Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! I feel more inspired to blog than I have in a long time. Some combination of the new year and a horse that’s beginning to do interesting and exciting things is pretty motivating, I guess.

I closed out 2021 feeling good despite Candy’s death, Woody’s death, a back injury, and struggling to enjoy a new job that was very much not what I had in mind when I earned a degree in finance. While I can’t change the past, I can adjust my present mindset and strive for future improvement. I focused on the things I really like about my job, exercised more regularly, meditated often, and allowed myself to dream about what Madigan’s future looked like.

Christmas Eve trail ride, December 2021

Gina began to slow down over the summer. She turns 25 this year and is sound and in good health, but she’s a little stiffer and a little creakier than she used to be. I decided not to hunt much, if at all, this season. Gina will probably be comfortable going out with third field, but her first field days are behind her. She is still my go-to trail horse and doesn’t hesitate to get after the geldings when she thinks they deserve it.

An innocent face on a wily and devious old horse.

Moe turns 27 in May and continues to enjoy retirement. He is woolly and willful and shamelessly mugs for treats at every opportunity. He’s sound and healthy and still whinnies when he hears me hooking up the horse trailer. I’m so glad I’m able to give him the retirement home he deserves. (Well, he’d probably prefer a retirement home without a rambunctious youngster pestering him.)

Madigan is the real reason for this post. Part of the reason I didn’t blog much last year is because I felt I didn’t have anything interesting to write.

I rode Gina for half an hour. She was a little stiff at the walk but her trot felt as springy as ever!

Moe keeps leaning over the fence to eat grass from the yard. I really need to fix the hotwire.

Madigan cantered at baby school and didn’t look like he’d fall down!

However, over the last couple of months, the gears in Madigan’s head started turning. He filled out a little and gained some control over his mile-long legs. His trot and canter are balanced and confident. The trot to canter transition is so naturally uphill it’s unreal. I think I truly understand the appeal of purpose-bred dressage horses: when nature is working with you instead of against you, things like pirouettes and piaffes don’t seem completely impossible.

Of course, Madigan isn’t even close to doing those things. He’s 3.5 years old and his twice-weekly training rides focus on foundational stuff like maintaining rhythm and relaxation. He’s beginning to learn about lateral movement via leg yield and turn on the forehand. It’s really fun to watch him learn and improve every week!

Conquering ground poles with his trainer.

He’s a joy for me to ride, even though I often feel like I’m struggling to remember how to really ride. Obviously I remember how to stay on, how to post, how to steer, how to stop and go. I struggle to make my body remember how to feel. How it feels when my legs and hands are quiet or when my body is centered or when my reins are even or when my seat bones are connected.

Madigan and I are still adjusting to one another, which I think is normal and expected! He takes care of me as well as a young horse can and I take care of him as much as I’m capable. We will eventually work well as a team. It will just take time and practice. With that in mind, I’m swapping one of his training rides for a weekly lesson.

We have an appointment with a saddle fitter this weekend. I’m optimistic she can make one of my four saddles work. (Although if she can’t, I imagine my favorite Sommer dressage saddle at my former employer is still on consignment, and I know it can be adjusted appropriately.) When the saddle is squared away, we’ll get lessons underway, and hopefully have a fun and successful 2022!

I Rode My Horse

I rode Madigan for the first time last week! And it was a total non-event.

His trainer was out of town training with her trainer, so he had the week off from baby school. He’s had time off before for lameness, trainer vacation, etc. and always been totally fine, so I didn’t feel like I needed to do anything with him. But the idea of riding him has been in my mind for a bit and I figured last week would be a good time to do it. My back and pinched nerve are healed. No lessons were schedule, so the arena would be open and quiet. Madigan’s going well for his trainer.

I pulled him out of the pasture late Thursday afternoon, groomed him, and put my jumping saddle on him. I feel really secure and comfortable in that saddle, which is an Ainsley XC Pro National. It fits almost everything I put it on (because everything I put it on is basically the same shape) and Madigan’s no exception. I don’t think it’ll fit him as a mature adult, but I’m happy to enjoy it while it does!

Every session of baby school starts with some amount of ground work, so I spent about 20 minutes working with him before clipping reins to his halter and bringing him to the mounting block. He stood quietly while I squashed down minor internal panic. (What if he bucks? What if he spooks? Do I remember how to ride??) I got on. He stood there.

It’s nice to be behind chestnut ears again!

We walked a couple of laps around the arena. Steering was a very macro process- I exaggerated the cue with the reins and he slowly turned like a giant boat. Halt and walk worked pretty well. I tripped when I dismounted and fell on my butt; Madigan was unconcerned, which I guess is good?

I rode him again on Sunday with my friend Holly and her horse Semper Fi. He wore my sidepull instead of a halter, which seemed to help with steering. This ride was also a total non-event.

Sad that I removed the leather reins he likes to chew on.

Madigan feels incredibly narrow right now. This doesn’t bother me too much- after all, Moe is also very narrow! But Madigan’s much taller than Moe and lacks Moe’s fun, agile feel. He feels like a 2 x 4 precariously attached to wobbly stilts. I know this will improve as Madigan gets stronger, more balanced, and wider but it’s still kind of a weird feeling to sit.

