Wednesday, April 18, 2018

When Your Horse Goes Crazy

Last Saturday Bast crashed a fence.
This fence, actually.
I had been leading him back from bath time in the main barn, when he attempted several times to bolt back to his pasture. This has been normal behavior. I attempted to work with him some in hand to get his attention back on me, but he continued to fixate on the distance and violently pull away. I moved him into a nearby empty pasture, eventually unclipping him. I figured he would run out some of his antsy feelings in the 90 degree heat of the day, and I could then lead him up. Having done something similar with him before, I settled in for a long galloping session.

Instead, I watched him fail to jump out of the field and crash through the nearly 5ft tall 4 panel wooden fence. It's changed the way I think about his behavior. It's time to get serious about his herd bound nerves and lack of respect for human interaction.
He took a direct hit on the post with his stifle, but got very lucky.
It's time to get real and address problems. His crash through this fence was not blind running. It was a conscious decision. He wanted to get back to his pasture, and he was going to solve his problem himself. He refused to come near me, standing in the field waiting for him to calm down so I could lead him back. Instead he took aim and threw himself right into the fence.
Not. A. Jumper.
That is not safe, normal, sane behavior.

This was not a horse being chased. This was not a horse in a blind panic. This was feral horse calculating his options and choosing to a painful and questionable escape to flee back to his pasture mates over dealing with humans.

He was lucky (which is probably a sign he's a terrible horse, since only the good ones seem to have tragedy). His stifle somehow was not shattered, despite taking a direct hit on a fence post at a gallop.
It swelled up immediately, but had nothing but superficial scrapes breaking the skin.
He made it up to his pasture (a little over a 1/4 of a mile from where he broke the fence), and stood outside the gate holding his leg up. I worried he had broken it, as he initially would not put weight on the leg and was very reluctant to walk. The vet thinks he startled himself badly, and the swelling and bruising hurt once his adrenaline dropped.
Your horse should not get into this situation simply being led back from a bath.
I had called the vet immediately, assuming he had broken something based on his reluctance to move and would need to be put down. While waiting for the vet, we sat outside the pasture. Bast exhibited some concern about the location of his pasture mates (who didn't care a whit about him and did not come to the fence where he stood suffering), but he quickly became very calm. He stood with his head in my lap. He licked my hands and arms. He wuffled my hair. He acted much like a sweet horse, which is very unusual for him. This further concerned me. I assume the pain was acting like a twitch.

Once the vet arrived, we determined there was no catastrophic break. We decided to stall him until he showed improvement. The plan is to bute for 5 days. While we initially worried, he made it down to the main barn just fine. (You can see how far it is in the above photo.) His walking actually improved as he moved, which bodes well for the injury.
This was the best he walked. Note the shifted hips, the straight legged movement. The supporting right hind. And the dragging toe. 
I stuck him in a stall, where he immediately turned to the window and began screaming his dumb head off for his pasture mates. I wrapped him while he screamed like an idiot, he ate his dinner, and I left him alone for awhile to think about his life.
Life sucks, huh.
Over the course of Saturday evening and Sunday morning, the swelling increased. I assigned him the nickname "Chipmunk Cheeks" for his swollen ass cheek.
I guess Chipmunk Ass is a better nickname than Dumb Fuck, though I'm pretty sure the last one is a more longlasting name.
By Sunday evening he was moving much better, and actually resting his other hind leg occasionally. I sat with him for an hour and half, during which time he actually turned his butt to me and took a nap. That is a first. Typically he will not relax that much around people without other horses around (we were alone in the barn, as all other horses were on turnout).
Resting the un less injured leg.
While he was still dragging his toe some, I felt encouraged by the improving look of his leg throughout the early part of the week and his willingness to rest the other one. The vet had cautioned that a fracture was still a possibility, and in that case any extreme movement (such as getting up from laying down flat) could torque the bone and cause it to shatter. Until we can evaluate his soundness further he is not fully out of the woods, but this seems like less and less of a possibility.
For now his future is a bit up in the air, and not just because his soundness is questionable. I am out of my depth in dealing with his tuned out and willful behavior. He has exhibited time and again a complete lack of trust in people, despite regular and sympathetic handling. His complete reliance on other horses to supply his confidence undermines any relationship he builds with me or other humans. It's not safe, and it's not improving. Clearly something needs to change. I'm working out what the next steps are, but for now his recovery seems to be progressing well and it seems he will make a complete return to soundness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Many Faces of A Baby Thoroughbred

