Sunday, September 25, 2011

Horse racing--coincidence and musings

Since Calabar nosed his way into my life, I've become a bit of a horse racing nerd. I watch races, I read about racehorses, I follow blogs about other ex-racehorses and how their owners are training these former high-caliber athletes. I also spend too much time on racehorse websites, which sometimes leads me down odd noodly paths.

Today was just such a day.

 Sarah over at Miles On Miles posted a good look at the before and after of her boy's racing career. He, like Bar, sometimes feels his oats, but--also like Bar--does not seem to keen to go back to his former life. Oddly enough, Miles (who was Masarin) hit Golden Gate Fields the year after Bar retired. They are the same age and I'd like to think they would have been good partners in crime out there on the track. (Though Miles was a turf horse and Bar was oh so definitely not.) Miles was also a much more successful racehorse than Bar, but Bar says that's okay--they are still brothers under the soft brown hair they both wear.

After I snooped around on Equibase for Miles' record, I looked at stats and it brought to mind an interesting question. There are of course the horses ranked highest by earnings--including Curlin, Cigar and of course Zenyatta. But there are also horses ranked by number of wins. The top on that list is a horse named Time to Bid who only earned $241,247 by the time he retired in 1988, but he started 179 times! And he won 50 times, placed 2nd 33 times and 3rd 35 times--that's a 28% win percentage!

 Then there's one of my other favorites, Goldikova. She is still racing. Has started 25 times, won 17, with 5 seconds and 2 thirds--a 68% win percentage. She is also the horse who inspired her groom to dash out onto the track after one of her more exciting wins. I know some of you are not race fans but trust me when I tell you there are good people in the business, people who take incredibly good care of their horses. And--for the most part--these horses really love what they do.

So what is more impressive? A horse that wins a lot of money or a horse that can stay healthy and race longer? The real money, of course, is in the breeding, so these days it is better to retire a good horse than to risk injury (or worse) by continuing to run them. But a tiny part of me is impressed by a horse like Goldikova who keeps coming out, keeps running, and keeps winning. Okay, more than a tiny part. The trick is balancing that decision and I am exceedingly glad that will probably never be a choice I have to make.

Spitting Sand debuts!

Here is a link to the Fall 2011 issue of The Sonoma County Horse Journal. My first "official" column is on page 14, but don't miss Joan Rasmussen's (of Cowboy and Dexter's Excellent Adventure) story about Mustangs on page 8. As a funny side note, Shadow is a resident of our barn. We keep Lena far from him because while he is not a studly stallion, she would figure it out anyway. (And while they would make absolutely adorable babies, the answer is a resounding NO.)

Progress Bar

It's been awhile since I posted about the big Bar man and his twitchy self, and I am glad to report we are making progress. I haven't figured anything out or done x-rays or acupuncture, yet, but in my own little stubborn way, I think I'm helping him heal.

After getting back from Vegas a week ago, my first order of business was to go see how he was doing. I took him out and worked him on the ground again--following it up with some more massage and pressure point work on his shoulders and neck, more stretching. He rolled, both sides again, and THEN I cold hosed him. (Trying to leave the arena dirt in the arena this time.)

Again I got good releases and more animated movement up the hill to his paddock--he actually wanted to race me!

Then the work week hit and things got a little nutty. I worked him Monday, got out late Tuesday and said hello with carrots, golfed Wednesday, got stuck in a meeting on Thursday, had a social event Friday. Has anyone else noticed how much faster time seems to go as you get older? It's very nearly October and I haven't gotten half the things done I thought I would. Oh, well.

But I digress.

Yesterday, I got back to him and he was much less sore and sensitive in his left shoulder, and though still a hair touchier on the right side, he did let me dig into his neck. For a little while anyway. Oh, and he presented me with a mysterious horse injury, too. Looks like he got his back leg stuck or ?? Who knows. Looks mostly like scraped skin, nothing serious.

At any rate, he was moving pretty well in the round pen and we worked on lengthening him out at the trot and not breaking into a canter just because it's easier. I started out just watching from the ground at first, so I could see how he was moving, which turned out to be pretty comfortably. Naturally, I then poked at his pressure points some more which he tolerated with remarkable patience (for the most part, anyway).

He was moving so well I decided to borrow Peter's pad and training saddle and hop on and do a little more work.

He was fantastic! I was able to keep pressure off his withers and only got a tiny twitch one time, but I think it was fly-related this time. He was smooth and pretty flowing at both the walk and canter, and wanted to keep working even after I decided to stop! "No, it's okay, you can just walk." Ears up, asking to trot, such a happy boy.

