Twenty-Five Days

Anyone who knows me, or has been following my blog, knows that I’ve been working for years toward having my horses at home with me. This has not been an easy task, and involved having to completely renovate and sell our city house (still not accomplished, but almost there), buy a suitable little farm close enough to the city that I could still commute to my job (not at all a simple proposition, as farm land in the area where we wanted to live rarely comes up for sale), and then build the perfect little barn for my two horses (who have never actually lived in the same place).

Well, somehow, we managed to make almost everything happen (like I said, city house is still not on the market, but that’s our next goal)! On Saturday, December tenth, Sunny and Stella came home. The process of preparing the site, building the barn and fencing off the winter paddock was long, arduous, roller-coaster ride of a process. My husband, my father-in-law, and my step-father built it from the ground up with their own hands, and were hampered the entire time by relentless rain, high winds, and a water problem that just wouldn’t go away. There were days when I felt it would never be finished, and days when I started to question whether we’d made the right choices. But on that day, twenty-five days after the first post went in the ground, when my horses got to enjoy their new home together for the first time, I knew that it had all been worth it.

Day 1:

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Day 25:

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The struggle isn’t over. In fact it has just begun, of course. Currently there is no water or electricity in the barn, and the tack room hasn’t been built yet, so everything needs to be shuttled by hand (including feed and water) from the house. Sunny is a hard-to-keep senior with what I can only describe as early stage dementia some days, and Stella is a saucy pony who gets fat on air but still feels she’s entitled to every scrap of food in existence, so even their day-to-day feeding arrangements are a challenge. We’re at the beginning of the worst time of year in Nova Scotia (temperatures can go from twenty below to ten above in a matter of hours, leading to a freeze-thaw cycle that just won’t quit), and currently Sunny has an absolute hissy-fit if I even think about taking Stella 30 feet outside the paddock to the riding ring.

And despite all of these things, I cannot even begin to express how absolutely blessed I feel to have this farm, and these horses in my back yard. Even the worst day, with them at home, is better than the best day with them somewhere else.

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I have so many plans and hopes for the upcoming year, but my only real resolution is to remember, no matter what, that my dream has come true, and that everything else is just the sugar on top.

Happy 2017 to all of my followers. May you keep dreaming big, and may all of those dreams come true.

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Peat moss for the win.

So it just occurred to me that I never updated you on Sunny’s problematic knee rubs. The solution was actually pretty simple – we switched her bedding to peat moss.

Now, I know some of you are wrinkling your nose and saying “Ewwww. I hate peat moss. It never looks clean”. Well, that’s how I used to feel about peat moss too, until I used it. Peat moss makes the softest, most cushion-y bed your horse will ever sleep on. Its dust particles are too big to cause any kind of respiratory problem for horses (and it is also the most absorbent of the beddings, so it virtually eliminates any ammonia smell). Once you get used to mucking it out, it’s actually easier than shavings or straw, and if you put aside your feelings about how “dark” it looks, there’s really no reason not to use it, especially for a horse like Sunny.

The first morning after bedding her stall in with peat moss, she woke up covered in peat from head to toe – which brought tears of joy to my eyes, because it meant that for the first time in who knows how long, she had a good night’s sleep. Since that day, there have been no more rubs on her knees or fetlocks… so I’m calling it a win.

Now that Sunny feels comfortable lying down (and being able to get back up), she has become a different horse. She’s more relaxed, she spends more time wandering happily around her paddock, and she’s even started putting some weight back on. I snapped this picture of her yesterday, one month before her 24th birthday. I think she’s looking good, for an old girl. Don’t you think?

sunny

 

Duct Tape for the Win.

Sunny is what I would call accident-prone. If there is any possible way that she can hurt herself, she will do it. It’s not usually life-threatening, or even very serious, but she’s the kind of horse that could cut herself in a padded stall.

So the first time I noticed an odd little nick on her front left fetlock, I wasn’t overly concerned. I did what I always do – cleaned it out, put on a little purple spray, and forgot about it. The next day, she came in with two of these nicks – one on each fetlock. Same routine. By the third day, they had become full-blown open sores, and I started to get worried. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. She lives in a very safe stall, with a very safe paddock, and there was nothing I could find that would be causing these injuries.

