Striding out

Yesterday after volunteering, we went to the horses and took another little walk up and down the lane with a friend on her cob for company. Skye was a superstar, once again, despite it being windy and despite having a bridle on again. It’s amazing how quickly horses will forgive unhappy associations if asked gently. First time with the bridle, she stiffened as soon as the bit was in her mouth. Started dropping food and refusing treats. This time, she was quietly reluctant about having it put on, but then settled to wearing it very quickly. I don’t know enough about her history, but we think perhaps she’s had a fright or something in the past as she settles well enough but just seems to have some worries about the “ordinary” things one does with a horse, bridles, etc. 

Our walk out was nice. She does better either two abreast or at the front. If she falls behind she seems to find it demoralising, ha. Out front she gets a curious expression on her face and her ears prick and swivel as she takes it all in. Halt and walk cues were great, as ever. (She’s near-perfect for that now, so my next step is to translate that focus and understanding to the lunge.) As it’s such a quiet lane, I’ll sometimes drape the lead rope over her neck so that she’s essentially free at my shoulder, and we’ll still get the prompt and consistent halts which is excellent. I do need to start getting that halt without the head pinging up, so perhaps the targeting would help with that. General fitness will too, of course. Think we’ll do raised poles and targeting next time I see her, all being well. 

My friend, from the higher vantage point of her cob, said that Skye’s walk looked good from behind. Swinging and relaxed with abdominal muscles visibly engaging. I do like her walk, it has a purpose and suggests scope. Next time we’ll have to venture further afield and see how Skye feels about that. I imagine she’ll be fine, she has such a lot more confidence with another horse there. 

A Comfort-Zone Sandwich

An instructor friend is down to teach at the stables I volunteer at, so I had her come and help me with Skye afterwards. 

Big pony was a superstar. 

Right up until tonight, I hadn’t been sure what to have the friend teach me on. I’d thought lunging, but hadn’t done enough with the horse for it to be a technique lesson. So instead, we used it as an opportunity to see how the horse lunges for someone else, get some general feedback and such. 

Horse was good on the ground, as is now usual for her, and perfect having her feet picked out (which comes and goes, but is mostly consistent now too). She almost walked away from being caught, seemed a bit suspicious of my friend oddly enough! She must have sensed “work” was involved, ha! Anyway, perfect on the yard and then we went into the arena with another friend who was lunging her horse at the other end. First I just walked and halted on a 20m circle. Skye was very good but a tiny bit tense, as evidenced by her return to a slightly higher head carriage. So we did our usual thing to remind ourselves that work in the arena is nice. Just an opportunity to earn carrots! She chilled into that then we stood in the middle and chatted for a moment. Whilst leading, horse had continued keeping a suspicious eye on my friend, so we laughed and fussed with her and promised it would all be fine. 

Friend then lunged the horse very nicely indeed. Her natural walk is pretty nice, I think. The trot less so, but it’ll come with strength and relaxation. It wasn’t terrible by any means and you could see that with a few more sessions it will start coming together very nicely. All she needs, at this stage, is to decontract over her back, to relax and release the topline, then the trot will start being a lovely thing. So, get her mind happy and take it from there. I certainly think she has the potential to use herself very nicely, and if we can lunge (well!) perhaps once a week it’ll do wonders for her fitness. 

She turned in quite a bit and wanted to abandon us for her horsey friend, but she settled into the work well enough and within a short while she stopped looking quite so pissed off! But that, her being annoyed, was a great thing to see anyhow as it’s a step away from the instant depression she seemed to express when I’d lunged her previously. My friend said the horse kept looking for me like, “where’s the nice human that doesn’t make me do this nasty thing?!” so I’m glad that others can see we’ve got that rapport beginning. Skye is very obliging, does such a lot at my request. All horses are generous wonders though, eh. They’re vastly stronger than us, no reason at all why they should co-operate… but what a gift when they do, willingly. Her transitions got quite responsive even within that short amount of time and we were all impressed with her really. 

I then had a go lunging and it wasn’t as successful (I’m not as adept as my friend), but it was a fair start. Horse turns in a lot in a bid to stop working and she’s very responsive, so she’ll be a good one for improving my technique actually. She’ll force me to improve. 

After that I did a little bit more easy stuff. Back lifts, walking/halting, backing-up (which wasn’t so hot today, but that’s fine), then did most of them again but with the lead unclipped. Our friend and her cob were still in the arena so we were all doubly pleased with Skye for sticking with the “let’s go over here together!” game and being generally attentive and chill about the whole thing. Overall, we sandwiched the bit she might dislike with pleasant stuff that gives her confidence, and she accepted it all very well. 

She really is a superstar. Am really pleased. 

