Monday, December 30, 2013

Pushing Too Hard

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.


  1. I think part of knowing how far to push is sometimes making a mistake and going toooooo far. If you never touch the line, how can you know where it is? Although that's much easier to say when it's somebody else than when it's you, I know. I'm glad Tris is okay and that he has a person who knows how to pay attention and adapt to/for him. :)

    1. Thank you! I would've thought I had a pretty good sense of when he was physically fatigued - but it didn't kick in when it needed to. And sometimes he fusses just to fuss, so I am always weighing whether he's actually tired or just wants to be done.

      But I will trust my gut next time and not keep going, even if it means a lopsided ride.

  2. Having ridden endurance horses for nearly two decades, I think I can speak to your issue. Please don't feel guilty. We build fitness by pushing ourselves. You asked him to work "hard," and he did, but then you gave him LOTS of time to recover. And then you watched his rate and quality of recovery. That's what responsible owners do. Next time you're worried, take his pulse and/or body temperature. If he drops to 60 bpm in less than 10 minutes, you probably have nothing to worry about. You could also consider "cooling" him out a bit more quickly by hosing the veins on his legs. The cold water will cool the blood that circulates through his system which will cool his core temperature down a bit more quickly than just walking.

    1. Thank you! I've never really hit his bottom quite like this before, and I hope that I'll be doing this more gradually in the future to build that fitness.

      Hosing down is a key part of my summer cooling down, but he is in full winter coat and it is down into low teens or single digits every night on even the warmest of nights - often below zero. I would not have been able to get him dry in time. I have been waffling about clipping him to get more cold air to those big veins but have never done so before, and it seems a bit late now.

      I do have a stethoscope that I've used to do p&r for distance rides before. I should put that in my grooming kit and start getting a baseline and seeing what his recovery is. Thank you for the tip about 60bpm, that's good to keep in mind.


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