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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gracie's Bootcamp Begins

On Friday I returned to the barn to actually start work with Gracie and see how she did on the longe with some of the agility exercises my vet recommended.

I'm finally feeling well enough to do ground work with the girls. I get transient dizziness with certain positions or changes in position while moving around in my day-to-day stuff, which is now completely inconsistent: kneeling can cause dizziness in one instant but not on another, for example. I find that natural vs artificial light can make a difference in that too, but it is also inconsistent. I was finally able to run up to the front desk to attend critical emergencies at work this week (and not a moment too soon, as we had an insanely busy week with a lot of really sick animals). I tried going to the gym for a light workout (30 minutes on the elliptical) on Saturday AND working Lily on the longe in the afternoon...and it was too much. It didn't make me 24/7 dizzy again, which is what would happen in the beginning if I exhausted myself, but I had a migraine that night and woke up on Sunday feeling like I'd been hit with a ton of bricks. Go figure. Concussions are so weird, man. But it's nice to finally be on the other side of this. I'm hoping to be able to ride again in another two weeks, based on progress lately. And Calm, Forward, Straight: I took your advice and bought vitamin E for myself and I swear it made a big difference in my progress! It could be placebo effect or maybe the improvements were just going to happen anyway, but there was a marked reduction of symptoms after I started taking it. THANK YOU!

On Friday Gracie was VERY "up" when I went to get her from the field: I ended up having her move in a circle around me as we walked all the way from the big front field to the barn, like a satellite around a planet as said planet orbits across the solar system. I was wearing my helmet (since I can finally wear one without the gash at the back of my head hurting: the sutures finally came out) and had my dressage whip with me. Gracie isn't afraid of whips but she is appropriately responsive and respectful of them. Given her attitude, I was glad for both the helmet and the whip: she never tried to get in my space, but if I felt the least threatened all I had to do was carefully point the whip at her shoulder or her hip to get her to move away from me accordingly. I just stayed calm and centered. I honestly wasn't surprised about her reaction: she had not been properly worked with in a month. She was very much like this the first time I ever worked with her.

I tacked her up with a rope halter, bridle with D-ring French link snaffle and the surcingle with side reins not attached.

The back field of the barn, the one with the hill, had not been used as a pasture until recently because there was some barbed wire reinforcing the wooden fencing that Kathy wanted to get fixed before letting the mares out there. However, it was the one other pasture other than the front field that still had long grass in it. Her and Zoe put up some temporary black plastic fencing to cover both the wood and barbed wire so the pasture could be used, with the goal of doing proper repairs on the fencing in the spring. The mares have been going out there at night for the past week so they've gotten to see the black fencing plenty of times.

Gracie apparently forgot this. She was a snorting, whirling mess when I took her out into the back field to longe and she kept looking over at the fence in concern while doing her dragon snorts.

Kathy's farm drains beautifully as the entire property is set on an incline. But with the freeze-thaw cycle that is an everyday part of winter in this area + the straight 7 days of rain we had last week, even on the best-draining property the ground is going to be deceptively slick for ponies going faster than a trot.

Normally when Gracie is this "up" she'll tear around me at a mad gallop and slip and slide all over the place, and even fall because she is too busy being an idiot to pay attention to where her feet are going or the footing underneath them. Which is why we hadn't properly longed in a long time, concussion aside.

Well, she totally surprised me. She trotted around with tail flagged doing her dragon snorts every time her feet touched the ground, tried to accelerate into a canter...and then slowed back down to a trot when she realized the ground was slick.

Zoomy trot
Huh. Okay then.

I gradually moved her over to the far corner of the field behind the run-in shed where the ground is flattest. She was doing an all-out extended trot. I asked her to canter to see what she would do. In the past, she would take off into the canter and blast off into a gallop, again with complete disregard to footing.

She flagged her tail excitedly and picked up a canter. She was going to the left, the direction in which she had always fallen when running around at liberty prior to getting her worked up by the vet.

