Monday, January 30, 2012

Ouch! Oh, My Aching....

We had a beautiful winter weekend this past weekend here in Virginia: temperatures in the fifties, with sunshine and light winds. Perfect for being around horses, for riding, for mucking. And Buckshot was very good on our Saturday and Sunday rides. I, however, was not. It was, literally, a very painful weekend for me. Two different, and unrelated maladies caused my problems.

First, I am having a bout of tennis elbow, or perhaps it is called tendinitis, where the tendons/ muscles in my right elbow are strained. I have no idea what caused it. A week ago, at the barn, when I was pushing and dumping wheelbarrows filled high with poop, the elbow hurt quite a bit. I had no idea what it was, so I just assumed I’d shake it off eventually. So I kept mucking and emptying and hurting. That weekend the weather was rainy and misty so there wasn’t any riding, so I didn’t lift any of my regular gear. All week, I babied my arm, found ways for the left arm to do tasks so my right arm could rest, used ibuprofen, researched it on the Internet and decided that it was an injury of unknown origin that would just take time to recuperate and that I would help recuperate by reducing the amount I used the right arm, icing it and using ibuprofen. And during the week, it got better. Good.

Also, I’d had this little thing on the bottom of my foot for about a month now. It was the darndest thing – it felt like I had a pebble just under the skin of my left foot, on the ball of the foot. After a few weeks, a callous developed at the site and after my trusty Internet diagnosis, I realized I had a fairly common affliction called a metatarsalgia, which is from some foot bones changing position in the feet, common with runners, also probably due to aging. I bought some callous cushions with a hole in the middle and started using them, and during the week, my left foot felt pretty good, no bad pain from it.

This past Saturday both of these injuries/ conditions flared up bigtime. First, on Saturday, I went to the tack room to get my 32 pound Western saddle down from the saddle rack, and I moved my right arm in just such a way to wrench it good- huge pain in that elbow! I instantly started using just my left arm and got everything ready, got Buckshot, and got him tacked up. Luckily, I was able to swing the saddle over his back in my normal fashion without much pain. But when we were riding- ow, ow, ow. My right arm hurt like the dickens to raise or move. And my left foot – ball of foot area- started hurting as well. After a few minutes, I knew I was riding hurt. I just adjusted as much as possible and kept going.

Then, as luck would have it, during our riding lesson, the instructor and my sister, who rides a school horse in the Saturday lesson, decided they would try to fix one of my riding skills – the fact that during posting, my lower legs are not perfectly still against Buckshot’s sides. I know this is the case, and have worked on it for years, but I think that I actually push up a bit from my feet when I post and this causes my leg to move a little. Sometimes I have been very self-conscious of it, and have taken to scrutinizing every rider around me to see if their legs move when trotting! To my surprise, I found that most everyone’s legs do in fact move! So I told myself not to worry about it and just continue doing what I am doing.

But on Saturday, fixing Jan’s legs became the issue! And the instructor had me try different things than normal – stand straight up while trotting, then slowly lower my butt to the saddle and do a sitting trot keeping my leg in the same position. Well, it is hard to do in the best of times and on Saturday, I was hurting. I finally said something to the others and didn’t worry about it, I knew that I was having an off day and wasn’t able to work on fixing anything. They let me off the hook. And overall, Buckshot was great, but it wasn’t a good day for me.

Saturday night I nursed my injuries and changed some things. On Sunday, I had added extra cushioning to my boot and extra cushions right on the foot. When I put my boot on, I felt like I had propped up the ball of my foot by an inch. It felt weird, but I thought, at least I have really added some serious cushioning now. I also resolved to find ways to use my left arm rather than my right arm.

The arm felt pretty good on Sunday. But while riding, my left foot absolutely killed me. There were times I couldn’t pay much attention to Buckshot for the pain in my foot. Taking it out of the stirrup did not help because it hurt equally bad in the stirrup or out. Only when I dismounted and had my foot fully on the ground did the pain subside a bit. So, sadly, it was a beautiful day for riding, and Buckshot was in a good mood, and the footing of the arenas was great, but I was in such pain.
Overall, it was great weather, and a great horse, but crappy riding because of my arm and my foot.

