it’s the brain for me

I’m almost caught up on late-October Speedy adventures, just in time for another visit! Later this week I will head down for a groundwork/horsemanship clinic that was supposed to happen last month, but got rained out. I’m very excited we managed to reschedule while Speedy would be with my MIL though, as her groundwork person is fabulous, and I’ve had trouble scheduling up here as all our good cowboys are retiring which has left the other horsemanship trainers extra busy.

On Wednesday of my first week with Speedy (October 27th), we planned to haul out to a local HJ trainer/friend’s place for a jump lesson. By the time Wednesday morning rolled around I was not so sure a jump lesson was a good idea. I’d trotted and cantered Speedy over a pole to test out a new jump saddle, and upon seeing the pole he promptly inverted and stopped moving over his topline. Which was, honestly, very understandable. We had done nothing but focus very specifically on changing the shape of his body and the muscles he uses to get around in a very controlled and specific way — that is, large circles and short straight lines — and then just four days into that new paradigm we threw a pole at him and he said “the only way I know how to address this problem is the way I’ve always addressed this problem”.

so cute to the fences

I know that better movement patterns over fences will come with time and practice. And I figured that at the very least, the jump lesson would give me a chance to focus on my jump position a bit and there would be little harm done to Speedy’s progress in the long run if we let him run around inverted for one day.

He was a dream to haul. Got right in the trailer and rode backwards in the slant (MIL got a wild hair to see if that would be a viable option in her trailer), then got out quietly when we arrived. Which is exactly what Speedy did when I saw him at the gel√ęndeplatz at Luhm√ľhlen — got off the trailer, looked around quietly, and then looked for a snack. His trainer specifically said to me “this is what he is like everywhere”, but I kinda didn’t believe him. I was wrong.

Right next to the arena, a cell network had staff servicing their cell tower with a crane lift and dues in harnesses. Speedy looked at them for about two seconds, decided they were not food and therefore were not worth attention, and ignored them for the rest of the ride.

The lesson itself was not great. HJ trainer — and I really feel like she did this in the best-intentioned way — recognized immediately that Speedy’s weakness is not moving over his topline and into the contact, and set about trying to help me fix that. Unfortunately, she took a completely different tack than MIL has been taking, but which also happened to be different from the way Speedy’s old trainer coached me to ride him. Since Speedy’s natural inclination is not just to come over his topline and drop into the connection, I didn’t get many opportunities to “follow and reward” him like she wanted me to. And since I’m not used to using my body the way HJ trainer was instructing, I couldn’t take as many of those opportunities as Speedy was offering me. It was…. not the best.

Speedy never stopped trying once, though. He did suggest maybe we could walk more (we could have, it was a pretty intense lesson) and he did break from the canter to the trot as I flailed around in the borrowed saddle trying to corral different parts of him. I hit him unnecessarily hard with the end of the reins at one point (a combo accident-frustration flail), I pony club kicked him when he didn’t move forward off my leg, I stuck my spur into him when instructed. And at no point did he offer to bolt, buck, or take the completely valid excuse of those construction guys and spook.

so cute over the fences!

The next day I made a point of taking extra time to fuss over Speedy while grooming him and made our ride very short and very rewarding (there were cookies). I could tell he was a titch unhappy to be getting tacked up again (chewing on the cross ties more than usual) and he didn’t offer me any prosocial grooming behaviors, but he was perfectly polite in the cross ties and quiet and responsive under saddle. Murray would have been running away from me during saddling or bridling for sure after that lesson (I used a bit he didn’t like for one ride and he refused to be bridled for two days afterward). I know my standards for pony behavior are kinda low, but this horse just has the best brain and attitude and gatdamn I am so glad I bought him.

The other thing this lesson reminded me of is that I really, really need to trust my gut and stick up for my horse when I think he needs it. I protected Murray by being very careful of the training/lesson/clinic situations I put him in, because he had a very special pair of very special kid gloves he needed to be very specially handled with, and I always made sure that new trainers or clinicians knew that he was one of those. I didn’t say anything during this lesson because of some slightly complicated social elements, but there were times in the lesson when I thought I should, and upon more reflection, I know I should have. I’m a fairly good communicator; I should be able to explain pretty clearly why I think something isn’t working for me and my horse. If a trainer can’t explain why this particular lesson is important enough to keep chipping away at or pivot and offer me something that I think is better for the horse, then I have to remember that I’m just fine walking away from that lesson.

