Release

Cassie has been sick. It began with little things. Swellings on her face and body. Hives, I thought, a reaction to fly spray, except that they all burst open and scabbed over and then the hair started coming off her face. Then she started coughing. A summer cold, I thought, and I started her on a course of anti-biotic powders in her feed. It didn’t make any difference, instead she slowly got worse, and I watched her anxiously as her energy disappeared and she shuffled about like an old, old horse with dull eyes and no interest in anything. I could feel how depressed she was. Then her glands started swelling up, and I got the vet out, terrified her throat would swell shut, my own throat aching in sympathy.

The vet blamed the bad weather and for sure the relentless rain and the cold of this poor excuse of a summer we’re having would make anyone sick. Arrow started coughing too, but he had no other symptoms and, even though it took a long time for the cough to disappear, he remained his cheerful self. Whatever was wrong with Cassie, it had completely compromised her immune system, and even when she started to improve a bit physically, she still seemed depressed.

She spent long periods of time in her stable, standing in the back. In the evenings, I would go and sit with her to keep her company. Not wanting to impose myself upon her, I’d sit on the opposite side from her, leaning back against the stable wall with my eyes closed, trying to empty my mind and just focus on my breathing. In…. Out…. Slowly. It is not that easy to empty your mind and it is interesting to see what thoughts come up uninvited. Thoughts about lost time and lack of achievement. Of plans unfulfilled. I started wondering why these things came up. I am not ambitious, I don’t care about competing in any kind of discipline, so why do I feel under pressure to make some form of progress? I don’t need to do anything with my horse, but it feels like I should. Because you get asked, what do you do with your horse, do you hunt? Jump? Dressage then maybe? No. I don’t even ride. I just sit with my horse and breathe.

I sit with Cassie and I listen to her breathing. I can’t hear her breathe in, I can only hear her exhale, but if I breathe slowly enough she’ll synchronise with me. Cassie comes up to me and stands over me. I don’t touch her, I just sit quietly with my eyes closed, but with every breath I can feel Cassie’s head lowering until her head is resting on mine. We stay like that for a while. Then she lifts her head, yawns, and she rubs her face against mine. When she starts grooming my back, I scratch her chest. I wait for her to move away to doze in the back of the stable. Then I leave.

From the rocky road on to the right track

A while back I went to a demonstration in an Equestrian Centre. I met a father and daughter there who had barefoot horses. The father trimmed the horses himself. I was obviously interested in their experiences and when I noticed them bringing out their horses I went over to ask if I could see their horses’ hooves. They were talking to a man who was giving them advice. I gathered that the father’s horse was a bit sore on his feet and the man was pointing out what was wrong with the trim and what needed to be done to make the horse comfortable. I had heard that the Equestrian Centre had started with one or two barefoot horses, so I thought the man must be the Equestrian Centre’s trimmer.  I was wrong. This man, who was talking all the talk, was not a barefoot trimmer at all, he was in fact about as qualified as I am; he did the same barefoot trimming clinic with Dermot McCourt that I did two years ago.

I would not call myself a barefoot trimmer anymore than I would call myself a dentist because I know how to brush my teeth. In Ireland it is illegal for anyone to shoe a horse unless they are fully qualified by an approved governing body. But anyone can set themselves up to be a barefoot trimmer, it is not a protected profession and not all qualifications are equal. I have been trimming my horses’ hooves myself for the past 2 years from necessity. I went to Dermot’s trimming clinic because I wanted to know more about barefoot and hoof care in general. When Dermot first set us up on the road to barefoot, I knew that he wouldn’t be able to maintain their hooves. A four-hour drive is just too far away, but I was hoping to find someone nearer who would trim them properly every 8 weeks or so and I was prepared to do light maintenance in between. The farrier I had used was not interested in doing the trimming, I couldn’t find a qualified barefoot trimmer and so I ended up having to trim my horses myself.

