"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Sunday, February 26, 2012


February has escaped me without posting on here. Judy had commissioned a painting for her niece, whose birthday was in mid-February, and any spare time at the beginning of the month was used to finish a watercolor of the niece's Quarter Horse gelding.
I'd forgotten to post about this, but I've also consistently been riding Rose since January. The goal was to take her to the January Parkland dressage show with Lily, and start her in the Intro classes. But at the beginning of the month, she came in from the paddock dead lame, with a swollen spot on the inside of her right front just under her knee. Judy thought she'd popped a splint. After 3 days of diligent icing, cold hosing and wrapping, the swelling had gone down somewhat but Rose was still favoring the leg, so our vet was called out. He diagnosed a mild suspensory strain due to weak hindquarters and lax stifles, and gave us a workout program to get Rose back on track and strengthen her hind end. Judy started handwalking her for 30 minutes at a time for the first week, then the same amount of time under saddle, and we were to progress slowly into trot from there. Rose's rehab has been pockmarked with setbacks, including Judy catching a stomach virus, injuring a knee (she's still recovering from that one), me getting sick with a chest cold, a week of pouring rain where no one could ride in the flooded arena, and Rose having ups and downs in her ability to progress, including stumbling and falling while I was riding her in a downward transition from trot to walk. It scared me shitless, but thankfully the chiropractor was scheduled to come the next day to adjust Rose. He informed Judy and me that she has several issues going on with her hips, in part from her own conformation and lack of conditioning, that will need to be worked through slowly. We still haven't made it past 10 minutes of trotting, and with Judy temporarily out of the game, I've doggedly continued with her rehab. Anything is better than nothing!

Lily has improved by leaps and bounds. We've finally done proper training rides in the park, working on a forward trot on the bit, and this was a huge success! Whereas before, Lily had to stop and look at things she wasn't sure about, and preferred to walk on the trails, she has discovered how much fun it is to trot in the "wild". Our second conditioning ride stands out because it was the first time the light came on, "This is actually kind of fun!" Lily's ears were pricked the entire time, but still paying attention-she'd flick them back to pay attention to me constantly. The park has expanded the main trails and at one point I was completely lost. So I let her choose the way, and she did so willingly and happily, with her neck arched and pushing from behind. She seemed bummed out when we made it back to the powerlines and I insisted that she walk. She did, and we walked home at an extended walk, her hind end swinging, on a loose rein. It was a lovely ride, and we have been able to repeat it. Lily did way better on the trails than in the arena, so my next goal was to reproduce it at home.

In the attempt to help me do so, Judy injured her knee. Here's the story:

About 2 weeks ago, we had Rose and Lily turned out in adjacent paddocks. They were playing together from opposite sides of the fence, bucking and kicking. We had just decided to bring them in before they hurt themselves, when I see Lily rear up in the air in slow motion and pivot on her hind legs 180 degrees, land facing the opposite direction, then buck and a kick from a standstill. The movement was done with such grace and ease that my jaw dropped. I've watched horses play around in the past and do all sorts of crazy contortions with their bodies, but what got to me about what Lily had just done was the effortlessness with which she did it. 9 months ago, she would not have been able to do a move like that with such ease-it is a result of all the conditioning I've done with her. She never bucked or played in turnout, which I always thought strange in a young horse. She's making up for lost time now!
So later that morning I was riding her in the arena while Judy rode Rose. We had just warmed up and were starting to trot, and Lily was bracing against the contact instead of reaching for it. It wasn't bad, and I was expecting her to warm up out of it as we continued to trot. Judy tried giving me pointers from Rose's back, and suggested me visualizing her doing that same move she'd done in the paddock to imagine her pushing up and forward into the contact. I laughed nervously at the suggestion and made a point of not visualizing that move as I asked her for more energy. Instead of extending, Lily became pogo-sticky and hollowed her back and neck. I slowed her down and sat her trot, and she was thinking about giving, when Judy suggested trading horses. I was thrilled at the idea, as I had always wondered what would Judy be able to do with Lily, and had wanted to watch someone more experienced ride her to see if she'd be better than with me.

