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



Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fear

This past weekend had a few hiccups on the equine front.

Friday
I rode Lily for the first time since the Old Dominion ride. She had almost 3 weeks of vacation and I was honestly expecting her to be a handful, despite having longed her a couple of times during the week to watch her move and get the kinks out. I had been doing interval training with her on the longe: 5 minute trot warm-up in each direction, then alternating laps of trot and canter: trot 1 lap, canter 1 lap; trot 1 lap, canter 2 laps, etc. 5 minutes in each direction of that. Then cool out at a walk.




Lily turned out to be a superstar. We rode in the arena, starting out with bendy trotting to warm up, then moving on into shoulder-in, haunches-in, then alternating shoulder-in and haunches in on a circle, all at the trot. We cantered, then did canter shoulder-ins. Stretchy trot, then canter-halt-back-canter transitions. The canter-halt-back-canter exercise is one of my favorites to get her really pushing from behind, especially now that she doesn't go cuckoo over it. On this particular occasion it got her so up and in front of my leg that after doing the exercise for one lap in each direction, I decided to call it a day as a reward. We worked for a total of 25 minutes. Short and sweet.

And then it was Gracie's turn.

Gracie had also benefitted from longing this week. Her turn had been on Wednesday, with Thursday off.

Gracie during her longe session on Wednesday
I figured she should be fine to be ridden without prior longing on Friday, something that I normally do when she's had a couple of days off in a row because she'll have so much energy otherwise that she'll be extra sassy and opinionated. I figured she'd be fine without it since she had been worked recently. I didn't think about the fact that, due to the bad weather we were supposed to get, all the field board horses had been stalled for 24 hours.

That was mistake #1.

A new trail was cleared by a barn neighbor so we could again have access to the Redneck Park trails. I wanted to take Charles on Saturday, so I decided to try out the new trail and see how Gracie behaved. I had been warned that at the corner of the neighbor's property there was a large fishing boat and a pen full of sheep that the other horses had been nervous about.

I figured I'd ride down and see how Gracie behaved. She's pretty fearless overall and I figured at most she'd do her little nervous dance as we went past the sheep and then she'd be fine.

That was mistake #2.

Oh, and before I forget: that hurricane that blew off of the coast of NC last week? We were getting the tail end of it on this day. It was a gorgeous sunny day with temps in the upper 70's but with 15 mph sustained winds with 20+ mph gusts.

Sure, it's a fantastic idea to take a brave but still green horse out who is also quite fresh on a new trail with known spook-worthy obstacles all by yourself on a cooler and fiercely windy day.

You guessed it: that was mistake #3.

First, Gracie didn't want to stand at the mounting block. She just wanted to go. She was made to wait.

She danced down the bridle path and we rounded the corner onto the new trail. I was debating dismounting upon seeing the sheep when suddenly Gracie smelled them before she saw them. She came to a halt. I let her stand and look, which is her modus operandi: you let her look, she gets over it, and she continues. However, this time instead of continuing forward after having a good look, she spun around to try to head back home. I brought her to a stop and she threatened to rear. Repeatedly. Especially when I tried to get her to turn around. Not big rears-she was just trying to pop up and I was preventing it from happening. Why this upset me so much on this day is beyond me. Maybe because it felt like she was a hair away from truly escalating in her naughtiness? Instead of asking her to turn again to face the sheep, I just asked her to stand still and once she'd done that for a few seconds I dismounted. And unclipped the reins from the bit, clipping one end to her halter, turning them into a 9' lead. She got longed. We walked past the sheep and I longed her in the vicinity of their pen so she could see them while in motion. Contrary to what she normally does, she was getting more and more worked up. I was getting more and more frazzled. I finally brought her to a halt and walked her over to the sheep. One of them came over to the fence to investigate. Gracie stood on a loose lead but shifting her weight backwards onto her haunches in terror while flaring her nostrils at the sheep. :( The sheep turned around and ran away. To my surprise, Gracie took a step closer to the pen to watch the sheep go, still flaring her nostrils.

As a reward for taking that step forward, I turned Gracie around and walked her to the following corner of the path, away from the sheep. Here I mounted up again and we continued on our way.

