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.


  1. I read your story in Endurance News. Sounds like you two have come a long way. Good job! I'd try the same ride again to see if it's the TCS. TC does have higher starch feeds that might work better if that's why she ran out of gas. Matilda

    1. Thank you! I just got my copy this weekend and was thrilled to see our story make it in.

  2. Sara - TC Senior is great for short term energy, since it's base is primarily beet pulp and the horses love it so it works well when fed at holds or the trailer when your horse might need to be enticed. However, I would really recommend adding whole cleaned oats to her feed. Whole oats are a hind gut energy and the combination gives you both short term energy (think carbs) and long term energy (think protein). Whole Oats are relatively cheap ($15 for #50) and it sure fixed this issue with Ashke.

    The other thing you need to think about is that maybe you just bit off more than she could chew. She had a long layoff and is really just now coming back into work,and she's not at the normal BC you would want her to be for this level of work. Don't be discouraged. I think you will see a huge difference in her energy level in just a week if you add oats to her diet. (Don't do the crimped ones. When they are crimped they don't take as long to digest and so they don't provide the hind gut energy you need.)

    Just my thoughts.

    1. Karen - have you tried the TC Complete? It still has beet pulp as the primary ingredient, but also adds whole oats to it. The profile is different with a higher NSC%, but if I am going to be adding the whole oats anyway this may be an option. I do have a bag of whole oats and will likely talk to the BO about adding it in to her daily ration.

      She told me plain in simple that she wasn't ready for what I was asking and I felt horrible for having put her in that place. It is just so odd since even after her 30 days of stall rest and 30 more of small paddock turn out over the summer she came back tearing my arms off and fighting my insistence of walking only. After a prolonged rest she typically comes back ready for anything which is what has me worried that the food is the issue.

      I also need to get some bloodwork done on her. We had it pulled last spring and everything was spot on. Then during her colic we asked to have it pulled again and she was mildly anemic which the vet thought was due to dehydration. I'm hoping that if we check again it will be back to normal, but a persistant anemia could also be the cause of the funk she displayed.

    2. Oats work for some people but I have personally had horrible luck with them. They give Lily ulcer flare-ups and made a former metabolic horse's symptoms far worse because they are so high in starch. (He became footsore and was flooding his stall with urine. His symptoms resolved within the week once I eliminated the oats and subbed for low starch, low sugar grain and hay.) It's the other way around: oats provide simple sugars (fast energy) in the form of high starch, whereas beet pulp provides staying power because it is both slower to digest (much higher in fiber and lower in starch than oats) and helps hold water in the gut, keeping the horse hydrated longer. Whole oats tend to pass right through the horse: they are fed by some BOs here in MD as a form of manure dispersal because birds will pick at the manure to get the oats out, thus spreading the horse poop so BOs don't have to pick it from their fields. Soaked crimped oats are more likely to be fully digested by the horse. Oats are an inexpensive way of adding calories to a horse's diet but do be careful with easy keepers. I would keep them far, far away from Pete, for example.

      TC Complete would be an option if oats end up working for Gem, and I know a lot of riders out there that love it for their horses. It's done wonders for 900 Facebook Pony's eventing OTTB Henry. However, there is one thing you might want to tweak before switching grain: ration size. Another variable here is that Gem went from enormous amounts of high starch grain to a couple of lbs of TC Senior a day. TC Senior should be fed at a minimum of 6 lbs a day for the horse to receive the full spectrum of nutrients the feed provides. For smaller amounts, TC recommends adding a ration balancer like the TC Lite or their 30% protein supplement. I've combined Senior with ration balancers from other brands as well. In Lily's case, she has done fabulously with a Senior-like formula (high fiber, high protein, low starch in the form of Legends CarbCare Performance - she doesn't like the TC Senior anymore) combined with a ration balancer (I really like Tribute's Essential K as a ration balancer but like most TBs, Lily needs more protein to maintain weight & muscle, and also for stamina, so she gets the TC 30% at 1-2 lbs a day during competition season.)

      If you want to learn more about equine nutrition, I really love Dr. Eleanor Kellon. I am a huge, huge fan of hers. She is one of the few vets in the world that has done real studies on equine nutrition, and she is the one that has come up with nutritional protocols for metabolic horses that are nothing short of miraculous. She has a couple of Yahoo Groups including the Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance (ECIR) Group, which is part of an ongoing nutritional study. A lot of members participate in the study, but you don't have to be a part of the study to be a member. Membership is free and one doesn't need to own a metabolic horse; I learned TONS about equine nutrition simply by lurking there. You can ask questions about nutrition and non-metabolic horses too and they are happy to answer them. I am currently a member of the sister group, the ECIR Off-Topic Group: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ECHorsekeeping/info?referrer=PurpleMartins

      More on Dr. Kellon: http://www.drkellon.com/whyisthissoimportant.html
      Article written by her on feeding horses: https://uckeleequine.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/what-are-you-feeding-your-horse/
      I hope this helps!

    3. Thanks for taking the time to write all of that out. Gem is currently getting 2 lbs twice a day (so 4 lbs total) plus free choice hay. It is still a bit below the recommended amount, but she is gaining weight well on it and looking really good. The BO had asked me two weeks ago if I wanted to cut her back since she had gained so much weight already on it and I told her no. Gem's last crappy grain was a true hard grain and containined both oats and corn (which I have learned is pure sugar and is awful to feed horses per Dr. Garlinghouse). I researched oats a lot yesterday and there are people who love them and those that hate them as in all things. If I do decide to add oats, I would be more prone to just switch to the TC complete since it is already in there and is a beet pulp based feed so it would give the best of both worlds.

      In researching nutrition, I have found that I really like Dr. Garlinghouse a lot. Her articles are always well articulated without adding so much technical data that it makes it hard to sort through. She has a proven endurance record herself and is either the chair or sits on the Vet Committee for AERC. She will do phone consultations for nutrition and I think that I am going to ask Dusty for an early birthday gift and set something up to talk with her. The $150 is money well spent when you start thinking about adding supplements, changing feeds and all that. I could easily waste that much on food not used.

      Of course, her funk could have had nothing to do with the feed at all and could have been the side pull, the double loop or just her not feeling it that day. I tend to jump the gun and overreact when it comes to her. I checked on her last night and she was looking good and being frisky and the BO said she was her normal self all weekend. The hunter pace this weekend will tell a lot and I don't plan on changing anything before then.

    4. I just saw your post on the AERC FB page! :) I'm glad you could get in touch with Dr. Garlinghouse! She is amazing. I have a few of her electrolyte articles printed out as reference too.

  3. Q's exhibited this before when I repeated a loop and had gotten off in between the repeat. She just quit on me. Average pace really didn't suffer much if you looked at the GPS, but it was tough going. She was completely fine otherwise and acted normal before and after. But the repeated loop was just NOT what she had in mind that day. I repeated the same(ish) ride a few weeks later and reversed the second iteration of the repeated loop (rode it forward then rode it immediately again, but backward) with a much happier horse. Riding the same loop backwards is a super simple option for gaining miles without having complete boredom. You'll get things figured in no time!

    1. Yeah, too many things were different for me to be able to say for sure what the issue was. I also tend to over think any small anomaly when it comes to Gem. Not sure why because I honestly do not do that in any other aspect of my life. Just her. Will see what the hunter pace brings this weekend before making any serious changes, but I think I will add some oats eventually.