Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Passing On

Last week I sold the last of my huntseat show clothes on ebay. I saved my navy blue huntcoat until the very end, because I had a great deal of sentimental attachment to it. I loved that coat. I had saved up money just to buy it: a top-0f-the-line brand made of fine wool herringbone, complete with special lining. I was fortunate to get a good price from the winning bidder, but honestly, I wasn't selling it for the money. It was time to face reality and move on. And that was a bittersweet moment.

You see, my navy blue huntcoat has been hanging in my closet, tucked away in its garment bag with a pair of breeches and a couple of show shirts, since my last horse show. And what was special about my last show? You guessed it. That was the one where I was badly injured and carted off by the paramedics to the trauma unit. Also in that garment bag, cloistered in the zippered compartment, was an envelope of hairnets, my black leather gloves, my favorite "lucky" belt with my one and only trophy buckle, a number string and my pair of show spurs. It was as if my show clothes were waiting-- patiently yet hopelessly-- for me to saddle up and compete. It was a time capsule of my past life. All I had to do was unzip the garment bag and I could literally smell the faint aroma of about a hundred horse shows: the hay, the saddle soap, the boot polish.

Letting go of the contents of that garment bag was finally fully admitting that my life in the show ring was over. But it was time. When I sent the huntcoat to the winning bidder, a gal who lives in Oregon, I included a short note. I didn't go into any details, but I told her that I hoped she'd win lots of blue ribbons in the coat. She seemed to sense my melancholy, because she emailed me that the coat had arrived safely and that it was indeed lovely. She also added, "I promise you it'll have a good home."

I know it sounds odd to say this about an inanimate object, but I do hope that my huntcoat has a good home. And that it serves its new owner well.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Another Day in the Judge's Booth

Yesterday I judged a county-rated hunter & equitation show near Los Angeles. For those of you living east of the Rockies, you're probably not going to appreciate this comment-- because I know from some of your comments and emails that it's still cold and stormy in your area-- but it was UNGODLY HOT ALL DAY!!! Several times I trudged to the concession truck, grabbed some paper napkins, dunked them in my bottled water and then sponged the dust and sweat off my face and arms. Lovely visual image, is it not?

I enjoy the chance to be Judge for a Day. After all my years of competing, judging gives me a new perspective on showing. I always come away with the same observation: It sure is easy to tell which riders are properly prepared to compete, and which are not.

I'm not referring to tailored clothing and high-dollar tack. Anyone can go to their local tack store, plunk down their credit card and buy all the garb and gear to "look the part." But if you climb in the saddle and cannot ride, the judge doesn't care which brand label is stuck on your breeches or which emblem is glued on the front of your helmet. Honestly, judges really are judging your horsemanship, not your fashion sense. Being able to bend your hunter around its turns or place it to the center of each jump counts far more than whether or not you have a sheepskin girth or custom tall boots.

That was the case yesterday with three particular riders. All three of them had the right "look" and their horses were clean and well-fed. But they had not mastered the very basics of huntseat riding. Oh, they could sit on a horse alright; they seemed fearless as well. And I'm sure they were very dedicated, competitive young horsewomen, because by the second round, when it was apparent that they could not guide their horses smoothly and accurately over the jumps, their expressions turned quite dour. They were not having fun. At all.

For example, the turns in each corner were taken as if they were running a barrel racing course, not cantering around a hunter course. This sort of kamikaze approach to the jumps led to refusals and awkward jumping efforts. I wanted to stop judging and start teaching. We could begin our lesson with, "How about we learn how to ride a STRAIGHT LINE TO THE JUMP?"

Second lesson? That would be, "Introduction to the Crest Release," whereby the rider learns that it's much easier for the horse to jump when it's given a small amount of freedom with the reins.

These three riders were standouts compared to the rest of the participants who, despite facing their own struggles and challenges, had solid basic English riding skills built on a secure, correct position.

So, what's the difference between these two, disparate groups of competitors? They're all trying hard, they all want the blue ribbon. But why were the three I singled out so "different" from the others? I think it's the instruction they are-- or aren't-- receiving. Everyone makes mistakes at a horse show. Horse shows are a test. Horse shows are where we learn what we need to work on at home. But a good instructor would never put their students into a class that is far above their current skill level, and then blame it on the horse when things don't go well.

Of course, that's just my opinion.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Hay, Dudes

The price of a bale of hay out here in Southern California is getting absurd. In a little over one year the price has skyrocketed from about $11.95 a bale to over $20. One of the reasons is that some of the hay growers in our state have opted to sell their water rights to other farmers. Right now that manuever is more profitable than keeping their water allotment to irrigate their own fields. Add to that gasoline prices for transporting the hay to the feed store. As my friend Linda says (she owns one of the largest feed stores in town), "There are so many horses for sale right now because people can't afford to feed them."

