Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Sometimes You Have to Move Backward to Go Forward, part 2

As you'll remember from my last post, Nimo was having trouble using his left hind leg correctly.  To solve the problem, I suppose I could have sequentially tried the suggestions my instructor gave me, but I was less interested in a scientifically rigorous experiment and more interested in quickly resolving the problem. So I basically changed everything I was doing.

The first thing I did was to dig an old saddle out of storage. It was one that I had gotten for Nimo when he was four years old. And I rode in it for many years. In fact, it was the one I started conditioning for endurance in. It is a Thornhill Germania Klasse dressage saddle. But as Nimo lost weight (and muscle tone) for endurance rides, the saddle became much too wide and I graduated to a Specialized Eurolight. I had left the Thornhill in the garage to collect dust and was planning to finally sell it, although it really isn’t worth a lot now because of its age and fairly heavy use. But I would rather someone get use out of it than leave it to rot in the garage.

Anyway, it occurred to me that the saddle might not be too wide any longer, given all the weight Nimo has put on. The saddle has an extra-wide tree (36 cm), so I figured I would give it a try. It turned out to fit very well. It does have thigh blocks, but because I’ve dropped my stirrups a couple of holes, they don’t interfere with my leg position like they used to. And the seat is slightly deep, but not extreme like many of the more modern saddles. After riding in it, I determined that it was a good intermediate solution.

The next thing I did was disassemble the double bridle and start using only the Baucher snaffle again. I have no idea if the curb bit was causing a problem, but Nimo typically goes pretty well without the double bridle and I wasn’t planning on doing a lot collected trot or piaffe/passage, so I just didn’t need it.

Then I used the bladder meridian technique from the Masterson method of equine massage to see if I could find a specific problem area.  I noticed that Nimo had some reactions along the right side of his neck, which made sense given how one of the things we'd been working on was to get him to keep his neck straight.  He has a tendency to curl slightly to the right, and I'd really been focused on straightening that curl.  As a result, the muscles on the right side of his neck were probably working harder than normal.  The other big reaction I got was in the hip area of his left hind leg.  Again, I was expecting something when I worked on that area - either in the hip or stifle, so the reaction wasn't a surprise.  In fact, I was glad to see that the massage technique resulted in a reaction (lots of licking and chewing, shifting weight, and yawning) because it meant that there was tension to be released.

I also realized that we hadn’t been out on the trails that much, and I know from past experience that Nimo does better if he gets regular rides outside of the arena. In fact, I’ve seen him get pretty jammed up from too much arena riding, so I decided that would be another change. As luck would have it, we had a bit of a dry spell, so I was able to ride around a couple of fields at the barn and down the road a bit. The arena was being resurfaced at that time too, so it forced me to work only outside the arena for almost a week.

The last thing I did was focus on Pignot jog and canter. I did a little walking with Nimo, and almost no collected trot work. I ended up not being able to do circles or much lateral work either because the places I could ride were either a road, the perimeter of a field, or the top half of a small field on the side of a hill. None of those places were great for half-pass or circles. But they were great for trotting and cantering. So that is what I did. A little walking and Pignot jogging to warm up and then canter and more canter and more canter. I cantered down the road (for the first time ever!) I cantered in the field on the hill (for the first time ever!). I cantered in the grass around the outside of the perimeter of
the arena (for the first time ever!). Nimo was never able to sustain the canter for very long (maybe a tenth of a mile at most, or halfway around the outside of the arena), but we did canter transitions on both leads over and over again. And Nimo seemed to love it. One day was very hot (over 70 degrees!) and he came in dripping with sweat (he still has his winter coat), but it was because he was the one choosing to canter.

When the arena was finished, we did a very short ride in it the first night and it was heaven. So smooth and the footing was nice and fluffy but not too deep. I was also trying a saddle owned by another boarder. She’d offered to let me ride in it months and months ago, but at the time, I had decided to go in another direction. But now, I thought it made sense to give it a try to see if I like it better than my old dressage saddle. It was an old Wintec Pro-Endurance saddle (I’m not even sure it had the adjustable gullet, although it did have CAIR panels). I had seen a Facebook post by Dom about an old Wintec she had that worked great on a lot of different horses and she mentioned how much she liked it.  I'm not sure if the Wintec she was referring to was the old endurance model or a different one, but I thought it might be worth trying regardless because I suspect the old Wintecs were probably made on similar trees.

