Saturday, November 19, 2011

In which Endurance 101 quotes some appropriate song lyrics

Endurance 101: Sometimes you’re the bug

Well, it’s a strange old game, you learn it slow.
One step forward and it’s back to “go.”
You’re standing on the throttle,
You’re standing on the brake--
In the groove ‘til you make a mistake.
Sometimes, you’re the windshield…
Sometimes, you’re the bug.   –Dire Straits

I wonder if Mark Knofler, lead singer for the band Dire Straits, ever rode endurance…because the song “The Bug” (quoted above and below) completely captures the experience of the sport:

You gotta know happy, you gotta know glad
‘Cause you’re gonna know lonely
And you’re gonna know bad.
When you’re rippin’ and a ridin’
And you’re coming on strong—
You start a-slippin’ and a-sliding
And it all goes wrong because…
(Sometimes, you’re the windshield…
Sometimes you’re the bug.)

If you ride enough miles, the “rock with your name on it” will eventually throw itself into your horse’s path.  If not a rock, maybe a hole.  Perhaps your horse will be a little “off” at a vetcheck—not near death, certainly, but not qualified to continue the ride—and will be perfectly sound a few days or even a few hours later, with no lasting soreness or problems. 

However, as riders and especially as endurance riders, we need to accept that some horses are gigantic suicidal impulses waiting for an opportunity to manifest.  Horses can and do injure themselves in the strangest, most mysterious, and most ill-timed manner imaginable.  If you’re lucky, your horse will find “his rock” at home in the pasture during your off-season, and you need only pet his nose and say “poor baby” for a day or two until he is sound again. 

But what happens when something happens at a ride? 

The most common reason that a horse is disqualified (or “pulled”) from a ride is lameness. 

Lameness is defined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (and AERC) as “a deviation from the normal gait or posture due to pain or mechanical dysfunction.”  

There are 5 degrees of lameness, described as follows:

• Grade I. Difficult to observe and not consistently apparent.  This is the horse with an intermittent “bobble” to his gait.

• Grade II. Difficult to observe at a walk or trotting a straight line; con­sistently apparent under certain circumstances, such as working in a circle.  This horse shows himself to be lame inconsistently, since you don’t ride down the trail in 20-meter circles.

• Grade III. Lameness consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances.  

Grade IV. Obvious lameness at a walk: marked nodding, hitching, or shortened stride.

• Grade V. Minimal weight-bearing in motion and/or at rest; inability to move.

AERC rules require that a horse who is consistently lame  be pulled from competition, even if the lameness is very slight. Therefore, a horse who is Grade III, IV or V lame must be pulled.

It seems crazy sometimes, but a horse who takes a huge lame step every 11th stride can be cleared to continue, but a horse who is showing a tiny bit of left-front footsoreness must be pulled.

This is where a helpful vet and canny rider can put their heads together to make decisions to benefit the horse.  A rider can ask for 30 minutes to try to bring the horse back to soundness.  If the horse’s lameness is caused by a stone in the shoe, a tight groin muscle, or even an abscess in the hoof, it is sometimes possible to resolve the problem in the time allowed, return to the vet check to get the vet’s approval, and then go on and finish the ride. 

Sometimes a rider and vet must try to determine if a lameness is caused by something that will get better or worse if the horse continues to compete.  In some cases, as with an arthritic mare I used to ride, moderate exercise actually improved her way of going.  In other cases, as with a gluteal muscle pull experienced by a seasoned gelding I rode for many years, even moderate movement made his pain substantially worse.  Although they both presented with Grade II lameness, it was better to allow the mare to compete and better to pull the gelding for the day.

So what should you do when you see the vet shaking her head? 

·        Don’t panic.  Lameness is rarely fatal.  You might be pulled from the day’s competition, but it’s entirely possible that your horse will be sound again in time to compete at the next ride.

·        Try not to cry.  This is easier said than done, I know, especially if you are a little tired, a little dehydrated, and more than a little worried about the well-being of your horse.

·        Without arguing or holding up the vet line if other horses are waiting to be examined, ask for more information about the lameness.  Does it appear to be a foot problem, a leg problem, or a hip or shoulder issue?  Is his back sore because of an ill-fitting saddle?

·        It’s okay to ask someone else to trot-out your horse for you, so that you can observe the lameness in action.  Be polite and kind.  Remember that the vet probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before the ride either, and she is there to help you, not hinder you.

·        If the vet observes a Grade I or Grade II lameness, he or she may have suggestions and advice for you.  LISTEN TO THE VET’S ADVICE.  If it’s a tight muscle causing the problem, some warm towels and a massage may fix it.  Footsoreness may be helped by adding a hoofboot, or by removing the existing boot and washing the sand out.  Remember that AERC has a very strict no-drug policy, so if your horse requires a dose of bute to feel better, he is done for the day. 

·        One of the very best questions you can ask a vet is, “What would you do if this was your horse?”