He rolled, we cold-hosed, and raced up the hill to his paddock again. The only thing I forgot in my joy was to stretch him out. I could feel guilty about it, but that is a waste of energy. Energy I need to do all of this again today. Including the stretching. Which is hard work, I'll have you know.

The other piece of this puzzle is me, of course. Can you guess which side of my body is tighter? And do you know I also have a big knot on the right side of my neck? So I'm increasing my yoga and stretching again and may actually get a little body work on my own self.

When I was riding yesterday, I didn't think about being perfect, just about flowing with him and keeping as loose and balanced as I could be. I like my lessons--though we're taking a break for now--but they tend to give me so much to work on all at once, I lose track of it all and don't relax enough. Yesterday was all about breathing and rolling with my horse.

We both think that was a pretty good thing.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Horses can break hearts

Does, to paraphrase Natalie Keller Reinert from her eBook (soon to be in-print-book) The Head and not the Heart, the heart have no place in the horse business? Some days, it certainly feels that way.

Some of you may remember us meeting Little Miss Lacey a few months back. A feisty chestnut filly who frolicked around her mother Ursulita and tried to kick at her human visitors.

Lacey got caught up in a fence a few weeks ago. She tore her leg open to the bone and lost a lot of blood. For awhile, she looked as if she would mend, but her healing never quite progressed far or fast enough. Her pastern had fractured slightly, then it shifted forward and the ligaments and tendons wouldn't support the leg. Friday, I got an email from Devon that while they were operating on her leg to see if they could splint it, they found there was too much deterioration in the joint to repair it and she had to make the painful and realistic decision to put Lacey down.

It would be nice if we could turn off our hearts, it would make this easier. But I can't. I know Devon and Karen and Howie can't, either.

Perhaps there is no place for a heart in the business of horses, but that doesn't stop my heart from breaking at the loss of such a fine and lovely filly.

Lacey, we did not know you long, but you made a definite impression on all of us. You will be missed by many.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

MIA and now stuck in Las Vegas

Beyond the strip, there are lovely places to visit near Las Vegas

Steve and I have been at a trade how in Vegas since Tuesday so as well as being horse-deprived, I was completely ready to be home in just a few more hours now. Unfortunately, it will be a few more hours at least. Due to some poor planning on the part of Alaska/Horizon out of Santa Rosa, our flight has been cancelled. Seems like they could have told us this before we checked our bags, but I will rant more later.

While I'm waiting, I'll amuse myself by giving an update on the Thoroughbred Twitch situation.

Monday before we left, I got the boy out and did some acupressure on his shoulders and some massage on his neck before taking for a quick warm up in the round pen. He had a little heat in his left shoulder, but I went ahead and saddled him anyway, planning on some light work at the walk just to see how he was doing. I used my wither-cut out wool pad and tried to be sure to leave space over those touchy withers of his.

He warmed up fine--rather exuberantly, actually. Then when I went to check the pad, the slightest pressure from it made him twitch, so I switched to Peter's fleece pad (also a wither cut out but open in the front) and a blanket on top of that.

I got on and we walked, just walked. I encouraged him to just move as he wanted, as he was comfortable, trying to get him to swing out and stretch through his shoulders. I got some of the twitchies whenever anything touched his neck--my hands, reins, whatever--but he would keep walking through it. Could have been heat and flies on top of whatever is going on, too.

After I got off, he had an odd sweat pattern on that left shoulder, so I unsaddled him there in the arena and took him to the wash rack to cold hose him. As I hosed him down, he gave me some good releases--blowing, licking his lips and good shakes. Then I took him back in the arena where he proceeded to roll very effectively on both sides. Very thoroughly. That is the first time in awhile he's rolled on both sides, so I'm hoping that helped him.

Of course, now I've been away from him for four days, I've had a chance to worry and fret some more. He got a break, so that may be good, too. Katie was going to work him for me, but I haven't had a chance to talk to her to see how he's doing. Except to hear he's had plenty of grain in my absence.

My vet wants to do x-rays and Karen thinks that's a good idea. I halfway agree, I just don't know that I can afford it right now, so I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Keep massaging, keep stretching him, keep working him lightly, keep cold-hosing any heat. See where we are in a couple weeks, then make the next best decision I can make for him.

Luckily, he seems more uncomfortable than in a lot of pain, which gives me the head space to figure this out and help him the best I can without draining my bank account. Sometimes reality sucks.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The massage

Bar sort of relaxing under Karen's ministrations. Only sort of.