I got on Rose and continued to walk her around the arena while Judy rode Lily. She pushed her hard, asking her to extend her trot and reach for the contact. Lily would try to evade, and Judy would ask harder. Lily looked gorgeous when she responded. She'd occassionally try to shoot forward but Judy would hold her in. I watched them for awhile, then decided to trot Rose a little since she was about half way through her 45 minute session. She trotted for 3 steps, feeling slightly off, and I looked down at her. That's when I heard the "thump." I look up, and Judy was on the ground, Lily standing next to her. Everyone from the barn was running towards her. Ines, who'd been watching from the arena gate, had called to everyone else. I leaped off Rose and ran over to her too, Rose trotting behind me.

Her face was contorted in what I thought was pain, and I freaked out. Upon closer inspection, though, Judy was laughing, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. She got up, brushed herself off, and turned to me. "I've been teaching you all wrong. This mare can't be ridden the way I was telling you to ride her. That's why it wasn't working. I'm completely changing the format of your lessons from now on."

I asked what had caused the fall. Apparently Lily had reared up in the air and done a 180 turn on her back legs... "Oh boy-she did exactly what you wanted her to!" I said, laughing, referring to Judy's wanting me to visualize that move to get Lily moving forward. Judy opened her eyes wide, and laughed harder. The conclusion was that we weren't going to think about that maneuver any more!

Judy got back on, despite my protests that I could continue to ride Lily. I was afraid the event would repeat itself, but Judy wanted to finish figuring out my mare. I mounted Rose, and made a point of walking inside the dressage arena, staying somewhere near the middle of the arena when Judy was working at either end. My idea was that if Lily tried another stunt, I'd block her with Rose.

They walked for a long time, Judy getting Lily on the bit. I could see the tension in Lily, though, and when Judy asked her to trot, Lily scooted forward and turned towards the inside of the arena on her own, accelerating. I swung Rose into Lily's path, and Lily stopped. Afterwards, Judy continued to walk, and they ended up just working on a 20 meter circle at one end of the arena, alternating walk and trot.

Lily on the bit, at the walk

Rose standing quietly while I took pics of Lily and Judy with my phone

I exited the dressage arena and walked Rose on a loose rein when I saw Lily finally relax and understand what Judy wanted, and realize that Judy wasn't going to hurt her. Judy trotted with Lily again, and once she had her consistently on the bit, passed her back to me. By then it was time for Rose's workout to be done. I rode Lily around in a 20 meter circle, first walking, then trotting. I could tell she was relieved to have me back riding her because any tension that had been remaining evaporated. After having Judy work with her, it was twice as easy for me to get her using her body correctly. Judy confirmed what I had already been doing with Lily during our workouts: I should do lots of walk on the bit, then keep her at a slow easy trot to keep her calm while focusing on lowering her head and lifting her back. I was happy-I'd been on the right track.

Judy's knee started to bother her after the final ride on Lily, and despite immediately icing it and taking ibuprofen, it was very hard for her to walk the next day. As it turns out, she had a partial tear to her MCL. I feel awful about it still, but Judy still insists she doesn't care, because it means she can teach me better. Yup-trainers like her are few and far between!

I'm happy to report that after 2 weeks of taking it as easy as possible given her own schedule, her knee is a LOT better, and she is hoping to ride again sometime this week. Phew!

These are some photos from one of our more recent lessons:

Lily at the walk

A very calm trot, on the bit.  She was chewing and relaxing her jaw-this is a new event in her progress!
Compare to how Lily looked here.

And a photo that Judy took of Rose and me during one of her recent rehab sessions.

She says we look good together. :) I don't know what it is about riding Rose-maybe it's her uphill build? But it always feels like my upper body wants to be in the same spot in space as if I were on Lily, while my lower body is a full hand higher in the air (Rose is a big girl!). The result: I usually look like I've been bent into a lump when I'm on her. At least that's how it feels. I have to constantly remind myself to pull up my upper body and stick out my abs-this is what it looks like when I do!

With her, my current goal is to make it to the park by ourselves. It will be great for her rehab to go on those hills! Rose has been out in groups, and has always been a very good girl, but would not step beyond the barn parking lot with me on her. The past 2 days, we have made it down the driveway with no complaints, and off of the property for a short distance. I plan to slowly increase the distance until we make it to the park. We'll see how it goes. In the meantime, we are walking for 45 minutes total, with 10 minutes of trotting spread throughout. I've added stretches before and after our rides-she is incredibly stiff in her entire hind end, and I think eventually this will help. So far, all I can do is hold each hind leg up and out, with stifle and hock at right angles. This is the most she can go right now.

