Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An update on Deli's tack and various allergies (and what I'm doing about them).

Tack update!

Our tack is finally in a decent place. In a workable place. My plan is still to jump into saddle shopping with both feet when my work life and income is in a more predictable state, but for now my saddle is working and gives even sweat patterns. This is helped by my other tack in combination, of course.


Right now I’m booting her all-around as the weather has made her feet fairly soft and she moves out more confidently in her boots. That ride was the first time I tried her out in her new pair of Easyboot Gloves that I put a pad in – something I’ve done so that we can trot on roads more comfortably and without serious strain on her legs. Her front feet fit in 1.5 wides normally, though they get annoyingly difficult to put on and take off in the last 3rd of her trim cycle. These are size 2 wides with a firm pad added. Plus powerstraps (I use powerstraps on all my Gloves). They stuck on well and she didn’t trip, so I was pleased. We are still trying to figure out what the best option is for her hind feet (which are more irregularly shaped and have that fetlock scar to contend with), but right now the Renegades I have for her at least stay on even if I am not super happy with the fit there.

As for other tack my parents got me the Thinline Sheepskin Endurance Pad I’d been coveting for my recent birthday, and Deli clearly LOVES it. Though I must say a little part of me dies when I take a clean fluffy sheepskin pad and within 3 rides it is disgusting from sweat and dirt. Her back is soft when I get off. For arena work I use a fleece-cotton square pad with a Thinline Contour pad on top.

A shot from Deli's most recent trim.
Using a crupper is also working out well to help with our long-running issue of the saddle being pulled forward due to Deli’s big laid back shoulder and forward hearth girth. Now we ride with a seriously loose girth and snug crupper and breast collar/plate and have had no issues with saddle slippage under saddle yet. I still can’t mount from the ground, but I have never been able to with this horse due to her meat-tube shape. Luckily she has become a pro at standing quietly while I use trees and rocks and ditches and random farm equipment to use as a mounting block.

I’ve also been using an elastic breast girth (as is used by eventers) instead of my Zilco breastplate for the simple reason that it stays above the area where her skin is upset from her allergies. It seems to work fine so far, and Deli seems to appreciate the elastic. I haven’t tested it yet on hardcore hill climbing but will soon.

As for an update on Deli’s allergies…

Deli’s skin issues due to hyper-sensitivity and insect allergies are an ongoing management head-scratcher. Riding does not make it worse, though I forgo riding when the tack touches any of her hotspot areas or when they are in places that stretch during normal movement (like her armpits – a typical spot for flare ups) because they clearly HURT. For the most part the flare ups are confined to her chest and between her front legs – which my vet thinks is because the spider bite several years ago that seems to have triggered her extreme histamine reaction was on her lower chest. It is really gross, in general. Her skin gets localized fevers in “hot spots” during the worst of it, making her skin peel off and the area especially sensitive. She will get scabby skin around bites or in hot spot areas. During bad flare-ups I have been giving her generic Zyrtec, which seems to help quiet the inflammation though I still wait for the peeling-gross skin areas to heal.

I’ve been experimenting with different supplements and have her on a Smartpak’s Bug-Off Ultra pellets, which I supplement with extra MSM during her flare-ups. She also gets lots of Omega 3s and other than her hot spot areas her skin and coat are shiny and healthy. Recently I added both chamomile and spirulena to her supplements as well, and one or both do seem to be helping as this past week her skin has been more dandruff-y than scabby and inflamed. When I lived in California both spirulena and chamomile were very helpful in easing some of the symptoms of her (mild) dust allergy as both have anti-inflammatory and soothing properties. Living in Oregon now the dust allergy comes up less often. At worst she usually needs to cough a couple times when we start trotting and then will be fine for the rest of the ride.

For topical treatments I use several things. Hydrocortisone has clear results in calming the initial inflammation and so I’ve made up batches of my homemade healing goo (which includes essential oils in a coconut oil base) with human-grade hydrocortisone cream. I also have my goo without the hydrocortisone which I put in areas she often gets bitten – including working it into her tail hair on her dock as it also functions as a skin and hair moisturizer. This works very well as a protective layer too, I’ve found, as the oil sticks around for a couple days and soothes her raw skin (when a layer has peeled off). The essential oils I use (Melrose and Purification, for those curious) also have an added benefit of repelling insects. 

