Even Muscle Memory Fades

Tonight I had my first lesson in a very, very long time. A local upper level dressage rider/trainer was offering lessons at a heavy discount for the month, and I leapt at the chance. Especially as she has a wonderful range of school horses, including up to Grand Prix.

I've never really gotten the chance to ride a true School Master horse. Obviously in the very beginning of my riding, I rode a well-trained horse, but after that I was always training the horse I was riding, learning and teaching simultaneously. I've always felt it was a poor system, but not every instructor or stable can grant that opportunity for its students.

I also wanted to know what bad habits I've developed during/after my extended break from riding.

Needless to say, it was a frustrating, revealing, but ultimately much-needed lesson.

It was also the first time I'd ever ridden at the stereotypical "upper crust" kind of barn--everything tidy and clean and "just-so" at all times. Where every horse, even school horses, have their very own locker and very own complete tack set, and every halter is hung the same way on each and every stall, and every horse is always body-clipped. It's...odd. I can see the draw to it, but I admit to being the type of equestrian whom feels every horse should have plenty of time to just be a horse every day. Anyway.

Her name was Worldly Lady, a 16.1-ish hh dark bay warmblood with a horseshoe-crab-shaped star and blaze. She was 20. Still had some sass and spunk, especially as they've all been stuck in stalls due to the water and ice these past few weeks. She was also more "whoa" than go, something I have not experienced since I was a young teenager. They had a gorgeous arena, but being fancy, it also meant that there was plenty of space and they rode off-the-track, something I am completely unaccustomed too and threw my figures off a bit.

It's frustrating to ride simple things and realize that no, your body no longer does the things it used to without even thinking. Like shifting weight onto your inside seat bone for circles and twisting your spine. Even right down to something like rein contact.

Previously, I've always been a soft-handed rider. I've had experience with heavier-mouthed horses (Toler himself, at times) but I've never in my advanced riding life had problems with contact. I've also never ridden a horse that was light and supple in the mouth right out of the aisle. But tonight even though in my head I knew all the things I was supposed to be doing, I felt like my body was all over the place but mostly just not listening. Or, rather, I actually needed to focus on those things instead of just getting into the saddle and riding that way automatically.

So, for a while I really need to work on my seat bones. And twisting my body. And not balancing with the reins.

I mean, it's been over a decade since I learned and programmed those things into every muscle fiber. It's almost embarrassing. I'm a good rider, I swear. Or at least I was...once.


The Moose and the Ruins We Carry

I have not posted here since 2011. I hate myself for it. I hate myself for not recording more of the little moments. More of every ride. Horse people take those things for granted; we all do. Everyone close to me will already know everything I will say in this post, and since I'm quite certain no one reads this blog (or will read this blog), it hardly seems worth it to say anything it all. It's been such a long time anyway.

It's easy to just let this blog gather dust and drift from all that is happened. But sometimes it's those nearly insignificant loose ends that, once finally tied off, help us heal the most.

I lost Toler on Friday August 24th of 2013. He was 14. His heart was failing and his kidneys had started to shut down. It was the end of a very long path.

In January of that year, he had developed a cloudy discharge from his nose. We did what any horseowners would do, and the vet started him on antibiotics. When that failed to clear things up in a month, he was referred to the local equine hospital (University of Wisconsin - Madison) to be scoped. He was diagnosed with primary sinusitis and had a hole bored into his sinuses. A stubborn thing to treat, but usually not a big deal. It was a month or two of home care flushing his sinuses through drainage tubes and taking him in for checkups, and around March he had a second hole drilled. Lavage, lavage, lavage, and more checkups. He took it like a champ. Never rubbed his tube, and took the hand-walking regimen in stride. At least it was spring and muddy and icky out, right?

In early April we chased down the possibility of a bad tooth, which proved unfounded, and he was put on a more aggressive treatment. That finally helped and he was able to have his drainage tube removed and return to a semblance of normal life: light turnout, and light work.

