Sunday, June 27, 2010

(Re) gate training an ex-racehorse

Racehorses know what gates are, and what they are for. They open magically in front of you and you dash through them head first as fast as you can, of course. What else is there to know about them, really? Bar could not figure out why we would go up SIDEWAYS next to a gate, or why I would be leaning over and urging him closer--again with the sideways--and would get quite frustrated with such a nonsensical approach to things.

Lena was gate-trained when we got her, and Bar would watch with some interest as she sidled up, let Steve lean over and open the gate, go through, and side step to close it all up again for Bar and me to try. However, watching never quite translated for him.

Enter the longest rehab known to man (okay, that's how it feels) and the opportunity to do a lot more groundwork, including some gate training.

Truth be told, this occurred to me sort of accidentally during our normal routine of going in and out of the different entry points to the indoor arena. I realized he was lining up nicely parallel to whatever gate we were about to open and a tiny flashbulb went off in my brain.

We started going through the same motions we would use to open a gate, go through, and shut it again, with me guiding him from the ground. Encouraging him to side pass right up next to a half-open gate to close it again was the most challenging thing, so as long as he stepped as close as he was comfortable--giving me that try--I'd close the gate and reward him. Pretty soon, we had it down to a pretty smooth routine and the only way to tell if it translated was to try it from his back.

Now, as some of you know, I'm not supposed to ride until I have clearance (and a new cast) from my doctor. But my horse keeps doing everything I ask of him and looking at me with those big brown eyes, wondering why I won't get on when he's being so good. And darn it, I miss riding!

So, yeah, I climbed aboard this afternoon after his ground work and walked him around bareback, just feeling his rolling walk underneath me and enjoying his easy attitude.

He headed over to the fake gate in the arena, set up for trail practice, so I thought I'd see how we would do with it. No time like the moment your horse offers you that willingness to give something a try.

He walked up parallel to it, side-stepped closer when I asked, went through, turned, side-stepped and backed until I could get a hand back on the gate--which would have been enough--then gave me a little more so I could close it! It wasn't trail-class worthy, no. My hand came off the gate and we weren't very graceful about it, but I don't care. He did it, and then he did it again!

I told him was the best horse ever, got down, and gave him a hug and a carrot.

He said, "Okay, can we go out on a trail ride now?"

Soon, buddy. Really soon.

At least this one has my feet in it.

At least this one has my feet in it.
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Weird and accidental picture of the ground

Weird and accidental picture of the ground
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Monday, June 21, 2010


The trip has been delightful so far, with no horses up close but several interesting sights and stops along the way nonetheless. (Second Bald Eagle EVER, and the only one so far where I had a quick enough camera!)

We delivered one of Dad's guitars to my cousin in Eugene and at last report it had new strings, had been tuned, and was playing the Blues nicely. Seems rather fitting for Father's Day that a piece of Dad's legacy went exactly where it belongs.

Washington State has been lovely so far--Mt. Rainier was cloudy but lush, green, awe-inspiring, and gorgeous. Unfortunately we couldn't get to Mount St. Helens from the north--we'll have to plan a return trip--so we ended up in Yakima in one more hotel for the night. Luckily, it seems to be dry enough on the East side of the Cascades we think we can actually get to the camping portion of our trip. All the folks here are saying the same thing we were a month ago about the rain--"It should have stopped by now!" Hopefully, in the next week or so it will--just like it did for us.

Tomorrow we will stock up and start the trek back south, meandering through the Three Sisters and seeing what mischief we can find along the way.

Katie reports the horses are doing well in our absence, though she thinks Bar is wondering why I'm not there. She rode Lena hard today, which is just what they both needed. Lena needed the discipline and Katie remembered how fun Lena is to ride.

I am hoping after my check-in on the Monday after we get home, I'll be cleared for at least light riding--with a new cast of course. Bar keeps asking when we can get away from the arena again and I am so ready. So. Ready.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Something about this expression is familiar

Something about this expression is familiar
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Did one of my horses take up a second career modeling for Mexican
restaurant furniture? You be the judge.