If we ever do get to an endurance ride it’s likely I will make up some of my homemade goo without any AERC banned ingredients in it to put as a proactive protective layer before competition. My other favorite product is Healing Tree T-Zon Equine Healing Cream, which also provides Deli a lot of relief. I also use Eqyss Micro-Tek products and usually bathe her problem areas with some kind of gentle medicated shampoo (like Micro-Tek’s) at least every other week and then moisturize her skin and coat afterward.

Last but not least I rub her dry with clean towels and often use Dermacloth to clean sweaty areas after a ride to prevent any skin irritation that may occur from residual sweat and dirt. I also use these to clean around her eyes and the sweaty marks left by her bridle, as her eyes often get irritation from dust and insects as well.

My vet has confirmed that red-headed horses (like red-headed humans) do seem to have more issues with sensitivity in the skin. I think Deli has had allergies in some form as long as I have had her (the first thing I noticed was she would get white flaky skin when fed corn). The dust allergies seemed to be caused by an unfortunate illness she had when I first got her - the one where she was forced into quarantine against my will in a dark dusty stall. "Against my will" meaning I was trying to find an open solo pasture for her to be in quarantine given she had never been stalled and was still new to being handled regularly. I wasn't allowed to remove her and we were both traumatized by the experience for various reasons.

The insect issues are tied to that spider bite on her chest which was very nasty and made her skin get infected, requiring antibiotics.

That's not even half of what we've gone through, but as it relates to allergies that's about it. That, and she gets welts from many fly sprays...

Special special red mare.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yesterday’s trail ride with Deli leaves me happy.

No, I didn’t get to attend the Mt. Adams endurance ride this past weekend. And what a bummer that was. But I’m living vicariously thorough friends’ photos, videos, and stories right now. My fingers are crossed that I will be riding in an LD sometime soon. I have the endurance bug. Bad.

However, I did have a great ride on Deli yesterday. When I said she has matured mentally in the past year or two, I wasn’t kidding. She still has her naughty moments – for example, refusing to cross the tiniest little ditch with the smallest trickle of water in it. Which caused a whole heap of drama (of course) despite my trying to convince her that stepping calmly over the tiny "dip"would have been the far less scary option. That, and being slightly barn & buddy sour. Just slightly though. Just enough for me to roll my eyes and remind her that she knows that is not okay.

From another recent ride: Deli with my husband.

But when I compare these things to how she was in our early days, when she would lose her mind with anxious fits and back into brambles or run sideways to avoid going forward into something she was uncertain about, or spook so violently I was often lucky to stay topside... I’m very happy with how far she’s come. She is pretty darn reliable and never mean. We confidently ride out alone 99% of the time and she has saved my butt on several occasions. It's pretty rare now for her to have a large spook, and even then her worst is usually jumping forward a couple strides when something startles her from behind.

Part of it has to do with how my philosophy and approach to riding and horse ownership has changed over the years. Admittedly, I still have to contend with my longing to compete in endurance events and am looking for catch-rides (like I had for my first LD) for this season.  I also want to prepare Deli for and attempt some LD rides. I think if my various concerns could be dealt with (will her soundness hold up to mileage? Will her allergies allow for long hours in the saddle?) she could really rock and even enjoy the 25 mile distance. She loves being out on trails more than anything else I do with her that constitutes “work”. Of course she would rather sit in her pasture with her buddies and get fat (trust me, she has no issues with the fat part right now even in work). She's always happy to get out on the trails. It's entertaining for her and her active mind.

Yesterday we chased a loose cow, which was exciting. Deli is uncertain about big critters coming toward her, but when I asked her to keep marching toward it and it moved away she perked up. When I asked her to trot toward it, she did so willingly. It was as if she realized: I’m big and bad and things are scared of ME?! Yes Deli, you are soooo big and scary. She really is the gentlest creampuff of a horse I have ever known, but whatever works to boost her self-esteem, right?

Look! Cow!