It’s just a question of unpicking her prior assumptions about work. My friend suggested things like bridling her when we do our normal, easy-peasy groundwork, to gently unpick any negative associations that she seems to have about the bit. It’s such an obvious idea, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. So that’ll be something I perhaps do next time I’m having a raised-poles-arena session. 

A maternal mare

Skye is a very sweet mare. 

She’s currently in a field of three mares, herself included, and they’re a merry little band. I found them under a tree swishing flies today. Skye rather wanted to stay there and, soft as I am, if she lived on my doorstep and I was able to say, “sure, I’ll come back in an hour” I would have. As it stands, I felt I should insist, since all the gentle postural work (plus general handling) that we’re doing is so clearly having a positive effect. 

Arena today. Raised poles again, though a bit lower this time to vary sensory input. Higher is better though for our purposes. Up to knee height. Such a height requires a more deliberate and slow lifting of each leg which gets the core more involved. 

Anyway, did that both on-line and free, plus some backing up. I’m learning my lesson with regards to the latter. It’s hard for her, so get one or two good efforts, reward heartily, and leave it there. That way I get a better effort the next time. 

Also began teaching targeting today. Skye found this a bit over-stimulating, but I think that’s down to my poor timing rather than anything else so we’ll get better at it. Still, she got the idea so I can build upon it. 

I’d seen a couple of rehab things about the value of teaching your horse to stand its front legs on a pedestal. It really switches on the thoracic sling muscles (hot topic of my life, right now). I couldn’t think of anything to use as a pedestal (and I didn’t much fancy building something and dragging it there via the bus), but in the end I realised that, for now, I can use the “step” out of the arena at the gateway. The concrete is only a few inches higher than the arena, but it still changes the postural requirements. And (and this is the fun bit) I can get her stood there then use the targeting (currently with nose) to ask her to reach out nice and long with her neck. 

We did one of these today (I just wanted to try it since we’d gotten a few consistent touches in a row) and it worked. 

I’m really pleased that I decided to ensure the delivery of rewards was always in this reaching sort of posture. I was thinking I was just encouraging her to bring her focus down out of the air, to relax those neck muscles, to straighten the cervicothoracic junction… But actually I think there’s another element to it. The head is heavy. Flung back with a high carriage, the weight is stacked more over the front legs and the chest sinks. Bad times. I read once that there’s an advantage to being slightly front-heavy with a big head at the end of a long lever… when you’re a grazing animal with that weighting, you lift your head and one foot and gravity decrees that you must move (almost fall) forward. The leg comes under to catch you. It’s very economical, if you think about it, and horses are masters of economical movement. 

When the neck is horizontal, however, the head is actually further away from the body still and so the weight of it will be more felt. Catching with the front legs isn’t enough to balance. So the core engages and the hind end comes into play. The centre of balance moves slightly backwards. Even static and unridden, I think this happens. I think it’s one of the principles behind Sharon May-Davis’ suggestion that some browsing (with head between knee and chest height) engages the deep core muscles and encourages squareness. 

So not only are +R rewards useful from a training/behavioural science point of view, they’re potentially also useful in terms of asking the horse to spend some time in different postures and balances. Double duty, huzzah. And so targeting might be useful likewise. Sure, to encourage bravery and build confidence, but also to create conditions in which balance is challenged. 

Anyway, a nice day in the sunshine with Skye. Oh, there was another “first” today too. Back in the field I was taking a look at her and from behind her belly seemed less low-slung than before. Just a touch. I don’t know enough to say what exactly that’s down too, but I’m guessing improved core muscle tone supporting the back and ribcage better. Either way, it was a good thing to see. 

 

My horse’s feeble splenius

Am really looking forward to Skye’s McTimoney visit at the end of this month. 

Very often, what manipulation will reveal is a muscle (or group of muscles) that has lost its strength and bulk through reduced activity, or total inactivity. […] An example if this is when the horse has to rely on the brachiocephalic muscle to brace the base of the neck and keep his postural balance. This significantly reduces the role of the splenius muscle, which promotes self-carriage, balances the head and neck, and absorbs the movement of the body when the horse lands over a jump. – Sara Wyche, “Practical Steps in Rehabilitating your Horse” 

No kidding. I’d be so interested to know at what point in her life Skye started carrying herself poorly, but alas I’ll never know, not really. Was it following the injury to her left hind cannon? How did that even happen? Was it over a jump? The biggest shy I’ve seen from her was when walking past some barrels that she mistakenly thought I was going to try to get her over. Was it through general wear-and-tear or upside-down riding? Was it following the carrying of two foals and a loss of abdominal tone? Who can say. I can see the clues, but I don’t know enough to interpret their full meaning. Still, anything I can do to encourage her to engage her core and move fluidly is a good thing. The fact that she sometimes now offers those postures in play and showing-off is wonderful progress. She’s started to enjoy her body a bit more. I’m not quite bold enough yet to attempt using play in the exact way that the brilliant people at Intrinzen do (and I can’t quite figure out why, because it isn’t fear… maybe it’s because I’m clinging to the idea that Skye needs calm vibes first?), but I’m certainly happy to encourage it at times, and very happy to accept it when its offered in a safe context. 

