Monday, September 29, 2014

Dolly Sods Ride

West Virginia has a lot of public lands around the area I live and grew up in. These areas have very few restrictions to horseback riding, too, which is phenomenal. Our local riding groups have pretty good relations with the Forest Service, too. I've ridden in other remote/wilderness areas in the state, but never Dolly Sods.

Riding at Dolly Sods has been on my bucket list for years now. The local clubs and horse folks do a ride up there once or twice a year, but I'm always so busy on those weekends with ski patrol things and otherwise that I haven't been able to go. I realized that in order to make the dream come to fruition I'd need to take things into my own hands. And so I did.

Yesterday Kenai and Q and I along with my friend Danny and his dog Jack headed up to do a 10 mile ride at the Sods. Danny planned to hike with the dogs while I rode. Because the Sods is a wilderness area and far from any semblance of cell service, having someone with me was key. We were able to rendezvous multiple times on trail, whether I walked back to him or paused for a time and waited.

The weather was absolutely PERFECT. Low to mid 70s, slight breeze, partly cloudy, low humidity. Bonus? The leaves up there were PEAK. Photos do absolutely ZERO justice to how incredible it was. I was in a zen-state for most of the ride, completely blissed out about where I was and the fact that I was riding my horse in that place. 

The trail we did, Blackbird Knob, is noted as 4.7 miles on the map. I figured we'd go out and back for a good 10ish miles. Danny was totally up for a good 10 mile day on foot.

By total fault of my own, I didn't bring a rasp with me - something I usually bring Just In Case. I haven't trimmed Q's feet in a couple weeks either, so they weren't quite perfect for her boots, and rather than risk the integrity of the boots, I just decided to see how far we got barefoot without issue. Answer: all 10 miles! Over some seriously gnarly terrain. I was super proud of my little mare. It was a great self-trimming ride by the end!

I didn't know how the footing would be for certain. I know it can be gnarly up there, but I just wasn't for sure how the percentages of good vs. bad would play out on the trail. I wanted to ride some relatively gnarly stuff (one big reason for riding the Sods) because I wanted Q to be able to practice over rough terrain similar to what the OD rides have - and that was my only goal. It's a good thing I had no great goal other than that, too, because the trail was so gnarly for 85% of the way that I was forced to walk if I hoped to keep a sound horse!

Added bonus? Q was absolutely OUTSTANDING all day. More forward down the trail than she has been in a LONG time. And not too spooky either! She loved having Kenai out front to guide her through most of it, as he could easily keep up with our 3mph walking pace. I think I'm really going to have to look into getting a dog that loves to run/can handle heat for future conditioning pursuits in coming years for Q and potentially any horse I may have that has confidence issues; Q gains so much confidence by having something in the lead be it dog, person, horse, or bike.

Something Karen noted in the past week or so about Ashke on trail really got me thinking and was confirmed in a small way yesterday: Karen noted that Ashke seems bored with certain trails and more eager about new ones. I think this applies to Q, too. At home, she's not thrilled with having to do the same thing again and again (and I'm not either), but on new trails and away from home she's typically much better. At the Sods, she wanted to Get Down the Trail and See What's Around the Bend more than she ever has. I was even able to practice some great tailing!

I'd expected all day to get a sharp warning from someone about my off leash dog (Danny's, too) but no one ever said a thing. (Kenai is seriously the best. His blaze orange vest provides a visual, his e-collar provides a safety net for having him return to me, and he knows his job is to be with me and not pay mind to others. He'll remain within 30 feet of me and keep my pace. If Q stopped, he'd stop. If it was an extended stop, he'd find a place just off trail to lay down and wait. Do I know and recognize and accept the dangers of off-leash dogs? Yes. That is my risk to take.) I did get  oodles of comments from other trail users about Q though!

Most comments were just remarks of surprise about the fact that a horse could handle that terrain. All but one interaction were neutral or positive in nature. Everyone I ran into all day yielded to Q and I, and I thanked each and every one of them, and picked up quick, but amiable conversations with others as we passed. I even paused for a time to talk to some curious folks about the fact that Q was barefoot and how that changes the way she'll navigate terrain (more focused on how and where she places her feet than a shoed horse may do - something these folks thought was really cool!). Those folks shared with me their experiences with Morgan horses and their sure-footedness.