·        If you are pulled from competition, make arrangements with the vet to re-examine your horse later, when there are no other teams waiting in line.  This gives the vet a chance for a more complete examination, so that she can give you more specific instructions and you can make better decisions about how to treat the horse for the best chance of recovery.

·        Care for your entire horse, not just the lame part.  Don’t forget that he still needs food, water, a warm blanket if the weather is cold, and possibly some electrolytes to aid in his recovery from exercise.

The other reason that a horse may be pulled from competition is for metabolic issues. 

If a horse fails to meet ride criteria (pulse recovery, etc) or if he has “thumps” (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, which is a warning sign of serious fluid and electrolyte imbalance) he will automatically be pulled from competition.  Likewise, he can be pulled if he exhibits signs or symptoms of metabolic distress, such as extremely low gut sounds, dehydration, an elevated CRI, or notable loss of appetite or attention.  One of these symptoms by itself does not mean that your horse will automatically be pulled, but two are more symptoms are cause for concern.  The whole reason to have qualified veterinarians as judges at endurance rides is so that a horse may be pulled from competition before it is overtly sick and in need of treatment.

Horses who are metabolically distressed at or after a ride may require treatment, such as intravenous fluids, or even need to be transported to a veterinary hospital.  This treatment is not included in your ride fee, and must be negotiated by you with the attending vet.

You may also encounter a situation where your horse passes all of the veterinary criteria, but you feel that there is something wrong.  The vets I know call this “ADR”, or “Ain’t Doin’ Right.”  They see your horse for a few minutes out of every few hours during competition, but you are there the entire time, and ultimately, the welfare of the horse is the responsibility of the rider. 

Remember there is nothing further down the endurance trail that will make your horse less tired, less hungry, and less sore.

If you think there’s something wrong with your horse, you are probably right, and AERC created statistic pull-codes for situations like this.  If your horse passes the vetcheck, but you decide that something is wrong, you can take a “rider option” pull. 

The code is “RO-L” (“Rider-Option, Lame”) if you feel your horse is not sound enough to continue, even though the vet has judged him at Grade I or Grade II.  If you decide that something is metabolically “ain’t right” with your horse, even if the vet has cleared him to continue, the pull code will be listed as “RO-M” (“Rider-Option, Metabolic”). 

There is one other RO code, which relates to the rider and not the horse.  If a pull is listed in the finishing stats as “RO”, it is because the rider (not the horse) was too sick or injured to continue the ride.  There is a tongue-in-cheek code which riders sometimes threaten to use: "RO-AHF", which translates to "Rider Option, ain't having fun."  Hopefully, you will never want to use that code!

If you pull from competition at an “out vet check” (away from the main ridecamp) you will be trailered back to camp by a designated driver.  Be polite:  if trailer space is limited and another horse or rider is in more distress than you and your horse, offer to let others go first.  If your horse doesn’t need your attention while he’s waiting for the ambulance ride back, tie him somewhere with access to food and water and lend a hand getting other riders through the vetcheck—this help is appreciated, and may distract you from feeling distress over your misfortune. 

Getting pulled is often emotionally very difficult, and yet, it’s an important part of a sport that places the welfare of the horse above the ego of the rider.  Pulling your own horse from competition is sometimes even more difficult, as riders tend to second-guess themselves after the event.  Nevertheless, I have found that if you listen to your gut feelings, you will not be sorry. 

The endurance rider’s motto is “To Finish is to Win”, but the alternate motto might as well be, “Pull Today and Ride Another Day.” 

Or maybe, if Mark Knofler of Dire Straits is right, you just need to wait for the day when you are the Louisville Slugger, and not the ball.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In which Endurance 101 teaches a skill that isn't a dance

Endurance 101 : The “Ridgeway Trot” (CRI):
"The Ridgeway Trot"...sorta sounds like a dance step, doesn’t it? 

Bow to your partner, bow to your corner, do-si-do and Ridgeway trot!

Though the foxtrot and the turkey trot, really are dance steps, the “Ridgeway trot” isn't.  Also known as the Cardiac Recovery Index, (or CRI), the Ridgeway trot is a tool that vets at an endurance ride use to judge a horse’s progressive recovery from exercise.  The technique was originally advocated by AERC Hall of Fame endurance rider and veterinarian Kerry Ridgeway, DVM, and the name “Ridgeway trot” got stuck on it.

Some vets will use a CRI at every ride, at every vetcheck, on every horse.  Others will use the CRI only when they suspect a problem and want more information about the horse’s metabolic health.   The CRI is always part of a Best Condition exam, so that vets can compare the level of fatigue of the horses being shown for BC.

For the rider, the CRI isn’t much more complicated than a normal trot-out.  The examining vet, however, takes a few extra steps during the process to gather data.  Here’s how it works:

·        The vet takes the pulse of the horse at the beginning of the examination, and then starts a stopwatch.

·        As soon as the pulse is recorded, the handler takes the horse out on a normal trot-out, approximately 125 feet out and 125 feet back (45 strides or so, each direction).

·        When sixty seconds have passed from the time of the first pulse-check, the vet measures the heart rate of the horse again, and compares the two measurements.

