One of the most popular posts I've ever written on this blog was called "When to push, and when to back off." It's something I struggle with still.
Saturday night, I pushed too hard. It started out really, really well: he warmed up well, and was responding nicely. We were moving forward, through the walk and into the trot to work. My intention was something of a conditioning ride: not really hard dressage work, but more like trot sets.
So we had a long walk warmup, and then we trotted on a loose rein for a bit, and then I picked up the reins. I didn't do anything but work on my own hand position and just basically take hold of the reins. I got a feel of the bit but didn't specifically ask for anything with it. I worked on keeping him straight through his whole body, paying careful attention to his haunches. As he got more forward and loose, he started to reach forward into the bridle himself. Historically, he has to be coaxed and teased into reaching for the bit at all, so behaving like a normal horse - ie, get him straight and forward and he will go into the bridle - is awesome.
We took a walk break, and then picked back up with a few minutes of trotting and then 2.5 minutes of cantering. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But a couple of factors made it a poor decision on my part. First, it was significantly warmer than it has been: in the mid-30s rather than low teens. Second, he was already gunning more forward than he typically is, and his canter reflected that. Third, I had started him on his right lead canter, which is his stronger lead.
He was puffing a bit after the canter, but recovered in a few minutes, and then I compounded my poor decision. I thought since we had worked his right lead, we had to work his left, which is where he really needs more work. So we repeated the exercise to the left: 2.5 minutes of trot, 2.5 minutes of canter. At 2 minutes into the canter he started blowing hard with every stride, so I pulled him up.
And then we walked. And walked. And walked. He was panting in a way I've never heard him do before - short, quick gulps. After 3 minutes of walking, I stopped him and pulled his saddle, then got on him bareback. After 3 minutes of that, I slid off him and walked. He slowly, slowly, slowly took longer and deeper breaths, and at about the 8 minute mark it started to resolve into a normal breathing pattern.
He was never in any other obvious kind of distress: pulse was fast but ok, he was moving easily (not even overly tired-appearing), he wasn't sweating more than a hint of dampness, and he was alert and nosed me for treats when I paused him occasionally. When he was breathing mostly normally again - a bit elevated but nothing that set off alarm bells for me - I brought him back to his stall and he took a small drink of water and happily dug into his hay, then begged for his grain (which had been pulled before we started riding).
I felt like something you'd scrape off a boot. I paced, and paced, and put away all his tack and checked him every time I walked past his stall, and then I found a half-dozen odd organizing jobs around the barn and kept checking on him, and then I sat in my car for 30 minutes and Googled "horse panting after exercise" on my phone and texted Hannah for reassurance. Finally, well over an hour after I had put him back in his stall, he was still looking totally fine, I went home. I fretted the rest of the night, and woke up the next morning at 6:30 and watched the clock in agony until I knew that the morning feed person would have laid eyes on him and called me if there was anything wrong.
Sunday, he was fine; he even got his massage. J. said he was clearly fatigued but not sore anywhere, and that he'd actually begun building back muscle tone. He needs more weight again, and he still needs a lot more muscle, but the overall quality of what he is adding is good and there's clearly just a bit more along his back.
So, lesson learned. I still feel wretched, and I can still hear perfectly his quick huffs of breath, but he'll be ok. And I'll be much more careful in his conditioning rides going forward. He's showing me he's older in all these small ways, and I need to pay more careful attention.