At the third canter stride, she gave a whopping slip with her left hind. A big one. The kind that would have caused her to fall previously. Except she did not fall: she caught herself. And instead of continuing to canter like an idiot, she broke down to a trot. Just like a normal horse with survival instincts and a brain would do.

I gave her a TON of praise and let her trot on, basically focusing on just getting her to relax more on the longe. I asked for short canters a few times in both directions to make sure that the caution I'd seen was not a fluke. It wasn't. She'd pick up the canter to oblige, then break to a trot in the spots where the footing was iffy.

Nice soft eye on the previously spazzy mare.

Tracking up nicely.

Maybe my vet was onto something when she mentioned that Gracie's original frequent falling was just her adapting to being able to just move at speed in a larger area. She hadn't had that in over a year.

It took about 20 minutes altogether before she settled into the nice trot you can see in the photos above. At that point I asked her to halt and clipped the side reins on loosely. This is the third time she's worn side reins ever, as far as I know, and she was a little resistant initially.

"I shall go above the bit!"
After a few turns in both directions she relaxed into her usual head carriage.

A little better.
I had set up a line of 4 cavaletti next to the paddock fence. I unclipped the side reins and had her work through them a few times in both directions at the trot and then we called it a day. She did good: she actually likes ground pole and cavaletti work and will lock onto the poles with an enthusiasm that Lily lacks! Who would have thought the gaited horse would enjoy the kind of work that the TB is supposed to enjoy...

I walked her out to cool down as she had gotten quite sweaty. Even when in full work, one of the surprising things about Gracie is how quickly she will lose condition. She's not the kind of horse that can have a two-week break from working and pick up where she left off fitness-wise. I wonder if that is going to change now that she is at Kathy's and moving around more.

I left this setup with the ground poles before leaving for the day:

The next day, Saturday, was Lily's turn. I was originally going to work both mares but I was surprisingly tired after the piddly workout on the elliptical that morning and decided to just work with the easier one of the two.

Lily has been a little herd bound the last few times we've been to the barn. She even got away from Charles last weekend and ran right back down to the big field before he could get her all the way to the barn! On Saturday however she was focused and goofy.

Like Gracie, she decided that she had never seen the black fence in the back field before and had a case of the zoomies. Though she also tends to get the zoomies initially anyway when working on the longe for the first time in a while. I have to let her canter around before she's ready to settle down into the trot, ground poles, intervals or whatever plans I have for her for the day's session.

You can see the offending black fence in this photo.
Lily goes ZOOM!
I've mentioned before how Lily is a perfectionist and gets frustrated if she slips or trips. Charles actually caught it on film! She was being very silly about cantering on the downhill part of the circle and she finally gave a little slip with her right hind. She immediately bucked in frustration. It always cracks me up when she does this.

More settled but not quite ready to pay attention. She was cantering the uphill and trotting the downhill.

I then had her work over the cavaletti. Lily knows what she's supposed to do with them but she always has some anxiety about them. She literally only does them because I ask her to. I had deliberately made the striding uneven which meant that when she did the grid to the left, she had to shorten her stride more and more inbetween each set of cavaletti. She found this VERY frustrating:

She trots in then decides to break into a canter, doing the last set of cavaletti as a bounce the first two times through. Note the head toss after she does the bounce! She was annoyed. The third time through she did a short canter stride and was happy with herself. I later spread the cavaletti out so that they were all even. She was very pleased about this and cantered through very nicely. Silly mare.

She was a little more anxious about the grid to the right, taking ALL of the cavaletti as bounces!

Bounce! -_-
She kept rushing the grid to the right no matter what I did with my energy so I clipped on the side reins with them set on the last (loosest) hole. This had the desired effect: she didn't try to bolt through the grid anymore; she simply did a more relaxed canter through it, then listened when I requested the trot. I then unclipped the side reins and raised the cavaletti so they were about 18" and had her canter through them in both directions again a few times. She did a stellar job.