Ideally, the two numbers are the same.  If the pulse of the horse at each point in the check was 60, the CRI score is recorded as 60/60.

In the case of a very fresh and/or very fit horse, the second number may be lower than the first.  If the pulse of the horse was 60 beats per minute before the trot-out, and 56 beats per minute after the trot-out, the CRI score is recorded as 60/56.

If the pulse has increased after the trot-out, there is cause for concern.  While a 4-beat increase (from 60 bpm to 64 bpm, for example) isn’t alarming, an 8-beat or higher increase is fair warning that the horse might be too fatigued to continue the ride in good health.

As a rider, you want the vet to gather accurate information about your horse’s level of fitness during a CRI exam.  For most horses, that means that your trot-out should be performed at a medium-slow jog, rather than a brisk run.  This pace keeps him from overheating, and allows his heart rate to drop when you return to have it checked the second time. 

You won’t have an opportunity to slosh water on your horse between the two pulse-checks, so you want to avoid letting him “build up steam” that will make his heart pump fast.   It is permitted to verbally and physically soothe your horse by stroking his neck and asking him to lower his head.  I like to yawn at my horse after we return to the vet.  This physical motion relaxes me, and indicates to the horse the message that nothing interesting is happening here, so stand still and relax for a bit.  Even fake yawning works—your body can’t tell the difference between a real yawn and a fake yawn--the process will slow your breathing and relax your muscles, and this cues your horse to relax with you.  

(Do you yawn just reading the word “yawn”?  I do!)

You also want to avoid stressing your horse emotionally between the two pulse-checks.  If your horse’s best buddy has been beside you all day during the event, and the buddy leaves to go to the water tank in the middle of your CRI exam, your horse may have an emotional melt-down—and his heartrate will skyrocket.  Make a deal with your riding partner in advance to stick close together when the horses are being examined.  Vets understand about “buddy horses”; as long as the “buddy” is standing quietly and not crowding anybody or making a fuss, nobody will mind having the two horses stand side-by-side while pulses are taken.

If a vet is concerned about the metabolic status of a horse, s/he may ask to repeat the CRI at intervals at least 10 minutes apart.  The numbers on the CRI should improve as the horse rests.  For example, a horse with a CRI of 60/64 ten minutes after arriving at the vet check can be expected to show a better score (52/56, for example) after 10 or 15 additional minutes of rest. 

If the horse has met the “fit to continue” parameters, but his CRI score does not improve dramatically, , he is not automatically pulled from competition;  however, the rider should recognize that the horse may need more recovery time in the vetcheck to eat, drink, and rest.   It’s okay to stay longer than the required hold time at a vet check!

It’s also okay to perform your own CRI exam on your horse before leaving a vetcheck, especially if you plan your ride strategy for the next leg of the journey based on his scores:  a horse whose CRI after 30 minutes or more is 42/42 is ready to go out and trot down the trail at his normal speed.  A horse whose CRI after the same period is 50/54 might be able to continue, but will probably benefit from a longer lunch break and a slower pace when he returns to the trail.

Practice the CRI at home at the end of your training sessions.  This will teach your horse the process and also give you familiarity with his “normal” recovery numbers and times. 

·        Before you begin, stride out 45 steps and drop a rock or a jacket as a landmark. 

·        Measure your horse’s heart rate using a stethoscope. 

·        Start your stopwatch (my phone has a “stopwatch” feature that is handy for this).

·        Trot out to your landmark and back.  Practice the slow-steady jog that you will need at vetchecks. 

·        After 60 seconds have elapsed, check your horse’s heart rate again.  

That’s the Ridgeway trot!

(Do-si-do optional).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In which Endurance 101 teaches you how to teach good trot-outs

Endurance 101 : the trot-out
Note:  the suggestions in this article can also be used with gaited horses, but for ease of reading, I have used the word “trot” throughout when an easy-gait might be executed by a gaited horse.

Seasoned competitors make a trot-out look easy: the rider skims along the ground beside a springy, well-behaved horse, travelling in a straight line away from the vet for 100 to 125 feet, walking around a traffic cone at the far end, and then trotting back to the vet without stumbling, crowding, wandering out of the lane, or “running out of steam” on the return journey.  The vet watches the horse’s movement and attitude during the trot-out to determine the presence or absence of lameness, and the quality of the movement.  A sound horse will move off with a steady, rhythmic gait which looks and sounds symmetric to the observer.  The fresh horse moves out eagerly, but with attention to his handler on the ground.

Here are some tips for teaching a horse how to trot-out for the vet. 

Start with a horse who walks properly on a lead line:  his head stays even with your shoulder, the lead line is looped between you, not tight like a kite string.  When you walk, he walks.  When you stop, he stops.  When you turn, he turns. 

The departure

·        You and your horse are standing still, facing the same directions.

·        Jiggle the lead rope a little, and say out loud in your perkiest voice, “Ready?”

·        Wait for a count of two, and then stride off briskly.
Duana and Hana:  "Ready?"