Fortunately, I was not alone. Máire and I trimmed our horses together, and we progressed from sweaty palmed insecurity and taking photographs to email to Dermot for advice to something resembling confidence. We trimmed very conservatively, and our horses stayed sound, but I always felt a bit uncomfortable. Horses’ hooves change all the time and our trimming sessions were fraught with unanswered questions while we pored over their feet and wondered if what we saw was normal, why did this lump appear on the sole, is this frog shedding normal, or is there something else going on? The more I read, the more insecure I felt, because for every opinion you can find the opposite. Trim the bars – leave them alone, trim the frog – never touch the frog, thrush is smelly and black – thrush doesn’t always smell, hooves need to be trimmed every 2 weeks – you shouldn’t really trim, it’s all down to diet and exercise, the list is endless, a morass of contradictions. The transition to barefoot was a rocky road (and I haven’t even mentioned hoof boots yet!)

So when I was told that a barefoot trimmer had recently moved to the area, I was delighted and made an appointment. The trimmer was friendly and I liked the way my horses were handled. I was told that they all had thrush (the non-smelly variety), and that Cassie hadn’t fully transitioned yet because of it. I hadn’t noticed that (obviously because of it being non-smelly), although Cassie’s front frogs certainly looked rather ragged, but I had put it down to spring shedding. The following morning, the day I was to leave for the clinic with Alexandra Kurland, Cassie was very lame on her right fore. I was devastated, because it was obvious Cassie was not fit to go anywhere. It was when I picked up her hoof to examine it for heat that I noticed how short the trim was. She was practically walking on her soles.

When I came back from the clinic, Cassie was still lame and she has only started to improve over the last few days. There was no abscess. But even though she was improving, she was landing toe first and I was worried about thrush and frog disease. I also felt guilty, because I felt responsible for the pain she had been in. I wanted her to be seen by someone like Dermot, someone with a huge amount of experience and an approved professional qualification, who could tell me about the state of her hoof health, so I asked around and eventually I came up with the name of a master farrier. A master farrier who shoes international competition horses and with an excellent reputation for all round hoof care. I rang him and after a lengthy telephone conversation, I asked him to come and look at my horses.

I have to admit that I was really nervous and I more than half expected him to say that the only solution was to put shoes on Cassie, but he didn’t. He was modest, with a calm, quiet manner that was reassuring. He took his time looking at Cassie, checking the way she stands, and how her leg and pastern axis related, explaining what he was looking for and what he saw. He told me his views on barefoot trimming and the difference between the barefoot trim and a trim to prepare the hoof for a shoe. He was passionate about hot shoeing and making individual shoes for horses and how important it was to make sure the horse has correct break-over and a well-balanced hoof, for the shod horse as well as the barefoot horse. Then he trimmed Cassie’s frogs. Fortunately there was no underlying disease or thrush. He checked Minnie and Arrow, and trimmed frogs where needed. He had a wonderful way of helping Minnie to lift her left hind leg, which is really hard for her, and explained to me why her left fore grows the shape it does, something I had always wondered about. We have discussed a trimming schedule, where he will come and do the proper trim and I just keep things nice and smooth in between visits. It is such a relief…

A name and a trim

He’s been here a week now, the pony, and as his personality started to emerge a name began to suggest itself to me. I got some really nice suggestions for names, and I let it all simmer away, but in the end I think the pony gave me the name himself and so we have decided on Arrow.

Arrow has had almost no handling, so he has no manners and he has never heard of things like boundaries or following a lead. Some training was definitely in order and because I couldn’t get a head collar on him I started him practically straight away with the clicker. Over the past few days I have done a lot of work with him. I can now touch him everywhere around his head and neck, stroke his ears and face and put a head collar on without a problem. Not only can I put the head collar on, he will stand still while I put it on and fasten it without fidgeting too much. Thanks to the clicker, Arrow has learned very fast. Food is an incredible motivator for him. Still very new to clicker training myself, I am absolutely astonished what can be achieved in a short time.