And it was totally worth it. It fit Nimo even better than the Thornhill (even though the front of the gullet was about a quarter inch narrower), and even better for me, it was an endurance saddle!:) I didn’t ride in the saddle much more than 20 minutes because the panels felt like they could use some attention and I didn’t want Nimo’s back to get sore, but I did want to ride enough to assess the fit for him and me. The saddle isn’t perfect because the stirrup bars are a bit too far forward and the flap is a weird sort of not really all-purpose and not really dressage, so it’s a bit too long for me.  But I love the Wintec fabric. So durable and easy to clean and I don’t feel like I’m going to slide out of the saddle at the first sign of a stiff breeze.

I gave the saddle back to the boarder and checked eBay, thinking there was a chance one would be for sale. And if not, I could just set up a search to let me know if one ever did. I knew my old dressage saddle would work for awhile (and I even thought that if I removed the thigh blocks and put a sheepskin cover on it, it would work even for trail riding). But the universe decided to smile upon me and with 4 minutes left on an auction, I managed to snag the exact same model of the saddle that I had just tried! This one didn’t have the CAIR panels, though, which I figured was a good thing because it would probably make getting it reflocked easier.  The saddle would take some time coming from California (because apparently saddles coming from California have to wait for a flock of migratory birds to come get them and bring them to me), so I rode in my old dressage saddle in the meantime.

And while I had enjoyed our time riding out of the arena, I was anxious to get back into the arena so we could work on circles and half pass. But for canter, I was planning to still use whatever grassy area I could find. I had discovered that Nimo cantered so much better on grass than on any other footing, which probably explains why we had such great experiences with the canter last fall when we worked out on the fields and trail so much and why we haven’t advanced much since we started working on canter exclusively in the arena. So the second day after the arena was resurfaced, we rode in it again and had a really nice ride.  By the time we finished, Nimo’s walk was the best I’d ever felt. I was so relieved because I felt like all the canter and outside-the-arena work had really helped improve the use of his left hind leg.

But then we rode in the arena for a third time after several jumping lessons had taken place. And it went something like this…We would be happily trotting along and then it was like sinking into quicksand. Nimo’s legs would sort of grind to a halt as he sunk into footing that was churned up and at least six inches deep. It was impossible to find consistent footing that wasn’t too deep anywhere in the arena. The very edges along two sides had nice firm footing, but the "track" area in the arena was prone to fluctuating between 3 and 6 inches deep. Nimo struggled to keep his balance through the deep spots and it was just miserable.

I wish I could say that all I had to do was report this problem to the barn owner and it would have been resolved, but I knew the barn owner had deliberately added a huge amount of sand to the arena, so my complaint would not likely be taken well. And for all I knew, the hunter/jumper trainer at the barn had requested that type of footing. Hopefully anyone reading this blog already knows that inconsistent and deep footing is a soft-tissue injury waiting to happen for many horses and that trying to do collected work in footing deeper than two inches is very difficult.  Imagine trying to do ballet on the beach…So let this be a lesson to everyone, including me: Be very careful about the depth and consistency of the footing in your arena. While some cushion is good, too much is probably worse than not enough.

It was with great relief that I trailered to the covered arena where I typically have my lessons. The footing there is lovely. It is regular sand on a bluestone base, just like the arena at my barn, but the owner of the property rides high-level dressage horses in the arena and grooms it meticulously. The base is nice and solid and there is probably only an inch or so of sand on top. It was so nice to be on firm footing again!

While my instructor wasn’t crazy about my “new” saddle because of the deeper seat, she did agree that it was an improvement on my old one. I also explained I had another one coming that I thought would be even better, and we left it at that.

We focused our efforts during the lesson on walk and collected trot. Nimo was doing much better with his left hind. He did still occasionally put it down too early (short-stride), but overall, he was getting back to his old movement from about a month ago. We did just a tiny bit of canter at the end, so I could show my instructor what we’d been working on, and she thought it looked “not too bad.” (This is the equivalent of a “hallelujah” for me.)

The lighting isn't so great, but Nimo and I are back to work!:)
Finally, on Thursday my “new” saddle arrived, courtesy of an especially speedy flock of birds, and I was excited to see what I’d bought. I hadn’t had much time to make a decision when I found the listing, so there were some unknowns about the saddle. Like how wide it was and in what shape it was in. (Most people are really awful about posting saddle pictures. They use weird angles and backgrounds and bad lighting. I just want to offer a Saddle Selling 101 class to them.)