A look at the bulletin board in Linda's feed store verifies that fact. It's plastered with ads and snapshots of family type recreational horses. Few of them are remarkable in their beauty or conformation, but they all appear well-loved and sweet-tempered. Prices range from several thousand dollars to open ended comments like, "Must Sell/Please Make Offer." The saddest cases? Pretty young yearlings and unbroke two-year-olds that were hand-raised in someone's backyard. Now, without money to pay the mortgage-- we have countless homes in foreclosure around here-- there's even less money to pay for training. And $20 a bale for hay? Forget it.

From my viewpoint, the high cost of feed becomes even more infuriating when the gourmet "meal in a bale" includes more than I bargained for. For example, few things irk me more than getting halfway into a bale and discovering some kind of artifact that makes the rest of the bale unfit for equine consumption. I'm not just talking about clumps of suspicious weeds but also about bizarre things like clothing (I found a stained man's t-shirt once) and dearly departed dead animals. You can read about the dangers that might lurk within a bale of hay in this Horse Channel article:
"Hay! What a Surprise!"

The botulism poisoning mentioned in the article is a real concern to horse owners. It was only a couple of years ago that a number of horses at several Southern California boarding stables died of botulism toxicity. The culprit? Alfalfa hay cubes that were all milled at one particular company. Turned out that squirrels had been "incorporated" into several batches of the cubes. The horses ate the cubes and were infected with Type C botulism. That's why any bits of animal hair or even feathers should serve as an alarm to toss out any remaining hay in a particular bale. It's simply not worth the risk.

Anytime I find something unusual in a bale, I return it to the feedstore for another, less exciting one. I can't blame the feedstore owner or even the young guys who load the bales onto the delivery truck. Much of the time the hidden treasures are so compacted within the flakes that they aren't revealed until feeding time. Maybe my diligence at dinner time is why I usually come in from feeding with a dusting of alfalfa and orchard grass all over my clothes. My husband makes me brush myself off with a whisk broom that's kept stationed at the back door. Ah, the troubles we go to in order to keep our horses healthy!

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Got Halter?"

As you can see, we don't waste any time getting a halter on our foals. Cowboy readily accepted it, probably because he's being handled several times a day and also because his dam-- the orphan we raised-- thinks she's just another human member of the family. I apologize for my head being cut off in this picture. But my mother was holding the camera and she is not exactly known for her photographic talents. Plus, have you ever tried to take a decent snapshot of a foal? It's kind of like trying to herd cats: Just when you think you've got them cornered they squirt off in another direction. Camera shy or not, I must admit I'm already pretty fond of the buff-colored colt. I can't wait to see what color he turns out to be. Already he's getting dark eyeliner around his eyes, which have become more of a dark hazel brown instead of the smokey blue eye color he was born with. I'll take another photo in a few days so we can all watch the color transformation. Of course, I'll have to get him to stand still first.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More from the Foal Front

The palomino colt has been christened with the nickname "Cowboy." My sister came up with that one, and actually I think it's rather cute. The funny part about it is that my sister and I convinced our mom to breed April-- the Oldenburg/Trakehner/Thoroughbred mare-- to an American Quarter horse because we both wanted something smaller and less "warmbloodish." Guess what? As of now Cowboy is lookin' pretty much like the standard sized warmblood foal. In other words, he ain't no Quarter pony. In fact, he's so leggy and growthy that his front tendons were a little tight. Not outright contracted, so that he was knuckled over, but just too upright and rigid. That can be a problem for big, fast-growing foals. In simplistic terms, their leg bones in particular grow faster than their tendons. The tendons can only stretch so much before they're damaged. Plus, contracted tendons can lead to conformational faults.

Fortunately, since we've bred and raised warmbloods before, this was something we'd dealt with. And our vet, Jennifer, arrived armed and ready. She infused intravenous tetracycline into Cowboy. Yes, that's an antibiotic. But for some reason it also has the side effect of relaxing tight tendons in newborn foals. How someone discovered this side effect is beyond me, but in 24 hours Cowboy's front legs looked darned near normal. By this afternoon they were fine. However, he has to live in the foaling stall for two weeks before Jennifer thinks his tendons will be stretched and limber enough for him and his mom to live outside in the paddock.

In the meantime, Cowboy is being handled every day. He really is beautiful... at least we think so. Originally I would have described his pale palomino coloring as mauve or lavender. But now he's darkened a bit and I would call it "champagne."

Now there's a name for you: Champagne Cowboy.
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Friday, April 18, 2008

I Thought I Was Done with the Whole "Foaling Thing"

This was me last night-- or very early this morning-- serving as midwife to a palomino colt. You're probably wondering what the backstory is to this tale, so here it is:

The dam of this colt is the last of our homebred warmbloods. Her name is A Kiss for Luck because her mother died shortly after she was born. We nicknamed her April, although her orphan-induced idiosyncrasies have caused her to be labeled other nicknames, one of which is "Monkey." At any rate, my sister and I tried to talk our mother out of ever breeding any horse ever again-- because our mantra had become, "You've seen one placenta, you've seen them all"-- but when April suffered a bad tendon injury during jumping training we were left with a gorgeous, well-bred, 16.3-hand warmblood lawn ornament. Ultimately my sister Jill and I capitulated and gave our blessing to the breeding of April with one caveat: She could NOT be bred to a warmblood. Why? Because we didn't have the commitment, desire, emotional fortitude, enthusiasm... whatever... to breed yet another potential performance horse. Jill and I are more into recreational riding now. Plus we're considerably older and creakier than when we were first breeding horses.

