Friday, December 19, 2014

More About Horse Urine Than You (Probably) Ever Wanted to Know

I've spent way too much time with vets this year - Red's splint bone fracture and surgery, his ankle injury, Dawn's several bouts of serious dental work, and Pie's ulcers.  The only good thing about spending time with vets - mine are really excellent - is that I get to learn more about horses, and then I get to write about what I learn here.  (Please remember that I'm not a vet, and this is just an amateur's take on these matters.)

Today the topic is horse urine - that's right, horse urine.  The reason for the topic is that Red had an odd little episode late last week.  I'd groomed and ridden him as usual in the afternoon.  In the early evening I came back to ride Pie - a group of us often get together on Thursday evenings.  I discovered Red in his stall, swishing his tail, kicking at his belly and with urine dribbling out of his sheath.  He wasn't dropped.  I took him out and used some warm water and gauze to clean things out a bit - he was fairly dirty and once he figured out I was going to be gentle and that I was making things better, he stopped trying to cow kick.  He seemed more comfortable after that, and the problem didn't reoccur.

But I usually have the boys cleaned (those of you with gelding know what I mean) twice a year - Pie in particular tends to get very dirty and also gets lots of beans.  I usually do this at the time of spring and fall vaccinations, but my appointment for Pie's rabies shot this fall was a quick add-on to someone else's appointment and I didn't think about sheath cleaning.

So the vet came out this week to clean up the boys.  Both had to be sedated.  Pie was pretty good.  Red was less cooperative and had to have extra medicine so he wouldn't kick.  Red only had one small bean and wasn't too dirty; Pie as usual really needed to be cleaned, and had several fairly large beans.  But the vet said that Red's problem was probably due to a crystal in his urine getting slightly stuck or irritating things as it passed - not a full-sized kidney stone (horses do get these too on occasion), but just due to the composition of horse urine.  Apparently horses have crystals in their urine - who knew?

Here's some information:
Urine is a complex and supersaturated solution of many substances, including mineral salts that might precipitate out of solution into crystals under certain conditions; kidney/bladder stones are formed by combination of many small crystals into a larger conglomerate. Variation in the mineral content of feeds and water can influence the formation of stones. In some instances, a change in the acid-base relationship (pH) in the thick "soup" of urine can also trigger formation of stones. If you have ever seen your horse pass urine, you likely have recognized a couple of differences from the urine voided by dogs (or by yourself). First, horse urine is very cloudy. Cloudiness is a consequence of the large amount of calcium carbonate crystals that horses normally excrete in urine. While humans and dogs tend to regulate calcium absorption from the diet at the level of the intestine, horses tend to absorb excessive amounts of calcium from the intestine and must eliminate it via urine. If urine is collected in a transparent container and allowed to sit for a few minutes, these calcium carbonate crystals will actually settle to the bottom of the container­--imagine one of those travel souvenirs that you shake to disperse "snowflakes" throughout the water, only to have them settle at the base of the Empire State Building. Second, horse urine is very bubbly (almost foamy) when it is first passed. This is due to the large amount of mucus in horse urine. In fact, a concentrated urine sample can be quite stringy and viscid (thick). Mucus is secreted from the innermost portion of the kidney (the renal pelvis), which is the start of the drainage system through the ureter. Mucus acts as a lubricant that can help prevent small calcium carbonate crystals from forming into stones. (thehorse.com article on urinary tract problems)
All seems well with Red for now, which is a good thing.  If he'd had a true stone, he'd have shown more pain signs, possibly blood in his urine and likely have been trying to urinate without being able to produce much.

Maybe more than you wanted to know, but interesting none the less (at least to me).

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Ancient (Horse) History

My history with horses goes back a long ways - the photos below are from more than 50 to almost 40 years ago.