In typical Gracie fashion, she had left behind the whole sheep incident.

I, on the other hand, had not.

To get to Redneck Park now with this new access, we still have to cross the same street as before but now we have to ride alongside it for a ways before we can access the soybean farm fields that will take us to the park. I do NOT like riding next to the road, especially when feeling frazzled.

As we approached to the road crossing, a motorcycle came roaring up the road and I braced for Gracie to explode. She didn't. She wasn't bothered at all by the motorcycle as it flew past us. She just stood there by the side of the road, waiting for me to tell her to cross.

We crossed the street, riding as far from it as we could, following the perimeter of a cornfield. The wind was whipping the corn around, making it look like there were creatures about to leap up out of it.

I kept startling. Gracie just continued on at whatever gait I requested, neck arched politely, not even flicking an ear at the corn swaying in the angry wind next to her.

We crossed the big field that runs in front of the farm buildings and cantered on the dirt road past the empty horse turnouts. The wind was blowing so hard at this point that I could not hear the music from my headphones (I have the Aftershokz, which don't cover your ears). Gracie continued on, oblivious, while my mind continued to spin more and more out of control.

We followed the road to where it would take us past the sod fields and here the wind was even stronger. The soybean fields had been planted with straw and wheat, golden in the sun. I brought Gracie to a halt next to the wheat field, which shook and rattled in the gale. The trees of the forest lining the perimeter of the fields where churning in the distance.

I couldn't continue. Gracie was absolutely fine which I'm glad I could still recognize, and it was awesome to see that my mental state was not affecting her at all, but I was so overwhelmed at that point that I was paralyzed with fear. I don't know why. I hadn't experienced this kind of fear on a horse in over a year, but I'm writing about it now in detail because I want to acknowledge that it happened and make sure it doesn't take over.

I slowly asked Gracie to turn around and she did her most collected gait for me all the way back to the street. I dismounted before crossing the street and hand walked her the rest of the way back, past the sheep, over to the corner of the bridle path by our barn.

If I had just gone back to the barn at that moment, I would have remembered all of that fear afterwards, even though it had been a good ride overall. So I chose to get back on and ride up the bridle path towards the hill. I figured we'd finish on a couple of hill sets and call it a day.

Well. All of the horses were by the fence wanting to say hello as we rode past their field. Gracie wanted to stop and say hello, and I told her no. In response, she slowed down and balled up, trying to put her head down in a threat to buck. I bumped her with the bit to bring her head up, kicked her forward and continued. She tried this stunt twice more. It was not bad at all and at another time I would have laughed it off, but I was not in a good place mentally; it was just more fuel for the fire. Couldn't succumb to the fear then either, so we continued onto the hill.

We cantered up 3 times and gaited down 3 times. Easy stuff. Between the wind and the cooler temps, Gracie had barely broken a sweat. I was ready to call it a day on that note and was going to do just one more set when Gracie decided she wanted to head back towards the barn. I'm trying to turn her left up the hill and she's just turning her head left and continuing to propel herself to the right. Down the hill. Sideways. Straight into the boggiest portion of the mud pit at the bottom of the hill. Her legs sank past her fetlocks and we both almost fell as she tried to extricate herself from the thick, sucking mud.

Great. Now we have to do the hill again for REAL so she doesn't win the argument.

So we gaited up the hill twice more. And then headed back to the barn. And since I was even MORE shaken up than when this whole thing started, I took Gracie into the arena and we worked on bending and turning. Especially to the left.

Gracie had NOTHING up to date when I bought her. I finally got her up to date on everything else but she is way overdue for her teeth, and it's going to have to wait a little longer. We worked for 30 minutes in the arena and it was a fantastic workout that I barely remember now. I just remember that it was really good. Good enough to make the gerbils in my head stop scurrying, and by that point that was all that mattered.


Saturday
Charles and I were at the barn by 11 pm to get the girls ready. I won't deny I already had some apprehension about this whole venture based on the previous day's events, but felt pretty good about Charles coming along. I was hoping to get 15 miles in 3 hours or less.