Bar allowed about 2/3 of a massage but told us what we needed to know.

Basically, more massage work is needed (which I can do), along with some stretching and saddle pad changes. My saddle is actually okay fit-wise, we just need to work on making sure the pad isn't adding wither pressure.

We are also going to look into acupuncture. No, really, and here's why.

Karen has worked on Bar a lot. (Yes, he is spoiled, hush.) All performance horses can benefit from massage, just like any professional athlete. Only most professional athletes don't have to carry flopping weight around. Horses do, and racehorses do it at tremendous speeds (though jockeys don't flop much).

Every other time she's worked on him, she can work all the way around (despite Thoroughbred dancing) and get him to finally relax. This time, she worked the left side and he was fine. Feisty, a little impatient, but fine. The second she touched the top of his neck on the right side, he very nearly turned into a horse I didn't recognize. He didn't bite, but he either pulled completely away and acted like he might bite, or rammed his big brown side into Karen, all the while kicking out with his hind legs. Not at us, but behind him and into objects. He also got increasingly agitated, and not in a "I'm bored and want dinner" way. We corrected him, of course, but he still made it very clear that while some areas were okay to rub, that spot up high on the right side was OFF limits. Off. No touchy.

This is not the first time Karen has worked on Bar. It is the first time she recommended acupuncture, so I'm listening. She described the sensations she was feeling while she worked on him in a couple ways, both equally plausible based on the things I've felt in my own body. Massage is a great tool, but if something--an energy pathway, a nerve pathway shooting pain messages, whatever--is stuck in the "on" position, massage backfires by basically pouring hot water on it. The other thing that could happen is that the massage awakened something that had been shut down to deaden the pain. Either way, Bar was not letting her monkey with it. Nope. No way.

Yes, I know. This sounds new age and hokey. But. I'm a firm believer in the healing properties of massage and acupressure. I've used both on myself and on my animals (cats, horses, dogs) and seen clear and obvious physical results.

I also saw the same energy level change that I've seen in Bar after one of his twitchy episodes. Much agitation and (almost) fear. Prior to this, Karen has always gotten some level of energy discharge and relaxation in Bar. (Lena falls asleep about half-way through, of course.)

So bottom line is--yes--I'm willing to consider acupuncture for Bar. Why not for myself? Well, here's the thing. I know when my back/neck/hips hurt, I can (and do) stretch, do yoga, go for a walk. I can manage my own pain and reason about where it came from and what I can do about it. Bar can't. All he can do is get grumpy about doing work, or worse--buck me off because I don't pay attention to him hurting.

Is the price of body work worth my own safety? Oh, I'd say yes, yes indeed it is.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Calabar's withers, our saddling challenge

Bar's withers are not just steep, they are long. Even nice pads with wither cut-outs don't have a hole big enough to give him complete wither freedom. Peter suggested being sure to create some space between Bar's withers and the pad, too. I've tried that in the past, but not had a lot if luck keeping the space there while I ride. Must try harder.

And it's definitely the withers where we are having issues. I could recreate the twitch simply by touching that bony protrusion after our lesson yesterday. On the plus side, I could also get him to walk it off when it would flare up during the lesson.

He is still getting a visit from Wonder-masseuse Karen tomorrow because I think it will help. It certainly won't hurt, that's for sure.

The saddle we are trying also seems to be working. It's wide enough for him, stays off his shoulders and is high enough to give good wither clearance. It also stays in one place, which us fairly important. My saddle tends to slide back which means it is likely too narrow for Bar.

Glad the puzzle pieces are fitting together. And, yes, glad I was over-reacting too.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Coming soon in print -- a new forum for my horse stories

Calabar, my big brown muse, anxiously awaiting my first column

I've been writing off and on for our local horse publication, Sonoma County Horse Journal, for the last several months. It's a quarterly publication and I've submitted several things as a reader that have been well-received.

Cool, right?

Well the editor, JoDean Nicolette, offered me a regular column! She has several trainers who write for each issue, but likes my writing style and my perspective as a learner.

The writing is the easy part, but then came the challenge: "What do you want to call your column?" JoDean asked.

Uh. Drat. Titles, headlines and catchy one-line advertising lines are my nemesis. Always have been.

"How about 'Up and Down the Learning Curve?'" I said to Steve. "Too complicated," he said. Katie just told me no.