Vet visit yesterday, 2nd vaccination. Skye had zero enthusiasm for seeing me, ha. But bless her generous heart, she still did everything she needed to, albeit with a wish to simply return to the field. 

One of my next goals is to convince her that lunging is no different to leading. She’ll do it, but she finds it instantly alarming, especially on the right rein. But you can have her walk 20m circles both on the lead and free at your shoulder, so it isn’t the movement itself that’s the problem. 

It reminds me of when my pony Fred came back from a questionable loaner. He’d needed treatment to fix his back after her as she’d lunged him into the ground. We all felt so guilty about that, but hey oh, if someone is recommended you assume it’ll all be fine. Anyway, when he finally came back to me I popped him on the lunge one day and his mood instantly changed. Aggressive, upset, ears, teeth, everything, and hind hooves threatening in my direction. This the pony that we’d started on the lunge ourselves and who, although opinionated and stubborn, never behaved in such a way. The memory of pain or stress is a powerful thing. 

With Fred I just abandoned it. He was healthy enough and all he really needed to do was hack out anyway, which he was great at, and I didn’t want to cause him any distress. Skye is not quite as stressed as that, outwardly, but she clearly views lunging in a certain light. So yesterday I had John stand in the middle of the circle at the end of the line, whilst I walked on her outside and gave direction. She wasn’t thrilled, but she was better than she had been when I lunged her alone. So I think I’ll have to enlist help and repeat this a couple times. First with me leading, then someone else whilst I “lunge”, then just me lunging and no leader. Sticking to our very very simple halt cue, using a high rate of reward and a low criteria at first. Just really try to convince her that it ain’t no thing and that the normal understanding between us still applies. She doesn’t fully trust my judgement yet, so we need lots of confidence-building opportunities. Slowly slowly. 

In training, there is always the tendency to proceed too rapidly. To arrive quickly, go slowly with careful, cautious steps. Make frequent demands; be content with little; be lavish in reward. – General Faverot de Kerbrech

Reading “demands” as “requests”, I like this a lot. Because frequent is not necessarily the same as challenging or advanced. Frequent is just numerous enough. The “demand” may be as easy as you like and in being such will be achievable. If the animal has ample opportunity and incentive to succeed, it will feel confident about trying

Company

Horse was wonderful yesterday. Calm and responsive from the word go. Stood on a stone on the way in from the field (and again later, on the way back!) and ooh, what a delicate flower she was about it. But moved mostly fine after I picked out her feet, which she continues getting better at. 

The right fore is always the one she most resists lifting. I’ve started doing wither rocks before I attempt picking out, in a bid to gently switch on the deeper postural muscles before asking her to balance with a leg in the air. It seems to help. Anyway, the right is the one she most resists lifting. Is this because standing on the left is hard? It definitely seems like she puts more weight down through the right normally. Or is it because flexing the joints of the right leg is challenging? 

A friend came out down the lane with me, on her coloured cob. I’ve been leading Skye out in-hand down that lane about once a week and she does great, but she has a routine that rarely varies. It’s a short lane, so we’ll walk it up and down three or four times. On the first pass, everything is a bit scary. She sticks with you closely, snorts continuously, and looks at everything. Many little flinches/shies mild though they are. By the second pass, things are a bit better and you can start getting her attention by asking for halts. Third pass, she’s chill. The neck relaxes, she can be at arm’s length, and she’s less worried about what’s behind the bushes and trees and more concerned with whether she can eat them. Since this routine hadn’t really changed for regular exposure, I wondered if having a horsey friend there would make a difference. And hey presto, it did. My friend’s cob is good on the roads but can be a bit of a baby himself, but Skye was instantly happier just for having him there (she mothers him a little bit, it’s very sweet) and though she was still looky she wasn’t really afraid at all. Just curious. We strode out rather nicely, having a good old explore of everything. No snorting, neck mostly relaxed from the get go, a nice swinging walk, and she didn’t feel the need to cling to my shoulder for safety. 

So that’s good to know! I’d say she’s happy with me, but infinitely happier with horses, and that’s as it should be really. Fitness, etc. aside, the way she was yesterday we’d have merrily had a rider on her without thinking twice about it. So here’s hoping we can toodle out in company more often and encourage that inquisitive confidence that she has when she’s not pushed too far out of her comfort zone. 