We had won a Micklem Bridle, which I had wanted the moment they'd come out, and got to try it on what would become our last ride.

At the end of April, Toler had a fever, refused food, and acted very weak and lethargic. He went back to the horsepital where they found a Grade 4 murmer. After an echocardiogram, they confirmed corrosive endocarditis--bacteria had entered his bloodstream and caused damage to his heart. He had a tear in his aorta.

Many professional equine athletes develop small aorta tears. In itself, if it is small and stabilizes, is not a terminal sentence, or even a career-ending one.

Toler stayed the week in the horsepital under close watch and IV antibiotics to stop the infection and ascertain the damage done. Once discharged, he was allowed to return to the paddock so long as he didn't overdo anything--a game of wait and see with monthly cardio exams.

He spent his birthday at the end of May at home after rocking his cardio check-up. His exams were a marvel of themselves. The vet hospital worked with the human hospital to borrow equipment and a technician to watch and measure his heart. Not many people get to see their horses' heart beating on a screen in such detail like that, to know the exact specifications of their valves. The cooperation between human and animal healthcare was touching, too, and I remember the students and cardiothoracic surgeon from both teaching hospitals crowding into the dark room as quietly as possible to observe. And, so long as Toler had their yummy hay in front of him and pats on his nose, he didn't mind one bit.

For a while we returned to pasture-bound normalcy. We were content with our long grooming sessions, tricks and relaxed wandering in the arena, and hand-grazing around the farm. He got to turn out with his old pasture-mates and they would stand quietly beside him, occasionally trotting and cantering.

We don't know if he got too wound up one day in the paddock; an errant good-feeling buck, or what it was exactly. Sometimes the holes in our hearts just get bigger.

Friday, July 19th, Toler was diagnosed with heart failure. We was admitted once again while they ran tests and settled a treatment program that would buy us a few months.

Sometimes I wish we had taken him home, given him a week to enjoy the sun and grass, and said our goodbyes. It's hard to let go of our soul-mates. I wish I could say that Toler stuffed himself on treats. We see those "last hurrah" pictures of dogs getting cheeseburgers and running down the beach. They build some kind of expectation of what "terminal" is like.

Toler drifted slowly from me. Every day he was further from the moose I knew, the moose who stared up at the sky when the geese flew overhead and trumpeted. The moose who nuzzled his favorite orange kitty. The moose who would sneak down the aisle, carefully pull off the lid of the treat bin and munch as much as possible until discovered.

I brushed him slowly everyday. Used his favorite soft grooma curry on his face. Held his head and sang his favorite song. Every day, one day stolen just for us.

His eyes grew dull and he stopped eating little by little. He hated his medication. Especially the intramuscular injection. I knew it was time when, one Thursday, I went out to get him from the paddock and found him standing with his head low, He didn't even flicker his ears in my direction when I called. The horses wouldn't leave his side. They knew. I collapsed to my knees in the dusty grass and sobbed. I knew, too.

When I took Toler's pulse, each beat resonated in the chambers of his heart separately. So slowly that, at first, it sounded like his heart was racing. We took him on one last trip. We didn't want him buried on land we didn't own. We picked a bucket of long green grass and clover flowers, his favorite red ones. They were the first treats he accepted from us in a month. I sang to him one last time. I told him all the things horses need to hear, scratched under his mane, tucked my body in the niche along his shoulder and foreleg I fit perfectly against. I breathed in his scent and kissed him. He was ready. I was not. I will never be ready, even to this day. His absence is something I feel at all times.

In the end, we rebuild ourselves in any way we can. We become different people. Grief does not pass through us but into us, baking solid. Like yews, our fractured halves do not succumb but grow. In this way, we can carry ruins in our bones.

Someday I hope to own another horse. Hopefully sooner rather than later. I like the thought of a young OTTB. We'll see. I'm not quite there yet. In the meantime, I have the good fortune to be working with a 13 year-old Sweedish Warmblood (with a little Percheron) mare named Britta. So far she's just what I need right now. She reminds me that I still know some things in the saddle. She makes me work for it. We're both rehabbing in our own way. I might start posting about her here, but I'm not sure yet. I might chronicle more about Toler. In the years between posts, we made it through colic surgery and rehabbed our way to schooling 4th level dressage. For now, this is good.


