Sunday, November 28, 2010

Deli's "other person."

I’d like to give a shout out to my boyfriend, Brian, and how he fits into the adventures I have with Deli.

He has a way with animals even though I am the “animal person”. It’s probably because he oozes calm in many stressful situations. Random dogs on the street will come up to him and sit to be petted. My 20 year old cat has since claimed him as “hers” despite only living with him now for a year and a half. Deli, being one of those Anxious Arabian Over-Thinkers ™, is definitely drawn towards his energy. When she was still getting clay poultices every other day on her injured leg and I had to go out of town for school, he was amazing and went out to the barn daily to not only to remove her poultice or put one on – and it’s no easy task to bandage the upper hind leg of a fidgety mare even for an experienced person – but he gave her medicine, took her temperature, cold hosed her leg,  and gave me frequent updates. Did he enjoy it? No way. I don’t enjoy wrestling with goo and bandages and cold hosing a bored horse either. What’s more amazing is that she let him.

This is interesting because Deli is not (no way, probably not ever) a beginners horse. She is too sensitive even if there isn’t a mean bone in her body (well, very few mean bones at least!). But she has always had the utmost care for him. Where she runs away, resists, fusses or otherwise makes it known that she is not happy to even experienced horse people, she will usually behave with more patience for Brian. And Brian alone. She won’t let him do everything, of course — truly scary things still need my more experienced touch (try clipping this horse, I dare you) — but she clearly thinks of him as her “other person”. When she was being anxious and pawing in the cross ties the other day, he grabbed her lead and lowered her head. He had apparently been paying attention to her “calm down” cue. I got some compliments on how great he was with her, especially in that it was good that he was aware of Deli’s space needs as he strategically moved to one side so she didn’t remove his kneecaps (she is a very talented pawer).  When things get stressful I can hand him her lead and ask him to take her out to graze and I can feel confident they aren’t going to hurt each other.

One thing Deli absolutely loves is to have her mane and tail bushed out. She loves it when you take the hard bristled brush and scratch her neck and shoulders with it. She even loves having her face curried carefully around her eyes. Grooming is Brian’s favorite part of horse care. If he’s with me, Deli gets the royal treatment of having her hair brushed till it shines, and her neck scratched until her eyes roll back in her head. Come shedding season I’ll beg for him to come out and groom her all over because he likes to try and strip her departing winter coat off in one go.

Right now Brian get s more actively involved in our adventures by joining us on our trail rides on foot. Now that Deli is boarded next to some amazing wilderness trails he is more than entertained by the gorgeous scenery. He also provides good company for us by adding another person to our circular conversations. And Deli gets a friend to roll her eyes with when I burst randomly into off-pitch songs (it's to scare off the cougars, I swear).

Not surprisingly, his favorite horse breeds include those that are known for having quite a lot of hair. He has promised that if I ever get him a horse with extravagant fetlock feathering he will keep them groomed and looking nice. You better believe I will hold him to that promise because fussing over poofy feet is not what I want to be doing when at the barn.

Sometimes I feel a little annoyed that he is one of those natural riders. His posture is better in the saddle than it is walking down the street, and he can sit the trot (still working on posting) like a dream after only a handful of rides.

Then again, it’s pretty neat.

I sincerely hope he sticks around and continues to be part of Deli’s family and staff. Who knows? Maybe in a couple years Brian will get his own horse and we will hit the trails together. At the very least I’m buttering him up to crew for Deli and I if we ever do achieve our endurance-riding goal.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Trotting, rain, and final exams.

We trotted on the trails for the first time today. Okay, it wasn’t our first time ever trotting on trails – not by a long shot. It’s just our first time trotting on trails since her injury and also at the new barn where the trails are distinctly wilderness.

It was incredibly boring.

Horse people know that when training a horse sometimes boring is good.  I had to ask her twice because she had a moment of “are you sure that’s what you’re asking?” and then she trotted off at a nice pace. I ended up doing intervals since the flat bit in the trails is fairly windy, and if Deli is going to jump at anything it will be when we round a bend in the road. Also, the quarter sheet I borrowed was not comfortable or even completely waterproof as advertized, so posting her trot was a drag for me.

