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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tales From the Trenches: The Cat That Was Named After a Queen

The main joy of returning to work in the veterinary ICU is having my own patients again: the hospital I work at believes in continuity of care, so we get to keep assigned patients until they are either discharged or our workweek ends, whichever comes first. And so the stories are even better now because I'm getting to establish a full-blown relationship with the dogs and cats in my care.

I last worked in the ICU environment in South Florida and wrote a few posts on the subject way back before "Tales From the Trenches" was a thing on this blog. One of my favorites is this one. When we moved to Maryland I took a job at a hospital that had separate ER and ICU departments: I worked in the ER so my job was to triage, admit, work up and assist with the diagnoses of incoming patients before transferring them to a separate group of veterinary technicians in the Intensive Care Unit. ER helped ICU when we were slow, but otherwise we rarely got assigned our own patients. 

Critical Care was the one thing that I dreamed of doing from the time I started tech school; I wanted to specialize in it, I wanted to be one of those techs that helped train newer techs and doctors (experienced technicians play a huge part in training veterinarians doing rotating internships at specialty hospitals), one of those goddesses that could look at an animal from across the room and have a clear idea of what was wrong with it, that could place central lines (jugular catheters) and nasal oxygen cannulas and urinary catheters and arterial lines, and anesthetize anything without batting an eye, and suture things in place, and restrain animals without stressing them out, and run bloodwork and set up oxygen cages and read urine sediments and calculate drugs while remembering the concentration of just about all of them, and knowing side effects and common toxicities and what they look like in two different species, and being able to read telemetry (constant EKG) and recognizing arrhythmias and lifting 80 lb dogs single-handedly onto the x-ray table and being able to hit any vein on an animal with a blood pressure of 30 mmHg and and and...

I worked my ass off to become that tech, asking endless questions of doctors, my interns, new techs, old techs, credentialed techs, techs that had never gone to school but had been working in the field for so long they knew more than most techs with a formal education and sometimes even more than the doctors they worked with. I wanted to know everything: in how many different ways can you arrive at the same answer and still do it correctly? I learned them all. (And am still learning!) I deliberately worked in the lab (the job nobody wants) and learned to read blood like it was a third language; I did a year in general practice so I could see where it all begins; I worked in Internal Medicine and Oncology so I could see how the weirdest and saddest diseases get diagnosed and treated; I worked ICU mostly and then ER only in all shifts available: days, nights, swing, so I could see the changes in staff and caseload and the switch in hospital environment from day into night; I was mentored by two of the gods of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, including the founder of the society for this specialty; I read about nutrition, both the conventional and unconventional and talked with internists and nutritionists and saw how so many conditions can be managed and/or improved with diet; I geeked out on animal behavior, reading both layman's books and veterinary-level textbooks on the subject; and I then worked in Surgery running anesthesia for two years so I could have the experience of sailing my patients through the controlled death of anesthesia and safely back to life on the other side.

Why did I do all of this? Because from the beginning, I wanted to be able to know what was going on in an animal's insides just by glancing at its outsides. I'm not a doctor and I have no interest in being a doctor: veterinary nursing is my life, my jam, and I've put 10 years so far into being the very best vet tech I can possibly be. 

And now I have returned home to the ICU floor.

This past weekend was my first working what will be my regular weekend shifts. I was assigned the patients in a bay of three cages: two kitties and one dog. Eric, the technician that had been taking care of them overnight rounded me, telling me their initial problems, diagnostics, and how they had been doing in-hospital. 

"And this is Victoria," he said, introducing me to the third and last patient. 

Victoria was a tiny golden kitty with black-tipped fur and brilliant green eyes. A long feathered tail that looked like a plume was curled around her front paws. She was labeled a "domestic medium hair" but looked like a Somali cat; she wore her blue paper e-collar as if it was a mink stole around her shoulders and blinked lazily at us. She had bright orange stickers on her cage card and treatment sheet labelled "Caution." I had already read through Eric's notes from working with her the night before and had grinned at some of the details, "Patient very vocal but is easy to handle," stood out like neon lights.

