Monday, November 17, 2014

Raccoon Syndrome

I have to admit I'm a sucker for shiny things. You wouldn't think it to look at me since I don't often get to wear jewelry or "blingyness", but just walk with me through a trade show and the shiny sparkly belt booth will draw me like a beacon.  Dan calls this my raccoon tendency and so I'm going to have to admit it, I guess.  My name is Jenni Grimmett, and I suffer from Raccoon Syndrome

I know I am not the only one that suffers from this.  I think all horse folk like shiny stuff.  We admire pretty and not just function and if we were all honest I think we would all prefer to be riding the prettiest horse in the arena.  If you aren't owning up to it, you aren't being honest.  I recently had the opportunity to ride the amazing Santa Fe Renegade and that horse is drop dead gorgeous.  He draws folks like a shiny belt, even with just little ol' me riding him.  When I finally looked up and around at my surroundings instead of just loping around grinning like a fool I noticed the side lines were packed with folks watching and I know dang good and well it wasn't ME they were looking at!

It's the prevalence of Raccoon Syndrome paired with the competitive nature of all equestrians that drives us to show our horses.  It's amazing what pains we will go to to earn a 50 cent scrap of pretty shiny ribbon.  Then add other shiny things like buckles or pretty tack and we stand there drooling in envy imagining jogging around with the sun glinting off our shiny new prize.

It's well known, if not largely admitted in competitive venues that competition can screw up horsemanship.  The more money at stake or the higher the prestige the more short cuts likely to be taken in order to stay in the running for the big prize.  It's human nature and it's hard to fight it.  Cowboy Dressage is trying very hard to keep that from affecting the competition side of this new discipline.  Doing away with competition sure isn't the answer because riding in front of a Cowboy Dressage judge is of immeasurable worth.  Here you have a knowledgeable person scrutinizing every aspect of your ride and your communication with your horse so that you can improve your ride.  How can we ever really improve without the crucible of competition?  Because Cowboy Dressage has 30 points of your score wrapped up in Soft Feel and another 20 in harmony and partnership, they are trying very hard to keep those things at the forefront even in the face of competition.

But, we can all fall victim to the raccoon syndrome.  Recently at the Cowboy Dressage World Finals show where there were many, many buckles up for grabs you could see some folks that were definitely entering classes just for the purpose of buckle chasing.   My Morgan and I entered all of our classes in a single division instead of spreading out our tests into different areas were he may have been more likely to excel because we were hoping to stay in the running for a buckle. We started out our weekend in pretty good shape placing first and second on our very first ever dressage tests.  Suddenly that gorgeous buckle for the Vaquero division seemed like it might just be within grasp.  Enter raccoon syndrome, exit responsible horsemanship.

The next day my horse was quite nervous and uptight and unwilling to settle on the court.  Because I was still chasing a buckle, I didn't want to change anything that might take me out of the running and so I kept my horse in the one handed bit.  He looks finished and pretty when carrying that bit.  The problem is that if he gets into trouble or gets tense I can't really help him out.  All I can do is put more pressure on that bit and make him more and more tense.  When he is relaxed, listening and with me it takes a mere change in my body position and very little signal with the bit.  When he's completely distracted and out to lunch he cannot "hear" my body and I end up "yelling" with my hands.  Well, you can imagine how my soft feel scores suffered.  We got through our tests all right, and survived the day and even placed but my horse was getting more and more upset.  Finally on day three he blew a test.  I couldn't get him quiet enough to even back up for a maneuver and he tried to exit the court as we free jogged past A making me grab him to keep him on the court.  Well, that day I placed 5th in one of my classes and got a 7th in another with the lowest scores of the weekend.  Now I was thoroughly and completely out of the running for any of those shiny pretty buckles.

That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me from a horsemanship standpoint.  It was like somebody walked up and dumped a cold glass of water on my head and said, "What the heck are you doing?  Can't you see your horse needs you right now?"  So I took off the big pretty bit and but him back in the hackamore where I could support his insecurity.  I lost my pretty formal flexion and finished look but in exchange I got quiet easy mind.  I got some of our bend working for us again.  I stacked the deck in his favor for our last day of tests.  I kept him as quiet and calm as possible even walking him out onto the court during a break and letting him stand at 8 eating treats with no pressure.  When it came time for him to ride his tests we lined buddies all up down both of the long sides of the court so he felt supported.  He rode beautifully.  He was quiet, responsive and happy.  Lo and behold my soft feel and partnership scores came back up.