Long time gone & Backward steps

I'm sorry for the lapse in posting. I got busy in the fall, and then just kept pushing the catch-up further and further back. Then there was this huge thing with the computer, getting a new computer...Suffice to say, there were a lot of excuses.

Toler and I ended the fall in top form. We started doing quite a bit of hill work, mostly trotting downhill and cantering uphill. I found the best hill in one of the paddocks that became empty in the afternoon after the horses were brought in, and Toler and I would sneak inside it to work. The hill was temperate and the footing was excellent, plus the "new scenery" made it far more interesting.

We also had some excellent trail rides. My trainer trailered a bunch of us from the stable to our favorite nearby equestrian park three or four times before the season ended.

Toler had a little hiccup into the winter when he developed a stifle issue. Whether it was just a strain or something psychological (which, to be honest, is sometimes hard to determine with Toler--he often internalizes his injuries and creates an emotional aspect to them), it made us ease up on our training for a short time.

Training was getting back into full swing--after incredible amounts of counter-bending on the rail and other straightening exercises--when we heard that Steffen Peters would be returning as a clinician for this year's Midwest Horse Fair. Having sized up "the competition" the previous year, I was determined to apply with Toler. We had two weeks to prepare ourselves for a video for the application.

I quickly found the new 2011 dressage tests online (scoring copies are available as free downloads on USEF) and memorized all of First and Second levels. Having to shoot our video in the small-dressage-arena-sized indoor arena at our barn, I knew that we would be unable to ride an actual test, but I'd intended to select specific movements and adapt them for the application video.

And, as our luck would have it, a few days into working, I arrived at the barn one cold, icy day to discover that Toler's left knee was incredibly inflamed. No doubt he'd slipped and fallen on it. He was not lame, but riding was decidedly out of the question. So too was our application.

Toler has recovered well so far. He has a slight amount of remaining fluid in his knee, but there is no further swelling and Toler has decided he feels more than fine to do practically anything he wants. Including a rather huge set of bucks while I rode him bareback one day. I am riding him, but it is straight rail-work-only. No bending, no circles, no lateral movements of any kind. Nothing that would put additional weight or strain on his knee, which gets better day by day. It's a good time to step back and work on my sitting trot, really.

Some friends at the stable did apply for the clinic positions, and Toler and I wish them luck. As for us, there will be other opportunities, and, as I suspect, there will be always be next year.


Ride like a jockey

Quiet ride this afternoon. Should I be saying yesterday afternoon? It is 12:48am, after all...Oh well. It's still "today" to me... ;)

The weather was charging with a cool front coming in, so Toler and I were both pretty wound up. I decided to chance the possibility of rain and ride outside, specifically because it was so awesome out. Note: I LOVE storms. Toler and I couldn't resist some jumping, but I was too lazy to reset any of the jump heights, so the lines on the rails were hardly over 1'8", and the first jump of each diagonal was 2'3" and the second of each diagonal was 2'6." He was pretty good, though, and only knocked down one of the 2'6" because it didn't look much bigger to him and he wouldn't listen to my insisting that it *was* bigger. Oh well. He has a hard time getting the striding on the approaches after turns when we go his bad direction, mostly because he tries to drop his shoulder and stick his hip out so he doesn't have to use his butt. So we worked a bit on that.

And then silly me decided that I'm annoyingly out of shape in my two-point. Can't say that I'm all that surprised seeing how little consistent jumping work I've done since our jumping accident. It got me thinking about how awesome I used to be. Let me tell you, I was a fencer for about four and half years (as in, swords, not the constructed kind). Fencers have thighs of steel. Which was great because being away for college meant that I wasn't completely losing my riding form. At least I had fencing to keep my thighs tight.