My husband looked at the giant box in dismay when it arrived. “Didn’t you just sell a saddle?” he asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be purging your tack and getting rid of saddles?” he reminded me hopefully. I did just sell a saddle, but I paid significantly less for this one than what I sold mine for, so I consider it to be the same as downsizing. Right?:)

When I opened the box, I was delighted to find a saddle that, while possibly meeting the definition of antique, was still in very serviceable condition. It was a very old Wintec Pro-Endurance. It did not have the adjustable gullet that has been standard in Wintecs for as long as I can remember, nor did it have CAIR panels. (I don’t have anything against CAIR panels – the saddle I just sold had them and they seemed to be holding up just fine, but I know reflocking is probably less expensive if I don’t have to deal with them.) I worried a bit that it would not be wide enough for Nimo, but assuming it fit the same as the similar model I had tried, it would work. The panels seemed to be in good shape and I didn’t find any loose stitching or worn billet straps. And the saddle was so light! I doubt it even weighed five pounds! Plus it had tons of little d-rings for all the stuff I like to attach to my saddle for trail and conditioning rides. I breathed a sign of relief and took the saddle out to the barn to try it out.

The interesting thing about this saddle that I referenced before is that it is a hybrid between an all-purpose saddle and a dressage saddle. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I’m sure it was designed that way on purpose. The saddle allows a longer leg if you want it, but a shorter leg for smaller jumps too. There is no thigh block – just what I would consider a pencil knee-roll under the flap. The seat is not very deep, which is great if you need to move or shift positions.

But the most interesting thing about it is the length of the billet straps. They are too long to be considered short billet straps like the kind found on jumping saddles. But they are too short to be considered long billet straps like the kind found on dressage saddles. An interesting conundrum unless you happen to be me. Nimo wears the largest size long girth that I can find regularly (56”), but that is really not long enough for short-billeted saddles. It only works because I spent some quality time with baling twine stretching the elastic on the buckles while tightening the girth. It was a royal pain to girth up the all-purpose saddle I had been using, and I admit that it was a relief to go back to using the short girth on long billet straps used by my old dressage saddle. But the great news is that while my short girths were much too short to work with the Wintec (Nimo is also on the upper end of length for those – using anywhere from a 30-34”, depending on the manufacturer), the long girth I had for my all-purpose saddle was perfect for the Wintec. (And this is why I hoard tack and have so much trouble getting rid of it. You never know when you need a wacky combination to make something work.) I already knew this girth would work from when I tried the Wintec owned by a fellow boarder, so I was ready to go.

There is one other interesting thing about the saddle, though, which did not work out so well. The panels extend farther back than is typical for any kind of English saddle (it may be this part of the design is borrowed from Australian saddles, I’m not sure). So that means the lovely (and expensive) Thinline half pad that I use on top of a thin cotton pad is about an inch too short. I can buy a larger size, but I kind of wish I didn’t have to. Alas, at least I don’t need to buy a new girth:)

I’ve been riding in the saddle for several weeks now, and it has been working out really well.  In fact, stay tuned for my next post when you can find out exactly how well it worked when Nimo and I headed out of the arena to a group trail ride (WHY, oh WHY do I go on group rides?!). I'll also address the saddle pad issue and how I resolved it in future posts.

But in the meantime, I wanted to wrap up this two-part series of posts by saying that what seemed like a terrible set-back had some really positive impacts. I think that had I been riding under the old idea of conventional dressage training, Nimo's left leg issue would likely have prompted a series of diagnostic tests from a vet.  I would have spent thousands of dollars on things like x-rays and ultrasounds and maybe even red light therapy and God knows what else, because that is how issues with movement are typically addressed.

Because of my experience with Science of Motion, I knew the likely outcome of the conventional way of thinking was going to be expensive and my horse would not be "fixed."  I can look to any number of recent examples among my horse friends and acquaintances for ideas of what outcomes look like when conventional thinking is used. (Please understand that I do not think vets are inherently bad or trying to rip off their customers. I also think there are good reasons to use diagnostic tests, so I'm not trying to say they should never be used. But I think they should be used with care and that owners need to prepare themselves for what can be a long and expensive road that ends with no answers or partial answers.  And had my approach to problem-solving with tack changes and movement not worked, I very likely would have engaged in diagnostic testing with a vet to see if the problem could be pinpointed to allow more precise targeting of therapeutic exercises or treatment.)

I honestly have no idea which of the changes I made contributed to helping Nimo move better.  Maybe all of them.  Maybe none of them.  Maybe the movement would have improved on its own with me simply continuing to work on correct riding.  What did happen is that I took care of a saddle fit issue that may or may not have been causing specific problems at the time, but could have down the road.  (I already knew that the saddle wasn't balanced as well as it should be, but I had been procrastinating about dealing with it.)  Now I have a saddle that is an improvement over what I was using and allows me to better communicate with Nimo.  We also worked on canter in an intense way that we would not have done if I hadn't felt like I needed to change the way we were training.  I discovered how footing really makes a difference to how well Nimo can work, and I learned that our canter work is best done outside of the arena.  And Nimo is back to using his left hind leg correctly.  We are not quite to the point we were at in collected trot before the issue happened, but that is OK, because I think we are farther ahead on several other things, and it may be that the focus on collected trot contributed to creating the problem, so I'm not in a hurry to go back to that focus.