She looked up at Eric when he mentioned her name, pupils dilating slightly at him as she opened her mouth wide. The most hideous screech came out, "MEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAHHH!" 

I startled: even after reading Eric's notes I was not expecting such a loud, ear-piercing sound from something so small. Eric burst out laughing. 

"And this is what she does. She screams." He opened the cage door, grinning, and reached in to scratch her ears. Victoria couldn't decide whether to continue yelling at him or let him pet her, but indecisive or not I could hear her purr loud and clear as she pressed against Eric's hand for more. I got an instant reading on the cat and started giggling uncontrollably: this was a cat with Opinions, with a capital "O". My favorite.

He gave me a run-down of her problem list, how she had been doing, and what she was like to handle. She was labelled a "Caution" simply because she verbally objected so much to anything you did with her, but had never tried to actually hurt anyone. "She literally doesn't do anything; she just screams. You might be able to do everything with her by yourself if you can win her over," Eric said. 

"She also likes to bat at you with her paws through the cage bars and yell at you while you're doing treatments to the other patients," he added as an afterthought. I burst out laughing. I loved her already. 

Eric walked away to finish up his end-of-shift duties and I turned to Victoria. 

I opened the cage door. (All of my parts of the conversations with Victoria that I am about to describe were actually said out loud. Italics are interpretations of her part of the conversation based on her attitude and body language at the time.)

"Hi!" I said brightly. This is how I say hello to the majority of my patients.

Victoria screamed at me.
"Who are you? Don't touch me without me approving of you first!"

"I'm going to take care of you today. Can we be friends?" I slowly reached out towards her with an upheld finger, holding it at the level of her nose about 6" from her face. This is one of the most important and polite ways of introducing yourself to an unfamiliar cat: you're giving the cat the chance to sniff you and also letting the cat decide to interact first. Here is a fantastic behavior article explaining the science behind this method. 

Offer finger from a safe distance.
Don't shove it in the cat's face, please: that's rude and you might get bit.
Let kitty reach out and sniff.
Wait for kitty to finish sniffing: they'll tell you what they think of you then.
How the cat reacts to that finger will pretty much tell you what their behavior towards you will be during their hospital stay:
1. If they sniff and look away, they're scared: you can win them over if you take it slow and give them opportunities to hide.
2. If they back off growling with ears flattened, they're more scared than #1: you might still be able to win them over by doing the same things as with #1.

Do NOT reach out and still try to touch the cat that backs away from you! This cat is even backing its whiskers away from this toddler's outstretched hand (this is why the lip is curled: he is moving his whiskers away. This is not a snarl.) The constricted pupils and skewed ears pointing sideways indicate a highly offended kitty.
3. If they hiss and don't back off, they are terrified, defensive and have already had bad experiences in veterinary environments: be extra extra cautious when handling this cat because they will most likely react with fight mode before flight mode. These cats make me sad because it is not that hard to keep a kitty from reaching this point, but even in vet med there are a lot of people that either don't understand cat behavior or are outright afraid of them. It takes tact and skill to handle a fractious cat without permanently traumatizing it, but it is doable if you understand their behavior. Contrary to popular belief, cats aren't usually assholes for the sake of being assholes. At least, not in the veterinary hospital. ;) There they're just scared. How would you feel if you were abducted by aliens that wanted to poke and prod you and stick you with needles?
4. If they reach out and sniff your finger, they are friendly shy cats: take it slow and you'll just make them friendlier and friendlier!
5. If they reach out and rub their faces against your finger, you're golden.

A very friendly cat. Notice the curious yet relaxed ears pointed forward and the relaxed eyes and whiskers as he stretches out to sniff this person's hand.

Victoria closed the distance and sniffed at my finger. I watched her pupils dilate ever so slightly as she looked first at my finger and then at me, making eye contact while still sniffing. I looked back into her vivid green eyes, smiled and blinked slowly at her. Yes, most cats and dogs learn what a smile means. Slow blinks in cat body language = kitty kisses. Behavior article on that here.

