-year old.  I had only been on his back for a couple of weeks and we were working on the longe line.  My trainer was longing us while I sat on Nimo's back.  We were trotting in the indoor arena and the trainer was asking Nimo to move in a sort of introductory frame.  After a few minutes of trotting, Nimo just bucked me off.  (In hindsight, I'm sure he had given signs of resistance that seemed minor, but were actually meaningful.)  I landed on my butt and I really thought I'd broken my pelvis.  I didn't, but I didn't walk well for at least 2 weeks.  My trainer apologized because he knew he'd done something wrong, although I don't know that he or I really knew what.  After I read the article, I knew that it was a case where because Nimo had handled being backed so calmly and was so compliant, my trainer (and me too) had pushed him too far.  His buck was a way of telling us he wasn't ready for the frame he was being asked for.

Since I read the article, I have worked very hard to look for signs that I'm pushing Nimo too hard.  And in fact, there are probably times when I don't push him hard enough because I don't want to take advantage of his nature and end up pushing him too far.  While our ride yesterday didn't seem to me like it was causing Nimo a problem, it obviously was.  Nimo doesn't buck unless he is really stressed.  In fact, I can only remember a handful of times in the 10 years I've been riding him when he has truly bucked.  Aside from the time I just told you about, the only times have been when he was spooked and bolting, although he will crow-hop when asked to canter if he doesn't feel warmed up enough or I'm asking him to use his back more than he is ready for, but even that is quite rare.

I now believe that he was trying to tell me something with his crow-hops earlier in the ride.  Something about the ride was making him uncomfortable, and I suspect it was the combination of being in a group of horses where there was often another horse quite close to him, regardless of our pace, the jumping, and the cantering.  I think it was just too much for him to take in, and his buck was his way of telling me he'd had enough.  His attitude never changed the whole day because that is his nature, I think.  He knew what he was supposed to do, but it was too stressful for him to keep doing it.

Someone commented that I should have had someone else get on him and ride him for a short time after he bucked me off so he would know that bucking isn't a way to get the ride to end.  But this behavior is so unusual for him, I actually think it was best that I didn't ride him again.  In fact, I feel terrible that I missed the signs I should have seen and pushed him to the point where bucking was his only way of communicating with me.  I think if I had gone around the jumps and just had him trot out instead of canter, I would have alleviated enough stress that we would have had a good ride.

I know there are those who would absolutely disagree with my assessment and argue that Nimo was either flat-out misbehaving or that he was bucking in response to having a little too much energy or that being with a group of horses cantering in a field was too exciting or that there must be a saddle-fit issue.  I don't have a scientific response for why I don't believe those arguments to be true, and maybe time will prove me wrong.  But Nimo has cantered in groups up grassy hills before and behaved beautifully.  Nimo never bucks when he feels fresh, he just tries to go faster.  In fact, Nimo has never bucked without a reason before.  And I couldn't find an issue with his back.  I will check saddle fit again to make sure, but I don't think that is it either.

So my plan is to take a few days off riding so I can recover from what was obviously a mild concussion.   Then I will go buy a new helmet (which I needed anyway).  And I am going to go spend some time riding my horse in the arena to make sure he feels comfortable at the canter and then I am going to add some ground pole and cavaletti work and finally I am going to take him out on more trail rides with a personal vow to PAY ATTENTION to what Nimo is trying to tell me and take crow-hops on the trail as meaningful communication and look to find a reason why instead of blowing them off.

But for now, I am going to go ice my neck and eat the lovely Mother's Day breakfast my husband made:)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Future Equestrian?

I've been meaning to do a post about my daughter for awhile now, and I got some inspiration from this post by Liz.  She wrote about how well Q is doing as a lesson horse for a young girl, and it reminded me how amazing our journeys with our horses can be.  Q has had spooking issues for Liz in the past, but Liz' work with her has helped her be a horse that can be trusted around children.  In a similar way, Nimo has really progressed from being a horse that I would never have even considered using around children to one that I can use with my own daughter (within certain boundaries, of course, because he can still be a bit spooky out on trails).  His sheer size was a little intimidating to Gemma for awhile, but particularly within the last couple of months, she has been feeling a lot more comfortable around him.

