Friday, April 29, 2011

Weather and hooves

I may have mentioned before that it's been raining here. A LOT. We've had 8 inches of rain this month, historical averages for the month of April here is 3 inches. You can imagine that it's a tad muddy out there.

There was a brief dry period at the end of March/beginning of April when Coriander's hooves starting building a callus while growing in a little extra sole to fill in some of his winter concavity.

I think I need a quick aside here: Concavity in hooves is terrain dependent. Hooves that live and work in soft footing (like deep snow) will have greater concavity than hooves that live and work on hard footing (like rock). Pete Ramey has a nice article that explains it better here: "One Foot For All Seasons."

Back to Coriander: I was just beginning to get excited about the change in his concavity when the sky opened up and dumped all that rain on us for a month. The firm ground he had been walking on turned into mush and has stayed that way. Suddenly Coriander was all ouchy when we walked on the driveway.

Does thrush have something to do with this? Probably. But I think the bigger problem is all that water softened up his soles. Do you know what it feels like when you're in water long enough for your feet to get all pruny and then try to walk around on rough ground? It hurts because your feet got all soft. That's exactly what's happening to my horses right now.

While trimming his feet last weekend a chunk of sole peeled right out from under his toe, it was the callus that he'd made in the few days it dried out had coming off. I thought, "well crap, now we have to build that up again." But it's not going to happen until we stop getting rained on.

Considering that, I've got two options: Boot him or leave him be. Since we only ride on the driveway from about 50 yards per ride and then spend the rest of the time slogging through muddy trails or riding in a muddy arena, I've decided to leave him be. Sure he's a little sore going out, but I just let him go slow and pick his own way; once we're off the driveway he's perfectly fine. When we're on the way back I just dismount when we get to the driveway and then walk back to the barn with him.

I'm hoping this post will help some of you barefoot owners out there who might be dealing with the same thing right now. When you are committed to keeping your horse barefoot you need to pay attention to changing weather conditions and how hooves might adapt. It's not a good thing, it's not a bad thing- it just is the way it is.

PS- I am very disappointed in American news right now. I cannot fathom why they are giving as much, if not more, news coverage to a WEDDING on a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CONTINENT than they are giving to the TORNADOES that have devastated OUR OWN COUNTRY. For shame!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Attack of the killer robins

Somehow, last week I managed to dodge the rain and ride. I rode Gwen on Wednesday, both Quarters on Thursday, Coriander on Friday, and both the Quarters again on Saturday.

I've been doing things a bit differently with Gwen. Traditional horse trainers would seriously wag a finger at me for what I'm doing, but I don't care. It's my horse and my neck so I'm going to do things my way. I'm letting her graze, a lot, then I take short breaks to ask her to walk forward and do a little bit of steering, followed by more grazing. So far this is working out pretty well. I rode her in the pine tree field across the driveway from the pasture on Wednesday where's there's plenty of grass and the herd is in view. We made our way slowly down the field, she'd graze a while and then I'd pick another patch of grass and ask her to walk to it- she really enjoyed it.

At one point we were standing next to a pine tree when a robin EXPLODED OUT OF THE TREE AND CAME AFTER US, BLOOD COVERED CLAWS AIMING STRAIGHT FOR OUR EYES!!! Okay, not really, but it did burst out quite unexpectedly. Gwen lurched to the left... and stopped. I was so pleased I almost hugged her but decided to settle for a click and treat instead. I was so proud of her I almost burst.

Thursday I let her graze down the driveway right next to the pasture. (I took a little gamble and sat on her with only the bareback pad, she seemed quite happy with it.) When we got to the end of the fence line, I asked her to turn around and walk back up to the barn without stopping to graze. She did it! She was a little confused at first because she wanted to stop and eat but I gently put my legs on her and asked her to keep moving. Eventually she just strode right on up to the barn!

Saturday was more of the same. She's really starting to understand what my legs mean and she's started listening to lighter touches on the reins. She's also really good about following my body- I love this about green horses, they're very honest in their reactions to a rider.