We then did about 10 more minutes of w/t/c on the flat with the side reins on. Charles took some stunning photos.

And then we called it a day!

I was really happy with Lily. She was paying attention to me and trying her hardest to do what I wanted. She's lost some condition and muscle over the last few weeks, which I was bummed to discover. I can't wait to be able to ride again!

On Sunday it was Gracie's turn again. I was surprised to have Tornado Mare on my hands once more. So she got tied to the fence for a bit and I walked away to adjust the grid for her and thus give her time to settle down and think about things.

She was rigged in one of my vet's recommendations: a standing wrap running loosely behind her legs. The idea was for it to encourage her to step underneath herself more in response to the alien feeling of the wrap around her legs. She honestly didn't care: it didn't seem to make a difference. But it was worth a shot.
The second I put her to work, she started freaking out about the black fence again. *Sigh* So I clipped the side reins on and we worked closer and closer to the black fence until she settled down into a trot. Have some zoomy pictures of G-Mare on the longe:


I will note that yet again she did not set a foot wrong.
FINALLY trotting around me...
Gracie in all of her nervous tail-flagging glory.

I ultimately started asking her to yield the hindquarters while she trotted around and that brought her attention 100% back to me. She then gave me this lovely halt at my request:

I will also note that she will now wait at the end of the line when I request a halt. She doesn't immediately come barging into my space like she used to. It's great to see her remember and apply previous lessons: after returning from Fort Valley, I'd been working on her halt and backing out of my space while Lily was on her 2-week vacation since I had extra time to work on the G-Mare's manners. I guess she got the message?
Once she was paying attention, I worked her with the inside side rein shorter than the outside rein to encourage bend and flexion. This didn't really have the desired result: she simply braced against the inside rein. So I did something that I did a lot with Lily back when I was rehabbing her from her tendon injury: I threaded the longe line through the inside bit ring and clipped it to surcingle. I was honestly expecting Gracie to be an idiot about this but she actually responded really well. I sent her out in a circle around me and when she seemed tense, I'd gently request an inside flexion by putting pressure on the longe line. The second she gave, I released the pressure...and she stretched down! Praise. We practiced this a few more times in each direction.

She was still a bit zoomy and not responding well to the request to halt at the end, but you can see her stretch down for a few strides at a time. The side reins needed to be longer so she could stretch out as well; I fixed that later. 
We reviewed the proper halt again when I had her go over the cavaletti.

I unclipped the side reins and had her go through the grid a few times at the lowest setting, but with the longe line still threaded through the inside bit ring and clipped to the surcingle. She trotted through nice and even in both directions. The cavaletti were then raised to 18" and she snapped up her knees and hocks as she trotted through.

We reviewed simple halting and backing up at the end and finished the session on a good note. She had many fire-breathing dragon anxious/"up" moments throughout the session again, but I'm hoping with more work she settles down. I used to think she was just being sassy, and while there sometimes is sass, sometimes there's quite a bit of anxiety too. She has always been prone to getting worked up on the longe, and I'm not sure if it's because that's how she was trained way, way back when? I'm talking before being re-started by Trainer Bob, by whomever first started her under saddle.

I was talking to Kathy afterwards. She watched several of Bob's training rides with Gracie but she never actually saw him work her on the longe. This doesn't mean it never happened, but maybe she never got to associate enough positive experiences with longing? Honestly, she reminds me a lot of Lily when I very first started working with her: Lily was terrified of being worked on the longe. It took a long, long time for her to come to trust me enough to work like this:

Rome wasn't built in a day. I'm hoping Gracie gets better and more relaxed as she realizes that nothing bad is going to happen to her on the longe. It was SO great to see her paying attention to the footing though! Not a single slip, trip or stumble during this entire session, even with all of the running around she did in the beginning.

They both get the next few days off from work; we'll revisit this on Friday.