So April was bred to--- hold on to your hats--- a 15.2-hand cremello AQHA stallion known for his versatility and sweet disposition. The size was appealing because neither Jill nor I are thrilled about riding huge, thunderous warmbloods anymore. And that double-dilution factor guaranteed some sort of color, probably a palomino or possibly a buckskin. We all figured that if the genetic gamble paid off we'd get a lovely hunter-type English riding horse that might some day be show-worthy for the smaller circuits. Worst case? We'd have a nice all-around riding horse for the trails.

Or I should say JILL would have such a horse, as I am chalk full of horses and can't foresee myself riding a green anything several years in the future.

At any rate, Jill was scheduled to start her shift on Foal Watch on Friday night, when April would be 11 months and 9 days. In the meantime, our mother was staying up at night, checking the video foal monitor between catnaps on the couch. She made me promise to be available if needed and I blithely replied something like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah... Whatever."

So of course, you know what had to happen: I got the phone call at 1:30 a.m. that April had decided she couldn't wait one more night for my sister. That meant I had to stumble out of bed, jerk on some barn clothes, drive across town and help deliver a foal. Precisely what I had sworn I'd never do again!

I had no intention of aiding April. But being a maiden mare, she seemed to be struggling. The foal was only out to his knees. After about 20 minutes of not making any more progress, I went inside and did what I'd done with some of the big ol' warmblood mares birthing big ol' warmblood babies: I crouched down in the stall, grabbed hold of both front legs of the foal and gently pulled down toward April's hocks in time with her contractions. (By the way, here comes one of those, "Don't do this at home" disclaimers: I've foaled out probably 30 of our foals so this was rather routine for me, but if you ever find yourself in the same situation, I'd suggest calling your vet on speed dial).

Once the foal's shoulders were free from the birth canal I made sure the amniotic sack was broken and I cleared his nostrils with a clean towel. Then my dad snapped the photo and I stepped outside of the foaling stall so April could finish the delivery process on her own. The colt was healthy and vigorous. He gave a soft nicker and April pricked up her ears. Even in the dim overhead light I could tell he was a palomino. In his earliest attempts to rise he broke the umbilical cord and my mom-- the retired ER nurse-- stepped in to disinfect the cord's stump.

And that's when my sister arrived.

"You can oversee the nursing, pooping, peeing and passing of the afterbirth part," I said. "My job here is done."

I got into my truck and drove back home with the scent of fresh straw and Baby Horse on my hands. I knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep right away. Even after all the foals I'd seen born, I guess I never get over being amazed at the miracle of it all.


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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Wally Wagon

I'm often excusing Wally's obnoxiousness on the ground by praising how wonderful he is under saddle. He really is the best trail horse I've ever ridden. He might not be everyone else's dream trail horse, but for me, he's perfect. I love his comfortable gaits, his flashy coloring, his response to my aids and his macho attitude. I swear, sometimes he swaggers! Part of that is due to his bravery combined with a dose of curiosity. There are only a few things that upset him on the trail. One is a small house on a side street near me that is home to several flocks of fowl. Wally cannot get over his fascination with the assortment of chickens, pheasants, ducks, peacocks, geese... well, you get the idea. I'm not sure if it's the smell of the feathered fiends or the fact that as we ride past they emit a cacophony of odd clucks, quacks and screeches. Oh. And they flap their wings. A lot.

Wally also has trouble figuring out any sort of wheeled vehicle pulled by a horse or horses. Wait. Expand that to include "any sort of wheeled vehicle pulled by a donkey, mule, pony or Miniature Horse." Why? Because lately we seem to be encountering them all. I think it's because our town's annual Horseweek Parade is this Saturday and traditionally all the members of our town's driving club participate. Of course, they have to practice, and where else to do that but down the wide, quiet streets that wind through my neighborhood?

Recently I saw a Haflinger pulling a chariot. Yes, I said "chariot." Fortunately I was merely out gardening when that came by. But last weekend I was aboard Wally when he came face to face with a vintage hay wagon being pulled by a matched pair of lovely cremello geldings. The look on Wally's face was priceless! He stood his ground; he did not spook or bolt. But I could just tell he was mentally going through every object he'd ever seen in his life trying to connect the wagon to something he'd already identified. Yet since he spent all of his life before I got him-- all 6 years of it-- at a show stable or in the western pleasure show ring I'm quite certain he'd never seen equines hitched to a wagon before.