Capture2

So, I did what any responsible horse owner would do – I took to the internet in search of “what causes sores on fronts of fetlocks”.

Well, as it turns out, the problem is in the way she’s lying down. Actually, more to the point, in the way she’s getting up. Now, Sunny’s no spring chicken. She’s twenty-three this year, and has a lot of arthritis in her poor old hocks and knees, so it’s not surprising that she has a bit of a hard time getting up and down. We filled her stall up with more bedding (on top of her rubber mat), and hoped that would do the trick. Of course, it didn’t. Sunny’s stall opens up into her paddock, and she is free to come and go as she pleases. Since she wasn’t necessarily lying down inside, filling up her stall might not have any effect at all.

My barn owner, Darlene, and I wracked our brains to try to figure out a way to protect Sunny’s fetlocks. Because we didn’t know if she was doing it at night or in the daytime, and because she spends most of her time outdoors, standing bandages weren’t an option. She was already wearing bell boots almost 24/7 because of some shoeing changes we were in the midst of making, but they didn’t cover the area where Sunny was getting injured…

And then it hit me. Sure, her bell boots didn’t protect her in their proper application. But turned upside down, they provided all the coverage Sunny needed to keep her fetlocks wound-free. An easy fix, as well as a great conversation piece whenever someone visited the barn (interesting side note – people for the most part are oddly apprehensive about pointing out that your horse’s boots have been put on completely upside down).

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Problem solved. Or so we thought. Within a matter of days, the sores began reappearing, this time on her knees. We were back to the old drawing board, except a little worse off than before because, well, have you ever tried finding a way to protect a horse’s knee without bandaging it? Especially a horse who basically lives outside? Not so easy.

Again I took to the internet, and found a few different options. One was these cool “socks for horses”, but it turns out the ones that are good for covering wounds don’t go up over their knees, and the ones that go up over their knees aren’t good for covering wounds. Another idea, which I thought was ridiculous and would never work, was covering the wound with duct tape. And the third option, pricey but appealing, was a pair of Back on Track knee boots.

So I temporarily used the duct tape method, and immediately ordered a pair of Back on Tracks from Amazon. I was very interested in how whether they could pull double duty, protecting her knees while at the same time providing a little heat therapy for her arthritic old legs. Well, I was right one one count.

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The moment I put them on, I could tell Sunny liked them. She got a soft, dreamy look in her eye, and began to lick and chew the same way she does when I’m scratching her favourite itchy spot on her belly. Happy with my new purchase, I turned her out with them on, and asked Darlene to take them off when she came out to do night check. Which she did. Although they weren’t actually covering Sunny’s knees anymore by night check. They had made their way down around her ankles, and were protecting nothing.

Back to Google, to search “how to keep Back on Track knee boots from sliding down”…

Almost every review I read about these boots talked about the fact that they were hard to keep from sliding down, and the preferred method of holding them up seemed to be standing wraps. Which we had already established that we were uncomfortable using. The next day I made a trip to our local Greenhawk store and purchased a nice pair of Stretch & Flex wraps. We then applied the knee boots to her knees, and the Stretch & Flex wraps underneath to hold them up. Which looked great…

 

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But, of course, by the next morning they had slipped down quite a bit. And since it’s been snowing, and they’ve been getting wet, they’ve been slipping down even more, to the point where the knee boots are once again down around her ankles most mornings. We even tried putting the Back on Track boots on upside down, which had been suggested as a possible way to make them stay up, but to no avail.

Then I thought back to that couple of days while I was waiting for the Back on Track boots to arrive. I remembered that the duct tape method, which had sounded so sketchy to me at first, had actually worked. I mean, it wasn’t pretty… but it had worked. So yesterday morning, I got out my duct tape, gauze and scissors, and fashioned Sunny the prettiest little duct tape knee protectors I could. All of the folks in the internet forums had suggestion cutting two long strips and applying them in an X shape over the gauze. So that’s what I did.

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And you know what? It kinda works! Once again proving the following three truths that are known to horse owners the world over:

  1. There aren’t many problems for which duct tape isn’t a viable solution;
  2. Sometimes less really is more;
  3. Make it in pink and mare owners will buy it.

