Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy trails, Elmer Bandit

The amazing elderly endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, was put to sleep on Valentine's Day. Sad, but he had a long, amazing life that most horses would be fortunate to have. I'm really feeling for his owner, they spent a lot of years and a lot of miles together.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

To boot....or not to boot?

Gabe's little pasture mishap got me thinking about protecting those beasts from themselves and making their self-destruct button a little harder for them to find.

I've worked for stables that all had very different methods of turnout for the horses. They all had very different philosophies about booting and wrapping for rides, too.

One barn required every horse to be booted or wrapped all around with bells on for turnout. Each horse was turned out alone for an hour a day in a small paddock that was not large enough to allow any kind of all-out cantering/galloping. Most went out in stable sheets and if they were likely to be bucking, farting, leaping silly first, longeing was required before turn-out. These horses were ridden by a trainer or an owner daily, booted and wrapped to the nines for the ride and often wrapped again in standing wraps and poultice after a workout.

It always seemed to me that about 1/4 of those horses spent a significant amount of time on stall rest recovering from some leg/joint injury or another.

At another barn, once the morning feed was done and everyone cleaned up their hay, stall doors were slid open and 35 horses released to race down the aisle into the connecting field. No boots, no wraps. Evening meal was the same routine reversed - the field gate opened and everyone raced in to find their stalls and dig in to dinner. Two horses trying to occupy one stall was not uncommon.

If injuries were going to happen at that barn, it was usually out in the field and usually caused by a tussle between horses. From time to time we'd have one go down in the aisle during the madcap race to get in or out of the barn. This was definitely NOT my favorite method of turnout, but I wasn't the barn owner, only the help.

A smaller show barn I managed for a time had several sizable pastures where horses were turned out in pairs or threes all day long. Herd partners were carefully selected and bells only went on those who were apt to pull a shoe or catch a heel. It was thoughtful booting instead of just booting everyone for the heck of it.

Injuries here were rare. We had one older show horse go through the board fence and sink a rather large splinter of shattered wood into his chest about 7 inches deep. I could fit my fist in the wound, had to clean and pack it twice a day and it took forever to heal. He also developed an allergy to no-see-ums, lost all his hair due to the allergy and eventually was retired to a home in a colder, northern clime due to the bizarre allergy.

But leg/joint injuries were rare. It was here the horses seemed most content and none had neurotic stall behavior.

My horses live outside 24/7: Gabe in his own paddock with a run-in shed, Chief and Calypso in another paddock with a run-in shed. Gabe would be a rack of bones if he lived with the other two...all they have to do is give him a dirty look and he moves away from his feed/hay and lets them have it.

They don't live in boots or wraps. When the big pastures are dry or frozen hard, they all get turned out together from sun up to sun down.

I don't always boot or wrap when I ride. When I worked at the big show barn where horses were wrapped all the time, I booted and wrapped my horse for every ride.

Then, I started thinking about it: Am I really doing my horses a favor by wrapping them for EVERY ride? If they are interfering, how can they feel it and adjust their movement to stop or lessen the interference? Was I enabling them to be lazy by protecting them from themselves? Was I making them dependent on the padding on their legs instead of trusting themselves and self-correcting?

So I stopped wrapping and booting for each ride and I haven't had a single workout-induced leg injury. (Knock on wood!) Now, I only wrap or boot if I know I'm going to be jumping, riding harder than usual (galloping, long, hard trails, etc.) or seriously concentrating on lateral work.

Then Gabe goes and breaks himself playing in the pasture and now I'm wondering if I should rethink my booting philosophy. Should I just go ahead and boot/wrap him if he's going out to play in the big field? But he's out there for hours at time...sometimes 12 hours or more, and again I'm having a conundrum. I risk damaging those tendons from heat held in by the boots and I could make him dependent on them, which I don't want to do. I like to have thinking horses who think about where they put their legs instead of just going around with those legs all akimbo.

But I also really want to protect them from themselves!


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bubble wrap and boo-boos

Some days I truly believe we should just wrap all the horses in bubble wrap and keep them closed up tightly in padded stalls.

They do manage to break themselves, don't they? How they managed to survive saber-tooth tigers and an ice age I'll never know.

So, we've had insane amounts of mud since September. It has not been dry at all for about six months. Ugh. My pasture (the nice, big 10-acre one) has been far too soggy to let the horses out on for a couple of months. When it freezes good and hard, I can let them out for awhile without worrying they'll destroy all the grass out there. On Tuesday it was frozen enough to grant them their freedom for the day.

They all acted like they have been cooped up in little 12X12 stalls for months. The bucking, farting, rearing, racing, skidding, rolling, biting, kicking and all-around craziness was incredible to watch. These horses aren't kept cooped up. During the winter they live in paddocks that are just over an acre each. But as soon as you turn them out, they go nutso.

And Gabe managed to twist an ankle during his shenanigans. Silly boy. It didn't blow up like a ripe cantelope until the morning after the big play day. His front ankle (fetlock) is hot, swollen and a touch tender.

Thank goodness I'm fastidious about giving all the horses a once over every morning and evening. I check eyes, noses, gums (for capillary refill and color), legs, joints, body and attitude twice a day. It's a habit I picked up a long, long time ago when I worked at a barn that required me to take twice daily temps and do complete body checks of 20 horses. It's a habit that has served me well for catching injuries and illness quickly. I know my horses. I know when they are feeling crappy, depressed or have little injuries that need tending.

And I knew immediately he had pushed himself a bit too far the day before and was paying the price for it. So, I wrapped him up in a standing wrap, tossed a bute tab in his feed and left for work.

I also know how to wrap a standing wrap. I'm dang good at it and have wrapped THOUSANDS of legs without any problems.