We are going to do more trotting for short segments more often.  I’m still hiking and leading her in-hand for the steep up-and-downhill bits to try and get myself in shape, but I’m riding her on the flat areas so that I can do some schooling as well.

We also did our trails in the rain. I was able to borrow a quarter sheet to keep Deli’s bum dry, since mine has apparently gone missing. Deli wasn’t much bothered by the rain, other than betting annoyed by drips sliding off her forelock and into her eyes (stay tuned — I'm going to invent a horse beanie to keep rain out of there eyes). I got soaked. When I come into some money I’m considering buying a long rain slicker that will cover both my legs and Deli’s rear end. The cover I found for my saddle has been working well at keeping my expensive tack dry, but I haven’t been quite as successful at keeping myself comfortable!

I am now entering the “month of doom” where law school requires the majority of my (unwilling) attention. Final exams are running late this year, but I still expect to have two weeks of vacation with which I can enjoy hanging out with my horse and starting up our more rigorous rehabilitation and conditioning schedule. During the “month of doom” Deli is going to get more time off to socialize and fart around her pasture.  I’ll still ride her and come out to check on her, but I’m admitting our normally tight schedule will become loose and flexible – allowing her to become my I can’t take this studying anymore break.

My hope is that after the holidays I may have a little extra money with which I can start taking dressage lessons again. Deli is very close to being ready for them again — and I can’t wait! It has been well over a year since our last lesson together, and I'm looking forward to regaining some of the balance and finesse that getting hit by a car stole from me last September.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Our typical week...

I’ve been asked what Deli’s rehab looks like during a typical week, so I thought I’d share our agenda as it stands. I have seen good steady improvement under this plan so far.

Right now we are on an alternating schedule of having a day of work and then a day of rest, which means Deli is being worked 4 days a week. For the most part I have stuck to this religiously. Here is what our “work” days look like:

  • Day one is reserved for lunge work without equipment (this means halter, lunge –line and whip). Here I make sure I stay behind her and keep her nose tipped inside to keep her top line soft and flexible. We have been doing increasing increments of walk trot. This means we started this particular rehab program with 10 minutes walk, 5 minutes of trot. The next week we did 10 minutes walk, 10 minutes trot. At my vet’s recommendation I have her trot and work over ground poles to really get her lifting and using the muscles she needs to.  Recently we added in some canter. I’m finding that her canter is a perfect test of her strength in that gimpy right-hind. On her left lead I see the weakness most as in the past she has bodily thrust her hindquarters into the center of the circle to give her outside leg a break. I am pleased to see that each week her left lead looks a little straighter – progress! 
  • Day two and three are mid-level workouts. Usually this means 30-40 minutes of work in the arena doing walk- trot exercise OR about a 45 minute ride out on the trails (which have some nice hills to get her heart rate up). We stay away from lateral movements at this point because they rapidly fatigue her injury. In the arena our work usually revolves around big serpentines, pole work, and loose figure-8s. With weather how it has been recently, being in the arena also usually means schooling her though some silliness as well (she MUCH prefers being outdoors), which eats up our time under saddle rapidly.
  • Day four is our “tough workout” that I usually schedule for a time I know I can get out on the trails. This is usually around 90 minutes of walk when we can get outside. We avoid doing this kind of work in the arena because both Deli and I get incredibly bored and annoyed by the repetition. When we are forced to stay in the arena for this day, I usually add some of the soft lunging in before our ride.

The nice thing about this schedule is that it is pretty flexible — there isn’t one particular day that I reserve for a light workout versus a heavy one. All that I’m really concerned with is that she gets that rest so her soft tissues have time to repair. She seems to enjoy this program as well, and is always happy to see me when I arrive at the barn. Another thing to note is that Deli is not stalled (and never will be). Instead she has free run of a 2 acre pasture and smaller graded paddock that she shares with two other mares. All the girls get along quite well and Deli flourishes psychologically in their company.