Road trip

Road trip
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

This post is being written on my iPhone as we negotiate Portland-area
traffic, so if line breaks turn out a little off, that's why.

Steve and I are off on our first good trip in two years, leaving the
horses behind in the strong and capable hands of my darling daughter.
More later, when I can be sure spacing won't be too weird.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My baby and her pony

My baby and her pony
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

What on earth to write about--oh, training of course!

Since I'm not riding at the moment--yes, I'm trying to be good--it is a little hard to know what to write about.

We'll resume groundwork in the next day or so, and try something interesting with Bar--a suggestion from Karen--if he cooperates. Then he gets a week off or so because Steve and I are off on an adventure up north to Oregon and Washington. That should keep me off the horses just long enough.

Teaching Bar to round up and drive with his hind end has been the goal for a long time. He could probably have used a better rider to help him with this, but he got me, so we're experimenting. Racehorses really don't learn how to do that much. Whether they should or not is, of course, subject for much debate.

But I'm really only concerned about teaching Bar to use his body the best way possible. Changing the centuries-old racing industry might be a little beyond the scope of this blog.

Now, I could (and have) used mechanical aids--tie-downs, martingales, different bits, no bit, and of course see-sawing on his mouth. (Sorry, buddy.) It's not that those things didn't work. He would eventually give to pressure and put his body in the right place--albeit for moments at a time while his unskilled rider tried to catch up--but does that mean he got it? That he made the connection that having his body in this position made him more powerful? Or was he just trying to do what I wanted without me communicating clearly why it is important?

I don't think any of it really set off the light bulb for him, and watching him heal from his latest injury has cemented for me that he is very in tune with his body. Not necessarily how to use it perfectly all the time, but he is paying attention to it.

Karen's suggestion is to figure-eight two lengths of something (no special equipment required, always a bonus) around his neck and his hind end, crossing and tying behind the withers, then work him. When she showed me how to do this with two lead ropes, he tucked his hind quarters underneath himself in the cross-ties. Her experience has been that it makes the horse pay better attention to their body and its position. My experience with Bar and performance boots says it may work well with him. "Those are my feet! They're attached to me! Wow!"

And it gives us something new to play with on the ground while I continue my convalescence. The other thing about Bar is while he likes routine, he doesn't like to be bored, so games are good. Yeah, yeah. Just like his mom.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's officially fly mask season

It's officially fly mask season
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

But will Lena keep her mask on? That remains to be seen.

Feeling vaguely bionic

This will be quick, as I'm mostly back to one-handed typing for a little while.

Surgery went well, though it did take all day to get through it. Post-op, the doctor said it would never have healed on its own, so we really had to go this route.

He compromised with me on riding, sort of. The only way he'll let me ride sooner than 6 more weeks is if I concede to have another cast put on in a couple of weeks. So after this initial post-surgical wrap comes off, I will be back in a cast for a bit. The sacrifices I make for my ponies. In the meantime, I need to keep this stretchy-fabric wrapped splint clean AND dry. Bone infections can apparently be nasty and require 8-10 weeks of intravenous antibiotics. Perhaps my surgeon also has a degree in Psychology?

Here is the x-ray from the emergency room, day one:

And here are the two post-pinning x-rays from yesterday:

We're medicating with Tylenol only as Vicoden doesn't do much better for the pain and causes unfortunate side-effects like vomiting. No fun.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The day of truth approacheth

Okay, really just the day my two ulna bones go back to being one ulna bone. With the help of some titanium hardware and a surgeon.

Tomorrow is the big day--check in is at 10:45 a.m. and, no, I have no idea how long this will take. From my perspective, it will probably not seem long at all between falling asleep and waking up with a new scar and some different device on my arm.

I tried to convince the anesthesiologist to let me watch, but it was a no-go.

Am I nervous? A little. Do I see another realistic option? Not really. The bones are still moving in there and while they might heal if I kept still long enough, the concept of being less mobile than I have been and wearing a cast for even longer just doesn't work for me. At all.

I'm sure if I'd been a 15-year old boy, they would have slapped a plate in there immediately--both because I was still growing and because, well, most 15-year old boys don't hold still any better than I do.