So now Wally's been introduced to horse-drawn wheeled vehicles. We can add that to our list that includes llamas, pot bellied pigs, motorcycles (still not a favorite of Wally's), garbage trucks and leaf blowers. Really, for living in a quiet, semi-rural neighborhood the trails around here are quite exciting!

Apparently I'm not the only one who has encountered some excitement on the trails. If you click on this link, you can read about other trail riding sagas on Horse Channel: Terror and Trauma on the Trail

It's part of Horse Illustrated's HI Spy series, where we ask horse lovers to share their thoughts and experiences with us. After you read that short piece, share your trail riding adventures with other Horse Channel readers by clicking on Submit a Comment at the end of the article... not here! Some of the comments will be chosen to appear in a future issue of Horse Illustrated.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Haven't Exactly Cowgirled Up

As much as I have enjoyed exploring my skills as a horsewoman in the huntseat division, I must admit that I really do like riding western. I would define my style of western riding as all-around western recreational riding. I'd never profess to be some sort of cowgirl. Even if I was physically capable of tossing a rope with my right arm, I'm quite certain I'd probably miss the cow entirely and end up instead roping my own horse.

HOWEVER, I do thoroughly enjoy riding western on the trail and in the arena on both Wally and Wyatt. I focus on the basics that are the foundation of all disciplines: getting my horses supple and responsive to my aids, keeping their pace consistent without my having to constantly pull on their mouth and teaching my horses to respect me and trust me. Don't misunderstand me. I still ride some horse huntseat at least once a week. But I have definitely learned to appreciate the western riding lifestyle.

What in particular have I learned to like about the world of western riding?
1. Western spurs make a cool sound when you walk. They really do "jingle jangle!"
2. Unlike English riding apparel, I can hop off my western horse and go straight to the store or the bank without changing my clothes and strangers won't stare at me as if I just left a masquerade party.
3. Western horses can have long, flowing manes. That means no more broken fingernails or sore knuckles from wielding a metal mane comb.
4. There are a lot more guys who ride western, and the majority look mighty fine in jeans. I may be married but I'm not blind!
5. Huntseat riding frowned upon anything bright, shiny, colorful or decorative. In western riding I can choose to bling or not to bling. I can also accessorize with horsehair tassels, enameled bridle buckles, silver trophy belt buckles, hand-tooled leather and silver conchos. The opportunities for me to look like Annie Oakley are endless!

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wyatt Hits the Trails!

It was 96 degrees today so of course I had to stick with my plans to take Wyatt on his inaugural trip along the trails through my neighborhood. My day in the saddle had actually begun at 7:30 a.m. That's when my friend Natalie, on her grulla Dunzee, and I on Wally, rode for 2 hours from my house to the river park and back. Then I gave Wally a shower and brunch and tacked up Wyatt. Natalie returned aboard her other grulla, the very reliable JustDun, who would serve as Wyatt's escort and mentor. Of course, this came as a big surprise to Wyatt, who I think had come to believe that Wally was the only horse he'd ever rub shoulders with. Literally. As it turns out, Wyatt was a perfect gentleman! It didn't seem to matter whether he was following JustDun or in the lead. He just cruised along (although he was, admittedly, a bit of a tourist), absorbing everything that the trails in my neighborhood had to offer: barking dogs, kids in the front yards, lawnmowers, active sprinkler systems, leftover sandbags strewn across the trail and even a blowing piece of styrofoam. Natalie and I figured there was a 50/50 chance the aforementioned piece o' foam would fly up into the face of one of our horses as we rode past-- which might have resulted in a slightly different blog posting today-- but it did not. It just laid there like a good piece of styrofoam. We even trotted and cantered quite a bit. Wyatt was the personification of that old adage,"not able to walk and chew gum at the same time," although with him it was "not able to GAWK and CANTER at the same time." It went sort of like this: cantering, cantering, cantering, cantering, look at that kid on a bicycle, trotting, trotting, trotting, cantering, cantering, gosh those palm trees are huge, trotting, trotting, cantering... I'm sure you get the idea. But there was no shying, bolting, playful crowhopping or anything that made me feel like Wyatt would not eventually make a solid trail horse. So... Mission Accomplished! We've done our first ride around the neighborhood! Now it's back to arena work, where I can finesse all that bending and suppling and adjustability that helps make every horse a more pleasurable horse to ride. It'll be a long time before Wyatt rivals Wally as my all-time favorite trail horse, but at least we're on our way!
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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Break out the Fly Masks!

It's going to be 92 degrees out here today. And it's only April 12th. Things are not looking promising for a mild summer. What's worse? The flies are here already, which means my usual perfume of choice-- L'Air du Wheelbarrow-- has now been replaced by the slightly chemical, mildly toxic scent of pesticides and insect repellents. Nothing says "I'm a horsewoman" like the faint scent of pyrethrins wafting off my clothing as I'm standing in line at the grocery store.