Luckily, I don’t think there’s any permanent damage done. I think there’s a pretty solid path back to Speedy’s heart with treats, at least right now. It was worth my time to know how good Speedy will be off property and with shenanigans going on around him, and to remember that I do know a thing or two about horses that is worth piping up about.

notorious ottb tries massage

One (of the many) thing that Murray has made quite clear to me over the years is that he doesn’t really appreciate human touch.¬† He loves to groom and play bitey face with other horses, is very interested in snuggle time with doggos and cats, but would really prefer if we humans just touched him as little as possible.

Which does make riding challenging.¬† But it also means that trying to help Mr. Heisenberg¬†work out the soreness, muscular imbalances, or other weird-body-stuff that might be hindering his movement and comfort is a real challenge.¬† I got Murray a couple of massages back in 2014 and 2015, he pretty much hated them and didn’t improve after them, so I figured I’d just leave him to his tense, sore devices forever.

doesn’t want to be mellow

I chatted with one of the local body work experts, Andrea, about this exact problem during someone else’s appointment (I end up holding a lot of horses for her so it’s a good opportunity to chat). She’s seen Murray being his standard gooftacular self enough that she thought she could come up with a plan.¬† It also helps that she’s a GP dressage rider and former trainer.¬† So I made an appointment with her!

We started by watching Murray on the lunge line (and I was terribly pleased that he showed off his newly-installed stretchy walk and trot!), while I described my concerns.¬† Murray tends to step short with his right front, which he typically works out of, but it would be great if we could help him along with correct biomechanics and some body work.¬† (Interestingly, on the lunge Murray wasn’t lame going to the left, though he was his standard amount of lame going right. As usual, it got better with a couple of circles. One day we’ll know what that is about.)

his mouth is saying yes but his eye is saying noooo…?

I told Andrea to do what she felt was appropriate and within Murray’s ability to tolerate and, as with all of my equine professionals, to discipline him as needed. Whatever we did or didn’t get to in terms of his muscles was fine with me — I wanted this first appointment to help us make a plan, and¬†not get Murray feeling defensive or more tense.¬† Andrea started on the right, which is Murray’s stiffer and tenser and more tender side.¬† I probably could have warned her… but failed to do so.

Andrea started with really light pressure on Murray’s neck — about a third of the pressure she usually uses when working on a horse.¬† She moved slowly and purposefully, and wasn’t digging in really deep the way you see some body workers go to town on a horse.¬† Murray was suspicious at first, for sure, but Andrea just kept moving slowly and carefully, and eventually the tense baby horse started to relax…. and then, he kinda started to enjoy it.

Andrea spent most of her time working on Murray’s right shoulder and the associated neck muscles on that side.¬† There was more work to do in his neck but she didn’t want to push it.¬† His biceps were tight but not out of the ordinary (I’ve been poking and prodding them ever since Emma mentioned tight biceps a while back!).¬† And then the impossible happened — Murray started yawning.¬† At first it was a little yawn, and then another little one.¬† And then I he let rip one of those great, big, drawn-out, tongue-flapping and eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head yawns that I did not think my horse was capable of.¬† AND HE DID IT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN.¬† Right up until I took my camera out, of course, at which point he promptly quit showing any signs of joy or pleasure.

As she moved toward his lumber region and hind quarters, Andrea was able to start using more pressure on Murray.  His lumbar and booty were sore, but not out of the ordinary for a horse who is coming back into work after a while off.  That right hind is also pretty weak right now, I suspect from just being basically out of commission for the last five months.

murray substituted biting the pole for yawning because it’s so much cuter?

Murray’s left side was much less tight and sore than his right, and Andrea could get a little more work done.¬† She noticed that his obliques were tight on both sides (more on the right), but didn’t want to tackle them as they can be a particularly sensitive area and it wouldn’t be worth his potential objections.¬† And despite his lack of¬† yawning on the left, Murray did seem pretty relaxed and happy, and only moderately bored and frustrated toward the end of the massage.

Andrea gave me some really useful advice for keeping Murray even side-to-side as we get back into work, and helping him approach exercises in a way that will help him instead of making his issues worse (e.g. poles should help him lift up his shoulders and reach, not make him bear down and flail forward).  It was great that she really seemed to get Murray, and work with his sensitivity and quirks, instead of ignoring them or becoming annoyed by them.