"Hello gorgeous," I said to her. 

Victoria blinked slowly back at me...then very delicately rubbed the corner of her mouth against my finger, marking it with her scent glands. 

"You will do."

I choked back the giggles as I slowly scratched around her chin and ears. She leaned into my touch...but out came the screech, "MEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHH!"
"Don't get too cocky now. I might change my mind!"
"Got it, Your Highness." I gently rubbed the fur between her eyes, still laughing to myself, and she squeezed her eyes shut tight in pleasure...while still grumbling. 

I stepped back and swung the cage door shut as Victoria screamed at me more, "Why did you stop?!"
"I need to do my other patients' treatments, little girl."

Victoria herself didn't have much on her treatment sheet for 8:00 am but my other two patients were far more sick than she was and had a few things on their sheets that I needed to do.

She eventually curled up into a golden ball of fluff and fell asleep, head tucked in with her chin resting on her blue e-collar.

Once I was done with my other two, I returned to her. I like to change my patients' bedding at the beginning of my shift, even if it's fairly clean. There was a fair amount of litter that had been tracked onto her bedding from the litter box. 

She was still curled up in a ball. I quietly reached out and roused her by petting her. She woke up slowly. 

"Your Highness," I said, "I need to change your bedding."

I figured there would be lots of objections if I tried to lift her off of her bedding in order to remove it: we weren't at the "You can pick me up" stage yet and I wasn't going to overstep those bounds unless the treatments had required it. Since she was lying on the very edge of her towel, I decided to just gently pull the bedding from underneath her. There was a LOT OF SCREAMING anyway. 

"Victoria, I understand that you don't like change but I am going to give you even better bedding!" I really was. I had picked an extra fluffy fleece blanket for her. 
"I don't care! This is MINE!"
I finally succeeded at extricating the towel from underneath her while she tried half-heartedly to swat my hand away (her claws were sheathed but she still didn't touch me) and replaced it with the fleece blanket.

Victoria screamed at me some more and then hissed loudly at me when I was done placing the blanket as far underneath her as I could. 
I was snorting with laughter as I closed the door. 
I later pretended to not notice when she got up, re-arranged the bedding somewhat, then curled up to sleep again. She approved.

Later in the morning I paused to check on her; she was curled up at the front of the cage. I realized she had urinated in her litter box. I opened the door.

"Why are you opening the door?"
"I need to clean your litter box."
"So your cage won't smell like pee!"
"Hmf. Okay."
I was allowed to remove the litter box and replace it without screaming, and was then offered a fuzzy head for petting.

Victoria was a riot.

Later in the day I had to get a full set of vitals, which of course involved the dreaded temperature taking. I enlisted the help of one of the head techs who is really good with cats: she removed a screaming Victoria from her cage, wrapped in a towel without having to scruff her. I gently and quickly got everything done with minimal stress: she legit just lay wrapped in her towel, voicing her objections loudly but seeming to understand that we had to do this. My helper put her back in her cage with her towel and Victoria yelled at me some more. I reached in and petted her while she closed her eyes and grumbled.

"Okay. I forgive you."

I did have to give her one dose of oral medication...which was easy: I simply put a hand behind her e-collar, which made her object:
"What do you think you're doing?! I haven't given you permission to touch anything other than my head!" She was right: she had not.
"I just need to give you this," I said quietly, and deftly popped the pill in her open mouth. I immediately removed the hand from behind her e-collar. She swallowed in surprise and then grumbled at me.
"See, that wasn't so bad!" I said cheerfully.
"It was awful."
"Such a hard life, Victoria."
"Such a lack of respect for your superiors."

I closed the cage door laughing.

A GI medication was added to her treatments in the afternoon. This involved giving it in a syringe pump, a separate fluid pump specifically for syringes, which allows you to administer small doses of drugs over a longer period of time.