For anyone who has restarted an ottb in dressage, you would be familiar with the many faces of an opinionated young thoroughbred learning about contact.
"OMGAAA"
Honestly, to some degree, you just have to laugh while your horse makes faces... lots of faces. All of them awkward.
"QUIT LAUGHING AT ME!"
While some horses are very comfortable from the first minute moving into contact, many others rebel against the idea they are expected to hold the bit at all time. Those who rebel can often be quite, ahem, expressive about it.
"PLEASE SEND HELP!"
Of course, as a rider, you simply have to sit quiet and wait things out.
"COME ON MAN! I'M LITERALLY SNARLING HERE!"
It takes a lot of concentration to keep the rein pressure neutral but present and welcoming, and to keep the horse moving forward into your accepting hand.
"NOT ACCEPTING ENOUGH!"
This stage of training can feel like it lasts literally forever. Thankfully, experience tells me that this too shall pass.
"AIN'T NOTHIN PASSING BETWEEN THESE CLENCHED JAWS, LADY"
The important thing is to not get discouraged, stay loose and mentally present, don't get aggressive, and keep going forward. While it might take days, or even weeks to months (especially if you're Pig and very set in your ways), the end result is worth the time investment.
"YOU'RE WILLING TO DO THIS FOR A MONTH?!?!"
For anyone else out there working on teaching their reluctant and stubborn baby horse about accepting contact, I hope you can take some heart in these photos. We all go through the awkward phase sometimes. Not all training is pretty from day one. Stick with it, and stay patient.
"IS THIS EVEN REAL LIFE?!"
... and don't forget to keep laughing!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Learning Lunging

Anyone out there a lunging expert?
'Cause we're definitely not pros...
I am very open about the fact that I am the opposite of an expert in lunging and ground work. To be fair, I also don't believe most groundwork actually translates to dressage training and therefore have not seen a reason to learn more. Pig is notoriously terrible on the lunge line, often losing his balance and nearly falling over or fighting any pressure from side reins or contraptions. As such, I really never got used to using lunging as a training tool.

Enter Bast...
"Oh hai!"
As I've been working with the baby, I've discovered some glaring holes in his education. Under saddle, he's coming along great. However he is struggling when it comes to the basics of reacting to pressure and trusting and looking to his handler. These issues are mostly a problem on the ground, but resolving them will help make his under saddle work much better, too.

I figured bringing Bast back to work after his splint with some light lunging would help address these issues, plus be a light way to test the leg. Unfortunately, I immediately discovered some training holes...
Uh, Pretty sure that's not how it's supposed to go.
I realized Bast's grasp of lunging was completely lacking. As most horses do when confronted with too big of an ask, he was tuning me out completely and attempting to exit stage left to hang out with his dude bros.

Sigh.

So what to do? Start learning how to actually train a horse to lunge, I guess.

I've figured out the best way to approach things with Bast is at the very beginning. As in, so far at the beginning that you might not even feel like you're actually working on the issue at all. What's that mean for lunging?
Hint: Not this at all.
Well, it means standing in the field with my horse in a halter and tapping him on the shoulder with a dressage whip.

Tap.

Tap.

Tap.
"Wtf with the tapping tho?"
The idea is to teach Bast to move away from pressure by annoying the hell out of him with a tapping whip on the shoulder until he finally moves away. Once he moves, I immediately stop the tapping as a reward. Then I repeat. On both sides.

To be honest, he's a really smart horse so this step went really fast. In about 10 minutes he had a good grasp of moving his shoulder away. I didn't move on to the next step (moving away when I simply point at the shoulder), but we'll get there soon. First I want to make sure he understands the concept even when other things are distracting him (like other horses, the wind, the idea of coyotes and lions in the bushes, etc).

