Saturday, January 8, 2011

Venus’ trip to Hassler Dressage

Ah, Venus. I started this blog two weeks ago, right after we got back, and every time I decide I need to work on this blog, suddenly the laundry needs my attention, or the dog needs played with, or some other distraction comes up. Distraction is my favorite way to deal with things that I am uncertain about.  And Venus, well, her training has left me lots of room for uncertainty. Distraction has delayed this blog three weeks (but has also gotten my part of year-end paperwork done, so it’s not all bad…) , but this week I saw hope, and yesterday I felt a few minutes of WOW, so quick, while I’m feeling inspired, I’ll get this blog done.

I talked about Venus’ background in this 2009 blog, back before “the accident.”  I bought her as a 2-year old because frankly, I had one too many training horses sold about the time they were getting fun.  I wanted a horse of my own to bring up the levels.  She has the most amazing hind end, but it came with an insecure personality.  With Scott’s help, I got her confident and swinging.   I started to dream.  

As a 5-and 6-year-old, I showed her often, as she really needed the mileage, and she rewarded my perseverance with a pretty red ribbon from Dressage at Devon in 2008. My dreams were starting to look a little like hope. I decided to keep her home for 2009 to train, with hopes of the young horse PSG class her 8-year-old year.  

Well, with horses, nothing is certain.

In June of 2009 she got quite grumpy about her training, so we pulled a Lyme’s titer, and sure enough, she got to eat doxicyclene for 6 weeks. I kept her out on the hills three times a week for the duration.  About Christmastime she got strong and really rocking in her training, so I started to dream again. Maybe the Young Horse PSG class as a 9-year-old then, I thought.  

Venus had other plans.  In late February, “the accident” happened.  She tried to jump out of the indoor arena and did didn’t quite make it (why did free schooling her seem like such a good idea that day?).  We finally got all that sorted out and rehabbed, then in September she had yet another break from work due to an abscess/twisted ankle (things are rarely black and white with horses).

So now we are here, in December, and she is very obediently doing all of her work, but I’m not pleased with the quality.  It is just not what I was feeling before “the accident.” I feel like her back doesn’t have the swing it used to have, and when I ask for more power, she hovers behind my leg and bounces up-and-down in her hindquarters instead of swinging her back and lifting her shoulders.  Of course, everyone tells me she looks great, but heck, her trot has gotten easy to sit and the canter has brakes--this isn’t my red-hot-firecracker chestnut.  I know I’m not riding my best horse, or at least my best horse before her dramatic injury. I worry that there’s still some pain somewhere, or maybe this is all she has in her now. Not a happy mental place for me at all.

Whenever I have this kind of this-horse-is-not-right-is-it-from-discomfort-or-training, my vet, Dr. Crowley’s advice is usually to “really work them, and they’ll either break or get better.”  So my plan is to pretend I don’t know her history, and have Scott help me sort out the training issues.  Then be a good dressage queen and do my homework for the next few weeks, and see if dressage can work some physical therapy magic.   If she’s not better by our annual coggins appointment the first week in February, then I’ll re-think my plan.

So, armed with that, I take head down to Scott’s for 3 days. 

He listens to my laundry list of vague she’s-just-not-right whining, and agrees with me that she’s not using her body like she used to. His term is “stale in the back,” and that pretty much nails it on the head. He thinks the problem is a lack of suppleness in the back.  So we devise a plan for day one – lots of sweeping, flowing leg yields, and then play with transitions within the gait, ridden with a slightly lower, rounder neck .

We go sideways, and not much really changes.  I put the aids on, and nothing happens. She is blowing me off.  I might as well be sitting ringside for all the notice she is giving me.  So I increase the volume-we go really sideways, and she gets fussier in the bridle.  Then we go sideways, compress, sideways, and she gets REALLY fussy in the bridle. So we blast forward, and she gets all strung-out and running.  So we go to canter, and I can feel her hind end bouncing up behind me, jarring my lower back each canter stride.  Her hind legs hover behind me in every half halt, and she won’t even stay on the bit.  This is not working.

So Scott pulls out the in-hand whip.  Venus, of course, is already angry, so she ignores the in hand whip completely, until the pressure is enough that she kicks out a few times. Then she begins to lower her hips just a tiny, tiny bit. So we end there. 

As we discuss the ride, Scott still feels the problem is in her back.  We decide that tomorrow, we’ll skip the sideways and start with in-hand work. 

Day two comes, and Scott comes out with the in-hand whip, but as we begin, the training heads in other directions.  She has more swing in her back than day one, and she is acknowledging the half halts, but about half of the time she is either coming behind the contact or bracing into the right rein.  We have to address the connection. 

We go with her usual mix-up-the-work routine (shoulder in, straighten, haunches in, compress, go out, lather, rinse repeat), but add slow flexions, asking her to yield each side of her neck, to the mix.  She does some tail wringing, and fussy face stuff, then I start to feel more life in her back.  Scott pulls out the in-hand whip, and she shows us a hint of her talent. 

Day three comes, and Scott adds one more aid to the mix. He has me use my calf to add power/volume to the trot and canter, without changing the tempo or the direction.  It helped, and her back started to move a tiny bit more than the day before.  I even felt her start to chew the bit a little.  But still not the Venus I had before “the accident.”

