Bonnie's Blog Post # 4

Well, where should I start? In my last post, I was prepping for the one-day at Fair Hill all the way back in May, and there really aren’t words to describe how incredible the summer and fall seasons were for us.  I’ll try to use the next few posts to sum up the past six (how did that happen?!) months, and give you a sneak peek at what’s in store for me and the ever-wonderful brumby this winter.

Fair Hill was a terrific event for us- we scored a personal best in the dressage at the Training level.  There were a few moments where he (read: I) got a little tense and we lost a point or two in the collective marks for that, but overall I was really happy with him and pleased with myself for keeping him forward and pushing him through his (read: my) nerves.  Show jumping was on the grass up by cross country and was- what’s the kindest way to put this?- FAST.  We were double clear but I definitely rode it more like a cross country round (which, in my defense, is easy to do in a big grass ring, on terrain, with the actual cross country course right next door!) and let him get quite flat as the course went on. 

The question of bitting for SJ is one we struggled with this season, and it became quite obvious at this event.  At home and at events where XC doesn’t immediately follow SJ, he goes best in no bit at all: an H-S long-shanked hackamore.  I tried to step it up a bit with a single jointed happy mouth snaffle hackabit, but that wasn’t quite right either.  Brakes are usually a non-issue, I have no trouble stopping or problems with getting run off with (well, that might be an exaggeration… ask me about that one time I tried to do a gallop set in the hackamore…), but being able to balance and ride him to my hand becomes problematic.  He can get a bit strong XC, so I ride him in a bit with a bit of leverage for that: a snaffle mouthpiece elevator or a wonderbit or a D-ring myler gag without the gag rein but with the cheek pieces on the top ring and the reins on the D… we like to change it up on him to keep him happy. Later in the season I’ll let you know what we ended up doing for these SJ before XC scenarios and how it worked out for us.

I should probably back up and talk a little about Loki’s mouth.  Loki has never been quietly accepting of the bit.  If he is working, he is constantly playing with the bit, opening his mouth, locking one side of his jaw, etc, etc.  Obviously it’s not enough to prevent him from doing his job, but it is certainly enough to ding us on our submission collectives every. single. ride, and it is definitely detrimental to riding a consistent, even connection. 

For years, as Jeff moved up the levels with him, we thought it was a training issue, training issue, training issue.  But he was so good everywhere else that when it wasn’t improving we decided to dig a little deeper.  Being the neurotic vet student I was at the time, I checked his teeth up, down, and sideways, radiographed his skull, ultrasounded and injected his TMJ, tried every ergonomic variation of bit and bridle you can imagine (hence the discovery of the hackamore love), and ultimately, consulted with a professor of mine and surgeon at New Bolton Center. Said surgeon was very skeptical that it was a medical issue, but agreed to look at the horse. 

Jeff brought him to NBC and we watched him ride on the grass, next to the busy parking lot, on one of the first really cold, windy days of late fall (did I mention he was 2* fit as well?).  He flatted him for about 5 minutes in a Micklem bridle and simple Myler loose ring snaffle (one of the combinations Loki seemed to like best) and I could see the thought bubble above the surgeon’s head that said, “Guys, this is a training issue”.  I swore to him that this didn’t happen without a bit in his mouth and told Jeff to go put the hackamore on to show the difference.  Jeff, “Uhhhh… I didn’t bring the hackamore.  I can put his halter on?” So he hops on in a HALTER and LEADROPE in the blustery, windy, cold, busy parking lot and proceeds to ride around and do his half pass, leg yields, mediums, transitions, what-have-you… with not a peep from his mouth and steady as you please in the “connection”...

After I picked the surgeon’s jaw up off the floor we decided to start blocking him.  He has some bony ridges on his lower jaw where, we assume, he had a pretty rough time of his wolf teeth extractions, so we threw some carbocaine in over those, and when they were good and numb, put the bridle back on and went back out.  No change.  Then we decided to put the halter back on with just some brown gauze looped through the mouth loosely.  Quiet as a mouse.  When we tightened the gauze so there was pressure on the corners of his mouth, though? Fussy, fussy, fussy.  With that knowledge, we decided to block the corners of his mouth (which went about as smoothly as you would imagine on a fit horse that doesn’t like needles, but we got it done).  Wouldn’t you know, quiet as could be with the bit in his mouth! The working theory (and that’s really all it is, there’s no way to ever know for sure) is that he had a bad tongue-tie at the track that caused some degree of nerve damage in the corners of his mouth and having a bit causes some degree of discomfort.

To be clear, I don’t believe he is in pain, I just think the pressure of a bit on the corners of his mouth likely causes enough of an odd “tingly” sensation that it’s uncomfortable and he tries to avoid it.  Obviously that is purely conjecture on my part, and if he ever showed behavioral indications of pain we would try to change our game plan even more or just stop riding him in a bit altogether, but for now we use the hackamore as much as possible, flat school in bit/bridle combinations that suit him best, and accept that the dressage scores are probably not going to improve in that regard.  Of all the issues to have with a horse, this is definitely one we can live with!

Well, that was quite the unintended segway, but hopefully helpful in understanding our constant tack rotation and some of our connection issues, on the flat and over fences.  

To get back to Fair Hill… after a bridle change, a scolding from Missy for my riding (or lack thereof) in the SJ, and a boot and tack check, we were ready to head out to the best phase! The course rode really well- Loki likes to be a bit “looky” to the first few fences- it takes him usually until about fence 6 on xc to really get in his rhythm and start “taking” me to fences.  Jeff says he did this with him, too, so I just ride positive and keep kicking until he gets “in gear”, so to speak. 

With the first part of the course heading away from warmup, and right past and away from SJ, this “first fence stickiness” was even more pronounced, but after a turning table question at fences 5-6 in the back corner, we kicked it in gear and had a great round. I was a bit worried about the water late on course- it was a brush fence to a log drop into the water, with a narrow fence a few strides out after the water.  Loki is very careful- one of his downfalls at the upper levels, he likes to take a peek before he launches- and I let him get a little too behind my leg to have a look jumping in, but thankfully he was honest and went! I definitely need to ride him a little more forward (but not running!) to fences like this that (drops, especially into water), which are as much rider fences for me as fences I know he will want to look at. Always homework, right? Anyway, we made it home through the finish flags with no time faults and had a blast!

The icing on the cake to finishing on our best dressage score to date? We took home the blue ribbon in a division of 19! While it wasn’t a perfect weekend by any means, I learned a lot about what I need to do differently at shows and where I need to step it up and be less of a passenger and more of a driver! With such an honest and experienced horse it’s easy for me to sort of sit back and just point at fences in the jumping phases, particularly at shows where my nerves get to me, but it’s definitely going to get me in trouble one day and this event was a good wake up call because, while we were clean, there were definitely fences that weren’t pretty.  Goal for the next few shows: be there mentally for my horse, and ride like I know how, not just to get to the other side! 

Stay tuned for what happened for us the rest of the season in my next recap post!

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