It should be noted that for our trail rides of 40 minutes and longer I actually hop off her and walk or jog for half the time with her in hand. I usually do this at the steeper downhill or uphill bits so that she does not have to carry my fat butt while she figures out how to balance herself again. I also do this because she isn’t the only one out of shape and broken – I am still in the worst shape and the heaviest weight of my life. To do her justice, I am working on remedying that problem. My injuries were more serious than Deli’s, but they also are much older. It’s time to feel alive again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Conversations with Chestnut Mares

Scene: Deli and tramping down a peaceful trail in the light drizzle so commonplace to Portland Oregon. Everything seems to be going well until I feel Deli tense underneath me.

Marie: You okay?

Deli: Something is not quite right here… [cue dragon-snort]

Marie: Nope, I didn’t ask you to trot… sideways?!

Deli: Fuck. Oh no. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. [What a dirty mouth this one has!]

Marie: [Noticing a wide but shallow puddle in front of us] Deli, stop being retarded, we just tromped through about a dozen puddles of the same depth and diameter.

Deli: Maybe cantering sideways on my bad leg through these ferns will appropriately communicate my INTENSE MALAISE? 

Marie: What. Is. Wrong. With. Your. Brain?

[At this point I’m looking around for what in the world could be spooking her and I spot a huge fresh paw print in the mud next to the puddle — clearly a cougar has been here recently.]

Deli: KITTY!

Me: Oh. Well, I suppose that makes sense. [Looking up the forested hill I catch a glimpse of a tawny, faintly spotted hindquarters disappearing into the brush…]

Me: Look, Deli, you scared it away!

Deli: [Immediately calmer] Oh, well, yes. I AM totally frightening. [Prances around the puddle with neck arched, blowing dragon-snorts with every puff of white breath.]

Me: Drama queen.

Deli: Oooh! Tasty grass ahead.

In conclusion: she was actually quite good, considering cougars are one of a horse's few natural predators. After this encounter she needs to suspiciously sniff each puddle we encounter, but otherwise we are none the worse for wear. And she may be the most intelligent horse (heck, she easily ranks in the top-10 for the most intelligent person) I have ever known, but she has a serious case of ADD.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Exploring the world of bit-less riding!

When I started Deli I began with a copper full-cheek snaffle. In my opinion this is the best bit to start a horse in since it clarifies the direct-rein signal while being very gentle on their mouths. Because Deli is back off the bit, I opted for the copper mouthpiece because she seemed to enjoy it more. For non-horsefolk readers, bits are typically made out of stainless steel, but copper and sweet iron both oxidize in the horse’s mouth and give it a flavor that some horses prefer.
After Deli and I mastered basic steering, I switched her to an even milder bit — a steel egg butt French link with curved bars. At this point we worked on refinement, flexion and relaxing into the contact rather than avoiding it. I found that the bars on this bit were a little too thick for her, however, despite liking the curved bars and general concept of the mild French-link. 

So I then switched us to a bit which was a combination of the two: a high quality D-ring (which functions similarly to a full-cheek) with thin but curved bars and a copper roller in the middle of a double joint. This bit is mild in that it functions as a French-link and has less of a scissoring-action on her tongue, but it is also thin enough to give me precise control when needed. The D-rings also reinforce steering while being comfortable on her outer lips (where she is particularly sensitive). We have stuck with this bit quite happily until recently when our daily workout has moved away from dressage and towards trail riding and conditioning. 

Deli does fine with this current bit — she softens and seeks contact with my hands easily enough. But you can tell she doesn’t like it. In the arena I always warm her up “on the buckle”, and when I take up the reins she responds with tail-swishing. Originally when I started riding her I worried that I was somehow hurting her, but after getting thorough checkups for both teeth and back my veterinary team and I concluded that taking up the contact meant work, and Deli was opposed to work. My horse is essentially a very lazy creature, and asking her to use herself in a way that is optimal for carrying a rider is HARD work. I resigned myself to the fact that her tail would swish and moved on.

