Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hot Stuff

After a light week thanks to his mild (but still scary) bout with colic, Aaruba was full of bounce for today's conditioning ride. We took on 10 miles of hills in the midday heat. I really like this route for its rolling quarter-mile and half-mile hills. Aaruba trotted the whole way, with me riding up the hills and jogging down. He finished strong and pulsed down to 60 bpm in 7 minutes, three of which were spent walking the last quarter mile toward home.

When I took off my helmet, my hair was as wet as if I'd just stepped out of the shower. Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter -- up to 103! But I'm not complaining. Nope, not one bit. I'd rather condition in heat (it's good for an endurance horse to be able to manage his temperature in summer weather) than deal with the rainy, windy weather we endured throughout most of June.

And now, for all who have sent such kind compliments on Aaruba's loveliness, I offer this photo for your amusement:

That was Aaruba in mid-February, 2008. Below is a similar photo I took just before saddling up this afternoon. (Excuse the Target bag -- I didn't have Travis handy to help get his ears pricked...not that it worked...)

No really, I swear it's the same horse! Was that four months of conditioning, or a miracle??

Friday, June 27, 2008

Catching Up

You thought I forgot, didn't you?

Over a month ago, Oh, Horsefeathers! presented me with the Great Horse Tips Award. Ever since then, I've been looking for the perfect blogger upon whom to bestow it. I'm pleased to announce that I've found her at last:

Enlightened Horsemanship Through Touch

A recent discovery of mine, Enlightened Horsemanship offers one of my favorite reads. Kim's writing is utterly delightful and her thoughtful posts, laced with poetry and humor, resound with affection for equines. Make yourself a cup of tea and settle in to catch up on all you've missed!

In other news: Aaruba seems fine after his Tuesday-night colic. It's hard to refrain from checking him every fifteen minutes, but as he's acted normally for 48 hours now, I'm pretty confident that we're safely out of the woods. I've read that Arabians are one of the most colicky breeds, statistically speaking, and Aaruba seems to be one of those individuals that's more prone to colic than others. Perhaps I'd better give Enlightened Horsemanship's TTouch tip a try.

Tomorrow, equine sculptor Lynn Fraley of Laf'n Bear Studio will visit In the Night Farm to observe and measure the Barbs. I'm excited to hear what she, as a student of art and anatomy, has to say about them as they relate to the Old World horses she has studied. They should all be full of spit and vinegar, as they've had much off the week off while I dealt with Aaruba.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Dreadful Night: When Colic Strikes

There's nothing like colic to strike dread in a horseman's heart.

You've been there. You've seen the listless eye, the puzzled face, the drawn loin, the kick and roll, the up and down, the stretching, the flehmen and staring at his sides. You've felt Dread clutch your lungs in icy tentacles.

Occasionally, you can guess the cause, but usually, you're baffled. No feed changes. Plenty of turnout. No unusual stress. Half his water gone. He was fine this morning, but you're in for a night of it now.

You put the horse in a clean area and run for your vet kit. Deep breaths, calming tone. Heart rate. Gut sounds. Temperature. Hydration. Dial the vet.

Have you guessed yet what I did last night?

Pulling into the driveway after work, I did my usual visual sweep of the herd. Aaruba was standing by the gate with his hind legs stretched behind him ever so slightly. Hmm.

I ate a banana and changed clothes, then headed outside. Aaruba looked a bit heat-drugged and annoyed by flies, a little hunched through his back. I smeared petroleum jelly on his belly whorl where the flies like to pester him. He wandered away to roll. On the way, he pooped a nice, normal pile. Hmm.

I caught Acey and tied her in the round corral. While I groomed her, Aaruba rolled, rested briefly, and got up again. He seemed to be looking for another place to lie down. On the way, he passed another manure pile, loose this time. Hmm, indeed.

I put Acey away and haltered Aaruba, who met me at the gate looking pitiful. We paused by a patch of green grass on the way to the round corral. He wasn't interested. Enter Dread.

Aaruba's heart rate was normal at 36 (whew!). Gut sounds were present but low, especially on the lower left (uh-oh). Hydration normal (yay!). Aspect lethargic (crap). Temperature normal at 99 degrees (okay, good). He wanted to lie down (double crap).

I walked him for 10 minutes and was rewarded with another small, loose pile of manure. Fine, but not necessarily significant considering the amount of manure a horse can harbor behind an impaction or twist.

A repeat vitals check yielded identical results. Time for a dose of oral Banamine -- enough to ease mild pain, as pain itself can transform an otherwise simple colic into a killer -- but not enough to mask significant symptoms of oncoming endotoxic shock.