When I was very small - less than two years old - my family moved next door to a stable.  It wasn't a very nice stable - one of those that rented horses out by the hour to anyone, even if they couldn't ride, and where all the riders wanted to do was run the horses.  But it was what I had, and I took full advantage.  I started riding when I was very young, and got my first horse when I was eight.  The horse wasn't very well-trained and completely inappropriate for a young girl - I got my first bad concussion when she bucked me off, so I didn't have her long - I named her Molasses Bay (Mo for short):


Across the gravel road from us was a large field where a herd of ponies ran loose.  My best friend and I, when we were about 10 years old, would cobble together bridles from discarded bits and pieces of leather and bent bits that had been thrown away - there was a junk pile in the field - catch two ponies and go riding.  No one knew or cared that we were doing this.  We used to race the ponies down the driveway that's just on the other side of the fence in the photo:


My best friend and I worked for free every weekend at the not-very-nice stable, taking groups of riders out on rides around the property.  We got to ride lots of horses.  And we also rode in the town's Fourth of July parade - I'm the one with long blonde hair on the big gray horse - I'm about 12 in these photos - the outfits, footwear, bad equitation and odd tack are notable (but I didn't care), and it was well before I ever wore a helmet:





We moved right after that and I figured out a way to keep riding - it meant my parents driving miles out in the country every weekend.  I also went to a dude ranch in Arizona one New Year's when I was 13 - here's a photo of me with the head wrangler:


I had a series of horses in my teens, but then was fortunate to find my first heart horse.  I called her Snow (Snow's Ghost), and she was a grade cremello, blue-eyed QH mare of indeterminate age and prior training.  She promptly came down with strangles after I got her, but she recovered and we had a few lovely years together.  She was a wise and willing mare, and would do just about anything I asked of her, including jumping, which I don't think she'd ever done before.  She must have had some training in her past, because she did amazing sliding stops and rollbacks.  I loved her dearly and we had a very close bond.  Please ignore the bad tack and bad equitation and the lack of a helmet - I never had any instruction in riding at all until I went to college and made do with books and experience:



It was amazing she could jump at all, considering how I was lying on her neck.

She didn't have the best conformation, but that didn't matter to either of us:




This is my favorite photo of her - it really captures her intelligent and sweet personality:


I got to ride some other horses at the place Snow was boarded - I believe this is an appendix QH - I spent every free minute at the barn (and look at that primitive helmet - a steel cap - no lining - with velvet over the top):


We moved when I was 17 and my parents sold Snow - no one asked my opinion. I didn't own a horse of my own again for many years.  In college, I did ride - 7 to 10 hours a week - the school had a stable of lesson horses of all sorts.  And we had a drill team, and occasional performances and horse shows - often on parents' weekends or during commencement week.

Here is Kale, a TB I often rode and a real sweetheart:




And Sundown, a draft cross - that year we did drill team with no stirrups:



And another little high-strung mare I rode in a bareback class at the year-end show at college:


The clothes aren't much better - it is the 70s after all - but my equitation is improving a bit with some instruction.  I'm struck by how braced many of the horses look - they'd been trained to carry themselves poorly with their heads up and necks inverted, and I didn't know any better.

After college, and graduate school, and working, and marriage, I had two daughters, and they decided they should ride horses - I rode a few times when we went to dude ranches, and then when my daughters started taking lessons in the mid-90s, almost 20 years after I'd stopped riding after college, one thing led to another and in 1997 I got Noble - some of you may remember him - he died in 2010 at the good old age of 30.  Norman the pony came into our life at about the same time, and he's still with us and enjoying his retirement.

And then there were more horses . . . and more horses . . .

So, if you're a horse person, I guess you're always a horse person . . .

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Canter Happy

Red and I are finally cantering again, after many months of (repeated) time off and slow rehab from first, his splint bone surgery on his left hind, and then, second, the injury and reinjury to his other hind ankle.  His transitions to canter have been just plain lovely - all I have to do is feel the new rhythm and he just steps off.  And today, he was having such a good time cantering - we're only doing it for short periods - that it was hard to get him to stop and every time I increased the energy at walk or trot, he wanted to canter again.  Guess he's feeling pretty good about it, which is great.  We're working to improve his fitness and reduce his weight - lots of trotting - and I'm hoping there'll be lots more great cantering in our future.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Creating the Soft Spot, Part VI: Riding in Five Dimensions: Time and Energy

Now we get to the stuff that's even harder to describe . . . and a few exercises to do without/with a horse that may help clarify some of this.

