February 29, 2016

Conditioning Plan: Check In

Since I published my conditioning plan, I thought it might be beneficial to see what actually happens in real life since we all know that plans rarely go off without a hitch. Let's see what I have been able to do:

Week 6: Wed ride 12 miles. Weekend ride 10 miles at a moderate to fast pace (hoping to use the Hunter Pace).  SUCCESS!

This actually happened. Wednesday I went riding for 12 miles at Croft with the BO and we set a pretty nice pace. Gem was mostly forward and happy.

That weekend was the FENCE pace and with the added mileage I was able to get in 10 miles. She put down some lovely 8 mph trots and a few canters along with a lot of hill work.

Week 5: Weeknight get in an hour of speed work at the barn including hill sets.  Weekend ride 10 miles as a moderate to fast pace.  PARTIAL SUCCESS!

I wasn't able to ride during the week at all. It poured down rain with flash flooding Monday and Tuesday and then Wednesday morning had 40+ mph winds. Thursday I had an evening work meeting and I had hoped to squeak in a ride after work Friday, but my surgeries got pushed back and I didn't finish until 5:15pm. Like every other rider out there, I can't wait for daylight savings time.

This weekend I did get in a 12 mile ride and while it wasn't anywhere near a fast pace and was only moderate for half of it, Gem did get a work out in and finished it strong.

All in all I think things are coming along pretty well. I plan to introduce the new feed next weekend and the weather looks promising to make it out to the barn hopefully one day this week. I'm still fighting darkness, but it is staying light out a little longer so I may be able to squeak in 30-45 minutes if I can get out of work a little early.

Next weekend's 20 miler is up in the air as far as location. There is a Pace scheduled at my absolute favorite place, but Dusty is running an ultra marathon that day. We could get a sitter, but the cost of the sitter plus the gas and entry fee adds up to nearly $200 and that is money that needs to go toward the endurance ride in April. Dusty tells me to still go because my whole goal was to go to every ride and earn that supporter award, but I am just not sure we have the money for it right now. Adulting at its finest.

Either way I will get my 20 miles in. If I do the pace, it will be to do it once through and then hit other trails to get the full 20 in. If I don't, I want to go to King's Mountain and do the entire 20 mile loop that I have never seen. Either way, it will be a great day on horseback.

February 23, 2016

Blog Hop: The Little Things


I love blog hops and this one is a great one! The $900 Facebook Pony asks what the little things are that make me love my mare. It comes at a great time too. I've been really taking the time to realize what it is about Gem that makes me so happy.

First and foremost, Gem taught me how to ride. Oh, I knew how to sit on a horse and go before her, but she wasn't game for that. With gem you have to ride every step of every mile or she will dump you. She made me pay attention to my aides more and really develop my independent seat. With all her hard lessons she made me the person I am today and I am forever grateful to her for that. 

If she hadn't made me work for every single achievement, I wouldn't have had to actually step back and learn theory behind it. Take trailer loading. Had she been a great loader at the start, I never would have had to learn the tricks and techniques to make her do it and now that I have worked with her she self loads like a dream.

On a less sappy note, she travels like a pro. She self loads, eats hay the entire ride, will eat mashes as ffered at rest stops, unloads and looks around like "where on earth am I now" and then settles right in on grazing and making herself at home.

You say we are in southern GA? Ok..well the hay tastes just as good here.
Gem is independent and while she does prefer company on the trail, I can load her up and go camping all alone, ride solo on new or familiar trails and even ride around the property without her looking for or calling other horses.

Room for one please
She looks fabulous in red and black tack :)

Not a whole lot more to add except getting a new red mohair girth. That would just about do it.
She is 100% honest. No drama queen fluff to deal with, but not stoic enough to work through all the pain either. She will tell me when something isn't right and I can trust her opinion.

Nothing to see here...just a lazy horse being lazy

She has self preservation. There won't be any running off a cliff or jumping a 10 foot high wall in our future and I am 100% okay with that.

My beautiful princess
She makes me laugh. Yes, sometimes it is out of pure frustration, but seriously just the thought of where we started 6 years ago and where we are now completely blows my mind. I never would have imagined myself hooking up my trailer, driving to some camp 6+ hours away where I knew nobody, setting up camp by myself and then preceding to ride 50 miles while self crewing. Ever. Yet that is what I did last year and what I plan to repeat again this spring. It is amazing and without Gem I never would have done it.
One of my favorite pictures of Gem taken during an extremely hot summer conditioning ride where she basically told me to go screw myself.

She hauls my toddler around (under supervision) and acts like a normal horse with him on board. She is darn near toddler proof in fact and doesn't even bat an eye when a bucket clad toddler plays nearby.

Hind foot resting as Wyatt plays nearby
There are so many reasons to love Gem and that make me happy that I stood by her and worked with her through all the crap she threw at me in the beginning.

February 21, 2016

FENCE Spring Hunter Pace: EDITED with Score

Lesson learned: always trust myself. When I begin not to I need to use my confidence stick on myself.

