Saturday, September 28, 2013

pre-ride shakedown cruise...for the rider

Today involved a fantastic, 18-mile ride on Khan again with Lancette. Parts of it were entirely new-to-me trail, as well as reinforcement of some trails previously ridden. (It's an area of criss-crossing and intersecting trails, sand washes, and service roads -- keep heading in the general direction of your intended destination and you'll probably get there in some form or fashion.)

It was good timing, too -- one last big ride before next weekend's Man Against Horse ride. I've stayed in good riding shape all summer, so I wasn't concerned about that part. But I did have some new gear I wanted to thoroughly test out before going into a ride environment, including new stirrup leathers.

new stirrup leathers passed the mileage test
I've been riding in Zilco leathers, but the stirrup bars on my saddle make it impossible to ride with the buckle at the bar -- the pressure point it creates on my thighs is pretty uncomfortable after a short while. I can get around that by rotating the leathers so that the buckle is at the bottom, on the stirrup top bar. The downside to this is the flopping tail of stirrup leather, solved by covering the whole apparatus with fleece stirrup leather covers. The problems with this set-up: It's harder to adjust the stirrup length, which I frequently need to do depending on the horse I'm riding, and the fleece adds extra bulk under my leg.

A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I ordered a pair of stirrup leather from Schneiders Saddlery. They're the kind with the buckles riveted to the top of the leather, and they're supposed to be thin and low-profile and not bulky. The price didn't exactly break the bank, and if they didn't do exactly as I hoped for log-term use...well, it never hurts to have an extra pair of stirrup leathers around.

They passed last weekend's arena test, although I recognized that an hour in the arena wasn't anywhere near the kind of workout a good distance ride will give them. I'm happy to report today's ride did just that. Ton of trotting and cantering, ups and downs, twisty single-track and wide-open roads. How I feel tomorrow morning will be the ultimate test, but I didn't feel the buckles under my thigh while riding, and I don't have any soreness or bruising now. It was kind of nice to be able to ditch the fleece covers -- that much less between my leg and the horse now. The leathers are nylon-lined to prevent them from stretching, and they have some nice "give" to them, so I wasn't feeling any shin pressure either.

I'm definitely comfortable enough to leave them on the saddle and do the ride next weekend in them. I'll probably bring the fleece covers just in case, but if I did 18 miles without a problem, it's only 7 more miles for the 25.

wild horses at the trailhead

We saw a number of wild horses today! Apparently there are bands of them that live down by the river. I'd heard of them, but until today, I'd never seen them. We came across them three different times today, and I think it was three different bands. They were vaguely curious about us, but very wary and preferred to move away from us when in doubt. It was fascinating to watch the stallions do their rear-guard duty, and the body language between the herd members.

They all looked healthy, so whatever they're living on out there, they're doing okay.

Lancette and "Hot Lips" playing in the river.

We went down to the river as the halfway point and gave the horses and drink and sponging. I never get tired of river-time and it will always remain a novel concept to this desert rat.

The river was running really clear today, clear enough to see to the bottom.

Obligatory response photo for those who say
"hoof boots can't do water."
I sank Khan's Renegades in about 3' of water for a good 10 minutes, then we turned around and went back up the sand wash, up a very steep, rocky climb (which we trotted the last part), and then took off trotting down a service road. Boots didn't budge the entire time.

It's like a "Where's Waldo?" photo.
Can you find the hidden shoe?

Right about the time I was admiring how crystal-clear the water was, and how it would make for a great "boots in water" shot, I looked over to the side and saw a horseshoe wedged under a river rock. In the photo, it's below the center of the photo, just above the blobby bits of green underwater vegetation.

One of the more unusual bits of river debris I've encountered. Much more typical is beer cans.

Horse ears. Sunshine. River.
Some views never get old.

The river was absolutely gorgeous today. Running a bit higher and faster as a result of monsoon season, but there is a great area to water the horses that is quiet and shallow and sandy. There was a ton of loose water grass being carried with the current, and Khan greatly enjoyed reaching out and snagging the floating grasses. Yummy.

looking downstream on the Salt River

Pony time for me tomorrow, then before I know it, I will be Prescott-bound for Man Against Horse! I started some packing and organizing today when I got home, and will get more done tomorrow in the form of cleaning grubby tack after the pony gets done adding yet another layer of grunge to it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

a week in pictures

It's been one of those weeks where nothing has happened that warrants its own full blog post...just a lot of random little stuff here and there.