Now that our focus is shifting from dressage to trail riding, I’ve noticed that with each successive trail ride my reins get longer and longer. Not only does Deli stretch out her head to power up hills, but her walk is ultimately forward and free-flowing without me having to hassle her constantly. If anything, I feel like the majority of our rides lately have consisted of me doing my best to stay out of her way when she is maneuvering over obstacles on the trails. This means putting more weight in the stirrups to get off her back and loosening my reins to give her head full range of motion. She also likes to look around on the trails — I have a feeling that she has an exploratory personality which only recently feels comfortable enough to reveal itself. The result is that I have been employing direct-rein much less.

At any rate, it got me thinking: why ride with a bit at all? Granted, we are probably going to stick with the bit for arena work because I haven’t found anything quite the same when it come to clear communication with Deli. But on the trails? I’ve only felt the need to take up the reins twice, and neither time was it to do something I wouldn’t have been able to do without the bit in her mouth. There would also be other advantages to going bit-less, which as making it easier for her to drink and eat while on the move and keep her more comfortable for the long distances I hope to someday conquer with her. There is also the advantage of never having to do the halter-bridle swapping game, making it easier to tie her safely wherever we are. There are disadvantages too. Bits are ideal when it comes to fine tune control or control in an emergency situation. Usually this has to do with stopping power for a bolting horse. Deli’s naughty side (which hasn’t been an issue at all recently) usually involves spinning in circles in an effort to avoid something that is making her anxious. For that kind of reaction, having a bit (particularly a full-cheek or D-ring) is highly useful but I’m not sure it is necessary. As for bolting, it is not Deli’s style (taking off at a dead gallop takes quite a bit of effort), so I’m not as concerned about stopping power. She has always had a magnificent halt — I never need to even employ the reins at all in normal circumstances – it only takes the tightening and holding of my abs to get her to plant her feet.

It also made me realize that on even our average days, the bit, bridle and reins are only my “backup” for steering and stopping. It’s Deli that taught me not to rely on my hands for control or comfort because she is a much happier beast when I use my seat and legs to guide her. For dressage, the bridle has served the primary purpose of achieving relaxation and the use of her top-line or re-directing her attention when it goes astray. I can probably do latter and maybe the former with a bit-less setup.

A good friend of mine lent me her Dr. Cook bridle and a simple rope halter sidepull to try out. After some short experiments in the arena today, I am leaning towards the sidepull. Deli seemed happier in it, and my general control was better. I’ll do more formal reviews of both types later once I use them both a couple more times in the arena, and at least once out on the trail . I like what I am seeing about the rope bridles online — particularly where some of them are modified so you can snap a bit on easily (like the one shown on this page), making it a bit-less, halter, bitted bridle combo! Versatility can only be a good thing when exploring the wilderness astride a horse like Deli — and when it’s something simple as well? Sounds like an awesome tool to me!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Deli has staff to dote on her.

I just had Deli massaged – something I consider an essential part of her rehabilitation.

She also loves her “spa days”, so I consider it a mental break for her as well.

Deli’s injury involved a severe tear of her groin muscle, as well as tears to the hamstrings on her right side. When the injury was new I felt like I was in a race against time because her leg was incredibly swollen. My job at that point was to get the swelling down or else risk, at the very least, all the tissues in being stretched out to the point of usefulness. I actually cheered when blood and fluid pooled on her belly in an edema instead of going down into her leg — it couldn’t do any damage other than look strange (like a furry water bed). At one point excess fluid even dripped from her swollen udder.

These kinds of injuries only happen in horses when they do the “splits”. That is a movement horses are not built to do! I’m convinced that she was rolling in the deeper sand near her paddock gate at our old barn and got her leg caught between gate and fence while on her back. I’m sure she freaked out, struggled, and in the process tore her psoas (groin) muscles and hamstrings on the right side. I suspect she even has small tears in her upper-leg tendons.

