Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Winter's Walk

It’s been a long, cold, icy winter, and there have been many days when I’ve dreamt of tunnelling into a cave to hibernate. 

Instead, on “nicer” days, I force myself to get out for a walk.  I’d like to take Muscade with me, but at 15, she can’t handle walking for more than a few minutes at a time.  So, for company, I decided that this winter, I’d bring the horses with me on my walks.  That way, we’d all get some exercise, and I could work on the horses’ ground manners at the same time.

The first time I took Maggie out for a walk was a beautiful sunny afternoon sometime in December.  There was lots of fresh, fluffy snow on the ground, so I free-lunged her for awhile in Murray’s paddock first (which, as it turns out, is a great stand-in for a round-pen).  She trotted and cantered happily through the snow, and managed to work up a bit of a sweat.  I planned on a nice walk together to cool her down.

Across the road from our place, a path had been plowed through our neighbour’s hayfield.  It leads to the woods, to an area where logs are cut and trees harvested.  The packed snow made for perfect footing, and I was curious to see how far into the woods the path went.  So, I secured a wool cooler to Maggie’s back, tied the rope halter around her head, shoved a handful of treats into my pocket, and off we went.  While we walked, I worked with Maggie, practicing getting her to halt or walk on command, with very little pressure from me.  I praised her for her efforts with treat after treat.  We were relaxed, and enjoying ourselves. 

Once we crossed the field to the tree-line, the path narrowed a bit.  De-limbed trees were stacked in neat piles on either side of what was left of the path.  I wondered for a minute whether it was a familiar scene for Maggie—who I was told had been used to haul logs out of the woods before we got her.  We walked on for another 30 feet or so, and came to the end of the plowed path.  The road itself continued through the trees and around a turn, but it hadn’t been cleared recently.  I could see sunlight streaming in through the trees where the path started to curve, and I wondered whether there was a clearing ahead.  It was such a beautiful day that I didn’t feel ready to turn back.  So, I urged Maggie forward into the un-packed snow.    

I didn’t realize just how deep that snow would be.  After a few steps, I tripped on what I assume was a log, invisible to me under the snow.  Maggie and I both stumbled blindly over it and onto the other side.   Suddenly, we had dropped down into snow that was up to my waist, and Maggie’s belly.  We staggered on for another 20 or 30 feet, trying to find more stable footing, but the ground was uneven, and the snow too deep.  We wiggled and waded on the narrow path, and managed to turn around to face back toward the field.  That’s when Maggie’s homing instinct kicked in and she showed me what 1300 pounds of pulling power can do.  She dropped her head, threw her shoulders forward, and with a squeal, she lurched ahead in a leaping motion.  She built up momentum and started hauling herself out through the snow like that in a very efficient fashion.  The only problem was that I couldn’t keep up.  I felt her lean into the rope halter as I grabbed the nylon lead with both hands, but I lost my grip as I stumbled clumsily through the snow. The lead slipped through my hands and I had visions of Maggie running free through the field, careening across the road, and then falling on our icy driveway. 

Luckily, there was a knot in the end of the lead, and I grabbed for it as I turned my head to avoid the snowballs flying through the air in Maggie’s wake.  My arm was yanked forward as Maggie bounded ahead of me. I yelled “whoa,” and hung on with all my strength.  She kept going, towing me through the deep snow as she went.  Finally she reached the buried log.  She gave one last leap, and landed on solid footing, dragging me with her.  But my feet got tangled in the log and I fell onto my knees.  I expected Maggie to pull the rope from my hand at any moment.  But she didn’t.  She just stood there with swirls of steam rising from her sweaty body, her sides heaving from her efforts. She waited while I got to my feet and caught my breath.  Then she turned her head toward me with a look that clearly said “don’t I get a reward for hauling your useless two-legged body out of the snow?”  So, I reached into my pocket and fished out several tiny treats for her.  Then, with jelly-like legs (at least on my part), we walked calmly back to the barn. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Winter Riding

Technically, spring arrived almost a week ago, but tell that to the blizzard raging outside. 
Since we moved here, I’ve been doing less and less winter riding.  I don’t have an indoor riding ring, so there are valid reasons for not hopping on the horses’ backs:  too much ice, too much snow, too much cold, too much wind.   But if I’m completely honest with myself, those are just excuses.  The real reason I’m not riding as much in the winter is that I’ve lost my nerve. 

When we first moved here, I jumped on a barely-broke Maggie, bareback, in the middle of the winter, with just a halter and leadline, and we hacked pleasantly up and down the road.  Despite the fact that she’d only been ridden 5 or 6 times, I didn’t think twice about it. 

During our second winter here, a week or so after adding Jaava to our little herd, I did the same thing with her—though in the ring, not on the road.  I even took Murray out a few times (fully saddled and bridled).   During those first few winters, I rode at least once or twice a week, except in the iciest of conditions.  Last winter, I rode less.  This winter, I’ve only ridden Maggie once or twice since November.  I haven’t ridden Murray or Jaava at all.