Charles rode in the Alta and I tacked up in the Wintec. I completely forgot my thin wool-lined pad at home AND I'd taken all of my cotton square pads home to wash! Doh! I ended up using my Woolback under the Wintec. I was annoyed at myself: Lily does NOT need extra padding under the Wintec. I did swap out Gracie's bit: she is now going in the very low port Weymouth with 4" shanks and seems much happier in it. She kept hyperflexing in an evasion of the mullen mouth, which she seems to do far less in the low port Weymouth.

Low port Weymouth
We hand-walked them past the sheep corral. Of course the sheep were napping by their shed and you could barely see them. Gracie looked for them but Lily didn't even notice.

Who's afraid of the big bad sheep?
We mounted up at the far corner of the fence line. Lily tried to buck after I was on while I was trying to get my right foot in the stirrup, but I convinced her to just stand still. I'm still not sure what set that off. Once ready, we made our way across the street and up to the farm. This was Charles's first time riding out this way and he'd been itching to go for ages! 

We took turns leading and Charles was able to get a nice relaxed gait out of Gracie. Lily was sucking back behind my leg at the trot, most likely due to the saddle + pad combo we were using. >.< More mistakes.


Wheat crop on the right, straw on the left
This is actually the exact spot where I had turned around on Friday when I rode out this way on Gracie
There was a lot of heavy machinery out in the fields: the straw was getting baled. Both Lily and Gracie have proven to be absolutely fine around noisy farm machinery, but you know, I was anxious. The problem here wasn't the horses, it was their owner's gerbils. So I decided to avoid the  fields altogether by taking the Red Barn Trail. 

The Red Barn Trail is so named because it takes you behind a small red barn and around the perimeter of the farm fields. There is a lot of brush and it can get quite muddy, especially in the winter. As you ride down the trail, there is a ravine to your right with a small creek flowing parallel to the trail. This is hidden by trees and bushes most of the time, but there are some sections where you can actually go down the ravine into the creek. I wouldn't try it on a horse, but this is part of the fox hunt's course. 

On your left as you go down the trail is barbed wire fence covered in vines with bushes, tall grass and brush pretty much concealing it, with the farm crop fields beyond. 

The trail was very overgrown and we kept having to break to a walk to go through low hanging thorny branches (EVERYTHING had thorns!) and negotiate hidden irregularities in the footing. The grass was almost chest high on Lily in some portions of trail.

We had just picked up a trot through a particularly open section of trail. The grass here was very tall. Lily and I were leading, Lily trotting with her happy relaxed head sway and I was spaced out, looking at our surroundings and at the trail far ahead.

Suddenly, Lily slammed on the brakes and dropped her head with such force that I ended up on her neck. She snorted and I gasped at the same time as we both came face to face with this GIANT hole in the ground that was at least 2' wide. I couldn't see the bottom. It spanned almost all the way across the trail width-wise and had been completely hidden by the grass.
Lily immediately popped her head back up, sending me back into the saddle, when the ground gave under her right front hoof. 

She simultaneously backed and spun hard to the left. In this process she full-on body-slammed Gracie, who had been right behind us. All I remember next is a giant blur in which I ended up hanging off the side of Lily's body, Lakota warrior style, as she tried to bolt up the path. 

I saw a nice patch of thick, tall grass and I remember thinking, "That looks like a good spot". Next thing I know, I'm on the ground, right on top of that nice patch of grass. Better than all the briar bushes we'd been riding through!

Thankfully, I was wearing my safety vest.

And thankfully, the one perk of having fallen off so many times that I lost count during my jumping days (I can do a pull ride over fences. I suck so bad at push rides over fences...Horses that do dirty stops would get me every single time) is that you eventually learn that everything is better if you go limp when you're airborne. I fell in fences, over fences, through fences, on top of fences, and never got hurt because of that ingrained skill. Just passing on what I learned the hard way so it will help someone else!

I jumped to my feet to discover Lily had stayed with me for once in her life, despite the reins trailing on the ground, and both Gracie and Charles were ok. Charles was still on Gracie. All she'd done was her little nervous dance and moved out of the way! Good job Gracie and Charles!