Today, Monday, my foot hasn’t hurt at all. I went to a special store called The Walking Company and bought some good specific orthotic footbeds as well as a new pair of Dansko shoes with an orthotic footbed to help my foot/feet. These should help a lot. I also think, in retrospect, that I may have overcushioned my foot yesterday, and that may have made the pain worse. So, with my new orthotics, I hope next weekend’s rides will be much better. Have you had to deal with ball-of-foot issues, and as a rider, what helped you (since stirrups are designed to fit exactly at the ball of our feet!)?

Monday, January 23, 2012

How to Beat Gloomy Weather Weekends

This past weekend we had terrible weather. Very cold temperatures, in the thirties, low, thick, grey clouds, rain to drizzle to mist, to rain to drizzle to mist, with lots of mud underfoot. Gloomy weather trying to produce gloomy moods. But Buckshot is my sunshine and he performed dazzlingly this weekend! Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. But he is the bright spot of my week and my weekend, so, yucky weather or not, I look forward to being with him.

On Saturday, stuffed into my bad weather gear to keep me warm and dry, I found him nibbling hay in his Weatherbeeta blanket. The blanket was wet, but when I put my hand under the blanket, he was dry and warm inside. While the skies took a break from rain, I took him out to graze.

After eating grass for a while, we went to the main barn and I gave him a spa day grooming session. He nibbled hay while I curried and brushed and rubbed him. For some inexplicable reason, my right elbow was giving me trouble – like tennis elbow, I think – and so I had to use both hands to hold and work the brushes. I brushed his wet mane, and his forelock, and then began the rather arduous task of brushing his tail. He had lots of twigs, dry poop and wet poop in it. And while in his spa-day daze, he pooped some more. A bit more wet and fresh poop to clean off. Holding his tail hairs and brushing them slowly, from the bottom up, killed my elbow, so I did only half of the job. I left his hooves til another day when the elbow felt better, hopefully.

The barn we were in was filled with horses in stalls, due to the rainy weather. So when we were ready for treats – because a grooming session is hard work for a horse like Buckshot! - I didn’t want the other horses to feel badly about Buckshot getting treats, so I stuffed them in my pockets. I put his blanket back on him and started walking him back to his pasture. Halfway to the pasture, I stopped Buckshot and gave him the little bag of carrots. Yum! A little later, I gave him the little bag of apple pieces. Yum again! By the time, we got to his pasture, he had had a yummy, cozy, spa-day of grooming and treats. And my day was complete! I went on to help feed the farm’s horses and do some chores, happy and content after spending time chatting with and grooming Buckshot.

Sunday was even colder than Saturday. The clouds were low and thick and grey, spitting mist and threatening any minute to give way to icy rain. Talk about gloomy! When I walked into Buckshot’s pasture, I found him munching his morning hay in the stall. I checked under his blanket and he was warm and dry. I talked to him for a while and told him what I had planned for the day.

I sense that when I talk to him, he asks What are we going to do today? Are we going to ride today? So I always answer his questions. It may sound silly, but do you sense when your horse “says” something to you, or asks you something? I think that we can have conversations of a sort with our horses. I usually sense it when I am quietly with Buckshot, and am tuned in to him without any distractions. I talk to him conversationally, and think that he responds back.

Once the misting rain had stopped for a while, I took his blanket off, put his halter on, told him we had work to do, and headed out. First, we grazed for a while on some nice patches of grass. Then we went into the arena, which was soggy in some places and a little firm in other places. I had my pockets stuffed with his treats.

We did a session of groundwork exercises in the arena. I led him around in various sized circles, some big, some spirals and others, very small circles. We walked squares with very straight lines. We bent around imaginary cones at various speeds and shapes, some tiny cone bending and some big cone bending. We worked on side passing. We did hindquarter yielding. We walked in squiggly lines, for variety from the straight lines. We set up actual cones and did some “touch the cones with muzzle” work.