Arrow came in dire need of a good trim. High heels and pointy toes might look nice under an evening dress, but not on a pony. On a hard surface Arrow was standing on the hoof wall only, his frogs were floating in space and he had a classic toe first landing. After the head collar, trimming was definitely a priority. My experience with trimming doesn’t really go much further than maintaining the hooves of my own two horses and giving Maíre a hand with hers.

My horses received a proper professional set up trim and as I was looking at those long toes, high heels, elongated soles (forward foot syndrome?)  and stretched white lines,  I would really have liked somebody else to trim Arrow for me. I was also a bit worried about the amount of ridges in the hoofwalls and some reddish bruising on the hoofwall of his hind feet; I’m not looking for trouble but it did make me wonder if he could have been sub-clinical laminitic at some point last year.  So, feeling a bit apprehensive about tackling those neglected feet myself, it would have been wonderful to have a professional nearby, but as that is sadly not the case, I had no alternative than to roll up my sleeves and get to it myself.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it on my own. Maíre came over yesterday to help. I always think it’s a good idea to have a second pair of eyes and to be able to discuss what needs to be done, but especially now that I was feeling a bit insecure. As Arrow was already tuned in to clicker training, we decided to use it during trimming and it proved to be a big help. We started by clicking and treating Arrow for lifting up a hoof and then for holding it up without pulling. I would lift his feet, while Maíre stood beside him at his head and did the clicking and treating. Then, as I started to trim, Maíre continued to click and treat him for standing still and not pulling his hoof back. As she was flooding him with clicks and treats for his good behaviour, I was able to trim and finish with hardly any drama at all. We used the same approach when I pulled his legs forward to put his hoof on the hoof-stand. It worked really, really well and I got all 4 feet done in a relatively short time. Arrow was absolutely great; he didn’t just accept the trimming, he also ignored the high winds and being buffeted by a hailshower during the process! Ah, April in Ireland!

I took off as much as I could (or dared), but on the whole I prefer to err on the side of caution so I trimmed conservatively. I think in this case it is probably better to trim regularly and give his hooves and legs time to re-adjust gradually than over-doing it or making a mistake. Afterwards, I took Arrow out for a walk. He walked without a problem on the rough, stony surface of the track and on the road he happily bobbed beside me, bursting with energy. And landing heel first.

Twinkle likes going for a walk too!

Pony hooves pics

Here are photo’s I took of the pony’s hooves. They are not the best quality, but it was the best I could do as I was holding the hoof with one hand and taking the photo with the other hand. There is a bit of work to be done here; I am interested to hear what you see when you look at these pictures!

Front side view:

Hind side view:

Left front sole:

 

Left hind sole:

 

Right front sole:

 

Right hind sole:

Right hind sole

 

What do you see?

Breathe

Minnie has always been easy for me. When I first saw her something clicked, and it was as if I recognised her. I always knew instinctively what she needed from me and Minnie was so tuned in that she would move on a thought. I have often mentioned here that on the whole Minnie is not an affectionate horse. She comes across as aloof, she does not really like being touched and she is very protective of her own space. For other people Minnie can be a bit daunting, but she suits me, we complement each other.

Cassie is different. When I first went to see her I already knew that I wanted her and I love her to bits, but I struggle with her. Cassie has been with me for two years now and so far I haven’t done a lot with her. Initially I felt that what she needed most was time off. She was fairly traumatised when she came to me and had a worrying habit of rearing when things got too much for her. I decided that the most important thing was for her to learn to trust me, so I spent a lot of time with her doing nothing, just being around quietly, and it helped. That first summer I rode her only occasionally. Then we transitioned to barefoot followed by a very severe winter, so there was not much we could do and hardly any riding at all. Last summer I had just started to work with her when Cassie got injured and she had another 6 months off.

So Cassie is still almost as green as she was when I got her two years ago, and although I know her much better now and there is a deep bond of trust between us, I still found it difficult to work with her. One of the biggest problems is that there is a very fine line between impulsion and explosion. I couldn’t seem to get the balance right and find a way of teaching Cassie without her flying off the handle. I didn’t understand it. Cassie is very introverted and sensitive, so I wondered if I was putting too much pressure on her without realising it. The other thing was that I couldn’t figure out what Cassie actually enjoys doing and what motivates her. Except food maybe. That turned me to clicker training. Just as well, because I’ve been blind.

