Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I am getting soft in my old age

During my lunch break yesterday, I was scouting around the AV Club for something to read while I drank my protein shake. I came upon this. I skimmed the story and went straight to the comments because I knew what was coming: Jurassic Bark.

When you ask a geek like me, or my husband, the vast majority of my friends, (and consequently most of AV Club’s readers) what makes them cry, this is the answer. Yes, other things are sad: the montage at the beginning of Up, virtually all of Toy Story 2 and 3, The Last Samurai. And yes, other moments are full of triumph over adversity: Rudy finally gets to play football, Mr. Darcy proposes, E.T. and Elliot are silhouetted against the moon. Not to even get into those emotionally manipulative ASPCA commercials.

But for me, nothing is more likely to break my defenses than those 22 torturous minutes of Futurama. I can't even read about Jurassic Bark without getting misty.

The thing that the comment thread on AV Club got me thinking about was how, for me at least, animals are the key to a really great tearjerker. Shane is a sad movie, but turn Shane into a dog movie—i.e., Old Yeller—and I become a blubbering puddle of emotion. So here are my top cry-inducing TV and movie moments, Horse Edition:

Cisco's murder, Dances With Wolves 
As a youngster, I wasn't much of a crier. In fact, I was a complete tomboy. I was only 9 years old when Dances with Wolves came out, so the angst of adolescence was still a few years away. For me, this scene completely changed my understanding of "it's not fair" from playground tiffs to systematic genocide—all because of the senseless death of a single horse. 
I can’t embed this video, but why would you want to watch a horse die, anyway? 

Reunited with Joe Green, Black Beauty 
If you noticed me crying in my truck the other day, this is all you need to know: I own an audiobook version of Black Beauty. The moment I’m talking about is both heartbreaking and triumphant: All of Beauty’s suffering is about to end, but first his old friend has to recognize him. Here’s the scene in the 1994 movie version, which was pretty faithful to the spirit of the book, if not to the actual story (start at 7:00 or 7:30):

"He fixed us," Seabiscuit 
I have said before that Seabiscuit is one of the finest pieces of nonfiction I’ve read. The movie is almost as excellent, and the ending gets me every time.

Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, The Neverending Story
I'm sorry, I have to stop typing because I can't see through the tears.

Non-Horse-Movie Honorable Mention: 
The Fox and the Hound: "We'll always be friends forever, won't we?" "Yeah, forever."

So, what movie gets you every time?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stalled out

In some ways, riding is probably my least favorite part of owning a horse. I suppose a diplomat would call me risk-averse, but in plain english I'm a bit of a coward. If you think about it, riding is physically and mentally demanding. It requires trust and balance (I have neither in abundance), a certain amount of physical fitness (ditto) and guts—guts that I just don't have. Very often, I am afraid.

So it is funny how much I miss riding right now. 

Muscle memories are a strange thing. I can be sitting at my desk, and all I have to do is close my eyes to feel the trot. 

I have not been thinking about riding on an academic level as I should be. A better (or at least more determined) rider would be using this involuntary break to read up on training, develop a competition strategy, maybe increase her core strength or take lessons somewhere. And while I like to think of myself as being on the cerebral end of the horse-owning spectrum, I can't shake the fact that I am feeling how much I miss Blue a lot more than I am thinking about it. I thought I just needed to ride a horse, but I rode Quincy on Saturday and he didn't scratch my itch.

I caught myself cantering down the trail just before I drifted off one night. I could feel Blue there as surely as I could feel the sheets and hear Brian's soft snoring. This is dreamtime, so the sound of snoring seems perfectly natural to me as we roll down the last flat stretch of Renegade into ridecamp. Blue has never been to Renegade, but that doesn't keep my subconscious from wanting him there.

Of course, in a lot of ways, I am seeing more of Blue lately than when I was riding him. My board situation was not set up for stall care, so I'm doing my own mucking every day. In college, this was one of my part-time jobs, the other being copy editing the newspaper. I miss the energy I had then—up at 4:30, drive to the stable, turn on NPR and listen to the news while I clean the stalls of eight or ten world-class reining horses and however many mares are there being bred, drive back to the dorm, put in a day of classes and a quick afternoon nap, then down to the newspaper office for the seven-to-eleven shift. Wake up and do it all again the next day. No problem.