Ideally, your horse will stride off briskly beside you.  Repeat the exercise at the trot.  Your horse should jog along beside you on a loose line.  If he does, hurray!  Skip down this page to the pace labeled “The turn.”  If he doesn’t, keep reading:

Your horse may be a “Ferdinand” who would rather sit and sniff the flowers than move forward properly on the line.   If you have a Ferdinand, pick up a dressage or longe whip and put it in your left hand, so that you can hold the leadrope in your right hand.  If you don’t have a longe whip, a slender, springy branch from a tree will do.  You want something lightweight that will reach from the outside of your body to the back end of your horse when you are standing beside him.  Practice the reach while you are standing still beside your horse so that you can learn exactly how it feels.

Now, try this:

·        You and Ferdinand are standing still, facing the same direction.

·        Jiggle the lead rope a little, and say “Ready?”

·        Wait for a count of two, and then stride off briskly in a fast walk and simultaneously reach back with your stick and ping Ferdinand on the bum. 

You know your horse, and you know how reactive he is.  If he’s extremely sensitive, a little ping on the bum will make him leap forward to join you.  If he does this, praise him and keep moving forward for about 5 or 6 strides. 

Then, slow your stride for 5-6 strides, then halt.  Repeat the process, starting with standing still, rope jiggle, and the verbal cue “Ready?”

If your Ferdinand is as sensitive as a block of jello, enlist the help of a friend who will also be armed with a dressage whip or tree branch. Put your friend on the other side of Ferdinand, beside his right hip, but out of the reach of a kicking leg.  Begin the process again:

·        You and Ferdinand are standing still, facing the same direction.

·        Jiggle the lead rope a little, and say “Ready?”

·        Wait for a count of two, and then stride off briskly in a fast walk and simultaneously reach back with your stick and ping Ferdinand on the bum and your friend simultaneously whomps Ferdinand on the bum from the other side of his body.

As soon as Ferdinand moves forward (even if he leaps forward in surprise!), praise him and keep moving forward for 5 or 6 strides.  Then, slow your stride for 5-6 strides, and then halt.  Allow your friend to rejoin you, and repeat the process.

With some repetition, Ferdinand will learn that the rope jiggle and verbal “Ready?” are his cue that in a moment or two, he will be asked to move out.  You can gradually lighten the weight of your whomping:  first, your friend’s help will become unnecessary, and eventually you won’t need a whip in your own hand to get Ferdinand to move out.  He will be watching you, and waiting for the rope-jiggle and verbal cue to go.

When Ferdinand is proficient at the brisk walk, practice the same technique with a slow trot. 

The turn
Some people prefer to trot around the turn, but I like to have my horse trot out to the marker, walk around the turn, and then trot back to the vet.  As we get to the cone, I will jiggle the lead rope a little and say, “a-a-a-and Walk,” as I slow my stride.  Ideally, the horse will match me as I slow, and walks politely around the outside of me as I walk around the outside of the cone.  
Duana and Hana: around the cone. 
I would like to see Hana keeping up with Duana a little better than she does in the photo.
If your horse does this, hurray!  Skip down the page to the part labeled “The return”.

If your horse is a Freight Train, and it’s hard to get him to slow down, keep reading.

Start this practice at a very brisk walk.  When you get better at it, practice at a trot. Take your dressage whip or a slender tree branch with you.

·        You and Freight Train are striding along briskly, side-by-side.

·        You jiggle the lead rope a little and say, “a-a-a-nd Walk”, as you slow your stride.  This is his cue that you will be slowing down.

·        Reach in front of your own body and Freight Train’s chest with your whip, and push on him.  If he is a sensitive soul, a little tap is all it will take, but if necessary, push hard.  You may want to give a correction “pop” with the lead rope at the same time.  Do whatever it takes to get Freight Train to check his speed for a stride or two.

·        As soon as he slows, praise him and change directions, executing a sharp turn to the left away from him, and walking slower but not stopping.

Repeat the exercise with Freight Train: move forward briskly, give Freight Train the rope jiggle and verbal cue “a-a-a-and Walk” as you slow your stride.  As soon as he hesitates or slows, praise and change directions at a slower pace.  Randomly change the direction of your turn—turn left, turn right, turn at strange angles, do the hokey pokey and turn all the way around.  Once he’s paying close attention, turn so that you walk right in front of your Train, so that he must slam on the brakes and turn on his haunches to avoid walking on top of you.  Freight Train will learn that your rope jiggle and verbal command to “Walk” are his cue to slow down and prepare to change directions.

The return
You and your horse have executed the turn around a traffic cone at a controlled walk.  As you finish the turn and come to face back the way you came, jiggle the rope, give the verbal cue “Ready?” and pick up the speed again.
Fiddle and Aarene trotting back towards the vet.   Good form, blurry photo.

If your horse is a Ferdinand, you want the return pace to be brisk.

If your horse is a Freight Train, practice controlling his speed. 