I think they need to examine their statistics around horse people, though. Really? You fell off a horse? Oh, and it was a horse you own? Yeah, plate this one up pronto.

Honestly? I'm more worried about the side effects from the drugs than the surgery itself. They are supposed to be adding anti-nausea drugs to the cocktail, but we'll see.

More later, including gory pictures and x-rays if I can get them.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Back to work he goes (again)

Bar got his bodywork tonight and aside from his existing confirmation issues--upright front foot on one side, bowed tendon and lower foot on the other--he is sound enough to go back to regular work. He'd appreciate it if I were sound enough to give him regular massage along with that, but we'll get there. Yes, this means I was possibly babying him a little too much. Shocking.

Like most of us, Bar is not 100% perfect or 100% symmetrical. His right shoulder is more heavily muscled, but more flexible; his left shoulder is less muscled and less flexible. None of this makes him un-ridable, and regular work will actually improve his mobility and stability. Getting him in balance really means taking all of this into consideration, helping him feel strong and confident in his own body, and getting him to pay a little more attention to the way his big brown self moves. Karen did say his musculature looks even better than the last time she saw him, so the base we're starting from is a good one.

She dug right into his shoulders and showed me some techniques, pressure points, and stretches to do with him that will help him loosen up. He has a bit of a twist forward on the right (bowed tendon) side, and a hitch up on the left (puffy knee) side. Interestingly enough, that's nearly the opposite of my own back/pelvis twist. Yoga, stretching, and chiropractic work have really helped me gain a lot of strength, mobility and flexibility, so it makes sense that balanced work, stretching, and massage would help him, too.

Bar is not an easy patient, plus it was dinner time, so there was some dancing and pawing. So hard for this horse to relax! (Yes, just like his mom, hush.) But when it came to the magic electrical paddles, he settled right down. Knowing him as well as I do, that means it was doing something he thought felt good--otherwise, there would have been much more objection.

Yes, those are my sunglasses on his nose. Silly Thoroughbred. His future's so bright, he's gotta.. well, you know the rest.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bodywork for Bar

Yes, my horse may be a little spoiled.

But here's the thing. Karen--my friend the masseuse and the person actually responsible for the big, brown mirror ending up in my life--has rehabbed a lot of horses, Thoroughbreds included. Her own horse Bobby is 20, won over $250,000, and was deemed nothing more than a lawn ornament when she got him. He does dressage work now, and has carried Karen many miles.

Me? I know enough to see when Bar isn't moving exactly right, but my obsessive nature tends to skew my observational skills. Plus, I don't always know what to do with the information I see.

Bar is stiff and not moving as well as I'd like, but is that because he's been off so long? My body certainly reacts to not enough movement. How can I gradually get him back to work so he's stretching out and not straining? I do enough handling of him to know what muscles are tight, but at the moment--with only one very tired right arm--I can't do much for him.

Enter Karen.

She can do the body work, and she can watch the way he moves, see what I'm missing or what I'm imagining. And the best thing? She shares that information, shows me what I need to see to help Bar heal and become the horse he can be.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Too nice a day to stay completely on the ground

By the time surgery happens next Friday, we will be pushing 9 weeks in a cast. The rain has finally let up and it's beautiful, warm, and dry here in Northern California. As we headed to the barn this morning, we passed no less than six (6!) horse trailers headed places.

Yes, I was counting as a matter of fact. Yes I know I need to be patient just a little longer and that I was very lucky, and that in the larger scheme of things this is just a minor set-back. And, of course, I'm not physically ready for a trail ride, Bar is still borderline with his knee, and on top of all that, Steve's vertigo came back for a visit this week.

So, no, we did not throw caution to the wind and go out on the trail. Bar and I played in the indoor arena while Steve attempted to get Lena saddled up for a ride in the outdoor arena.

The big brown horse tolerated goofiness from me, this time in the form of my western-style shirt being tossed at him, over his eyes, etc., all with a calm look on his face and never once grabbing said shirt and running off with it--which might have been deserved. Nope, he just nuzzled closer.