  1. Maybe she honestly just didn't know how to balance? If she was kept in small places or was a lazy pasture ornament maybe she had never fallen before? Heck every foal I've ever seen falls and they learn to chill out when it's slick, but maybe she was in a stall and never learned that. Now that she has fallen maybe she has learned to be more careful. I don't know. It all seems so weird. I hope boot camp continues to go well. I have my fingers crossed that everything works out with her.

    1. It is totally possible, all of what you said: I don't know how she was kept in KY, though I'll assume she was out in a field because that's what people do out there. At Previous Owner's barn she was in a 3-acre field split into 2-3 sections with 3 other horses, so not a lot of room for running around. When she was sent to my previous barn for training board, she was in a stall 12 hours a day and in the awful mare field with the hideous footing (I never posted photos of that but it was terrible; it's actually a wonder that Lily's feet didn't bruise sooner than they did...) the other 12 hours a day. When I moved in, Lily and Gracie were the first 24/7 field boarders, but they were out with 7 other stall board horses half the time...on 3 acres. So it was a very, very crowded field, which made the footing even worse. The mares thankfully all got along fairly well because of those 3 acres, maybe 1.5 was actually usable: there was a creek that flowed up from the ground and cut the field in half. The area around the creek was always muddy, even in the summer when the rest of the field was dry, and the horses avoided it: they'd sink to their knees and hocks in the mud around it. In the spring, winter and fall, when it's so much wetter here, the only usable and dry-ish area in the entire field was maybe half an acre behind the run-in shed. It was *horrible*. The problem with that number of horses was that they tore up the footing inside the run-in shed too, so it was ALL mud: they never had a break from the wet and the mud in the winter. And then at night all of that ankle-deep, divoted mud would freeze rock-solid. Hence why the mares didn't really move around much. (Thankfully! There would have been a lot of lamenesses out there otherwise!) In the summer, the field was so overgrazed that Gracie couldn't eat with her grazing muzzle on so during the day she'd literally just stand in the run-in shed and pout from 8:00 am when it went on until 3:00 pm when it came off. At night she would just walk around and graze. I hadn't thought about all of this until my vet mentioned it: really for the last 3.5 years, the mare for sure hasn't had much room to move around at all nor the inclination to run around and play like she does now.

      I hope boot camp goes well too! I'd really like things to work out with her. It's so much fun when Charles can ride with me and he has a ton of fun with her.

    2. Wow. Yeah I would think that would do it!! I'm assuming balance atrophies without use like muscles do, so hopefully that's all it is. With the improvements she's already shown just being out at the new place I'm very hopeful she can get through this. No matter how this all turns out she's lucky to have found you. :)

  2. Gracie looks so much better - how did you get her weight down?

    Our pasture which consists of two huge hills with a gully down the middle, is so slick right now that I fell down yesterday while walking. And my horse gallops out there and somehow doesn't slip or fall, even though every hoof fall leaves a black muddy mark or streak. I miss lunging in my field - Mara did like Lily, cantering up, trotting down.

    1. I think that is a testimony to Mara's surefootedness! She must've spent time on a mountain as a baby: my Paso Fino could run on the sides of slippery mountains like that without setting a foot wrong. I still don't know how he did it.