The cow-herding instilled some confidence in her that later showed itself in her being a bit more stubborn. But with some mild correction ended up with us power trotting around some recently tilled fields with a willing forward mare. And then she asked to canter and so we cantered around the field, looping to turn around without breaking stride. I even got a flying lead change from her on purpose, something we never really trained for and never get in the arena. She also picks up her leads better on the trail.

Trail bliss, or close to it. In an ideal world we would have access to real trails and a trailer rig to go ride with my endurance friends (and reliably GET to endurance rides!), but my life is hardly ideal right now. Basically, everything – even our dressage work – is better on the trail. 

Next time: An update on Deli's tack and allergies.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The integrity of equestrian competition and training.

“A horse is the projection of peoples' dreams about themselves - strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.”

-          Xenophon

I’ve been pretty introspective lately when it comes to thinking about my personal involvement in equestrian sports. This post has been simmering in my mind for a while. In the wake of the recent running of the Kentucky Derby (which I didn't watch and wanted no part of), I feel the need to write these things down (even if they come out in stream-of-consciousness). Call it a record of my ever-evolving relationship with horses.

In a general sense, I’ve been thinking about how various equestrian sports have changed over time. Some things have gotten better when it comes to a horse’s place in this human-driven world. We understand horse behavior and nutrition better, for example, and in theory that allows us to better care for our ponies. I also see that most equine sports are making changes to make them safer and more humane for horses and their human partners.

However, I also see a lot of harm being done to horses in the name of the "sport". I don’t think any of our individual disciplines are immune to the kind of mistreatment I'm talking about. But prevalence alone doesn’t mean it is okay. And that doesn't mean those of us who care can just turn a blind eye. These harms needs to stop. They need to stop not just to protect  animals from abuse but to uphold the good character and reputation of equestrians everywhere. Times are changing, and equestrians need to change with the times.

I think the horse-human bond is a wonderful thing. I think the horse-rider bond can also be incredible. I’ve written about this before: that feeling that comes when there is absolute connection between me and a horse. Horseback riding is fun without those moments where the line blurs between horse and riding. It’s good exercise. But in my case, at least, I’m always seeking that deep connection of trust, communication, and empathy. My thoughts to theirs – our bodies blurring together. I think that most good riders who care about their horses as individuals are seeking that connection to some degree.

Unfortunately, organized sports (much like organized religion) seem to bring out the bad side of the equestrian community. This is especially true when competition is the name of the game. I really really wish this bad side did not exist – but that’s humanity for you. It’s the side that puts money, winning, appearances, and a lust for power above the welfare of their animals. And ultimately, over the horse-human bond.

"Big lick" (and I could have chosen a much more gruesome photo, I promise).
No, I’m not talking about a "bad side" expressed by someone correcting their horse when it bites or kicks. I wholeheartedly cringe at folks who coddle and spoil their 1200 pound pets so they become a danger to humans, other animals, and even themselves. Many of Deli’s serious injuries can be traced directly to another horse that was poorly socialized to the point they no longer know their own specie’s language. They become dangerous and isolated, unable to communicate with anyone properly. Deli, who grew up semi-feral in a herd, seems baffled (and frightened) by horses who don't tell her what's what before trying to rip her face off.

I don’t blame the horse in question for those kind of behaviors: I blame the owners, the trainers, etc. Horses are physical creatures meant to exist in a herd hierarchy – most of them are happier when someone else is in charge because the person in charge is the protector. Anyone who studies horse behavior knows this. Particularly when that person is a leader they are rewarded for following. Horses that prefer to be at the top of said hirearchy also prefer not to use a lot of energy to enforce their dominance. That's why Deli usually gets along great with a truly dominant but well socialzed alpha: one flick of an ear and Deli gets out of the way because she understands her own language.

Treating a horse like a very very big human (and not letting them be a horse) is just another kind of harm, if a more subtle one. Do you think horses enjoy being poorly socialized and unable to mesh with a herd? Doubtful.