It is my deepest desire for Gemma to have a grand passion in her life.  Whether it is horses or photography or nursing people back to health, I hope that she has something that gives her as much joy (and sorrow) as horses have given me.  Of course, I really hope she loves horses, but I understand that each person has to follow her own path.  That hasn't stopped me from exposing her to the barn life, though. At just six weeks old, I had Nimo meet her under Grandpa's careful supervision.  She mostly slept through this visit (as 6 week old babies do) as well as many future visits, but over time, she became more interested in what I did out at the barn.

When Gemma was about 15 months old, I decided to try riding with her to see how she felt about it.  She seemed to think it was OK, but nothing earth shattering.

I waited a few months and tried again.  By this time, I had procured The Cutest Saddle Ever, and I was excited to try it out.  It was a western pony saddle, so it was wide enough for Nimo, but the cinch situation was less than ideal, and I could tell Nimo wasn't that happy about it.  However, he had developed an unexpected tolerance for stuff on his back that he didn't like (he used to crow hop every time I got a new saddle pad), so I decided to give it a try.

Help me!  My helmet is too big!  And what am I supposed to do with this thing in front of me?

Gemma's reaction was a little less than enthusiastic, so I decided to give riding a rest for awhile.  Instead, I just brought her out to the barn with me periodically, which she loved.  She always wanted to carry Nimo's red feed bucket around (which drove all the horses NUTS if they were in) and she adored the two barn cats, who were and still are remarkably tolerant of an adoring toddler.

Dear Mom, please comb my hair!
Lately, though, she's been desperate to go out to the barn Every Single Day.  And she wants to help with everything horse-related.  We've actually gotten quite the routine down.

She helps me mix Nimo's feed, and she is insistent that all Smartpaks are immediately unpacked and placed in their proper place (as distinct from my method of lobbing the box in the garage in the general vicinity of the feed and then hunting for it when I've realized I have run out of them).

She also asks to ride, and she understands that she has to wear her helmet before she can get on.

She picks out the brushes that we'll use for Nimo and adamantly directs my attention to any dirt spots that she can't get, which due to her short stature and lack of skill with a curry comb, is pretty much all of them...

She insists that she gets to hold the lead rope and "lead" Nimo to the arena (as well as in and out of his stall or paddock).  I supervise this process pretty closely and always try to keep between her and Nimo, but we have to start somewhere:)

Because Nimo wasn't happy with The Cutest Saddle Ever and we're not doing anything other than a short walk around the arena, I'm using a bareback pad for Gemma to ride on right now, and it seems to work pretty well.

As you can see, her expression is happy and she truly seems to enjoy her rides now.  But I can tell that I'm going to have to up my game soon because she wants to do more than just wander around.  I haven't worked out a great solution for riding with her because neither my dressage saddle nor my endurance saddle has a lot of extra room for even a small child, but if I put her in front of the saddle, she's on Nimo's withers.  He actually seems OK with it, but I'd prefer having her in the saddle with me.  Both of us on the bareback pad works really well, but I need a second person to help because it's hard for me to get on after Gemma is already on and I can't put her on after me because she's too little.  Some experimentation will likely ensue because I want to be safe, but I see no reason why we can't go together on short rides around the farm.

Anyway, after a short ride, it's back to the barn to pull tack and give Nimo a snack for his patience.  And then there is the clean up.  Gemma is horrified by the mess Nimo makes when he eats his Chaffhaye, so she demands that we clean it up.

Then she brings Nimo an extra flake of hay, regardless of whether he needs it (I think she gets that from me).

And finally, she checks Nimo's feed bin to gather any empty feed bags and to make sure there is a sufficient quantity of full bags before we go.

On the way to the truck, if she sees a barn cat, she needs to give him one more petting before we go.

I don't know what the future holds for my daughter, but I love that she seems to enjoy all animals, and I especially love that she enjoys the tasks associated with caring for Nimo as much as or even more than she enjoys riding.  I think that a person can't really be a "horseperson" until the care of the horse is as important as riding, and I'm happy to do whatever I can to encourage and nurture Gemma as she learns to care for animals.  (She has become especially relentless about our guinea pigs' water - as soon as a bottle is less than half full, she nags at me to fill it no matter how much I explain that there is a second, completely full bottle).  So stay tuned for our future adventures!:)