I was berating myself a bit for getting sucked into raccoon syndrome so easily and was thinking maybe just doing away with buckles and shiny things was the way to keep this out of Cowboy Dressage right up until I watched the award presentation and watched all those folks graciously accept the shiny buckles I had coveted and they had worked so hard for.  How could I justify doing away with their prizes just because I had a moment where I lost focus?

Just like finding a chink in the foundation of your horse's training, I found a chink in my own this weekend.  Chico has a nervous active mind that needs support from me at all times.  I have a competitive drive that craves recognition and shiny things.  It's a bad combination and will be a struggle for us in our partnership, but Cowboy Dressage is the very best place for us to be.  When we get off track and my horse needs help and I need a wake up call there are folks here that are ready and able and willing to help us reach our goals.  Maybe we will win a shiny soft feel buckle someday;  maybe we won't ever even get close.  That doesn't matter.  What matters is that the two of us continue to build a partnership where we can rely on each other in times of need in all situations not just at home on our own court or out on the mountain trails we love.  If I support him and he can trust me, this partnership will grow.  I just might have to not walk by the awards table before the end of the show!

Cowboy Dressage World Finals: Here's what you missed!

It's a long, long way from North Idaho to Rancho Murieta, California.  As our temperatures dropped and our horse's haired up and our arena became a mud pit through early November Dan and I began to wonder just what the heck we were doing thinking about loading up and driving 16 hours through what might be very inhospitable road conditions to attend our very first Cowboy Dressage show.

But, I'm nothing if not stubborn and stuck to our chosen course and Dan grudgingly had the truck serviced and made sure the trailer was ready to go, secretly hoping for a snow storm that would shock some sense into me.  Luckily, our trip down was uneventful and we arrived at the gorgeous Rancho Murieta Equestrian Center on Tuesday evening.

The facility is absolutely breathtaking.  We were overwhelmed with the shear size and number of arenas on a single facility.  We have a few small private indoor arenas back home but nothing in our area that can even hold a candle to this beautiful horse Disneyland.  We were greeted by smiling faces and welcoming arms and the ever gentlemanly Garn Walker who helped us to find our stalls and get settled in.

I'm not sure that you will believe me when I try to describe the welcoming environment present at the finals.  This is the big Cowboy Dressage show that wraps up the entire year.  Hopes are high for good rides, of course, but more than anything else, people are just universally happy to see you and happy to share this dream with others who are trying to find a better way to be with their horse.  This is a community of horse people that is inclusive instead of exclusive and that is dang rare in ANY equine discipline.  They are supportive, helpful, gracious and kind.  They embody this movement in horsemanship in everything that they do.  You can't be a kind person in the barn and a jerk outside of it.  It doesn't work that way.  These people carry kindness in their hearts to their best abilities and inspire you to do the same.

The long weekend kicked off with a mini clinic presented by Eitan, Lynn and Garn with demonstration riders to help us understand what was being asked of us in some of the trickier maneuvers in the tests.  Tricks of the trade were shared and questions were encouraged.  Every single person riding this weekend was more than willing to share tips, ideas or encouragement as needed and that included our "founding fathers".  The Cowboy Dressage World Leaders (a title that makes them sound much more intimidating that they are!) were always willing to answer questions, offer advice or lend a hand.  It means so much to have them so accessible and willing to help.  Garn and Eitan especially spent some very valuable time with Dan and I just helping us to figure things out and what we could do to improve our scores a bit over the weekend.

Every evening there was either a demonstration or presentation to attend and though it did make our days seem a little long, this is a dedicated group of folks and the evening activities were well attended.  I was honored to present a talk on taking what we are learning on the Cowboy Dressage court out into all the other things we do with our horses.  The illustrious Dr. Miller gave a great presentation on equine behavior sharing some of his wonderful videos.  We were treated to the unveiling of a great and instructive new DVD on the court and the maneuvers that is hot off the press from Cowboy Dressage World.  Anybody who is new to Cowboy Dressage or those of you teaching others will want a copy of this great, easy to understand DVD.  The highlight of the evening demonstrations was a rare performance of Eitan and his Morgan stallion Santa Fe Renegade on Saturday evening.  Eitan rode with a host of mounted riders on horseback surrounding the court.  It was breathtaking to watch and I don't believe there was a dry eye in the house when the music changed to Garth Brook's  "The Dance" and Eitan directed the applause to Santa Fe and sat and stroked his beloved partner as the riders filed out of the arena.