The only exercise Buckshot didn’t do was doing the bow I’ve taught him. He just didn’t want to do it. He would lower his nose, but wouldn’t move his foreleg forward. He didn’t get a treat after that exercise but we went on to something else and he did fine. After each exercise, I praised him and gave him a bite of a treat. He stayed calm and interested and walked beside me attentively on a very loose lead line.

After we finished the exercises and most of the treats, I took us to the trail head. He was not thrilled with this idea and turned his body any way but forward. I persisted and told him we’d just walk a small ways in the trail and we’d be fine. He finally came along fine and we walked through the gloomy, damp, grey woods. Over the bridge and he was still walking forward just fine. We turned onto a little side trail and walked til it turned into a mud pond, at which point we turned around. When we got to the main trail, we stopped and I asked him which way he wanted to go. He turned in the direction of the barn and we headed back. I stopped him several times on our way back, praised him for his bravery, and gave him a treat. When we left the woods, I was very proud of him. He had listened to me, not gotten anxious, and had walked through the woods. What a good, smart, brave horse he is!

I walked him back to his pasture, stopping periodically for some grass nibbling. Although it wasn’t hard work for him, it had been a good session. We had worked on some things in-hand, and done more solo trail work. He had tried everything I asked of him, except the bow. It was a very good time of learning, attention, praise, talking, and I hope, trusting. Even though it was a yucky day weather-wise, it was a wonderful time with Buckshot. What a good horse! I love him!

After my time with Buckshot, I helped with the farm’s other horses. The BO and BOH were at a clinic so I, with the help of the BOS (barn owner son), fed all thirty horses and got them hay and water. It was a day that made me grateful for down coats, thick socks, leather gloves and my Stormy Kromer hat! I hope you were able to do something fun despite dreadful winter weather!

Monday, January 16, 2012

January Winter Rides

This past weekend the weather here in Virginia was more winter-like – cold, in the upper thirties and forties, with lots of sunshine. Great riding weather! Buckshot and I took advantage of it and had some adventures. On Saturday, the main arena’s footing was rock hard from rain a while back and some freezing temperatures. So, after walking briefly in the arena and the grass outside of the arena, we took off on a solo ride in the trail for our walking warm up.

I carried a crop just in case Buckshot would stop and didn’t want to walk forward. I only had to use it once or twice, very lightly. We walked into the trail and down the first few sections just fine. At a fork, we headed off the main trail and up a hill to a ridge in the woods.

(The past few times we have ridden alone in the woods, Buckshot wanted to take this fork and go up the hill, but I was uncertain of the footing – heavy leaf cover on the ground hid what was below. So before I went to get Buckshot from the pasture, I had walked the trail by myself, up the hill, to check the footing and to orient myself in this part of the woods to navigate it safely.)

So, up the hill we went. And walked around various sections, and hills, before turning around and returning. Buckshot did great. A few times he was hesitant but he always responded to my “walk on” and kept going. As normal, when we headed back, he walked a bit more purposefully. I rubbed his neck and praised him for his bravery!

After our short trail ride, we walked down the farm road as well. We made it about three-quarters of the way before turning back. Again, as in the trail, there were a few moments when Buckshot hesitated, but he listened to me and responded, and then when we turned back, he happily walked on. Both of our solo rides were good for us. He is growing in trust and I hope he is gaining more confidence. Unfortunately, I do need to bring a crop with me as it is a bit more of an aid than just my legs. My reins are English, buckled reins and don’t work well to tap his shoulder.

We returned to the main arena and waited for the horses and riders for our class. Then the class walked through the woods to the reining arena, which had nice soft footing since it got a lot of sunshine. We worked there for a while. Trotting Buckshot was great, and we did some very nice cantering. I did very well keeping my butt in the saddle, steering him with focus and intention, and working on having soft, giving hands, especially at the turns.