Cassie is very clever, so it didn’t surprise me that she understood the concept of clicker training immediately. But it was Minnie who seemed to be really getting it and soon she was miles ahead of Cassie. With Cassie, I ran into trouble and again I didn’t understand it. Sometimes she wouldn’t move, even if she knew what she had to do. Sometimes she would take the treat off my hand, but she wouldn’t actually eat it, she would just hold it in her mouth. There were other things as well until finally it dawned on me that Cassie actually wasn’t breathing.

I know only too well that what goes on on the inside doesn’t always show on the outside and introverts especially are experts in burying old trauma deep inside. I stop breathing myself when I get tense. I don’t know how I missed it in Cassie, but as soon as I became aware of it many things fell into place. I spent a couple of days doing different things with Cassie; I took her for a walk, did some liberty work in the picadero and paid close attention to her breathing the whole time and I found that if Cassie wasn’t a chestnut she’d be blue in the face from holding her breath.

Horses listen to each other’s breathing and I have used my own breathing successfully to calm Cassie down on several occasions, so this morning I went out to do some breathing exercises in the yard. I positioned myself in front of Cassie, close enough that she’d be able to hear my breathing, but not so close that I would stand in her space. I assumed the Horse Stance, unfocused my eyes, and started breathing slowly and rhythmically. It was lovely. The crisp morning air was stirred by a light breeze, there were birds singing in the trees and I felt incredibly peaceful. I stood and breathed. After a while I could hear the horses coming closer, but I ignored them and continued breathing, concentrating on Cassie. She was right behind me and bumped my shoulder with her muzzle. I slowly turned around. Cassie lowered her head towards me. We stayed like that for a while, breathing.  I began to massage Cassie’s muzzle, slowly working my fingers around her nostrils, lips and inside her mouth, until I could feel some of the tightness relaxing. Minnie yawned and yawned. Then Cassie yawned too.  It’s a start.

Dreams and disappointments

When you have horses you have dreams for them. Those dreams can be a sort of mental wish list of what you want to do or achieve with your horse in a year from now or five years from now. My ultimate dream with Cassie is to one day ride to Santiago de Compostela. I don’t have a time schedule or any concrete plans, but that is my dream. And Cassie is only 6, so we have years and years. Dreams don’t have to be big, they can be very modest. Or they can be just a single image. When I think of Minnie, I see the two of us galloping with wild abandon, mane and hair flying, revelling in the glorious speed and the sheer freedom of it. The gallop is where Minnie and I belong together, a place where we are joined.

On the other side of the dreams lies the cold reality of disasters and disappointments, which is also part of having horses.

The first hints of spring always set Minnie’s blood on fire. She wants to run and that it what she does. Horses make no excuses or allowances. They give it all, 100%. The past two weeks Minnie and Cassie have been galloping around, racing each other and ploughing up our land. Then the other day I called them for their evening feed, and while Cassie came trotting, Minnie was slowly shuffling her way towards me, head nodding deeply with every step. My heart sank.

I checked her legs and although there is no heat or swelling, she is undeniably lame. My guess is that she ripped scar tissue in either her tendon or suspensory ligament. It is very disappointing.

It is of course possible to keep a horse sound by keeping them stabled and controlling their every move, but I can’t do it. For horses, life is movement. They eat on the move, they communicate with their moving bodies and they need to be able to move to feel safe. I don’t want to take that away, but I have also always wondered how sound a horse actually is if they can’t be allowed to move at will for fear that their legs aren’t up to it. And if the horse’s legs can’t cope with the strain of natural movement, surely that horse isn’t sound enough to be ridden?