The return of our insect friends (where have they all been? vacationing in Bermuda?) has also prompted me to schedule West Nile boosters for both Wally and Wyatt. The vet is coming on Monday, which naturally corresponds with the fact that my paycheck just arrived yesterday. No sooner will my money get deposited in my bank than it'll fly away to pay horse-related bills. Now if I could only get the pesky pests to do the same vanishing act, I'd be happy! ~~~~~~~~~~~

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lies... I Mean "Fibs"... We Tell Our Husbands

I'm fortunate that I'm married to a guy who supports my horse habit. He is definitely a keeper, but that doesn't mean that he didn't have to undergo some training and re-schooling. He had to make room for a continuous cast of assorted horses over the years. And he had to accept my penchant for barn clothes and my lackadaisical attitude about wearing my "outside shoes" inside the house. Nonetheless, I have to occasionally tell him some little white lies in order to keep the peace. If you're a horsewoman married to a not-so-horseman, you understand what I mean. For example, I've become quite talented at telling my husband things like:

"Oh no, Honey, this is the same western saddle I've had for years. The conchos just look really shiny because I polished them last week."

"Of course I didn't clean my tack on the granite counter top. Those are drops of olive oil."

"This pair of boots? I had to get them because my other boots weren't made for wearing spurs. These are special boots, the kind you can put spurs on."

"I don't know how the corral gate got broken. Again. There hasn't been a horse in it all day."

"No, this silver headstall wasn't expensive. I got it on ebay."

"Hoof prints on the lawn? Huh. I have no idea how they got there. Maybe the neighbor's horse got loose."

"That dirt on the kitchen floor? The dog tracked it in."

Besides my impromptu fibs, I've also been known to spend hours tinkering around with the horses, then fly into a state of panic when I glance at my watch and realize it's about time for Ron to come home and I haven't made the bed or done the laundry. (It's only fair that I do some household chores). I can whip those sheets and blankets into crisp order in about 30 seconds! And don't tell anyone, but there have been times when a load of already clean clothes has been spun around in the dryer once again just so it sounds like I've been slaving away with the brights 'n whites.

Luckily I don't have kids who rat me out. My friend Susan has a 10-year-old son. She often gets sidetracked with her horses and neglects her housework until her husband pulls in the driveway. Last week her son announced to him as he walked in the door, "Mommy just got done making the bed."

Thank God my dog can't talk.


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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

And I Have a 3-Year-Old Because...?

I realize some people think I'm crazy for buying a second horse, let alone a 3-year-old. I suppose I understand their concerns, especially now that I've recounted my riding accident in all of its raw glory. Let me explain how and why I ended up purchasing Wyatt.

Because of my years of raising and starting babies, my eye was drawn to the fancy young prospects: the well-bred palomino colt that was just started under saddle, or the fancy dun tobiano paint filly that was still being worked in the round pen. But notice I didn't buy one of them. Though I certainly had the experience and knowledge to work with such a horse, I readily admitted that the days of hopping on a horse that barely knows how to steer were behind me. So then I tried to focus on finding an older, more trail savvy mount.

But as I learned, an older horse doesn't necessarily mean a "better broke" horse. In my price range I often encountered teenaged horses that had about a half-dozen years of bad riding and poor health management under their cinches. For example, I didn't even bother to ride a fancy grulla gelding that had once been a finely tuned reining horse. Why? Because for the last 4 years he'd been raced up and down the hills and now refused to walk quietly on the trails. It didn't matter whether he was coming home or going out, he'd dance sideways and do a sort of parade dance rather than simply walk. I don't know about you, but quite frankly, a decent walk is a fairly important requirement in a trail horse.

So, you see, sometimes a well-started green horse can sometimes be a safer, more predictable mount than the poorly maintained older horse. And that's a shame, because as you probably know from reading my blog, I'm a big admirer of our equine senior citizens. Problem was, I couldn't find one that met my criteria. Who knew? Lots of other horse people love the older, reliable horses, too! And the ones that had them didn't want to sell them!

And thus I ended up with Wyatt. Yes, he's only 3. But while our homebred 3-year-old warmbloods had barely been sat on, Wyatt-- like many other western stock horse types his age-- is quite content to be ridden. He's far beyond being "barely broke." He just needs a lot of schooling so that he's a solid all-around riding horse. And that I can do. For example, I want him to flex at the poll and be able to collect his canter (I mean "lope"). I want him to neck rein properly. And I want him supple and responsive throughout simple pattern work like figure-8's and serpentines. We're definitely making progress on all of these fronts, and that makes Wyatt a fun project for me. Besides, look at that face. Who could resist a horse that thinks a Jolly Ball is the greatest thing since baled hay?

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again

This is the third and final installment of recounting my riding accident. I'm sharing my experience in hopes that it'll help other horse lovers.