The negative interaction with another trail user re: horse use was the only unpleasant part to the day. An older woman, probably in her 70s, was passing us with her hiking partner (presumably husband based on their behavior) for the second time as we both returned toward the directions we'd come from. Danny was about a minute behind me on trail, Q and Kenai and I were bopping along at a sedate pace, just enjoying the area and watching our footing.

The woman asked if I was allowed to have a horse back there in a quiet, yet accusatory tone of voice. Yes, Know Before You Go - a rule all should follow before heading out to do any activity in the wild. I noted that yes, horses were allowed.

She insisted that horses were not allowed in wilderness areas. No, you're wrong. Motorized vehicles are forbidden in wilderness areas, sometimes bikes, not horses, at least not here. I assured that they were allowed here, noting that there are few to no restrictions on horse use in West Virginia.

She insisted that it was a Federal law that horses couldn't be in wilderness areas, and then noted about how much "damage" they do to the trails and how the poop attracts flies. Okay, lady. You show me on the trail today where you've seen "damage" from horses that counters that of human foot traffic. I'll give you the poop and flies thing, but seriously, if you're in a wilderness area and worried about poop and bugs, you've got bigger problems. I told her that her point could be debated (more so in reference to the "damage") and she jumped on me noting that there was no debate. Woman, I work for the Federal government. I am also a Leave No Trace Master Educator. I also spoke with a USFS employee twice on trail today as we passed and he did nothing but smile at me and tell me to have a great ride after our second interaction. If you want to accuse someone of ill-knowledge about horse use on trails, you've picked the wrong individual. I've been trained to talk to people like you with a smile on my face, kind words of understanding from my mouth, and active listening techniques. I see where you could think that hooves cause damage, but in truth, it isn't much more than your own two feet. We're trained to abide by the same Leave No Trace principles of foot travel in these areas as you are. I understand that the white chalk marks from metal shoes on the rocks may be unsightly, and the manure isn't ideal, but the marks you've seen today and the poop remaining is the result of a 40+ person ride on one day a week ago. The 'damage' from that is MINIMAL all things considered! I didn't see a single trash item from those folks, nor did I observe hoofprints OFF trail in relatively preserved, pristine areas. They did a superb job at maintaining the area considering the large numbers that were present. And no, such large numbers are not advisable, but sometimes it happens.

Danny and Jack showed up at that point, helping me to further bite my tongue than what I was already doing (because all of my thoughts listed above in italics were about to come spouting out of my mouth for real), and I instead continued to smile - as I had been doing - and told her to have a nice day, and Q walked onward.

It's worth noting that Q stood quietly and politely for the entire interaction. Good mare.

Such a seriously amazing day overall. Just what I needed, just what Q needed.

Have some photos and videos to tell the rest of the story. Words just can't do it justice.




Atop Dolly Sods, not quite to where we parked

Looks bare already on the opposing mountainside, but in truth, it was plastered with oranges, reds, and russets

Emerging into Dolly Sods proper from a brief time in the woods. Color explosion.

Photos just don't do it justice!

I was pretty psyched.

Look at that happy, relaxed expression!

Eager ears, all day.

Traversing down the trail.

Wandering the woods with such colorful blasts was an experience!

Happy ears.

A tunnel of mountain laurel and red spruce.

Kenai BOUNDING up what I was about to lead Q DOWN!
Talk about gnarly terrain! Q handled it with grace though.

A photo that doesn't quite do justice to what I led Q down to cross the stream.

Black water typical of the high elevation areas in WV


The canter video above was one of the few areas of good footing all day!

Climbing a particularly gnarly section of trail up from the second creek crossing; we rode down this later with zero issues

Q BEAST.

Such a good horse.

If that rumor I heard about Indian Graves being re-added to Fort Valley is true, I think we're ready!

Unmused Q is unamused. Haha.

This section of forest was 95% beech, 5% striped maple


Photos do NOT do the color justice.

The colors are so dulled in most photos compared to real life.



So freaking beautiful. Once again, dull areas in the distance that seem bare of leaves were really reds and oranges.