Have you ever had a horse with knee sores? How did you treat them?

 

Cold Day, Warm Bit

So, since we’re in the grips of (another) huge winter storm today, it seems like the perfect time to talk about bits. In particular, cold bits (and how to warm them up).

Some horses don’t care so much about cold bits. This is not true of my precious pony, Stella. The mere thought of me putting that cold piece of metal in her dainty little mouth is enough to send her running to the back of her stall with her jaw clamped shut.

There are a few ways to make a cold bit warm. Run it under hot water. Breathe on it. Hold it in your warm hands (which will, of course, end up turning your previously warm hands into two blocks of ice).

Bit Warmer on BridleFortunately, my friend Heather (mother of Dee, Stella’s best friend and paddock-mate) came to my rescue with this wonderful little bit warmer that she made herself.

It’s a small rectangular fabric pouch, filled with rice, with ends that snap together. Honestly, it’s just about the best thing since sliced bread (and super-cute to boot).

You just pop it in the microwave for one minute, then snap it on to your bit. Leave it there while you finish grooming and putting on your saddle, then remove it just before bridling.

Philip Warm Bit

Since Stella was enjoying a day off, I tested it out on Philip. I think he was happy to have his bit warmed up. So, will warming the bit make your horses go better? Maybe not. But it might make them a little happier to be bridled, which means maybe (just maybe) your ride starts out a little better.

So, how do you warm your horse’s bit up on a cold day?

The Baby Bug

Well, it’s official, and all my fabulous followers get to hear the news first:

I just signed the breeding contact. Stella’s going to be a mommy!

Her baby-daddy? The Westfalen stallion, Freestyle (Florestan X SPS Paloma):

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http://www.dreamscapefarm.com
www.dreamscapefarm.com
http://www.dreamscapefarm.com
www.dreamscapefarm.com
http://www.dreamscapefarm.com

My vet’s on board, my coach is on board, even my husband’s on board, and I’m beyond excited. Stella’s such a beautiful pony, and I just know she’s going to make a beautiful baby. And better yet, I think she’s going to like being a mom. I think it will make her happy. My vet says she’s a sweet pony, and she’ll pass that on to her baby.

Stella one day old
Stella, 1 Day Old
Sunny one day old
Sunny, 1 Day Old

So, in April, Stella will move to my friend, Holly’s farm. Holly has done a lot of breeding so it’s nice to know that she’ll be there along the way to help. We’ve tentatively chosen May 13th as the breeding date. It’s a Wednesday and my vet says he prefers breeding on a Wednesday. And it’s the closest Wednesday to the 10th of May, which will be the one year anniversary of my meeting Stella for the first time. So I’m hoping that date brings us some luck.

While we’re doing all of the waiting that comes along with breeding (waiting to see if we’re in foal, waiting for the foal to be born, waiting for weaning), my husband and I will be hard at work getting our house in the city renovated and sold so we can move to the country and build our little farm. Then, after our little baby is weaned, the most exciting day of my life will come: Stella, and my sweet old paint mare, Sunny, will move home to my back yard and finally get to be sisters. Sunny can have the best friend she’s been longing for since my old gelding (and her old best friend) Nico passed away, and Stella can get back to being my adorable little dressage pony.

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The next couple of years are going to be a roller coaster, for sure. And rather than wish the days away until Stella’s foal is born, I’m going to try to remember to savour every moment.

Please keep your fingers crossed for Stella (and send us some baby-dust around the middle of May)!

Hmmm… is it okay to have a baby shower for a pony?

In Praise of Winters Off

I’ve been fortunate enough, for the past several years, to ride at a stable with an indoor arena. I was not always so lucky. Throughout my entire childhood and young adulthood, we kept our horses at home, with no indoor. We stopped riding when the ground started to freeze (usually mid-October or so, although some years we were lucky enough to be able to keep going through to November), and, with the exception of the occasional snowy hack, or the traditional Christmas Eve ride, we started back up on April first (no matter the weather). This day was always circled on my calendar. It was the most exciting day of the year.