In retrospect, both jobs asked the same question: Can you be meticulous and fast? Can you make yourself care just enough to remove the bad stuff but not so much that you start taking away the good stuff too?

Thanks to those sainted reiners, I know that some horses spend their whole working lives in a stall. I tell this to Blue when he gives me one of his baleful "why won't you let me buck and run?" looks, which he does EVERY time I take him out of The Pen and tie him up somewhere else. 

I can't really explain to him that his current situation is his own fault, nor can I tell him that it is temporary. Worst of all, I can't tell him how much I need him to be stoic in his frustration. I can't say that every day that I am not on his back, a little of the old fear creeps back in. When he is finally free again, he will need to be brave enough for both of us, just as he was before his accident. 

I am still afraid. But now I'm afraid of asking too much from him.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Complaint Department

This morning, Blue pooped in his food dish. Not next to his food dish, but dead center right in the bucket. He is not a young, thoughtless horse, nor is he prone to frivolous behavior. He is an old soul with a sense of humor. He aimed that poop. He knew what he was doing.

Blue at the scene of the crime.

This morning, I lodged a complaint with the management regarding the lack of recreation available in The Pen. I used the only means of expression available to me, and I feel I was fairly emphatic. The fact that the management ignored my concerns is outrageous, but what she did next was unconscionable.

Not only was I once again tricked into the wobbly metal box, but when I got out of the box I was back in the place where the lady in green made me sleepy and then messed with my ouchy foot. The same lady in green was there today, doing her dirty deeds. She doesn't think I remember her, but I know her very well now. She makes me sleepy and then she does things to my feet. Next time she will get a taste of my feet in her face... if I can stay awake.

She is the one who put this ridiculous, itchy rock thing where my pretty white foot used to be. Seriously, why won't the management and the lady in green just leave me alone?
As you can see, my pretty white foot has been replaced with a stiff, heavy thing that isn't even good for pawing.

Every day, Blue gets his own hay net that no one can else can eat from. He gets a food dish full of mush. (Although what he did to the food in his dish this morning was just WRONG.) He gets the management to clean his stall and fuss over him. Maybe if I look at his hay without blinking, the management will see that I am starving and give me some hay too.

Quincy works on his hay-transfer telekinesis.

It is hot and windy. There are bugs. There are other horses here but one of them is in The Pen, and the other one is mean to me because he is jealous that Mom rides me. 

Maybe if I walk around enough, the bugs will leave me alone.

Please come and take my picture. I will standrighthere so the picture is easier to take. As long as you're here, maybe you could swat some flies?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Endurance driving

Friday was a long day. Up at 6 a.m., home shortly after midnight. I spent most of that time sitting in my Avalanche, a comfy truck with many amenities. It occurred to me more than once that I could spend the same amount of time on a horse (sans amenities) at Tevis.

This was not a comforting thought.

Working in medical publishing has not changed the way I see my own health at all. What it has done is made me very sensitive about the qualifications of the people who see to my horses' health. And that is why I was willing to drive 5 hours over a mountain range to get Blue to a professional equine dentist.

I loaded him at 7:30 a.m. and started my audiobook.

And drove...
It was a bright, sunny day in the Yakima Valley, about an hour into our trip. Up and to the left are the famous Horse Heaven Hills.
And drove...
Still sunny as we descend into the Kittitas valley. But what are those gray things on the horizon?
And drove...

That wet stuff on the windshield is a western Washington weather phenomenon. I can't remember what it's called, but we sometimes have it in the winter where I live.
And drove...

Almost to the summit...
At this point traffic picked up, and I decided that taking photos was maybe not the safest while towing a trailer. The vet clinic is in Buckley, which is south of Puyallup. I tend to get claustrophobic in western Washington, but luckily the road to the vet mostly skirted along the foothills and kept me out of the city.