Selfie!

My trail partners for most of the day as Danny and Jack stayed further back

A sample of what the footing consisted of for a large portion of the day

Yes, horses can travel these trails!


Trail. Creek bed?


Kenai's feet are all black from Dolly Sods mud

And in case the above photos have not clued you  into what the footing was like, here are four videos to further demonstrate. Watch for how Q chooses to place her feet. She was slow yet methodical in the trickiest of areas. In the final video, she took a line I wasn't anticipating, and then careened off trail while I noted to her that I accepted that she was sick of the rocks, but too bad because the trail does not go this way and as soon as we'd cross the creek (not pictured) she'd be done with the worst of the rocks. (These videos were taken through the worst of the worst sections.)







This is where Q and Kenai stood and lay while I took a nap at the midway point of our day.

Relaxed animals are relaxed.

Blueberry bushes turn red in the fall.

Gah, this photo is SO DULL and dreary in comparison to what the day truly was.


Q chowed down hard the second half of the ride.
She also drank, and peed, and pooped in the time we were out.
Good endurance poneh.





A great shot Danny snuck of me cantering Q toward him at some point





And now for a video of me tailing Q up a short section of trail.



And a short clip of me leading Q across a rocky section of creek - my phone memory filled up and cut the video short! I remedied it after, but definitely wasn't going to make Q repeat for the sake of a video.



And here's a clip Danny got of me tailing Q up the super steep stuff after we crossed the creek. Note Jack struggling up it after us!



And finally, a short clip of Q crossing the boardwalk we had to cross to begin and end our day.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Vet Visit for Q

Back in March when both horses had their annual check-ups (vaccines, Coggins, health certs, teeth check (neither needed anything this year), etc.) I had my vet check Q's hocks as I've been concerned for awhile now that her hocks could be/become an issue down the road.

My vet flexed Q and had me trot her out. Q was grade 1-2 lame on her right on the trot away, normal by the time we turned to trot back. She was grade 3 on her left going out and grade 2 on the return.

The weather was in the single digits on this day. My vet and I discussed the potential for x-rays and perhaps other diagnoses at a later date (when it was warmer). She said I shouldn't worry greatly just yet, but be sure to monitor Q through the spring. Depending on how she was doing on training rides leading up to competition we may decide to look into things sooner rather than later. Q would tell me if I paid mind.

I noticed Q had some medio-lateral imbalance in her hooves around the time of my vet's initial visit. I focused in on this for awhile, and made effort to balance her out over the next few months.

Life plodded on. Q plodded on. She didn't exhibit typical signs that her hocks were bothering her: she was eager to work, didn't refuse work, didn't rest her hind legs any more or less than normal, had zero issue or reluctance navigating hills up or down, had no back pain, etc.

We entered No Frills. We completed No Frills. She was tired at the end, but after she was allowed to eat for a half hour upon completion she was much perkier. (She had been drinking well all day but refused to eat at the away check, so I wasn't too surprised by this.)

Training continued. Behavioral spooking issues increased in frequency, but no other signs of pain were exhibited.

Then at the OD one vet was over-critical of Q's swinging/waddling gait. Those who know my little girl know it's just her way of going. Still, we were almost pulled for it twice when the same unfamiliar vet watched her go.

We completed the OD, though Q was obviously stiff and sore through her hind legs notably the following day. It was hypothesized with Saiph, my vet, and others that it was time to look into diagnoses for her hocks.

My vet came out last night. We flexed Q again before starting anything else. She trotted out with no lameness on her right. She was grade 1-2 on her left. Intrigue. My vet was intrigued. I was intrigued. I noted about the medio-lateral imbalance and my efforts to correct that since March, wondering if that could have made a difference? My vet concurred, it may have.

We did xrays.

Left

Left

Left

Left

Right

Right

Right

Right


Her left hock shows the beginnings of some arthritis, but not bad at all. My vet said she would be uncomfortable giving injections at this point. She noted that we could, if I wanted, but that she wouldn't recommend it.

I inquired then about what could possibly be causing Q's behavioral differences? Yes, I'm certain I am an issue - I am riding her differently since she has been spooking so dirty. I micromanage more and fret more. That needs to be fixed, duh.

