Thursday, September 7, 2017

Meet Baybuilt

2012 Bay Thoroughbred Gelding
Photo by Liz Stout
From the moment I began considering Pig's retirement, I knew I would be on the immediate hunt for a new dressage prospect. My work with Pig has given me an intense love for the sport of dressage, and for doing it with thoroughbreds. I knew I'd need a new horse to help keep me going after stepping Guinness down.

The day the therapy program called to set up an appointment to see Pig, I started reaching out to thoroughbred placement programs like New Vocations and After the Races, two programs where friends have sourced excellent horses. I traveled to check out some horses, but overall found nothing that hit my list of needs.
Must love dogs.
Photo by Liz Stout
My requirements weren't too intense, but my strict adherence to them plus my low budget made me seem very picky. What restrictions/requirements was I working with?
1. Must be an OTTB. I wanted a horse that had race training and had raced. I'm kind of a chicken when it comes to riding horses that are barely saddle broken. I wanted something with a bit of experience.
2. Relatively clean legs. Some windpuffs or old soft tissue injuries were fine, but I didn't want a horse with screws in joints or obvious arthritic changes.
3. Between the ages of 4 and 7. The road to FEI levels in dressage is long. I don't want to start with an older horse again.
4. Confirmation and movement suggesting an ability in the dressage ring.
5. A SHORT back. Long backed horses need not apply; I don't like and am not good at riding them.

Things I didn't care about?
1. Gender. Mares or geldings were welcome. If a stallion had knocked my socks off and the castration could be included in the price, I'd have jumped.
2. Color. I adore chestnuts, but color doesn't help a collected canter develop.
3. Height. Anything between 15.1 and 17 was  on the table, though I preferred close to or just over 16 hands.

Enter Baybuilt...
15.3 hands with a back so short it barely exists. Perfect.
Photo by Liz Stout
I found him at his breeders, with the help of Niamh. He'd last raced two weeks prior to my seeing him, and he'd just come home. I didn't even get to see him move, but knew he was the right fit. All the pieces were in the right places, and his history was perfect. His cuddly nature probably didn't hurt. I left his breeder, telling her I wanted to see him move before making my final decision.
"I have pretty eyes and give good snuggles. This will make me a good dressage horse, yes?"
Photo by Liz Stout
A few days a video popped up on my phone, and I was sold.
Freedom of movement? Yes please!
Four weeks after his last race, Baybuilt was set to come home to me to embark on his second career. I waited, filled with excitement and apprehension. Who knew what this little fireball would be like when he arrived.
Stay tuned...

Friday, September 1, 2017

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving and Adjusting to Retirement

Photo by StitzPics
I knew finding a place for Guinness was not a small project. My list of needs was made more complicated by my rather tiny budget. More than once over the last few months, I've found myself wishing I had a farm of my own to stash him for life, or wondering if anyone in my D.C. neighborhood would notice a full sized horse chilling in the corner yard.

In the end, I thought I was settled on riding him lightly through the end of the year. When I had enough saved, I would ship him off to one of the field board locations I had researched. While he'd be too far away to see regularly, at least he'd be well taken care of and close enough to visit a few times a year. Still, I worried that his arthritis would rapidly deteriorate if he wasn't kept moving with regular riding.
I knew I'd miss hacking him, too.
Then a friend asked if I'd contacted the equine therapy place near the farm. While initially suspect that Pig could be a good fit, I decided to look into the prospect further.

To my delight I saw they preferred horses to be leased to the program, rather than requiring ownership to be relinquished. Perfect, as I will not consider selling him. They use their horses lightly, and have a reputation for being very conscientious with horse care. Plus, they don't use bits while the horses are working, so Pig's need for good hands is mitigated. On top of everything, they are literally right across the street, and I can visit and ride him every day.

I filled out a horse donation form, and settled down to wait, not expecting to hear back for a long while.
Can't believe this is the same horse who used to rear when he knew he was somewhere near a creek.
A barn friend is on the board of the therapy program, and she must have put a good word in for me. The program director called me the day after I filled out the application to ask me if she could meet Guinness. We set up a time for a few days later.

Suddenly, Pig's retirement was moving very fast.
Photo by StitzPics
I arrived at the farm the day of Pig's "audition" with butterflies in my stomach. Would they like him? Would he be quiet enough? Would I like them? Would I think they would take good care of him and treat him fairly?

I needn't have worried. Pig was a star, and the therapy ladies were lovely. I babbled constantly during the meeting, seeming to only be able to tell them about his faults and problems. Part of my brain kept saying "stop talking, Austen. They can see what he's like, and he's fine."

The two program leaders were very nice, and just smiled at my babbling. They watched me ride Pig, and were very complimentary of him. Then asked if they could try him and do some leading afterwards to ensure he would be worth their time.
Photo by StitzPics
As I knew he would be, Pig was foot perfect. He was a bit confused, with his ears flicking all around, trying to make sense of this new set of questions. When the director rode him, he politely asked if she would like to have a flying change. When she declined, he happily cantered on. She got off him with a smile on her face.

