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



Sunday, January 18, 2015

Flexible

On Friday I did an arena session with Lily in the paddock. It was cold thanks to 17 mph winds but just warm enough in the sun to have made the entire world melt, which meant the footing was questionable.

The girls were brought up at noon for vaccines, as our vet was coming out do do all four horses. Gracie hasn't had her teeth done this year because she had not had any issues with food or the bit (she hasn't had her teeth done in over 2 years), so I asked Dr. H to check her teeth to see where she was at. She said G-Mare had a couple of sharp points but no signs of pinching/ulcerations in her cheeks and no malocclusions: she recommended having her done in the spring before we start heavier training. Lily is due for her teeth soon as well but I didn't think to have her checked...Lily usually gets done yearly, but later I'd be sorry I didn't ask the vet to check her as well.

Afterwards I tacked up Lily and left Gracie tied to the barnyard fence where I usually put her. G-Mare had a hay snack but was being VERY wiggly afterwards anyway...so I moved her over to the back field. The back field fence adjoins the paddock where I was going to be working so Gracie got tied there where I could keep an eye on her. Deja and Queenie would periodically make the rounds and keep her company but she also got to spend some time alone. Which is good for her: she is great about being tied in the run-in for a while after meals but I want that ability to translate to being tied everywhere.

Lily had been nervous throughout her handling so far, which I attributed to the wind. I longed her a bit in the paddock prior to mounting up then set her free to work at liberty so she could choose whatever gait she wanted while working in straight lines (safer with iffy footing than trying to work her on a circle on the longe). She changed directions whenever I requested and was able to canter and trot when she pleased.

I then called her in to me and mounted up.

My original plan had honestly been to just walk. To do all sorts of lateral work and suppling exercises, but at a walk. Lily, however, was a tense ball of nerves. So I decided to work on loosening her up by requesting gentle flexions to the inside of the paddock as we walked along the fenceline. I discovered a mare that was fine with bending to the right but not to the left. As in, she would not bend to the left at all. It felt like she was locked through her shoulder and neck on that side, so I tried working her on bending through the shoulder in a shoulder-in. No go. Leg yielding? No go. I adjusted my position, trying to figure out if I was crooked, but even when I really focused on how I was sitting, I could not get her to bend to the left and she was just getting more worked up. So I asked her to stop in a corner and for her to bring her nose back towards my toe in a lateral neck flexion (same kind as you would use for a one-rein stop.)

Done like this
She knows this stretch under saddle and it is one of the ones we do with treats/carrots from the ground. However, initially she thought I wanted her to turn in a circle. And then she finally understood. I requested the stretch in increments, giving her the opportunity to show me where there might be pain/stiffness, but she actually didn't seem to have an issue with the stretch. She relaxed into the stretch. I repeated for each side and she had no issue.

So we continued and she actually was better about bending to the left afterwards, though there was still some resistance and this is when I wondered if there might not be a tooth issue. We did shallow zig-zag leg yields down the long sides of the paddock, then alternated with forward and backwards with just seat cues (she's getting really awesome with this exercise), and then we did a sort of square exercise, where I asked her to walk 2 step forwards, 2 steps sideways the left, 2 steps backwards, 2 steps sideways to the right, basically drawing a small square in the footing. We did this in both directions. We practiced turns on the haunches and side pass.

While her ability to bend to the left got much better, her nerves did not: instead of relaxing with all of this work like she normally would, she was actually getting more and more wound up. I won't deny I started to get frustrated several times, but each time simply focused on the music playing through my headphones (like I've said before, I always listen to music when riding alone, and this is one of the reasons: it helps to give me something else to think about other than frustration or fear.) I ultimately gave up and just sent her into a collected trot. I sat the trot all the way around the arena in both directions and through some large circles, but this still wasn't enough. She had all of this energy and it needed to go somewhere. I opened my hip angles and chest and sent her into a more forward trot, posting, and Lily surged into this lovely working trot that was kind of amazing, especially given the footing. I gave her the option of slowing down if she needed to but she chose to stay in that trot. We focused on straight lines in shoulder-fore with lots of changes of direction. She was coming through, lifting her back and arching her neck and I just followed, placing my hands where I wanted her to be and letting her find the contact. She tried curling behind the contact a few times throughout this exercise but I asked her to stay in a more upright carriage and she obliged.