But couldn't she be acting out because of pain? What about her stiffness and soreness post OD? And her gait oddity? My vet answered re: stiffness with the intensity of the ride. The terrain coupled with the length of time we rode would be hard on most horses! And her gait oddity is just how she is. My vet (who vetted at the OD and vets other endurance events) noted that for every 100 horses she sees at an endurance ride, at least 10 of them have an odd gait. She said that the important thing to watch for with trot outs on horses like Q is the symmetry of their gait; the same way you'd go about watching a trot out for a gaited horse like Funder's Dixie. 

I still inquired about saddle fit. I noted that her spookiness did begin increasing after I started riding in the Ansur all the time. But she'd never ever shown issues with her back being tender or sore - I mean hell, she's done three 50s where she was examined by a minimum of 6 different vets in this time. She's had her annual check-up and now this check up. Something would have shown up somewhere in that time with all of those different eyes on her! My vet agreed with this.

In fact, my vet followed up my saddle inquiry with this question, "Think more simply."

Want to talk about changing herd dynamics?! Because my vet did. And she thinks this could be playing a much larger role into things. (She has a horse who is very similar to Q in so many ways; she's stated this from day one of me having Q. She's had that horse for most of his life. She noted that this horse's social status in the herd affects his behavior in a HUGE way.)

So, I noted to my vet that in addition to the saddle change, Q had been in the field with two VERY studdy geldings for the same amount of time; in other words, the saddle change and herd dynamic was altered about the same time.

The first gelding arrived the same time I began exclusively using the Ansur. His arrival triggered some manic heat cycles in my little girl. She was never herself while they were in the same field. Fortunately though, his aggressive displays toward humans (remember when he offered a double barrel kick at me?!) got him sectioned off into the other half of the pasture on his own last fall. His owner never came out, so being in the far field wasn't a problem. Sectioning him off helped some, but Q was still VERY drawn to him and would spend a large amount of her free time grazing alongside him on her own side of the fence.

And then, the Christmas Surprise horse arrived. He started kind at first, but with time and less of a work load (weekly/biweekly lessons were not enough to keep his temperament where it had been) he became quite studdy. In fact, by spring and the mares heat cycles beginning, he was head gelding on his half of the field, as typical head gelding Little Bit was in the far field with the other studdy gelding and three other horses who weren't typically ridden or worked with.

Drunk mare is DRUNK.
She is NOT a cheap drunk either.
Finally, this spring, the original studdy gelding left. I was thrilled. Except, then I wasn't.

This is the first formal mention of this on the blog: Suddenly, K's Xmas Surprise horse was behaving in a horrid way. He was never aggressive toward people the way the other gelding had been; he understood what "back off" body language was and listened. But boy did he love the mares. He loved the mares so much that he would mount them. He would mount them and get the job done. Stir it around and finish it off.

I flew into worrying about my little girl getting a piece of something I didn't want her to have. My BO assured me that Q had ZERO interest in that gelding. She was always aggressive in her body language toward him telling him to back off. Of course I'd always seen this at the barn when I was there - despite that gelding's manic calling and galloping toward Q when she returned from a trail ride. I worried about what was going on when no one could see though. Fortunately, the horses were still confined to the area of field within sight of my BO's house (primarily her kitchen window where she watches them as she cooks - its how she saw him "breed" her mare).

His owners called his original owner - a 71 year old man - to confirm his gelding. The guy said he'd been gelded as a yearling and "it was done right". Well, okay. But still, cryptorchid anyone?! I still worried. (And will continue to show concern until she's squealing, kicking, peeing, and squirting again haha.)

The geldings owners were less and less enthralled with him as a match for their girl, whom I'd been giving lessons to all this time. I was on board with their concerns. While the horse wasn't mean or aggressive in any way, he had learned he could get away with almost anything he wanted. His behavior spiraled downward from there.

A few weeks ago, I saw that a friend of mine was selling her incredibly versatile little mare for a STEAL of a price. She's 10 years old, Q's size, and has the sweetest temperament ever. I've known the horse for YEARS. She's shown English, western, and has been used to rope goats. She's an in-your-pocket sweetheart of a mare. I shared with K and her family, and before I knew it, she was bought and was on the property and the gelding was sold back to his original owner. He's been gone 2 weeks now.