The afternoon freestyle programs were also well attended and are, I think, everybody's favorite class to watch.  It was during the first afternoon of freestyle performances that an event occurred that really embodies the spirit of Cowboy Dressage as a competition.  If you aren't familiar with the garrocha, it's what Eitan likes to call a "big schtick".  It is a 13' pole that you carry while riding and perform maneuvers including canter and roll backs and swapping of the pole from side to side.  It's highly technical and incredibly entertaining to watch.  One of the garrocha riders dropped her "schtick" after only about a minute into her performance.  When it hit the ground the crowd collectively moaned and all looked at each other wondering what happens now.  She had been riding so beautifully and we all wanted to see more and felt the little bobble entirely forgivable.  The rider shrugged as she sat her horse looking at the pole on the ground while the music played.  Soon members of the audience were offering to run out and pick it up so she could continue.  The judge nodded that it was fine to continue and somebody jumped the rail and handed her the pole.  The music had a little trouble getting restarted and things were rough for 15-20 seconds or so but then the music and rider got in time again and to the absolute delight of the folks in the audience the ride was completed and there were cheers and applause for the horsemanship demonstrated and not another though given to a dropped pole.

There were over 800 rides in 4 arenas over 4 days at the Finals.  It was impossible to see it all.  We were privileged to watch some amazing riding and excellent horses.  There were also plenty of folks there having a little trouble.  Life with horses is not always perfect is it?  My horse was one of the ones having some trouble.  He had a lot of trouble settling on the court and was nervous and tight and not listening making it extremely difficult to keep soft feel at the forefront.  Soft feel is a partnership and a dance and my dance partner was doing the Hokey Pokey while I was trying to lead a waltz!  At a normal horse show, that's just tough luck. But, here at Cowboy Dressage the horse always comes first. We tried at first to just have his buddy stand quietly in the arena on the side lines or at one corner but it just wasn't enough and he was getting progressively tense as the days passed. So, in order to make my horse feel more comfortable and secure on the court I asked several of the waiting riders to just line the court while we rode our test.  For our final tests we had 8 helpers giving Chico moral support on the sidelines.  It worked!  We were able to quietly complete our tests and Chico was able to end on a positive note staying quiet and calm with a good experience on the court.  Hopefully that will be a good starting place for him and we can build from there.

The final evening award ceremony was also a highlight for us.  There was a pile of ribbons, buckles and tack to be given away and each person that won was so thankful and excited to be recognized.  I was so proud when Dan won the reserve "Most Improved Award" and was presented with a vintage silk wild rag.  He will wear it proudly and will never forget the time he spent at finals with his little red horse.  But the very best of all was the high point award of the weekend.  We were all waiting on the edge of our seats to see who would be awarded the big award.  I don't know about anybody else, but I sure didn't have an inkling of who might have won.  There is just so much going on all weekend it's largely a surprise to find out how the scores tallied.  The big award for the weekend went to none other than our young 12 year old Ambassador of Cowboy Dressage Avril and her Arabian mare Myla. They took home the Dale Chavez saddle, bridle and breast collar.  Again, not a dry eye in the arena as this amazing young horsewoman bounced her way to the saddle that she will have to grow into!  I cannot imagine a more fitting end to the weekend than to see this hard working girl take home the big award. Were else could something like that happen where a 12 year old and her horse come in and beat them all?  I think it means we are doing something right with Cowboy Dressage.

The 2014 Cowboy Dressage World Finals Gathering was an unbelievable success.  If you missed it I encourage you to make plans now for next year.  This show is going to continue to grow.  The 2013 Gathering had 500 rides and we had over 800 rides this year.  This is a movement that is going to continue to grow and flourish because it is being guided and guarded so carefully to be sure the mission remains in tact.  This is something you want to be a part of.  It's something you need to be a part of.  So, come along friend, and ride.  The Cowboy Dressage world is just waiting for your handshake membership. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rider induced changes to the horse

The old adage, form begets function surely applies to our horses.  While horses can perform beyond their form or breeding they excel best when used for the purpose for which they were designed.  This is why Clydesdales pull the Budweiser hitch and Arabians do the Tevis cup and not vice versa.