And then we were trotting along the back fence of the paddock and she felt...fluid. She had felt awesome before, but it was like suddenly everything fell into place: correct slight inside bend, lifted withers, light in the contact with poll at the highest point, engaged hind end, all of that power held by the lightest touch of leg and reins. And here I asked her to halt and dismounted as the ultimate reward. In this manner, we ended on the best note possible.

It felt like we had been working for hours but when I looked at my watch, it had only been 25 minutes of under saddle work.

I loosened her girth and walked her out on foot. She then got set up with her dinner while I worked with Gracie, whom I chose to longe. The footing was slippery enough that I did not put the rig on her: I wanted her to be able to use her body for balance without any interference. I had her warm up at an easy trot in the paddock, then moved her to the top of the hill in the back field.

She was very "up" once in the back field: the wind was still whipping around and she kept looking at the back field fence and doing her dragon snort. She trotted around me but at a pretty frenetic pace, cutting slightly into the circle when she was closest to the back fence. The black plastic fencing was rippling in the gale and I think that's what was making her nervous. However, instead of trying to bolt, pull or prancing around with head up and tail flagged like she would have in the past, she stopped to let me know she felt insecure.


Video from late November, when we first started all of this longing conditioning. 
This is Gracie in dragon mode: you can hear her dragon snorting and see how she's pulling on the rope. She used to flag her tail like this when she was super upset and paid absolutely no attention to either voice commands or the footing. This was another time when she was fearful of the black fencing. It was about a week after it had been installed.

So I turned the session into a simple groundwork exercise to see if I could get her trust in me to be greater than her fear of the fence.

Instead of asking her to continue trotting around me in a circle, which in this case would have just gotten her more riled up about the fence/wind, I had her longe from side to side: go to the left, halt immediately at my request, go to the right, halt, repeat. She became completely focused on me instead of on the fence. I then asked her to do a full circle around me, halting on command when she had completed the circle. Sometimes we would change direction after the halt, sometimes I would ask her to continue in the same direction so she wouldn't start anticipating my commands. She would toss her head and do a little hop with her front feet in protest when I asked her to trot again, but she was really good about doing as I asked and soon was staying almost perfectly out on the circle when going around the side closest to the fence.

I then made the exercise more challenging by requesting that she walk on the circle. No trotting. Every time she started to trot, I asked her to halt, then requested the walk again. Soon she was walking with her big swinging stride around me, head down. A couple of times she tried to walk away from me and head back in the general direction of the barn but she was reeled in each time. Goof. I finally walked her back to the paddock when she stayed on the circle around me.

In the paddock we did a few more minutes of halt/walk/trot transitions before calling it a day. Hand walking her back to the barnyard, I experimented with walking at different speeds and stopping to see if she would stay next to me. She did. She was completely tuned into me: she walked forward when I did, slowed down when I did, halted when I did...and then walked backwards when I did!! This last one was a HUUUUUGE success, as it was something that she didn't understand before. She only did it for 2 strides but this was more than enough for now. The point is of this exercise is that she stay right next to me no matter what I'm doing, without me having to verbally request it. Good, good mare!

All in all, it was another successful day with both of them, but yet another lesson in staying flexible both in your plan and your expectations of your horses when working with them. :)

11 comments:

  1. So, do you think she needs her teeth done?

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    1. Well, it will be a year since she was last done in February, but she's never had horrible teeth issues. I'll definitely have my vet check her next time she's out for vaccines, which will probably be sometime in February or early March: she likes to spread out vaccines to minimize the possibility of reactions. It could have been due to any number of things: me being tight in my left hip (it's been really sore for the last 2 weeks with the weather changes and it does affect my posture), the wind making her so nervous (she was being reactive to that on top of everything else), and who knows if she tweaked something running around the pasture, which is another possibility.

      I really want to play with the S-hack, which I'm hoping to do in the near future on a not-so-windy day. :) If she's nice and bendy then, it will be a way to rule out the teeth.

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  2. I think my comment got eaten :(

    Anyway...is there a specific reason you do her yearly? My vet has too dmd to go as long as possible between and Gem goes 2-3 years. He said that with horses living longer and only so much tooth, people are floating the teeth down to nothing and the horses can't eat later in life. I'm curious as to your vet's perspective.