Victoria did NOT approve of the syringe pump in her cage.
"I'm sorry Your Highness, but I have to do this."
"It's not doing anything, really, other than giving you this drug to make you feel better!"
She batted at my hand, claws sheathed.
I quickly set up the pump, rubbed her forehead while she continued yelling at me in indignation, and closed the cage door.

30 minutes later, the pump beeped to let me know the medication was done.

I went to remove it from the cage.
"You didn't want it in here before! I'm taking it back out."
"I want it there now."
"Well, it's leaving."

By the end of the day she was purring while yelling at me, and I was allowed to give her butt pats.

Elevator butt in response to butt pats/pets/scratches.
Cats are such weird creatures.
I don't think I've laughed so much with a patient's antics in a while.

Eric was in charge of her that night again, and she was my patient the next morning still. She interrupted rounds to come to the front of the cage door so she could yell at me up close.

"Why did you leave yesterday?! I didn't give you permission!"

I opened the cage door while Eric burst out laughing.
"Good morning Victoria!" I said brightly.

Since her labwork had improved and she was eating and acting normally, she was scheduled to go home later that day.

A couple of hours later I was sitting in the cage underneath Victoria's while checking the blood pressure of my canine patient.

I looked up to see her golden face squished up against the cage door, green eyes glaring down at me.
"I didn't give you permission to touch anyone else!"
Her doctor was in the ICU checking on her other patients and she laughingly pointed out, "I think she's jealous! You can't be anyone else's nurse!"
"I'm so sorry, Your Highness," I said to Victoria. Cue laughter from everyone else in the ICU.
When I was done with my patient, I opened Victoria's cage door. More yelling.
"Pet me nao!" She put her paw around my hand and pulled it towards her cheek.
"Here, pet me here."

My weekend was made later when I stopped to spend time with her during a brief slow moment and not only did I get purrs without screams, she stretched her little head out and touched her nose to mine.

I was also allowed to graduate to the "You can pick me up stage." Success!

Her owners arrived in the afternoon and I got to hear the full Victoria story from happy owners grateful for the care she had received. It is a very good one, but not one I can share.

I went back to the ICU to get her. I finally removed her blue e-collar, smoothed her fur out, kissed her forehead, "Good-bye, Queen Victoria. I love you!" and held up her open carrier. She grumblingly hopped right in.

I was both sad and happy to see her go: sad because I would miss her antics, but thrilled because she was a happy ending. As all endings should be.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May 10 Questions

I found a new blog thanks to these going around! Thank you Rhiannon!  

1. What are your summer goals?

I have a post that I have re-written at least 5 times explaining those summer goals and the story behind them (it's a good one), but I suspect that I will be publishing it only after the plan comes to fruition. It does not involve the horses, and is the driving force behind the current personal training, carb cycling and exercise regime. It is one of the most fascinating things I've done in a long time. Yes, it is challenging, but I'm also very much having fun with it, which is the most important part...the challenge is half the fun of it for me. The transformation I'm tracking publicly on Instagram does have an end goal. But I'm not saying anything else. ;)

On the equine front, I do plan on giving both mares a full-blown vacation in July (see my year-end review from last year as to why) and Gracie will have her pastern injected at that time since high-mobility joints require a longer rest period than, say, hocks.

I love love LOVE Lily's body condition right now.
Shiny mare is getting shinier.

2. Do you have any tips or tricks for fly control?

This is a good one because my horses live outside 24/7. They don't have access to stalls nor fans so flies are a constant. That said, having a fairly short fly season compared to Florida's year-round flies (which Lily and I survived) are a piece of cake.

Lily does not have a forelock so I like to use a fly fringe on her to keep the flies out of her eyes. I discovered these back in FL and it continues to be a long-standing favorite.

I love this one from Horze.com (shown in photo.) It's only $6 and the horse doesn't need to wear a halter for it.
(My BO doesn't allow halters for turnout.)
I can't always make it out to the barn every single day, especially on my work days right now (13 hour shifts + a 50-mile commute one way. Yeah no) and I don't like to leave them unsupervised with fly masks on for days on end. They really should be taken off at night.