      The secret to Gracie's weight loss has been the grazing muzzle. At the previous barn I was maintaining her with exercise 5 days a week because they would not keep the muzzle on her for more than 7 hours a day; she had full access to grass the rest of the time and I don't think I've ever met such an air fern. She finally learned to eat with the muzzle on at Kathy's thanks to the grass being long enough for it and also because of the example set by Deja and Queenie, who are also easy keepers that needed to wear muzzles on pasture. We started out with 12 hours a day and then bumped it up to 24/7 when I noticed she was getting cresty about 2 weeks after we'd moved. It was weird: her weight had not changed but she definitely developed a lumpy crest over a short period of time. She wore the muzzle 24/7 until the grass in the pastures had mostly died off; the crest disappeared. For most of November she was sans muzzle and maintaining her weight. After our third hard freeze, Kathy started opening the lush front field (it's clover and orchard grass) for the mares to graze in during the day, starting with 2 hours a day and increasing the time slowly until they were out there from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm. The grazing muzzle went back on during the day when they started being out in the front field for more than 4 hours. With the back field open now at night, which also had some pretty lush grass, Gracie is currently living in the grazing muzzle 24/7 again. We'll be getting a round bale delivered next week, which will be fed in a hay ring with a slow feeder hay net over it to slow them down. I'm expecting to be able to remove the muzzle at night then, especially as it starts to get colder, when she'll need to consume the calories to stay warm. It's been wonderful being able to keep her at a farm where the owner is conscious of the needs of easy keepers, as Kathy's own Queenie gains weight easily too. For grain, I had her on 2 lbs of Triple Crown Lite/day but I recently switched her to Legends Carb Care Balancer Pellets because I liked its nutrient profile better: it's not as heavily fortified and also has added omega-3's. She still only gets 2 lbs of grain a day, mainly as a carrier for her supplements (1/2 cup stabilized ground flax/day, 5,000 IU vitamin E/day in gel caps, 1 oz Acti-Flex 4000/day, 10,000 mg MSM/day, and 20 grams of Tri-Amino/day).

      German winters seem to not be that different from ours. We've been getting a ton of rain the last few weeks!

    2. Strange to picture a horse in Winter requiring a grazing muzzle. Apparently it worked. I'd like to be able to feed vitamin E or flax, but I'm afraid it won't help with the weight loss.

      Actually my horse comes from one of the flattest parts of Germany, and when I first took her for a walk and we came to a descent, she stayed at the top and was afraid to go down it. When she finally did it was a butt-slide: ) I believe a good deal of her fears are because of this hilly landscape - she always stares up the hillsides when we're in the woods, like she's sure there's a cougar up there. She's not used to not being able to see far into the distance, and she feels vulnerable. Yah, I wish she were from the mountains! But at least she's learned to run in the pasture and not fall. I always say she must have been born next to an autobahn, because vehicles never scare her. As you said, she's strange.; )

    3. Oh if you could see our pastures...Kathy still has 6" green grass in her 4-acre front field. The back field has about 4" green grass still. Per our vet, a couple of deep freezes in a row will lower the sugar content in the grass but that grass is still green. It's honestly a terrible pity that this mare has arthritis because she would have been fantastic for endurance: SUCH an easy keeper and she'll eat anything you put in front of her.

      The fact that Mara is so sure-footed despite coming from such a flat part of Germany makes her even more admirable! Now that you mention it, I do remember the posts about your first trail rides where Mara was kind of obsessed with a really tall hill that you rode past. I'd forgotten about that. I know it seems like you've been working on her confidence forever, but you've come such a long way with her already!

  3. Glad to see you're feeling better enough to get more horse time in and looks like the bootcamp sessions are going well so far too- fingers crossed good things continue!

    1. Thanks Grace! I hope the improvements in her balance, sure-footedness and agility continue!

  4. I absolutely hate that you are still having issues from the accident/attempt on your life.

    Glad that the girls are doing well and that Gracie is making such leaps on the lunge line. And super proud of you for working so hard with them!

    1. Ugh I hate it too. I try not to use the blog as a venting medium about how depressed I've been about the slow healing. The longer I can't ride, the more I worry about ever being completely right again. I'm neurologically normal, as Charles keeps pointing out to me via the whole battery of tests they use to evaluate concussion patients at the hospital, and my brain thankfully feels back to its previous sharpness. I just want the dizziness to be 100% GONE NAO.

      Thanks Beka! Thinking of you and Archie.

  5. Yay for Gracie! I'm so excited that she did so well on the lunge! And glad that you're doing better too. I can't imagine how frustrating the inconsistent dizziness must be, though. At least you can get some work done with the horses now.

    1. It's a relief to just be able to go to the barn! And yes, the inconsistent dizziness makes me furious some days, but at least it's getting better...I just want it to be gone gone gone! I'm pretty excited about Gracie's first few lunge sessions so far!