What I am talking about when I think of the "bad side"are the training and husbandry practices found throughout the equestrian world in some frequency. For example: riding or working a horse hard before they are physically mature (and no, your QH or thoroughbred does not mature faster than other breeds – their bones still close around the same time) as in track racing and western futurity. Tail nerving or cutting for the sake of appearance. Soring, peppering, tail setting, and the use of ridiculous padding and shoeing techniques – again, to get a “look” that wins. Keeping show horses in stalls 24/7 until they go crazy (there are serious mental health consequences, in addition to the increased risk for health issues, for stall confinement). Tying a horse's head up for hours on end so that they are so fatigued they can't lift it for the show. Over-breeding to get some good sales and dumping the rest so that they ultimately end up in trucks bound for slaughter – and breed organizations that support those breeding practices. Any kind of riding that requires a “look” that means the horse is harmed in some way. I could go on, and I’m sure many of you have your own additions to this list.

All of these practices disgust me and I will make no secret about it.

The Eight Belles breakdown.
 Dressage has bad training techniques that seem to pretty much guarantee wins at the upper level. Rollkur (training with hyperflexion) is, of course, the go-to for finger pointing. It seems to be more about appearance than horse welfare. I could do a whole post just on my thoughts about how dressage has changed in relation to its purpose and horse biomechanics. I’ve had many a conversation with the trainer, and friend, who helped me start and put wet saddle blankets on Deli, about how the sport of dressage had evolved (or devolved). It’s an interesting conversation. I may devote another post to this topic because it does relate to my relationship with Deli and horses in general in a very real way.

Edward Gal & Totilas at WEG 2010.
Endurance even has its bad eggs. The issues with races in the middle East (FEI Region 7) has been a long standing issue such that the rules have changed to help prevent the abuses and horse deaths occurring there. In general I am attracted to the American Endurance Ride Conference’s emphasis on the welfare of the horse. I think this is achieved by making the horse’s health part of the competition, because it capitalizes on humanity's desire to win in a welfare-centric way. The multiple vet checks throughout each race are a GOOD thing, and from my experience in the west coast regions the majority of people are concerned about their horse’s welfare.

I’m not the best rider in the world and I’d be the first to admit I no longer have any dreams of competing at top levels. I do, however, have a good eye for horse biomechanics. I do believe in the basic tenants of classical dressage – that teaching the horse through willing cooperation to be an athlete capable of carrying a rider is essential. How you get to that place of harmony, where rider and horse become a centaur of sorts.

Manolo Mendez on Clint Eastwood II in FEI Intermediate I.
Mendez is an upper level dressage trainer I really respect for
various reasons - including his emphasis on horse mental health.
The Greek general Xenophon wrote a treatise that shows he was ahead of his time – and sadly ahead of our time in many respects. He was concerned about their physical AND mental well-being. He also wrote about how without friendship and cooperation a horse’s aesthetic has little value.

Xenophon also said: “For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign.”

If a fellow who existed in a time where horses were the premier mode of transportation and war, equestrians with horses in 2015 have no excuse.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Happy 16th Birthday!

Today, May 5th 2015 is Deli’s 16th birthday. So happy birthday to her! I suppose this means she is now officially an adult. 

What is this "adulting" you speak of?
 Deli has certainly matured mentally over the past year. She has more confidence than ever – or maybe it’s both of us that have more confidence when we ride out alone.

"Cow hill."

 She learned (or at least, did. I suspect she knows these things before she tries them) how to unhook the aisle guard and let herself out today to eat dandelions. She also somehow scraped the skin off her jaw just behind her chin – a superficial but ugly abrasion. I think it’s her way of telling me, like the nice deep gash on a rear cannon she presented me with while I was farm sitting a month or two back, that even in a peaceful barn she’s still going to be accident prone. 

As if the resurgence of her insect allergies wasn’t enough to remind me how special she is.

 But a few scrapes are nothing and easy to doctor. Because, y’know, I’ve developed quite an impressive first aid kit after owning this beastie for over nine years. Yes, that’s right. I’ve had this wonderful creature for over nine years now and I’m looking forward to the rest of her life. A life that I hope will be long and full of only the good kind of excitement. 

To ride a horse is to ride the sky and moments with this horse have made me closer to my own spirituality than any other being I’ve known. So thanks, Deli, for that.

 (And everything else you’ve taught me about myself, you, and horses in general.)

Here’s to your next 16 years!

(And birthday mashes, apples, and udder-rubs.)