So there's this exercise (read: method of torture) to really crank up two-point endurance. A friend at the stable learned it while working with David O'Conner at university (equine sciences). It has thus been dubbed "The O'Conner Exercise" at our barn, but I don't know what anyone else calls it. Essentially, you either raise your stirrups to the highest hole or raise them to the highest hole and then put your feet in the leathers on top of the stirrup iron, depending on how high your leathers run. I much prefer using the stirrup irons because it's hard to get your feet out of the leathers quickly should such action be required.

Here's where every rider's childhood dream of being a jockey comes true. You ride at the two-point, preferably on a horse who can just go around and around without fuss. And let me tell you, if your two-point is out of shape, you'll know it immediately. And possibly won't be able to walk for the next day and a half. It is *intense.* Even twice around the arena at a trot and canter both directions--What? Two minutes total?--made me feel like gelatin. When I was in shape, I could do the O'Conner exercise for at least ten-fifteen minutes. Straight. Ideally you should be able to do this for fifteen minutes while out on a hack over hills. Especially if you're an eventer.

So, needless to say my thighs are killing me right now. Tomorrow will be a "spoil the spoiled" day, I think. Brushing, braiding, a little massage, and some chilling out by the long grass. It'll be nice. And O'Conner-exercise-free. XD


Come along

I guess it's been a while since I posted about the moose. Things have been going quite well, actually. I've been working on the counter-canter exercises from the previous posts, as well as the third exercise of that series (which I'll get into in a minute). We've been running through Training Level Test Three rather consistently. I only haven't moved on because I kept forgetting to memorize the T4 test, haha.

The other day I did That Awful Thing to him before we rode. (Pulled some of his mane.) Really, that horse. He flings his head up and braces his neck even before I pick up his mane. And I do it so carefully (and correctly, I might add--choosing tiny sections and pulling it closely from the root). There's really no reason for his melodramatic response. Sometimes he even tries to knock me off the stool I stand on. Of course, once I did get on to ride, he was perfect. Even a tad on the sensitive side, actually.

The third exercise in Leslie Webb's counter-canter work is a bit like the trot movement in T4, only (obviously) at the canter.

It's actually easiest to start this one at the trot, just to make sure there are no "You want me to do WHAT?" moments. But, actually, if you've been doing those counter-bent serpentine at all, you should be good to go. A few things to notice first: The dashed line is easiest to work on before gradually increasing the length of the diagonal (and thus the difficulty of the counter-canter work). Second, this figure isn't exactly like the MXF / MXK bend movements, as there is a stride or two of straightness around X.

I was really worried initially that Toler would get overexcited about this and try to do flying lead-changes at every possible opportunity. Luckily, that has yet to be the case. He's been doing fairly well with it, too, although I have yet to get a nice stride or two of straightness around X, mostly because he anticipates and then I just have to go with him so he doesn't drop his shoulder or do the "counter-bend collapse," as I've begun to call it. Going clockwise, Toler can get the straightness if we follow the shallower path, but once we get to the centerline, there's simply not enough room. Partially because, like I said, Toler gets excited, and partially because the indoor arena (the only place I can do these sorts of exercises) is only 20 x 40 meters, which does cause quite a bit of trouble when I start to school the higher tests. Movements are just shorter, and the test is always "rushed" in feeling. Granted, this makes for a wonderful ease and feeling when I'm actually riding in a standard dressage arena, but still. ;)

Going counter-clockwise, however, Toler has quite a bit of trouble. That is his harder way (his left stifle is the problem stifle, this that's his worse hip and canter direction). I generally start out on a path even shallower than the dashed line, and aim for a nice, balanced curve with no straight-aways. He has a harder time coming back for the counter-canter bend back onto the diagonal towards the rail, and an even harder time not collapsing into that section. But we're working on it. He's still getting better on the rail, in terms of that lead's straightness, but he still has a long way to go. We do a lot of medium-lengthening-medium canter transitions on the rail, which helps a lot, and I try to get him to do a stride of collected canter if that goes well in that direction.