When I released him in the round corral to see what he'd do, he went down in the sandiest section of the round corral, looking miserable. He wrung his tail a bit, stretched his neck, and studied his left side.

As I reviewed the colic chapter in my favorite quick veterinary reference, Emergency! by Karen Hayes, I tried not to let mind fill with images from last fall, when I nearly lost Aaruba to a large bowel impaction of unknown cause. He spent several days--and several thousand dollars--in the hospital being pumped full of IV liquids and refluxing a bucketful every couple hours. His survival was nothing short of miraculous...and unlikely to happen twice.

Travis arrived home. We discussed the situation, and I spoke with the night vet at our equine hospital. Aaruba's pain was subtle to mild, his heart rate and hydration good, so we agreed on a "wait and see" approach.

I walked him for 10 to 15 minutes every hour, sometimes up and down a gentle slope, throughout the night. I kept careful notes on heart and respiration rates, gut sounds, pain symptoms, manure passed (1 pile around 2:30 a.m., half loose, half normal), salted Equine Senior mash intake (none), water intake (none), and other observations.

At 3:55 a.m., I woke the night vet to discuss the fact that although Aaruba's heart rate remained normal, his mild pain symptoms had returned in the wake of the Banamine. Worse, skin pinches and gum examinations showed that he was clearly dehydrated. Bring him in? Wait until morning? We decided, tentatively, to wait.

At 5:00, he was still resting sternal, looking sleepy but not painful. Getting him to his feet took more urging than before, and he was shivering in the 50 degree dawn. After a few minutes of walking, his guts remained very quiet. I checked his heart rate. 60 beats per minute. Red alert!

Travis hooked up the trailer while I scrambled into some jeans and went to halter Aaruba for loading. Dreading the result, I checked his heart rate again. 48. Hmm.

I waited a couple minutes and checked again. 42. Again. 36. My stomach began to unclench. Could it be that he'd just been sleeping soundly, and his heart raced when I roused him at a strange hour? I've had that happen, myself...

As the sun rose, Aaruba's lethargy seemed to lift. I led him out to the green grass by the garden, still soaked from its pre-dawn sprinkling. Finally (oh, joy!) he wanted to eat. After five minutes of grazing, I returned him to the round corral, where he lipped up a bit of his salty mash. Then he wandered around the corral, bright-eyed and relaxed, searching for stray bits of hay. And I went inside for some coffee.

I've been working from home today to keep an eye on him lest he relapse, but it's almost 6:00 p.m. and so far, so good. He's eager to graze when I let him do so for a few minutes every hour. He's happily consuming beet pulp and Senior mashes, and he looks like his usual self again. Just now, as I watched him through the window, he got up from a nap.

Isn't it funny how you can tell--even from a distance, even seeing just part of the horse--the difference between a peaceful snooze in the sun and a problematic recline? How amazing that you can know your horse so well that you can tell at a glance when something isn't right. Amazing, and wonderful...

...and terrible. Because we all know the worst could happen despite our care and caution. We could lose that precious friend who only yesterday carried us over the hill or 'round the rail, who finally loaded in the trailer or took the right lead, who met us at the gate though we didn't bring carrots, who just hours ago rested his muzzle in our palms, trusting us to help.

Now, go outside and give your horse a hug.

Rider Up!: First Ride on a Green Horse

Now that summer has finally decided to show itself, things are taking off here at In the Night Farm. The garden is getting greener and the root cellar deeper, and some serious horse training is finally underway.

Consolation (2002 Barb mare) continues to do well under saddle. I rode her three miles along the road Monday, then brought her back for some trot work in the round corral. Until a horse is well started, I like to be sure coming home means more work rather than rest and feed.

Alternating Current (aka Acey, 2003 Barb mare) is coming along in Con- solation's wake. As you can see from these first-ride photos taken a couple weeks ago, she's a tiny thing. Luckily, I'm only 5'3",and I think we make a cute couple. As a bonus, there's not far to fall!

The bad news is that tack for a horse Acey's size is hard to come by. Sadly, my Stonewall endurance saddle is too wide for her, so I'm using my Wintec Aussie instead. The shortest girth I have is still a bit too long, so I suppose I'll be buying another of those--along with a pony-size bridle, breast collar, and other miscellanea--before long. Adding extra holes to my cob-size tack just isn't going to work this time.

Unfortunately, it seems most tack manufacturers assume that if you're riding a pony, you're 1) a little girl who loves rainbows and bling, and/or 2) doing children's hunter/jumper. Surely someone manufactures pony-sized trail or endurance tack, such as beta halter-bridles and high quality wool saddle pads. If you've found a source, please clue me in!