I'm so glad I was able to sneak in a few rides last week despite the nasty weather, and I'm so happy with my baby girl. I have a feeling she's going to develop into a fabulous working partner!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Grazing in the rain

I pulled up behind the barn and sighed, it was raining- again. That meant that riding was not going to be an option, but that didn't mean I couldn't enjoy the company of my horses. I pulled my raincoat out of the trunk and shrugged it on, I was going to need it.

I walked around the barn to the pasture, calling as I went, Butch and Rocky managed to beat my horses to the wooden gate so I had to open the wire gate to let my horses out. Gwen, who hates that gate, bolted through while Coriander followed at a sedate trot. After closing the gate, putting on their halters, and grabbing their leads, we headed out for a long graze.

As we headed away from the barn towards the trails, Gwen was full of excitement. Her ears were perked, her nostrils were flared, and she stepped out ahead of us in a floating trot. Coriander was all business, he followed behind us with his nose to the ground looking for food. After taking a quick pit-stop at the small patch of grass above the barn, where both horses immediately started tearing up the grass in big mouthfuls, we continued on to our final destination.

We passed the horse-eating canoe, crossed the raging ditch of mud, slogged through the marshes of pine tree trail, scrambled over the remains of a broken down rock wall, and finally arrived at the promised land: the hayfield next door. I kept a light hold on Coriander's lead, but knowing that Gwen won't leave her brother, I unclipped her and let her explore.

The bright green of the new grass shoots peeking through last year's dead stalks was the only spot of color in the landscape. The sky was a flat shade of gray, with no distinguishable features visible past the water streaming off my hood. As the horses ate, steam started to rise off their backs, mixing with the low-lying clouds. The smell of rain started to be overtaken by the sharp tang of freshly cropped grass.

While they ate, a pair of deer appeared: a doe and her yearling fawn. They looked at us, wagging their tails and trotting around uncomfortably while they assessed our threat level. Apparently satisfied, the doe trotted closer to us and lowered her head to graze, a few seconds later her yearling followed suit.

The horses continued to eat, happily munching away. Coriander would occasionally raise his head and ask for a treat, which I dutifully gave him. It's not good training, but since I've supplemented their treats with minerals they need, I want them to eat as much as possible. Gwen would eat, then walk off and survey the landscape. Then she'd turn around, come closer to us and start grazing again. Pretty soon she'd head off in another direction and get a good look around. I could see her gaining confidence in this new place every time she wandered away.

Gradually, their bellies started to fill while my fingers turned red from the cold. Icy water ran off my coat and down my legs, drenching my socks. After an hour, I declared that grazing in the hay field was finished for the day; then, while the rain continued to fall, we slowly made our way back to the barn.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Connected groundwork

 I finally received my copy of Peggy Cummings' new book a week or two ago (they pushed the release date back a couple of weeks), and I've been doing a bit of playing with the exercises in it. The Quarters' reaction to the exercises have been very interesting.

So far I've only done the simplest head and neck exercises at a stand still, without the whole halter set-up for contact (I'm going to try that this weekend). Those exercises are:
  1. Cheek Press
  2. Jaw Delineation
  3. Shoulder Delineation
  4. Caterpillars
Cheek press is done by very lightly placing your hand over the noseband of the halter and very gently pulling the nose toward you while pressing into the jaw with your other hand, looking for a slight head tilt. Coriander immediately tipped his head, which was pretty cool. Gwen... not so much. It took multiple sessions for her to get it.

Next I did the jaw delineations, basically just running my fingertips around their jaw from the ears down. Coriander said "ho hum," but Gwen had a big reaction- she immediately poked her nose out and started licking like crazy. The next day she licked just a little, and the third day the licking was gone. Interesting.

Neither horse has much of a reaction to the shoulder delineations, running your hand down the line of the scapula. I guess this is a good thing, apparently they don't carry tension in their shoulders. I'll be trying this at a walk next to see if they have any reaction to that.

Then I tried the caterpillars, running your hand along the vertebra up the neck. This exercise is supposed to stimulate the horse to "telescope" their neck, which helps them to raise their back and accept contact. The cool thing was that Coriander immediately telescoped, he obviously doesn't have any tension in his head or neck at all- which makes me feel better, I haven't wrecked him with my shoddy riding. Again, Gwen had issues. She immediately braced against it, which is interesting since I was just running my hand up her neck without using any pressure at all. She finally started to telescope a little bit yesterday- after five days of practice.