If you've never stretched your horse, you probably should. It does a world of difference in their conditioning, muscle development, and their ability to move correctly. Studies at university veterinary hospitals have been done on their benefits!  Some of the leg stretches that I do with Lily and that I have added to Rose's program are included here. Lily has gotten the swing of them and totally gives in to them, releasing her hind legs backwards on her own when I extend her legs back, and leaning her weight into her haunches for a better stretch when I extend her front legs forward. She'll also give a deep sigh during and/or after her stretches, even closing her eyes at times. Pretty cool! She also does better with stretches BEFORE her workout (and after being groomed-currying helps warm up the muscles), especially if I rode her the day before. Post-workout stretches are not as dramatic, and I don't push the envelope if she doesn't want to give. The important thing here is that you stay in tune with your horse, that you don't do too much too soon (expect a horse that is bad for the farrier to be resistant to stretching, and take the necessary precautions when training them to stretch!), and that you don't push your horse on any given day if he doesn't want to give you the ideal stretch or it will be counterproductive. If the horse resists at all, he will be tensing up his muscles instead of relaxing, which defeats the purpose. Also stretching a horse is not necessarily like stretching yourself-we are supposed to hold a stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. It's nearly impossible to do it for that long with a horse, and you shouldn't try-you must release at the first sign of tension, even if it's only been a couple of seconds, to maximize the benefits of the stretch.

On another front, it has been unseasonably hot pretty much the entire winter. It's the first time since moving to South FL that I've been wearing tank tops in the wintertime. Yeah, it's milder than anywhere else in the country, but we'll have our runs of days in the 50's and 60's, with nights in the 40's. Not this year. We had 2 days where temps dropped below 70, and that was it. :( Which sucks double time, because warm winters usually mean an active hurricane season, since the ocean surface stays hot. We shall see what this summer brings...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Barn BBQ

Last Saturday, the whole barn planned a barbecue at one of the Davie parks, Tree Top Park. We've been making a point of all hanging out together on Saturdays, usually Saturday night where we had been going to a local barbecue joint for dinner and laughs. This was our first barn outing since Judy took over as the new barn manager.

Mark, Dianne, and Pink's leasor Ines rode in Mark's truck towing Pink and Beau. This was Pink's first outing, and I was excited to see how she'd behave-I had a feeling she was going to do great. Somebody took a long time to train Pink properly before she ended up abandoned in a field, and even after being owned by Dianne for a year already, Pink is still constantly surprising us. Even though I don't have the time to ride her like I used to, she is still among my favorites at the barn.

Pink and me, on a brief ride last week.
Sarah, Judy and myself rode in Judy's truck towing Lily and Sarah's Trote-Galope gelding Romeo. We left the barn an hour after Mark's group because Judy had to get a couple of things done first around the barn and at her apartment, and we had to load Romeo, who had had a negative trailering experience the last time he was trailered-he would not load after a long ride. Romeo surprised us by going into Judy's step-up trailer after just 15 minutes of Sarah patiently coaxing him with treats and tons of praise. Lily stepped right in after me when I led her in, and we were off!

We arrived at Tree Tops right at 11:00 am as planned. The drive down was uneventful, and once in the park, the day was beautiful. The forecast had threatened thunderstorms all day, but the sun was bright and shining. Dianne and Ines had ridden out on Beau and Pink respectively, and they returned shortly after we arrived. By then, Sarah and I had unloaded Romeo and Lily, and were allowing them to graze and explore, walking them around the picnic area and the field so that they could get used to their surroundings before tacking up. I like to give Lily a break especially, because she's always a little nervous initially right after unloading. It has to be weird to come out of that little box of a trailer to find yourself in completely new and unfamiliar surroundings.