For the first couple of months after I was out of the hospital my days were filled with doctor appointments experienced through a fog of narcotics. They made me so lethargic that I had to also take another medication normally prescribed for people with narcolepsy just so that I could keep my eyes open during daylight hours. And yet I still wanted to visit my horses. Since I was on blood thinners I was cautioned not to ride, groom or handle a horse for fear I'd get knocked down and suffer internal bleeding. The only horse I was allowed to be near was Penny, my sweetheart of a palomino. Even though I couldn't imagine riding-- honestly, my mind was so hazy I really couldn't imagine it-- I wanted to be near horses. I think that was probably because throughout my life, when times were tough emotionally (bad day at school, bad day at work, etc.), horses gave me solace.

As my broken bones knitted together, I got stronger and my doctors reduced my pain meds. They eventually also started doing spinal nerve blocks, which helped a lot. That also put me on the path to getting the stimulator device implanted.

Over time, I worked through the conflicting emotions I had about riding. I knew I wasn't going to show again. That wasn't as hard for me to accept as you might think. I'd pretty much become burned out on showing since I'd been doing it for 3 decades or so. But of course, this wasn't the way I wanted it to end. But what exactly would I do on the back of a horse? And would I be fearful?

In the meantime, I had to learn to cope with my injuries. One of my doctors told me, "You need to accept that you have a disability now." He was referring to my right hand and arm, because no one believed that I was ever going to regain much use of it again.

But then, they didn't know my inner strength. I am not only a very competitive person, but I don't give up easily, either. Once, when I was about 15 or 16, I had major oral surgery. I had a row of stitches inside my upper lip and behind my front teeth, and my mouth was horribly sore and swollen. A day or two later was a large show, and I was determined to compete in some of the junior jumper classes aboard this little Saddlebred mare I'd been riding. She belonged to a Marine Corps captain, and he always came to watch me compete his cute bay mare. Sure enough, I went to the show, barely able to sip liquids through my swollen lips, and rode like a banshee. I won high ribbons in all of the jumper classes despite my mouthful of sutures. The mare's owner was just amazed and said to me, "Cindy, you'd make a fine Marine!"

So it shouldn't be a surprise that as soon as I got the okay to ride I was saddling up Penny. She stood patiently at the tie post while I struggled with the tack. I couldn't lift my right arm high enough to get the western saddle on her back, so I had to drag a mounting block next to Penny, then drag the saddle to the mounting block, and then slowly inch it up her side and on to her back. Yes, there were people who would've helped me, but I wanted to do it myself. I considered real life to be my physical therapy. The day that I could bridle and saddle her by myself, in just a few minutes time, gave me a great sense of satisfaction. I was proving that doctor wrong. I might have a disability, but it was not going to dictate how I was going to live my life!

With each ride dear Penny Palomino made me realize that I still had a passion for riding. She was so trustworthy to ride and gentle on the ground. Sometimes I would get teary-eyed while riding her, because I came to realize that I could still ride and enjoy horses, although I'd probably be spending more time in a western saddle than I had in the past.

About a year after the accident I underwent the surgery to implant the nerve stimulator. I was told that the surgery was considered to be a success if I had my pain and stiffness relieved 50%. That's about what I got. The blood clots resolved and I finally stopped taking the blood thinners. And I was able to stop the constant use of narcotic pain medicine, so my life overall was improving.

The first horse I rode English was my sister's ex-race horse, Topper. I had trained Topper for my sister when he first came off the track (before I got hurt) so I knew the horse well, which gave me confidence. He is also a very benign goofball, so I felt safe. It wasn't like he was going to suddenly spook and bolt or buck. I remember my mother stood outside the arena at home and watched me ride him She said, "I can't even tell that there's anything wrong with you."

But I could feel what was wrong then, and still is: I simply cannot use my right arm the way that I once could. There is some residual paralysis and that makes my scapula (my shoulder blade) sit at a slightly awkward angle against my back. Even if I could use my arm fully, my scapula hits against my ribs in my back, preventing my arm from having its full range of movement. My right arm functions like it's several inches shorter than my left arm. All of this limits my ability to ride like I used to. Daily barn chores like blanketing a horse, hoisting full feed buckets or mucking a stall are also challenging sometimes. And forget about sticking a crop in my back pocket! I can't get my right hand behind my back to grab it!

I'm sure you're wondering about the fear factor. I mean this truthfully: Aside from the first few weeks of utter terror, where I played "What If I'd Been Paralyzed from the Neck Down," I didn't feel much generalized fear about riding. Instead I had a fear of specific aspects of riding. For example, I didn't want to gallop down to a jump on a green horse. Ever again. I didn't want to ride any horse that I didn't know well. Ever again. And I especially didn't want to ride any horse that was in any way unpredictable. I guess I was minimizing my risks. And why not? I'd been badly hurt on a horse I'd bred and raised and ridden successfully at shows for years. That realization made me extremely wary of merrily climbing onto the back of some unknown creature.

Naturally, some of my family members and friends preferred that I stopped riding completely, including my husband. While he's come to accept that you can only temporarily keep the horsewoman off the horse, he did make me promise that I would NEVER jump a horse again. I knew full well that I couldn't keep that vow. While the list of horses that I'll jump continually grows shorter, jumping-- even if it's over low jumps on an old packer or a lesson horse-- is something that I'm not quite ready to say I'll never do again.