Buckshot responded very well, especially at the left lead. Cantering on the right lead is much harder; steering him is harder since he tends to want to turn to the inside, and if I try hard to keep him straight it feels like I am just pulling on him mouth terribly. I hate that feeling and don’t like to pull hard. But he has a big moving canter and I have less good control on his right lead. Overall, it was a wonderful day- a lovely day to ride with the cool temperatures offset by the sunshine, and one arena with soft footing to work on various things with Buckshot. A good day!

On Sunday, I was given a very nice gift by the BO- three small name tags with Buckshot’s name (and mine) on them! I love them! I put one immediately on his bridle, where the browband meets the cheekpiece. It looks wonderful! Sunday’s weather was colder and windier than Saturday, but the sun was shining so it was nice. But I think I saw Buckshot’s first cold weather mood!

After I brought him to the barn to groom him and tack up, he walked around the stall, not interested in the hay on the floor, which is unlike him. I got him some alfalfa cubes to munch on, and he did eat them, but still he paced around the stall much more than normal. We could hear the wind whistle through the barn walls, but I didn’t notice it too much because he is generally fine in windy weather. I cut short his grooming, because of his pacing, and tacked him up. The last thing that I put on him was his bridle.

We started out of the barn and toward the arena. Well, the minute we were out of the barn he started shaking his head like crazy! And he seemed excited, almost agitated (but not blowing), walking faster than normal. Well, what is this, I wondered? I looked around for something new, or out of place, that could cause this reaction, but didn’t see anything. He continued to shake his head vigorously, like he was trying to get something out of his ears. I didn’t know what to think, didn’t know what was wrong with him. Luckily, the BO appeared just then and I told her about his agitation. Of course, he had momentarily stopped doing it when she appeared. LOL. She mentioned that maybe the name tag jingling around was bothering him. I didn’t think of that – it never occurred to me that the name tag would bother him. I didn’t think it was even touching his skin since I had attached it over some leather that would prevent the tag itself from touching him. But it must have felt different and maybe had a tiny bit of a new sound to him, and he wanted it off!!

Unfortunately, I had attached it with pliers so it wasn’t a quick and easy thing to just stop and remove it. So I decided to just keep going and see if he would get used to it. Eventually, in about an hour, he stopped doing any head shaking so I think he finally got used to it.

We had a nice ride, with the BO and BOH on their horses, at the reining arena. Buckshot was still a light flighty or antsy, so I got us trotting with purpose. We just did a few canters. I tried something new on the right lead, to see if it would help us. Since he tends to turn inside and make a bit of a right circle (but too small of a circle), I shifted my weight a tiny bit to the outside, to see if that might help. I think it may have helped a very small bit. I will have to keep trying it before I decide if it works.

Earlier on Sunday, I had asked the BO her thoughts on why Buckshot’s right lead is not good. Is it his conformation? His age? An old injury? My relatively-new skill level at the canter? Was there anything I could be doing as the rider to help him more?

She thought that it may be a touch of arthritis, and his age. We discussed whether he needs some treatment, or whether we should continue to watch him. He still gets up and down well, and he rolls completely over when he rolls, so those are good signs that he doesn’t have much arthritis at this point. And with my twenty-minute walking warm up, he isn’t stiff in any way when I ride him. He gives a trot or a canter 95% of the time I ask for it. The only difficulty is that his right lead canter is much more difficult than his left lead canter. So for the time being, I don’t think he is uncomfortable with arthritis, and thus doesn’t warrant treating for it. I don’t want to give injections of glucosamine just to improve one aspect of one gait.

So I’ll keep watching him and if and when it is time to treat for arthritis, I’ll do so. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on our cantering and enjoying the heck out of him – he is a great horse!

In fact, he is such a great horse that back in November, when the weather started to turn cool, and I was carefully watching for the cool-weather moods, he didn’t have any. But yesterday, with cold temperatures, wind, and a new, weird little thing hanging from his bridle, he finally did show normal, cool weather horsey-moods!!

I read some interesting tips on Julie Goodnight’s website about helping to cue for a difficult canter lead. I’ll report them as I try them out.