And that's when I noticed that my glasses were not on my nose. I can see 1" type if it's a foot from my face. Yeah: I NEED my glasses. And of course, because I had lost them, the whole world was blurry as I tried to find them. Lily had not moved from her spot and neither had Gracie. Charles very carefully dismounted so he could help me search, terrified of stepping on my glasses by mistake. I knelt on the patch of grass I'd fallen on, looking. The grass was taller than I was...and then I saw a glimmer in the grass. I reached for it...it was my glasses! They were hanging from a bent blade of grass.

Relief. 

We decided to continue, but we led the mares over the giant hole that had caused all of this drama. 

It was a sort of sink hole, with roots holding the earth up around its edges. It was 2' wide and extended almost all the way across the width of the trail. I couldn't really see the bottom...it was maybe 3'-4' down? It must have been an underground cave formed by a tributary of the creek that runs parallel to the trail. Or an old groundhog lair. Who knows. I saw the hole where Lily's foot had almost fallen through. There was a very narrow strip of solid earth to the far right of it. Of course I didn't think to take a picture. 

You know what? Thank God Lily did what she did. It would have been very, very, VERY bad if we'd fallen into that hole. VERY BAD

I jumped over the hole and Lily followed suit. Charles jumped over it too. Gracie gave it a suspicious glance and quickly skittered over the one strip of earth next to the hole.

We walked for a ways before mounting back up. I stroked Lily's neck and thanked her again for saving our butts. Lily chose to walk a little longer and then I asked her to trot once we were within Redneck Park, where I could clearly see the trail in front of us. She obliged, but I soon discovered that that encounter with the hole + my ensuing fall had set her confidence back 9 months. Her confidence both in herself and in me. Every shadow was a hole in her mind, which made for very slow progress on this sun-dappled trail in the woods as she stopped to double-check every. single. shadow.

After the fourth time she hesitated for a shadow, I started up the chant: Get past the shadow, "Good girl!" Pick up a trot on her own, "Good girl!" Barely hesitate at the next shadow, "Good girl!" Give a tree the stink eye but move on without hesitation, "Good girl!"

The trail proved to be a challenge: it had changed significantly since the last time I had been through this part of Redneck Park last fall and Charles and I ended up having to backtrack to take an alternate route when we discovered that the original trail was completely blocked by a huge fallen tree. We ended up having to cross a stream (Lily drank at EVERY creek crossing on this ride!) and take a different path that I knew would take us into The Great Bog of Doom: this giant partially dried up river bed that is full of knee-deep sucking mud. There was no way I was putting the horses through that, so I took Charles up an alternate route that would take us around one of the corn fields.

Except once we were at the corn field, I couldn't remember which direction we were supposed to go. We back-tracked to go the opposite way around the field, but the trail disappeared into the corn. Nope. We turned around again and went in the opposite direction, going through the woods again. I remembered some landmarks and eventually realized that the trail was taking us to the Rabbit Hole trail that I love so much. Success! This had been the goal from the start! 

There had been a gorgeous arch formed by a fallen tree all throughout the winter and early spring, but I guess with the recent rains and storms the tree had fall lower and was now too low to ride under. Actually, it was too low for a horse to walk under riderless. We dismounted and I saw a side trail coming down the side of the main trail beyond the fallen tree, so we remounted and took the mares around in this direction, through some overgrown brush by the side of the trail.

This tree.
Recycled photo from last fall, when I went on this trail for the first time.
We encountered more boggy/muddy areas later on down the trail, which I tried to avoid by taking a new route altogether, but that didn't work very well: we ended up riding alongside a wheat field, following the trail around it...which eventually dead-ended as well. AARRRGGGHHH...So we turned around and went through the mud. Thankfully Lily's Gloves stayed on without a problem.

We went through another creek crossing, a steeper one that Gracie had not seen before. Lily drank for ages:

Lily drinking
And Gracie followed us through without a problem.

Gracie walking down into the stream
Love this photo of the two of them
Lily and the forest
I took Charles over to the Grand Canyon Trail that follows the Patuxent River so he could see it. It is a gorgeous area and I remembered that there were some parts where you could take the horses into the water:

More drinking
The water was so beautifully clear!
Heading off towards a deeper pool of water.
And then it was time to head back.