Their different reactions to these very simple exercises has been quite an eye-opener. For one thing it seems that you don't have to be very good at doing these things to get a good result, and then there's seeing the affects of how they hold their bodies. Coriander is a very easy-going kind of dude and his body reflects that. He's pretty loosey-goosey in his head and neck (though I'll be interested to see how he reacts when I start with the exercises further along his body, he's stiff through his barrel). Gwen, on the other hand, is quite anxious and tends to crane her head up in the air and invert; she's got a ton of tension in her head and neck.

The other aspect that struck me is how quickly I'm seeing results: Every time I worked with Gwen I'd do a few exercises and then take her for a walk. Even when she was blocked during the exercises she was still better to lead after the exercises than she has ever been before. She walked off relaxed with her head long and low and actually stopped with me instead of running ahead a step or two like she normally does.

Plus- I think I've mentioned before that Gwen is incredibly stiff to the right. When I was mounted and tried to give her a treat to the right I had to impale myself on the saddle horn to get my hand forward enough for her to reach it. Yesterday, after doing these exercises with her for a week, she reached her head around to the right and sniffed my boot for the first time ever (on her own, I wasn't pulling her around). She was happy to take treats from the right and I didn't have to impale myself to do it. Impressive!

I found this video below giving a little introduction to Peggy Cummings and Connected Groundwork. In this video you'll see the cheek press and caterpillar exercises that I mentioned earlier. Give them a try yourself, you might find out something surprising about your horse.

My thanks to An Image of Grace for introducing me to Peggy Cummings. I think my horses thank you too :)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Without mistakes, I'll never learn

Sorry folks, this post is really just for me. I've found that the best way for me to remember things is to write them down, and this is something I really need to remember.

I had another cruddy lesson this week. I ended up fighting with the pony I was riding, Scout, the entire time. (I've ridden Scout quite a bit, we do normally start the lesson with some "discussions" but generally we're a pretty good team.) It started when we were trotting past the far end of the ring and the horse in front of us spooked, so Scout spooked too. Then he spooked in that spot every single time we passed it. Add to that his counter-bending the whole dang way around the ring which continued into our fence work, and the end result was an incredibly frustrated me. I wanted to wring that pony's neck.

I was still pretty frustrated about it today so I went looking for some help. Jessica Jahiel to the rescue! Looking through her archives I found this page, which was just what I needed. Jessica gave the following advice to someone else with a similar problem:

"It's very important for you to be aware of your own body and your own aids. If you lean to the inside as you approach the scary corner, for instance, or if you collapse over your inside hip, your body is telling her to go to the inside of the arena, AWAY from that corner. If you pull her head to the outside to "make her go into the corner", she will bend her entire body AWAY from the corner, and be going left bent right, which isn't very useful. If you pull her head to the inside, she will fall over her inside shoulder, lose her rhythm and forward movement, and move away from the corner -- again, not useful. If you hold your breath as you get to the corner, your physical tension will make her tense and convince her that there IS something really bad in that corner. So you have a very active role in this, but it's more to do with YOU than with the horse: sit straight, post rhythmically, look out and ahead, and BREATHE deeply and steadily. If you do those things, and your mare is already in position (very slightly bent to the inside), you will be making it easy and comfortable for her to do what you want, and you will get through the corners without a hiccup. 

Be ready to add a little leg if she starts to slow down -- but that is probably ALL you will need to do. If there's any hesitation or uneveness, just keep breathing and push ON. Don't reprimand her if she hesitates -- send her forward. Don't comfort her afterward -- she doesn't need it. It'll be easiest for you to do this at a trot, since her head position and your hands will be very steady, and you can regulate her rhythm by regulating your own posting. 