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    1. Booo Blogger! :(

      My vet is pretty laidback. She doesn't recommend a yearly float but she does recommend a yearly dental exam to make sure a float isn't needed. I have seen her tell other people (Kathy, for example) that their horse probably won't need any work for at least another 6 months (and this was for Queenie, who is in her 20's; a lot of vets will do yearly floats on older horses regardless, so it was nice to hear this recommendation). In Queenie's case, she was rechecked 6 months later when she started tossing her head over bit contact...and it turned out that she had developed some sharp points and a tooth had fallen out.

      I edited the post, as the truth is that Lily gets done when the vet recommends it, but in Lily's case it has ended up being yearly. Not on-the-mark yearly, but at some time during each calendar year. The most she has gone is up to a year and a half without a float because my vet at the time had said it was okay to wait. I've had her done by an equine dental technician in FL and by 2 different vets in MD and they have all said the same things: she has a nice mouth, especially for a mostly TB, but she tends to get some sharp points at the very back of her mouth and at the front of her lower molars. Since she is a hard keeper to begin with and she had so many bit issues in the past, I usually get her done when my vets have recommended it after an oral exam: I don't want chewing problems to contribute to weight loss nor have her go through bitting issues again (I had her mouth checked a few months after purchasing her and it turned out that she still had her wolf teeth, which had been contributing to a lot of her issues at the time. They were extracted). Her floats are often pretty quick, as all they have to do is smooth those few sharp edges and touch up her "bit seat", though she has required sedation so the vets can reach the back of her mouth comfortably (she tends to get nervous otherwise). It has taken longer for the sedation to kick in than for the floats themselves.

      Thankfully, none of the vets I've had so far have pushed for yearly floats. They just push for the oral exam to make sure everything is fine, and I've had more than one vet tell me, "It's okay to wait a few more months." We don't get charged extra for the oral exam if the vet is already at the barn, so I try to have them checked every 6 months or so.

      I totally agree with your vet, but some horses just can't go that long without having their teeth done.

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  3. glad it was a productive session even with the change in plans! and i love that feeling of having the horse totally tuned in when hand-walking - it's definitely one of the first things i want a horse to do for me!

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    1. Totally! It's definitely been a long road getting Gracie to be that in tune when being hand-walked. She used to just barge on ahead, completely oblivious to what the human beside her was doing.

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  4. I so love lateral movements - they make such a difference! Glad you were able to help LIly through her stiffness and work with Gracie too:)

    It's interesting how different horses are with their teeth. Until about 2 years ago, Nimo had his teeth done every 6 months because he had some fast-growing corrugation on the sides of his teeth. Now he gets his teeth done every 8-9 months and his dentist thinks he'll be able to go a full year between visits within another year or two as the rate of growth slows with age. It actually never occurred to me that there would be a problem with frequent floating until I read the discussion above, but I guess that Nimo is unlikely to live more than 25 years given his size (sniff, sniff) and his dentist only uses hand tools so I think more frequent visits that take less off are probably easier on both the dentist and the horse. I will say that my bank account is happier with a less frequent schedule, though.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this about Nimo's teeth, Gail! I know excessive floating is bad, but I thought once a year was kind of the standard for the average horse: I appreciated Sara's comment, as from what I've read it seems that vets are trying to push for less frequent floating, but some horses just don't have perfect jaws and need more frequent floating to prevent problems with sharp points or poor alignment. It's awesome that Nimo is now able to go longer between floats! I too prefer vets or dentists that use hand tools over power tools. My previous vet only used power tools, but even then the float took all of 5 minutes: I was happy to see that she didn't over-use it!

      I don't now remember where I read it, but I found an article this past week that said horses that spend more time out on pasture can go longer without floating. Do you think this might be related to Nimo being able to go longer between floats?

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    2. Actually, Nimo's dentist said that the rate of growth tends to slow down as horses get older so he figured that was why Nimo didn't need quite such frequent floatings. I haven't done any research on it but I can see some logic with that theory.

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  5. I love reading about the work you do with your girls. My favorite part is that you halted and dismounted as soon as Lily got really fluid. :-D

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    1. Thank you achieve! :D It's amazing how much that kind of reward (dismounting) will stay with them! It's how I taught Lily to back up from seat commands. :)

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