Don’t be afraid to practice getting the speed and control you want a few strides at a time.  If your horse can do something successfully for 5 strides, with more practice he will do it for 15 strides, and from there he can do it for 100 feet from the cone to the vet.

The halt
Ferdinand will soon learn that “the vet” is the ultimate destination of this exercise, and that when you get to the vet, you will halt.  Ferdinand likes to stand still, so he will try to halt early…and earlier, and earlier…until the unprepared rider can find herself dragging an unwilling, joint-locked beast for the final twenty strides. 

To avoid that situation when trotting out Ferdinand, mentally choose a spot on the ground about 3 strides in front of the vet, and be ready to give the cue “a-a-a-and Walk” when you get to that spot and not a single stride early.  You may have to carry your dressage whip to enforce this idea with Ferdinand.  You might also choose to throw a handful of tasty hay at the vet’s feet…and make sure that Ferdinand sees the hay before you leave on your trot to the cone.  He won’t forget it’s there, and he’ll be eager to return to it.

Freight Train presents the opposite problem: he likes to accelerate during the trot-out, even (or especially) when the rider can’t keep up.  Practice frequent stops, turns, and slow-downs with Freight Train, so that he learns to watch and listen to his handler during the trot-out; if he thinks you might just halt and turn and point him a random direction mid-way, he’s less likely to charge forward full-blast. 

With Ferdinand and Freight Train both, it’s important that your last 3 strides towards the vet be executed at a controlled walk to avoid alarming anybody.  There is one vet in my region who promises that if any horse runs over the vet, the vet’s scribe, or the vet’s truck, he will take the pulse of the ride manager and write that on the horse’s ride card, ensuring a non-completion.   Rather than take the risk of injuring ride staff or any other bystanders, practice the final stage of the trot-out with control. 

When you come to a complete stop, the horse (not the handler) should be standing directly in front of the vet. 

Putting it all together
Enlist the help of a friend to be the “vet” for your practice session. 

Before you begin, take a deep breath, think for a moment about the departure, the turn, the return and the halt, and how you plan to correct your horse’s behavior if it needs to be corrected.  Then exhale, take hold of the lead line, jiggle the rope, and begin!

Have your friend watch to make sure you are traveling in a straight line out and back, and shout encouragement or corrections as needed to keep you and your horse on course.   It’s important to note that the vet watching your trot-out is usually NOT looking at the horse’s feet.  Instead, s/he is watching for symmetry of movement in the shoulders and hips which indicate soundness, and looking for a head-bob from the horse which indicates pain in one or more limbs.  To avoid having the handler drag the horse down by his face at any point during the exercise, practice until the trot-out can be done on a completely loose rein or lead-line.

By taking the time to teach your horse all of the steps of the trot-out before bringing him to camp, you will give him a useful skill that the vets and volunteers will be happy to see, and will ensure that your horse is shown in the best possible way during his vet check exams. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In which Endurance 101 examines the veterinary card

The vet check – what the vets are looking at (and why)
In equine endurance events, the welfare of the horse is paramount.  The welfare of the horse is more important that milage points, it's more important than the rider's dignity, and it is w-a-a-a-a-a-y more important than the t-shirt completion prize for an event.

The official motto of the sport, “To Finish is to Win,” demonstrates the high priority of horse health:  it is possible for a horse and rider team to travel the entire distance of an event without "finishing the ride" or "receiving a completion.” In order to "finish" or "complete", the horse must pass all of the veterinary checkpoints, including the check at the finish line.  Finish line criteria are the same as criteria at other points during the ride:  the horse must not only be sound and metabolically stable, s/he must, in the opinion of the veterinarian, be “fit to continue”.  In other words, the horse must be physically able to leave camp and do another loop.  Yes,  even at the finish line!

Knowing this, endurance competitors work with veterinarians to take the best possible care of their mounts before, during, and after the competition.  The priority of veterinarians at each ride is to ensure the health and well-being of the horses. 

A rider may sometimes view the vets as adversaries to be outwitted and out-maneuvered, but this is incorrect; rather, vets try to assist riders in their attempts to complete their events, as long as the health of the horse is not endangered.  An examining vet may ask another vet for an opinion; however, the head vet has absolute authority to pull a horse from competition. 

Newcomers to the sport may be confused by the health parameters judged by vets during a check; without knowing the reasons for the specific pokes and pulls at the horse’s skin, it’s possible to think that the vet gives a horse a random set of scores, or that vets will favor a known rider over a newcomer.  However, the vet card is designed so that vets can create a view of the competing horse that is as complete and objective as possible considering that the vets hired to work at endurance events are, for the most part, entirely human.

The scorecard used by AERC vets has changed a little over time; the card in the attached illustrations is an older version, but the same basic parameters are still in use.  The exam card is formatted so that a veterinarian can complete it as thoroughly, yet efficiently, as possible. 

The examination begins on the left side front of a horse, works methodically back to the tail, and then changes to the right side rear, working forward to the mouth of the animal.  The parameters are graded A (superior), B (acceptable), C (cause for concern), D (unacceptable and cause for elimination).