But I digress. Acey's sticking point during her first few rides was moving in a straight line. She'd disengage her hindquarters. She'd circle. But it took a few extra ground driving lessons -- and switching from the too-big-anyway bitless bridle to her (weanling size!) rope halter to get her going forward. That hurdle overcome, we'll move on to trotting later this week.

And so, we carry on, toiling upward in the night.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Brief Derailment: Overtraining an Endurance Horse

For the past couple weeks, Aaruba hasn’t been himself. Not colicky. Not lame. Not sick. Just not…himself.

The most obvious symptom was the lack of his usual spark. Though perfectly willing to head out for a conditioning ride, his enthusiasm flagged. He was more willing to stop and munch weeds, less excited about what was over the next hill. His stride lacked its customary spring.

I tossed around several theories:

First, the weather. After a long and chilly spring, 90 degree temperatures have arrived.

Second, his weight. Aaruba typically runs on the thin side, but he’s finally put on the pounds I’ve wanted to see for some months. Though it’s contrary to my basic understanding of equine endurance physiology, it’s possible that he performs better at a slightly lower weight.

Third, his living arrangements. Due to his specialized feeding routine, Aaruba has been living in a pen adjacent to, but separate from, the other horses. He’s recently resumed his old habit of frantic fence walking, and I suspect he’d benefit emotionally from having a buddy.

Fourth, overtraining. We’ve stepped his conditioning up a bit since the Owyhee Fandango. Perhaps a bit too much?

I decided to address theories #3 and #4 first, as they seemed more likely than #2 and certainly more subject to my control than #1.

We started with a round of musical horses, with the result that Aaruba now shares the largest pen with CJ. Because Aaruba outranks CJ socially, he can defend his oil-dressed beet pulp and grain. (And, as a fringe benefit, CJ gets free lessons in how baby boys should behave around the big horses.)

Come Thursday, I skipped Aaruba’s scheduled workout in favor of a short bareback lesson. This was more for my benefit than his, though it did involve a bit of training as he’s only been ridden bareback once before. Don’t laugh – it’s been 15 years since I did much bareback work!

Afterwards, I succomed to a teenage moment. Is it even possible to ride bareback and not hug your horse?

As of Saturday, Aaruba was back to his old self. He blasted through a 6-mile workout in 29 minutes, all at his exuberant James Brown trot. (I feel good!) He wanted to relax with a nice, long gallop afterwards, but I talked him out of it.

I’m sure it was the time off that rekindled his fire. Studying Aaruba’s conditioning log (see right hand column of The Barb Wire blog), I realize where the train left the tracks: Though I took care not to increase both speed and distance in the same workout, I failed to adequately consider the cumulative effect of our stepped-up workouts over the course of a couple weeks. Poor Aaruba was tired, plain and simple.

Thankfully, rest is a marvelous tonic. We’re back on track now, steaming along, a little wiser than we were before.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Thinking it Through: Training Horses as Individuals

Good training is more than working a horse through a sequence of steps toward a goal. It's more than having a jam-packed "bag of tricks" upon which to call when problems arise. It's more, even, than possessing a thorough understanding equine psychology. Those are critical factors, of course, but a truly skilled trainer is one who understands that horses have unique preferences and problems that require equally unique solutions.

Take Consolation, for instance. I posted earlier in the week about how, on her taxi ride, I sensed that she was still hovering to close to the brink of taking control. She stayed with me for that ride, but as her confidence in balancing a rider grows, her lead mare tendencies bubble closer to the surface. She demonstrated that she was willing to almost ignore rein cues if doing so suited her fancy, and I wondered if one good spook or surge of frolic would send her flying for home -- rider optional.

The issue with Consolation one of leadership. This is the sticking point I must address before we can really move out on the trails. It seems to me that her unique "problem" -- which is really a hallmark of courage and high intelligence -- is that she needs a good reason to listen to me. So, I thought up a way to give her one.

For the past several days, I've been setting up obstacle courses of ground poles in the round corral. First walking, then trotting, we weave through, over, and around the poles in random patterns that require Consolation's constant attention. To navigate the obstacles, she must listen and respond quickly. She's already demonstrating vast improvement, softening physically and mentally as she gets into the game.

Soon, before she gets bored, I'll throw in some extras: a tarp under some of the poles. construction cone with a jacket draped over it, maybe even a tiny crossbar. The point is to keep her thinking, listening, and responding -- all skills that will translate to better communication next time we hit the road.