Don't try to go into the corner by pulling her nose to the outside -- keep her IN POSITION, and send her forward into that corner, as if you were going STRAIGHT into the wall. Don't change your own position, her bend, or your posting rhythm, or your breathing (keep your breathing slow and deep and steady, in rhythm with her gait and your posting) and keep looking UP and OUT between her ears. When she is about to reach the new wall, look down the new wall and ride her through the turn without changing anything. Don't chat with her or comfort her -- just ride her through the turn and up the next wall in a steady rhythm, and then ride a circle halfway up the next wall. When you come back to the rail -- still in position left, still keeping the same rhythm -- come down the rail to your next wall and do the same thing. The circles on each side will prepare her for the bend through each corner -- you aren't going to ask for a sudden bend, all you want is for her to go where you send her and not change her position."

Basically I was doing everything wrong with Scout. When he kept spooking I got mad, and after I got mad I started riding off his face. It's like I forgot I had legs. He defended himself by counter-flexing all over the place, which further annoyed me so I pulled on his face some more. Add to that the fact that I stop breathing when horses act silly and what I got was a disaster.

Ugh, I hate when I ride like crap, but this is how we learn, right? Fortunately I CAN learn, and I was determined to be a better rider for Coriander today. After I mounted, I took up a light contact with his face, told my hands to "stay," and put my legs in charge. Success! Except for one time when he really, really wanted to turn the other way (because he wanted to go eat in the field), I kept him on track with just my legs. We had a ride I was proud of.

Lesson learned: My hands need to shut up already.

Now I just need to go apologize to poor Scout...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why I bought an Ansur

I should have my Crossover in 13 weeks, that would be this saddle that I posted a few weeks ago. It's... um... *quite the investment* but I knew after I tested it out that it would be worth it.
Mine will look like this but in brown
I'm fortunate that there's a distributor less than an hour away from me with a large collection of Ansur saddles, not to mention the assortment of Ansur saddles owned by all the people who board with her.

When I arrived there were two boarders riding in the ring, one riding dressage on a spirited freisan and one riding hunt seat on a cremello quarter-horse type. Both were riding in Ansurs. The woman on the friesan came by and spoke to me for a few minutes, telling me all about her saddle quest. She went through 4 different custom made saddles, one of them a Schleese, before she tried the Ansur. Now she rides in the Ansur exclusively and has a bunch of really expensive custom-made treed saddles gathering dust.

I then got the chance to inspect one of the saddles. I was quite impressed, for one thing the leather was thick yet supple, it had a very substantial feel.While I was poking and prodding away at it, the distributor came over and said, "watch this." She then grabbed the saddle and bent the pommel towards the cantle. I have to admit I was a little shocked, I knew it was treeless but for some reason I wasn't expecting that. It makes sense that the saddle should bend like that though, doesn't it? Everyone aims to get a horse to move with the back up, shouldn't the saddle allow that movement?

We then went down the barn and she told me about the histories of her horses and what a difference the saddles made for them, from burnt out western pleasure horses to hunters with old injuries to ponies that had been given away because they were so awful to ride. Rachel Fleszar's horses are in her barn, remember that video? She's third in the nation now for junior pony jumpers- and she rides in an Ansur. 

She got out an older school horse for me to try it out on, an appaloosa with no spots that beginners regularly ride. He looked like a pleasant, everyday sort of horse that was a little sleepy. She popped her saddle on his back and we went into the ring. I slid onboard and noticed immediately how much legs naturally fell underneath me, I didn't have any feeling of fighting for my balance like I sometimes have in my ancient Crosby. Then we walked off, the horse immediately went into a swinging forward rhythm with no hint of sluggishness. Then I asked him to trot, I was initially posting, so the distributor suggested I try sitting. All was well until we came to the long side and that horse opened up! I used to think I could sit to the trot, now I know I can't. That horse was TROTTING and I was bouncing around hopelessly on his back like a rag doll. THAT is what my dressage trainer is talking about when she says forward- I get it now! (I was also wondering how in the heck beginners stay on that trot.) You know what? While I being astounded by the way that horse moved, I completely forgot about the saddle. Which is a good thing, if it was uncomfortable there wouldn't have been any way I could have forgotten it.

An aside- I realized at this time just how many horses I've ridden that don't go forward. I've never ridden a trot like that in a ring before. The biggest trot I've ever ridden was years ago on Radal during a competitive trail ride when he really wanted to move; I couldn't even post to that, I just stood in the stirrups. Coriander will move out if we're on the trail and he's got competition. But I've never ridden a lesson horse that moved like that appy with the Ansur.