Having to deal with a movement issue like Nimo's put me in a much different mental state, though, and it really made me think more deeply about how I was riding in terms of position, but also in terms of what I was asking for from Nimo.  That process took longer than just the time to address the movement of his left hind leg, though.  In fact, I went through a bit of a rough spot once I thought I had "fixed" the movement that didn't fully resolve until after I rode for a couple of days with Jean Luc Cornille in a clinic this past weekend (I'll write about how that went in the future as well).

One of the things that I have always loved about dressage and riding in general is that there is no point where you can say, "I have learned it all.  I am the best I can be."  There is always room for improvement.  There is always learning that can still take place (if you are open to it).  But sometimes I get frustrated with my inability to master riding.  Which is what happened during the past month or so.  I mean, I've been riding regularly since I was 11, which is over 30 years.  I've competed in a lot of different events and taken more lessons than I can remember.  That's a lot of time to be dedicated to mastering a skill and still feel nowhere close to anything resembling a high-level of skill.

Why did my horse suddenly develop a movement issue after months of really great progress?  It was a hard thing to think about.  It made me doubt myself and the path I'd chosen for us.  It made me wonder if I should keep riding.  I didn't react very well at first to those thoughts and after I had gone through the steps to solve the problem, I still found myself feeling very much adrift internally.  I hope you will bear with me for another couple of posts while I explore these thoughts.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sometimes You Have to Go Backward to Move Forward, part 1

In my last post, I wrote about riding Nimo out on the trail and trying out collected trot. One of
the things that I mentioned in passing was that his trot didn’t feel quite as smooth as it did in the
arena. At the time, I assumed it was because he was moving over uneven ground, and I was
thinking it was probably harder to move well.

It turns out that there was a problem brewing and I didn’t realize it until the following week
when I rode in my lesson. After my trail ride with Nimo, I had continued to feel that the
movement wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the problem was. My
instructor, however, was able to identify it right away – Nimo was putting his left hind hoof
down too early in the motion of the stride. You might have heard it referred to as short-striding
(at least that’s how I have always thought of it).

In Nimo’s case, he did not appear to be lame in the classic sense. There was no head-bobbing or
other indicators of pain. He simply didn’t move his leg far enough forward before putting it
down, which gave an asymmetric look and feel to his walk and trot. It appeared to be a range of
motion issue rather than an impact issue, if that makes sense.

I will note that Nimo’s left hind leg is his “weak link,” so to speak. He has had trouble fully
engaging it for most of his life. As far as I know, he has never had an injury to that leg nor does
he have a specific conformation flaw that would contribute to an issue. But over the years, that
particular leg has sometimes just failed to contribute to the movement as well as his right hind
leg.

In fact, one of the things that sold me on the usefulness of the Masterson Method of massage was
that the first time I used it (probably 7 or 8 years ago now), Nimo had a significant reaction when
I worked on his left hind leg. It ended with him fully stretching the leg out behind him (kind of
like how you see chickens and cats do from time to time). I’d never seen a horse stretch like that
before, but it was such an obvious release that it convinced me the bladder meridian technique
from the Masterson Method was a valid strategy for addressing tension and soreness.

Anyway, the movement of Nimo’s left hind leg intermittently shows up as something that needs
to be addressed. I’ve spent more than one lesson working on it over the years, but I really
thought we’d moved past it when it cropped up again last month. And it was not as easily
worked through as it had been in the past.

My instructor even got on during my lesson. She didn’t say anything other than that she wanted
to feel what I was feeling to help her work on coming up with a solution, but I suspect she
thought she was going to get on Nimo and identify a simple fix for the issue.  I also think she
thought she was going to be able to demonstrate how to easily canter him, because I was still
having trouble with it.