Lily relaxing after the trailer ride

Sarah and Romeo

Ines with Pink (she untacked her to let her graze and cool off while waiting for us) and Romeo

Dianne cantering on Beau while we get settled

Cantering across the field

Ines tries out Western riding on Beau

Dorothee's Charles and Mark get the grill going

I was also giving Charles a chance to arrive before we rode out-he was driving to the park straight from the hospital after staying late to help out with the case load; there had been so many admissions at the hospital that they were running short on nursing staff.

We started tacking up after he arrived, and rode off on a brief trail ride while Mark and Elisabeth's Charles started lunch.

Ines warms up Pink again

Sarah demonstrates the trote on Romeo

Elisabeth all ready to go on Beau

Lily  & me

The trail riding posse! From left: Sarah on Romeo, me on Lily, Elisabeth on Beau, and Ines on Pink

 Sarah led the way on Romeo, since she was the only one in our group that had been to the park before to ride. Lily likes to be in front on group trail rides, but I insisted on keeping her behind Romeo. She had a hard time with it at first, trying to trot and jig to take the lead, but I held her back. Eventually she accepted the fact that this time, she was not going to lead, and relaxed, but still asked to trot every once in awhile to catch up. The trail led through high brush and savana-type trees that filtered the light of the noontime sun, going around a lake. As we came out of the trail onto a side street, Romeo took the lead by about 5 lengths in his trote, and Lily suddenly decided to imitate him, arching her neck and giving me a smooth prancy trot. She was not pulling at the reins or acting supercharged; she was literally imitating Romeo. Super cute!

We crossed the road and found the trail again a little further down, following a fence line, and came out by the park entrance. We crossed the street here, then rode into the pine trees. The forest was gorgeous; it was like we were riding up north in the Carolinas or something-it did not feel like South Fl.

Pine forests. Beautiful! Sarah was leading the way on Romeo

 As we followed the trail, we came out by the park lake, where people were canoeing and overall having fun (there was a huge Cub Scouts jamboree going on, so the park was pretty full in the people section), and then the trail looped back into the forest.

Someone canoeing to the right on the water

The park lake

 Around this time Mark called me to let me know lunch would be ready in about 10 minutes, so we picked up the pace, following the trail as it came out by the campers (we were greeted by shouts of "Horsie, horsie!" but we trotted past before any children could get the idea of running up to us and spooking the horses...) and around the park perimeter until we arrived back at our field. We rode around for a few more minutes, which is when Dianne took these awesome pictures of Lily:

This is so much better than 6 months ago!

She's gained so much muscle!

This photo made my day.

Cantering. Slowly improving here as well. We'll get there.

We untacked the horses and took them to a nearby wash rack (the park even supplied hoses and running water!) to rinse them off and offer them water. The park provides a water trough, but I had warned everyone that it wasn't a good idea to allow the horses to drink from a public trough-they could get EPM, strangles, the flu or God knows what from shared water. So we had each brought a bucket and we offered the horses fresh water from the hose-they appreciated it.

There was a small corral where Beau and Pink were turned out together, while Lily and Romeo got to hang out at the hitching posts by our picnic table. We finally sat down to eat; the food was delicious! Nothing like eating barbecue after working up an appetite riding! Dorothee's Charles had even made chili!

There were other people parked with their trailers and horses around the field. Someone's horse got loose and took off across the field at a gallop, with his saddle on and no halter nor bridle. It took awhile for everyone to catch him, but he eventually returned to his buddies. During the time that the horse was running back & forth, Lily became very antsy on her hitching post, twirling around to watch where he was going. We joked around that she wanted to do exactly what he was doing; the rest of our horses didn't care and acted like nothing was going on. Now hold this thought for later...

The group hanging out. This is what I mean when I talk about South Fl being a cultural melting pot: Judy is part Native American, Mark's parents are Polish, Elisabeth is German, Ines is French, Elisabeth's Charles is Argentinean, my Charles is Cubanorrican (Cuban born and raised in Puerto Rico), and I'm Puertorrican. Dianne is probably the only one that comes closest to being a true Floridian, her parents having lived in FL most of their lives, from what I understand. People from different cultures, backgrounds, of different first languages, all together, all friends. :)