As I can attest from my own severe muscular and ligament damage after being hit by a car in September 2009, recovery for these kinds of injuries takes a long time. Soft tissue is problematic – for severe tissue damage inflammation needs to be controlled because in the extreme, blood flow is impeded. To heal, blood flow is needed. In some respects Deli is lucky that she injured her upper leg, because there are ample vessels surrounding the area. Of course, a horse’s lower leg does not have muscles at all, and tendon injuries in the lower leg tend to take quite a long time to heal because blood flow in the lower leg is dependent on movement. Fresh blood flow flushes old blood (often collecting in hematomas) and chemical buildup from torn muscle away, and brings in oxygen and nutrients to the area to aid in the repair of damaged tissue. With muscle, fibers need to be laid down a certain way for the muscle to work best. To get the muscle to lay down in this optimal way is difficult when there is a severe injury like Deli and I have suffered – it requires work and rest. The work is to get the muscle being used correctly to get those fibers to lie down smoothly and prevent excessive scar tissue development. The rest is to give time for that muscle to repair and heal.

As an aside: you can probably guess from this analysis that I am not a proponent of stall rest except in a very narrow set of circumstances. For Deli, “rest” means she gets to hang out in pasture with her buddies, get hand grazed or massaged. If she wants to trot around and play in pasture, that’s okay. She’s not the type of horse to push her body when it hurts. Additionally, all physiological evidence points to blood flow is encouraged by the normal function of a horse’s foot – simply put the flexion and act of walking turns each foot into a little pump. When they say “no hoof no horse” I like to think of each foot as a miniature heart that services the horse’s legs.

On top of her training in horse physiology, my masseuse has a useful “toy”: a thermography camera. This device is incredible: it shows the heat in various places on a horse’s body by indicating different temperatures with color. These photographs she took during our most recent massage session showed that there was still inflammation along the psoas and hamstrings that Deli tore. The camera allows us to pinpoint the where the tissue needs help and work, which is superb. In particular, you can feel the difference once you know where to look – the inflamed groin muscle feels hard and unyielding compared to her uninjured left side.

Overall the camera tells us that Deli is doing better: the inflammation is pretty much confined to the injured area rather than spreading out to the surrounding tissues. Any minor injuries have healed. It’s a case of what we see is what we get when using thermography. And with regular re-assessment (planned for every 4 weeks right now) we can see how Deli is healing if faring under her rehabilitation and adjust it where appropriate.

Given all this information, Deli’s current rehabilitation program is to work then rest. We are going to hit the hills for at least one intensive workout a week (assuming the ground doesn’t get too slick!) and work on lunging in a way that gets her to use her hind end instead of being protective of her injuries. Our under-saddle time in the arena will reflect this as well, with a focus balance and use of her hind end in a productive manner. As for our rest days she will get some (less professional) massage from me. I also have plans for further ground-work (she likes having her brain engaged) and do some work on learning how to open and close gates in-hand so that training in that area will come easy when she is under saddle.

It’s going to be a long journey to get her back to 100% again. I’m still feeling weakness and pain from my own injuries, even though they occurred more than a year ago. Deli’s rehabilitation probably won’t take that long. Or at least I’m hopeful that it won’t since she has improved steadily since being injured about four months ago. For one, she is a natural athlete and I am not. For another, I injured tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles throughout my entire body when I was hit by that car, whereas Deli’s injuries are localized. Regardless, “rest, heal, stretch and strengthen” is going to be our mantra for some time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

No hoof, no horse.

My horse is barefoot.

In simplest terms that means she does not wear shoes. We once experimented with shoes to see if they made any difference in her way of going and had our farrier-of-the-time hot shoe her. 

It didn’t work out.

For one, Deli has incredibly fast growing feet. I think this relates to the fact that before I owned her she basically had free run of a large acreage and for the most part wore her feet down naturally. This means that I would have to re-shoe her every four weeks if I didn’t want her tripping on her face because her natural movement would not wear down the horn of her walls. As it is, if I’m working her on mostly soft surfaces I still have to get her trimmed every four-to-five weeks during the summer (when her feet grow the fastest) to keep them from getting too long.

For another, shoeing contributes to the contraction of the heel and such contraction prevents proper blood exchange up and down the leg. Not to mention the fact that nailing on a shoe weakens the hoof wall. At any rate, we experimented with shoes for two months and haven’t considered them as a viable option since.

Plus, Deli is one of those horses who is lucky to have straight legs and large feet, both of which contribute to her having good feet overall. She is a great candidate for being barefoot the rest of her life.

