Saturday, February 23, 2013

Boot update 2: Even better movement, stupid weather

The hind boots finally came yesterday, so I rode him a in a full set last night. He was a MUCH happier horse. I think his feet must be quite sore (bruises and thrush), because without the boots he is stiff and cranky about moving out. In them, he is back to his normal willing self. He also started forging again, which I am considering a good sign in the sense that he is using the full reach of his hind legs instead of short striding... Hopefully this will all get sorted out before we have to pass any kind of lameness exam.

The weather report was wrong. I know, that is not exactly unusual, but here I am writing the blog when the sun is shining because I reserved Sunday for riding. Today there was a 70% chance of rain and it is bright and sunny. Tomorrow there is a 20% chance of rain. I will be accepting your wagers on that.

It hailed while I was working in the arena last night. If your horse hasn't heard hail on the roof of a cavernous metal building yet, I highly recommend it as a training opportunity.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Enough is enough

I think the essence of responsible horse ownership is the desire to learn more. 

All of the owners and riders that I really respect have one thing in common: They read. They don’t necessarily take the advice of every book, article or blog post, but they do take an active interest.

Owning horses (like raising children?) is in some ways an act of absolute futility. You can pour money into proper food, lodging, exercise, equipment and education, and still not have the outcome you expect. To some degree, they are born with talents and personalities that you can shape—but you can only go so far. There is an armature under the clay that can’t be changed. We can build and build on the surface, but the core is untouchable.

Genius horse helps with camera.

In many ways, a horse is like one of those old-timey supercomputers. He is covered in switches, levers, dials and buttons. Each time you adjust one, the others are almost guaranteed to shift.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I find myself looking for ways to economize, and I come up with limited possibilities. Everything that I do with Blue—his very existence, really—costs money.

What I pay for board would have been astronomical by Walla Walla standards, but is actually pretty reasonable locally. 

If I moved Blue to a cheaper barn, I might lose the large stalls or daily turnout. Maybe I’d end up with a smaller arena or no arena at all. In that case, I would be able to ride one day per week. Are four rides a month worth what I pay in board? Would four rides a month give my horse a varied, pleasurable life? Would it keep him fit?

If I switched to partial care, I would have to find time to clean my own stall and arrange my own hay supply. Do I want to do that on my own time? How would that affect my free time for riding? Would I condition less because of barn chore fatigue? Would Blue's health decrease because I choose the wrong hay or do a poor job on the stall?

If I moved Blue to somewhere closer to town (to save gas on my “horse commute”), I would have to give up onsite trail access and large, interesting turnouts. That would mean hauling somewhere to ride outdoors. Would I still be saving gas if I had to tow the trailer out to the mountains to condition?

Granted, the commute looks pretty good.
If I change my feed regime to cut out supplemental vitamins, minerals and fats, Blue might not be physically able to perform in the way I want him to.

Ditto for cutting back on vet and farrier expenses.

If I cut back on going to rides, I decrease my own enjoyment and sense of purpose. If I am not competing, then why condition? If I’m not conditioning, then why ride at all? Would my enjoyment of Blue as “just a pet” be that much greater than my enjoyment of a dog or a mountain bike? (I’d still be nurturing an animal and hurtling through forested trails—with the added bonus that Brian could come too.)

Why ride when you can run?

These thoughts and feelings are complicated by the (humblebrag!) fact that I absolutely CAN afford to just keep doing what I’m doing. Having the horse is not a hardship. I mean, maybe if we wanted to buy a giant house or vacation in Europe twice a year… but it’s not like Blue is keeping me from buying groceries. (Seriously, look at me. Blue would probably prefer it if I bought fewer groceries.)

No, this isn’t about saving money as much as it is about imposing limits. I need to find a point that I can call “enough.” Because all of this reading that I do just makes me think that I could (and should) be doing more. More time riding; more turnout; more expensive, personalized diet; more chiro and massage; more holistic medicine; bigger, better truck and trailer; my own property; lessons and training… and it could go on and on.