"How does he do with external stimulus? Like sudden loud noises? Or children yelling or suddenly screaming?"

"Um..." I looked around the indoor, noticing a friend and Pig's elderly pasture-mate were the only ones left in the ring. "Hold on to Ted! I'm going to do some stuff!" I yelled to her.

"AHHHHHH!" I screamed out of nowhere, jumping up and down next to Pig and flinging my arms and legs in the air wildly. I poked him in the side, and jumped away. I did jumping jacks in front of his face. I threw my gloves at the wall.

Pig just blinked and looked at me.
"My owner is legitimately crazy. I learned to deal." -- Pig, probably
Photo by StitzPics
The program leaders just laughed. They told me they loved him, but were concerned he might be too sensitive to riding cues right now. They wanted to make sure he wouldn't panic if a therapy client moved too much. They asked if they could take him on a trial. I said yes.

We gave it a week before the trial started. I had planned a trip to visit Liz and do another endurance ride, plus I wanted to get Pig's things in order. I picked up more Equioxx for him, and did his feet. I also watched him play with his pasture mates, knowing he'd miss them terribly.
Especially his old-man mentor, Ted.
Finally on August 7, I walked Pig down the road to his (hopefully) new home. He was very unsure about the trip, but as always followed my lead.
"Where are we? Why are we?"
I won't lie. I bawled while walking him down that road. Ever the gentleman, he let me dry my tears on him and then spooked so I'd have something to focus on.

When we got to the new farm, we immediately turned him out in his new field. He seemed to settle, but then started running the fence lines trying to get back home. He'd take a break and run to me, asking plainly "What the hell is going on?" I was pretty sure my presence was not making things easier for him, so I headed home.
He has the best view in the county now. Hands down.
It always breaks my heart to move him away from his friends, and this was no exception. Leaving him here, I knew he was in excellent hands and would be okay. I knew it was the best of situations for him. Still, walking down the road and hearing him call after me made me cry.

In the weeks that followed, the therapy program let me know he seemed to be settling in well. They are taking things slowly with him, trying to get to know him before throwing him deeply into the program. His trial period is about halfway over, and I hope things continue to work out. I couldn't think of a better retirement situation for him, and I want him to stay. I think he'll really enjoy the work and benefit from the gentle movement.

While I'm still able to visit him, ride him, dote on him, and own him, moving him to the therapy barn brought home the reality of his retirement. His career is done, and our partnership is different from now on. I'm enjoying watching his eyes light up when he sees me, knowing I am the bringer of apples and scratches. However, I miss the joy of working toward our goals. It is strange not to drive to the barn every day and hop on him.

This is the new normal, and we're both trying to come to terms with it.
Photo by Liz Stout

Monday, August 28, 2017

Facing Reality

"This horse will do anything for you. It's obvious how much he enjoys working for you. Keep riding him. Don't let him sit. If he wants to do it for you, let him. He'll tell you what he can and can't do."
-- Guinness on Tap, "5 years, 2 bad joints, 1 long journey"
This is the story of knowing when it's time, of accepting no for an answer, and of listening to an old friend.
Photo by StizPics
First there was the attitude change.

In the middle of March, I was on top of the world. Guinness and I were schooling like a confirmed 4th level pair. We were working on pirouettes, he was nailing his changes, and he felt amazing. Then at the end of March, he had become soured on the work.
Pig in mid-March, feeling like a million and a half bucks.
When my beloved Sonka's heart began to give out, I gave Pig time off. Being away from Sonka was impossible for me, even to ride. When I could convince a friend or family member to come help me with the dogs at the barn, I found Pig was still stiff and resistant in many ways. I scheduled a stifle injection, figuring that old injury was acting up again.

Our first ride following injections was stunning. Pig was forward, supple, and full of enthusiasm for the work. I couldn't wait to show him.
Moving like a horse ten years younger.
Our second ride after injections was terrible. Every time I asked for contact, Pig reared. I ended up having to get off and hand walk him until he was quiet enough to get back on and hack up to his barn. Subsequent rides were far less dramatic, but equally upsetting. Something wasn't "right."

I called the vet again. I described Pig's increasingly strange and spooky behavior, how his hind end suddenly felt "wishy-washy", and how his neck had been plagued with weird constant sweat marks all winter.
Sweat marks visible here. They showed up in late January.
The vet checked thoroughly for symptoms of neurological issues. He found none. We talked about EPM, and we talked about Lyme. He told me he didn't think either of those is what we were seeing. He told me the horse looked no different from the last time he had examined him. He was not any more stiff nor was he lame, if anything he looked better than before.

When asked about the neck, he told me it could be a couple of things. Anhidrosis often caused strange sweat patterns like this. With our weirdly warm winter weather, perhaps he was experiencing a mild form of this? It could also be nerve damage, from an external injury (like a bite mark or rub). Nerve damage could also be internal, coming from an arthritic narrowing in the cervical spine. He asked me diagnostic questions about this, but we decided there wasn't enough evidence to point at anything. The neck continued to be a mystery.
He's always been a bit of mystery.
Photo by StitzPics
The vet told me he would pursue any diagnostics I wanted to have him run. If I wanted his opinion, though? The horse was 19 with a litany of problems. If we x-rayed his body, we for sure would find more. The question was, would those found issues change the outcome? Would they even be the problem?