I’m relieved and excited that riding him is not a big deal. I’m planning to get on him for easy walks once or twice a week in addition to baby school. Hopefully we can hit the trails when the weather cools off!

CPDS East III

There are a lot of nice things about living next to a dressage barn, the least of which is that someone is always going to a show. Madigan’s trainer took five kids to a schooling show on Saturday, so I entered him in the sporthorse in-hand class.

I’m grateful that both GMOs in my area offer in-hand classes at schooling shows. It’s been great to have inexpensive and low-key places to take him! Both this show and the one he attended in May have been very positive experiences.

Madigan was the first of our group to go at 1:45 PM. Saturday’s heat index was over 100°F, so I loaded my cooler with water and sports drinks, crammed a pop-up tent into my car, and slathered on the 90 SPF sunscreen. I pulled Madigan out of the pasture around 11:45 AM to rinse the pond scum off before taking him next door to load him. He hopped right on Space Trailer, my neighbor’s futuristic looking 7-horse rig. I left and headed to the gas station around the corner to buy more ice.

I got to the show first, picked up Madigan’s number, and found a shady place to park. When the horses arrived, Madigan walked off the trailer calmly and was more interested in grazing than what the other five horses he hauled with were doing. We rinsed the horses off, and I tried to make Madigan look presentable. It’s not too hard any more- his mane needs a trim, but his tail is growing nicely and he looks less gawky every day! I bridled him and sent him off to the arena with my neighbor.

The arena at this facility is a big covered affair with a north wall. It’s connected to an uncovered outdoor arena used for warm-up at shows and is maybe 200 yards from the parking area.  Madigan was completely alone, as he was the last horse to go before the lunch break. No horses were warming up, and all of our group’s horses were tied on the side of the trailer he couldn’t see. There was no need to worry, though. He let out a couple of quiet whinnies while he was in the ring, but he wasn’t super distressed.

shoutout to his trainer for doing her best to present him as a horse and not a camel

He fidgeted through the class doing his best giraffe impression. He leaned away from the judge and scribe (I think he wanted to get a better look at them) and alternated between standing with a hind foot cocked up and standing like a newborn foal. He appears to have learned the jog game now- at the show in May, he had to have a whip waved at his hindquarters to jog. At this show, he trotted off in a way that reminded me of the wild babies I saw at Devon!

The judge gave him a 74%, which was fair. (The judge in May gave him a 79%.) He noted that Madigan lacked topline and thought he was cow-hocked and pig-eyed. The judge awarded the trot an 8; I thought this was generous, but he received an 8 at the last show and an 8 as a yearling in the Future Event Horse class. So I guess maybe the trot is an 8 after all! (Shows what I know- I would have pegged it as a 7.) I was a little surprised the judge didn’t comment about Madigan being toed-out in front; maybe he missed it with all the fidgeting, or maybe he thinks it’ll resolve as Madigan’s chest widens.

happy to stand in the shade and eat

After he finished, the lesson kids and horses departed for a dressage seat equitation class and many, many introductory level tests. I sat in the shade while Madigan nibbled hay at the trailer. We eventually wandered over to the show office to pick up our test and ribbon, then hung out by the arena to watch the kids ride.

Madigan made friends everywhere. He was especially interested in the father of one of the kids. The man admitted he wasn’t very familiar with horses but seemed completely tickled when Madigan marched up to him and snuffled his hair. He spent the next few minutes gently petting Madigan’s face.

Later, one kid’s brother pointed at Madigan and announced, “I want to ride that horse!” His mother tried to explain that Madigan wasn’t really ready for riders, but this kid (who was maybe 8?) wasn’t buying it. (Why else would the horse be at a show?!) I told the kid that Madigan was a baby, but once he was an adult, the kid could ride him if he still wanted to.

After the kids finished with their tests, Madigan and I began to walk back to the trailer. I heard someone say, “That’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen!” I looked around, figuring that one of the western dressage riders on a Friesian cross had entered the ring. No other horses were around. The mother of one of the lesson kids gestured at Madigan and said, “He’s just gorgeous! What kind of horse is he?” Who knew the giant baby would be so popular?

I’m really pleased with his behavior at this show. He was fine being alone in the ring and at the trailer. He was fine being led around the show grounds. He was fine trailering with five horses he’d (mostly) never met. I’m going to try to get him out to two more schooling shows for in-hand classes this year, as that will make him eligible for the GMO’s year-end awards. And, you know, it’s good to get him out and about, even if it seems like he doesn’t need it!

Learning to be a riding horse

I’m happy to report that Madigan’s mystery lameness cleared up just as mysteriously as it appeared. He returned to Baby School this month as bright and happy as ever.

Well, he’s surpassed Gina in height for sure.

It’s very exciting to see him begin training under saddle in earnest. He’s ridden in a lightweight western saddle, a rope halter with reins clipped to the sides, and a bridle with a D-ring snaffle and without a noseband over the halter. Currently, his under saddle work is exclusively focused on learning how to stop, go, and steer. He’s a quick learner and has a reasonably good work ethic. It’s obvious when he’s mentally or physically tired, as he becomes unbalanced and a little fussy. He doesn’t have much stamina at this point, so rides are short to keep him engaged and happy.