The Man Against Horse ride is next weekend and I can't wait! Liberty and I are going to be doing the 25. It's been four years since I've done this ride and I've been on pins and needles for the past month, just wanting the ride weekend to Be Here already.

Gina sent this to me. Liberty went out all by
herself like a big girl and was very good. :)
This amusing face got worked last weekend, her first time since her massage. I could tell a big difference under saddle. She was moving well, and it wasn't like trying to steer a 2x4.

"Behold me, in my innocence."

Innocent-face got a sloppy mash...

...which she proceeded to drool all over my
suburban. Which had just gone through the
car wash the day before.
I've been doing ride prep for Man Against Horse here and there in the evenings as I think about stuff that needs done. The other night, I made a new fancy red tail ribbon for Liberty to wear, since the first one I made got sacrificed to the manzanita at the Prescott Chaparral ride. Trying not to get too attached to this one, since there is also more manzanita along this trail. Lots of manzanita.

She didn't end up needing it at the last ride,
but I'm still using it as a precaution. Young
horses are unpredictable.
And somewhere along the way, fall happened:

Running errands mid-morning. Nice.
Display of multi-functionality:
Hoof boot. Water bottle holder.
And finally, it's the weekend. Let's make some trail dust.

good life philosophy

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

love-hate relationship: heart rate monitors

As you might have guessed from the title, I have a love-hate relationship with using heart rate monitors on my horses. I will say that they have their benefits, but they also come with a full set of hair-yanking annoyances.

To start, let's discuss technical details. There are two main brands of equine Heart Rate Monitors on the market: Polar and V-Max, and two styles, either the belt or the electrodes. I have one of each brand and one of each style.

The Polar HRM I have is actually a human chest belt, the T31 transmitter, adapted for equine use with a homemade neoprene belt. They do have an actual equine belt now as well. I have an extremely basic Polar HRM watch that does nothing more than give you the heart rate reading when it's connected.

the belt style in approximately the correct position
The nice thing about the belt is that it can stay on the horse once you pull the saddle, so you don't need a handheld unit to monitor the heart rate. 

The cons that I experienced with the belt where that, due to Mimi's barrel-like conformation, it was extremely difficult to keep the transmitter in the proper position. It had a tendency to slide around her barrel, sending some truly outrageous readings to the watch, and when I would glance down in alarm ("Surely we're not walking at 200+ bpm!"), I would see the transmitter had migrated to the top of her withers. There's a velcro strap around it that you can wrap around the breastcollar to keep it from migrating backwards, but that doesn't help with the spinning around.

I will say I never experienced that problem on horses with high withers.

The other major problem was the lifespan of the belts: Short. They are homemade from neoprene weight belts, so I can't speak for the quality of the ones directly from Polar. I started using the belt style back when they were a DIY affair cobbled together from various offerings and the imaginations of creative people.

Although I never had a problem with it, something to watch would be the belt under the girth, and positioning of the transmitter so that it doesn't encourage girth galls. A horse who is sensitive in the armpit area might have problems with that much "stuff" in there.

electrode style, showing the electrode that gets placed
under the saddle. second electrode gets placed on the
opposite side under the girth, approximately level with the
elbow, in the area you would place a stethoscope. The wires
attach to the transmitter, contained within the black pouch,
which can then get clipped to the saddle d-rings.
The other style I own is the electrode style, this one from V-Max. This one is also very basic, although the watch displays both the heart rate and the time at the same time.

This was the first HRM I got, and aside from changing out the batteries in both the watch and the transmitter once, it has held together really well.

My quibble about this style is that it is fussier to put on: you have to position the electrodes correctly so that you get a good reading, and I would caution on placement of the under-saddle electrode that you use care to not place the electrode right under the stirrup bars or any higher-pressure area. While they are low profile, I have seen horses that develop white hair patches in the exact shape of the electrode over time.

It's also something to pay attention to when unsaddling, particularly the electrode attached to the girth. It's pretty easy to drop the girth and yank it away without disconnecting the electrode, which then might end up yanking the leads (wires) out of the electrode. But this style also doesn't move once you have them in place, so as long as they are positioned well, they tend to given pretty accurate readings. (However, if you are walking along at 200+ all of a sudden, lean down and check that your girth electrode hasn't gotten yanked out and is now merrily dangling next to your horse's side.)