I finally saw “War Horse” this past week. I give it a B. I wasn’t that thrilled with it; in my opinion it is mostly a war movie with a bit of of a horse story thrown in, than a horse movie. I also bought the Buck Brannaman movie on CD. I saw it a few months ago in the theater, but after our reining trainer recently recommended it, I decided to buy it and watch it again. It is quite moving, interesting and thought provoking for me. What a life he has had.

Hope you had a great weekend!

Monday, January 9, 2012

January Rides and Lessons Learned

I am so surprised, but pleased, by the mild winter weather we have been having. It is hard to believe that in early January the temperatures are in the fifties and lower sixties! Warm!

Buckshot and I took advantage of the weather Saturday and had a good riding session. After our walking warm up, we started trotting and he was energetic and responsive. When we cantered, it was wonderful- I cued correctly for the lead, got the correct lead, rode well, steered well, used my hands to guide the reins but not pull back, lovely cantering. Our Saturday class walked down the farm road to the reining arena and we did more work there. When I brought Buckshot back to the stall, he was slightly sweaty so I wiped him vigorously, gave him his treats and praised him. What a good horse! And I see my own improvements as well.

But the next day, the improvements were gone! On Sunday we went to the reining trainer’s farm and along with about eight other horses and riders, participated in the reining clinic. First we watched the trainer show how he lunges horses who have had the winter off, and are about to return to training for shows. He used a dressage whip and explained carefully what he was doing and why. He got on the horse and continued to explain his procedure of circling the horse and establishing the ability to get the horse’s nose pulled around to his knee. During the session, he spoke of Buck Brannaman and his recent movie. He recommended the movie to us. I saw it a few months ago and liked it, but was surprised at this recommendation.

The next exercise we worked on was circling our horses with their nose turned toward our leg. I tried this on Buckshot and he did it very well. As I held the rein close to my leg, my head was turned to the side and I could easily see both Buckshot’s head/neck and his rear end. He was nicely bent , not just turning his neck. We did the same on the other side as well. Good Buckshot!

A later exercise involved loping a circle from the walk. After several riders took their turn, Buckshot and I were called up. We routinely practice cantering from the walk, so I wasn’t worried about that. But this circle was going to the right, which is his weaker side. Well, my nerves just took over, along with a little attitude that just poked out in the front of my mind which said “Okay, let’s do it!!” with such excitement and abandon that I totally forgot all of my cues, and my tips and my thoughts and, well everything. I just flung us into cantering, and of course, we headed on that right turn with a left lead, but I didn’t know it at all because I couldn’t think at all. The trainer called out, “bring him to a trot and raise your right hand,” which I did, but again, had no earthly idea what I was doing. So apparently we didn’t get it, because the trainer called out again, “bring him to a trot and raise your right hand higher.” By this time, the circle was nearly completed but we cantered on for a few more strides. I think we finally got the correct lead.

As I walked Buckshot back to the standing horses, I smiled, thinking “good!” but I really had no idea what we had just done. I was just proud of us, for no reason at all. I guess because I hadn’t fallen off of him, and had kept him more or less in a circle. Still, I was happy, and I patted Buckshot.

Later in the clinic, the trainer gave lots of showing tips and rules, and during the segment said “The minute you walk in the show pen, you lose 50% of your training.” I was confused by this- the horse loses his training? How? Why? The rider loses their training? Whatever does he mean? He didn’t explain it but went on to other rules.

In the drive back to our farm, it suddenly hit me out of the blue and I said to the BO, “you know, for some reason, I forgot all about the cantering tips I’ve been working on, when I was in the clinic. They just went out of my mind and I did terrible cantering. Even though I’ve been working on them with Buckshot. Is that what he meant by losing 50% of your training when you are showing?” She said, that’s exactly what he meant.