After that we popped into the arena for a bit of free fun. Unclipped the line, walked and halted a bit which she’s good at. Backed up, which she’s slowly improving with. And went to look at some of the potentially scary things, poles, etc. I pushed stuff around with my foot and left her free to run off if she felt the need, but she didn’t. Brave girl. There’s a big ball in there at the moment, so although I haven’t begun teaching targeting yet I did try to “capture” the moment she nosed it by saying “touch” as she did it, clicking immediately, and rewarding of course. I think targeting would be a fun thing for her, just to encourage her to think things through, to offer stuff, and to experience lots of easy, rewarding moments, to build confidence. So we’ll see. 

She then got bored and wondered off by herself, straight to the gate saying, “done now!” I waited and watched to see what she’d do. What we got were some rather fancy trot steps! It felt like a display of, “come on, I’m fabulous and feeling good, I want to go back to my friends!” But the nicest aspect of it was some tiny moments of quite beautiful posture. That gorgeous “I’m big and strong!” posture that they do with each other when playing, with the withers lifted and the front end thus elevated, the fore feet lighter on the ground, and neck proud and poll flexed. In those moments, we got little glimpses of how lovely she could be. With the cervicothoracic junction of the spine straightened out, the poll gently flexed, and the ribcage lifted between the front legs, her back looked flat and strong, and the energy from her hinds seemed to flow through whereas normally in free trot the energy sort of bounces around in her trampoline-back and dissipates before it can really go anywhere. But here we are, her core is starting to switch on, she’s starting to feel stronger, and I think that physical change is giving her confidence. Am so pleased for her. 

Gates and Gaits

For the past three days Skye has been a bit on edge. Just a tad and with no apparent cause, except that it’s possibly connected to the cooler weather (she’s far more chilled when it’s too hot to expend much energy). 

On Saturday, I misjudged how close to being outside of her comfort levels she really was and asked a bit too much. We’d tried on a bridle which she was reluctant about but accepted. Wasn’t thrilled with having the bit in her mouth and became reluctant to take a carrot slice. Began dropping them too, struggled chewing. She’s done all this before, bits and bridles and riding I mean, in a previous life. But I don’t know how much, how merrily, or whether she’s had things go wrong, so I’m treating every new thing as really new. Will get her teeth looked at soon too, have been told they’re due in August. 

Anyway, I took it all a bit for granted this day. Thought that since she’s been so willing (and really, she’s done just about everything I’ve asked of her so far, with tiny patient questions) I was probably being over-careful. Decided to pop the cavesson on (which she’s fine with), and the roller (which I had tried on but hadn’t walked her with), and then thought we might as well brave two lunge lines (she’s fine with things around her bottom, fine on the lunge line, and I’ve lunged her once before) and try long-lining. A step too far for Skye, who told us so in no uncertain terms! We got into the arena and she began walking off, a bit alarmed. We’d taken about three steps and I hadn’t quite sorted out my lines/hands so I gave a little “woo-ooh!” and a gentle squeeze on the lines (which were clipped to the soft cavesson, not the bit which was just sitting in her mouth) to ask her to stop. She tucked her head in and threw it around to resist, did a big and beautiful withers-up bronc, and cantered off out of the open arena gate and back to her field. So, I made many errors of judgement there. And because I asked for three new things in one day, I can’t say for sure which element was the key problem. Of course, it may not have been one thing, it may have been that combined they stacked up. Trigger stacking, remember. But the way it felt at the time, it seemed that she was a bit upset anyway and then my asking for a halt, that little bit of perceived restriction on her head, it felt like too much and she just said, “no.”

Thankfully, she hadn’t damaged herself or anything else by running off with lines attached, I was very lucky there. Stupid (hormonal!) human. Went to retrieve her from the field and she was as good as gold. Not upset with me, but with the situation she had found herself in. By this point someone else was using the arena, so Skye and I walked up and down the yard and she chilled out very well. I really need to work hard to convince her that it’s all pleasant and fun and that it won’t hurt. Whether it’s to do with her poor posture or a previous injury, who knows, but she just doesn’t seem to believe that “work” can be pleasant. When we do things that I don’t think she’s done before (bits of +R, etc.) she’s completely fine. Physically, the “work” I’ve asked her for is no harder than the stuff we’re doing in-hand, so there’s definitely a psychological barrier there. She switches on with +R and seems kind of surprised by it. Engages and relaxes. But ask for lunging and oh, she’ll do it but it’s upsetting. And that’s the thing, I need to not exploit that she’ll do stuff for me. Not take it for granted. Remember to introduce everything as slowly and quietly as possible. And to give lots of praise for every tiny thing. 