Those are some of the mechanical/technical pros and cons of HRMs. Let's talk about my own personal philosophy and approach to their use.

A heart rate monitor is a TOOL. It is not a substitute for the FEEL of a horse

It is not a speedometer, or tachometer. It is a piece of electronic equipment designed to give you feedback you might not otherwise get. I do not ride based off of the HRM, but I use the HRM's feedback to support what I'm feeling or not from the horse.

I would say learn to feel your horse and know them before relying too much on technological input. I put a lot of stock into gut instinct, and I generally think I have a pretty good read and feel of a horse. I know that I personally like getting feedback: It's really great to know how fast the horse is recovering, or what their HR tends to be at various gaits, or determining what speed within a gait might be most efficient for them.

But if you're a worrywart like me, a HRM can be an instrument of torture if you pay too much attention to it. Which then goes back to my original approach of "treat it as a tool." If you have a high reading, take a quick stock and assessment: Did the belt rotate? Is an electrode loose? Bad connection? If a reading that is concerning persists, that's when the feel of the horse comes in to play. Are they trotting along happily, breathing steady, feeling "normal?" Then it's probably a technological issue, or a temporary blip. What's your gut telling you? Is there something about your horse that is not quite "right?" If so, maybe the HRM is backing up what your gut -- and your horse -- is telling you.

Here are some specific-to-me examples of when I've benefitted (or not) from using a HRM:

-- Mimi can be a very subtle horse about telling me when something is wrong. Both times she had a tie-up, the main indicator was a hanging pulse. Not high, just hanging -- extremely uncharacteristic for her, coupled with a lack of enthusiasm for moving out willingly. The lack of wanting to move out -- probably the most uncharacteristic sign from her there is a problem, since she is the Go Pony -- was what made me look at the HRM, and the hanging numbers confirmed by suspicions. Fortunately, both times were caught very early on in the process, before they could become a major problem.

-- When I took Beamer to a ride, using the HRM was extremely beneficial because he could be somewhat of a sandbagger. He might act like he was all used up...but when he's walking at 48 bpm in a sand wash after 25 miles, he wasn't too exhausted...he just thought he was. In that case, having the HRM didn't actually help me get him to go faster -- when he decided he was done, that was that -- but it did reassure me that I hadn't actually pushed him too hard.

-- It's been a handy tool when I'm riding horses I'm unfamiliar with. Not that it helps a ton while riding, since I'm usually not familiar with their standard working pulses -- a bit alarming at first to be used to one who trots at 120 only to get on one whose trotting average is 140 and you start to wonder if there's something, that's just the horse -- but it does help to establish some basic patterns. It doesn't matter the actual numbers in the sense that, if they're going along at one close range for a while, then it starts shooting up, now might be a good time for a breather.
  • When riding Liberty at Prescott, the HRM actually was a good tool in helping me figure her out. She's a brave, bold, forward horse who is happy to motor along pretty consistently (especially for a greenie), but she wasn't showing signs of wanting to take a breather on her own. From what I remember, her trotting average was around 120, so when her HR started to jump to 135-140, that's when I would ask her for a walk break, and usually several minutes later, she was ready to go again.
    • She did hit a wall partway through the ride, but based on her HR, it was more mental than physical, and I actually chalk that one up to rider error. I got pretty caught up in how solid she was and how much fun I was having riding her that I, quite frankly, forgot she was still a green horse on only her second ride. She led the first 9 miles of the ride, and I think she probably got a little bit overwhelmed mentally. Rather than freak out, she just stopped and asked, in her own way, that the other horse be the one to lead for a while. She was more than happy to keep following.
      • I monitored her HR, and it stayed in the same low patterns, so my conclusion based on that was she was still physically feeling good and not being overly taxed -- but she needed the mental break. It worked. She got a good break for the next third of the ride, and then after the vet check, we made a point of alternating who was leading or following much more frequently -- switching off every mile or so -- and by that point, she was happy to take the lead and move out again.
-- It's a pretty nice tool to have at a VC, to be able to know when your horse is down, or for learning how fast they take to drop to 'x' point.
  • I "hide" my HRM screen from pulse-takers, so as to not accidentally influence what they're hearing. I want to know if they're hearing something different than what I might be getting.
    • That said: This is again another area for "technical difficulties." Don't rely entirely on the HRM -- know how to take your horse's pulse manually or with a stethoscope, since the monitor might not be reading perfectly accurately (one of the rides I was at this spring, my HRM was consistently reading four beats higher than what P&R people and vets were getting) or may be having some issues.
I think that just about exhausts my HRM repertoire...I'm by no means an expert, this is just personal opinions gleaned off of the past ten years of experience in messing around with them.

