Sunday, October 24, 2010

Recovering from Reality

On October 16, 2010 a Dream took a direct hit.

I didn't realize it for a couple of days -- thought it was just another inconvenience in the normal course of events. But it turned out that in wrenching the shoe off his foot, Eddie fractured his coffin bone.

The coffin bone is the "hoof-shaped" bone inside the horse's hoof. Sometimes fractures are minor, and heal with little problem. Eddie's fracture cuts diagonally across the bone and has several secondary branches. It's not a pretty sight. I saw the x-rays, listened to what the vet had to say, and struggled to hold my emotions together.

As Eddie stood quietly cooperating with the endless positioning for x-rays, seeming to know he had to be very still, I watched the dream of building on the art we two had worked years to accomplish blink out. In one unfortunate moment the world shifted in a way I'd never prepared for. There was no going back, no do-overs. What I thought I held so surely in my hands was gone.

Over the days that followed, while I waited for a cast to be put on Eddie's hoof, words from people I barely knew, as well as people I knew well started penetrating that dreadful sense of loss. A small bit of hope began to grow. When Eddie's vet came out to put to put the cast on several days later reality met with a plan, and from that plan some strength and confidence grew. Somewhere around the first of March we will be better able to predict the success of his recovery and the very real possibility of his return to the work we both love.

In the meantime, while he convalesces, I will have other horses to ride and the opportunity to work on improving myself. Eddie's and my journey together may not be over. But should he not recover enough to dance again with me, then at least I will still have my friend and the bond we've developed. I will always cherish what he has so generously given me.
"I am strong when I am on your shoulders. You raise me up to more than I can be."
                                                                                              --Brendan Graham, Rolf Lovland

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bandages & Friendship

Poor Eddie. This weekend didn't turn out quite the way he planned. He was having himself a good 'ol time kicking up his heels in his paddock, but took a misstep and wrenched his front right shoe off. Unfortunately, he also did some damage to himself, the precise nature of which has yet to be determined. For the moment, we're just calling him three-legged lame.

Eddie, bless his heart, has been relatively injury free -- for a horse. They tend to be rather delicate creatures, especially for as big as they are. In my opinion, if someone tells you they're "healthy as a horse" you need to be on your way to the phone to call for help. Horses have a talent for hurting themselves regardless of the precautions you take to protect them.

But I'm used to lame horses, albeit a bit out of practice. I've owned horses who have made careers out of creatively injuring themselves. One big chestnut Thoroughbred gelding I owned for most of his twenty-six years wasn't an accident waiting to happen, he was an accident that continually happened. It got so people were thinking I had a "thing" for my vet. I was thinking maybe my vet ought to issue those cards like espresso stands have where after so many cups of coffee you get one free. It was the horse and I who bonded over those many hours of fellowship over salves, bandages, cold hosing, and prescription meds.

Something special happens when you help an animal through the tough times. A connection is born that wouldn't have existed otherwise. The quiet time you spend together doing the things that need to be done to get past the crisis creates a bridge of companionship that endures. Tomorrow morning I'll drive up to the barn, give Eddie his meds, rewrap his legs and brush his burgeoning winter coat while he stands quietly in his stall without his halter on. We'll have a little chat and he'll spend some time licking me--his way of doing something for me.

With any luck, he'll feel lots better and in a week or so we'll be able to get back to some light work. In the meantime we'll get to know each other on a different level.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


It has been my experience when riding that it rarely does any good to show a horse something he's afraid of. A horse's natural instinct is to move away from Scary Objects really fast. Making the horse stand still (or worse, approach) and look at something he'd rather run away from is akin to saying, "I swear to God, it'll only hurt a little when the lion takes a bite."

I wouldn't believe me either. I'd leave.

And trust me, if they want to go there's nothing you can do to stop them.

So what's the best thing to do since trying to make the horse walk up to the Scary Object puts you on the Scary Object's staff as the waiter who serves the main course?

Stay on the horse's team. Utilizing the horse's comfort zone is a quicker path to restoring calm. Therefore, since two things horses do very well are moving and sticking to a routine, it's a good bet that riding a simple routine he's familiar with and good at will help. Because the routine is familiar he knows what to do, and what is expected. Therefore it's safe. Because he's moving he's cooperating with his ancient fright/flight response.

Pretty soon, as he's doing the safe, familiar job, the Scary Object becomes Just Another Object. This tactic works quickly if the rider starts the familiar job at a distance from the Scary Object where the horse shows only a low degree of tension. Then, as the horse relaxes he can be guided closer if necessary. The more stressed the horse becomes, the harder it is to get his attention and restore calm. Also, the more thoroughly trained the horse, the more comfort there will be in his job—and the quicker the Scary Object loses its power.

Aren't we like that, too? If the unexpected occurs and we can get right into a well practiced routine we stand a better chance of getting our heads back on straight. People in high risk jobs know this. That's why they train so much. Since stress is part and parcel of our everyday lives, we can adapt this tactic to help us manage what life throws our way.

Have you developed any routines that keep your stress level down?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New Experiences, Old Lessons

Early Sunday morning Eddie and I went with a friend and her horse (also a friend) to a schooling show in our area. This was a new experience for Eddie. He's been to many dressage shows and clinics, but never to a regular horse show where he was required to work in an arena with other horses all doing the same thing in the same direction at the same time.

Horse shows are a bit different from dressage shows. In a dressage show you have an assigned time to ride. You perform a test, solo, in front of a judge who never blinks and gives a score from 0-10 for each segment (called "movements") of the test. There can be upwards of 30 movements in an advanced level test. An error may cost you a few points and affect your over all score, but you may end up scoring well, anyway. High score wins.

Anyway, after warming up, schmoozing with the other folks there, doing some sightseeing, and a whole lot of waiting around (you're never quite sure exactly what time your class will be called in at a horse show). We entered the arena for our first class, and Eddie tossed his concentration aside at the in-gate. Apparently one of us thought it was play time.

After some intense negotiations at the walk and trot in each direction (where I sporadically convinced Eddie that I wasn't going to give up my efforts to direct his energy) the judge called us all in. She divided the class in half for the canter work—good thing, since there were 16 horses in the arena.

We were in the second group. Eddie watched the first group with interest, occasionally neighing his approval (or egging them on—I'm not sure which).

Then it was our turn. Eight of us rode out to the rail at the walk and Eddie may as well have shot me a look over his shoulder and said, "Don't worry, I've been paying attention. I know exactly what to do."

Yeah. Right. I wasn't born yesterday.

Rule #1: Never abandon leadership to the horse. They have fewer skills in that area than the average teenager.

The first part of the canter went fairly well. However, it was the call to "hand gallop" (a faster version of the canter) where things got interesting. Eddie chose to accent that transition (which I hadn't yet asked for) with his own particular flair. He launched upwards, added a couple of twists, and hit the ground with the intention of executing a full-out gallop. The judge stopped the class and—much to the relief of the other terrorized competitors around us—I stopped Eddie within a couple of strides.

…Must have been something to see—a huge, white, ball of fur flying through the air….

Had we been in contention for a ribbon in the class, that one impromptu, free-form interpretation of the transition into hand-gallop blew away any possibilities of an award.

Happily, Eddie is smart enough to figure out that his ad-lib was not the required routine for a horse show class. The second class proceeded in a more conservative manner, and we came away with second place. Good boy, Eddie.

So, what did I learn? Wow, many things—but primarily reinforcing my conviction to keep my shoulders over my hips. You just never know when something unexpected may happen that will challenge your balance.