Did I feel fear the first time I cantered down to a jump after my accident? Yes, I did. How did I conquer it? I took a deep breath, exhaled and literally told myself what to do: "Keep the rhythm; Look at the center of the jump; Be soft with your hands." All the skills I knew due by rote memory gave me comfort, but I had to say them outloud to get my body to comply. That, fortunately, is no longer necessary.

Do I have pain nearly every day? Yes. But I know that there are many brave souls out there who also deal with pain on a daily basis, and yet continue to live their lives despite it. Do I occasionally have fear about riding? Yes. That's why I carefully selected Wally and Wyatt. Wally may be obnoxious, but he's had years of professional training and he understands who's in charge. And that would be me. Wyatt is green, but he's not unruly. He's quite well broke, actually; he's just not schooled.

Does anything shake my confidence now when I'm riding? Absolutely! Instead of staying on and riding through a difficult situation, I'm much more apt to hop off and lead my horse past the scary object or longe it a little bit more. I am no longer naive about what can happen to a rider. And yet the pay-off of being around horses keeps me climbing back in the saddle, pain or no pain, stiff right arm or not. Maybe the captain was right. I might really have made a good Marine!


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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Painful Memory

In my last blog entry, I introduced my little black bag of wondrous medical devices that are such a part of my life since my riding accident. Now I'll tell you how it all happened...

It'll be three years this May when I was showing in the amateur hunter division at Horse Park in Del Mar, California. It's a lovely setting near the famous Del Mar racetrack, just outside of San Diego. To give you an idea of the setting, major grand prix jumping events and even the Olympic show jumping trials have been held there. But this particular show was just another in a series of county-rated horse shows. This one was large and competitive, held over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

I had already finished one round of hunters on Barbie (her show name was Welcome Home), a Hanoverian-Trakehner mare we'd bred and raised on our small ranch. She was really a beautiful mare: dark chocolate bay with golden dapples, a big blaze and a distinctive silver-streaked tail. Plus, she was an incredible mover. She won many hunter under saddle classes and she was a great equitation horse. But hunters? Not so much. She didn't have particularly good style in the air, so we often placed in the lower ribbons... if at all. Yet she was a very good mount for equitation over fences and medals, so I used my hunter classes as sort of a warm-up for the horsemanship classes that always came later in the show schedule.

Barbie and I were hanging out at the backgate, both of us dozing in the afternoon sun, when my number was called. I had two rounds in front of me. I woke Barbie up just like every other horse show, by tapping her with my crop and trotting her back and forth by the oak trees that lined the show arena. When the gate opened and we started on course I had no other thought in my mind besides getting her on a 12-foot stride and aiming for the center of the first jump: a simple vertical with a box of flowers beneath it. I remember recognizing that I was headed for a long, weak take-off spot, so I pressed my leg into Barbie's sides to ask her to move up. She didn't respond.

What followed next was a chain of events that is at once crystal clear yet obscured. I know that Barbie arrived at an awkward take-off spot yet she began to leave the ground... and then changed her mind. That sent me on to her neck. Somehow my right arm got wrapped around her neck as she gathered herself up and stepped back. That motion pulled my arm and rotated my body so that I slammed to the ground on the other side of the jump, landing directly on my right shoulder blade (my scapula). I bounced up and then came back down again. I swear, I distinctly recall thinking to myself, "Oh God, now my head is going to hit the ground." And it did. But fortunately, my helmet absorbed the impact, because I was also aware that the ASTM-SEI materials did their job. I could literally feel the helmet expand and take up the shock of my landing.

I sat up right away. My first thought? That I was in terrible pain, and that I was banged up... But that my medal class was much later in the afternoon, so I could probably muster up the strength to still ride in it. See? I'm always the competitor!

And then it hit me: Parts of my body that shouldn't move were moving, especially something in my upper back. Then the excrutiating pain began and I fell back to earth. I have never felt such agony in my life. I knew there was a herd of people around me in seconds, including my poor husband, my trainer, my mother, some of my fellow competitors and the show's assigned EMT. I kept saying, "Please, help me," because the pain was so intense. I kept praying that I would pass out, but I didn't.

I'll skip past the ambulance ride to the ER because (eventually) I was so doped up that I only remember shadows and mumbling. I do know that my custom made tall boots were pulled off of me. And I overheard my husband telling the trauma unit doctor, "Please take care of her. She's the love of my life." I'll never forget that.

I ended up in the trauma unit at Scripps Hospital for two weeks. I had suffered a fractured scapula, a collapsed lung and all of the ribs on my right side were broken-- some in 2 or 3 places. Then I developed blood clots in my legs and one in my arm. That was especially disconcerting, because my entire right arm turned purple unless I kept it elevated. So besides tremendous amounts of pain meds, I was also put on daily injections of blood thinners to prevent clots from traveling to my lungs.