So, on Sunday I behaved myself and lowered my expectations. Which gave her a chance to exceed them. Went back to practicing halts and leading in the arena, and went over about 40 or so raised walk poles. It’s dull work, but it’s what her body needs (to engage that thoracic sling) and it’s mentally un-taxing. At the end of the session, I unclipped the line and we did it all again at liberty. Not in the truest sense of the word, I don’t think she considered that she had much of a choice, and I would like to convince her that all this stuff should be collaborative. Maybe if we incorporate some targeting, try to turn it into a game. Anyway, she did it anyhow, following me back and forth over the poles and halting by my shoulder. To be honest, I think she was relieved that we hadn’t repeated the questions from the day before. 

Then today John and I were both down, and we took her for a brisk walk up and down the lane opposite. The usual drill, some snorting and shying and general fear for the first two passes, then she relaxed into the third and fourth. Practiced halts and kept a high rate of reward to make it all pleasant. Lots of vocal reward and encouragement too. Ended up able to drape the lead-rope over her neck (within easy reach, of course) and to walk/halt nice and chill off just body/vocal cues. By the last pass, John and I were walking either side of her neck and she seemed to enjoy that proximity. If it’s just me leading on the road, she will often still try to step into my space to be safe. If John’s in front (and bearing in mind she doesn’t even know him) she’ll sometimes speed up in a wish to be closer. I haven’t taken her out with either of my friends’ horses yet, so that might be the next thing to try. Find out if she feels noticeably safer for having horsey company. I should imagine she will but you don’t know until you know. 

Got a bit of slow motion video to look at her movement, in a bid to learn more. Aside from the noticeable dragged left-hind toe on the first step, I can’t see anything obviously worrying. But then that’s the point, I can’t see enough, am learning. Each foot lands heel-toe and rolls forwards, which I think is as it needs to be. The front toes ping upwards when the leg is fully extended right before the foot touches down, which I think is also correct. There’s a slight wobble there, but my understanding of that is that it’s normal and to do with the fact that the “flick” comes from the muscles higher up, it isn’t controlled lower down. I feel like I can see the ECR muscles engaging a lot to help flex the elbow and then support the body passing over the standing front leg, which would support the idea that she’s been so heavy on the forehand for so long that they’ve overdeveloped. Got to get the thoracic sling and abdominals working! She has about a one-and-a-bit hoof overtrack here at the walk, but is that the hind coming through or the fore hanging back? Will have to try to find some examples of good walks and assess the similarities and differences. 

McTimoney lady booked for 29th of this month, all being well, and the vet is coming for her second vaccination on Friday. It’s all go! Am very curious for the former visit, can’t wait to see what can be learned about Skye’s body. 

Sponge and scrape

Had to dispense with the +R yesterday for the simple reason that I had no carrots. Turns out horse isn’t a fan of lettuce as an alternative and I can’t blame her really. One of my friends’ ponies is a gannet, however, so it wasn’t wasted. She didn’t seem to mind though. Took everything in her stride even without a sweetener to the deal. Since I couldn’t +R effectively, we basically mosied around and I didn’t ask too many questions, just asked her to chill with me really. 

Chilled on the yard whilst the others got ready for their mini-hack. Picked feet and she wasn’t keen with the right fore, but she wasn’t worried about it either. Done no problem. Pulled a bit more mane. 

Had been thinking the other day about her sometimes-uneven gait in front. What is the root cause? Who knows. But I’ve been reading and trying to assess her musculature to learn more about it. The most noticeable culprit is the right-hand extensor carpi radialis. That short bulging muscle at the top front of the forearm, which you can see in the photo here. 

Her right side (which is the side she sometimes seems to stride short on) is more developed than the left, which you can see at a glance in person. Upon feeling them, it’s also a bit more firm and there is a hard bump or “knot”, perhaps about a half inch in diameter, at the lower edge of the muscle. I’ve found three physio references to this muscle as contributing to unlevelness and choppiness when dysfunctional, so perhaps that’s part of it. Hmm, I should look at how her front feet grow, see what that might tell us about where the forces are traveling through the limbs. 

But which came first? The muscle issue or the movement that created the muscle issue? Is it part and parcel of her overall way of going? An overdevelopment that’s come as a compensatory measure for when her opposite hind was injured, and then never went away? A kick or bump in the field that stayed “knotted” up? Who can say. A few of us are hoping to get a McTimoney lady that we know out soon, so perhaps by learning more about the state of her spine we’ll gather more information in general which will give insight into this asymmetry. I mean, plenty of people would ride her like this, especially since she looks fine on grass. Or perhaps just shoe her, thinking it’s sore feet (and maybe it is also that). But for my part, I could imagine this asymmetry becoming a lameness quite easily, so I’d rather try to address it now. Perhaps even just a bit of massage or fascia release would help. 