Then my marvelous and intelligent daughter came up with several ideas based on the places sand goes when you fall off before blithely tossing out, "Spitting Sand."


So my column will be called "Spitting Sand -- A Learner's Journey" and debuts in the next Sonoma County Horse Journal, due out shortly.

What more could a horse junkie and amateur writer wish for? I guess I could wish my dad were here to laugh, too, but I know he's proud of me wherever he is.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The withers tell a story

Tonight I got to the barn an hour ahead of schedule (yes, I actually escaped work early) with a goal in mind: try another saddle to see if I got the twitchy response from Bar.

We didn't quite get to the riding part of this exercise, but I got my answer pretty quickly in any case.

First, I brushed him down and poked at his neck in the places I suspected were causing the problem. He tolerated this with only mild irritation. Then I put the English saddle on his back, Calabar peeking around his shoulder at me with mild interest.

I pulled the cinch under his chest and buckled it loosely, intending to take him down to the round pen and warm him up.

The twitching started almost immediately.

I unbuckled the saddle and the twitching stopped. I probed the soft depression below his withers and the twitching started again. I tightened the cinch again with the identical result.


So I took the saddle off and explored his withers and the area at the top of his shoulders. I found lots of (as Karen calls it) "junk" in there. Trigger points and tightness, places that made the big brown head bounce up and down and swing towards me like I might get (but didn't) a nip.


Then I put a nice thick pad and Lena's saddle on him and that was okay, even after I cinched him up. Until we walked down to the arena and stood there awhile. Then the twitching started again.

Peter asked me whether I thought it was just Calabar not wanting to work at dinner time, but I told him I didn't think so since it's happened a not-dinner time and has not happened at dinner time.

I also dug my fingers in all the way around the top of his scapula, on both sides of the withers and in the shoulder and found lots of areas that felt like they could use some relaxing and attention. There were a couple areas where the slightest push would trigger the twitches, too.

So I did as much massage as he would tolerate, plus some stretching and liniment. (Sore No More is our favorite--Calabar is not fond of Vetrolin at all.)

My first thought is saddle fit, and Steve pointed to arthritis, too. Karen will be out on Tuesday and I'll have her look at our saddles, as well as watch him move with and without me on his back. Peter thinks he may even have some saddles I can try and will help me figure out padding, too.

I'll be relieved when I'm more sure, but I think I have a good answer to work from. And one that doesn't make me panic.

It may also be that trying not to worry about it for so long made me avoid trying to find an answer. And let that be a lesson to me.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Calabar gets twitchy

I'm trying not to worry. I'm trying not to be terrified and turn this into something bigger than it is. I'm trying not to direct energy into something negative.

But I am worried. And vaguely terrified. And still trying not to send energy down this path.

Back in July, when we were up at Slide playing with cows, Calabar had a spasm of sorts. He started twitching--like a super bad fly twitch--and shaking his head, almost violently, but gave me time to get off and was fine after that. At the time, we attributed it to too much excitement and him needing to let go of some energy.

But now it's happened two (maybe three? I try not to count) more times in less stressful situations.

It's not predictable, really. I can go for an hour lesson, working hard, and he's fine. I can get on him and walk and trot lightly for five minutes and it happens.

I don't even want to Google it because I'm sure there are all kinds of horrid things this could be, many of them incurable "put him out to pasture" things. And that is somewhere my heart is no where near ready to go.

God I love this horse.

My very first step was to contact Karen, our wonder-masseuse, to get her opinion and have her come out as soon as she can. She thinks it sounds like C1 or C2 and gave me some things to test, so I did. I put my hand behind his cheek and moved his big, brown head from one side to the other to see if there was any stiffness. There is, on the right side in particular. No heat in the joint, but tightness abounds.

In my perfect world, he'd be doing it to get out of work. But he doesn't do it all the time and when it happens, he is very agitated and clingy afterwards. He's a good actor, but that would be an Oscar-caliber (pun intended) performance.

I can't afford a lot of vet care. I can't afford a lot of tests. I'm not even sure I'd put him through it even if I could, knowing that if it's bad enough for tests, bad enough that Karen can't sense it (and help me fix it), there isn't much I can do but turn him out.

I have put this post off for over a month because I know all of my three readers can tell me lots of things I may not be ready to hear. For my sake, just send good energy to Bar. Or tell me I'm being silly. I can deal with that just fine.

We're going for a trail ride this weekend, both because we all need to and to see if anything happens.

I really, really hope I'm over-reacting, or that it's a relatively easily cure.

The alternative makes it too hard to breathe.