However, with new goals in our sights I recognized that Deli was going to need some additional protection for her feet. Some of the trails we have access to now are rocky or have a mixed gravel surface; particularly the narrow logging roads that are the trails that will stay nice and ride-able throughout the winter.  Deli has let me know that walking on gravel is uncomfortable – she has yet to get bruised from it, but she picks her way very carefully across any rocky surfaces. Any serious work on these surfaces would also wear her feet down too quickly, resulting in tenderness for her.

The clear solution was to find a boot that fit Deli well and could be used when we worked on rough ground. After much research I bought a pair of Cavallo Simple Boots. They came with good recommendations, were in the right price range (read: cheap), and my research suggested that they would work well for Deli’s rounder hoof shape. They still seem a little bulky in my eye, but the industrial Velcro rather than wires (that can snap) design seemed simpler and more idiot-proof than other brands. 

So far so good. Our first use of the boots was on a 30 minute hike in-hand through the woods. She didn’t seem bothered by them and she had no rubs or indications that they were too tight or too loose. What I did notice is that she is going to have to adapt to having a “larger” foot – places where she could normally step easily became a bit awkward for her. You could tell it was giving her a brain-funk to have her feet be larger than she was used to. 

The next day we did a somewhat longer hike in-hand with similar results, though Deli was less clumsy overall when navigating uneven footing. The third day I put them on her in the arena so I could see what she was like under-saddle (even though she hardly needed them in the soft footing). She had a bit of a mental breakdown when someone decided to use a weed-whacker, so our ride ended up being longer than planned. However the boots did stay put and did not seem to impede her ability to trot sideways, spin, or shy as only an anxious Arabian can. And no, she wasn't particularly interested in my monotone reminders that she was supposed to be too weak for such athletic maneuvers.

After that we hit the trails in a dripping Oregon mist to cool off her brain and steaming body. In the process we discovered a delightful little trail loop instead of getting lost (as has happened earlier). Overall she had her boots on for about an hour of work. We checked them before heading out on the trails and they seemed to have stayed put remarkably well throughout Deli’s pronking in the arena. And upon removing them at the end of our ride there were no rubs or other indications that they were not fitting. Her feet looked great, and it was clear they had suffered no ill effects from either her arena antics or riding on uneven rough surfaces out on the trails. Success!

And Deli is adapting quickly. She is normally very sure footed, and her adjustment to being with her Cavallo Simple Boots have been impressive. She is happy to move forward on ground that would otherwise make her step more comfortably, which is the whole point behind the boots.

Right now Ms. Deli is due for a trim at the end of this week, so the fact that the boots seem very snug is probably appropriate. The Velcro construction seems pretty solid and easier to clean than I would have thought. I’m planning on getting her rear boots as well if she seems to want them, but so far she is moving quite easily on rough ground without them.

This is probably the first time in the history of Deli and my relationship that something has fit her the first time. She has always been a bit hard to fit for every conceivable piece of horse equipment (blankets, fly masks, saddles…) because apparently thick-bodied Arabians with wide foreheads are not a common horse body type. That and I was in denial for a long time that my 15.2 hand horse would ever need an extra-wide saddle tree (which she does).

Hopefully the Cavallo Simple Boots will continue to impress us with their usefulness for many years to come.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New opportunity, new trails to explore...

A handful of days ago Deli and I moved to a new barn. It was a tough decision for me because I wasn’t unhappy at my last barn. Deli was fine there as well — she had made cohorts out of a pair of goats, for example. But there was one essential flaw from both our perspectives: no trails. Sure, we could ride around the perimeter of a neighboring Christmas tree farm, but it was impossible to move any faster than an uncomfortable stumbling walk because of the abundance of gopher holes. The new barn sits alongside 3000 acres of BLM land — mostly forested — that is riddled with trails and narrow logging roads. It’s trail-riding (and endurance riding) heaven.

Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.

Plus, the barn is also filled with sensible dressage riders. Deli and I can look forward to finally taking occasional lessons, which I’m sure Deli will mostly appreciate for the benefit it will afford to me. There will also be clinics with well known dressage clinicians that I can audit (while reading my law books, of course).

