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!