But apparently I've never wrapped a horse quite as inquisitive and determined as good ole Gabe.

He managed to completed remove the quilt and shred it. The standing wrap was still intact, perfectly wrapped exactly as I had left it. I know he stood there all day long with his teeth on the quilt, tugging and working that sucker loose. I can just imagine the joy that raced through his silly little mind when he was finally able to yank it free and play with it.

Last night he got re-wrapped with vet wrap and NO quilt! The booger. He still had it on this morning but I could see where he'd been working at it with his teeth and lips. I swear...that horse...

The ankle looks much, much better this morning. The swelling and heat is almost completely gone and it's looking less like a cantelope and more like a fetlock. I don't like keeping them on bute for very long, so I switched him to aspirin for today and tomorrow. After that, he should be just fine.

It's always something, isn't it?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Speaking their language

Not too long ago I discovered a new blogger. And I am not afraid to admit I scuttle on over to her place every day to see what new wisdom, anecdote or story she has shared.

See, she speaks Thoroughbred. More specifically, she speaks retired racehorse. And it's so nice to "hear" someone speaking Gabe's language, to listen to someone who understands what it's like to take a horse from the track and give them a new career. It's fun. It's challenging. It's heartbreaking, exciting, terrifying, addictive and fulfilling.

And we do it purely out of love, respect and admiration for these magnificent animals. Well, that and the indescribably incredible feeling of riding, directing and containing such potentially explosive power!

Two of Natalie's two most recent posts at her blog, Retired Racehorse, could have been written about Gabe and I because we've had both experiences...the Leap of Power and the up-and-over.

Fortunately, I learned very quickly from our up-and-ALMOST-over experience. And I didn't just chalk it up to Gabe being a complete butthead (which I would have done 10 years ago). Instead, I mulled it over, I walked through the entire episode in my mind over and over again, comparing what I knew about horse behavior to how he acted and how I reacted. And I knew what I'd done wrong and set out to fix MY behavior. Not his. Because in the end, he is just being a horse and doing what horses do. It is my job to think like him, to speak his language and teach him a new one by combining my knowledge with his language with as little confusion to him as possible.

Oh. It's a challenge all right, but it's a challenge that's worth every single little bobble, every misunderstanding, every miss-step, all for those fleeting moments of brilliance when we GET each other and we are "talking" in a language we both understand.

The goal is for those fleeting moments to turn into minutes, minutes stretch into longer minutes and eventually, we are communicating clearly, precisely and with understanding BOTH ways. Both ways is the key. Why should I expect him to listen to me if I continually turn a deaf ear to him? We are both learning. I can see him learning my language, I can see it in how he responds to my requests.

I can only hope he understands that I am trying to learn his language and I have a long way to go.

Monday, February 1, 2010

In the saddle again!

Oh, absolute wonderful bliss! I FINALLY got to ride Sunday. After nearly two months of no riding I was eager to be in the saddle again.

A bit trepidatious? You betcha. Gabe and I were a tad rusty after taking such an extended vacation, but it all went well.

Well, most of it went well! It was well above freezing, warm enough that I was plenty comfortable in just a thermal under a flannel, and warm enough that the thinnest top later of mud had melted into slime in some areas. Of course Gabe had a case of the goofy sillies and was really good on the longe (What? You think I'm craziest enough to climb aboard without longing first? Not!) for about three minutes. Then, it started. He'd trot nicely, fling the head around and squeal and BAM! buck-a-thon!

You know what happened. I'll bet you can guess.

He went down. Buck...buck...squeal...head toss...buck...buck...zoom around with the tail straight in the air and BAM! He hit a slimy spot and there go his feet right out from under him. That huge gray horse smacked flat onto his side with an enormous grunt. He got up, gave me a quick, embarrassed look as if to say "What? You didn't see that!" and took off trotting again but quite a bit more subdued in his behavior.

He is fine. No harm done to his body, but I'll bet he knocked a little bit of sense into himself.

Oh. My saddle. My poor, filthy, mud-covered saddle. The whole side of Gabe (which I spent a good amount of time cleaning before I tacked up!) was covered in gooey, muddy slime.

I finally climbed up and he was most excellent. We did have a few head-tossing, crow-hopping moments, but nothing major. The head-tossing has me confuzzled. I'm 100% sure it's not pain-related. I'm pretty darn sure it's exuberance-related because when he tosses it, he flings it in a circle, squeals and hops a little bit. If you've ever seen a horse out in the pasture just full of himself flinging his head around with the tail up and body bowed to bounce, that's what Gabe is doing. I don't want to punish him for loving life and feeling good, but I also can't have him just randomly tossing his head and crow-hopping around. I popped one rein the next time he threw in a good fling and felt really, really bad about it. He was shocked, but he didn't fling again.

I'd rather not have to pop him when he does it, so any suggestions to discourage this particular display of exuberance are welcome! I've tried a running martingale so he could punish himself when he flung the head, but the pressure on both reins from hitting the martingale made him feel trapped and he panicked. That was non-constructive. So, no running martingales...and definitely no standing martingales!

Robert and Kayleigh joined me on Chief and Calypso. Calypso's mane and tail are now mud-bead free, I'm happy to report! My husband spent a good hour working on both and he did a darn good job. I went ahead and put her tail up in a mud knot, hoping to prevent that mess from happening again. She's in season, so the tail was pretty nasty on top of very muddy. Ugh. We went for a ride down the driveway, around one of our fields, down the road and through the neighbor's pastures. The horses were SO good, especially considering how long they've not been ridden. They were definitely energized and happy to be out, but so well-behaved.

My soul is happy and content today.