Murray: I love dis pole

All in all, a pretty successful body work adventure! Murray and I are going to keep on with the clicking and treating, as we work our way back up to full work!  And hopefully we can loosen up and stretch out that right front, and even up those strides a bit more!

calming supplements & the placebo effect

I had a really tough ride on Suzy this week, which led me into a discussion with my barn manager about possibly giving her another dose of depo.¬† Barn manager suggested that since I spend a lot of time with Suzy, I’d be able to help Suzy’s owner decide if her behavior warranted another dose.¬† Now, there’s not a lot (almost none, but perhaps there is something I haven’t dug up yet) of evidence that depo actually¬†does anything in horses, despite many, many,¬†many anecdotes to the contrary.¬† Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but I’m not really one to go adding hormones to someone’s lifestyle without a pretty good reason.

seemed appropriate here

This led me to think about the hundreds of calming supplements and treatments available for horses that have little to no evidence of a significant (or even potentially biologically relevant) effect upon behavior.  Hell, I use one of them!  Yet so many of us cling to these supplements and swear up and down that they are doing something.

But the placebo effect is a strong and¬†very legitimate thing. Whether or not the placebo effect is causing actual physiological changes¬†or is being exploited by companies to sell sham products, it is a very easy trap to fall into. Most of us are going to add calming supplements to a horse’s diet after they’ve been particularly wild and crazy for some amount of time — maybe a week’s worth of rides.¬† But if those particularly wild and crazy days are outliers, or even just somewhere on the edge of “normal” for that horse, then his behavior is going to trend back toward normal whether you add the calming supplement or not.¬† Those days were¬†abnormal, and unless there’s something else significant going on to change the horse’s behavior (totally plausible — but not necessarily the case), the added calming supplement most likely did nothing.¬† The horse’s behavior was going to go back toward “normal” anyway.

big spikes of bad behavior like this == abnormal

Let’s say that we rate Murray’s badness on a very scientific scale of 1-10 each day: 1 is totally normal, no bad behaviors performed, 10 is rearing and striking.¬† (For the record, I’ve never experienced either a 1 or a 10 day.)¬† If Murray tends to hover around a 3.5 because he likes to get down with his bad self, but suddenly spikes up to an 8 one day, I’m likely to dump a bunch of extra magnesium in his bucket for a few days.¬† And then, because being a level-8 bad boy is a really unlikely occurrence, we just slide back toward the average. Which is both statistically and realistically¬†much more likely to occur on any given day.

Especially because the way we think of behavior (or anything with a gradient, basically) tends to fall on a bell curve.¬† If we assume that each behavioral category is roughly on standard deviation away from the next, it means that behaviors in the “average” category occur 68% of the time. Behaviors one more standard deviation away from average occur with 95% frequency.¬† If being slightly nutty or slightly better than average is occurring with 95% frequency, any time you have a bad day, you have something approaching a 95% chance that your next ride will be better (assuming the two days are independent, which they aren’t).

So when we’re adding calming supplements, or more invasive approaches to calming behavior, how are we to know if we are really doing anything?¬† There are ways to test it — you could blindly rank your horse’s behavior every single day that you spend with him while another person either gives him that supplement or a sham supplement. Then you’d compare the distributions of behaviors demonstrated.¬† I just turn to the science.¬† Of course, there’s really not a whole lot of peer reviewed research in this area, which is frustrating.

All of this is not to say that I don’t believe in calming supplements or that diet can change behavior.¬† Obviously I do, and there are some behaviors that I have seen decrease rapidly with the right change in diet.¬† I am completely certain that if we mapped Murray’s behavior when he’s on alfalfa and compared it to his behavior off alfalfa, we’d see a significant difference.

even walking is hard when Murray eats alfalfa

But it does mean that I approach adding supplements like this with a fair bit of caution, and I pretty much don’t believe what I read from testimonials on the internet.¬† People are notoriously bad at understanding probability and statistics without training in those areas, and we¬†love just-so stories.¬† We also really, really want to help our horses, and they can’t talk to us and say “I’m feeling a little extra girthy today, how about you take it extra slow while we tack up?” (I mean, sure, he does say that to me. It’s just usually¬†while I’m tacking up and it’s a leeetle bit too late.)¬† It also means that I don’t pay too much attention to any one ride, or even any one week, when making decisions about this stuff.¬† One day is an outlier.¬† A whole week… could easily be a rough week.¬†¬†Especially when there’s other stuff going on in the world that might influence behavior more than supplements do — changes in turnout, routine, weather… I’m seriously convinced that when the barometer drops, Murray’s brain swells and hurts his little head, because he’s usually much worse before a storm than during!

I may also use this logic to aggressively convince myself¬†out of using supplements that might help. When barn manager originally told me to take Murray off alfalfa I was like “NAW THAT’S NOT A THING”.¬† Same with adding magnesium.¬† And both of those things had a huge positive effect on Murray’s general outlook on life.

So, how do you approach adding and subtracting supplements like this?  Just go with the prevailing wisdom? Trust your gut? Appeal to nature?