For those that are curious, I am currently using the V-Max electrode system. After going back to it, I'm on the fence as to if I like the belt system anymore or not.

If there's something I didn't cover, or any questions I raised, please ask!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

massage therapy bliss

Can we say 'blissed-out pony?'
Back when we were at the height of competing, both NATRC and endurance, I used to have Mimi massaged on a frequent basis. As competitions got fewer and further between, one of the things I dropped were the massage appointments.

As she's been getting older and crunchier, I've been contemplating having a massage session done on her. I'd been hearing great endorsements and testimonials from some endurance friends about a massage therapist who has been at the Arizona endurance rides of late. And then after Mimi got cast in her stall a couple of weeks ago, that sealed it. She had to be somewhat out of whack after that episode.

I contacted Kristy at Freedom in Motion Equine Therapy (or her Facebook page) and scheduled an appointment for this morning.

I cannot even begin to say enough good things about this morning's appointment.

To start, Mimi is a horse who does not readily warm up to people. It's not that she dislikes them, she's just pretty indifferent and can take a while to decide you are worth her time. There are very few people in this world she takes an immediate shine to. Kristy was one of them. At the end of the session, she even gave her one of her special, head-over-your-shoulder Mimi hugs.

It's really easy to understand why, though. Kristy has a great way with horses. She's gentle and methodical in her approach and is extremely tuned in to the horse themselves, frequently talking directly to them.

Mimi was definitely knotted up -- a cumulative effect, I'm sure, of not only not having any work done on her for the past few years, but of things like stall kicking, running into something (probably a fence) back over the winter, and then the final straw of getting cast a couple of weeks ago.

I was really impressed with how Kristy would approach the really stubbornly knotted up areas -- work on it, move to another area, come back to it, move to another area, then check it again. Sometimes the temptation is to dig into a problem area and work it until it goes away, but frequently, problem areas tie together, and you can loosen one really tight area by resolving another area that might not be quite as bad and then going back to the problem area. (Read more on the Freedom in Motion "About" page.)

Mimi did great on giving her releases. Lots of chewing and licking, some sneezes, the passing of gas and manure. She was a bit "shy" about her releases to start -- maybe because she was so knotted up, or because she was enjoying it too much to want it to stop? -- but once she started loosening up, I don't think she could help herself and she started with the licking and chewing. She's very expressive, so after a while, she really started getting into it. Next time, I need to get more photos, because she was flat out hilarious a few times.

I could see a difference in her musculature and stance as Kristy was working, and when she had me move her out afterwards, the difference was immediate and amazing. She was obviously feeling very good, as she trotted in hand after me over to the round pen, and proceeded to give me some great extensions and even slow canters for a few minutes. And when I took her back to her stall, she had her "bouncy walk" back.

I cannot wait to ride her again this weekend and see how she feels under saddle.

And I think we'll be making massage sessions part of our regular horsekeeping routine again.

If you're in Arizona, I can't recommend Kristy enough. She is based out of the East Valley, but if there is a large enough demand, she will travel to other parts of the state as well.

(For any AZ endurance riders who are going to be at either Prescott's Man Against Horse ride or  McDowell's Lead-Follow ride, Kristy will be at both rides the Friday before and Saturday of ride day to work on people's horses. Pre-schedule with her for first priority on getting your horse worked on.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

cover girls

I went on The Distance Depot's website this morning, and this was what greeted me:

Hey, that bright orange tack looks familiar!

Liberty and I are cover girls! (See their webpage for a better close-up and detail.) That particular tack set came from The Distance Depot, and while I might be slightly biased, I happen to think Liberty makes a great model for it.

What's even more fun is that about ten years ago, Mimi and I were cover girls for Long Riders Gear on one of their print catalogs. I've got that catalog stashed away somewhere and as soon as I dig it out, I'll post that one as well.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

fashion plate

From dayglow orange and biothane...

... to classic black leather.

Pony looks good no matter what she wears.