We arrived at Performance Equine Dentistry (soon to be Foothills Equine Dentistry) about half an hour before our appointment. As soon as we got there, everyone went above and beyond to make Blue and me comfortable. He got to be loose in a round pen (which he visibly enjoyed after two days of stall rest and a five-hour trailer ride!), and I ate my sandwich and wandered around the place. I think we were both happy to stretch our legs.

The main barn at the clinic has stalls and a large exam room, but the dentistry part is done in a custom-built trailer.
Blue enjoys his freedom as "the locals" look on.

This little guy is a Fresian/Gypsy Vanner cross born this spring. This picture can't show you how friendly and people-oriented he was. He stood around and watched us almost the whole time, just begging to be petted. He's going to make someone a really nice horse in a few years!
 It wasn't too long before we got started with the main event. While Blue was getting settled into his anesthesia (where he again proved his lightweight status), Dr. Vetter's wife, Kathy, began a mini-clinic on equine oral health. It is a fun coincidence that one of my favorite teachers back in Nebraska was also named Kathy Vetter.  This new Kathy Vetter was just as wonderful as the old one. I walked away feeling like I knew a lot more about horse teeth than I did when I walked in. (Speaking of which, they have a ton of fantastic information and pictures on their website:

Kathy had real skulls and diagrams to run me through the basics of what they would be looking out for and what Dr. Vetter was trying to accomplish in Blue's mouth. The basic idea is that the ideal tooth (for a horse) is perfectly flat on top, and the whole line of teeth is level all the way down so nothing catches as he's trying to chew. Simple enough.

Blue's teeth, after a thorough exam, appeared to be... well... here's the chart:

That part in the middle is not an EKG. That is the shape of Blue's teeth when we arrived. The Vetters were so wonderful—they propped him open and showed me all of this. And even my untrained eye could easily see what a mess there was. He had almost everything that could be wrong with a horse's teeth: waves, ramps, hooks... the works. I brought him in originally because of the broken front tooth and the drooling. As it turned out, those were the least of his troubles.

So it was time to get down to business grinding, drilling, rinsing and grinding some more.

The photo is a little dark, but he's holding the x-ray plate in his mouth so Dr. Vetter can get a picture of the broken front tooth.

Recovering from the IV drip. Kathy got tired of holding his head, so we propped him up on a stool!

The "broken" front tooth that was the whole purpose of the trip turned out not to be broken at all. Both of his front-center-upper incisors are abnormally small. Dr. Vetter says the permanent incisors don't grow in until the horse is nearly a year old, and the likely scenario is that either trauma or poor diet at that age may have stunted Blue's front teeth. That seems pretty possible to me—he was still living in the wild at that age. At least now we know "all he wants for Christmas." (...And now you all have the song in your head, too. You're welcome.)

While he was still sedated, I also had them microchip him. So now he has a freeze brand, a chip, and plenty of distinctive markings. No one is taking this horse from me!

Blue needed almost two hours of recovery to come out from under the drugs and then to get something in his stomach. I took the opportunity to nap in the truck. The Vetters offered me their couch for the night (talk about personal service), but I wanted to get home.

So, at 6 p.m., we set out again.

And drove...
Coming down Tiger Mountain.

And drove...
Snoqualmie Summit

And drove...

Coming down into Selah. That lump off to the left is Mt. Adams.

And finally, we got home.

I let Blue out of the trailer. He was more than happy to go. I put him in his dry lot to walk around a little while I made up his SMZ/beet pulp/alfalfa pellet/senior feed slop. Then it was back into the pen for him and home to Brian for me.

I woke up at noon today.

All is right with the world.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How to torture an endurance horse

Three words: Indefinite stall rest.

Doing time in the pen.

I made two of these slow feeders. They seem to be getting the job done so far.

Out on good behavior... but mostly so I could clean the stall.