Time is about motion through space, together, and about other things too - timing, speed over distance, and fundamentally, about rhythm.  It all comes down to connection - you and the horse being continuously present with and to each other.  This requires attention and focus - almost entirely from you - if you offer it, the horse will take it up.  Anyone who says their horse is distracted or not paying attention is really saying something about him or herself.  All horses will notice things, and even react or spook, but if the horse and you are connected, things come right back and you both just continue on with what you were doing.  If you're present with and to your horse, you're shaping, not reacting/correcting - this puts you ahead of the curve, in a leadership position.

Feeling rhythm can be very powerful, and when you connect it with your breathing, that's even more powerful.  Try a simple exercise - walk along and try to breathe in, and out, in a particular number of steps - notice how this makes you pay attention to the rhythm of your feet, and your breath, at the same time.  Breathing properly also relaxes you, and the horse, and you'll find you'll no longer get out of breath - getting out of breath usually means one of two things - you're partially holding your breath and aren't getting enough air - think how that ragged breathing must feel to the horse! - or that you're using a lot of muscular effort - braces/blocks, anyone?

Exhales can be effectively used for effort - either an upwards or downwards transition - they can be used as a back-up "aid" to feeling the rhythm of a new gait in yourself.  That's how I do all my transitions - but this can't be separated from energy, which we'll mention below.  When riding, try to connect with the 1-2-3-4 of walk, the 1-2 of trot, and the 1-2-3 of canter, and really feel them in your body as well as your mind (don't say "walk", "trot", or "canter" in your mind, think the rhythm - horses don't think in words, they think in feel and rhythm).  Do the same breathing out for a number of steps/breathing in exercise when on horseback - one big advantage is it keeps you from holding your breath, which the horse can feel and which creates a brace. When you can really connect with that feel, you'll discover that you can easily change gaits by simply changing the rhythm in yourself and offering that to the horse.  I often "pre-signal" - just for a second - the new gait in myself and then exhale for the exact timing of the transition. This also works great for getting beautiful square halts from any gait.

Energy is an area Dawn, Red and Pie have been working on with me a lot lately - they say there's plenty of room for improvement!.  Here's another exercise to try without a horse - walk along, then break into a jog, then back to walk - paying attention to the change in energy level in your body.  A very powerful thing to do with your horse is to offer the horse (in addition to a rhythm change if you're changing gaits) the change of energy, up or down, as a way to assist with shortening/lengthening within a gait as well as transitions between gaits.  You're not doing anything with your body at all - just feeling the greater/lesser energy in yourself and making that available to the horse.

This is all part of doing whatever you're doing, yourself in your body and mind with the horse - the feel of it - rather than simply applying cues to the outside of the horse and expecting the horse to do the rest.

A couple of my favorite exercises:
  • Work with your horse on getting longer/shorter strides within a gait by simply changing the energy level in yourself - also feel the longer/shorter strides in your own body.  No rein/seat/leg aids and no chirping/clucking.
  • Work on "momentary transitions" - where the horse does the new gait for a specific number of strides and then goes back to the original gait, and then back again, etc. - this one requires a change of energy as well as a new gait rhythm at each transition.  You can actually get to the point with this, very slightly changing the energy, where you can just get a subtle hesitation rather than a full gait change.  It's good practice, once you and the horse are on the same page with this, to mix things up - subtle change, then bigger change, then full gait change - so you're not drilling or creating a predictable pattern.
These two exercises can do wonders for improving your active attention/connection.  This is all about, not doing things to the outside of the horse, but doing things together with the horse, from the inside of you.  I increasingly find that traditional mechanical cues really aren't necessary - if you and the horse are feeling each other the change of rhythm and energy is right there, accessible to both of you.

One thing I've been working on a lot lately is not being abrupt, particularly in changing the energy level - the two exercises above will tell you a lot about what you're doing, and how smooth you are with the changes.  Dialing up and down smoothly, and not overshooting/undershooting with the energy changes, are how smooth transitions happen.  And Dawn, Red and Pie add: "don't look at your horse's head and neck!" - all that does is drive the energy down and disrupt the flow.

Very exciting and wonderful stuff . . . I'm just scratching the surface - hope I've managed to convey some of it . . .