We celebrated Elisabeth's Charles's birthday

After eating and hanging out for awhile, we tacked up again. It was around 3:00 pm that time, and Charles was exhausted-he took off to go home and sleep. We hit the trails again, but it was like the horses were going out for the first time...Lily, Romeo, Beau and Pink were all hyped. We trotted most of the way out on the trail, taking a route that led us out of the park and into a different park, following a path that wound between forest and the backs of people's houses. It was a gorgeous trail, and at one point it opened up onto rolling hills (EXTREMELY unusual in South FL!) with trees scattered across them. We cantered across them, then broke down to a trot until we came to the end of the field, then turned around and came back. On the way back, Elisabeth and Ines took the lead on Beau and Pink, first at a trot and then a canter. Lily became anxious about being left behind, despite being next to Romeo, and proceeded to give 3 huge bounds forward as I tried first to hold her back, and then allowed her to canter. Behind me, Sarah was struggling with Romeo as well; we called to Elisabeth and Ines to wait up, and they brought their horses to a stop, which made Romeo and Lily immediately settle. We trotted the rest of the way, Sarah leading the way again. I'm still not sure how she knew her way around-she'd never been on these trails in particular, but she got us back to the field eventually, safe and sound. We were out over an hour.

Lily was acting unusually herd-bound, so I made her work in the field for 10 minutes or so before untacking her. We trotted, and cantered small circles. She bucked twice at the canter, but I worked her through it until she was calm and focused exclusively on me. By the time we were done, the rest of the group had already untacked, hosed off their horses, and brought them back. So we made our way to the wash rack, while Lily zig-zagged behind me, whinnying for the rest of our group back at the trailers. Suddenly, she reared up and away from me, yanking the lead rope out of my hands (not without taking my skin off in the process!) and took off at a gallop back to our trailers. I knew she wasn't going anywhere-she went and hid behind Pink, and Dianne, who was closest, was able to catch her. I was furious at Lily, but started laughing when Dianne says, "Well, she got her wish-she ran free across the field just like that other horse!" Indeed she did!

I made her pay attention to me as we made our way back by pausing, backing up, slowing and accelerating our pace by turns, and she relaxed. The wash rack was uneventful, and then I tied her up to her hitching post again while we picked up and the other horses got loaded. It was 5:00 pm.

Pink and Beau loaded quickly onto Mark's trailer, but Romeo was a different matter. He started out more stubborn than at the barn, reluctant to place even his front feet in the trailer. It was not a good sign, and when time continued to pass without Sarah, Dianne or Mark being able to coax him in, we started to get a little concerned. It was 5:30 pm and the park was supposed to close at 6:00.

Lily waiting, not so patiently, for Romeo to load. Note the "question mark" expression-one ear forward, one ear back.

My new favorite pic of her

Romeo is not wired mentally like your "normal" horse. He is a Trote-Galope, of very similar breeding to a Paso Fino. I've worked with a lot of horses of various breeds and backgrounds, and Pasos are among THE most intelligent I have ever handled. Romeo is no exception-he is extremely smart, and will find ways to wiggle and worm his way out of work in ways that you would never have imagined. He can really and truly outsmart you if you're not paying attention. Add to that the fact that, like most Pasos, he was abused most of his life until Sarah got him, to the point of being considered dangerous. He will resist any kind of force or coercion, especially if you're trying to get him to do something he doesn't want to do. Especially if it means loading into a trailer at the end of a long day. While he has perfect ground manners and responds tremendously well to natural horsemanship groundwork thanks to a lot of hard work put in by Sarah, he retains the capacity to instantly revert as soon as he thinks the game isn't fun anymore.  Thus, traditional natural horsemanship methods to put "pressure" on a horse are a moot point with him-tap him with a carrot stick, and watch him spin around and bolt; back him up and bring him forward to the trailer, and instead he will back his way out of the park. Traditional strength methods (rope around the butt, chain over the nose, cracking a lunge whip in the air, etc) will have even less success, causing him to revert to his pre-Sarah days. We even tried loading Lily in first to see if it would convince him to load, but the only result was that he continued to balk and Lily freaked out in the trailer, breaking her halter in the process. Thank God for safety crowns and for Mark always carrying a spare halter... I got Lilly off the trailer.