Little Bit is back in charge. He's a terrific little leader. There are five geldings and four mares now. Q hates the new little mare and bosses her around in a bigger than usual-for-her way. The usual head mare has had some lameness issues of late that have led to her being corralled away from the others. Q was always neck and neck with her as head mare; lately Q is in a bigger role though. Neither mare is aggressive. Both tend to just give visual displays instead of resorting to physical confrontations to demonstrate their leadership.

I talked about all of this with my vet. She nodded all the while. She noted that Q's cycle may be the  biggest thing affecting her mood. We discussed regumate (so expensive. No.) and maybe trying to marble Q next spring - even though the efficacy of this method isn't very high. My vet was on board with SmartMare Harmony and the Magnesium supplements Q's getting (and has been on for about 5 weeks now).

Between the supplements and me doing what I can to micromanage her less, we'll see where we get. Our ride the other day was encouraging (details in next post). This new herd dynamic and Q's role within it may play favorably for us. (And could bite us in the butt later on if it changes again!)

Time will tell.

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In addition, to all of the hypothesizing about Q's behavior during the vet visit, we also took time to take care of Q's scratches once and for all.

I did SO well this winter shaving her legs and keeping them clear of scratches. I would have never guessed that they'd crop up like this in JUNE. UGH!!

They were about 75% better a week or so after the OD. But then I didn't make it out for a day to put on medicine and they went downhill in a big way. And I don't know (and didn't think to ask last night) if the bugs are playing a role in exacerbating it, but I think they may be. They don't leave her legs alone. The gnats especially dig on in and don't go away. They meander from one are to another on each leg.

We'd had to sedate Q to get her to stand still (she was upset about the cords and the camera for the xray process) for her xrays, so we started to remove the scabs. Well, she wasn't drunk enough to deal with that pain, so we doped her up even more! She was STILL reacting to us removing the scabs and had to be twitched on top of all that sedation! They were BAD.

I knew this, but I knew I couldn't get near her legs to fix it without her being sedated. With the impending vet visit, I just decided to be patient. Q has had a yearly battle with scratches ever since I bought her. She's much more prone to them than any horse I've ever been around.

As a result, handling her feet/legs is super tricky because she's dealt with so many bad sensations on her legs. She's the kind of horse who experiences a bad poke ONCE and then anticipates the hell out of every tiny potential movement you may be making near the area of the bad poke. She'll dance away and get herself all in a tizzy.

In fact, in writing this, I almost wonder if some of her spooking could be because in addition to seeing a potential monster, she took a misstep that caused a rock to fly up and knock her square in one of the scabs/bad spots while moving. That would certainly hurt enough to merit a big response!

My vet noted that my other endurance friend in the area, Jen, has a gelding who gets chronic scratches like what we're dealing with on Q. She's finally had to resort to keeping his legs shaved year round and washing them once every two weeks or so to really clean them up. I'm probably in that boat, too.

Just look!

You can see the areas on her legs from here. This was last week.

Somewhat noticeable here as well.

After we shaved and removed scabs last night.
Mid-way through scrubbing process with medicated shampoo.

Poor little girl. At least she was drunk?

Her left front has been the worst this time. So bad.

Hinds covered in medicated shampoo and suds.

Floppy drunk lip.


Drunken stance.

After we rinsed her off, right before I applied the steroid ointment.

Hinds.

Hind.

Fronts.

Front left. =(



So you can see, it's pretty bad. I left her in a stall last night through today to help keep her legs dry (out of wet, dewy grass) and to keep the bugs at bay some. I'll apply the CK Shield balm/salve tonight, and she'll go back out. If I need to, I will reapply the steroid creme tomorrow. Otherwise, we're back to the balm for several days and another shampoo in a day or two.

Hoping to see some drastic improvement!

I'm sad that the scratches reached this level, but they were honestly much better and then got really bad again in a hurry. We'd been applying the balm daily and keeping them as clean as she'd allow us. She was quite a witch about being touched there though (with reason), so I'm happy we could finally get it taken care of last night!

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Tonight:




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There will be three winners!
It ends Friday.