The morning dawned grey and dreary with the threat of rain mid morning. I checked the website a dozen times before heading to the barn to make sure it was still a go and, when finally satisfied, we loaded up the truck with a million snacks, toys, and clothes for Wyatt and headed out.

Gem was in rare form when I grabbed her from the pasture. She was pawing, had the whites of her eyes showing at times and even attempted a rear in the cross ties. I'm not sure what was bothering her, but after a failed attempt at grooming while she fidgeted and fussed I decided to just load her up and deal with her at the ride.

We arrived and she was much calmer when she unloaded. Who knows what got up her butt back at the barn. I registered and tacked her up as more and more trailers began to filter in. It is still odd for me to think spring in February, especially when my friends in WI are still posting ice fishing pictures, but Gem is shedding like mad and there is a different taste to the air. I yelled goodbye to Dusty and Wyatt and headed off to the start area.

Wyatt and Dusty digging in the warm up ring. When we got there Wyatt looked around and loudly proclaimed "This is my kind of place!"
The start box was empty as we wandered over. I was instructed to follow the pink and blue ribbons and that the trail was 9 miles. I've ridden here twice before and it was 9 miles each time in the past, so I, erroneously, figured it would be the same trail.

3, 2, 1.... We will keep the lights on!

Gem and I were off. We walked away from the start and hit the steeplechase track for a short distance where I asked her to trot and she obliged. Since I was riding solo I had kept her bit in and remembered to grab the dressage whip aka confidence stick a term I have stolen from Liz! Gem picked up a lovely 8 mph trot which had me grinning from the start.

I really dislike the beginning of this ride. You ride out the driveway, cross a busy two lane road and go under two highway overpasses where the cars and trucks just fly overhead. As we were making our way alongside the busy road I recalled that I had never ridden this alone. Dusty and Pete joined me the one year and Haley was with me this fall. Gem was hyper aware, but moved forward willingly and I believe we were both equally happy when we turned off the shoulder and went down the driveway to the cross country course.

I need to get pictures of this because it is a full blown cross country course with a lovely water complex, but Gem is such a freak that I never have a free hand. Today was no exception. She HATES cross country jumps and spooks and bolts and stops all through the field. She nearly dumped me three times in a very short period and I was very focused on her.

The cross country field has also been notorious for getting people lost. In the past we have come across riders doing the entire ride backwards because of the cc course portion. I followed the ribbons and arrows being aware of this tendency and only relaxed once we hit the woods on the far side.
Gem was flying through this section and was feeling great. She was putting down 8 mph miles with ease and forward, happy ears and I was just humming to myself and enjoying the day.

Heading into the woods after the cc course

One of two creek crossings. Gem stopped to play in the water, but didn't drink. I think if there had been a water crossing later in the ride, she would have greedily sucked it down. 

At 2.25 miles and 22 minutes I arrived back at the cc course and saw that the trail went back down the busy road towards the barn. In the past, the trail did this and then you were finished a mile later.

Crap! I must have missed trail. We always spend the majority of the ride on this side of the property. I milled around the driveway entrance looking very confused and was debating what to do when a trio of female riders came up. I asked if they knew this ride, told them that I was worried I missed trail and asked what they knew. Their response? "Ride your own ride"

Excuse me? Wow. I hope you fall off.

Coming out of the woods and back at the cc course. Hmmm....
I decided that doubling up was better than missing a bunch of trail and turned around to see where in the cc course I made my error. I called Dusty and asked if he could find out what I did wrong, but nobody back there knew anything at all.

Letting Gem graze while I decided what to do

Going back around a second time
Surprisingly, Gem was happy to redo the loop and went striding out back into the cc course and while she was still an idiot about it, she was better behaved this time which let me really focus on the markings. These ended up taking me the exact same way and 2.25 more miles later, I saw the cc course again.

The darn cc course again
At this point it seemed silly to do the same thing a third time and I figured I'd just go in and tell them I was terribly lost and confused. Well, it turns out I should have just trusted myself and kept following the darn ribbons because the trail went right past the barn and out on trails I had never seen before. Stupid lack of confidence strikes again.

Gem was still in a good mood, but was much more aware of her surroundings on these new trails. The weather continued to be cloudy and the humidity soared to a sweat inducing 86%, but thankfully there was a cold head wind to keep us both cool.

We passed a herd of curious cows and Gem slowed, but kept moving forward like a brave girl
The trails on this side were wonderful. Loads of hills, mostly double wide tracks and all in the woods. Gem was a bit pokey and required more nagging to keep up the pace, but all in all she maintained a nice forward momentum.
Beautiful trails with beautiful footing just screaming to move out
The hills kept coming and they kept getting steeper. Gem started to ask to walk and I let her. After downloading the data, there was 1,000 feet of gain and the entire second half of the ride was a general uphill trend. No wonder she got tired!
Elevation profile from the Garmin. Some steep ascents, but a general uphill trend on the second half.

Lots of uphill climbs through the woods

Going up again...or should I say still?
We finally reached the halfway point and waited out the 3 minute hold. The trail from here followed a pretty lake. At one point I asked Gem to canter and jumped into a lovely 14 mph, balanced canter that made me laugh out loud. It was so wonderful to eat up the trail like that with a horse I love under me.