Good training is about knowing your horse as an individual, developing the ability to diagnose the root cause of a behavioral symptom, and applying custom-designed solutions.

Oh, and there's nothing like a post-ride pedicure to keep a lady feeling special.

By the way, the most observant among you will have noticed that I've switched Consolation from the Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle (sales-pitchy website alert!) to a full-cheek, single-joined snaffle. This is not because I felt the need for something harsher, but rather because Consolation displayed pronounced distaste for the "head-hugging" action of the bitless bridle. For her, the snaffle seems a less intrusive option. Aaruba, on the other hand, loves that bitless bridle. Proof, once again, that a horse is not [just another] horse (of course)!


Related Posts

Breaking Free: Training the Herdbound Horse

Where To, Ma'am: First Trail Ride on a Green Horse

Connecting the Dots: Breakthroughs in Horse Training

Moving Out: Increasing Speed and Confidence on the Trail

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Where To, Ma'am?: First Trail Ride on a Green Horse

The first ride outside the round corral always feels a bit like climbing into a taxi in a foreign city.

Sure, the cabbie's job is to take me safely wherever I direct him...but will he? What if I bungle my conversational Spanish and wind up outside a flophouse in the red light district? Suppose the driver disregards my instructions, drives recklessly, even overpowers me?

We've all heard stories...

And yet, the time must come. I prefer to take the taxi ride as early as possible in a horse's under saddle work; that is, as soon as the horse can walk in a straight line and respond to basic cues. Handled correctly, early trail riding builds confidence for both horse and rider, and it keeps a bright horse from souring during repetitive ring work.

So is was that, after about ten rides on Consolation and many handwalks across the country- side, I quashed my doubts and hit the road. You can see in these photos that I had to actively use all four corners (both hands, both legs) to keep her moving away from home. Once around the bend, she settled into such a brisk walk that I had to consciously loosten my hips to roll along with her.

Our 3 mile trek took us along low-traffic roads that I knew to be relatively free of distractions like loose dogs and Fanged Trash Cans of Death. Still, there was plenty for a green horse to look at: bubbling irrigation channels, vats of fertilizer, loose chickens pecking at a pile of last year's potatoes sprouting in the ditch.

I rode about half the distance, dis- mounting as necessary to recapture Consolation's wandering will or let a truck rumble past. Some people will disagree with this technique, believing it means the rider is a coward or the horse is controlling the situation. However, I find that striking a balance between pushing the horse to try something new (carrying a rider past new sights) and returning to the familiar (being led or ground-driven) keeps both parties' emotional levels lower and prevents accidents.

Ideally, my horse will never realize that she can overpower me. If I can avoid that first bolt or refusal, I will. So, if I feel Consolation bunching up with tension or excitement, I'll dismount before the levy breaks, maybe do a bit of lateral bending, lead her until she's calm again, then get back on. Gradually, over the course of many rides, the need for frequent dismounts will diminish and disappear.

This method isn't foolproof, of course. On Consolation's taxi ride, I got try a few strides of her canter (very nice!) when an unmanned piece of farm equipment buzzed to life behind us. As I'd been sensing a lack of control throughout the ride -- that strong-willed mare again -- I was pleased that Consolation "came back" to me quickly.

All the same, I returned home having realized a need to further Consolation's respect for my direction from the saddle. After all, it's the horse, not me, who ought to be asking, "Where to?"


Related Posts

Breaking Free: Training the Herdbound Horse

Thinking it Through: Training Horses as Individuals

Connecting the Dots: Breakthroughs in Horse Training

Moving Out: Increasing Speed and Confidence on the Trail


Want to read more posts like this one? We deliver!

Subscribe to The Barb Wire

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hay Day

Yesterday morning, I cut the twine on my last bale of 2007 hay. The dwindling supply has made me feel more and more like Mother Hubbard as our April-in-June weather has pushed first cuttings back week after week.

I was on the verge of giving you all an inside tip on beet pulp stock when, wonder of wonders, summer arrived. The wind and rain stopped. My hay vendors (both of whom were among the few farmers who waited to cut and thereby saved their crops from being reduced cattle-only quality) revved up the swathers and balers.

Yesterday, we made the 30 mile trip to Oregon to pick this up.

That's 15 tons of a 60:40 grass:alfalfa mix. It's a bit more mature than ideal, thanks to the weather delay, but at least it wasn't rained on. And, we got it from honest people for a fair price, considering the cost of fuel and fertilizer these days. Within the month, we'll get another 12 tons from our other vendor and call it good for the year.