I was talking with Sarah the other night about how having a horse felt when we were kids. My first horse, Gazab, saw a farrier a couple times a year, if that. He saw the vet even less. We gave him all of his shots ourselves and I think we floated his teeth once. The saddle was a freebie we got from a friend of the family. We did not talk about fit for horse or rider. The bit was a grazing bit that came with the $20 bridle from the local feed store. We fed 12% sweet feed and cattle-grade alfalfa. 

It was fine. It was what my parents could afford. It was enough. 

Sarah felt the same way about her childhood, jumping a fat, elderly arabian mare bareback over logs on the back 40. We both are experiencing a certain amount of equestrian lifestyle creep as we change our interests: me from casual trail riding to endurance, her from casual trail riding to dressage.

Now “enough” just keeps getting bigger and further away. The more I read and learn, the more advantages I want to give to this horse.

Surely everyone who reads this blog has experienced this feeling. So how do you choose how to spend your "horse money" and "horse time"? Where do you cut corners? What activities do you sit out?

Where have you drawn the limits in your horse life?

Have you been in a situation recently where you've finally had to say... Enough Is Enough?

Boot update: So far, so good

Before workout
After workout

There were plenty of opportunities for them to twist or come off. Burning off energy on the lunge line, he bucked, stumbled, slid (no boots on the hind feet), extended the trot and cantered in both directions. We also did quite a bit of trotting under saddle. As far as I can tell, the boots didn't budge, so we're ready for an outdoor test this weekend.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

So many rocks. So Much mud.

I have to admit that I’m missing the sands of Madame Dorion right now. With Blue barefoot, I have to carefully mete out our time riding on gravel. The bad white hoof is in the process of shedding its frog. It is also losing sole concavity to the point that it is almost perfectly flat. (I pray that this is one of those it-gets-worse-before-it-gets-better kinds of setbacks.) The flatness means that he feels every single stupid little rock with that foot. There are many rocks. The only thing that we have more of than rocks is mud. And there is a lot of mud. And it means that if we are outdoors, we are walking. 

“Walking” makes it sound bold. We are not being bold. We are tentative. Mostly we are walking very carefully. Picking our way through the rocks and mud, of which there are many.
So many rocks. So much mud.
Our choices for conditioning right now are somewhat limited. They would be markedly less limited in Walla Walla, which is annoying. I used to complain about my lack of options there. Ha. It was a winter conditioning paradise.
Kara very sweetly invited us to the beach for a long ride on Sunday, but I am a wuss. Low tide was at 10:30 a.m., meaning that I would be getting up at 6 or so to drive to Silverton, hook up, load, turn around and drive to Corvallis, then trailer-pool over to Newport to ride many miles in an environment my horse isn’t crazy about. So basically it would be an endurance ride without the points accumulation. It was shaping up to be a very long day, and in the end I just couldn’t face it.
I did take Blue out for a very short road ride Saturday—his first since we moved. Heather and I used to try to do at least one long road ride a week in the winter, but it is different when you’re by yourself and the roads don’t have shoulders. Which, by the way, the State of Oregon should really look into. Shoulders are nice for those of us who like a buffer between our fragile bodies and the logging trucks.
I was pretty nervous heading out to ride on the road. Blue is a very good road horse, but we’re out of practice. I picked a time of day when I thought traffic would be minimal and visibility would be good. I was wearing a neon road vest. I told someone where I was going. I had warmed my horse up and put my game face on.
We turned off the driveway and onto the road, went roughly two steps, and an enormous coyote bounded out of the clear-cut and onto the road 15 yards ahead. Blue, bless his heart, didn’t move a muscle, but it really didn’t feel like a great way to start out our experimental road ride.
Coyote returns to the brush. I take a deep breath and ride on. Blue is absolutely fine except I can tell he is unhappy with the footing. I don’t want him on the pavement because the road is narrow and winding. Trucks come blasting around bends and the last thing I need is an upset horse on blacktop. So we’re on the foot or so of gravel beside the road before it drops off into the ditch. Blue is not thrilled with the gravel; I am not thrilled with the pavement. So it goes.
We made it back in one piece, so road rides are back on the table for conditioning. 
On Sunday we stayed on the stable’s property, trying to find mud that wasn’t slick or rocky. With those parameters, it was a very short ride. Toward the end, Blue began to refuse to walk anywhere but on the slick green grass. He was actively lame on gravel. Back in the barn, I hosed off his feet and found bruises on the white ones. The bruises are fairly small and shallow, but they are there.
So I went home and ordered a boot fitting kit, two rides too late.