Now that I have use of an indoor, sometimes I look back on those days and think about how my riding life has changed. Year-round riding, not needing to leg horses up in the spring, not losing everything we’d worked so hard all year to improve… But the funny thing is, I don’t ever remember wishing for an indoor arena back in those days. That was just the way it was, and besides, there were plenty of non-mounted horse-related projects to be completed in the winter, and if the horses didn’t have a few months off, when would those projects get done?

Filou January 2013

It wasn’t like my horses didn’t improve back then. In fact, within my group of peers at the time, I don’t really see that there was a big difference between horses who had the winter off and horses who kept going all year long. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re a professional, and you need to be able to ride every day, or if you show at a much higher level than I do, then yes, you probably need an indoor. But for me, as an amateur, doing training level eventing, first level dressage, and pony clubbing, not having an indoor never set me back. In fact, I wonder if my horses were actually better off by not working all winter.

First, because I didn’t need to worry about horses getting sweaty during winter workouts, they were able to go pretty much blanket-free, and grow those big wooly coats that horses who live in Canada are supposed to grow. Our horses just didn’t wear blankets indoors… ever. I think we had a few winter rugs hanging around for those days when it was 25 below, with cold wind or rain, but otherwise, they remained au naturel.

Lightning January 2013

In those days, when the horses grew real winter coats, we didn’t brush them very much. Too much currying could remove oils and hair from the coat that the horses needed to stay warm and snow-proof. We picked out their feet daily, brushed the mud off their legs (at night, after it had dried), and left the rest alone. By the time the hair was shed out in the spring, the horses’ coats always had a nice, dappled bloom. Obviously a winter of “roughing it” didn’t hurt!

Having the winter off also allowed us to give the horses’ feet a break from shoes. We usually pulled their shoes before the first snow fall, and left them off til we were sure there would be no more ice to deal with. Horses without shoes are much better able to keep themselves from sliding around, and they also never have to deal with the dreaded ice build-up that you get with shod horses in winter. Having a few months off from shoes really seemed to lead to a healthier hoof for most of our horses (and gave a little relief to the pocketbook as well!).

Another up-side to some down-time is that sometimes we all just need a breather. A little bit of a break. Time to re-charge, to re-define our goals, to sit by a warm fire with our feet up, daydreaming about next show season, while our horses contentedly munch on hay in their snow-covered paddocks.

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See, here’s the thing. Back in the days when the horses had winters off, there are a few things that I don’t remember having to deal with, like mystery lamenesses, ulcers, rider burn-out, horse burn-out, schooling boredom, or unproductive rides when it was minus 10 in the arena and I was just too cold to be effective.

My horses and I had a fresh start every spring. Their lungs were clear and their limbs were sound after a winter of playing in the snow. Their minds were fresh, and so was mine. There was a clear-cut beginning and end to the riding season. It was easy to set goals, and there was plenty of time in between for re-hashing what went wrong last season, and figuring out how to make it right.

Q Dressage Test

I’m not saying that having an indoor arena, or working horses year round, is a bad thing. I’m just saying that if you’re among the many who don’t have this privilege, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of reasons why winters off might just be a blessing in disguise!

The U Word?

After Tuesday’s bucking bronco debacle, I wasn’t too keen on putting a saddle back on Stella anytime soon. It was very obvious to me that there was something about it that she couldn’t tolerate, and I was really starting to second guess whether or not her new saddle really did fit her. In my heart of hearts I really didn’t believe that to be true. I’d been so careful about the fit, and had tried so many saddles that didn’t fit, I felt certain this one did. But the difference between “pony with saddle” and “pony without saddle” was so obvious, I started tentatively (and half-heartedly) thinking about another saddle shopping excursion.

Wylie hadn’t been at the barn the last time I’d lunged Stella, so I went back out on Wednesday so I could show her see how things were looking. While I groomed, Stella was definitely still showing signs of a sort stomach, swinging her head back with a stern look whenever I touched behind her elbows, or around her sternum. This gave me a little bit of hope about the saddle fit – there was still absolutely no pain anywhere along her back or loins.