And boy, am I glad. With most of our area's first cutting destroyed and prices already on the rise, horse hay will be at a premium this year. By spring, it might as well be gold. I feel fortunate indeed to have mine in stock already -- and even more fortunate to have this guy as a great friend willing to volunteer his truck and time to haul it.

Believe me, weaving that trailer into our driveway was no mean feat.

Now, we just have to unload. Volunteers welcome.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Weekend Warrior

A horse's memory is a prodigious thing. I've heard this trait likened to a scratch on a blackboard: Once it's there, you can make a lot of marks over it and minimize it's appearance, but you can't erase it.

The drawbacks of such a memory are obvious, but I must say it comes in handy sometimes -- for instance, when my training schedule has been trainwrecked by three weeks of unseasonably heavy winds and rain. I haven't stopped training entirely since mid-May, but deep mud and howling winds have forced me down to an appalling 2 or 3 lessons per horse, per week.

Fortunately for my sanity, the weekend dawned sunny and breezy. I started early with Sandstorm, reminding her of her new leading skills. She responded as though just an hour had passed since her last lesson, sweet and shy as ever she was.

From Sandstorm I moved on to ride Consolation in the round corral, then do pre-mounting work with Acey. After a quick lunch, I caught Ripple (long yearling Barb filly) for the first time in two months. She stood like an old plow horse while Travis trimmed her hooves, then aced a quick groundwork review.

And then, the real fun began. I saddled Aaruba and headed off for a 14 mile trot peppered with canters and one brief, frantic gallop when an Australian Shepherd burst from the bushes in hot pursuit. The dog loped along with us for five miles, ignoring my shouts to "go home." He was nearly hit by several cars before finally stopping to investigate some other dogs. (Please, please, even if you live in the country, be responsible and restrain your pets!)

Home again, I had just enough time to give CJ a liberty workout before keeling over from weariness, hunger, and gin & tonic deprivation.

Sunday morning, I started all over again. Despite the long disruption of my training schedule, Acey seemed ready for the big moment. [drumroll please] I climbed aboard. She hardly twitched an ear. [cease drums, cancel cymbal crash] I shifted around in the saddle, scratched her withers, and hopped off again. Thorough groundwork -- and that equine memory -- pays off once again.

The next triumph of the day came when I took Consolation, tacked up, for a walk down the road. She was so good that I decided to get on (yes, I had my helmet) and ride for a mile or so. Travis rolled his eyes when I rode into the driveway, grinning, to announce that now I can ride every day, even when Aaruba is resting. I've waited years for this!

Around 4:00, Aaruba and I left for another 17 mile jog. We tried a new route that involved crossing the freeway (on a little-traveled overpass) which he handled like a pro despite motorcycles and semis roaring beneath. In fact, the horse-eating trash can (cleverly disguised as just another trash can identical to the other fifty we passed) proved much more alarming.

Incidentally, I sometimes wish Aaruba's memory for places wasn't quite so keen. He dearly loves to explore and moves out with great enthusiasm every time we go somewhere new. We hardly walked a step of those 17 hilly miles, yet he arrived home still full of air and bounce. "The horse is fine," I told Travis, handing him the reins. "I'm pooped."

Here's hoping the weather finally has figured out it's June...

Monday, June 2, 2008

On the Road Again: Continued Endurance Conditioning

After most of a week's break following the Owyhee Fandango LD (ride story here), Aaruba and I hit the trails again on Saturday. He was full of...ummm...brio (how's that for a euphamism!) and ready to check out the BLM land just 6 miles from home.

I'm excited to have discovered the network of dirt tracks on these sage-covered hills, particularly because they give us a place to trot for miles over the kind of terrain we encountered at the Eagle Extreme and in the Owyhee Canyonlands -- steep inclines, rough ground, and long stretches of relatively level trail on the ridges.

Unfortunately, a lot of folks come to these same hills for target practice. The land is riddled with junk. People will shoot anything, it seems. We passed bullet-riddled tires, mattresses, electronics, appliances, badgers, ground squirrels, and even a chocolate lab. We also came upon several small groups of people clustered around pickups and jeeps, blasting away. Thankfully, they were kind enough to stop shooting so we could pass, all flared nostrils and bulging eyes, and I only had to short circuit one near-bolt.

I was hoping to ride a good 20 miles or so, but an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and I decided that returning to the trailer early was preferable to getting barbequed by lightening. Travis, who had been sighting in his new rifle while I rode, was ready to go home.
Aaruba, on the other hand, could have used the mileage. Guess what we'll be doing this evening...What a life!
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