I have noticed recently that I have started to lean when we go that direction. Thankfully, I catch myself. That would be an awful habit to get into--and one I never actually had, even as a younger rider. I was lucky enough to find a trainer who does not allow the excuse of "well, that's just what young/novice riders do." FYI, that's the STUPIDEST thing I have ever heard when it comes to learning equitation. In my opinion, young riders are even better at finding center balance than adult riders, so honestly, letting them lean is just a mark of laziness on the instructor's part. Mini-rant aside, I've got things to work on myself.

Ideally, we'll get Toler's stifle strengthened within the next month and a half, and I can start to push him more with cantering smaller circles, and canter-walk/halt transitions. That should really help with his quality of canter in general. I just don't want to do too much where his stifles are concerned.

Speaking of which, we had a very good day with that today. I let him have a day of lunge-work, and we started with walking poles, then I had him trot before and after the walking poles, which was a challenge he took seriously at first. But then it became a game for him to the point where he was leaping over three walking poles just to get to the trotting part again. He thought he was so clever he even had to buck and squeal about it. *Rolls eyes.*


Of Horses and Gazelles

The heat got to Toler a bit today. By the time I got out to the barn, he was already inside munching his hay, but he was soaked in sweat. And covered in huge clops of mud. I took one look at him--rather, he took one look at me, the kind that says, "Urrrrgjdhisd76rtf3nmbkjh"--and decided we'd work in reverse today.

Hose-off first. The cool water hit his shoulder and he sighed. Poor guy. We stood in front of the big barn fan, and I rubbed his face and braided him. I know what you're thinking: what a life. But as soon as he was dry(ish), I tacked him up and we hit the arena. Especially since he got Monday off.

Dressage saddle, today. We started off with some trotting figure-eights at 15m, then wound down to 10m, and Toler was la-a-. zy. The counterbend serpentine perked him up a bit, mostly because I was determined to make him carry himself through the counterbent middle loop. And to my surprise, he rose to the challenge very well. We had several solid serpentines, at which point I decided it was time to move on.

I warmed his canter up with some extensions down the long-sides, his right lead still stronger than his left, though once he gets going to the left it's nearly the same as his right. The trick is to get him to engage himself at the medium (and collected) canter on the left the way he engages himself at the extended canter. He really does fly, though, and I'm not even talking speed at this point.

His stride just sweeps the arena up, like the sand gets folded beneath him and a meter becomes an inch.

I don't know how I ever enjoyed the canters of the smaller horses I used to ride. It's like a cruel joke now. Somehow I wound up astride a gazelle in horsey clothing and shoes. Sometimes, at least.

We moved into Leslie Webb's first countercanter exercise, which he did wonderfully. He's starting to anticipate moving onto the diagonals, though, so I had to be a bit stronger about his outside aids than usual (he wants to drop his shoulder and just slink into the middle). I figured it was time to move into the second exercise, even if it called for a bit of struggling.

For the next step in working the countercanter, Leslie Webb instructs to start down the centerline at the canter (here, on the left lead), and pick up the diagonal to K from X. Like the first exercise, where the centerline becomes the diagonal is the only place the horse really countercanters. She cautions that most horses have a harder time with this exercise, not only because it moves off the centerline, but because it does so through the countercanter, and many horses will think of breaking, hollowing/tensing, or simply changing their lead.

Toler, however, didn't have a single problem with this exercise. Except for cantering onto the centerline. As soon as I looked at the centerline, he knew where we were going and wanted to just arrive there. So, now I know that we have to work on our 10m squared-out canter turns. Really, because his stifles have been a bit weak and he's still getting straight on the rail, I haven't done a whole lot of circling at the canter, especially circles smaller than 15m. Circles as well as down-transitions are hard on the stifle, particularly at the canter. Plus Toler's a big guy anyway--there's lots of horse to fit on such a small circle. Lots of stride to fit on such a small circle. So, once I feel comfortable with him working his stifles like that, I'll rev up the spiraling exercise.