Well, first things first, book the McTimoney lady, get her feet tidied up again, and continue doing the slow, postural work which will hopefully strengthen her core and draw the weight up out of her forelegs. 

It’s working so far, after all! Nearly every day I see her, she looks a little bit more like a horse and less like a giraffe/sack-of-spuds. So proud of her. Yesterday she stood herself up quite square a lot of the time and though she’s still not a “good” shape, she’s less strung out and weak looking. 

Sometimes I think it would be better if I were able to get to her every single day, and be more strict with myself about doing all the raised poles, etc, on every single visit. But partly, I don’t want to bore or sour her. Or myself! And so I figure slow progress (physically speaking) is just fine and dandy. 

The emotional progress has been huge, after all! She’s settled really well now. Yesterday was another hot one and, as previously noted, those are good days to do new or potentially alarming things as she’s always too hot to care. 

So. With Skye in tow I let the girls out the front gate for their hack then turned back in. Did Skye care that her friends were going without her? Nope. Not enough to say, at any rate. Then we changed into a cavesson. Horse chill with all that. Imagining she will be likewise with a bridle, so will try that soon. Then meandered up to explore the dressage field in-hand. 

So pleased it went well! It’s right next to the neighbouring animal shelter, so the adjacent field has all sorts of beasties in it which some of the horses find a bit spooky. Since, thus far, Skye has snorted at every “new” thing she’s seen I assumed we’d have some of that again. But instead she had a look, and wanted to see the horses in another field, but was otherwise mostly interested in how to get to the lush grass and clover beneath her feet. 

We walked in hand for 20 minutes, tracing out 20m circles, diagonal changes of rein, serpentines, and went large a few times, halting every so often. Just walking walking walking. Her neck was relaxed and horizontal, her back was moving nicely, and she seemed comfortable in front. 

It was too hot for more than that (for me, not the horse!), so it was back to the yard to brave a rinse off. She did great. Attentive ears and stepped away uncertainly a couple of times, but settled to a sponging well and I think enjoyed the cool water. Got the sweat-scraper out to sponge and scrape her a few times, and that was likewise fine. Very satisfying for me too, she’s such a shiny beastie (and a glossy coat is always a good sign!) that any opportunity to groom is pleasant. She also… drumroll… stood at the post whilst I went out of sight to get the scraper. And when I returned she was exactly where I’d left her, gazing into the distance thinking about something, happy and calm and confident. What a joy, to see this horse relax into her new life. 

I think her hind limb conformation is okay, though I don’t have much of an eye for such things yet. She seems to stand less close than she did at first (muscle development?) and turns her toes out a little but not loads. Not entirely square here, but it gives an idea. I remember at the SMD dissection in April, I had a thought so I shared it (“do you think most people interpret damage as poor conformation?”) and there was a resounding “yes” from the room full of physios and vets and trimmers and bodyworkers. “Oh!” I thought, that was even more decisive than I’d expected. I’m trying to imagine what Skye will have looked like as a pre-foals, pre-riding, youngster, or what she would look like now if all she’d done with her life was live out on rough hills 24/7. Can we bring her back to a healthy picture? 

I have a question about ribcages. The human ribcage expands during pregnancy and sometimes it doesn’t quite ping back into place afterwards. Fitting corsetry, I would find that some women (either inherently or after childbearing) had “sprung ribs”, where the lowest floating ribs stick out a little bit. 

When brood mares (or older animals out of condition) lose abdominal tone does the same effect occur? Does the look of that “dropped” belly come partly from the false ribs opening up sideways as though to make room for a foal? She did some more back lifts yesterday and was very good with it, nicely responsive and happy to put the effort in. Sometimes she’ll step sideways in a bid to avoid it, which perhaps goes to show how much effort engaging her abdominals really is at the moment. 

Anyway, she was a star yesterday, very gentle and chilled and confident in her surroundings. Gentleness, along with kindness and curiosity, is one of my absolute favourite characteristics. They’re my favourites because they’re moral, compassionate, and within the reach of all of us. Gentleness is a type of care-giving, I suppose. I always say I value it in men, in particular, since it isn’t the trait they’re most encouraged to express. But the company of gentle animals, ah it’s a lovely thing. 

First lunging attempt

I have a head cold, and the sunshine is messing me up, and I’m done for the day. 

But it’s been a good one. Many hands on deck volunteering which was great as I wasn’t feeling quite fighting fit. Carried on drawings for the next colouring book and watched the girls lunge and long-rein a few of the horses that we’re slowly bringing into work. They’re all doing so well. I’m especially enjoying getting to know big Diego’s character a little bit, he’s so full of exuberance! Previously, we saw none of that in the arena, he seemed demotivated by work though full of life in the field. But now he’s starting to have some energy on the lunge, which is promising. 