If it isn't one thing, it's everything at once

Like I said, Blue had overreach scars when I met him. And after I had him home, I found that he would nick and cut and reopen those wounds almost daily. I decided to remedy that with a pair of bell boots. I figured I'd leave them on him 24/7 to give everything time to heal, then re-evaluate.

Aside from a little trial-and-error getting vetwrap under the boots to prevent them rubbing his pasterns, everything was working as-planned. The scars were looking better, he wasn't banging himself up during conditioning, and the boots only cost $8 a pair, so he could lose as many of them in the pasture as he wanted.

Then on Tuesday evening, when I went to catch him to go for a ride at the lake, I found this:

And then this:
There used to be a heel bulb here.

I am lucky to live in a community that has an emergency after-hours vet on-call. I paged him, and he called me back within minutes with the (not unexpected) advice to hose it, betadine it, wrap it, and get Blue in to see a vet ASAP tomorrow. He said there wasn't anything he could do that night that couldn't be done cheaper the next day. 

As often happens, the betadine actually made it look worse.

My usual vet is semi-retired and wasn't working on Wednesday. His backup was booked through the whole day. So I called the Other Local Clinic. The soonest anyone could see him was 3:40 in the afternoon. Beggars can't be choosers, I always say.

As it turned out, it was 98 degrees outside at 3:40 on Wednesday. But it's a nice dry heat, haha. A sedative and nerve block later, Mr. Blue resembled nothing so much as a freshman sorority girl at her first kegger. Weaving and drooling, he was utterly oblivious to the slicing and bandaging going on.

I'm told the prognosis for long-term soundness is good. He will have a nasty scar. We also have to go back to the vet on Tuesday to get a cast applied (they can't do it until the wound closes and stops bleeding). The cast is meant to immobilize the entire hoof capsule. It'll also save me from the endless wrapping and hosing that normally comes with leg injuries.

But it gets better. We already had big, expensive plans for this coming weekend—Blue and I are going all the way to Buckley to see Dr. Vetter for some equine oral surgery. Local vet says Blue is cleared for travel, as long as we keep the bad foot wrapped up and immobilized.

It is times like these that I am glad to live in a country where it is OK to be in debt… potentially forever. You've all heard the Joke. Want to make a small fortune with horses? Start with a large fortune.

Old Bones the Wonderhorse

I wish I had taken better pictures of the night Blue arrived at his new home. It would make his progress a lot more impressive. His body condition was perhaps a 3 out of 10. You could see his spine from the withers to the tail. Muscle tone was basically nonexistent. He wasn't fully shed out, which made the rain rot easy to spot but help cover his gaunt ribcage.

The sun was already down when the shipper arrived, but you can see how scraggly Blue's coat was when he got here.

I don't really feel at liberty to say much about Blue's life between his capture in the Warm Springs HMA back in 2001 and the day this spring when I met him at the trainer's place. What I heard was mostly a combination of speculation and hearsay. I was told his owner had several animals of all kinds and had gotten "overwhelmed" this winter as hay prices kept climbing. I never saw where Blue was living, but I think we can all picture it.

Be that as it may, this horse was clearly loved and cared for for most of his life. He is exquisitely well-trained. In fact, he is better trained than I am. I feel like most of our misunderstandings under saddle have to do with me asking wrong, not with him being naughty. Example: The other day, I decided to try to open a gate while mounted. I sidepassed him over the latch, undid it, and then basically sat still and held on the the top of the gate as he pulled it open, turned on the forehand around it and backed it closed. I was totally amazed. The second time we attempted this maneuver, I tried "helping"  and somehow ended up with my leg mashed up between the top rail of the gate and a noticeably irritated horse.

On horses, as in life, no one likes to be micromanaged.

Conversations with myself

When I met Blue, he was being "tuned up" by a trainer in the greater Madras/Terrebonne/Redmond metroplex. Otto came from the same area. Someday, I would love to live in central Oregon, so any excuse to visit is more than welcome. And if nothing else, my horse shopping odyssey  has allowed me to see a lot more of my adopted home—from Spokane to Port Orchard, from Pendleton to Prineville to Albany, I just love how much the landscape can change.
Beautiful... but deadly.
There just isn't a good way to show how deep this hole is. Deep enough that they have to have signs warning you not to play fetch here.