What shouldn't surprise us though is function also begets form.  Our horses will reflect the use that we put them to.  In veterinary medicine we see specific injuries and performance related issues associated with specific disciplines as the horses are used.  It's a natural extension of our relationship with our horses.  You cannot ride a horse to any extent without changing the way that horse's body in some way. This isn't always bad and it happens in all walks of life.  Many of our bodies reflect the work that we do unless we work hard to avoid that.  Asymmetrical development in the dominant arm of any person that preferentially uses one arm for the majority of their work is a good example of this.  Unless they consciously build muscle in the opposing arm, the arm being used most will be the strongest.  Our horses are the same.

What I'd like to talk about today is the way we can affect change in our horses for both good and bad and how we can avoid some of the pitfalls of poor muscle development, braces, and other injuries that can shorten or limit the useful life of our horses. Eventually I will write an entire book on this subject as it is one dear to my heart so paring it down to fit into a blog post has been difficult.  There are far reaching implications and a plethora of details and minutia to be debated in this topic.  Let's start with just a few.

"Saddleback" is a term that refers to the hollowing of the top line behind the shoulders and eventual sinking and swaying of the back after years of service under saddle.  Common thinking in the horse world is often that this is a phenomenon of old age and is unavoidable.  To some extent that is true.  As a horse ages and is subject to heavy loads it's back will wear and break down.  Unless the horse exercises the muscles responsible for rounding and shaping the back, gravity and work will eventually win and you will see a pronounced sway.  Conformation of the horse definitely plays a roll in this.  Horses with long backs and laid back shoulders will often carry themselves with poor self carriage.  Self carriage does not necessarily come natural to the horse and you can see "saddleback" on a horse that never carried a rider.  It's common in cart horses that push with their shoulders instead of rounding their backs to push through their entire bodies.

While "saddleback" can be a natural process of aging, poor riding habits can compound this problem. Just like good posture in people, proper self carriage in the horse must be cultivated. A horse that is allowed to carry himself in a sunken and hollowed way will advance into saddle back quicker than one that is in a conditioning program designed to keep those muscles functioning.  Just people, some horses will need more time in the "gym" toning and shaping those muscles while others will seem to be toned and shaped without added work.

I have a horse that tends toward saddle back.  He has high withers and long sloping shoulder and as he has aged this problem is getting worse.  This also happens to be the horse that I do the most back country and trail riding with.  He has a long ground covering walk that I enjoy riding but he tends to go hollow when in this gate.  If we spend too much time out on the trail and not enough time doing calisthenic exercises encouraging rounding through his top line this problem gets quickly worse to the point of effecting my saddle fit.
So how do you encourage your horse to round and lift and shorten his back to build those top line muscles?  Transitions and work on soft feel help the horse to bring his back up.  The time that we spend on the Cowboy Dressage court is incredibly valuable to toning and shaping his muscles and top line.  Transitions done with soft feel from working walk to free walk and working jog to free jog ask the horse to repeatedly shorten and then stretch those muscles.  It's like doing leg bends at the gym.  It focuses the energy of the ride up through the top line and encourages self carriage combating the dreaded "saddleback".

"Oh No Muscle".  This is a muscle that I am very familiar with in my patients.  Anytime I need to do an intravenous injection into the jugular vein and place my left hand on the horse's neck to raise the vein I can tell exactly what kind of hands the person riding the horse has.  The "Oh No Muscle" is the over development of the muscles on the bottom of the horse's neck.  They run on each side of the neck and form the jugular groove and are responsible in part for flexing the neck and moving bones in the throatlatch area.  Over development of these muscles will give a horse a "ewe" neck appearance that may be completely secondary to use and not due to conformation at all.  In general, when I put my hand on these horses to raise the jugular vein their first response is to raise the head and neck and flip the nose up.  These are your classic head tossers and they tend to ridden with both a tie down and gag type bit to discourage the behavior.  These are horses that are long accustomed to bracing against pressure.  Better than 50% of the time these horses will also have damage to bars of their mouth from long standing bit pressure.
 This habit is tough to break in a horse even with a rider that has good hands.  The deep seated bracing and flipping of the head are so ingrained as a defense mechanisms these horses will say "Oh No!" before anything is even asked of them.  They generally start flipping their head before I even touch them with a needle and many of these horses will engage in this behavior in the pasture flipping their head at flies, other horses, or any stimuli that they classify as irritating.