See, Deli and I do ride dressage. We enjoy it to a certain extent and I feel that correct dressage is the ideal foundation for any type of horse. But trail riding fulfills us, completes our partnership, and keeps us looking forward instead of back.

Both of us have problems with this forward-looking rather than forward-worrying or past-clinging outlook on life. When hitting the trails it becomes easy. Like putting one foot in front of the other.

Deli isn’t one of those one-in-a-million bombproof horses. She is wary of strangers. But much of her anxiety stems from being enclosed and shut away without sky and air. She can’t be stalled unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I feel that stalling a horse is rarely necessary. My experiences with Deli have supported this maxim: for instance, her serious groin tear improved by leaps and bounds when she went from being kept in a smaller paddock to being turned out in a larger area. Movement is good for a horse’s legs — it gets the blood where it’s needed! Deli could also use more confidence. I suspect this issue will challenge us most when exploring our new trails. But to teach her to be more confident I have to find it in myself, and in dredging it up from the depths of me, I become a stronger person.

It's one of many sappy examples of how my mare improves who I am.

Anyway, I do understand her need for open space. I’m the same way. I feel jittery in the city and unnerved when I’m surrounded by people. Give me waves crashing, or a wet green canopy, or a wild meadow and I feel secure.

Deli has been at this new barn for three days. We have been out on the trails each day: twice hand-walking and today I walked while my leaser rode Deli on a fabulous 2-mile loop. I’m amazed by the change in her demeanor. She goes from sucked in and inverted to long and swinging. She is excited, buzzing with electricity and curiosity. The anxiety that always seems present in some measure when we are working in the arena disappears. Though she did get annoyed when I would stop to examine mushrooms or a salamander traversing the path and there was no grass for her to occupy herself with. What, she had to wait for me?

She was forward-thinking. And a forward-thinking Deli is a happy mare.

If I could bottle that feeling I would never have a sad day — a happy chestnut mare gives you everything she has to give. From Deli? That’s a lot of laughter, curiosity and love.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Introduction of injuries and goals...

I know I’m not the only horse owner who deals with an unfortunate (though beloved) companion. My horse – an 11 year old ¾ polish Arabian ¼ Saddlebred mare – is one of these accident prone people. Perhaps she is a reflection of her guardian because I am also one of those unfortunate people who have the unlucky ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every time.

More to the point: I try not to let it discourage me. We aren’t dead yet, so there is still a chance we can be fit and healthy in general. Or at least between accidents!

In late May of 2010, only a short couple weeks after a splint injury (due to a well-aimed kick) was relegated to "impressive blemish" status, my mare Deli injured her right hind leg. It’s unclear how exactly she did so, but the result was a severe tear of her groin, hamstring and dock muscles on her right side. Initially the fear was that she had injured the tendon or even fractured her stifle – both things that could not be diagnosed properly while the leg was swollen to elephantine proportions. She was in a lot of pain, and during the initial emergency call her temperature reached 104 degrees – a fraction of a degree more than that and Deli would have been taken to the hospital. The severity of the wound and her temperature warranted oral antibiotics and bute for several weeks. That month was a struggle for me because tending her included three hours of cold hosing and icing a day, along with experimentation with different kind of bandaging to resolve the swelling that ran all the way up to her croup (see photo - that was 3 days after the injury and the swelling had actually decreased). Finally I discovered that clay poultices were the only thing that helped and we ended up poulticing her leg for 24 hours then having it off for 8 hour and so on for nearly a month. Throughout this Deli was a good patient – which is not something she can typically boast about!

My vet was pleased with her progress even early on, and we ruled out the possibility that she had injured bone. Tendon damage would be something that would show as distinct lameness when she got back into work. As the swelling resolved itself she became more comfortable moving around her paddock, and even trotted a little in the pasture. During my regular vet checkups I was told her healing rate was incredible. I was relieved but not overly surprised: Deli is a healthy horse in general, though she would win any accident prone award. Pretty much every scar, bruise, and even the fact that she has a mild dust allergy can be attributed to some accidental occurrence (and not her conformation or health otherwise) rather than a naturally weak physiology.