After my test ride I asked to see her lesson saddles, which are all Ansurs, I wanted to see how these saddles hold up to hard use. Every single one of them looked just as good as her personal saddle. There was no wearing on the leather, no cracking, no warping. They looked great. I even asked her to show me her oldest Ansur, which just happened to be the 201st saddle they ever made, and it looked just as good as her newer saddles- and she'd bought it used!

I was sold, and I bought one the next day (Which just happened to be the day before they had to raise prices 4.5%, phew!). This might have been a crazy decision since I haven't tried it on Coriander, but in preparation for my test ride I took him out with the bareback pad and really compared how he went in that versus my Crosby. I noticed that he's much more willing to stride out with the bareback pad. Hmm...

There's also the fact that he has zip-zero topline right now. Any treed saddle that I bought to fit his back now wouldn't fit once he builds some muscle. But check out the underside of the saddle I bought:
The gullet is completely flexible, that saddle would lie flat if you put it on the floor with the flaps out. The flexibility in the gullet means that the saddle should easily accommodate any muscle gains in his back.

Theoretically this saddle should fit every horse I put it on and I should never have to get it restuffed or reshaped to fit a changing back. Plus it should last until I'm too old to ride anymore. If my new saddle lives up to that, then it will be more than worth the purchase price.

(But if he hates it I have 7 days to send the saddle back. I'm really hoping he likes it.)

*BTW- I don't work for Ansur and they aren't giving me anything for free, I was just really impressed.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why videos of yourself are a good thing

My husband came out with me on Sunday to help me make a video for my dressage trainer. I guess Coriander had an issue with that because he booked away from me right after I put my saddle on his back. Fortunately he's really easy to catch as you can see here.

At first I thought this little video clip was just amusing, until I took a closer look at myself. Oy. I had no idea I was raising my arm while he ate his treat. See his reaction? Not pretty. If I hadn't seen that on video I'd have never known I was doing it. I'll be making a conscious effort from now on to avoid that.

This next video is a progress marker, this is what we look like now. He's pluggy and inverted and I lean forward and ride in a chair seat. I'm hoping that in a few months we'll look a bit better than this.

How about you? Do you try to get a video of yourself every once in a while to check your progress?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Optimal hooves: Have low heels and short toes

Note: This is my last planned entry for this series. If you want to know about something else, please let me know.

After reading my post about frogs and soles you should intuitively understand the first reason why horses should have low heels: The frog needs to touch the ground to work correctly. But the following pictures should show you another reason why the heels need to be low. Unnaturally high heels tip the coffin bone onto its tip. Even in the absence of diet-based laminitis, high heels can cause a kind of mechanical laminitis by levering the coffin bone away from the hoof wall.

More x rays for you, I bet you didn't know you'd get good at interpreting these:

High heels and hoof wall separation, a vet would call this a rotation

High heels combined with a long toe
As the next graphic shows, if the coffin bone is left standing on its tip for too long, the bone will degrade.
See how the tip of the coffin bone has eroded? Note how far P2 has descended inside the hoof capsule.

Slipper foot, note the looooong toe, high heel, and how the coffin bone has started to erode
This one is interesting, the heel isn't that high but the sole is thin and the toe is long. P2 has descended inside the hoof capsule.
So what do you do when presented with high heels? You cut them off. You'd probably want to do this gradually if the horse has been in a bad way for a long time, maybe over the span of a few weeks, but you have to do it. It will take the coffin bone off its tip and will greatly enhance the horse's comfort.

Want to know how long toes happen? If the horse starts landing toe first for some reason - be it thrush, poor trimming, diet, or something else -  the laminae will start to tear. When the laminae starts to tear the body freaks out and sends in reinforcements to build more laminae, thus making the toe longer. This longer toe will cause even more tearing of the laminae, more reinforcements are sent, and the cycle goes on and on. What the horse ends up with is called a lamellar wedge: a nerveless, bloodless mass of excess material sort of similar to a callus or foot corn.