Lake coming into view

We even saw some geese alongside the lake. Gem could have cared less about them

Too amazing to not fly. This is right before we picked up the canter.

A few more climbs later and the barn was in sight below us once again. My watch read 9.5 miles (about 11 miles in real life) and 1:54 as we crossed the finish line. I apologized to Gem for adding the second loop on, but was glad for the extra miles.

Looking down at the barns and show grounds with the steeplechase in the foreground

The road system Wyatt and Dusty built before they needed the warm up ring to park extra trailers
She looked great at the end, but was definitely tired. She scarfed down her mash and then took a nap while we ate our lunch. I am still planning on changing up her feed to add oats, but she is feeling and looking good on the TC Senior and I love how shiny her coat is getting. I can't wait until she sheds out for the year. She is going to be gorgeous.

Messy mare face

Looking good. Still want to tack on a few pounds, but keeping her in work will help a lot to build muscle and not just fat

Two happy, and very matchy, competitors

As I turned her back out in her pasture, I noticed that she has some gray under her eyes and on her muzzle that wasn't there last year. I looked at Dusty and remarked how she is finally becoming a horse I can do most anything on and that I adore and now she is going to get old on me. Still, she looks amazing for nearly 18 and I made sure to give her an extra big hug and a thanks for everything she does for me.

I'm not too excited to see the ride results. I know we won't be in the running having added those miles on although part of me wonders that if we hadn't we may have come in way too fast.

EDIT: So we totally would have kicked major butt had I not second guessed myself and redid the first loop. Darn!!! We ended up coming in too slow by 33 minutes which was roughly the amount of time I wasted trying to figure out what to do and then redoing the loop and once again figuring out what to do and taking it easy back to base to waste a bit of time. Shoot. Oh well...live and learn. Course time was 1:23 and we came in at 1:56.

February 19, 2016

Working Hard

How could there only be 6 weekends between now and our endurance ride? Where did the time go??

Wednesday was Wyatt's gymnastics show and I took the day off work. The hunter pace had been canceled last weekend due to the cold weather and I really needed to get Gem out again, so I used the morning to go ride.

The BO wanted to come with us to start getting her eventer back into shape for the show season and she even offered to drive! It felt so odd to sit in the passenger seat to the trail head. I can't remember the last time I didn't trailer out myself.

Blue skies? What is this madness?

Tuesday night had brought low temps and rain and the BO, spoiling my horses to the max, had brought them in to the main barn overnight. She put them out right before I got there to let Gem stretch her legs and she more than obliged.

As I was loading my tack into her trailer, I watched Gem flag her tail, toss her head and gallop around her pasture. She kept coming back to the gate to check on me and watch what I was doing and then would take off again. By the time I went and got her she was breathing hard and was lathered in sweat. I briefly debated throwing her cooler on her for the trailer ride, but she dried quickly as I groomed her and loaded her up.

BO had never been to Croft, so we headed over there and began with the 6.5 mile loop that I know well. The footing was touch and go for some of it, but we got to move out really well. I kept the bit in and haven't made any changes to her feed yet since I had just purchased two bags of the TC Senior and didn't want to just throw it all away. With company, no repeated loops and the bit in, if she was punky on this ride the feed could easily be blamed.
What is this work you keep talking about?
The first loop flew by in a blur of chatting, laughing and having a great time. I was worried Gem wouldn't be able to keep up with the gelding since he has a much bigger stride, but she never fell behind at the trot. His walk clocked in at 4 mph and Gem can't seem to break 2.5 mph, so when we walked she would end up trotting a few steps to catch up, then walking and falling behind again.

Slow mare walking slow

When we got to the open section of trail that I love, I causally mentioned that this is where we usually canter and BO was more than happy to pick it up. We flew down that trail! I haven't uploaded my Garmin data yet, but when I looked down it read 13.5 mph which is booking it for Gem. We sailed down the trail and Gem was more than game to keep up. In fact, she had her Miss Competitive face on and was ready to go!

We pulled them up at the end when the trail turned to slick red clay and went down hill. Both horses seemed pleased with themselves and while Gem reeked of sweaty horse flesh, she was breathing fine.

The end of the trail came way too soon and we had completed the 6.5 miles in 1 hour exactly. Good girl Gem!

Neither of us wanted to be finished just yet and it was only 11 am, so we headed out to the bigger loop which I have never had the time to complete. I think this trail loops back into the one we just finished and if you do the entire thing it is around 12 miles or so. Dusty and I will hike with Einstein on that trail because there are less people and horses on it and it tends to stay drier due to a more sandy base. It is a mile from parking to the trail head and we headed off that way with my eye on the clock.

Heading towards the rive n the outer half of the park

Gem was still ready to go when asked and we trotted and walked until it was time to head back. My watch beeped 11 miles when we hit the road back to the trailers. The one issue with these trails is lack of water access. There is one water crossing, but it is way in the back and we hadn't made it that far before turning around. At the 11 mile mark Gem started sniffing the small water puddles hoping for a drink. I felt really bad that she was thirsty and there wasn't water to offer her, but I also knew we were only a mile out. About a half a mile later there was a large puddle by the road and she slammed on her breaks to drink. I yelled out to the BO to wait up, but Gem wasn't going to move from that puddle until she was finished whether or not her friend waited on her.