My customer service experience with Easycare so far has been the polar opposite of my experience with the Specialized people in Texas. A real human being answered my emailed question within 24 hours. I ordered on Sunday night and had the kit in my hands by Thursday afternoon. 
Tomorrow I'll do a quick rasping and then try them on.
I'm still not giving up on shoes, though. (Sorry, barefooting friends!) I want him to stay bare as long as I can this winter, but I can't condition if he is lame on the gravel. If I can get the boots to work, I think they will be a good compromise that will allow us to continue conditioning barefoot through February and March regardless of the footing. And if he loves them and they aren't constantly twisting or coming off, well, it wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong.

Oh, man. Speaking of wrong. Laurie had this to say on Facebook this morning:
"Otto ran out with me yesterday on our fourth official training ride of the season. I mean ran out. Flat out. Bat outta hell out. I knew there was a cut coming up soon on the right, that rose steeply into wheat fields, and decided to turn him there. I readied for it, grabbed the right rein with both hands, pulled hard right while kicking hard on my left leg and yelling "Turn!" He blasted right on by. I thought to myself, "I'm just going to have to ride this out" For a split second my scared self said "I can't! I can't!" then my strong self said "do it, stupid, or you die." (that was good incentive) So I urged him on, if it was possible for him to go any faster. He didn't like that, so pretty soon he slowed enough to start bucking. I made him go on. Finally he tired enough that I was able to sit back a little and start jerking up on one rein. He stopped, panting like a mad dog. I made him move out, trotting circles the next half mile. Then we settled to a lovely walk and were able to enjoy the ride home. *whew* And I wonder why I fell asleep at 8:00. There's always a moment or two in spring when I think to myself "I must be insane. I could die like this," then I remind myself that all he and I need is rides and more rides, and we'll be fine. P.S. For my endurance friends...he was doing the most amazing extended trot ever right before he broke and ran...I felt it coming of course but was unable to stop him. Like Forrest, he just felt like runnin'....."
So glad he isn't my horse anymore. So, so glad.  
So glad.
I'm sure there's a scripture about the devil appearing in a beautiful, tempting form.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The blurry line between brilliance and laziness (and gluttony)