In my horse world, the cavesson and roller I ordered arrived so I decided to see how Skye felt about them. It’s been another hot day which always makes her super-chill, so it’s a good time to try new things. Well, I say “new”, I’m pretty sure she’s lunged in a previous life but since I don’t know for sure I’m treating every new thing I do with her as though it’s the first time it’s happened. Indeed, sometimes you’d prefer horses hadn’t done these things before. Skye had no qualms with the tack, but as soon as she was on a lunge-line she lost energy and enthusiasm. She did everything asked of her, but more out of politeness than desire, and she did tell me that she wasn’t up for a couple of things. 

Right rein isn’t her fave, which I’d already seen when we viewed her. She’ll turn in if she can, avoid going in that direction, and once she is moving in that direction she’s over-reactive to the lunge whip. In the mildest possible way, but just small over-reactions. I appreciate that she’s responsive though, that’s always useful. 

I’m slowly trying to understand her body and movement. Today was another day where she seemed a little bit uneven in front. It isn’t always there and it seems to show up when the surface is more difficult in some way. Ie: she’s fine on grass and usually fine on concrete, but the deeper going of dry sand (and it is indeed very dry at the moment) shows it up. I don’t know where the unevenness comes from, may get a bodyworker out soon to search for any longstanding areas of tightness. I’d be pleased if it was muscular, after all, as that can be helped. 

My current theory is that we’re changing her way of going and it’s revealing an asymmetry that she’s been compensating for. I think it’s the right foreleg. It doesn’t stride as far forward, though perhaps that’s down to being tight through the body (posterior pectorals on the right-hand side?), or compensating for the opposite hind leg (which is the one that has a big scar and extra bone from an old injury), or who knows what. It might also explain her hefty underneck. Sara Wyche says that the brachiocephalic muscle often overdevelops to take strain off a sore forelimb, in particular when the horse is heavy on the forehand. Well Skye is for sure that. Heavy between her forelegs and hench on both sides of the underneck. The neck can become, “an uncomfortable cantilever that uglifies the otherwise beautiful architecture of the body” (“Practical Steps in Rehabilitating your Horse”, Sara Wyche, 2010). True story! 

So perhaps there’s a longstanding soreness or compensatory pattern there that we’re unpicking. Because some days she’s seems stronger for the work and on others this asymmetry appears. Yep, would be good to get someone’s educated hands on her muscles, see if there’s anything we can “unlock” and help her with. Might not be that of course, might be that she’ll improve as her feet get back into the habit of being trimmed more often, or any number of other things, but time will tell. I’d like to know if it’s temporary soreness through changing posture, or something that needs “fixing” somehow. It doesn’t feel good to overrule a horse’s opinion when it shares it (“right rein is hard, I’m not happy, this is worrying me…”) unless you know that they’ll benefit from it in the long run. 

Overall shape and posture still improving though. I traced two photos as comparison the other day and whilst they are both merely moments in time we’re now seeing the dashed outline more often than the solid one, which is excellent news. The belly is shrinking, the core is engaging, the pelvis is resetting to neutral, and the neck is releasing. 

Oh yes, and that’s what I was writing about, lunging. I kept it to a walk today (accept when she over-reacted on the right rein and took it upon herself to trot) and she did really well. She switched off to my halt cue (I think she’d gone, “oh, lunging, it’s this again…” and stopped looking for the opportunities for +R) and got a worried face, so I need to think of ways of making lunging motivating for her. Walked over 50 poles (20 raised, again) and it was good to be at a distance to watch her. She’s getting slowly better with her feet, more controlled and careful, and it was very clear how the ground poles can be done in a poor frame whilst the raised ones do really encourage that lift up the withers and subsequent elongating of the spine and horizontal reach of the neck/head. Indeed, most of her walking was done with her head either horizontal or sometimes with the nose to the ground. Unsure why she took it upon herself to do the latter. It seemed like she was sniffing or looking for grass in a bid to ignore the situation. So I’ll really need to work on changing her feelings about lunging, because it is a useful part of an exercise regime. But hey, one needs to keep the mind happy and probably prioritise that over the body, since how can they use themselves well if stressed and tense? 

I shouldn’t overstate it though, she wasn’t tense, just demotivated and possibly uncomfortable. Spent plenty of moments just standing, moving back to her haunches and draping the lunge-line against the length of her body, in a bid to prepare for long-reining (which may prove more useful than lunging). She’s fine with one line like this, which will hopefully translate to being fine with two. Didn’t use the roller today, but did put it briefly on after work to check it fit. She wasn’t bothered. She’s always paying attention and gets a bit quizzical in her ears when you do these things, but she’s not upset by it all. Just intrigued. 

