Sunday, September 28, 2014

Case Study #1 - Jasper Junior

I finally got around to talking to my neighbor about using one of her mules for a case study and she agreed! Yay!  First off, it turns out the mule is a "he" not a "she" so I'll correct those pronouns right away.  I had to tell her up front, and I will say this here too - I am not in any way saying I can do anything for sure to really change whatever is going on with Jasper Junior that has caused his issues on his right hind end.  Since the vet doesn't have a definitive diagnosis I can only go in and see what I can feel in the soft tissue and see if I can change anything to make him more comfortable.  But I'm not expecting to work miracles and I don't want anyone to think I'm rushing in saying I can fix what a veterinarian can't because that is not the case at all. 

This is Jasper Junior - or JJ as he is often called.   He is twenty-two years old, a gelded male or John mule and he's been retired for seven years after coming up lame after a hunting trip.

His owner, Dick had him out on a hunting trip about seven years ago along with several of his other mules and they were packing an elk off the mountain.  Dick's nephew was riding JJ and when they were passing over a cut JJ decided he was going to jump the cut, and Dick believes that may be when he did something to injure himself.  He said he was a little off the next day, then seemed to be ok again, but then was off again after going up the mountain.  The vet never found out exactly where the lameness was coming from, so they retired him and he's currently got a very pampered life in the pasture with the rest of the mules, well fed and good shelter and they give him a mild pain medication from their vet so he is comfortable.

Let me preface this by saying it is not unusual for a veterinarian to not be able to identify exactly where a lameness is coming from.  This is not because of lack of education by any means, but because lameness is different for every single horse and the causes could be a large number of things that need to be ruled out, and often are only ruled out after extensive, incredibly expensive tests.  I've seen some of these tests and they are fascinating and sometimes extremely informative, but the average horse owner is not going to spend thousands of dollars on ultrasounds, CT scans, X-rays or surgery to pinpoint the cause of lameness in a family horse.  It's just not feasible.  So, I don't by any means think it is odd that there is no definitive veterinary diagnosis in this case.

What I first noticed with JJ is that his right hind end is severely atrophied and his left looks fairly normal.  My first thought is to check his back and his illopsoas area for stress points and scar tissue.  My concern is that if he had some sort of disk injury that compressed some nerves there is nothing I can do to really fix that, but even if that is the case, massage can help the atrophied tissue with increased circulation and if nothing else improve his comfort level.

Here is a photo of JJ from behind.  That isn't shadows or light making it look like his right side dips down dramatically, it really does.  I wanted to take a "before" picture so that I have something to compare to as I work on him.

I didn't do a lot of palpation to start, mostly I just gathered some history on JJ from his owners, Dick and Beth, but I did feel along his back and palpate some of his neck and body, just to say "hi" and get acquainted.  The right side of his neck is very tense and the atrophy seemed to spread almost all the way up to his shoulder.  I didn't have the time to get video of him walking, but I hope to do that before I work on him the first time.  He does have a lot of stiffness in the stifle and hock with that right leg and drags it a little when he walks.   Beth is still waiting to get the refill on his meds from the vet after about a week of not being on them, so I got to see him "at his worst", which really wasn't too bad, but I definitely want to see if I can get him to an even better place with some ideas of what to first try to work on.

I hope to head back over on Tuesday and this is my plan for our first day:  Try to get some video of him walking, take some notes on where I'm seeing the most tension and where he seems the most stuck, and do a full palpation so I can note what I feel.  Then I will make a plan for treatment - either once or twice a week depending on what I find that I can work on.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not Knowing What You Don't Know ...

There's an expression I hear a lot from instructors in the horse world that a hard place for people to be in when you're teaching them is when the "don't know what they don't know".  I used to not understand that expression because when I got back into horses after several years off I was fully aware of how much I had forgotten, and since I had mostly ridden hunter/jumper and never above training level in dressage as a kid, and suddenly I was hanging out with Grand Prix riders, trainers and judges, it was very obvious to me there was a lot I didn't know.

But as I continue to learn, I am realizing more and more what that phrase means, because there is so much about riding that is complex and non-intuitive when you start getting into the higher levels of riding (no matter what the discipline) that as I look back, I realize I would never have figured a lot of this stuff out on my own.  I was thinking about this while reading this article in Dressage Today about half halts.  Half halts are apparently a big mystery to a lot of people and I do wonder if I just don't understand them as much as I should because at this point they make sense to me and thus I wonder if I just don't know enough for them to be a mystery ...  but that's not the point.  The point is, I realized that I would not have understood what they are talking about in this article two year ago.  I would've wondered what the heck they were talking about "driving with your hips - what???"  You mean like when I see people trying to get their horse to go faster by forcing their hips forward so they're bearing down on the horse and pushing their hips up - which does kind of the opposite because it pushes down on the horse's back in the same way that you use your seat to ask for a stop, but then pushes on their back too, which can't feel good.  But no, they aren't talking about that, and I know that now, but two years ago I would have had no idea what they're talking about.   I imagine from the credentials of the writers of the article that they work mostly with upper level riders, and that is who the article is written for, so the writers weren't thinking of dumbing it down for folks like me two years ago.   It's a different world when you're used to working with beginners (and are still somewhat a beginner yourself in the grand scheme of things).