The plan going forward to continue to slowly introduce him to increasing questions until he understands all the steps and instruction of lunging. I think this is going to be really useful when it comes to building trust between he and I. He likes getting answers right, and doing this is going to teach him to look to me and think when he's confused, rather than taking matters into his own hands and bolting off into the sunset.

Let's hope it works!
Hopefully we'll work up a more confident version of this soon!

Friday, April 6, 2018

An Update on Catching The Bastard

It seems hard to believe it was just two weeks ago I was writing about catching my little beast Bast. He's come such a long way in just a short time, and I am so proud.
"Am I a good boy?"
The fact that he is no longer having a bute mush syringed into his throat on the daily made a huge difference. However, I notice he is doing better at some of the vaguely shy behaviors (like hiding behind the other horses when he sees someone coming into the field) he's been exhibiting since day one in the field.
Meanwhile this one waits for me at the gate now after almost 10 years of literally not even picking up his head when I called to him? Wtf is happening?!
I started working with him multiple times a day. The first couple of days, my initial appearance would lead to him running around me and the other horses in circles until I could finally walk him down. I did get lucky one day and found him sleeping in the sun, which made the catching much easier...
"Cheating. You're totally cheating."
On the third day, he ran from me when I had reinforcements. I had my friends help me pull the other horses out of the field and graze them on the other side of the fence. When Bast ran from me, I was able to play "keep away from your friends". I refused to allow him to rest near his friends, and continued to push him away until he started actually looking at me not them.

Once he allowed me to walk up and catch him without flinching away (every flinch away resulted in me pushing him away again), we left the field and joined his friends for a few minutes of grazing. Then, I dumped him back in his big lonely field all alone.

After a few repetitions of this, he stopped walking away when I removed his halter. Instead he was following me around like a puppy.
"Okay, okay. I get it. I am also tired of running around."
On the following day, things were much improved. When I showed up, he didn't move at all. Instead he just watched me carefully and continued to graze.
Not running from me, despite my terrifying face.
I've been careful to play with the other horses when approaching. I think that's been helping, though it's rare that he'll leave what he's doing to come investigate. What has been helping a lot is adding a little pressure.

When I walk up and Bast doesn't raise his head to acknowledge me, I walk towards him with forward eyes and confident steps until he finally lifts his head to look at me. At this point, I walk backwards with my hands outstretched. This invites him to walk towards me, at which point I halter and treat him.
... that tail, though.
My goal is to make being haltered his decision, and to show him I'll respect his actions. "Ignoring me is fine, I won't come yank your head out of the grass. However, I will harass you so hard you give up and come to me." As time has gone on, he's become quick to step up to me. Sometimes he'll even offer to walk up to me without having to be invited in.

This has shown another breakthrough. Sometimes he waits for me to leave by standing at the gate. It's so endearing to see him care that I am leaving for the day!
"Moar mints plz?!"
The culmination of our work came this week when Maryland experienced some wild high winds. The horses were on high alert, and the other two in the field were bolting at the drop of a hat. Bast was less concerned than they, but definitely worked up by their concerns. When I drove up, the three of them were galloping in circles out there.
See him check in with me for a second?
I got out of my car and watched them, and Bast immediately started tuning in. While I stood at the fence, Bast continually kept watching and listening to me. The crazy weather had them so stirred up, he couldn't tear himself away from the group. However, his attention in the face of such craziness is heartening.
His staring cracks me up!
Hopefully it won't take much longer and I'll have him coming when I call ... maybe.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When Your Training Comes to a Halt. Or, does it?!

I feel like there's always something to work on with baby horses. Always.
"Not me, I'm perfect." -- Bast, who is clearly not perfect
So, when Bast was laid up with his splint injury I knew I'd have time to maybe work on some of the little things that aren't the main focus when we're working in the ring. Mainly, relationship building. See, Bast has a bad habit I hate. No, it's not bolting (though that is still sometimes an issue, and one I've talked about a couple of times before). Nope. This issue is evading capture in the field.