I can't wait for the leaves to come back and my world turn green once again

We ended up back at the trailer at 12 miles and 2 hours on the dot. Gem was pretty sweaty, but was bright eyed and happy. I had forgotten to grab her feed at the barn, so couldn't give her her typical mash and instead went to the water spigot to get a bucket of water which she completely ignored. I have never been able to get her to drink at the trailer.

Looking good at the end of a great ride.

She did get her soupy mash back at the barn and slurped it right up. She was still bright eyed and happy when I put her back out with Pete and she got in a good roll.

She still looks on the lean side to me and I think adding more calories will be helpful in the long run. She didn't run out of gas on this ride which was a great thing, so I am thinking maybe I over reacted a tad last time and it had more to do with her being alone, change in tack and repeating the loop. I still want to change up her feed to increase the calories as I don't think she is gaining weight like I would like on just the Senior feed. I can't wait until the grass comes in again as she does really well on grass. The BO pays close attention to her pastures too and sprays for weeds, re seeds and mows so I know the grass will be really nice once it comes in again.

Pawing is a great sign at the end of a ride with Gem. It means she still wants to keep going

Also of note: the FETA trails were closed Wednesday due to the rain Tuesday night.

This weekend is hopefully a hunter pace although they are on the FETA system. The weather looks sunny and warm the rest if the week, so they should dry out. If it rains at all, I would think they will cancel it.

February 18, 2016

EEEK...Conditioning plan

With only six weekends left to condition prior to our first endurance ride since February of 2015, I need to start really buckling down and figuring out how to make it work.

The ride I want to do is 6.5 hours away in FL. The weather should be nice and I have heard that the trails are wonderful. The ride offers two days of 50s and 25s and my big goal for this season is jumping up to multi day rides. I can only get to a few a year and so riding both days really takes full advantage of my time away at a ride. My plan all along has been to enter the first day at 50 miles to get the season to count toward our decade team goal and then see how she is doing to enter either the 50 or 25 the next day.

Here is the issue: Gem is still leaner than I would like heading into such a big effort.

I've poured over the ride calendar a dozen times to see what my options are for a spring multi day ride and there are really only two options. This one the beginning of April or Biltmore the beginning of May. I really try to stay away from FEI rides whenever possible, but Biltmore is only an hour from the barn and it seems a shame to not keep it as a back up.

Currently my plan is to keep conditioning for the April ride and see how she feels. If she seems fit and ready to tackle two days of rides then I will keep with it and go ahead. If not, we will reroute to Biltmore in May.

That gives me 6 weeks to get her fit and ready. My past conditioning seemed to have worked for her, so I don't figure on changing it up too much distance wise although I am adding more speed work in.

Week 6: Wed ride 12 miles (check!).  Weekend ride 10 miles at a moderate to fast pace (hoping to use the Hunter Pace).

Week 5: Weeknight get in an hour of speed work at the barn including hill sets.  Weekend ride 10 miles as a moderate to fast pace.

Week 4: Weeknight hill sets.  Weekend get in a slow paced 20 miles.

Week 3: Weeknight do another hour of speedwork with hill sets mixed in for an hour total.  Weekend do another slower 20 miles.

Week 2: Weekend do a fast paced 6-10 miles.

Week 1: Nothing. She gets this entire week off.

We will see how that goes for her and only time, feeding, and work will tell what she feels and acts like at the end of March. Her shoes go on 10 days prior to the ride and I will do this regardless if she rides it or not. If not, at least we can continue to condition for the May ride in shoes.

If she isn't feeling it and I don't think our chances of success are that high, I will just keep plugging along and head towards Biltmore instead. There are a lot of plusses to re routing to Biltmore, not the least being that Wyatt and Dusty can come since it is so close and he won't need to take a vacation day. They can come up Friday after work and camp with us through the weekend. Plus not having to trailer 6+ hours is great too.

Time to get down and durty wth conditioning.

February 15, 2016

Always Do This...Unless You Can't...Then Don't...A Foray Into Equine Nutrition

Ever since Gem's less than stellar effort on the second loop of our last conditioning ride, I have been pouring all my extra time and energy into researching equine nutrition. It amounted to roughly 40 or so hours of reading articles and talking to people. By the end of it all my head was swimming, but I did formulate a solid plan of action.

Big bold disclaimer here: I am not an equine nutritionist, I do not have a veterinary medicine degree and I am in no way shape or form considering myself an expert on this subject. I am just providing here what I was able to find out through discussion and personal research.

Here is what I found out, from as many reputable sources as possible, about equine nutrition:

~ Corn is the devil and is pure sugar, so don't use it as a food source...unless your horse does really well on it then go ahead and feed it.

~ Oats provide good fiber and nutrition and is a staple in horse feeding regimens...unless it gives your horse ulcers and makes them high as a kite...then don't feed it.

~ Barley is a good substitute for oats except when your horse doesn't get enough energy from it.