So we packed up and headed home, me with decidedly mixed feelings. I was, of course, delighted with Secret, but bummed about Venus.  I was beginning to wonder if this was all she had in her now.  Not a good mental place to be.

The following Wednesday, Fred, from Custom Saddlery was due out, and with my new “sponsored rider” status, I thought it was time for Venus to get her own saddle.  When she was off work for her injury, I had her saddle fitted to Silly, who has been going super in it.  Since returning to work, Venus has been going in borrowed equipment. Fred did some measurements, and pulled out several saddles for us to try.  Four models later, I climbed into the Flight, which gave me a whole new feel for her back.  She, of course, started wringing her tail and fussing with the bit, which I couldn’t decide if it was good or bad. So I asked Fred if I could borrow the demo over the holidays.

About four rides into the new saddle, I noticed a definite difference to her canter.  The right lead in particular was much more up-hill and organized. When she backed off, I could push her back up to the bridle without a fight.  It wasn’t perfect, but definitely better.

So now I was beginning to think some of Venus’ training problems were just that, training problems, from me working on my own with her for too long, combined with less-than-ideal saddle fit.  I wasn’t sure when and if I should bring her out of the rounder frame, or where to go next with her. So I sent an e-mail to Jann, who schedules Scott’s time, begging for an early January lesson.

Monday Dr. Blakeslee, the vet chiropractor, was out for Venus' routine treatment. She commented on her sore left gluteus muscles, and then worked on her back.  Venus wasn’t particularly sore in her back, just immobile. After a few pops and tweaks, Venus’ trot looked much more expressive.  

Wednesday I took her down to Scott’s. We had a rough trip down – someone pulled out in front of me and I’m sure Venus sat down on the butt bar when I slammed on the brakes.  She started the lesson pissy and behind my leg, so I pushed her forward.  Scott had me push her again, and again, little short burst forward, until I felt her back release as she went forward.  Then, to prevent her getting long and running, he had me halt and praise her. Then back to work.  We only had to do this a couple of times, and she understood, and became a much more willing partner.
He thought she looked much more free and solid in the work than 2 ½ weeks before, and felt that I should continue with same work. He felt it may take until Feb for me to feel happy with where she is.  He also said she looked quite acceptable, and if he hadn’t known how she moved before “the accident,” he would be happy with her work.  For moments, at the end, we both saw a hint of the old Venus in the trot work.

As we brainstormed about her lack of power and enthusiasm, combined with how sound she looks, he mentioned the problem could be a bit more between her ears.  She may be a bit ring sour. She has spent the last year in various phases of rehab, and in the new barn, her stall isn’t right in the middle of the all the human activity, so she very well could be a bit bored.  The next day, I worked out a plan with Apryl to give Venus more variety in her day. 

Thursday we finally had a day that wasn’t freezing, snowing, or blowing, so I took her for a hack.

Friday, I warmed her up, and she felt awesome, especially in the canter. She was right with me in the seat and the contact, but I still wanted that fluid, flowing energy feeling she had before the accident.  Amy came in with the in-hand whip, and Venus’ half steps, always a highlight for her, were very good.  Then I trotted out from the half steps.

And there it was.

Venus let go in her back, and just floated.  We flowed from collected trot, to medium trot, to shoulder in, and it was that wonderful, connected feeling of before the accident.  Amy just stood there, jaw open.  “I now understand why you are so protective of her.”  Yep, this horse is amazing.  For five whole minutes she rocked my world again.  It’s still in there.


  1. Ange, I don't "do" horses - instead, I show dogs. I understand the nauseous feeling when you know your animal isn't moving up to snuff. Because you can't work through it verbally with them and the non-verbal world isn't our strong suit. Prayers coming your way that you and your "red mare" find that happy place and stay there for a good long time. :)

  2. Ange....I was thinking about you last night. Have you thought about massage therapy in conjunction with the chiro? I have a great CMT who works on my dogs who also does lots of horse work. She makes miracles on my dogs. And the last time I checked, dogs and horses don't have psychosomatic reactions.

  3. Oh, Dawn, believe me, Venus gets ALL of the pampering. She gets massaged twice a month, often takes naps in the magnetic blanket, lives in a Back on Track ceramic blanket, gets cryotherapy on her legs after most rides, and Adequan/Legend joint stuff each month. Life as a dressage horse is really hard :-).

    I think the problem with her training to some degree is her personality. She is a timid, fearful horse by nature. If she isn't confident, she physically pulls herself back and tightens her muscles, especially her back muscles. When training dressage, we want quick, consistent, smooth responses to our aids, which she can't give if she's locking her muscles. Her confidence directly effects her responses - I just have to be really consistent in my aids and rewards, so the training will make her more confident. At least that's the plan. So far this week it's working.

    No, horses don't have psychosomatic reactions, but they do often have trust issues. In order to ride a horse, we are essentially taking a prey animal and asking it to surrender all fight-or-flight instinct, as well as control, to the predator. Add to that the strong emotional nature of horses and dogs, and whenever I'm riding her and she's not reacting correctly, and I start worrying that there's pain somewhere in her body, she picks up on my worry, then does her back-off-and-tighten routine. (If mom's worried, you bet Venus won't let me worry alone!)

    The good news is the better I sort out these cycles in my mind, the better I am at getting Venus to let her talent out. It's a fun process. When it's not totally frustrating, that is.