Now, Mr Florida-born Murray finds it highly distasteful that I would even consider riding him outside in the snow, where the footing is questionable, anyway.  So, I don’t mind giving him the winter off.   As for Jaava, she’s having some hoof problems, and I don’t want to ride her until her feet improve, so I have no guilt about giving her this winter off either.  But, I could be riding Maggie more.  We had lots of snow this year, and much less ice than usual—good conditions for winter riding.  Mind you, it’s also been extremely cold, which has given me a good excuse to huddle indoors, but that wouldn’t have stopped me a few years ago.  I know the real reason I’ve stayed off her back.  It’s because she’s managed to intimidate me. 

In the four years since we got Maggie, her health has really improved, and so has her confidence, and her strength.  Now, when she’s not worked regularly, she gets pretty exuberant.  And, with 1300 pounds of horsepower, exuberance isn’t always a good quality.  

December 2012

This was when I realized that Maggie, in an exuberant mood, might be a tad more than I want to handle.   

It’s early December.  It’s a brisk, but calm fall day. Due to a combination of circumstances, Miss Maggie hasn’t been ridden in several weeks.  I feel bad that I’ve been neglecting her and I decide it's time we go for a ride.  I consider lungeing her, but sometimes, on the lunge line, she tries to make a beeline for the gate, and I worry that someday she’ll yank the line from my hands and run free back to the barn.  I worry she’ll somehow maim herself in the process. I also consider riding her in the ring, but it’s a bit muddy, and I’d rather not ruin the footing. So, I decide we’d both be better off if we just go for a ride down the road.

I use the concrete crock that covers our well as a mounting block, and Maggie and I head peacefully down the driveway.  We have a pleasant outing, until we get to the bottom of the hill, and I turn her around to come home.  As we turn, I feel Maggie gather herself underneath me, then I hear the high-pitched squeal she sends out as a warning that she’s about to explode.  The next thing I know, we’re careening out-of-control up the hill, with her still squealing.  After a few strides, I manage to pull her up, but that only frustrates her.  Angry now, she tosses her head from side to side, and starts rearing and bucking on the spot.  I’ve sat to a lot of horses’ bucks, but hers are definitely among the most violent….and powerful.  I make a few attempts to walk her in circles in the road to settle her, but each time her nose points uphill, she squeals and bucks, then tries to bolt again.

I keep readjusting my seat in the saddle, but I worry that if this onslaught keeps up, I might hit the ground.  I’m even more worried that if I do fall, Maggie will hurt herself on the way back up to the barn (I am not foolish enough to think for a moment that she would stick around and wait for me to get up).  Somewhere between bucks, I intentionally hop off.  Maggie huffs indignantly, and tries to tear the reins from my fingers.  I manage to hold on, but every few steps, she squeals, kicks her hind legs up in teh air, and tugs again at the reins.   About halfway up the hill toward home, I finally feel like I have her tentatively under control.  She’s still practically vibrating with energy, but she grudgingly manages to contain herself.  When we get back home, we’re both a little breathless.  I take her to the riding ring, get on, and mud-be-damned, I trot around on her until I feel that excess energy start to drain away. Then, I ride her back down the driveway and out into the road.  She walks cooperatively down the hill, and with no further shenanigans we turn around and head for home.  

 When it was all over, I laughed at Maggie’s “freshness”.  Our neighbour, who was sitting in his tractor, in the field by the road, and who likely witnessed the whole scene, probably had a few chuckles too.  Since then, Maggie and I have had lots of great, non-eventful rides together, rides where she is her usual, lazy self.  But, there have been a few cold days, riding out on the road, where I’ve felt the fire-breathing dragon begin to emerge again. She’s never acted with quite as much fury as she did during that ride in December, but as much as I hate to admit it, the memories of those out-of-control moments have stayed with me.  I’m genuinely anxious for spring to arrive, so I can start riding regularly again.  But in the meantime, I know I’ve been making excuses to avoid anymore wild, winter rides.  Instead, I’ve taken advantage of the nicer days to hand-walk her up and down the road.  Of course, those walks don’t always work out so well either…but that’s a whole other story.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Boots Made for Walking

"Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world"~~ Marilyn Monroe

Early Spring 2011
Minute by minute, the days are getting longer. The sun's ever strengthening rays have melted most of the snow, but they still aren't powerful enough to soften the still-frozen ground. I slip Maggie's halter from her head as I turn her loose. She stumbles and cringes as she navigates her way across the the paddock-- where the ground is a rutted mess of frozen clay. Finally, she makes her way to a pile of hay beside the run-in shed. She stands there for most of the day.

When I bring the horses in at the end of the day, instead of rushing to the gate and jockeying for position, she hangs back. Once the others are in, I walk out to the shed to get her. The edges of her feet are breaking up, and small pieces of hoof are missing. She walks forward reluctantly, gingerly, each step deliberate as she searches for a smooth piece of ground to place her tender feet. She looks extremely lame. Thankfully, as soon as we're out of the frozen-clay paddock, and onto the much smoother path, she picks up the pace and walks normally.