What do you do when you realize your horse has grown lamellar wedge? Cut it off. Seriously. I'm not talking about how farriers will rasp off the hoof wall at the toe (I don't think that's a good idea in general, thinning the hoof wall doesn't do anything good for the horse), I mean cut it off the hoof perpendicular to the ground- it certainly won't do your horse any favors if you leave it there.

Look back at those x rays and note that the coffin bone stays in the same alignment under the leg relative to the heels no matter how far out the toe has grown. Once you establish what the shape of the hoof should be based on the heel purchase, you can find exactly where your horse's toe should be.

This photo from the Swedish Hoof School further emphasizes my point, toe moves out but the coffin bone doesn't.

I took this photo of Coriander's right fore last November before I really understood this. See how long that toe was?
Isn't it great that I have examples from my horses of all the bad things? Bleh. Note the thrushy frog.
Remember my first post- where I said that front hooves are supposed to be round? If I superimpose a circle over this hoof based off the heel purchase and the white line at the quarters, look at how much toe lands outside the circle. I needed to cut that off.

This circle is actually a little big, but it still shows that he had a LOT of excess toe.
(If you want to check this with your horse use a duct clamp. They cost about $2 and are adjustable. Line one up on the bottom of your horses' hooves and see how round their feet really are. This works on the hinds too, just imagine that the circle gets pointy at the toe.)

But at that time I was still skeptical, and I didn't have nippers yet, so I only took half of it off and rockered the rest (A rocker is simply an angle rasped into the toe- a break-over aid.). Then we went for a ride. Holy cow! It was like he was a different horse. I couldn't believe how quickly he was picking up his front feet. It was amazing what a difference half an inch made.

Then something else interesting happened, he developed a toe callus.
I'm talking about that curved line that you can see between his hoof wall and frog. That's not his coffin bone sinking through his hoof - I know this because his feet have great concavity - that's where his hoof was breaking over when he moved. Notice how that curve is more round than the exterior shape of his foot? So did I; I took that excess off. Did that make him sore? Lame? Nope, not a bit.

One caveat: I probably wouldn't do that if the toe was really long (slipper foot) simply because it would remove too much hoof wall from the front of the foot. In that case I'd rocker the toe until the flare grew out a little more.

So there you go, there's almost a year's worth of hoof research distilled into a few posts. After all I've learned, I see horses all over the place with poor feet. All I can do is sit here and wonder, "How much better would those horses move if their feet were in better shape?" It's kind of depressing. Now maybe you'll see it too... you're welcome.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gwen's first ride

I think this picture is hysterical- we're making the same face!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The bars: A word of caution

To preface this, I have to say that I almost didn't publish yesterday's post, there was quite the tug-of-war going on in my head about it. In the end I decided that the information was too important to withhold.

The first reason that I almost didn't publish it is because knowledge is power, but sometimes you can have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One rule of thumb about trimming is that you do NOT cut into the sole. Overgrown bars aren't sole so they need to come off, but you need to be VERY, VERY CAREFUL how you do that. If you've got a hoof where the bars have completely overgrown the sole, you can pretty much bet there's only the thinnest sliver of sole material between the bar material and the corium. You need to slowly and methodically shave that bar material off the sole and remember that if you go too far you can hit corium and seriously wound your horse. If you are shaving that material down and your horse suddenly jerks their foot out of your hand, you need to stop. That was your horse telling you, "Hey, I just felt that!"

With Gwen's overgrown bars I've been taking a little bit off each week. I'm hoping that I can get rid of enough bar material that the corium will start growing sole again even if there's still some bar covering it. That way I won't have to worry about cutting too deep. I'll let you know how that goes.

The second reason I almost didn't publish yesterday's post is because so few people know what they're looking at. Chances are, if you see that your horse has overgrown bars and you say something to your hoof care provider you will either get blown off, scoffed at, or looked at like you've grown three heads. Lots of people think that IS sole. Use discretion when you talk with them about overgrown bars.

Here's one more photo to help you out on this issue. This is a closer view of Coriander's bar/sole junction. You can see a distinct dividing line between the two tissues and the pebbly texture of the sole. You can use this as a reference of what that connection should look like. I know I will.