 I have to face up to the fact that Minnie’s riding days are over. We won’t be galloping together again and it makes me feel sad that I won’t experience that sense of oneness with her anymore. But as I was sitting in the yard, watching her munch hay, I remembered a dream I had about her a couple of months ago. In the dream, I was walking through sand dunes to a beach.  It was a grey and windy day. I heard  soft foot steps behind me and as I turned to look around, I saw it was Minnie. She caught up and then walked beside me..

Horse stance

About two years ago I had a hard fall which I described here. At the time I thought I had come out of that fall pretty well, because it could have ended so much worse. I took it easy for a while and I thought that time would put things right again. Unfortunately, some injuries don’t improve with time. One of those things was tinnitus in my left ear; I had some Cranial Sacral therapy and it did help, but it wasn’t a cure, and the tinnitus kept coming and going. There were other things. Aches and pains. Stiffness. It wasn’t too bad as long as I kept moving, but first thing in the morning or after driving I felt like an old woman. The last couple of months I got this weird feeling that my right leg was shorter than my left leg, and I began to feel a bit unbalanced.

When I was a child I wondered why the ticking of my clock was louder at night than during the day. My dad explained that it was because it was quiet at night, with no distractions from other noises, but also that the tiny muscles inside your ear relax at night, so your hearing is actually sharper. Tinnitus is like that ticking clock; what is bearable during the day becomes a high-pitched shrieking siren at night. Last week I had the worst tinnitus ever. It was keeping me awake. I felt wrecked. Then I had a visitor, the mother of one of my son’s friends came to collect her son. She remarked that I looked tired, so I told her it was lack of sleep due to an overdose of noise in my head. She looked at me and said: “You know, when you sat down there just now I noticed that you moved your head in a way that actually cuts off the flow of energy. Did you ever damage your spine?” She gave me the number of an acupuncturist who is also a Qigong teacher.

After I fell off that horse my GP sent me to the hospital for X-rays. They were clear. Basically that means no broken bones, because that is the only thing they look for; if anything has shifted it will go unnoticed. However, I always felt there was something wrong at the base of my skull. I can literally put my fingers on it. Anyway, I went to see the therapist and she observed how I moved as she asked me to stand, walk and sit down. Then I had to lie down. The therapist checked a couple of things and then she put her fingers right on the base of my skull and on a spot on the left side of my pelvis. She told me I had been knocked out of alignment and that my body had tried to cope with that by contracting on one side. Consequently, my right leg was now marginally shorter than my left leg.

Well, it is always nice to know that you’re not imagining things. Better even when there are exercises you can do that will improve the situation. A lot of physical injuries are compounded by bad or incorrect posture and exercises that improve posture will help the body to heal the effects of old trauma. Everybody who rides horses is aware of the importance of a good riding position. From our first lesson we are told to sit up straight, keep our heels down, our hands low and to keep your head up and look ahead instead of down at the horse’s shoulder. If your position on the horse is correct, than in theory you should land on your feet and be totally balanced if the horse suddenly vanished from underneath you. Interestingly, this a position called the Horse Stance in Qigong. The Horse Stance helps to realign the spine and is a basic Qigong position. Apparently, many riders find it extremely difficult to stand correctly in this position. I stood with my weight on my heels and my chin slightly lifted and stuck out. Both are very common when riders assume the Horse Stance for the first time and they originate in “heels down and head up”. And it is totally wrong.

Here is the correct way to assume the Horse Stance:

  1.  Stand with your feet shoulder-length apart, measuring from your inside heels. Your toes should be pointed slightly inwards or parallel to  each other.
  2. Knees should always be slightly bent and leaning out slightly.
  3. There is part of a groin area where your hip and thighs form a crease. This place must always be indented.
  4. The chin should be slightly tucked in, eyes softly looking ahead.
  5. The spine should be straight, the tailbone tucked in. Visualize hanging from a piece of thread from the top of your head, the rest of your trunk sinking down, just as if you were about to sit down on an imaginary chair.
  6. If you are standing properly, the back of your thighs and buttocks should be totally relaxed. They should be soft and shake when you pat them.

Sounds easy, but to stand without tension in your legs or back can take a bit of practise.