Last week, the assistant trainer (who’s been riding him for the last few weeks) began asking him for big circles and changes of direction at the trot. Madigan’s steering is pretty reliable at the walk and his trot is looking more balanced every day, so this was a fair ask. He understood the question, but struggled to maintain a rhythmic trot through the circle. He got better as he went and by the end of his ride I could see a glimpse of the nice trot that’s in there somewhere.

This week, he seemed to remember how to trot and turn and keep all legs moving together. Assistant trainer felt he was ready to attempt cantering under saddle. His canter is much more coordinated than it was even six months ago. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen him canter around the pasture, turn, and nearly fall over throughout the last two years. He’s done some canter work on the longe line, but never with a person on his back.

 

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It took a few tries, but he eventually stepped into a reasonably balanced canter on the correct lead. He couldn’t maintain it for long- maybe half a 20 meter circle- but he was calm and unhurried. When asked to canter in the opposite direction, he did so promptly. After that short stint of hard work, assistant trainer jumped off and he was fussed over for being such a good boy.

My favorite thing about this horse is his demeanor. He’s incredibly laid-back- there’s never been any drama, any fuss, any worry about anything he’s been asked to do. There are lots of reasons he’s like this: genetics, kind and consistent handling throughout his life, patient and methodical training. I’m more excited to ride him than I have been for any horse in a long time. Candy was challenging, but not always in a good or fun way. Moe and Gina are utterly reliable and as comforting to sit astride as a cozy sweater is to put on. But Madigan is full of potential! While he certainly won’t achieve the full measure of it with me, I don’t care (and suspect he doesn’t either). I’m excited about the potential of partner, a horse I can have fun with, a worthy successor to Moe.

Madigan’s mystery lameness

In my many years of horse ownership, I’ve never had a horse who needed to see the vet as often as Madigan does. He’s had more injuries in two years than Moe has had in nearly twenty. Thankfully, most have been fairly minor and easily resolved- an abscess here, an upset stomach there. Now he’s going on four weeks of mystery lameness that’s stumped everyone from me to his vet to his trainer.

Johnny strolling with Madigan at the show in May. (Johnny is 6’6.)

Back in late May, Madigan kicked at me when I touched his right stifle. This was very unusual- he’s never been sensitive about being touched anywhere. I assumed he’d bumped his hip unloading at the show the previous week. When the stifle soreness persisted into the next week, I made a vet appointment. In the few days between making the appointment and going to the appointment, he began exhibiting lameness on his right front. I couldn’t find any evidence of injury on his leg or his hoof, so I assumed it was likely an abscess. We had an incredibly wet spring, and Madigan’s favorite pastime is lounging in the pond. He had a couple of abscesses around this time last year, so I felt like this was a reasonable assumption.

Snoot at the vet

At the clinic, I told his vet of my abscess suspicion, and he focused on evaluating the sore stifle. Madigan’s x-rays looked perfectly fine, and my vet advised it was likely just growing pains that would resolve with a couple of days of Bute and turnout. The vet advised soaking and wrapping the hoof to draw the suspected abscess out and sent us on our way.

I threw out my back right after that, so Madigan spent the next week and a half turned out in the pasture (where he lives 24/7 anyway). When I finally felt well enough to hobble over to baby school with him, he seemed fine. He no longer reacted to me touching his stifle and the abscess appeared to have exited through a small hole in his frog. However, he was lame on the right front as soon as he stepped into the arena.

Fortunately, my neighbor had a horse headed to the vet clinic for repro work the next day, so Madigan and I hitched a ride. His vet did a full lameness evaluation- flexions, hoof testers, nerve block. Madigan was extremely sound. The vet noticed a second small hole in his frog, and mentioned that it looked as if a second abscess had drained recently. He theorized that the sandy dirt of the arena might have irritated the abscess holes or that Madigan was still feeling some soreness from the abscesses.

A few days later, I took him back to baby school where he was once again lame in the arena. He wasn’t as lame as he had been, and I sent his vet a video. His vet couldn’t come out until this week (and I didn’t feel great about driving 45 minutes to the vet when I couldn’t sit in my office chair comfortably for more than 10 minutes), and in the interim, Madigan sustained a small scrape on his right front leg. Of course it was hot, swollen, and sensitive when his vet came out on Monday. His vet x-rayed his hoof, which looked completely normal. Madigan was gimpy from the swollen scrape, so his vet gave me some antibiotics and advised Bute for a couple of days. If he’s still lame when he returns to work, his vet will rearrange his schedule to come out and look at Madigan that day to see if he can determine what’s wrong. An MRI might be the next step, but I hope it won’t come to that! (Because holy shit, horse MRIs are expensive.)

extremely majestic!

In the meantime, Madigan is happily turned out, unhappily having antibiotics squirted into his mouth, and probably enjoying time off from his incredibly easy job of being a baby horse.