Speaking of being a beginner, I had a riding lesson with a new instructor last week and since I don't have an arena yet and don't have a trailer to haul my Fjord to the instructor, I rode her horse, who is a beautiful, sweet Friesan trained to fourth level.   I have never worn spurs (riders where them at the higher levels for more precise queues and I have so far not been advanced enough to need them) and the instructor said she would like me to wear them.  I have also never ridden in a double bridle, but that's what she rides her horse in so I got the opportunity to try that too.  It went much better than I expected.  My legs were much quieter than I had anticipated, but still when we were doing the free walk at the end of the lesson I felt the horse twitch a little a couple times and I think I may have let my leg stray a little and touch her with the stirrups - it seems awfully coincidental that a fly would land on her and cause her to twitch right by my right ankle  - twice during the free walk nonetheless.  The double bridle was less of a problem because I just kept contact with the snaffle portion of the bridle and left the other reins loose.  Of course, trying to take up contact with one set of reins while leaving the other set loose while walking or trotting was initially a huge challenge that ended up with me flailing around, reins flying everywhere (ok - it wasn't that bad, but it felt like it).

The thing that was so cool for me was that she's such a well trained horse that she responds to the slightest touch and movement.  For instance, I just needed to tighten the muscles in my butt and inner thighs and she'd stop - without any use of the reins or anything.  And I just needed to move my hips in a slightly faster "driving" pace - I'm not sure how to describe that yet - and she'd speed up without any leg aids or with just the slightest little squeeze with my ankles.  That's the kind of thing that makes it feel like you're dancing with the horse, your slightest movement affects their slightest movement and everything becomes fluid.

In other good news, I met with my neighbor today and she agreed to let me use her outdoor arena to work my horses so I don't have to just try to work them in my backyard until we build our arena.  I took my daughter's little POA, Frosty out for his first session on a lunge line and he's obviously had a little practice with that.  He's had more training at it than my Fjord, Geir had when I got him.  But his "I'll do whatever I want!" attitude did come out on the lunge line a few times where he'd suddenly spin and go the opposite direction or decide he was going to bolt and buck and kick out and then take off at a run.  Thankfully, after over a year of dealing with my OTTB doing that, this little pony doing it was nothing and I didn't end up having to do any water skiing around the arena like I did occasionally with Tuff Toad back in the day when she'd suddenly have a case of the yahoos.

Tomorrow I have plans to go ask my neighbor if I can use her mule for the case study.  Fingers crossed she will agree to it.  I'll update with photos and some history and what I'm going to be working on with her soon, if her owner agrees to it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Upcoming Case Study

We are settling into our new little farm quite well.  I've been meeting my neighbors, going for hikes in the forest at the end of our road and riding my Fjord, Geir around the yard for lack of any formal arena to ride in at the moment.  

I had the opportunity to donate a gift certificate to the Vashon Maury Island Horse Association's Annual Competitive Trail Ride and I enjoyed meeting lots of horse folks from around the island.  I am excited to say that the woman who won the event whose prize was my gift certificate also has Fjords!  I'm looking forward to working with her.  I also met a neighbor who may allow me to temporarily use her arena until we get our built so I may be able to teach some riding lessons sooner than I'd expected.  And if not that, then at least I will have a place to work my Fjord and my daughter's little POA, Frosty.  They are both in need of a little regimented exercise other than rides around the yard and running around the pasture together.

I have found a neighbor's equine who I am going to ask her if I can do a case study on her.  She's an older mule and has a bad hip, but they don't know why.  The vet did not have an answer for them, but I haven't gotten all the information yet about what tests she did and what ideas she may have had.  It's very obvious that something happened in the mule's back or hip because one flank is severely atrophied in relation to the other.  I talked to my neighbor about working on her as a trade, but I think I'd like to ask her if I can do a case study, working with the vet of course, to see if we can help the ole girl.  I'm at least very interested to see what's going on with her muscles and see if I can bring her some balance and relief.   She appears to be quite happy and not in pain, but it must still be uncomfortable to have one side hyper-developed and one side atrophied.  I'm very curious to hear what the vet thinks and what she's investigated.

Meanwhile, my daughter's love of donkeys has now spread to a love of mules since we have five living in the pasture across the little dirt road in front of our house.  When I let our horses all out together in the morning, they head up to the end of our third pasture out by the street and talk to their mule friends.  The mules are so sweet and so incredibly cute with their big floppy ears and their delicate little donkey hooves!

Here is a photo of the three amigos hanging out in the front pasture together.  Geir (my Fjord) has been keeping Frosty (the POA) in line.  Frosty can be a real butthead about food and attention and left with just my elderly AQHA, Girlfriend, Frosty will threaten with bites and kicks to keep her away from me and food.  I put him in his place, but Girl seems to appreciate it (and follow the lead) more when another horse puts him in his place.  All Geir has to do is twitch an ear and Frosty knows now he's out of line because Geir is so much bigger than him - and so much more dominant than him.  It's been a surprisingly good dynamic having them together.