I will note that only two other instructors that I’ve had have ever ridden Nimo. In each case, it
was a brief affair. One of my instructors was almost bucked off at the walk (despite being an
international level dressage and event rider) and the other could not get him to canter to save her
life (despite working with Nimo over the course of several rides).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Nimo is the most difficult horse I have ever ridden. This
difficulty is despite his amazing work ethic. He requires that his rider is absolutely focused on
him. Even a nano-second of wandering attention will get you a complete stop, a random darting
around the arena, a different gait, or even an attempt to unseat you. Half-assed, partial, or too-
strong aids will either get you no response or something very unexpected. If you even think you
might want to slow down or halt at some point in the indefinite future, you can expect a dead
stop that threatens to launch you out of the saddle. And cantering? You better be prepared for endless frustration. Also, the spooking. Dear God, the spooking…

Anyway, I turned Nimo over to my instructor. It was her first time riding him, so I mentioned
that it can sometimes take him awhile to get used to new riders and that I haven’t seen anyone
else have a lot of luck with him. Feeling like I did my due diligence, I stood back and watched.

My instructor rides much the same way I do, so Nimo did not try to buck her off because she
irritated the crap out of him with a strong seat or fail to respond to aids that made no sense. In
fact, he did pretty much everything for her that he does for me. He willingly moved forward and
worked very hard for her. He also wiggled and wobbled. He went sideways and backwards as
she tried to convince him to fully use his left hind leg. She did counter bending exercises and
lateral movements and even asked him to canter. Her results were almost identical to mine that
day, which is to say, not that great. She also kept saying things like, “This is a lot of horse!”
“He’s so wide!” And perhaps most importantly, “Now I understand more about what you are
going through when you ride him!”

You might think that these results were a bad thing, but I was so relieved. If my instructor had
been able to get on Nimo and ride him beautifully and canter him gracefully around the arena
with minimal effort, I would have been destroyed. I have been riding this horse for almost 14
years, and I learn something almost every time I ride. He is both sensitive and stubborn and
works hard but not any harder than he has to. He loves to do movements and gaits that he feels
comfortable with, but he gets anxious when asked to do something that he doesn’t know how to
do or doesn’t feel confident doing. He likes to learn new things but sometimes new things scare
him. He loves to go new places and explore, but sometimes feels overwhelmed if there is too
much new stuff going on. All of this can add up to what feels like inconsistency, which can lead
to frustration. I am mostly able to cope with it all now, but it has taken a long time and a lot of
reflecting to get to that point. (And as I wrote all that out, I realized just how much like me he
really is!)

Over the past couple of years, I feel like my riding and my position have improved so much. I
feel much more able to communicate with Nimo and be sensitive to his sensitivities. The vast
majority of our work is enjoyable and occurs much more easily than it used to. But we hit a little
bit of a hiccup with the function of his left hind leg. And I admit to feeling disappointed and sad
and frustrated and even a little angry at how quickly we went from making huge improvements
every week to going backwards. I had gotten so much more confident about my riding and I felt
like my confidence in myself must have been misplaced. That I must have somehow caused the
issue with his hind leg through bad riding.

I said something like that to my instructor, and her response was that it really wasn’t productive
to think that way. For one thing, there was no real evidence that I was riding him badly. My
instructor got exactly the same results that I did when she rode him, and I consider her to be an
excellent and sensitive rider. For another thing, Nimo has a history of not using that leg
correctly.

My lesson ended without getting Nimo to use his left hind fully. But my instructor gave me
several suggestions for things to try with him over the next two weeks before our next lesson to
see if he improved. Her assessment was that his short-striding was likely due to an improper
rotation in his pelvis. Of course, there was always the possibility that he was having an issue
with arthritis or some other breakdown of his body due to the aging process (he will be 17 this
year!), but because the issue came up so suddenly without apparent injury, I was tempted to think
that one likely possibility was that he simply tried moving that way every once in a while to see
if I would notice. When I didn’t react, he started moving that way more consistently. And while
I could feel something wasn’t right, without knowing what it was, I didn’t have a good
foundation for correcting it. So it became a case of bad becoming normal, to use a phrase coined
by Dr. Temple Grandin.

My instructor recommended cantering more because canter can really help a horse’s pelvis
engage and move. She also suggested trying counter bend on a circle to the right (meaning Nimo
would be in left bend) and then coming out of the circle to a half-pass to the right (meaning that
he would have to change his bend). Another possibility was to use shoulder-in to the left with a
lot of angle to help engage and strengthen his hind leg. And finally, the saddle. As you may
recall, I bought $100 saddle off of eBay last summer and it has been working well. But Nimo
has gained a lot of muscle tone (I’m thrilled to say that his topline has definitely been
improving!) and it was clear to me when I watched my instructor that while the saddle didn’t
appear to be causing any pinching or pressure points, it just wasn’t sitting remotely level even
when Nimo had fully engaged his back.

So I headed home that day trying to stay positive about finding a solution, even though a part of
my brain was trying to have a meltdown.