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.