The day I went to try Blue was bright and clear, meaning I could see at least five volcanoes at any given time. How cool is that?!

I had the trainer ride him first so I could see his movement. He wings out with his back legs—didn't I hear some famous endurance person say that was good? Huh, this guy sure likes to lope. Oh, good, he's not afraid of the semi going by.

Then I rode him. OMG, he is walking fast. Easy. Easy. Easy. Whoa. OK, I am going to look like a total pansy if all we do is walk. I better show the trainer I know what I'm doing. Back? Baaaaaaaack? Good boy. Trot? Wheeeeee!!! OK, yes, you have the endurance trot.

Then I got down and looked him over up close. So skinny. Rain rot and what looks like a case of ringworm just clearing up. Scratches on his back heels. Overreach scars all over the front feet. Looks like I'll be buying bell boots. Teeth are… wow. That's not good.

Then I got back on. Does his temperament justify what I'm going to spend fixing those teeth? Can I feel him overreach? Uh-oh, golf cart approaching and—oh, crap, a bunny is about to dart out and there's a log to go over and is that a chainsaw starting up over there MAYBE I SHOULD BAIL OFF BEFORE HE HEADS FOR THE HILLS but wait, he's not reacting. Halleluiah! He's not reacting to any of it! 

And that's how I ended up owning the worst set of teeth I have ever seen on a horse.
How can an American mustang have such British teeth?

The mathematics of horse shopping

I intended to start this blog five weeks ago—five long weeks in which my new buddy Blue (a.k.a. What In Blue Blazes, a.k.a Not Another Gray Arabian) came home to me. 

The story of how I got Mr. Blue is a long one. It begins back when I first moved to the beautiful Northwest from the cold, windy, flat Midwestern cornfields of my youth.

In 2005, literally the day after I arrived in Washington, I traded a handmade dollhouse for Topper, a very sad-looking breeding stock paint yearling. I spent a lot of time, effort and tears making him into a perfect casual trail horse. Perfect ground manners, WTC, not herdbound, not spooky, traffic broke in all situations. He could load, clip, bathe, etc. You could blanket or deworm him loose in the pasture. Good for the vet, good in groups, camped like a champ and cute as a button. But I got interested in endurance and did a few LDs with him. Let's just say speed was not his forte. I decided to sell and get something with a bit more giddyup.

I was not too keen on arabs (despite the dreaded EPP—Endurance Peer Pressure), but was willing to look at crosses and other light breeds capable of toting my not-unsubstantial bulk up a mountain. I was looking for an experienced trail gelding under 10 years old. 

Now we come to the math:

Of the 10 "well-broke trail horses" I tried, three bucked within the first five minutes. One of those also reared. I never asked for anything more challenging than "walk a circle." 

Of the 7 non-buckers, two had no steering if you took them out of whatever enclosure they were used to being in. One of those was also a former breeding stallion, which no one mentioned until I was already riding him. Sheesh. The other one was supposedly 7 or 8 years old (no papers) but had the teeth of a teenager. Again, sheesh.

Of the 5 non-bucking horses that could be steered, one was a 4-year-old ASB whose only experience outside the indoor arena was walking up and down the quarter-mile driveway. Again, this would have been good information to clarify before I drove up there. Funny how "good on trails" is such a subjective concept…

Of the 4 non-bucking, able-to-be-steered, actually-experienced-in-the-real-world horses, two were full arabs. Both were big, well-bred and gorgeous. However, one of them was covered in scars that were clearly wire cuts, and the condition of his paddock made me think he liked to go over, around and through the fence. That wasn't going to work in camp. The other one had very small, shelly feet and his movement just felt wrong to me. I didn't want to take chances on future lameness.

And then there were two.

Only two horses out of the 10 I tried  were mentally and physically sound and as-advertised. By then, I'd spent hundreds on gas, vacation days, food on the road, etc.

