Thursday, January 29, 2015

Equestrian Dads: How to manage non-horsey family members!

First of all, let me say that I am aware there are fathers and sons who participate in equestrian sport and I am envious of those families.  However, the overwhelming majority of us are more familiar with the mom and daughter scenario so that is the one I will address.

I myself have a husband and two sons who DO NOT PARTICIPATE IN EQUESTRIAN SPORTS.  I actually cannot emphasize that enough.  I require them to attend one show per season and I try to make it a show that is close by and exciting, usually a full event with some cross country jumping to watch.  This past summer I also made all of them volunteer at the horse trials our barn hosts which did not turn out to be a total disaster though my track running son sprained his ankle and blew much of his season!  Likewise, Elizabeth and I attend at least one Cross Country meet or track meet per boy per season.  Everyone seems pretty content with this arrangement.

In the typical situation such as ours, one must always be thinking about maintaining the balance and familial support for a sport that seriously skews allocation of resources.  My daughter's sport - eventing - takes a huge chunk out of both our family financial resources and my time since I am her groom, Pony Club sponsor and horse taxi driver.  While I drop my sons off for karate and they participate in sports at school, I take Elizabeth to the barn 6 days a week and sit there while she does her thing.  Eventually, and quite soon really, she will be old enough to drop off at the barn but the distance means there is little point in trying to go home and come back again.  Most weekend days we are out doing something with Pony club or off at a show so the boys are on their own and my husband drives them around, cooks, grocery shops, does a terrible job with my laundry.  And the cost of horses, board, shoes (horse shoes, known around the barn as Jimmy Choos because wishful thinking isn't a crime), saddles and lessons means I can never buy enough running or karate gear to make everyone even so I just let the boys have a blank check for running gear.  How much could it possibly be?

I work hard to keep up with Elizabeth's horse needs and to not absolutely neglect my boys and husband.  We have actually set up a routine that works really well for us.  Through all of it though, I never lose sight of what a key member of the team my husband is, even if he is an absent member to a great extent.  The reality is that I don't work, my husband hates horses, and he is paying enormous sums of money to support our daughter's passion.  My husband is successful but not so much so that we don't feel the pain of the expense of owning a horse.  We have to make other sacrifices in our lives in order to provide this opportunity for our daughter.  We are happy to make those choices.  In our case they aren't that terrible - we don't take big vacations, the kids don't go to private high school (they did go to private middle school), and we won't be redoing our kitchen or bathrooms.

So when I think about the horse Dads and how to get them to jump down the rabbit hole and then persuade them to continue throwing money into what is clearly a bottomless pit, these are the things that seem to keep my husband on board:

1) Our daughter never has a day she doesn't want to go to the barn.  She never complains about needing to go ride or lunge her horse, even when it is 20 degrees or when it is cold and raining or so hot she feels like she's melting.  How can you say no to a kid who wants to go get dirty and work hard no matter how unpleasant the day may be?

2) Horses are clearly Elizabeth's passion.  Our daughter works hard.  When it comes to the horse and Pony Club she is focused, determined, and tireless.  If she isn't riding she's cleaning tack or studying for Quiz Rally (see past post on Pony Club) or her next Pony Club rating.  How great to find your passion and have the ability to pursue it at such a young age!  

3) Horses don't engage in social drama.  Middle school is awful.  Our daughter transitioned from private elementary school to public middle school.  She got her first pony just before the transition and it saved her from extreme heart ache.  Everyday I pick her up from school to head to the barn.  Some days at school are ok and some are awful.  That's the scale.  So we head to the barn, she does her thing, and presto, happy adolescent child.  Any amount of money is worth it if gets her through middle school unscathed.

4) There are no boys at the barn.  Maybe there's a boy sometimes but it's not the same thing.  Having a horse puts off boys.  It puts off many social aspects of adolescence.  It takes a ton of time to be a responsible equestrian.  We spend Friday nights cleaning tack and braiding before a show.  No time for boys and parties.