Back to the exercise--while Toler didn't get onto the centerline very gracefully, once he was there he was an angel for me. He'd collect right up, probably wondering if I was going to ask for a halt at X, and supple right into my aids as we countercantered onto the diagonal. The first time our first way (right lead), he did try to break after the diagonal, but as soon as I tapped him with my heel to say, "No, we're not done yet," he went along just fine. Even his left lead was smooth through the exercise.

We'll work on it another session or two, just to make sure it wasn't a "YAY--SHINY" fluke, but otherwise I think he's ready for the third and (technically final) step of Webb's exercise.

We wrapped up the day with an introduction on turning on the forehand, something Toler knows on the ground because of his excellent showmanship skills (I always cleaned house in showmanship), but hasn't ever done under saddle. I'm not quite sure it's necessary, as the turn on the forehand is usually used as a precursor to the half-pass, and Toler already knows the half-pass. (He needs a lot of work on the half-pass, but he loves doing it.) I just thought that since he's doing so well with walking pirouettes, it would be a good additional skill.

The way I know to introduce it is to halt with the horse perpendicular to the wall. (Head first, like you're walking into it--though please don't...) You then ask for jaw flexion, say to the right, and ask for the horse to move their haunches over to the right by crossing in back. Hence it's being a precursor to the half-pass. Half-halts are handy, obviously.

Toler wasn't too thrilled with the notion. For one, he just didn't see the point, and if Toler doesn't see the point in something, then there's really no way I'm going to get him to do it. At first, being the dork he is, he tried to do a walking pirouette in reverse. When that failed (horribly, if I may say so), he pinned his ears at me and just moved sideways. I walked him away to the next rail and tried again, a bit slower. He thought about simply refusing, but ultimately gave it a go. I only got one or two steps of a real turn on the forehand, but it was a good start.

I'll start the next ride with a turn on the forehand from the ground, then ask for it as soon as I'm in the saddle and we'll see if he's more keen on the idea.

*Diagram from Practical Horseman, February 2006, p.60.


Counterbend and Countercanter

Lately I've been inspired to go through all my old equestrian magazines. A found a bunch from 2005 onward. After finding at least one pertinent article per magazine, I decided it would be an even better idea for me to mark the pages and compile all the articles by scanning them and putting them into OneNote. Really, OneNote is probably the most awesome software in the world. I actually like it even more than I like photoshop or--GASP--Lightroom. (Blasphemy!) Seriously though, OneNote is the Kool-Aid to my water. The ice cream to my cake. All right, I'm going overboard now, but you get the picture.

I've taken it so far as to have a whole OneNote notebook devoted to equine articles. I have a section for health-related, science-related, dressage exercises, jumping exercises, management and finances, grooming and equipment, and even a section to serve as an index--organized by magazine and date, by subject, and even by author. (Plus hyperlinks to take me straight there.) Awesome.

The point of this ramble-tamble is to say that I've been finding a bunch of really good exercises to do with Toler. Strengthening stifles, as I discussed in my last post, was found in an old mag. I also rediscovered Leslie Webb's temporary gymnastic column featured by Practical Horseman. Every month between '05 and '06, she featured an exercise geared towards gymnastic dressage. Her columns were so popular, that Practical Horseman compiled and published them as a book.

I decided to start working on two of her exercises with Toler, especially as I'd already been heading in those directions. The first was a trotting no-change-in-bend serpentine exercise. Develop a three-loop serpentine (20m loops to start with), but continue with the initial flexion from the first loop in the center loop.

I'd actually done this exercise before, with the second horse I leased (just before we bought Toler), a National Show Horse cross named Blue Kalu, but I don't think I'd ever done it with Toler.