The horse I probably should have bought was a 14.2 morgan. He did everything I asked with little-to-no fuss and was just… cuddly. But he was also smaller, rounder and more expensive than I wanted. Even after negotiating, he was $500 more than I had in my horse account. And his smallness and roundness made me worry about his metabolics carrying an HW. I decided to keep looking.

I bought the next horse. Otto was a greenbroke arab/TW cross who was a spectacular dark dapple gray. He is lean, wiry, elegant, gorgeous, moves out and loves the trail. He was affordable, and seemed to have a good start and a solid mind. He has impeccable ground manners. Absolutely perfect. He top 10s LDS effortlessly and wants to do 50s. I think he would trot all day just for the sheer joy of movement. 

He is also balky and spooky when he doesn't feel like doing what I ask. He crow hops and rears when he doesn't get his way. He fights arena exercises. He leans on my hands and side steps and spins and occasionally kicks. He doesn't move off pressure and has not responded well to groundwork. He is not afraid of traffic of any kind, but comes unglued at the sight of deer in the woods. All he wants to do is TROT. FORWARD. FAST. The perfect endurance horse.
 Looks harmless, doesn't he?

When we were competing, he was exactly the horse I was shopping for. In all other circumstances, he was a big, beautiful *jerk* that I hated riding. I put enough money into his training and lessons for me that I could have just bought the morgan… almost twice.

Earlier this spring, I got Otto back from a short "refresher" with my favorite local cowboy trainer. I love this guy because he isn't afraid to just tell me what he thinks. The gist of what he said, with the four-letter words deleted, was that my horse was fast and smart and no fun to ride. Even the trainer had trouble with him, and this guy has been doing this a long time. He said I could put six more months of training in him (at great expense) and I  just might end up with a better horse on the other side of that… or I might not. He recommended selling my gray and finding something that I got along with better. And I knew he was serious because he could have just as easily gotten me to pay him six more months of training fees.

I took the horse home. I top-tenned an LD that very same weekend. And I confirmed with myself that all the winning in the world is not worth the fear and anxiety of riding a fire-breathing monster. (Even as I watched other riders on even worse-behaved horses grinning their way to 50-mile finishes.)

What did we learn? I was dazzled by beauty and raw athleticism. I overestimated my own riding ability and the scope of what I was doing. I bought a Tevis-level horse and I only do a half-dozen LDs a year. I have bad knees and so-so balance; what made me think that riding a powerhouse would make me happy?

So, six weeks ago, after 18 months of dealing with Naughty Otto, I felt much older and wiser. I was shopping for temperament first, ability second. I wanted a horse who could restore my confidence and joy in riding. 

And that's how I found Blue, a BLM mustang. He is 11 (older than I wanted) and ugly as sin. In five weeks he has gained 100 lbs, but he is still rough and raw-boned. I am not afraid to admit that he looks like a refugee, even now that I've clipped him and given him a bath. He is a labrador mutt next to my sleek greyhound. And you know what? I couldn't care less. He follows me around, puts his big, ugly head in the bridle and rides off without any nonsense.
Blue on his third day home. Trust me, this is a case of inner beauty.

Anyway, I wanted to share this story because sooner or later, we are all shopping for something big, be it a horse, a car, a job, or a significant other. And it is always a journey. Even now, I am amazed at how dishonest (or delusional?) people can be about what they're selling. Worse yet, even when I found what I thought I wanted, he turned out to be all wrong for me. Really, all told, it has taken me two years and (shudder) thousands of dollars to find a horse I think I can love. Finding a husband was comparatively easy.

So be PICKY out there. The right horse (or car, or man, or school, or job) will come along. Keep the faith!

In the meantime, would anyone be interested in buying an experienced half-arabian endurance gelding? Very pretty with lots of natural ability and only mildly psychotic? :) He's very nice once you get past the bucking, rearing, spinning, herd-bound, scared-of-everything, hard-mouthed, arena sour part. (Just kidding—he's already sold. But that's a story for another day!)

Otto on a "relaxed" day.