Gracie is especially prone to getting into trouble with masks: she will rub her face to get the fly mask off and leave it all topsy-turvy on her head. She gave herself a corneal scratch like that one time, which defeats the purpose of having the mask at all. And I've had issues with Lily developing fungal infections on her nose from sweating underneath the mask's noseband, no matter how much I wash it. So no fly masks.

Gracie doesn't get a fly fringe because she has an awesome forelock.

Case in point.
My favorite fly control product for equine faces is Endure roll-on. It will last a good 24 hours and will work even when the horse is sweating. SWAT does nothing for us. :/

For the body, I used to swear by Absorbine's Ultra Shield back in Puerto Rico (another place where flies are a year-round nightmare). In Florida I alternated between Mosquito Halt (because swamp = droves of mosquitoes on trail that will literally cover your horse) and Ultrashield Red because I was on self-care board and was at the barn every single day to re-apply. Nowadays in Maryland I honestly buy whatever is the cheapest fly control product I can find at the feed store. I refuse to pay $30 for a spray bottle of something that will only last a day regardless of claims on the bottle. I used to buy Bronco by the gallon but now usually just get the oil-based concentrates because their effectiveness does last a longer than the water-based products. The product currently in my grooming tote is a 32 oz container of Repel-Xpe, and it has the leftovers from last year. That one bottle of concentrate lasted me an entire season and then some.

I don't touch organic "green" products. They just have never worked for us; they might repel flies for maybe 5 minutes after application. Give me the hard-core chemicals please, thank you and sorry.

3. How often do you bathe your horse?

I like my horses to be the shiniest in the field and I am a stickler about grooming. The two keys to sheen are a balanced, high-quality diet and a solid grooming protocol. I don't have qualms about hosing them down every day I'm at the barn if it's hot out. During the summer months they'll get shampoo baths as often as once a week and as infrequently as once a month depending on how much work they're doing: letting grime and sweat build up on their coats is a recipe for a fungal infection in hot humid climates. Ask me how I know: these are HUGE problems both in Florida and in PR. Some horses are more prone to fungal infections (like rain rot) than others, regardless of diet and living conditions. Lily is one of these horses. She gets one shampoo bath a month with anti-fungal shampoo as a preventive. My regular shampoo is Vetrolin Bath (it's cheap, lasts a long time, has a nice smell, and a mild liniment-y feel), and my favorite anti-fungal is Eqyss Microtek Medicated Shampoo (that shit works, so I don't mind paying more for it.)

For the record, when I first got Lily, she had the beginnings of a head-to-toe fungal infection that caused her to lose 80% of the hair on her body before I could get a handle on it. She required prescription medicated baths and oral antibiotics to clear it up. It took a month to get hair to grow back on her. So yeah: we're really keen on the fungal prevention methods around here.

4. Do you have any upcoming travel plans? Equine related or otherwise?

We just got back from a trip to the Outer Banks. :)

I got to meet this awesome lady! This is her blog...
...and had the opportunity of experiencing her lovely farmette and riding her gelding Val, who might just be my new favorite OTTB. He is quite the character, and a very special horse. There will be a blog post. :D

5. What is your favorite way to beat the heat?

I don't beat the heat. I embrace it. I'll be outside in it erryday in the tiniest shorts and tank top I can get away with in public because I cannot stand fabric against my skin when it's hot and I also like to be brown: I am an islander and it is the one time of the year I can look the part. Give me 98 degrees, give me 100% humidity: I will revel in them. And then afterwards I'll take a cold shower and sit outside as the sun and temperature go down, cold beverage in hand and a light dinner in front of me as the fireflies come out. Summers in the Mid-Atlantic are one of my favorite seasons.

Featured: tiny shorts and tiny tank top. On horseback, saddleless.
Photo from two weeks ago.
Favorite activities during the heat involve water: taking the horses on trail rides with water access to streams and rivers where they can splash around and cool off, and we try to make a point of going tubing on the Shenandoah or Potomac at least once every summer.