Great manners on the yard again, for feet, etc. She’s settled so well. Back at the field she wanted more attention than I gave her, which I felt bad about after. I was sweltering hot, feeling ill, and desperate to get in the shade, but really I should have sat on a cross-country jump and chilled, or maybe massaged her a bit. Especially since she’d been so obliging doing something that she clearly didn’t love. We stood together at the gate and she didn’t put her head down for grass until I’d left. I’m glad to be her friend and hope I don’t inadvertently abuse that friendship! Horses are far too generous. 

A friend had to catch her the other day as they were changing the fields over. With how she’d seemed at first, they weren’t sure it would be possible! But she apparently walked merrily towards them and was an angel. I’m not surprised, she’s always been good to catch if you’ve been chill and pleasant about it, she’s only said “no” once in the entire time I’ve known her. But I’m pleased she’s like this for everyone now. 

I noticed today that in all of my “side-on, let’s look at posture” photos, you can see the end/bump of Skye’s deep/posterior pectorals. Not something I normally notice on horses. Overdeveloped due to being so heavy on the forehand? Might be a good idea to incorporate some forward leg stretches as she becomes ever move confident lifting her feet up. Will have to research what overdevelopment in this area can link to. 

But all that said, isn’t she starting to look more like a horse than a giraffe now?! The overall impression is just a little bit more together. Still not good, but certainly better. I just really hope we can make her more comfortable and healthy in her movement, that would be quite a rewarding experience. 

Higher

Usual arena routine today, but with the addition of some raised walk poles. Huzzah, finally! She doesn’t travel over them very well but that’s the point, that’s why they’re needed. 50 poles today, 20 of which were raised, then some responsive backing-up. It isn’t straight and true yet, but it’s on a lighter cue than ever and is reasonably energetic, so we’ll get there. 

First day that I’ve picked her feet with absolutely no fuss and no distractions or assistance. Well done horse! She was completely un-fussed by the whole thing, which is exactly what I want. Not switched off to things, just comfortable with them. Continued pulling her mane and she began dozing through that which was interesting. Perhaps one day the science will say otherwise and I will have to change my point of view, but some horses do seem to enjoy the process. It was another hot day which certainly helps anyhow. She’s not got the energy to be distracted when it’s hot! Today, whenever a horsefly was trying to take another meal from her, if she couldn’t reach the spot she would turn and present it to me so that I could swat them away. It’s nice that she’s aware that I’m interested in her needs and opinions. 

So, very pleased today. A really nice session to follow my “first month” reflections. 

One month

It’s been a month since I met Skye and decided to take her on. I’m very pleased so far! To be fair, if we’d had a month pass and all I’d been able to achieve was catching her, I’d have still been pleased. But as it stands, she’s been a superstar and managed a lot.

  • Over 20kg bodyweight lost. 
  • Beginning to look her height (back slowly coming up, posture improving). 
  • Belly slowly shrinking. 
  • Happy to walk over poles (scary at first). Doesn’t kick every single one now (body awareness/control improving). 
  • Has also started raised poles and walked between tall jump wings. Uncertain, but willing. 
  • Walks, halts, stands quite nicely. Can do belly lifts, pelvic tucks, wither rocks, and backing-up. 
  • Will walk by shoulder at arm’s length instead of hiding behind you the whole time. 
  • Has gone from fear to focus.
  • Confidence growing all the time. 
  • Head/neck posture has begun to improve. More horizontal and less ewe-necked. 
  • Starting to see flashes of muscles that weren’t being much used before (cervical serratus, rhomboid, splenius). 
  • Easy to catch and headcollar. 
  • Mostly happy to pick up all four feet now (panicked and leaned back at first, almost fell onto her knees a couple of times). 
  • First farrier visit went well. 
  • Good for the vet (microchip and first vaccination). 
  • Happy to be groomed and touched everywhere. 
  • Doesn’t mind tail being trimmed or mane being pulled. 
  • Not worried by schooling whips. 
  • Accepted me wrapping bandages around her body with little drama. 
  • Softened into those bandages nicely both times, straightening out the neck/chest junction. 
  • Quick to learn and brilliant once you get her attention. 
  • Accepted walking out on the lane opposite, without even a companion horse for solace. Not worried by cars, but can be spooky about everything else! Less spooky in hot weather. But impressed with her willingness to carry on despite thinking there’s danger behind every hedgerow. 
  • Sweet character and good in the field. Friends with everyone. 
  • Can be separated from the other horses and it bothers her, but she does it. Very willing. 
  • Can focus and/or stand quietly in the arena whilst others are working/riding. 
  • Plays in the field, had a merry old gallop the other day. Looked well!