Vet card front- the exam prior to the ride and at the finish line
are recorded here.
You can (and should) practice this exam on your horse at home!

This is something that all horse owners can practice, even if they never intend to attend an endurance ride:  knowing what "normal" looks like on your horse allows you to more clearly identify "abnormal" if it ever occurs.  Descriptions of each type of poke are included in this post so that you can practice at home!
Health parameters are recorded on the back side of the card
during the event.
Pulse is measured by listening to the heartrate using a stethoscope in the “armpit” region behind the left front leg.  A pulse higher than the pre-determined criteria (usually 60 or 64 beats per minute) is cause for concern as well as a reason that horses are eliminated from competition.  A very high heartrate can indicate that the horse is in metabolic distress, pain, or both. 

·        The function of the heart is to move blood through the body in order to nourish and cool it.  If the horse is overheated, the heart pumps faster in order to provide additional cooling.  You can help a hot horse to cool down by applying water to his skin.  Use a sponge, scoop or bucket to apply water to the horse’s neck, chest, and belly (Practice this at home!  Belly-water tickles!).  Immediately scrape off the water with a scraping blade, or the flat of your hand—it may feel astonishingly HOT!  If it does, put more water on the horse and scrape it off again.  Repeat this until the scraped water does not feel hot. 

·        Contrary to old wives’ tales, dumping cold water on a horse’s hind end will not automatically cause the muscles to cramp—but it may make him try to kick you into next Thursday!  If extra cooling of these large muscles is desired, apply the water with a sponge and scrape it off immediately.

·        The horse’s heart will work harder (and pump faster) if he is dehydrated, because his blood will be thicker.  This is the difference between sloshing cherry Kool-Aid and sloshing ketchup:  the Kool-Aid has a higher water content and is much easier to move around.  Offer your horse water as often as possible during the event in order to keep him hydrated.  His heart will have a much easier task, and he will be less fatigued as a result.  For an amazingly coherent explanation of this process, read the “hydration” article written by Susan Garlinghouse,  available online here:  

The next set of criteria roughly measures the horse’s level of hydration. 

Mucus membrane/capillary refill: Press a finger lightly to the horse’s gum just above an upper tooth, and time the return to normal (pink) color.  Ideally the delay is 1-2 seconds.  Refill time past 2 seconds often means that the horse is somewhat dehydrated, as do dry or tacky mucus membranes. 

Jugular refill:  Briefly block the jugular vein with a finger or thumb; refill time of 2 or 3 seconds is normal and adequate.  A horse with a very low resting heartrate (below 32 bpm) may give the impression of a delayed jugular refill time.

Skin tenting: Pinch a fold of skin at the point of the shoulder.  If the skin doesn’t flatten out rapidly, it can indicate dehydration, although this measurement is also influenced by elasticity of the skin and fat content.  This test doesn’t work very well on humans, incidentally—by the time skin tenting is observable on a person, the person is in dire distress.  The mucus membrane test is more accurate for humans, but is customarily performed only between friends.

Gut Sounds:  When a horse is working hard, blood supply is diverted from the gut to the muscles. This is normal; however, prolonged diversion can lead to decreased gut motility, partial or even complete blockage of the intestines, which are, in layman’s terms, Bad Things.  Listen to gut sounds with a stethoscope in the four quadrants of the horse’s abdomen on each side of the barrel.  A normally functioning gut sounds like a washing machine, with lots of liquid churning noises.   Low gut sounds by themselves are not automatically cause for concern; however, if the gut sounds are low and the horse is disinterested in food, water, and his surroundings, it may indicate a stage of colic.  Want to know more?  Treat yourself to a second article by Susan Garlinghouse:

Muscle tone: Gently test the firmness of the triceps, butt cheeks, and hams.  Don’t poke or pinch, unless you have significantly better medical coverage than mine.  The muscles should feel firm but not hard.  Flinching away from this touch indicates muscle soreness or injury.

Anal tone: Lift the tail, evaluating tail muscles and sphincter tone.  Firm is good, floppy is not so good.

The final portion of the exam (which is sometimes performed first, depending on the preference of the examining vet), is the trot-out.  For this exercise, the horse is moved straight out-and-back at sufficient distance to observe the symmetry and soundness of the gait and quality of the movement.  If the horse is an easy-gaited horse, the same parameters of symmetry and soundness are used as the horse moves out at a running walk, tolt, foxtrot, waltz or electric slide. 

The horse may also be asked to trot in a circle each direction, so that consistency of gait can be seen.

NOTE: If you haven’t taught your horse to trot out before the event, he won’t know how to do it for the vet.  Practice at home! 

If you don’t know how to teach the trot-out, fear not:  “Teaching the Trot-Out” is the subject of the next Endurance 101 post!  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In which Endurance 101 describes a ride, start-to-finish-line

Endurance 101 – Ride Day, how it rolls.
O. M. G.  It’s finally ride day.  What to do first?  And…then what?