5) The average horse girl is a better friend option than other average adolescents.  Elizabeth only cares about horses so she is happiest hanging out with her Pony Club friends who also care about horses.  And guess what?  Those girls also have no interest in boys and are too busy to go to parties on weekends.  Love the horse girls!!  And we love their parents because most of them are just great people who love their kids and work really hard to support them in their equine passion.

6) My adolescent daughter and I have become best friends.  This is something my husband was really worried about a few years ago.  He and our daughter have always had a special bond but we all know how awful girls can be to their mothers.  Now Elizabeth needs me.  Not only do I drive her to the barn every day.  I sit through every lesson.  I go to every show.  I help her make decisions about the care of her horse.  I helped her find the horse and convinced her father to buy it.  I am as interested in her horse and her achievements in Pony Club as she is.  Her school friends don't really get it so I'm the one she can talk to about all of it and I'm genuinely interested.  Once in awhile when I can scrounge up a horse for myself we go out for a hack together.  These are the best times of my life.  I love sharing this with Elizabeth and she welcomes having me along for the ride.

7) So this on isn't a reason to support our daughter having a horse but it's an important note to mom's working to keep the peace in a mostly non-horse household.  We never complain to Dad.  We also try - but we need to do better - to never be mean to Dad.  Elizabeth can get very stressed out and tired at times.  There are a thousand lessons she is learning from riding her horse, eventing and Pony Club and some of them come with anxiety and fatigue.  But we NEVER take it out on Dad.  His tolerance for his daughter being rude to him when he pays for her horse is very low.  So I take the brunt of it.  I get it.  I am there every step so I usually understand when she's lashing out because it's safe to attack me.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't put up with much and I put her right back in her place but I'm very careful to take note of her moods and head off any conflict before it reaches her father.  He would be only too glad to have an excuse to pull the plug.

8) I don't think I was dishonest with my husband when I dragged him into this whole thing but I wasn't entirely forthright either.  As we have progressed, things have gotten more expensive, complicated and time consuming.  I got him into it incrementally.  He was fine with my original budget and it has gone up slowly, so he hasn't noticed too much.  Although, just yesterday he told me he knew what I was spending.  His number was closer than I thought it would be though it was still pretty far off the real number.  There's a page in the Pony Club record book where the kids keep track of all their expenses - board, shoes, tack, training, shows, etc. - and they tally it up before a rating.  Dad is never allowed to see that page.  I try to keep the spending in check and I honestly think he'd rather not know the truth.

9) I know I could not do this for my daughter if my husband and my sons weren't super awesome, tolerant and independent.  I believe I taught them some of these qualities but still, I'm grateful that none of them happen to have activities which require more than I can give while supporting Elizabeth.

At the end of the day what my husband sees is that his daughter has passion, commitment, she works hard, has overcome fear, improves her abilities through practice and effort, has made friendships we as parents can embrace.  These are all amazing things.  And horses, the amazing creatures that they are, give us all of them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Horse is Lame (and not in the middle school sense of being uncool, I mean lame, unable to do what I want him to do!)

So here's the thing: everything with horses is complicated.  Once in awhile you get an uncomplicated horse or maybe, if you aren't really doing a whole lot, the horse is able to go along with your plans pretty easily.  But if you are competing in any of the many equine sports out there, at some point, your horse is going to have some issues.

When we say our horse is "lame" it reminds me of when my kids were babies and we called them colicky if they cried all the time.  Colic in human babies is not in any way a specific diagnosis.  It basically means I have a crabby baby who cries all the time but we can't find anything that is actually wrong with him so we think maybe he has a permanent stomach ache and basically I never get to sleep!  So it goes with a lame horse.

The generic term lameness covers just about everything.  A horse can be lame from simple soreness from a bad shoeing, or maybe the saddles aren't fitting properly.  Often older horses who have competed heavily have arthritic changes in their joints, most commonly their hocks but just as likely their SI or their back.  Lyme can cause stiffness that presents as lameness.  A bone spur, an abscess, ulcers, you name it.  There are as many possibilities as bones in the horse's body.  If your horse is unable to do his job, he's lame.