I don't wear cotton in summer when engaging in outdoor activities where I will be sweating: I use thin technical fabrics that aid in sweat evaporation which helps keep me cooler in our high humidity weather. Elytes are added to water (I hate Gatorade. It does not work for me; I've gotten horrific calf cramps on 50s when I've used Gatorade. I use Nuun tablets and also love Hammer's Endurolytes Fizz tabs) and I will bring grapes, chopped melon, or mangoes with me to the barn to keep in the fridge for after riding, or bring them along in a cooler when we're hauling to ride on trail. Ice-cold chocolate milk is another favorite after hot rides.

6. Do you do anything to prevent your horse from sunbleaching?

Feeding flax and rinsing off sweat before it dries to a salty crust on them helps. But it's a losing battle when they live outside 24/7.

A bleached-out Gracie last summer.
Her summer coat starts out the same color as the roots of her mane and fades to this gold color.

7. How hot is too hot for you to ride?

Currently there is no such thing. Lily and I are both from hot humid climates and Maryland summers are nothing compared to what we used to have to live through. We will ride, but we'll ride in the shade and seek water. Workouts for her don't change in intensity, though I do always keep a close eye on her breathing, energy level and sweating.

Hill sprints last June.
Cooling off in the river on a record-breaking hot day.
I'll take it easy on Gracie if it's over 90 degrees and/or over 60% humidity in the summer: no high intensity work for her in the heat. We'll work on slower gaiting in the shade and take frequent breaks in water.

Gracie enjoying the Potomac on a 98 degree day with 80% humidity last July.
I have sponges on leashes for both mares; they become a regular part of their trail riding tack in the summer, which allows us to sponge them off when we take them wading in the rivers/creeks on the trails we ride on. You can see Lily's blue sponge in the photo of her in the river above.

8. How important is sun protection for you riding or just in general?

I wear minimal clothes because islander. (See question #5.) Also, the sun in the Mid-Atlantic is nowhere near as brutal as it was in South FL. In SoFL I would burn after an hour in the sun. Here I just tan. But I do wear sunblock, usually SPF 50 if I'm going to be outside all day and it does get re-applied. For my face in the summer I am currently liking CeraVe's Facial Moisturizing Lotion: when you're in your upper upper 30s (yes guys: I turn 40 in 2 years...), wrinkles start to become a lot more visible. This one has HA, is non-comedogenic and is SPF 30. When I'm indoors and/or in the wintertime, I still wear products with sunblock on my face: Estee Lauder's DayWear is a long-time favorite the rest of the time. It has SPF 15. Yes it is expensive. Yes it is worth it.

9. Have you ever gone swimming with your horse?

Yes. There was a man-made lake in South Florida called Wolf Lake that had a sandy boat launch. It was VERY popular among the local equestrian trail-riding community. We took our horses there multiple times during my last two summers in South FL.

On Rhythm, the horse I had before Lily.
On Rhythm. Yup, I'm in a bikini and still wearing a helmet.
On Lily. That's my friend Dianne on Mark's QH gelding Beau, the horse Carlos learned to ride on.
Lily didn't quite go swimming; I didn't fully trust her at the time.

Lily tacked up in a borrowed Wintec Western saddle, which allowed us to go deeper in the water while I still felt secure.
You can read about that Wolf Lake adventure with Lily here.

10. And because shopping is always on my mind, what's on your summer wish list? 

Horse-wise, pretty much nothing. I needed new tights and took advantage of the Cyber Monday specials this past November for them. My entire life I've shied away from anything the general crowds consider trendy and refuse to be pressured into buying whatever everyone else thinks is cool or "in". (#sorrynotsorry) I buy what works for me, for my horses and for my budget. I'm super happy with my $1500 custom-made Spanish Alta Escuela saddle that was made to my specs and shipped to me from Spain, my $900 Wintec that I compete Lily in, my eBay OrthoFlex that fits Gracie to a T, my 5 bridles, my 10 saddle pads, my two handmade beaded browbands made by Karen, and all of our Distance Depot biothane tack that has been meticulously matched to perfection on each mare, right down to the damn cages on each saddle's stirrups. It's taken a couple of years to amass this collection, most of the time scrimping and saving to be able to buy what I have, and I'm not changing anything any time soon! :)