~ Beet pulp is a wonderful fiber base and provides long term energy...except it can cause choke if not moistened...except in complete feeds when it doesn't need moistened....except maybe it does still need moistened

~ Grain based feeds (oats, barley, corn) are not good choices for horses due to the higher carbs in it and the risk of tie up and ulcers....except most horses actually do need these so go ahead and feed them.

I'm being a little tongue in cheek here, but seriously that isn't far off from what I was able to compile in all my research, article reading and brain picking. There were some basic rules of thumb to follow that made sense to me and made the light bulb finally go off in my head and those are what I am going to talk about here. There has been some research into actual endurance horses which is what I focused on, but this can be extrapolated easily to other disciplines.

When it comes to a good feeding regimen, it should all start with the hay. Free choice high quality hay and access to high quality grass forage in a pasture is number one. Except (see my tongue in cheek opening isn't so far off the mark after all) all hay and grass isn't high quality and most people really don't have much control over this. Yes, you can pick your hay supplier and get it tested, but unless you grow your own hay and can reseeed your pasture all the time, you are limited in where you get these things from. Stuffing your horse full of poor quality hay isn't really going to help much beyond giving them a ton of fiber.

This is where the importance of your "grain" choice comes in. I put that in parenthases because most people call anything they feed their horse in the bucket "grain" when in fact it is only officially "grain" when it contains oats, barley, corn etc...Here is what I was able to find out:

~ Beet pulp is a great starting base. It provides a ton of fiber, holds onto water really well and does have some nutrition as well. It comes from sugar beets and is the left over fiber after processing the sugar beets for other purposes. It comes in pellets or shreds with the pellets requiring soaking in advance. Beet pulp alone is not enough for your horse, but can provide longer sustained energy due to the high fiber content.

~ Oats are a bit controversial, but the overwhelming data shows that they are beneficial for the working horse. One article stated that they are 50% NSC, so be careful of feeding pure oats as your mainstay. There is a big myth out there that horses can not digest it and just pass it through. Unless your horse does not have the ability to chew its food, what you are seeing passing through is the empty hull having the actual nutrient rich seed extruded by chewing and digestion. It is kind of like people eating corn: you see the empty shell pass through having chewed it open and gotten the soft center out of it. Oats do have a good nutrient profile and provide energy. Would I place my pasture puff or an IR horse on oats? No, I personally wouldn't, but for a working horse who needs them it is a great way to go. As far as what to offer, whole oats > rolled/steamed oats > crimped oats in terms of nutrient retention. If you are truly seeing not only the hulls, but also the seeds inside the hulls passing through your horse, then go to rolled oats.

~ Barely is a grain similar in profile to oats but seems to have a lower natural NSC and came up a bunch when people complained of the high as a kite horse on oats as a good alternative. Some complete feeds do offer barley as a major ingredient versus oats.

~ Corn. Ah...corn was interesting. It is pretty much all sugar and has the same glycemic index as sugar at 100. It does provide a lot of short term energy for your horse, but no real nutrition. Most sources said to stay away, although a few high end performance articles did really like adding corn in a 3:1 oats:corn ratio.

So where are we...we have beet pulp as a high fiber base and we have added in some oats for carbs and energy for our endurance horse are we finished? In the words of Pete the Cat (can you tell I have a 3 year old?)....Goodness No!

Beet pulp and oats alone won't provide a good enough vitamin/mineral profile. There are a ton of different ways to provide sufficient vitamins and minerals from adding each one yourself, to providing a ration balancer to feeding a complete feed with it all in there. No matter how you do it, which really seems to be based on personal preference, make sure you are getting a full profile.

Great...now we have fiber (beet pulp), carbs and energy (oats versus barley versus corn) and vitamins/minerals. Surely we are finished? Goodness No!

We still need to discuss protein and fat.

~ Protein. This is what really separates out the endurance horse from other disciplines. Protein requires a lot more energy to break it down and use it than fat does. This in turns creates more heat that needs to be dissipated and one interesting article even stated that it then requires more water consumption and creates higher urine output. Makes sense from what I know of human physiology. Increased heat, less water and more urine are all really bad players in endurance and we spend the entire ride trying to battle those things. You can't eliminate protein or you will kill your horse, so what is a happy medium? It turns out to be 10-12% protein. I was doing a happy dance when I actually saw some numbers start to fly around in the literature.

~ Fat. Horses under a high work load need fat which is easier to get to and break down for energy demands. How you supply that fat is, once again, all over the place. Rice bran was the most commonly recommended with the oils (corn, veggie etc) second. The thing with fat, though, is that no specific values were ever mentioned and the more recent endurance related articles recommended removing extra fat from the diet 7-10 days prior to a ride to help the horse's body get used to using the stores already available.

~Flax seed was another ingredient that kept coming up although the amount and the exact benefits were vague.

~ Carbs. One quick thing that I saw come up time and again that I found useful enough to write down: don't be afraid of NSC in the high performance horse. A lot of marketing has gone into providing low NSC in horse feed and that appears to be a great thing when the vast majority of horses today are overweight and teetering on the edge of being IR. However, in the high performance horse, such as endurance and eventing and the like, the carbs are needed for proper function and stamina. What was recommended was to go ahead and feed the high NSCs (such as oats) when they are working hard, but to decrease on days or periods of rest. Makes a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it.