Photo by Amanda Sylvia
My daughter got an awesome new horse a few months ago.  A 10 year old mare, Quizz will be Elizabeth's partner for at least the next 6 years.  She's big, athletic, talented and has the greatest attitude of any horse ever, not that I'm biased or anything.  Sadly, shortly after we started working with Quizz, something wasn't right.  It was never not right all the time.  But sometimes, you could swear she took a funny step.  Then it all seemed fine again.  Some days she couldn't seem to pick up the canter without bucking but the next day she would be amazing.  We brought in a masseuse, a vet/acupuncturist, we refit saddles, bought a fancy new saddle.  Then we thought maybe it was a stone bruise (a bruise or soreness in the hoof) so we gave her some time off and poulticed her front hoof which seemed to help only to have her go lame again a few weeks later.

This seems to be a pretty typical scenario.  We had several people look her over.  Everyone had a different idea about what might be wrong.  This is also pretty typical.  The thing is, the horse can't tell you with words what is happening.  For a horse like Quizz to refuse to canter, you know something is wrong, she's telling you that much, but figuring out what is like a great whodunnit mystery.  Even with the best available diagnostics (we took Quizz to Tufts for a bone scan) you don't really know what's going on with the horse.  In Quizz's case she had inflammation in her bones in several places but none of it severe enough to be the cause of her issues.  Just because it shows up on the scan doesn't mean it bothers her.  So it's all guess work.  The best we can do is to gather experts we trust, accept their best guess and come up with a plan of action.

In Quizz's case we decided to be pretty aggressive.  We injected her neck, back and SI (it's like your sciatica) to get the inflammation under control.  The vet came out and administered a course of Tildren which is an old human drug now being used as a fancy new equine drug the purpose of which is to inhibit the growth of new bone in order to prevent old bone from decaying, at least from what I can tell.  In humans it's used to treat osteoporosis but in horses it's used to treat just about everything and the consensus is that the horses feel better but honestly no one really knows why.

In addition we will be changing farriers and giving Quizz new shoes.  When all is said and done, almost everyone we have consulted agrees her issues probably started in her feet.  And let that be a lesson to you.  If their feet aren't comfortable, it throws off everything else and eventually (within a very short period of time really) you have a huge mess.

And then there are the saddles.  Through all of this I keep doing what I can to make sure the saddles are fitting her as well as possible.  Quizz has as super long back and her withers go to the middle of the saddle so she's tough to fit.  The challenges are numerous. When she's in pain she moves funny so the saddle doesn't fit.  She's lopsided so the saddles don't fit.  As she gets back into shape her body changes and the saddles don't fit.  I have had several people examine our saddles.  Among them there is absolutely no consensus.  Each says something a little different, approaches fit from a different angle.  Unfortunately, none of them feels the expensive new jump saddle I bought is a great fit for her but the hope is that when her feet feel better, the saddles will too.  For now I'm taking that on faith and trusting my experts because I'm exhausted by all of this and just need to believe it will all resolve.

Now we are starting down the road toward rehabilitation.  So far, it's been great.  Quizz is definitely doing better than she was before all the treatment and the expectation is that it takes 4 weeks for the benefits of the treatment to be fully realized.  We expect even more improvement as her new farrier makes her more comfortable.  We are spending lots of time with her on the lunge line and lunging her in a Pessoa (a fancy contraption which resembles a torture device but isn't) which is great for several reasons.  Firstly, it's great for the horse, her condition and strength, and building the muscles in her back which is difficult to do with a rider on board.  Secondly, it's an important skill for my daughter to learn and one she will be required to demonstrate proficiency in for her pony club rating a couple of years from now.  It's also one of those things that not that many people really spend time on and even fewer really know how to do it properly.  It's really super amazingly great for the horse and they can often do better work on the ground than they can under saddle.  I'm sensing an entire post on lunging in my future.  So we are taking advantage of this opportunity to make lunging a major part of Quizz's routine moving forward.