Isn’t that amazing? You really do. I guess it is nerves, and other people watching, and undisciplined thinking, that, in my case, caused me to not focus on our cantering tips. Now that I am aware of this, I’m going to change up my thought process at the next clinic, and see what helps me stay very, very aware of all the cues and aids I do at our home farm. And maybe we’ll finally demonstrate the lovely cantering we’ve been doing!

I hope you had a lovely weekend. I fear real winter weather is coming soon….

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Weekend Rides

Happy New Year to everyone! I hope your 2012 started off well.

On Saturday, December 31, 2011 I had a thrilling ride on Buckshot! It couldn’t have been better. I had found some good tips on the canter, particularly on how to tell what lead you are on, on Julie Goodnight’s website. I wrote them down and took the notes to the barn. I was prepared to use them. (What were the tips? She said to watch your own leg and hip, discreetly of course, as you canter, and the leg/hip that move farther forward reflect the lead you are on.)

After doing our walking warm up, Buckshot and I started trotting. He felt great- perhaps enthusiastic over the nice weather (in the 50’s and sunny) and the soft, sandy, dry footing. After several minutes of nice trotting, I readied my aids for the canter at the left lead: left leg forward, right leg back, left seatbone forward slightly, left rein lifted, kiss and push with seat. He took off cantering and I could instantly sense my left leg and hip went more forward than my right- hooray- left lead accomplished! I was thrilled! I guess that sensing my whole leg and its reaction to the canter is easier to me than sensing just my hip reaction, so her tip to watch/sense which leg goes forward more is easier for me to determine.

I tried a canter to the right and again, could tell right away that we got the correct lead! And I was able to keep thinking about what I needed to do: give with soft hands, oh, here comes a bend so I support with the inside leg, wow, he didn’t miss a beat around that bend, etc. As we did more cantering, we were able to go around the entire arena at the canter! A big accomplishment for us.

For our Saturday class, the BO set up cones and gave us a challenging canter pattern. It involved a) doing a full circle at the canter, and b) changing leads in the middle. I felt confident of us when we started the first time, and we did the full circle to the left. We came to the middle, broke to the trot and I flailed to give Buckshot the aids to the right canter. He didn’t get it, so I quickly broke to the trot (I even say the word “break” when I do it- more to instruct myself than him!), and asked again, and he got the correct, right lead! That was a wonderful accomplishment for us!

We did the pattern a few more times. The right lead is Buckshot’s weakest side so we worked very hard on it. We have more work, much more work, to do. But I was so proud of him and of us. The class then walked up the road to the other arena and did some work there. I wanted to just keep riding and working on the canter, but he was beginning to sweat a little, so I cut short any further work. I rubbed him vigorously with a rag to dry his sweat when we got back and untacked. As I walked him back to his pasture, I kept telling him what a great horse he was and weren’t we both great!! It was one of those light, wonderful, special days when a new technique works, and both Buckshot and I feel such enthusiasm and energy and love to work together! Thrilling and rare and special.

On Sunday and Monday, our rides were good but not as special as Saturday. We didn’t have quite the same level of success at the canter. But our improvement comes little by little. And I am very glad to see us making our small improvements. Riding well, and at the canter specifically, is very challenging. It doesn’t come easily, but we will continue to practice, practice, practice and I know we will continue to improve. I am quite surprised and pleased with our progress from a year ago.

In another area, our solo rides, we did well this weekend. On Sunday we walked through the entire trail by ourselves, but at times, Buckshot was reluctant. I carried a crop and just needed it slightly a few times. He listened to me and continued walking. I was very proud of him. The next day (crop in hand again) we walked down the road, and he became reluctant. I tapped him a few times with the crop to reinforce my “walk on” and he did walk. We got to the three-quarter mark and I turned us around and he happily walked back.

We did more work in the arena before we quit for the day. So I think we made real progress in our solo rides, and bless his heart, sometimes Buckshot is enthused about our rides and sometimes he is enthused at first, and then becomes hesitant. But he does continue to listen to me, and I hope, to trust me. He is a wonderful horse, and I am grateful to be his human!

I hope you started the new year off well! It’s going to be a great year, that’s my prediction!