In retrospect, my time in the hospital played out like an existential drama. The nurses and doctors were great; I even had a counselor to help me deal with the shock of the whole event. But nonetheless it was as if I was trapped in a nightmare. Or some stage of hell. I was hours away from home and I was not stable enough to be moved to another hospital, so much of the time I was alone. And lonely. I had a series of roommates, each one of whom affected me emotionally in a different way. I had physical therapy three times a day and three times a day I felt like I was being tortured. Because I had minimal use of my right arm and hand, I was assigned exercises to regain some movement before the muscles atrophied. So my sister bought me a pair of large Beanie Babies to carry and squish. One was a cow and the other was a tan pony. Several times a day I'd get out of my hospital bed and wander the corridors of the trauma unit, carrying my Beanie Baby of choice in my bad hand and leaning on a cane with the other. I was just a shell of the person I was before the accident.

Once it got dark I'd lie in bed. Above the noise of the hospital staff and the glare of the TV overhead, I'd relive the accident. I had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn't done anything "wrong." Barbie hadn't suddenly betrayed me and morphed into Rogue Mare of the West. It was simply an accident. Period. But who'd have thought that after all the wild things I'd done as a kid on half-broke ponies, and after all the hyped-up, green, spooky babies I'd ridden, I'd end up like this on a horse that had won so many championships?

In a way, I felt betrayed by riding. It had always been the passion in my life. I lived for riding. When I needed a special retreat, I'd go riding. Now it had nearly cost me my life. It didn't help that my doctors told me that if I'd landed just 4 inches to the left-- directly onto my spine-- that the amount of impact I'd suffered would've surely made me a quadriplegic. For the first time in my life, I associated riding with being terrified.

There were complications that I had to deal with, but slowly I began to heal both physically and emotionally. It was a struggle, because the one thing-- riding-- that had given me joy for decades was the precise activity that had put me in such a disabled condition.

Next: You can't keep a horsewoman off a horse for long!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Let's Review: I Had This Riding Accident, And...

No, this is not a photo of some Secret Agent gizmo. It's my handy dandy bag o' medical apparatus that I deal with every day. The smaller device near the top left is actually a computer that "talks" to the computer and battery implanted in my lower back (okay, it's in my butt, right near my back jeans pocket). To do this fancy schmancy communicating, I take that thing that looks like it has a keyhole shaped cut-out and hold it over the area where the implant is and then press various buttons to turn off/turn on, increase/decrease the electrical stimulation that's being sent to my spinal nerves. And how does that happen? Well, there are wires and electrodes that run under the skin of my back from the implanted device all the way up to C-5, C-7 and C-9, which are places on my spine where major spinal nerves connect to branches that serve my upper extremities. Oh. And that thing that looks like a Wonder Woman belt is, actually, a belt with a big round magnet on it. That particular magnet also goes over the site of the implant every week or so. It's hooked to a battery pack and transmits energy to re-charge the implanted lithium battery in my behind. There. Was that confusing enough for you? Just think how I felt when I had to learn how to work the darned thing while I was still struggling to recover from the surgery required to burrow all that technology inside me!
The point of the implanted Nerve Stimulator is rather fascinating. I'll try to put it in terms we can both understand:
The trauma to my spinal nerves caused RSD (now more commonly called CRPS), which is a nerve condition not fully understood. But it leads to chronic, nearly debilitating pain and increasing stiffness in muscles and joints that are affected. Rather than keeping the patient-- that would be ME!!!-- on narcotics indefinitely, the stimulator is used to "occupy" the spinal nerves with continuous low-grade pulses of electrical energy. This works on the theory that a spinal nerve can only transmit one sensation at a time. If it's occupied with an electrical current from my implant, it cannot also receive pain signals from my injured areas and send them on to my brain. If my brain cannot get the message, "Hey, we're hurting down here!" then I won't feel discomfort. I only feel the electrical impulses, which I can control as needed.
I hope that wasn't too Star Trek-y for you!
If you can tell by the tone of my writing, I tend to make light of all this. But I'll let you in on a secret: There are days and nights when I revisit the whole accident, and how it affected my life, and it's terrifying. Still. That's why it's hard for me to dredge up the whole drama once again. But I also know from some of your emails and letters that many of you have also suffered through scary riding accidents and wonder how to deal with the pain, emotional loss and outright fear that you're now facing. I'm certainly no shrink, nor do I play one on an online horse blog. But I have been through all the stages of loving horses and riding and then being badly hurt and frightened... and then re-evaluating horses and riding all over again. Perhaps I can share what I've been through and it might help another kindred spirit.
I promise I won't bore you forever with my personal soap opera. But since this blog is supposed to be about my life with horses, I can't continually avoid writing about this particular aspect of my horsey life. So I'll put the saga into 3 parts. Consider this Part 1. Tomorrow, in Part 2, I'll tell you about that infamous day that it happened. Who knows? Now that some time has passed I may have a completely different perspective.