The two browbands by Karen. They are completely beaded. Lily's is the one with the center blue triangle; the colors almost seem to vibrate in real life. Gracie's browband has the Rocky Mountains. Gracie's is made up entirely of iridescent beads that shimmer in the light. Photos never do it justice.
Winning at the matchy-matchy. Newest helmet is the same obnoxious neon blue as the rest of Lily's tack.
At some point I need a new cover for Gracie's TSF girth but there is no rush on the girth cover because I own a grand total of 6 girths. SIX girths. So I'm making do with what I have. Other than that, the trailer needs to be taken in for its yearly maintenance. I literally have everything I could possibly need for two horses and myself for three different sports, and then some.

As for other things: I need new quality work shoes now that I am back to working in the veterinary ICU. (As of a month ago, I am not an anesthesia/surgery vet tech anymore; I get assigned my own patients to take care of again, something I had not had since South FL.) Running sneakers are no match for 13-hour shifts where you are constantly moving. I like Dansko sneakers (I cannot do the clogs; they absolutely kill my feet.) They are pricey but will take a beating for years. I just ordered new scrubs and also will need to get new workout pants soon because I have dropped an entire dress size, both top and bottom. (See question #1.) :D

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Gaited Horses Can't Do Dressage"

One of the most gorgeous extensions I've gotten out of Gracie to date!
Just like there is a myth that gaited horses can't jump (which I already discussed in this post), there is also a myth that gaited horses can't do dressage. While they can't compete in the dressage show ring, they most certainly can do it. The only difference is that their legs move laterally (rack/pace) and not diagonally (trot).

The other myth that accompanies this is that a lot of gaited horse trainers believe that gaited horses should never be worked at their special gaits for lateral movements. Which would mean that you could only work your gaited horse on flexibility and strength at the walk. Some trainers honestly think that lateral movements will be detrimental to the quality of a horse's gait.


Now, I'm not talking about piaffe and passage and all of that...which some gaited horses can ALSO do, by the way...the fino gait of the Paso Fino is technically a very accelerated piaffe where the legs move in a lateral sequence instead of diagonal.

Case in point:

Fino gait
Anyway. I'm talking about dressage as the art of training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility and balance. So why on earth should only trotting horses benefit from this?

Since by definition dressage has the end goal of teaching the horse to use his body correctly with a rider on board, it will also create engagement and better quality of gaits, whether those gaits are the trot and canter or pace/rack/tolt/paso/whatever. I wasn't involved enough in the Paso Fino horse show world to be able to make a true comment on how they are prepared for the show ring, but I saw enough: it is common knowledge that a lot of gimmicks are used to get gaited horses to step higher (shoes, pads, chains, and soring added into the mix in the TWH world), collect more with more animation (whipping the horse while he is tied between posts so that he will learn to gait in place. You might see this in the Paso world. If the horse isn't born with brio, beating fear into him creates a similar high-strung nature), arch their necks higher and tighter (the bits used sometimes are just...wow), etc etc, instead of just putting them through the dressage training scale like you would with most other horses in some form or other to develop those same qualities in their gaits in a natural way. (There are many gaited horse trainers that do things the right way. But there are almost as many that use...erm...shortcuts. Especially for the big recognized shows.)

Long-term readers may remember that I am a HUGE believer that dressage comes FIRST before any other discipline: If your horse is balanced and using himself correctly on the flat, he will do the same over fences in the arena or cross country, he will be stronger as an endurance horse, he will be better prepared to do sliding stops as a reiner, he will be able to collect and extend more dramatically as a gaited horse being put through his paces. For newer readers, this is what we do around here in the off-season: arena work focusing on the girls using their bodies correctly to develop strength, flexibility and balance. There is only so much trail work I can/want to do before I myself get bored with it. Going in straight lines down a trail creates fitness, and also strength to a degree (if you are adding hill sprints and mountain climbing into the mix) but it does nothing for the horse's flexibility and self-carriage. And too much trail work can make a horse just as sour as too much arena work.