The best cure in this case is prevention.  This is a case of a horse learning to push against pressure as a defense mechanism.  If there is never pressure to push against the horse cannot develop this habit.  Pulling relentlessly on young horses or even older horses that are being forced to preform in a way that they are not properly prepared for will develop this habit.  There are shelves of tack devices to counter this human produced equine behavior.  Tie downs, martingales, cavesons, draw reins, gag bits, correction bits, etc are all developed by folks trying desperately to remedy this behavior pattern as well as establish "proper" headset.  There is only one way to be sure that the "Oh No muscle" doesn't raise it's ugly head on your horse.  Soft Feel.  That's the only sure fire, 100%, always going to work gadget and you can't buy it in any tack store.

Bar damage is the last thing I would like to cover in this blog and this is a tricky one to address.  As I mentioned above, I'll often see bar damage in horses with a big "Oh No" muscle but it can be much more insidious than that.  Bone spurs on the bars of the horse's mouth will often go unnoticed by the rider and have largely been undiagnosed in horses until more recently.  Research has been done recently examining the differences in jaws from horses that were ridden and those that were feral examining the changes that we see in our domestic horses.  In jaw bones collected from slaughter houses from horses that presumably spent time with a bit in their mouth we see thickening of the bars, bone spurs similar to shin splints, hair line fractures, roughening of the periostium due to continued stimulation of bit contact. Without doing extensive comparrisons of horses across disciplines and with good information on the type of riding and type of rider they were carrying all we can do is extrapolate about the damage and potential damage that we are doing to our horses with irresponsible bit use.

The advent of widespread availability of digital x-ray technology is going to allow us to better examine the jaws of horses that are experiencing signs of resistance or bracing to the bit.  Physical examination can provide good information as to the health of the horse's mouth and state of the bones of the jaw.  I assess the bars on every horse that I float and can usually tell if a horse is having trouble with the bit.  I find bone spurs, thickening and roughening of the surface of the bars through palpation of the bars.  You can generally tell if the horse is stiff to one side over the other or has a tendency to fight the bit.

Often a horse with bit wear on the teeth has been attempting to alleviate undue pressure on the bars by attempting to hold the bit in his teeth.  When I see a horse with rounded premolars they generally will have thickening along the bars as well.  In my practice I would say that in general I see the most bar damage associated with snaffle bit use, gag bit use and horses that are asked for "collection" or head set in the show ring.  These are the horses that seem to experience the most pressure on their bars.  This is in no way a scientific observation but only a personal one based on the hundreds of horses that I evaluate in my practice each year.

Every horse's mouth is a little different.  Some big boned horses naturally have very thick and rounded bars and these seem to hold up well to carrying a bit.  Other horses have very thin delicate bars and these are generally at greater risk for damage.  Young growing horses that have very active periosteums in the jaw and are experiencing the growth of adult teeth are especially susceptible to damage from excessive bit use.

Mitigating this damage relies on protecting the horse's mouth and respecting it.  Hard mouthed horses are not born, they are made.  While there will be variation between horses depending on bar conformation all horses have to potential to feel and respond to very light stimuli on the bars of the mouth.  Building responsiveness in a horse by rewarding try and soft feel will help teach a horse to be responsive and "soft mouthed" without undue damage.

Allowing young horses to mature prior to bitting is also a good practice to minimize damage to the bars.  This is one of the things I love most about the vaquero tradition that relies on the bosal saving the sensitive mouth for advanced training.  Once the horse is carrying a bit he has advanced far enough in his training to be able to respond with very slight pressure on the mouth.

But, a good horseman can definitely ride a horse in a bit without causing undue damage.  I think of a young woman in my practice with a 8 year old horse that she has been riding in the snaffle bit for 5 years.  When last I floated that horse his bars were pristine.  That is a woman with beautifully soft hands.  I don't advocate the widespread use of bitless bridles to eradicate bit damage.  I advocate the widespread education of the hands of horseman that use the bits to improve timing and feel and mitigate damage before it happens.

There are many, many more examples of how our riding choices and uses of our horses affect their bodies.  I will revisit this topic at a later date to discuss some of the other issues that we see that are affecting our horse's physical and mental well being.