I can't stand horses that are hard to catch. I don't expect my horses to run to me like some kind of weird Disney movie reenactment, but I don't like chasing them around screaming obscenities while the vet waits either.

While Bast isn't usually one to outright run from me, he typically spies someone walking up to him in the field and motors off casually to hide behind the other horses.
"Don't mind me, just sneaking off to hide my tiny body behind my behemoth pasture mate."
This drives me nuts. I know I have to be really careful not to startle the other horses at all (the one Bast usually hides behind is incredibly spooky and fearful of people doing people stuff).
"Pro tip: Always put a huge fearful horse between yourself an the human."
If I do startle them at all, Bast is the first to take advantage-- running off at full speed and snaking his head at the others if they stop running. It's impossible to lay hands on him unless you catch all of his pasture mates first, a feat nearly impossible when you're up there alone in the dark.
"KEEP AWAY FROM THE HUMAN!"
I'm not sure if the whole thing is a game, an attempt to avoid work, or something else. That said, it's really hard not to take this behavior as a personal slight (which, I know is totally irrational and not how horses think). Literally no one else ever catches and halters him, so I have no way of knowing if this issue is strictly related to me. My tendency is to think it's generalized, based on his skittishness with the barn staff if they try to handle him at all during feeding time.

I've tried help him associate people catching him with things he likes, like mints and shoulder scratches. With regular catching, he does begin to take the initiative and walk the last few steps up to me (this is rewarded with copious mints). However, his initial response to duck behind other horses or give me a leery stare has yet to abate.

Enter all this time off and my horse going full feral.
Pictured: full feral. Related: I guess that splint is feeling better.
I came out on Saturday to try to check the healing progress of his splint, only to find he had completely reverted to a wild horse. When I showed up he immediately ran over and ducked behind the spooky horse. Then, as I took a step towards them and crinkled a mint wrapper, he was off.
RUN!
For the next 20 minutes he ran full out in circles around the other horses. If I so much as looked his direction, he poured on more speed and snorted and squealed. After the first few minutes of these excessive shenanigans, I whipped out a full bag of carrots and started walking around feeding the other horses. In just a few minutes I had the rest of the herd gathered around me begging for more treats, leaving Bast to express himself without an audience.
Freaking ridiculous idiot right here.
Gradually he started to wonder what was going on in the huddle of horses and came over to investigate. He was still really skittish, though.
"IDK, man. Are the carrots worth being near the human tho?" -- Bast
I kept feeding all the other horses, ignoring him completely. Finally he caved and started shoving his nose in my hands begging for his share of the goods.

Good pony.

I didn't halter him at all that day (his skittishness is not tied to a halter at all, it's just a human thing), but eventually had him curiously following me around the pasture. I left for a bit, and came back to repeat the trick with only a few steps of skittishness from him.
No more of this though!
The next day, I showed up with a bag of apples and a lot of time. He walked right up to me, and got to enjoy two apples for his effort. I haltered him, curried his itchy bits, and we went for a walk to graze the good grass of the nearby hay field. On returning, I removed his halter and he followed me around curiously again.

I left for a bit, and returned during what was nap time for the herd. I jumped the fence near where they were sunning themselves, and Bast just looked at me as I walked up to him. He approached me, and I doled out more apples and a mint. After awhile, he walked off a few steps, stopping to itch at his leg. I realized he was trying to itch under his wraps, so I slowly walked up to him and wriggled my fingers under his wraps where he was trying to scratch.
Totally relaxed about my presence.
While I scratched, he made a bunch of faces. When I stopped, he investigated my work and sighed. I sat next to him (safety third, my friends), and we hung out like that for a few minutes. Finally he walked a few steps forward, putting himself directly in front of me, cocked a hind leg, and went to sleep. When I finally got up to leave he merely flicked an ear at my movement, completely relaxed and unworried.

I'm hoping all the time spent randomly catching and walking up to him in the pasture without work to back it up helps resolve this issue. We'll see how my methods shake out, but for now I'm hopeful.