I've gone back to just hand-walking him for now because his knee had gotten more puffy, rather than less. The walking and some Arnica gel seem to be working at bringing the swelling down slowly but surely, and my friend Karen is coming out to evaluate his movement next week just to see where he's at and what we could be doing to help him along. Possibly to tell me he can indeed do a little more work and I'm being too easy on him, too.

So we did some walking and wandering over obstacles in the indoor arena, then he walked over to one of the mounting blocks and nosed it. I figured it was a hint so looped the lead rope through his halter and climbed up on him bareback. It wasn't graceful, no, but he waited for me to signal him and walked forward calmly and carefully. We did some more wandering, some nice halts, and then I slid off and told him he was a good boy. So nice to be back up there again, and he really seemed to be taking care of me in a way he hasn't always.

When I got off, he reached over and grabbed my cast in his teeth, as if to say, "Can we get rid of this and go for a ride, please?" Having his own life-experiences with wrapped limbs, he may understand more than most. As tempting as it was to let him bite through it, I corrected the behavior instead. For an interesting contrast, he then licked the non-casted arm.

Meanwhile, Lena was in that mare-mood. She definitely wanted out, but was hoping a stallion might be lurking so was a bit distracted and unruly. Steve couldn't get her bridled, and wasn't feeling good enough to argue with her, so put her back in her paddock. Remember, she wanted out--even if it was to goof around and eat grass--so while not necessarily the harshest punishment, it actually turned out to be rather effective.

Leaving Steve holding Bar, who was munching on some alfalfa, I went up to Lena's paddock, finding a much-subdued spotty mare. Had I not been broken, I'd have gotten on her and done a nice easy, fun ride. What I did instead was bridle her--same bridle to rule out tack objections--and lead her down to the big arena to walk and trot over obstacles. I stayed on the ground the whole time and actually got to work her through something that freaked her out. There were three pole-bending poles standing up in a tight little triangle in the arena. I walked through them, leading her. She came around the side of me and knocked one over, startling herself. So, we went back to the other side and I let her figure out how to come through that narrow opening without knocking anything over. She did, so I called it good for the day.

As we walked up the back hill--the hill she and Bar both like to trot up--she nosed me as if to ask "Can we trot, please," so we did. And she stopped when I did, so she got to graze a little, too.

I don't know if it was the right way to handle her today, but it was what worked within both Steve's and my current limitations and still allowed us to spend time with our horses. Lena certainly seemed cooperative and glad to get out of her paddock (again), even if it wasn't the romp she needed.

Tomorrow is another day, and will surely bring more training adventures. Not to mention bringing me one day closer to whole-armed-ness.

My long-suffering Thoroughbred

My long-suffering Thoroughbred
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Bar wearing a Western outfit. Minus the hat--at least this time.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Even Sammy has one tiny spot.

Even Sammy has one tiny spot.
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Technically a star, but a spot nonetheless. Just making sure the name
of the blog represents all the ponies.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Softness and a lovely Thoroughbred for sale (No, not mine)

Seems like I'm stuck reading about riding more than riding right now, and one of my favorite blogs is Retired Racehorse.

Having fallen somewhat unprepared into the role of Thoroughbred re-trainer, it has been extremely gratifying to find people like Natalie. She not only loves and accepts Thoroughbreds, but has a calm and reasonable way of treating a horse that has lived a life only on the track, introducing them to a life that holds so much more than racing at high speed around an oval.

This post about softness may be one of my favorites.

The training tips are uncomplicated, and having long noticed that Bar does not respond to jumping up in his mouth, learning to be as soft as possible when asking him for something is certainly a good goal. And having practiced this very thing, I know it is indeed effective.

"Really?" he says, "You aren't going to hang on my face and haul my around by my head?" Yeah, buddy. I'm going to reward you for your very first response, as slight as it may be, to encourage you to keep responding, keep giving whatever it is you want to give. Because I know that means you'll just keep giving me more.

Reading is great, but I really (really) can't wait to ride again.

Oh, and by the way, Final Call is for sale. He looks like a fine horse and I know he's gotten the right start off the track.