Wake up, greet the day

·       I set my alarm for 1-2 hours before the start time.

·       Get up, dress in ride clothes (if you didn’t sleep in them), pull warmer layers over the top if needed.

·       Feed your horse

o   Many ride vets recommend that riders not feed a large grain meal the morning of a ride.  Beet pulp and hay are fine.

o   Check the water bucket too, fill it if necessary.

·       Eat breakfast.

o   If your tummy is iffy (common, even among experienced riders), try to eat some yogurt.

o   Stash a snack in your pockets to eat on the trail if you get hungry before the vet check.

Tack Up, Warm Up

·       Your horse may be excited, because of all the other excited horses in camp.  Alternately, your horse may be really, REALLY excited.  Be ready for some equine exuberance, and give yourself extra time to cope with it.

·       I like a very long warm-up on ride morning, to focus my mare’s attention on me as well as get her muscles (and mine) moving.

·       Other people prefer to start the ride slowly and warm up on the trail without wasting energy before the start of the ride.

·       If ride management will be collecting numbers at the start line, go there before the start time and give your number. 

The start!

·       Allow the fast-moving, experienced horses to leave camp first.  There’s nothing more un-nerving for an inexperienced horse than to start down a trail only to be bulldozed by a horse and rider aiming to finish first. 

·       It’s okay to wait 5, 10, or even 15 minutes after the official start time before you hit the trail.

·       Your horse at the start of a ride may be significantly more FORWARD than usual, thanks to the excitement of camp and the other horses.  Be ready. 

o   You may need to school him on the trail, or even put a stronger-than-usual bit in his mouth for the first few miles.  Do whatever you need to do to keep control and stay safe.

Move down the trail

·       As soon as you are able, pick up your “all-day trot”, and try to stay with this pace as much as possible during the ride.

·       If people behind you ask you to yield the trail, please do so as promptly as you are able; if you wish to pass, ask politely and wait for riders to find a safe place to allow you to go by.

·       A horse with a red-ribboned tail is a KICKER!  Stay back!   Call out to the rider in a friendly way so she knows that you and your horse are there.

·       A horse with a green-ribboned tail is NEW TO THE SPORT.  Approach carefully, and kindly. 

·       A horse with a yellow-ribboned tail is a STALLION.  Mare owners, please be courteous.

·       A horse with a purple/red/green-ribboned tail is visiting from New Orleans.  Shout your favorite Marti Gras slogan when you come near.

At water stops and other places of pause

·       If other horses are drinking from a water tank when you approach, stay back until they finish and move away.

·       If horses approach the tank as your horse is drinking, allow him to finish, and then ask politely if the other horses will be bothered if you leave. 

o   Sometimes, horses get so interested in the departure of another horse that they will forget to drink.

·       If your horse is drinking well on the trail, you may wish to administer a syringe of electrolytes at the water stops.

·       If you stop along the trail to adjust tack or take a sanitary break in the bushes, expect people to ask if everything is all right.  It’s okay to say yes.

o   If you actually need or want help, don’t be afraid to ask.  Most folks are happy to assist if they are able to do it.

o   If you see someone stopped along the trail, ask after their welfare.  It’s the polite thing to do.

The Vet Check

·       As you approach the vet check, slow down, dismount, and loosen your horse’s girth a notch.

o   Walk beside your horse into the check.

o   I like to offer my horse a few carrots or a granola bar as we enter the vet check.  This is her signal for a break, and also brings up her gut sounds, which tend to be quiet.

·       When you arrive at the check, an in-timer will ask for your vet card.  An arrival time will be written on your card.  You have 30 minutes to pulse your horse down.

·       Your horse will ideally pulse down within a few minutes of your arrival.

o   Walk him to the water tank for a drink of water.

o   If he is hot, sponge or scoop water onto his neck to cool him and bring down his heartrate. Scrape the water off to promote faster cooling.  Don’t sponge out of the water tank; use the smaller sponge buckets provided for this.

o   When the water scraped off his skin is no longer hot, his pulse has probably dropped. 

·       Step away from the water tank and ask for a pulse.

o   When the pulser approaches, move your horse’s left front foot slightly forward, and ask him to stand still.

o   The pulser will use a stethoscope to listen to your horse’s heart for 15 to 60 seconds.

·       When your horse’s heartrate reaches the required criteria (usually 60 to 64 beats per minute), he is “down.”  The pulser will relay this information to the timer, and get a “down time” and an “out time” to write on your card.

o   Your “out time” is the time you are allowed to leave the vet check and continue down the trail.  You may not leave before this time, and you must see the vet first!

·       Take some hay with you if there’s a line for the vet.  Allow your horse to eat as you wait. 

·       If you’ve still got food in your pockets, eat it now.

·       The vet will examine your horse quickly, but thoroughly.  A more thorough explanation of this exam will be covered later.

· If the vet does not “pass” your horse, he is “pulled” from competition.

o If there is something urgently wrong with your horse, the vet will immediately start treatment. This is rare.

o If nothing is urgently wrong, ask the vet for more information and advice when there is no line of horses waiting to be examined.

o Talk to the timer or other ride management personnel about what to do next. You will probably be trailered back to camp by a designated driver.