Off of the Grand Canyon trail there is a pretty steep climb that involves riding in a ditch most of the way up the side of the hill. The ditch is about 2' deep, which has made both of the mares claustrophobic in the past. There really isn't enough room on the sides of the ditch to ride there instead; there are trees growing next to it, as well as thorny bushes. I warned Charles about the claustrophobia, and we made our way up.

Turns out someone made a new trail branching off of the ditch and we missed it. The ditch mud became deeper and stickier, and suddenly Lily was in to her fetlocks in the stuff. The only way to get out was to turn around, which meant scrambling onto the side of the ditch and through the brush (thankfully no thorny bushes in this section). Things got a little chaotic there for a second but we made it and found the new trail. Lily knew where we were going and she happily picked up a trot, taking us out of the woods and out onto the long dirt road that runs between the crop fields.

The dirt road is currently covered in grass. The soy fields are now straw.
Everything was smooth sailing from here on out. We walked and trotted through here, then picked up a canter when we were past the noisiest of the farm machinery.

Heavy machinery? NBD
Riding alongside the cornfield next to the road.
It was a 9.5 mile ride at a rather pathetic 4.6 mph pace because of all of the walking and backtracking we had to do. It took about 8 miles of constant praise for Lily to almost get her confidence back. We'll see how she does at the next ride out on the trails.

The marefaces got bathed, fed, e-lyted and turned back out in their field. Lily had been drinking throughout this ride and Gracie had finally taken a sip of water at the Patuxent, but they still both drank for a long time at the troughs when first turned out.

Good mares

Sunday
I'd felt fine on Saturday after the fall and our long ride but when I woke up on Sunday I had a really hard time getting out of bed because I had so much pain on the right side of my neck. Major whiplash. Kathy and I had been planning on going to Greater Seneca to ride, but I texted her to explain what was going on and cancel, took ibuprofen and a muscle relaxer and went back to sleep.

My neck felt much better when I woke up the second time. Charles was working that afternoon so after dropping him off, I headed out to the barn. I decided to give Lily the day off and ride Gracie since she is the smoothest one and I figured it wouldn't jar my neck as much as posting would have.

We started out riding in the arena and Gracie offered up a true running walk, head nod and all. We worked on that, then on doing a collected rack (which in the Rocky Mountain world is called the single-foot gait. Don't ask me why it's called that; the gaited horse world is weird and complicated. Haha) So, ahem, we single-footed for a good long while, working on serpentines, figure-8s, 10 meter circles, spirals. Eventually I had Gracie turning off of seat aids alone, reins held quietly in one hand. It was really awesome. We did single foot - halt transitions also. Another rider came into the arena on the mare she is rehabbing, so we worked on all the bendy stuff some more until she was finished, then picked up a left lead canter once the other rider had left the arena.

Gracie started out with her wonderful smooth rolling canter as we went down the long side to the far end of the arena, where the footing is particularly deep and soft. She tried curling on the bit in the corner and leaning onto the forehand in that deep footing...which resulted in her falling to her knees mid canter stride.

OMG WTF?

Gracie, thankfully, managed to catch herself at the very last split second before we both bit the dust. We came thisclose. To say my heart was in my throat was an understatement.

Great. Now we had to canter again so I wouldn't be permanently intimidated by it. We single-footed once around the arena and then I asked for that left lead canter again. Gracie cantered 3 strides before breaking to a gait. I was fine with that. We reversed directions and cantered onc around the arena on the right lead uneventfully.

My heart wasn't into any more arena work after that. I walked Gracie over to the gate, which I unlatched and swung open from Gracie's back! Good girl! I'd never attempted that with her before.

I swear every time I ride this mare, I discover a new gear. I decided to work her up and down the driveway so I could hear her footfalls so I could know exactly what gait she was doing.