Ok...beet pulp, oats, vitamins, rice bran, flax seed, low protein. Check.

How do you go about doing all of this?

There are two ways: do it all yourself piecemeal or feed a complete feed with it all in there. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the notes from a recent endurance clinic that the complete feeds are actually being recommended. I thought for sure I would read that you can only do it right if you provide it all yourself.

A lot of complete feeds these days are beet pulp based and contain flax seed and rice bran and all the other goodies that are needed. Here is the thing with complete feed though: you have to feed enough. The labels will provide the recommended allotment usually per 1000 lbs of horseflesh. The problem becomes when the volume required to provide the vitamins and minerals in the required amount is too much for the horse. When this is the case, it is recommended that you add a ration balancer to even it all out and allow you to feed the need volume. Be careful though! Triple Crown has a ration balancer, but it is 30% protein. Not good. You need to continue to keep that protein down, so do your diligence in choosing what balancer you want to add.

One more thing to add about complete feeds which you all may already know, but was a surprise to me. I am so used to human ingredient lists that list the ingredients in order of amounts contained. Not so in horse feed. They label per weight, so just because an ingredient is listed first doesn't mean it is the main ingredient in the food. It just means that its volume by weight is the most. Maybe not important, but interesting.

Phew!!! I'm exhausted.

After all of that, I have decided to continue with a complete feed to provide all the necessary building blocks that Gem needs while keeping her fat high and protein low. Which feed became a bit of an obsession and I will just rant here a second to say that Purina does not provide online ingredient lists which is not cool. One of the most recommended feeds was LMF Gold which has flax seed and beet pulp and alfalfa along with barley. Problem is that the closest vendor is in TX. The most common here in the SE amongst top endurance folks is Purina Ultium. It took me an enormous amount of effort to get an ingredient list and I was actually shocked to see corn as the grain ingredient in this feed. 

When all was said and done and the dust settled on my brain, I made a plan.

Gem: Switch to the Triple Crown Complete which is still a beet pulp based feed with the beet pulp texture and mash-ability (new word!), but has added oats. Protein is 12% which is the highest I would personally feel comfortable with and fat at 12% as well. The only thing it doesn't have is flax seed, but since Gem has never had that anyway I am refusing to lose sleep over it. If volume becomes an issue, I will go back to giving her the Grand Vite supplement that she does well on and I typically use the week leading up to and after a ride. She will get 4 pounds a day with more after a conditioning ride to offset the work performed.

Pete: He is a bit more concerning at the moment. He is getting very little of the Triple Crown Senior because he doesn't need the calories to sit in a pasture, but that also means he isn't getting anywhere near the vitamins and minerals that he needs. He will be getting a small handful of the Complete with 1/2 pound of the Triple Crown 30% ration balancer twice a day.

Big bold disclaimer again in case you forgot after all that babble: I am not an equine nutritionist nor am I a veterinarian. I do not claim to make any opinion on what you should do for your horse nor do I lay claim to the above being 100% true. The above was based on personal research of available articles, peer reviewed studies (of which their is a shameful paucity) and speaking with those in my sport with proven records and longevity. Go forth on your nutrition adventure with common sense, care, and the help of your vet.

February 9, 2016

Initial Use of the Side Pull

Last Saturday was the first time I rode Gem using the side pull feature of her new headstall. Since I know nothing about her life pre 2009, I can only assume she has never been ridden bitless before.

My initial impressions:

1.) Gem was really confused. She had no clue if I really wanted her to move on or if I was testing her and her first few steps were very hesitant.

2) She lost all her confidence. Gem really likes a soft contact when out on trail. It isn't so much for collection as it is her safety blanket. She likes to know I am there and that I have her back. With the bit gone, she looked at things more and was much more reactive to pretty much everything.

3) Along with #2, I have no clue how much contact to maintain with a side pull. It felt odd to throw away all the contact and go on a super loose rein. Kind of like I was abandoning her. It also felt odd to keep a contact on her face. It isn't as subtle as a bit and just felt wrong to keep that pressure on her nose.

4) I needlessly worried about her breaks in it. Any slight pressure on the reins resulted in her immediately stopping. It took a long time to get her to understand that I was just asking her to slow down for mud or collect up for a particularly root or rock filled section of trail. I do that all the time with a bit in and she responds to the lightest of touches, but any amount of pressure resulted in a halt. It took a lot of leg to push her forward and keep her legs moving.

5) She seemed unsure what to do with her mouth. At one point she started to chew a little. At another I saw her tongue sticking out. Most of the time she had her jaw clamped shut with her muscles working over time. It was like she didn't know what to do with herself.

6) She refused to believe she could bend in it. At all. When the trail made a sharp turn or there were choices of what track to take, it took a lot of force to get her to bend along with a lot of leg. This used to be a problem when I rode in a D ring snaffle and was the reason I changed to a full cheek which helped. The moment I decided to turn around and go back, I tired to turn her and she just braced against it. It took me running my hands up the reins nearly to her face and then asking fo rher to actually bend her neck at all. Plus a ton of leg. Not sure what that was all about.