·       If you are given a passing grade by the vet, get ready to go back out on the trail. 

o   Make sure your horse eats! 

o   You need to eat too!

o   If you haven’t peed yet, do that!  If you don’t need to pee, you haven’t been drinking enough fluid on the trail, and should stay in the vet check until you do.

o   Refill water bottles and any other supplies you need in your saddle packs and pockets.

o  You can stay in the vet check longer than your required hold.  If your horse needs some extra time to eat, take it--but be aware that extra time in the vetcheck is not counted as "hold time", and you must still get to the finish line before the cut-off set by the ride.

o   Before leaving the vetcheck, offer your horse a last drink of water, and administer electrolytes.

·       As you leave the vetcheck, verify with the timer than you are authorized to go.  Check once more that you are aimed at the trail with correctly-colored ribbons for your distance, and off you go!

o   Some people like to leave a vet check at a walk, others prefer a trot (or even faster).   Do whatever you like, as long as you are safe.

Back on the trail

·       Return to your “all-day trot” pace after the vet check, and try to maintain it as much as possible.

·       When you need to walk on the trail, use the opportunity to encourage your horse to stretch his neck down and to each side.  This only takes a few strides and will help keep him (and you) more flexible as you become more fatigued.

·       Contrary to the teachings of Pony Clubs everywhere, it is okay to let your distance horse eat while he’s working.  A quick snack break every hour will keep his gut motility working, and provide a mental break for both of you. 

o   If there is no grass growing along the trail, carry some carrots to feed from the saddle.

o   As crazy as it seems, you may need to practice this at home, so your horse will actually EAT—some get so focused on their work and so excited by the activity of the other horses that they won’t eat. 

o   It’s worth spending the time at home AND at rides to enforce the “eat when I say eat” injunction, so that your horse can refuel between vetchecks later in his career when he’s doing longer distances.

o   I use the phrase, “Oh look: food!”  to direct my horse to grass.  She recognizes my words and tone of voice, and she knows that we won’t leave again until she’s got grass or a carrot in her mouth.

·       After your snack break, return to your “all-day” pace.

·       If you hit the “doldrums” at some point, where you or your horse (or both of you) starts to drag mentally and physically, change what you are doing while still moving down the trail.

o   Ask for a different gait, practice collection or extension, flexion, or lateral movements for a minute or two.  Praise your horse’s efforts for these exercises.

o   Sing a cheery song out loud

o   Join up with another rider, if you have been riding alone.  Or, stay back from the group if you’ve been riding with others. 

o   Set your watch for five minutes; walk on a loose rein for that entire time.  When your five minutes is finished, pick up the “all-day trot” again. 

·       When you approach the finish line, SLOW DOWN. 

o   Dismount and walk into camp as you did at the vet check.

The Finish Line

For Limited Distance (LD) events, you have not “crossed the finish line” until your horse has reached the heart rate criteria!  Endurance distances (50 miles or more) are considered finished when the horse crosses the line.  ALL horses must pass the final vet check in order to "complete" the event.

·       As tempting as it is to fly across the finish line, racing will raise your horse’s heart rate  and his level of stress—exactly contrary to what you need at the finish of a ride.

·       Offer your horse a drink of water before beginning your “cooling off” procedures.

·       If the weather permits, drop your saddle to allow your horse to cool off faster (which brings down his heartrate).

o   In cold, wet, or windy conditions, you may wish to keep the saddle on to keep the horse’s muscles warm and loose.

o   Sponge the horse with cool water as you did at the vet check. 

o   When his skin feels cool and water no longer sloshes off feeling “hot”, his heartrate is probably lower.

·       Step away from the water tank and ask politely for a pulse.

·       When your horse’s heartrate reaches the criteria (usually 60  or 64 beats per minute), the pulser will notify the finish line timer that he is “down.”  Your finish time is the time that he officially pulses down.

The final vet check

·       See the vet for your final evaluation as soon as possible. 

o   You have 30 minutes to complete your evaluation after pulsing down in an LD ride (according to AERC rules), but it is rarely better to allow a horse to stand around before getting the vet check done.

o   Feed your horse as you wait in the vet line.

o   If the vet requires “tack off at completion”, remove your saddle and leg protection if you haven’t done so already.  If he is wearing hoof boots, they can be left on or taken off, at your discretion.

o   If the weather is chilly, throw a fleece or wool blanket over your horse to keep his muscles from getting stiff while waiting in the vet line. 

·       If the vet has concerns about the soundness or metabolic health of your horse, s/he may “keep your card”, advising you to return within 30 minutes after feeding, massaging, or icing the horse. 

o   Follow the vet’s instructions.  Remember that the vets want you to complete!

o   Ask for help if you need some. 

·       When the horse passes all parts of the final vet exam, congratulate him and yourself:  You have completed your first distance event!

Coming soon:  horse-care after the first competition