At this point, that's all the personal experience I have with lameness.  For the most part this experience has served to illustrate the challenges of parenting a horse kid with limited personal horse knowledge.  I'm actually pretty lucky.  We have a phenomenal trainer, Erika, who has been involved with horses for over 30 years.  She's amazing and incredibly generous with her time and support, guiding us, introducing us to professionals who may have something to add, helping us sift through all the information, loaning us her gut feeling when ours is inadequate and working to keep our emotions in check and help us understand that with horses, these things take time, lots and lots of time.  We also have the world's greatest pony club.  The other pony club families are a phenomenal resource of experience, information and moral support.  Even so, with the best people by my side every step of the way, I panic.  Did I do something wrong?  Did I make some mistake that another person would have known not to make?  Should I have known we needed a different farrier sooner (actually I think we all knew this a few months ago but changing farriers is often a complicated business)?  Should I have been more patient about buying a jump saddle?  Did I just waste thousands of dollars on useless tack?  Is my husband going to divorce me as a result? Did I wreck my daughter's horse?  Did I just do a bunch of crazy expensive treatments when a new set of shoes was all the horse needed? Some of these questions sound totally irrational but I'm telling you every one of them has run through my head and kept me up at night.

If lameness has found its way into your horse experience, my sympathies are with you.  The best we can do as people newish to horses is to hire good people.  Find experts you can trust.  At a minimum you need a great trainer, vet and a great farrier.  Your trainer is sort of like your general contractor.  She will find the subcontractors you need if you run into trouble and she will be the guiding hand in your program.  It is useful to have a saddle fitter and I found our masseuse to be a font of valuable knowledge.  We also now rely on a back up vet who specializes in lameness.  She has quickly become an important member of our team.  Make your experts communicate with each other.  I like it when I have several of my experts together.  I like to hear them talk things through.  It makes me feel good and I always learn something from the experience.

And try through it all to keep a sense of humor and remember life is long and horses are worth it.

Where have you been? The ranting mother catches you up on the year that lapsed between posts!

As anyone who has ever blogged knows, starting is easy, sustaining the momentum is another thing.  Just after I last posted, my daughter and I hit our one year anniversary at the eventing barn where we board, she hit her stride with her pony and I had said about all I had to say for awhile.  In that first year I learned so many tangible, practical things and I loved sharing them.

In the second year, the lessons have been less concrete, though no less essential and impactful.  And we continue to learn.  I look forward to sharing these lessons over the coming months.

So last spring began with my daughter's awesome little pony taking off while jumping with her on his back.  She held on and in the end, she was ready for that lesson.  The little girl who had been broken by such behavior from a pony in the past emerged from the winter more confident, determined and ready to take whatever her pony dished out.

We bought a bigger trailer.  I had always known that with a daughter who wanted to event a dressing room would be essential.  It just took us awhile to work my husband around to our way of thinking.

Elizabeth and Pumba in July.
Elizabeth took her pony away to camp in Vermont.  When I picked her up she was like a whole new kid.  Her confidence had soared and she was ready to move up a level.  She was also several inches taller and starting to outgrow her beloved pony.

We had a great season with excellent instruction at pony club meetings, a trip to Kentucky and the Kentucky Horse Park for Pony Club Championships where her quiz team came in 7th in the country! Elizabeth competed at her first few USEA sanctioned horse trials.  At the first one, her pony took off across the cross country course with her and I was worried, amazed and proud as I watched her work through the tools in her tool box until she found one that worked.

Elizabeth and Quizz at their first horse trials together in October.
By the fall Elizabeth had truly outgrown her pony, both in size and in his ability to compete at the level she was ready for.  In August we stumbled upon the perfect horse to be Elizabeth's next partner. We were extremely lucky!!!  Elizabeth began her new partnership with Quizz and Pumba found a new home in Hamilton, Massachusetts.  In case you are not aware, it's never that easy.  We took it as a sign that it was all meant to be but perhaps nothing is ever truly easy.  We are now on a new journey, complete with twists and turns and unforeseen complications.  

And here I leave you with my promise to try again.  A new year, another resolution, and hopefully one I can fulfill.