And I guarantee you that she does not injure herself for the attention. As she is concerned vets and their ilk (including my administrations sometimes) can go to hell.

In my most lofty dreams I see us competing in endurance rides, but realistically I know we may never ride a 50-miler. The way severe muscle injuries heal mean that her muscle fibers will probably never be the same again. My vet tells me that some horses with this kind of injury return to full work and competition but they will always have a kind of “mechanical unsoundness” – basically that the motion of the injured part will be jerkier and less fluid. She says this more aesthetic concern shouldn’t hold us back competitively, but that it does mean that any kind of conditioning I do with her must be very careful and slow. The likelihood she can re-injure herself is high. But for now, she is moving great considering the seriousness of her injuries.

I understand this speech intimately because my own doctors have said the same thing about me. In September 2009 I was T-boned by a car while biking to attend class at law school. Initially I felt lucky to have limped away without any broken bones, but now, a year later, I find that the extensive soft tissue damage I suffered is still causing me pain and problems. For one, I spent most of that year needing pain killers to get through my daily routine, and especially to sleep at night. As I try and wean myself off them I find myself tossing and turning at night, or becoming aware of more minor hurts that were disguised behind the drugs before. Additionally I’m finding that my fitness is at a lifetime low, and trying to get back into shape has been painful and frustrating. Because of the injuries around my ribcage, scar tissue has contracted my lung expansion on my right side. It’s incredibly hard to exercise when you can’t breathe, but my doctors tell me the only way to “fix” this is to make it hurt. Superb, I say. My riding skills have suffered immensely too: in the past when I have been out of riding shape I still retained the muscle memory of how to do things “right”. Now I feel I retain the mental memory of what is right but my muscles have forgotten. My recovering body is disobedient, flabby and jerky. I hate it.

Overall Deli’s rate of recovery has been phenomenal. Especially considering that my first thought when I saw her with a huge leg that she didn’t seem to want to put weight on was that she had broken a bone and would have to be euthanized. In fact, I have been lightly riding her for nearly two months now. If anything my lack of fitness holds us back more than hers does! What remains as far as Deli’s injury is concerned is a general and obvious weakness in that injured leg. There is some indication of mechanical unsoundness which is, again, a sign that the muscles were severely injured and are healing in a form that is different than their natural alignment. However the weakness is the most problematic, since she is about as unbalanced as a horse can be at this point. We don’t canter – the reason why is obvious if you have her canter on the lunge: on her left lead she swings her butt inside and throws her head up to gain more “push” from her strong left hind leg. You can also feel that some of her muscles have atrophied along the top of her croup if you dig your fingers in and compare it to her uninjured side.

This is the point we are at when I start this journey – both of us weak and unfit from severe soft tissue damage and trying to get back to a point before the injury. Ideally we would both like to be at an even better point than we were pre-injury by May 2011, when an old trainer and friend wants us to tackle the Mt. Adams endurance ride. I feel hopeful that we can do this because the ride typically has a 12-mile option. It does mean that the mechanical issues I see in Deli right now will need to be resolved however, because it is unlikely she would vet freely right now. How do we fix it? When I asked my vet she said that low-intensity hill work was our best bet. Low-intensity meaning walk only, starting at no more than 15 minutes a day and adding 5 minutes each week. In reality I was happy to hear this: it meant trail riding, and it is trail riding that I have been desperate for. I have a varied background in various riding disciplines, but both Deli and I DO ride (and enjoy!) dressage in the arena. Now that I am in law school and my life is busy, to say the least, and arena work is less appealing. Dressage will always be the background to everything we do, but our priorities and desires have changed over the years. Luckily, trail riding is Deli’s favorite thing to do if she has to be working. Her mind and stride open up when out in the wilderness.

So this is where we begin. At the beginning of October 2010 we are moving to a new barn in Beavercreek, Oregon. This barn is not only a dressage training facility, but it also lies next to 3000 acres of BLM land – most of which is riddled with riding trails. Hills? We are going to have plenty of those. And quite apart from the conditioning, we are going to be training too: turning Deli into a confident and happy trail horse.