I took her out without her saddle, and it was pretty obvious that the pain was not saddle-related. My poor pony, who had stunned me with her beautiful, forward, flowing trot the first time I met her, was now not even tracking up. She looked dejected, her eye seemed troubled, and she was short-strided and tight in front and behind. The way she was “holding” her belly (you could see her ab muscles working to try to keep the belly still) made it very clear. This was not saddle pain. This was a gut issue. Wylie said, “she’s getting weirder”. And that was the truth.

I took her temperature, pulse & respiration (all normal). She was eating, drinking and pooping. This was not colic. This could be… gulp… the dreaded U word. I fed her a treat (yes, I know. No treats for Stella. But if there was any time for an exception to the rule, this was it) and tucked her in. I felt horrible. It was killing me to see my pony in such pain.

Friday afternoon, the vet came. He did a quick examination (during which she almost bit him when he touched her sternum area). Not surprisingly, the pain response seemed as bad as, if not worse than the last time he’d seen her almost a week and a half earlier. If you recall, at that point, we’d suspected ovary pain, or some sort of heat-related issue. Obviously that was not the case.

He asked to see her lunged first without the saddle, then with. I brought her out to the arena and sent her out on the end of the lunge line. She immediately exploded and started bucking. So things had gotten worse (last time I lunged her without tack she was definitely not bucking). She also demonstrated her short-stridedness, as well as a new tendency she’d developed of, post-explosion, lowering her head and shaking it as she trotted along.

We took her back to her stall to put her saddle on (which almost killed me. I couldn’t believe I was doing the thing to her that hurt her most… again. But we had to get to the bottom of it, so I petted her, apologized, and did up the girth). She was obviously not happy with the process. I had a bad feeling about taking her back out into the arena tacked up. Nonetheless, off we went, me and my little trouper of a pony. As soon as I tried to move her out away from me, she spun to face me and started running backwards. This was not going to happen. I couldn’t bear it any longer. I looked at my vet and he said “Take the saddle off. I don’t need to see any more.”

When I took the saddle off, Stella seemed a little more comfortable, but she had a dull, pained look in her eye and she just seemed… tired. Like she was waaaaaay over this. I scratched her forehead and fussed with her forelock and ears and she leaned her head into me. It was time to fix this.

We started her right away on Gastroguard, an orally-administered paste which should reduce the production of stomach acid. According to my vet, if the issue really is ulcers, she should start to feel relief in about three days, with peak-effectiveness at the five day mark. As you can imagine, I’m counting down the hours until my pony starts to feel better. At this point, I’m actually hoping it is an ulcer, because at least then we can get to work on healing it. And if it’s not, then we don’t know what the heck it is, and I just need this pony’s pain to stop!

It used to be that people thought only race horses got ulcers. Now, however, there is quite a bit of research to show that they can be caused by as little as the act of exposing horses to weekend show conditions. If I think of all of the changes Stella has been through since I got her last summer, it really wouldn’t be surprising if she had developed one as well:

* For the first six years of her life she lived a low-stress life, mostly outside, with her herd

* Her first trip off her farm was a three hour trailer ride to a brand new barn, leaving her herd behind

* Three months later we moved to her current barn, including some fairly intense trailer loading training, another trailer ride, and another new herd of friends to get used to (plus, for the first time, being stabled at night and out in a paddock during the day)

* Her training started in ernest a month ago, when we finally found a saddle to fit her

* She moved to a new paddock a little over three weeks ago, with a new paddock mate and a new group of friends

This little mare has been through more changes in the past five months than many horses go through in years.  So if ulcers really can be brought on by stress and change, then it would be no surprise to find that she had one. I think that some horses are much more capable of handling changes than others, and having spent six years of her life with very few changes to begin with probably made it all the more traumatic for Stella. She is a surprisingly sensitive little horse, and it’s entirely possible that this was all just a little too much for her.

If ulcers are truly the problem, then it will become my mission in life to bring Stella along to her full potential with as little stress as possible. She will require constant, careful monitoring and some small adjustments to her lifestyle, but I know we’ll be able to make it work.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s had a horse with ulcers (success stories only, please – no nightmare scenarios!). What did you do to manage your ulcer-prone horse?