I understood what we was trying to tell me. He couldn't see a problem, so perhaps it was time for me to think seriously about retirement for the horse. The appointment ended with no real answers, but a lot to think about.

We had already entered the May show. With no real indication of something physical bothering Pig and his soundness signed off on by the vet, we headed off to the show and brought home a score towards my silver medal. The old man had once again proven himself.
Forever the champion of getting it done.
Photo by Liz Stout
By this time, the hind end weirdness had mostly cleared up with consistent work, though Pig was suddenly very heavy in the contact. He felt stiff and stuck straight, not the bendy pretzel horse he had always been. I attributed the issues to his fetlock or stifle arthritis, acting up from time off. Another proof Pig couldn't have time off any more, if he was to stay in work. He didn't seem to want time off, either. He continued to meet me with pricked ears and snatch the bit from my hands, ready and happy to go to work.

I entered our second show in June. The day before we left, he stabbed himself above the knee and developed massive cellulitis. In talks with the vet, the on-call vet instead of my normal one, I brought up the thumb print in his neck.
The thumb print was maybe secondary in concern to the leg.
"Oh, they're born with those. Some people think they're a sign of good luck, and call them "god's thumbprint" or something. They're really a place where there was some kind of nerve damage that affected the muscle development. They are totally benign." The vet said.

"But, he wasn't born with this. He just developed it about a month ago."

"Really? Hm… I'll have to give this more thought."

With a show and giant cellulitis leg to think about, I didn't have a lot of focus left over to think about this exchange. After the show, I reflected on it more.
Developing divot in muscle may be hard to see here, but visible if you follow a vertical line down from his fourth braid.
Nerve damage? Like how my vet had described a possible cause of sweat marks? Suddenly the wishy-washy hind end symptoms were making sense. So was the stiffness in the body, and loss of flexibility in the neck and poll we had been struggling with. I called my vet again, and we talked and decided.

Guinness has neck arthritis. He probably has for a very long time, but it didn't present a problem until the arthritic changes began impinging on a nerve.
The ever-increasing size of the divot helped confirm the diagnosis.
Photo by Liz Stout
The treatment options for an older horse with such a problem are very limited. I could inject, but the process is quite involved and costs a fair amount of money. The effects of such an injection are quite limited, and there are very real dangers and risks involved. Knowing the condition wasn't painful to him, I couldn't stomach putting him through it.

With a heavy heart, I knew the time had come. My beloved horse had given me all he could, and his body was truly failing him. I needed to make the decision now and retire him, before the workload became unfair.
Photo by StitzPics
He's never the type to quit, but in his way he'd been gently telling me this time was coming all year. Still, he'd approached almost every day of his training with pricked ears. He took real joy in getting the right answers and dancing with me. I knew I'd need to find a retirement option where he could continue to be happy and find joy in staying active. No small feat, so I set to work.
More tomorrow.
Photo by StitzPics

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Joy of Flying

While Liz was here, she suggested doing a series of "glamour shots" with Pig. Since Allison's husband had done such a phenomenal job with photos last year, she knew I didn't really need more posed and quiet shots.
Of course, we had to do some traditional glamour shots, because he's basically the most glamorous thing.
Instead Liz looked at me and said, "How about you take him galloping instead?"
There is nothing this horse and I enjoy more than going for a good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred, all-out gallop across the field.
In case that enjoyment wasn't obvious...
The fact that we were decked out in 100% dressage gear (complete with totally unnecessary dressage whip) did not even slow us down for a second, as this compilation of videos by Emma shows...

However, I have to recommend shortening your stirrups if you plan to blow of steam with your dressage partner. Otherwise it'll take all the ab strength you have to stay somewhat together up there.
Abs engaged!
Who says dressage horses don't have a need for speed?
I'd like to pretend I have something deep and meaningful to accompany these photos, but I don't.
But do I really need to? Can't we just enjoy that happy pony face?
Really, this whole post only exists to bring the glorious galloping photos Liz took and the fun video Emma captured to the wider internet.
Because, honestly we need nothing more.
So, Happy Friday everyone. May these captures make your day a little brighter, and inspire you to do something joyful with your horse this weekend.
And the whole family...
Don't forget the whole point of spending time with these crazy wild creatures is for fun.
And not just our fun...
They need to have fun, just as much as we do. So get out there and find your mutual joy.
And bring the dog, too!
Then enjoy the hell out of your time together.
But try not to poop out a husky...
Really, though, enjoy it.
Get out there and chase that joy.
Because you know what?
Happiness is contagious.
These sorts of moments, where you and your horse are enjoying your life together?
Total partners in fun.
Where you're both in tune with each other and totally on the same page?
They're the moments you'll remember.
The moments that'll help build your partnership...
... and celebrate it.
Don't miss out on them.