Indeed, Toler puzzled over it the first day we tried it, though I had at least thought to warm him up to the idea with a large, slow trotting counter-bent circle. He was stiff at the shoulder and unwilling to trust the idea of my bend. The whole point, for us, of the counterbend serpentine was to work on his balance and maneuverability in a new way. Toler's stiffer side was worst of all. He'd waffle between wanting to rush at the rail in the middle (counterbent) loop or fall off his outside track and collapse into the loop. Some patient half-halts, regular bending circles to remind him of himself, and two attempts later, and he was starting to get the hang of it. I could feel him "open up" and trust my position to tell him where to go even if *his* positioning was in the wrong direction.

And that's the key: In keeping the unchanging bend, the rider must remain perpendicular to the loop through shoulders and hips.

Toler's second day of it (today) was infinitely better. We had one minor disagreement about falling off his outside on his stiffer direction, but it didn't even last the whole approach to the counterbent loop.

The other exercise of Webb's I started to work on was he initial step for developing a better countercanter. This step involves cantering (on the correct lead) on the rail, then following a diagonal to the centerline--the few strides of the diagonal becoming the centerline being the only section of countercanter.

The first day we tried the exercise was a bit of a disaster. Toler evidently thinks reverse psychology will work on me. He insisted that he change his lead at every possible opportunity. Ignoring the fact that I never even remotely asked for a change of lead. Ignoring the fact that in the past year we haven't even worked on flying lead changes. It almost makes me wonder if I shouldn't indulge him and have one day set aside for drilling his lead changes. I really don't think he's ready to work on his flying lead change, though, especially since he's only just starting to develop consistent straightness at the canter. Anyway. I managed to get him to hold the countercanter from H - S and stopped on the quarter line (the dashed, starter track in the diagram). We called that quits so I could get him to do a countercanter along the rail, which he has no problem with.

Today, he did both leads nearly perfectly. I started each side off with the quarter-line version, but he had lovely cadence and was willing to come back on his haunches to straighten out every time, so the adjustment to the centerline wasn't much of a challenge. We'll do one more day of it, where I'll ride both diagnoals to the centerline (H - X - A then from F - X - C), then we'll be on to the next step.

*Diagram from Practical Horseman, February 2006, p.60.


Stifling stifles

It appears that Toler is once again loosing muscle-tone on his top-line, especially towards his croup. It could partially the heat and insane humidity we've been having. The other day it was so hot they were all just drenched in sweat standing out in the paddock. Toler looked particularly miserable when he ambled up to me and offered his head for the halter--"Mooommmmmm. So many fliessssszzzzz." So it is understandable. Even if we are working consistently (despite our days off the other week). And despite the little belly he has going on.

I did get him a new wedge pad the other week. (The black one.)

I've mentioned it before especially with his weight involved, but Toler has a problem keeping muscle by his withers. Between his prominent, thin Thoroughbred withers and his Hanoverian shoulders, he gets these black holes that totally interfere with saddle fit. I've been using a corrective Mattes pad, which is wonderful and works perfectly, though since he'd gotten a little bit of muscle-tone back, I had wanted a wedge pad to use as well. The Roma pad I got seems to work quite well, too, though it is a but more finicky to put on.

I'm going to do more massage and chiropractic adjustment on him (myself), as per the advice of our trainer, and hopefully that'll help his muscles recuperate and get back on track.

I've also noticed that his stifles could really use some targeted muscle-building. Matter of fact, every once in a while (rarely, occurring maybe once every twenty or thirty rides), Toler suffers what feels like a misstep with his hind legs, like his hindleg gets stuck behind him and he has to "gimp" for a stride. Then he's fine. It happens most often when we're doing a downward transition between the canter and the trot or walk. It's likely that he has a mild stifle-locking problem due to weak stifles.

See, horses often/usually sleep standing up. As a result, their bodies have bio-mechanic "locks" to ensure they don't fall down while sleeping, the primary enforcer being with the stifles. Sometimes with weak stifles, and especially during downward transitions, the stifle can "slip" into that locked position. Some horses have problems with locking stifles simply due to bad conformation of the hind legs--specifically having too straight of a hind leg. Generally there's nothing you can do about that (at least not that I know of). But generally weak stifles are pretty easy to cure.