I have a high opinion of the mind of the mustang. Feral animals that they are, they exploit humans for what they need while maintaining a degree of stubborn independence that their coddled domestic brothers and sisters wouldn’t dare.
Exhibit A: the arena trail course. Seeing a tarp on the ground, the mustang approaches, sniffs, then chooses a different path. A tarp, unlike the creek it is meant to suggest, does not have limitless edges. Ergo, the mustang need not expend the additional effort of walking over it. He simply walks around it. He isn’t afraid of it; he just doesn’t see why it is so important to do the task a certain way when another way gives the same end result. This is also true of freestanding “practice” gates, cavaletti, traffic cones and ground-pole mazes.
It was especially true of the pedestal box. The pedestal is even smaller than a tarp. It’s small enough to be awkwardly stepped over or around, or bulldozed through. In a pinch, it might be jumped.
So here’s what I did. I filled the kangaroo pocket of my Klickitat sweatshirt with roughly five pounds of carrots. First, I put Blue on one side of the pedestal and me on the other. I held out the carrot to persuade him forward. But, as Blue pointed out with his nose, there was a pedestal between us. (And when I say “us,” I really mean Blue and the carrot. I was primarily a sentient carrot-holding device throughout.) He started going around the pedestal the same way he went around the tarp, still reaching for the carrot. I kept moving. Kept the pedestal between us. Blue stopped and pivoted like a cutter locking onto a calf. Coming around the other side of the pedestal, walking and reaching, craning his neck. The sentient carrot-holding device matched him move for move, step for step. Faster and faster Blue went, circling the pedestal like a demented carousel horse.
Clearly, this tactic was not working.
I needed to break down the process into tiny, digestible lessons.
Lesson 1: Apply hoof to pedestal.
I was not sure which hoof to start with. The ugly hoof (the white one featured in many blog posts this winter), is on his dominant side. On the other hand, that leg is also mildly crooked compared to the other. Do I really want to load it with Blue’s full forehand weight as he pulls himself up? I decided on the opposite, black hoof. Just in case. And hey, maybe it will strengthen his right side.
I pick up the hoof and put it toward the middle of the pedestal. When he keeps it there, he receives a carrot. If he removes it without permission, no carrot. I establish “hoof on box = carrot” as our training foundation. “Hoof on box” is easier than “chase mom around like demented carousel horse,” so this lesson sinks in pretty fast.
Lesson 2: Shift weight to hoof on box.
This is, of course, the much harder idea. After a quick lunging to give him a break from the mental and physical gymnastics of the pedestal, we return lesson 1. Blue puts his foot on the pedestal and receives one carrot.
In some ways, trick training is like hosting a game show. And now, Blue, would you like to keep that one delicious carrot or move on to the Lightning Round for the chance to earn a second—or even a third!—delicious carrot? I make my most convincing kissing and clicking noises.
He is clearly confused. His foot is on the pedestal, but the carrot is now just out of reach. His neck and lips stretch forward, his eyes narrowed in effort, his head tilting on way then the other, needing just an inch or two more to reach the tasty, tasty carrot. But it is no use; the carrot remains stubbornly out of reach. Irritated, he straightens up again and looks off into the middle distance, purposefully ignoring the carrot, hoping it will put its guard down long enough that he can pounce. He licks his lips in anticipation, still looking away, as if he is just fascinated with the empty arena. But the pull of the carrot is too powerful. He shifts his weight forward toward the carrot. Is foot is too far forward on the box. As he shifts his weight, the whole thing tips forward and he ends up straddling the upended box with his front legs.
He looks so completely ridiculous that I give him a pity carrot.
He does variations of this maneuver two or three more times when I realize the communication breakdown we’re having. With me on the ground, the carrot is rarely above eye-level. Blue doesn’t feel the need to climb up on the box with the carrot so near to the ground. He would rather go through the box than over it. I drag over the mounting block, place it a couple feet from the pedestal. I put Blue on the opposite side, lift his hoof onto the middle of the box, give him a bite of carrot, and climb the three steps of the mounting block. I hold the carrot above both of our heads, occasionally bringing it down where he can sniff and touch it, then bringing it back up.
Blue is again craning his neck, extending his mobile lips, sticking out is tongue. “If only… I were just… a bit… taller,” he grinds out through labored breaths.
And then he gets it. Lightbulbs go off. He lifts onto the box, his other foot dangling in the air next to it. This is a carrot-worthy accomplishment, and I feel guilty that I’m down to my list two finger-sized pieces. They don’t seem like a big enough reward for such a watershed moment. I leave Blue in the arena to ponder what he’s just done while I go get more carrots.
When I get back, he is blissfully rolling in the sandy arena footing. At the sound of me at the gate, he bolts upright, gives a spectacular leaping/bucking fart, and comes running to meet me. I am the carrot fairy.
He follows me over to the pedestal, I put his black foot on it, climb the mounting block and repeat. This time, both front feet end up solidly on the box. The next time, I do it without the mounting block, with just a carrot and a lively “hup!”
This is, of course, the condensed version of the story. This happened over the course of two nights of fairly intensive work for both of us. Blue showed great focus if not determination. He never got flustered, which I hope means that I wasn’t pushing too hard.
This time of year, when it is too dark to ride outdoors after work and often too wet to ride out on the weekends, it is nice to have some little projects like this. We do endless circles in the arena, but sometimes I want something different. Making a mini arena-trail course is a great way to keep my horse using his brain and to work on real-world skills at times when the real world isn’t readily available.