Anyone else struggle with a horse that can be skittish or hard to catch? How about one that gallops around like an idiot for minutes at a time?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Magical Mystical World of ... Splints

Bast's training has been swimming right along. Or, well, it was.
Here's a cute photo to momentarily make you forget that blatantly sinister foreshadowing...
A week ago Friday, I showed up at the barn with my mom in tow. It was her first time meeting Bast, and I was excited to show her how nice his training in the ring was coming along. He'd had a great school just a day before, and I knew he was primed for another great ride. However, I put him in crossties, started grooming him, and boom. There it was...
Spoiler alert: Of course it's a splint. If it was anything else, I'd be so much more screwed.
As my fingers ran over the massive, hard bump on the outside of his right front, my heart dropped. The placement of the lump made it obvious it was a splint, though I was happy it didn't seem very sensitive or hot to the touch. Despite the huge size of the thing, I had a hope it was maybe not going to be a big deal. (It's okay, you can laugh with me now.)

While a quick spin on the lunge line in the field showed him to be pretty sound, it quickly became obvious he was a the barest bit sore on that leg. While he never showed lameness, he was resistant to bend that direction.
Actual recording of my reaction.
I slathered some Surpass on it, and resolved to check on it the next day. I think we see where this is going ...

The next day the lump was hot. Plus, I could see Bast head bobbing away walking across the pasture. Obviously when I'd found it Friday it was very very fresh. With a little more time to sit and think about its trauma, the bone was clearly quite angry. The vet was called and scheduled out for x-rays immediately.
It's hard to tell just how hot this thing was in a photo. Try to imagine flames shooting out of it. Also, note how close to the soft tissue that lump is getting!
Of course, it was only just about two years ago that Pig developed a very similar sized lump that turned out to be a broken splint bone with a lump aggravating the suspensory, requiring almost 30 days of stall rest and a lot of time off. Plus, I've had Charlie's splint saga in my head a lot recently, too. Basically, all my experience points to not underestimate a massive lump that nearly sits directly on the suspensory.
Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Proceed immediately to vet for x-rays and bankruptcy court.
The vet was immediately on board with the x-ray plan, especially as the location on the high outer part of the leg indicates this was probably from a blunt trauma (like a kick).  We got to work, expecting the worst. Thankfully, the rads showed a clean splint bone with a big calcification bump over the top.
The calcified bump is that faint lump near the top. The splint bone is that very narrow sliver behind the cannon bone.
Bonus: That fetlock looks goddamn beautiful.
The diagnosis was an overly responsive reaction to a kick. Because there was no break, the vet gave him a steroid shot right away to try to keep the lump from further impinging on soft tissue. He further prescribed stacking the NSAIDs, giving bute twice a day while continuing with the Surpass ointment once a day. He recommended full compression wrapping, and as much stall rest as Bast would tolerate.
Wait, wait, wait. I live in a box again? What is this bullshittery? 
The barn only had an extra stall for 2 days, so we shoved him in and hoped he would deal with the restriction. Thankfully, he was a total gentleman in the stall, settling right in like he hadn't been a feral field boarded horse for the last 6 months. Those racehorse manners are really the freaking best.

He's been back out in the field (with full wraps) for the last 5 days. The size of the splint has gone down significantly, no longer sitting so close to the suspensory. While this makes me feel better, we've been struggling to get the little bastard to eat all of his meds. He started turning up his nose at the grain dusted with bute. Not great, since he could really use all the calories we can pour into him.
Bribing him to eat his medicine with applesauce, macerated carrots, mints, in his own private dining tack room.
Given the size of the splint, I'm planning to be very cautious about bringing him back to work. He'll have the rest of this week off. This weekend I'm planning to work him on the lunge line for a few days while monitoring the splint for signs of irritation. If everything is still cold and unaffected, I'll start him back under saddle the week after that.

Overall, this splint should cost us about a month of down time. While that's a bummer, it's really not the end of the world when you have a young horse. I keep telling myself breaks in training are good, and that not all training has to be in the ring and under saddle.