The best thing you can do to strengthen stifles is walking over slightly raised cavelletti. It's best to set them up like you would for trotting over, but raise only one alternating pole end. (The result looks like very small, broken cross-rails.)

The slower you walk, the more the horse has to hold his hind legs up over the rail as he goes over it. The key is walking--at the walk, most horses don't pick their legs up very high, while at the trot they have a more natural lift and impulsion. Obviously, take it slowly at first, and don't expect any immediate results. Building muscle takes time, especially with stifles. Expect to spend at least a month consistently walking over cavelletti.


The Moose and the Ditch

Our stablehand got the go-ahead to plant a garden at the stable this year (two gardens, actually). It's a gorgeous-looking garden, and doing very well for its location, which unfortunately is right where people ride to get to the first half of the trail. He did leave a nice path to the side of it, but when the rainfall was heavy earlier in the summer, the need for an irrigation ditch cropped up.

By rights, it's a very small ditch. Hardly five inches wide, I'd say. In other words, just the right size for a hoof. Now, the other horses do just fine by it. Some of them balk a little bit or try to go around it, but the majority of them just step over it. Toler? The largest horse at the stable? Who can literally step over a two-foot vertical? Ha.

The first few times we encountered it on a trail ride (marked by an orange cone, so we all know exactly where it is), Toler looked at as he approached, and when he would get to it, he'd have to pause for a moment to think about what to do. Then he'd promptly step into the ditch and "forget" on the way out, much to the continued dismay of his on-board two-legger. This went on for the first six crossings (three trail rides). Every time I would try to get him a little more excited about the idea of stepping over it rather than into it and tripping. And every time he'd think about it and decide that it just wasn't worth the effort.

Until the day before I left town. I hadn't planned on a trail ride, and tacked up in my dressage saddle so we could work on collection and straightness in the outdoor. Plans changed, however, when Toler miraculously peed while I was in the saddle. For those in the audience unaware of our long journey of bladder-confidence, Toler has always been particularly shy about peeing anywhere other than his very-private stall. It's taken two years of whistle-training to get him comfortable with peeing in the arena and occasionally out in the paddock. Since this was only the second time in his entire life that he was comfortable with the idea of stretching out with a rider on his back, it was definitely an occasion to be celebrated. With a nice, relaxing trail ride. And a promise to gallop up the hill, if he wanted.

We started out on the trail, and I began to get him focused on the up-coming ditch. He walked right up to it, looking at it with his usual semi-interested stare, then stopped--like usual. He started to gather himself backward, and I thought for sure he was going to try and weasel out of the situation by backing up, something he likes to do about puddles that he doesn't think are worth splashing in. I gave him a little tap of my heels and an annoyed push with my seat. Then he did something completely out of character.

He folded back onto his haunches, and with one smooth push, all four hooves were off the ground at once.

He landed on the other side--five inches away--promptly stretched out his neck, and sighed. Le champion du monde! Okay, okay, so we're not Spanish dressage masters, but hey, now I know how to teach him the croupade!

Toler's Grand Effort (ditch), combined with his previous Miraculous Bravery (peeing), put him in high spirits for the rest of the trail. We pranced, we nickered at the ladies, we pranced some more, and we kicked our heels up the hill. At crossing number two, Toler started to gather himself up for another Stupendous Effort, but I chuckled and said, "Oh Toler, that's not necessary," with a tsk of my finger on his mane. Discontented, (perhaps I should have played the helpless, foreleg-less damsel again,) he stooped to step over the chasm.

I just can't wait until we come across our very first stream. XD

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TolHorse Studios

TolHorse Studios
Emma's photoblog, featuring art and photography

About Me

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"Make shit up." -Michael Allen Parker. Following that advice, I make a lot of shit up. I suppose that's why I write fiction. Magic realism and fantasy, to be exact, in both short fiction and novel-length forms. I also do a bit of poetry, compose a little, take lots of photos, and ride/train/show my horse. When I'm not doing any of that I'm probably thinking up a lot of crazy things, whether in truth or in jest.

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