7) I like the thought of the freedom it gives her to eat and drink and honeslty she doesn't need to carry metal in her mouth for 40 miles when it is unnecessary. Since she didn't eat or drink under saddle on this ride, I can't say if the theory pans out in reality or not.

Overall, I like the headstall a lot and it fits her well. I think we need to spend a lot more time in the side pull before I can make a determination as to whether or not she likes it. Based on the first outing, I don't think she does. I think she really likes the security of feeling the contact with the bit and without it she loses that confidence.

I will keep working her in the side pull for short stretches and hope to get some arena work in as well to work on bending and suppleness as well. 

February 7, 2016

Gem Ran Out of Gas

The researcher in me is giving me a big FAIL for Saturday. There were so many things that changed in Gem's life that it is nearly impossible right now to pin point what went wrong. I have my suspicions, but that is all they will remain until further investigation. In the 6 years Gem and I have been together I have dealt with her mental shut downs on trail numerous times. I have never felt her physically give up before.

With the hunter pace postponed a week due to soppy weather, Gem and I headed to Croft to get some serious miles in on Saturday. (As a useless note to anyone but myself: the FETA trails were open having been closed Thursday and Friday due to 2" of rain on Wednesday night). The plan was to do the 6.5 mile Forest Mills Loop twice for a nice 13 mile ride. I wanted to keep the pace around 5 mph using the bit for the first loop and going to the side pull for the second.

My beautiful mare all ready to go
Under beautiful blue skies with a warm sun, but brisk air we began our journey to becoming endurance fit again.  While the first mile was slow going, only a 3.5 mph pace, she was forward with ears alert and engaged in the activity.

The trail begins by climbing up a gravel road and then quickly losing as much elevation as it heads to the lake. She was chewing on her bit which is a first for her. The old bit hangers were too long even shortened as much as possible. I have the new ones set a bit tighter (is that the right word?) in her mouth and she really seems to love it. She was chewing and foamy and nowhere near as spooky on the trail. I think the extra support really worked for her.

The first of many climbs that I forgot existed
Once the trail enters the woods it is a solid mile up hill. I pushed her to move up the hill only giving her a walk break when the mud was deep enough to warrant it. The first 2 miles were a bit touch and go with some spots dry and solid and others hoof sucking mud that she would sink in.

I was really happy when I looked down at my watch at mile 2 and saw that we were making my goal of a 5 mph pace without me having to nag her. She was moving freely and happily down the trail with the fewest sideways jumps that I have ever had from her.

After another steep climb to an old radio station we began the rocky descent. I let her slow to a walk and made note that she was breathing a bit harder than I liked after that last climb. This section is pure granite and for a short stretch you are walking on nothing but the large rock and I always let her pick her way down carefully.

The entire trail width is nothing but a large rock. She is very careful to pick her way down.
By the time we reached the bottom, she was breathing normal again and the trail hit the only true flat section along the entire loop. With the sun casting the shadows of trees across the leaf strewn trail, I placed my right heel on her side and gently asked for a canter. She easily picked it up and we soared down the trail kicking up leaves and reaching 12 mph. My face was split with a grin from ear to ear and the peace of the woods was broken by my laughter.

We only slowed down when we noticed a crew of horses coming towards us on the trail. Once we passed them, I asked Gem for a trot and she asked me if she could canter. I agreed and we once again laid down our tracks with haste as the bitter wind whipped at our faces.

All too soon the trail started to go down and become a mix of red SC clay and rock once again and so we slowed to a trot.

Sticky red SC clay
Lots of rocks as the trail heads back down hill along the river
The trail swept by under her hooves as she maintained a lovely trot keeping up between a 5 and 6 mph pace. She was feeling really good and seemed happy to be out.

With her new found confidence she even bravely marched across the bridge without a second of hesitation and only slowed a bit when our weight and movement made the steel trestles creak and groan.
Surviving the bridge of doom
After the bridge it is only 3/4 of a mile, all up hill in the sticky clay, to the barn. We had finished the first 6.5 mile loop in 1 hour 8 minutes which I was really proud of. I gave her a lot of pats and dismounted to remove the bit and start again.

I tried to hook the bit to the back of the saddle, but it made an awful noise as it bounced and clattered with her trot. I eventually just jammed it into my vest pocket. 

Looking really good after our first loop. Side pull is attached and ready to go. 

And that is when the wheels fell off.

Maybe it was the fact that me dismounting and removing the bit has always been her sign that we were finished and now I was mounting back up.

Maybe it was the fact that we were repeating the same loop over again which we have never done before.

Maybe it was the lack of her new confidence inducing bit and me asking her to move out in her new side pull.

Maybe it is was the less than ideal body condition she has been working out of.

Maybe it is the new food, Triple Crown Senior with no "hard" grains, that she hasn't been asked to work on yet.

Maybe it was an aggregation of all those factors, but something just wasn't right.