We considered our options. Romeo was not in the least scared of the trailer; he had simply turned this into a big game where he was quickly becoming the grand winner. Judy has a trainer friend whose barn is adjacent to the park whom she called, and it turned out she had Rompun on hand that we could try on Romeo, to see if tranquing him would at least make him easier to manipulate. Sarah rode him over to the barn, and I loaded Lily up again. It took some convincing to get her on the trailer this time, but after the 3rd try and a carrot stick tap in the butt from Judy, she hopped in. We all drove around the park to the area that led into Judy's friend's barn.

The struggle was far from over. Romeo was given a double dose of Rompun, and even then, all it did was slow him down a bit-it almost made him even more stubborn. At one point, it was all of us pushing and heaving on his hind end trying to physically load him on the trailer, but it was not working. It was an epic fail. Eventually everyone took a break to regroup. Lily had been in the trailer for an hour at this point and was starting to get really anxious. It was torture for her to see Romeo appear and disappear, and the racket he was making with refusing to load was making her even more nervous. However, I was afraid to take her off the trailer and have her refuse to load again as well.  I was standing outside with Mark, when the trailer started to heave-Lily was bucking/rearing in the trailer. I ran in and she immediately calmed down, her eyes rolling and sweat running down her shoulders. She had multiple cuts on her face just from that one little struggle, and I thanked the stars that I had wrapped her legs.  My poor horse. Dianne was still trying to load Romeo while everyone else regrouped, and I asked her to stop. Lily settled completely.

At this point, I knew my horse was done. I tried to step out of the trailer, and immediately Lily started throwing herself around again. I hopped back in and she settled. It was 7:30pm. Sarah was also done, and angry. She decided she would keep Romeo overnight at this barn and stay at the trainer's groom quarters. Mark and Dianne decided they would take Pink and Beau back home, and return with Mark's trailer, which has a ramp and might be more enticing for a small tired horse than a 2 feet high step-up. I chose to ride in the trailer with Lily, and Judy agreed.

We drove out of Davie, and Lily stayed calm. It was hot in the trailer so I went around making sure ALL the windows were open. Lily whinnied each time I stepped out of sight, which is an absolute first. I stroked her neck to reassure her. Judy stopped before we got on the Turnpike to make sure we were okay; I told her I'd stay all the way-it was another 30 min drive to get home, and I didn't want Lily freaking out on the way and causing the trailer to fishtail or worse.

It was a nerve-wracking ride. Have you ever ridden in a trailer? It is a wonder that horses ever want to go back in one again after their first ride-they feel and sound like death traps. And Judy's is an improvement to Mark's-his is a beautiful brand-new 2-horse Shadow, well-built and sturdy, but it is noisy inside the trailer if you ride with the horses; it seems like everything that could possibly clang, does. And he drives slow! Judy's is an extra-tall Sundowner and is somehow not quite so noisy. However, even with her careful driving, I was still on edge, and developed a new admiration for my mare, who simply spread her back legs and leaned her butt agains the rear bar for support, taking the brunt of her weight off her front legs and onto her stronger hind legs. Smart girl! She stayed completely calm as long as I stood by her side, but about 5 minutes after hitting the highway, she started to fidget with her halter, turning her head as if trying to get it off. I got the hint, and moved the trailer tie towards her on the manger so she'd have a good 10" of slack. She relaxed and shifted more of her weight back to her hind end-she needed that extra room to be able to balance better. Lesson learned for me.

This also allowed Lily to press her forehead against my chest for awhile, which always makes my heart melt, and the rest of the ride home was uneventful. As we approached home, I knew when we started to get close because her expression changed-she suddenly started looking out the window, ears pricked. I looked out the back windows and saw the toll lights as we passed through. We were finally on the street that led home.

Of course she blasted a whinny as soon as we pulled up to our driveway, and it was answered by all of the horses. I could recognize their whinnies-Rose, Pink and Beau in their trailer, and Crissy. Mark, Dianne and Ines were already there, unloading the horses. Lily came off the trailer uneventfully, and I put her on the cross ties to hose her off and give her a liniment bath, treat her cuts, and wrap her legs.

Mark, Dianne, and Ines finished unloading all of their stuff from the trailer. Ines stayed to help us feed the horses and clean up, while Mark and Dianne left to go rescue Romeo and Sarah. We all went home, and Mark and Dianne were eventually able to get Romeo on the trailer with the ramp-they arrived back at the barn by 11pm.