Murray's oblivious to the rough, rutted ground. He has shoes with rubber pads, so he has much more protection. Like Maggie, Jaava is barefoot, but her hooves are smaller, and in typical pony-fashion, much tougher. She occasionally takes a tender step, but for the most part, she bucks, rears, and runs with as much spunk as usual. It's just Maggie, with her naturally brittle hooves and tender soles who appears tortured by Jack Frost's unwillingness to relinquish his final grip on winter.

After a second day of watching Maggie navigate painfully around the paddock, I'm worried. Her hooves were in terrible shape when we bought her. There were deep cracks running from her toes to her coronary bands, and large chunks of wall were missing. Between regular visits from our diligent farrier, a balanced diet, and ample servings of hoof supplements, her feet are finally starting to look normal. I don't want a few days on hard, uneven ground to undo all the progress.
For the next few weeks, I separate her from the other two, leaving her alone to meander on the smoother, softer sand that covers her small paddock. She's lonely, and she's also without shelter on cold, wet, or windy days. It's a poor trade-off, but at least she's not in pain. I'm relieved when the ground finally softens and turns to slippery, squelching mud. I tell myself I should look into hoof boots so we don't have to go through this again. But of course, I don't.

Early Summer 2011

They've regraded our road again, only this time, they've covered the soft dirt with a layer of sharp, blueish stone. I'm not impressed. One of these razor-like stones pierces our truck tire. Even worse, when I try to take Maggie for her usual workout up-and-down the hill, she stumbles and trips. She jerks her head up in pain as the rough edges of the rocks press into the soles of her dinner-plate-like hooves. After a few metres, we turn around. Maggie loves the road work, but it looks like we're confined to our soft, sandy ring for the foreseeable future.
I need to find a way to toughen Maggie's tootsies. I could put shoes on her, but I don't really want to. Shoes are expensive, and since she's not competing, and she's fine without them most of the time, they seem unnecessary. Besides, she's eight years old and as far as we know, she's never worn shoes. She may not take kindly to having a smokey piece of iron nailed onto the wall of her hoof.

I have heard of hoof boots, and I think they might just be the fix I'm looking for. I don't know much about them so I do some research. I discover several companies which make them. My favourite boot, by far, is the colourful, bionic looking "Renegade" (I have my heart set on "Burgundy Blitz"). Alas, Renegade doesn't make boots to fit her large, draft-cross hooves...nor do any of the other brands I come across. It turns out that finding a boot for Maggie is as difficult as trying to fit one of Cinderella's dainty glass slippers onto the elephant-like feet of her evil step sisters.

October 2011
Autumn arrives, and Maggie is still bootless. The first early frosts harden the rutted clay in the paddocks, and my big mare chooses her path more carefully. I kick myself for dallying on the boots, and I renew my search for something that will fit. In desperation, I send an e-mail with Maggie's measurements to the "Easy Care" hoof boot company. I ask whether they make anything for her wide, round hooves. Within days, I receive a response-- I'm told that size 4 BOA boots should do the trick.

The boots aren't cheap, and I'm indecisive, so I put off ordering them for awhile, but when the ground begins to freeze in earnest, I dig out my credit card and order a pair. Her front feet are much more sensitive than her hind, so I buy boots to fit those feet first. I hope to put-off buying the hind ones until the spring.

It takes almost three weeks for her boots to arrive. Maggie stands patiently on the cross-ties while I try to wrestle her hooves into the boots for a good five minutes. I can get her feet partway in, but no matter how I twist, turn, pull, push, and shove, I cannot get her hooves all the way into the boots. I stop, I re-read the instructions. I check the size of the boots, and check the measurements required for that size. She's at the maximum width for those boots, but still, they should fit--barely.

I try again. After another ten minutes or so, I'm sweating, and swearing, and Maggie is becoming less and less willing to hold up her hooves for me. The boots are undeniably too small. I angrily throw the boots in a corner in the tack room, where I try to forget about them for a few days.

I consider sending the boots back. But the shipping and customs fees alone would cost a fortune, and they're already slightly scuffed. I decide to try again, but this time, I put the boots on her slightly smaller hind feet. According to the measurements, they should be a size three. Instead, they fit perfectly into the size four boots intended for her front feet. I look at the measurements for the size 5 boots. By rights, those boots should be too big for her. But if the size fours are too small, what other option do I have? I sigh, and decide to order the bigger boots. At least the boots are on sale now. I buy them at almost 50% off.

The weeks go by. I try the boots on Maggie's hind feet several times. They're still not easy to put on, but they stay firmly in place, and she barely seems to notice they're there. Finally, the larger boots arrive. Despite the fact that these boots are quite a bit larger, it still takes me a solid ten minutes to shove her hooves into them. They're a bit big and clunky, but they'll have to do.

Late Winter/ Early Spring 2012
As soon as the winter winds die-down, and the sun softens the ice, I take Maggie for a ride down our rocky road. There's no wincing, no stumbling, no sudden head-bobbing. We walk, trot, and even chance a small canter, accompanied by a large buck. Maggie is feeling no pain. Despite her antics, the boots stay firmly in place. Now, regardless of whether the ground is a rutted, frozen mess, or a hard, rocky trail, Maggie has the right boots for the occasion. But I'm glad she doesn't need them every day because I still break into sweat trying to pull them on.