I asked her to move out and she did, but she was hesitant and slow. This was her typical mental shut down. Her "But...I don't waaaant to go down the trail...whaaa!" I deal with this after every hold on every ride we do and have come to expect a pokey mare for the first 1/2-3/4 of mile. I let her walk out of it and she has always picked up a trot and gone on to move out just fine before.

Decidedly less engaged and happy mare ears. She lost all her new found confidence in the side pull
I let her walk it off as usual as we made it back up the gravel road, past the old cemetery and down to the lake. Once we reached the woods I asked her to move out again which she did and she put in a good effort making it back up the mile long hill.

Once we made it off the hill and I let her walk she just never recovered. She was definitely unsure of the side pull and any small amount of pressure I applied to the reins made her come to a stand still immediately. I've never had such good brakes on her! I worked her along letting her know that pressure didn't always mean stop and after the first 2 miles in it she began to chew although she never made it back to her level of confidence with the bit.

But she never recovered her energy. She was trying her heart out for me. I would ask for a trot and she would immediately respond, but after only a few strides she would ask to walk again. She was breathing normally and wasn't off or acting sore at all, she was just plumb out of energy.

When we reached the steep climb by the radio station, she just stopped. She came to a stand still and looked back at me pleading not to go up that hill. She was done. I've never had her done before. It was a bit scary, a bit sad and a bit defeating feeling all at once.

Please let me stop here. I can't go on.
Unfortunately for Gem, we were at a spot in the loop where it was nearly the same distance turning around or going forward. The way forward had two more very large hills and the way back was mostly down hill. I decided to turn around, but make her go at speed the way back lest she learns that she can get out of work by stopping on trail and refusing to move forward. I want her to remain honest with me, but she tends to try to get out of work and I don't want her to learn any new tricks.

As we turned around (one thing about the side pull - she doesn't believe she can bend in it and turning was quite difficult. Something to work on) I asked her to move out knowing it was basically all down hill with only two smaller climbs. She moved out but again kept asking to walk after only short periods of trot.

We did manage to keep a 4.5 mph pace on the way back and she really and truly was trying. About a mile or so out from the barn we came across three DNR guys in full gear, with guns and badges showing. They were on 4-wheelers and stopped to turn off the engines as we came up to them. I have never seen any rangers or anyone in the park before, so this was really unusual. Just then I heard gun shots and dogs barking behind and to my right. They looked at each other and jumped back on to leave. Later I found out that they were searching for someone out illegally hunting with their dogs (no hunting is allowed in the park except for one day a year when they have a special event that you register for). I really hope they caught the bastard.

Making it back to the lake from the opposite direction

Gemmie looking out at the water
 We travelled down the lane separating the lake from the river it drains in to and I let her walk the rest of the way home.

The drain. Coming from the barn this is hidden behind a curve in the trail and all you can hear is the torrent of water

The river the lake drains in to. They had just weed whacked the hill and this was the first time I actually saw the river. The two guys were really nice to stop their work all three times that I went past them. I found out later that they were doing community service for some law they broke.  

We finished the ride in 2 hours 40 minutes or so and did 12 miles. Gem was happy to be done and scarfed down the mash I made for her in record time.

She actually looks pretty good here after the ride and happily munching away on her mash
Her heart rate and respirations were normal and she was sweaty, but not overly so given the work and the temperatures. She looked tired, but happy.

I was really, really pleased with the amount of effort she put into the entire ride. She tried so hard for me and that's all I can ever ask for from her. The first loop was pure magic and she let me know how much she liked the bit set where it was. I probably should have put the bit back in during the second loop to see if it really was the side pull, but I also wanted her to get used to it and try it out. I don't know what the correct answer was.

My biggest thought right now is that the Triple Crown Senior isn't working for her. It has put weight on her and has made a difference in her coat as well, but I am worried that it isn't enough sustainable energy for the amount of work. I'm not a nutritionist and know shamefully little about horse nutrition.

I do know that the big names in endurance nutrition love beet pulp, flax seed, rice bran and alfalfa which is basically all TCS is. It has a ton of fiber and low NSCs, so it really sounds like it should be a good complete feed for her. Except she bottomed out and she has never run out of energy on me ever before. Not even in the summer when she didn't get any grain or hay and just lived on her grass pasture. Not during any of the endurance rides where she puts in way more work at a higher speed than on any conditioning ride. Not even during the last hunter pace when she was still getting the old barn's locally milled grained and was in poorer shape. Never.

I know that I never want to feel her bottom out ever again. It feels like the worst horsemanship ever to ask more from her than she can physically give and it happened after only 8 moderately paced miles with plenty of walk breaks.

For now, I will hold off  on any major changes. Too many variables were off to really be able to pin it on her feed right not. First work after new barn, BCS just now getting up to where I like it, doing two repeated loops for the first time, loss of her newly beloved bit and change to side pull. Next weekend is supposed to be the rain date for the pace and she is typically much more on the go for a competition than a conditioning ride, so I will use it as a good test. The bit will be in and we won't be repeating trail, so the only major change will be the TCS. If she bottoms out on me during that ride, then I can look at the feed as the source and put more thought into what to do next.