September 19, 2019

Connor the Lesson Pony

For a long time, Connor was not a horse that could be used in lessons.  He was weird, quirky, and, as my trainer said once several years ago, "Connor never forgets."  It was easy to upset his learning apple cart, so to speak.

The sunset was stunning last night!  I had to be at the barn slightly later than usual to kill a wasp nest in my trailer, sigh.

But within the last couple of years, I've started thinking that he'd probably be a good advanced lesson horse.  He's not a GP schoolmaster, but he's solid through First, and he's a very subtle ride despite my best efforts to fail him on that.  He's also way less...weird...than he used to be.

So I was thrilled when my trainer's assistant had a lesson on him this week that went really well.  She's a solid rider but newer to Dressage, and she has a green horse herself, so Connor was a lot different than what she's used to riding.

And also very strange.  No filter.
She gushed about:

- How good of a teacher he was:  "He doesn't give anything away.  If I did everything right, he did it for me, but if I didn't, he didn't."

- How subtle you have to be with your aids while riding him: "There was one moment where I was thinking about preparing for a canter to trot transition, and I didn't feel like I changed anything but I must have, because he went ahead and did the transition."  (I can guarantee that's not anticipation for this horse, that's probably something like she changed the position of her torso very slightly, and he noticed and she didn't.)

- All the fun things she got to do with him that her horse can't do yet.

Part of me is thrilled that someone was able to get that much out of my "one person horse", and part of me is INSANELY jealous but also happy for her that there's a horse in the barn that can fulfill the schoolmaster role for her right now.  Can someone move into my barn with a GP horse?  Please and thank you. 😁

September 18, 2019

Headshaking, Part the Last

I had my first lesson last night since Connor's adjustment, and it was fantastic.  He felt so good, so relaxed, and I had such easy access to all of his body parts.

Going to post a bunch of 'before' pictures for comparison from the last show.  Thanks Karen!!

Partway through I asked my trainer to get on him.  I think she was surprised because I usually only ask her to get on when he's not going well.  "I mean, I'm having a blast up here but I want you to feel this too."

Tense, worried

Getting to see him undersaddle is what finally confirmed everything I was feeling.  His eyes were soft instead of worried.  His topline was so relaxed, and the shape had changed for the better in everything from stretchy trot to the canter.  His ears were casual and moving instead of fixed, flicking back to listen to my trainer, and then forward for no discernable reason.  His throatlatch was so open I could have stuffed an orange in there.  He didn't headshake, try to get his tongue over the bit, or go around pulling his bottom lip back constantly.  My trainer said, "Wow, that is a big difference."

He was the opposite of this picture in every way

I feel bad for him having been in pain for so long, but I'm not beating myself up for not figuring this out sooner.  It was one of those things that came on gradually as we went up the levels with enough good days that I couldn't have put my finger on "pain". 

He's such a stoic guy, and he's not one that's going to say no.  He just makes it the best he can, and I try to do the best I can for him as we stumble through Dressageland together.

So what are my takeaways?  First, bodywork can work.  Do I think it's a silver bullet in every situation?  No.  Do I think every horse needs it regularly?  Also no.  Do I think it will magically fix your horse?  Don't put that on me Ricky Bobby.  😂  I'm here to tell you my experiences and that's it. 

I think we were in a unique situation where Connor was out enough in his body but also educated enough in Dressage that we were able to see a massive change when he got bodywork for the first time in at least the last 8 years.

Mid-roll after our lesson and a bath last night
Second, I've always known this horse is stoic about pain, but I need to double down on being observant and thinking thoroughly about the signs he gives me.  If his ulcers flare up, when his hocks eventually need maintenance, he's not going to put it on a billboard for me. I'm not going to turn into a helicopter owner, but I will be more diligent about checking things out.

Finally, even when you're trying to do everything right by your horse that you see every day and know better than you know any other pet you've ever had, you can miss things, and that's okay.  You fix them, and you move on without guilt tripping yourself.  You have to.  That's all any of us can do.  

September 17, 2019

Headshaking, Part 3

I've had two Dressage rides and one on-the-buckle hack since Connor got adjusted (in that order) and I tried to be as objective as possible, but there was no denying that there was a big change.  Right from the get-go, when I was tacking him up, I palpated that spot that had been so sore he tried to pull away from me before, and he didn't even react.

I noticed some very specific things.  First, it felt like the stance phase of right fore in the walk didn't last as long.  He loves to lean on that leg in every gait and every direction, and it felt like it was spending less time on the ground.

I also immediately noticed that I didn't get the feeling that I needed to convince him to "stand up" on the left side.  His hips and his back were level, to the point that I sort of felt like I was being pitched forward.

In both Dressage rides, he still shook his head, but only one gentle half-assed shake, with no tension and no running through me afterward.

Finally, certain pieces of his body felt easier to access.  Shoulder in right was a lot easier to get.  Shoulder in left was still tough, but there's a LOT of muscle memory we're going to have to unlearn in order to fix that.

On Mondays we wear blue.  Because we're blue about Monday.
Probably the most important thing I had to realize is that however good he felt coming out, it was still possible for me to get him crooked and off-balanced with my poor riding.  Why do you think his whole body was stuck to the left?!  It's vitally important that I change ME right now so that he doesn't immediately get locked back up in all the same ways.   