Using her body correctly is something that I've worked on instilling in Gracie from the get-go and that she isn't always happy about because it is hard. So sessions are often either short and to-the-point or there is lots of reward with pressure release so Mareface can get both a physical and mental break. She is long-bodied and built slightly downhill, but she can compress her spine like an accordion and tuck her hindquarters in such a way that you would never guess her true conformation to see her in motion when she is using herself correctly.
When Gracie compresses and "sits." Aka engages dat butt.
(Note the slack reins: my request for engagement is coming entirely from my seat and abs.)
Note also that this is almost the exact same phase of the gait as the photo below, but here she is in maximum collection...
...while here she is in near-maximum extension. Note the REACH of that inside hind, the downwards angle of the croup, and the visible line of her flexed abs down the length of her belly: she is still using her body correctly.
This mare's back is actually longer than Lily's: the Ortho Flex we compete Gracie in is too long for Lily.
And this is what we have been concentrating on lately. Arena rides have been in the bareback pad because I don't feel like wrestling a 30 lb saddle onto her back just to work for 30-40 minutes. Plus it's a great leg and core workout for me, and I can use much subtler signals with G-Mare. Win-win.

Last week we had a breakthrough session. I warmed Gracie up at her slower gait without asking for anything other than she be relaxed without trying to cheat by hypeflexing (her #1 avoidance technique.)

Relaxed slow gait with withers up and forehead on the vertical.
Once she was relaxed and working steadily at the gait I wanted, we worked on loosening her shoulders and the connection between her withers and neck, which is where she carries tension. For this we went back to the walk and I asked for an exaggerated shoulder-in, until she was bending fluidly through her shoulders. We then ramped it up by repeating at her gait. 

Exaggerated shoulder-in with Gracie gaiting in 4 tracks down the long side of the arena. The exaggeration was deliberate: I do this type of work with her to get her flexible and loose.  Gaited horses tend to get very tense/stiff through their necks and shoulders, and having Gracie cross her inside leg also helps stretch her hamstrings and lumbar back. Of course, Gracie was trying to evade contact in this still and I'm incorrectly collapsing my inside shoulder in an extra effort to drive her into the bend of her body, but I'm using this photo because you can see the beginnings of her crossing over her inside hind. (We are deliberately on the arena quarter line: the footing by the fence is fetlock deep, an added resistance that G-Mare does not need when performing these types of moves.)
This was repeated several times in both directions until her bend and inside hind engagement felt more fluid. It was awesome to have Carlos available for photos and video because it allowed me to confirm that what we were doing indeed looked the way it felt.

(Now if only I would straighten my shoulders...)
And a side view of the same exercise.
We then moved on into spiraling in and out on a circle, first at a walk and then at the gait. This was a new exercise for Gracie but I was pleased with the final results. 

Starting on the large circle of the spiral.
Incorrectly leaning into the circle here in the smaller circle of the spiral.
Larger circle of the spiral here. There could be more bend through her body but she was nicely crossing over her inside hind and keeping her shoulders upright through the circle.
Gracie is slightly btv here, but I am overall very happy with this result: compared to the first photo of her from this angle, you can see how she is starting to look taller in front, which comes from her beginning to lift her back and engage that rear end. 
This photo follows the previous in this sequence, taken only a stride later. Note how her withers are taller than her croup, and how far that outside hind has reached under her belly: G-Mare effectively engaged on a circle!

Then and only then did we move on into the fun part: extensions.

Gracie in the longer frame we use for her longer-strided gait. Note that her poll is still the highest point of her neck.

With this as the end result.

She received tons of pats and "good girl"s, and I hand-walked her back to the barn for a well-deserved bath: this session had been almost a full hour in length!

And that, my friends, is how basic dressage concepts can positively affect the movement of a gaited horse. They most certainly CAN do dressage! :D