We started out with a running walk, then the single-foot. I asked for one more gear and Gracie offered a trot. I collected her slightly while still keeping her in a more relaxed frame and...she offered up a pace. Ok: Gracie can pace! That was a first. I asked for another gear and she organized herself into a rack...so I leaned back a bit and pushed my weight into my stirrups to free up her shoulders, and asked for one more gear.

Gracie accelerated into a speed rack! Not the fastest speed rack I've ever ridden, but it is certainly something we can work more on!

I was laughing into the wind like a little kid.

It was an awesome end to the weekend. We worked on the cues for the different gaits for 15 minutes total and then called it a day. I gave Gracie a huge hug for letting us finish on such a wonderful note.  She had a bath and her dinner before being turned back out in the field. 

14 comments:

  1. First, I'm really glad you are okay. Second, I am really glad you are okay.

    What a weekend you had. May you not have another like that for at least a span of years.

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    1. Me too!

      I'd be happy with never ever!

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  2. What you described with Gracie is usually how my trail rides go. For whatever reason, when I'm on a green or slightly spooky horse I just lose all ability to cope. That's why I ride in an arena now!

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    1. I hear ya. I've been there many, many times before, not just this one ride. I stayed within the confines of the arena for 2 years because of this feeling. I made dressage my goal in part because it didn't require leaving the arena. It used to be how I felt every time I walked out of the arena on Lily. It took a lot of will to overcome. It is not easy. :(

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  3. I totally understand how the rider's fear can impact the ride, even after the horse has moved past it.
    I am glad you are okay with all that you went through!

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    1. Thanks! Me too!

      This kind of anxiety seems to happen to so many riders. I hadn't realized how common this was until I started reading other people's blogs who were experiencing the same thing. It was good to know I wasn't the only one and to see what others did to manage it.

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  4. Scary. First that uncontrollable feeling, which I admit totally ruins a ride and can stick with you. Been there, you described it well. It can suck all the good things down with it. Glad you overcame that.

    Second that scary hole! Oh my! So glad Lily was a smart girl, and that you found your glasses! I also ride with glasses, and know that fear too.

    I can relate to way too much of this post. Hope things continue to improve. That big rack sounds impressive.

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    1. Thank you Irish Horse! "It can suck all the things down with it." Yes. Yes it can. It can make what was otherwise an actually great ride seem like a nightmare even! It's such an awful feeling.

      I'm still thanking Lily for having stopped when she did.

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  5. Wow!! I would have been a total wreck after a weekend like that!! Chrome sort of acts the way Gracie did around the sheep when he's around other horses, but it's in an excited way, not scared. He wants to run to them instead of away, but that feeling of no control is very intimidating!! So I love that he freezes at first because as soon as he freezes I'm on the ground walking hehe. I'm a wimp. Nothing wrong with being safe though. The whole thing with that hole in the road sounds terrifying!!! I'm so glad Lily managed to stop before falling in, but I hate that you fell off. I hope you're feeling better now. Whiplash is awful!! I hope this was just a weird weekend and that everything is smooth sailing from here. :)

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    1. There is definitely nothing wrong with being safe! Safety should always come first. And definitely back to normal now! :) By Tuesday my neck was 100% again.

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  6. I'm happy you took the time to document this fear episode in detail. I empathize in so many ways (as you know). I was surprised how much my fears and anxieties rose up as I read about your issues! I'm very happy all is well now, happy the goddamn full moon is behind us (I'm noticing a trend these past several months), and I'm thrilled you discovered that gait on G-mare. =)

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    1. Glad this helped. :) And yup, the full moon sure does affect human and animal minds/behavior. I didn't use to believe it until starting to work in the veterinary ER!

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  7. I think I'll sound like a broken record when I say that I had huge fear issues with Nimo when he was younger because he was so spooky and reactive outside the arena. It took me years to overcome them and I'm still really uncomfortable cantering outside the arena even though Nimo has improved significantly. I wish there was a magic solution, but I think it's just this constant battle, especially as we get older. I'm so glad you weren't hurt in your fall and that you're staying in the saddle :)

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    1. Thanks Gail! Me too! I think you and Nimo have progressed light years from where you used to be a little over a year ago. You've done such a fantastic job with him.

      I agree: I really think this is something that just gets worse as we age.

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