Is anything permanently fixed?  No.  Am I a lot more aware of my own crookedness when my horse isn't so crooked?  Yes.  All in all, this feels like money well-spent.  Anything that makes him more comfortable is money well-spent in my book.

September 16, 2019

Headshaking, Part 2

If you missed Part 1, go back and read this post first for some necessary backstory.

When my vet (an eventer herself and an exceptional sport horse vet) got out to the barn, I started by summarizing the headshaking and my recent findings.  She investigated the sore spot and the same spot on the other side, and pretty quickly said, "I can fix this," with absolute no-question confidence.

Taking conference calls while waiting on the vet.  The best way to take conference calls.

I am totally going to butcher these explanations, apologies to my vet, but I'll do the best I can.

She said effectively, his skull and his body were misaligned. Even when he's standing still, straight and relaxed, his skull hung off the atlas tilted in exactly the same way he rides under saddle, with the top of his head tilted toward his left side.

This is an extreme example, but this is the direction his head is always tilted.

She pointed out that the squishy channel the sore spot sits in (which is an area she referred to as "WAM" for [something]-Atlas-Mandible) was one finger wide on the left side, and two fingers wide on the right side, which is caused by his head being crooked on the atlas.  They should be even.

She said often it's only serious Dressage riders that will notice this condition because of what they ask their horses to do, and that the natural size of the gap varies widely based on breed and training (Thoroughbreds often have a small gap there, while upper level Dressage horses will have a massive gap).  A lot of horses will go their entire lives without anyone noticing this.

She also said that given how small the gap on the left was, it's absolutely possible that something was rubbing or clicking or moving into place when I straighten him out and he headshakes and then goes on my aids.

Ow my head hurts

So that's how Connor got his first bodywork session of his life.  She did his whole body first before starting with his head, and these were her findings:

- Pelvis was tipped to the left (he got wide eyed and picked a hind foot up to kick when she adjusted this!)

- Spinal processes were all tipped to the left

- SI palpated sore (not worrying given he'd done the most collected canter of his life earlier in the week)

- His behind-the-saddle back muscles were so fixed/tight she said she was surprised he went as well as he does (and she has seen him under saddle pretty recently, so she should know.)

- The right side of his neck in particular was so out/tight that when she asked him to turn his neck to  look behind him to the right without moving his feet, he was "convinced he couldn't do it" before she adjusted him.  After, he did it no problem.

- He didn't palpate sore under the saddle at all and she guessed that my saddle fits well

Then she got to his head, and she had me put my hand on his neck only for the bad side to be a counterbalance as she adjusted him from the front.  When she did it, she felt a "clunk" when the bones popped back into place, and there was a lot of licking and chewing and yawning.

She said she's not typically one to recommend regularly scheduled bodywork, but he was SO messed up that she is going to do a follow up session at our already-scheduled October fall shots appointment.

Next, we waited 24 hours and then did a test ride.

September 13, 2019

Headshaking, Part 1

Thank you so much for your comments on the Little Red post.  Me and my mom read every single one, and they meant so much to both of us but especially to her.  The blogging community is awesome <3

Longtime readers will remember that Connor has a "tell" when he's about to come onto my aids.  His ears will both swivel in circles, and then he'll shake his head violently a few times, and speed up. 

It always happens on the left rein, immediately after I get him to stop leaning on the right fore and his body straightens out, and it never happens again throughout the rest of the ride.  He usually goes quite well once we're through that, if a bit more tense than he'd been before the episode.

I've gone back and forth on what's causing it.  My bad riding?  Bridle fit?  Habit?  Conformation?  Is it just a quirk?  But I couldn't shake the idea that it was pain related somehow, so I really buckled down on trying to figure it out.

I started with focusing on me, my hands, but it clearly happens regardless of how heavy the contact is (unlike him getting his tongue over the bit, which is a direct correlation to how heavy the contact is). 

Unrelated: If Indiana Septembers were what the state was like all the time, my house would be worth a million dollars.

Next up was the bridle fitting clinic.  But even with the new, professionally-fitted bridle exerting much less pressure on his poll, the headshaking continued. 

Such a beautiful, well-fitting brown bridle
One day, I was tacking him up and I pulled the bridle's crown back (toward his tail) on the left side underneath his ear, and he did the same ear-swivel-head-shake he does under saddle.  Intrigued, I pulled the bridle back again and he did it again.  I then palpated the spot with my fingers, and he swung his head away from me like, "Ow, lady!"  The same spot on the right didn't palpate nearly as sore.

Red dot = sore spot


I wagered that IF that spot is sore on the left, that could also explain why he doesn't like to flex left, why he often carries his head crooked with the top of it leaning to the left, why he is often against me on the left rein and will swing his head right if he gets half a chance, and why I feel like the left bend is harder to get than the right even when my trainers tell me the bend through his body looks fine.  I mean there was that whole period of time when I first got him when I could barely even turn him left, so it's better than it was, but it's always been an issue.

So I did what any good horse owner does and called my vet.  To be continued!