Friday, June 15, 2012

What to do if you vet out

Last weekend I was reminded yet again to never take anything for granted in the sport of endurance. I took my mare, Opal, to St Alban's NSW to do her second training ride. While the course had some steep hills, it was only 32kms instead of the usual 40km so I wasn't too worried. Opal could handle it. She was fitter than ever after the 40km she did at Mudgee three weeks earlier and doing another training ride would help prepare her for an 80km. But when I trotted her up at final vetting I heard those dreadful words no endurance rider ever wants to hear, "Sorry, you vetted out." My beautiful mare was slightly lame in her right front leg after pulling a muscle out on track. Vetting out is always a possibility. Sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take, you still vet out. Opal had straight A's for everything else, her heart rate only went up by 2 beats per minute, and she showed no signs of lameness when I was riding her. But when I trotted her up for the vets she definitely wasn't right.

So how do you deal with a vet out? First of all, you don't start arguing with the vet. The vet has a lot more experience than you do at evaluating horses and their opinion should be respected. Usually the vet will confer with another vet before making the final decision to disqualify you and it's not a decision they make lightly. Arguing with the vet is bad sportsmanship and it makes you look like a complete twit, so unless that's how you want to be remembered by vets, volunteers and fellow endurance riders I would advise against it. If you are unsure why your horse was vetted out, then by all means ask the vet for clarification in a polite and respectful manner. They will be more than happy to discuss it with you and perhaps even suggest treatment. Bear in mind though that if there is a big queue behind you the vet may not be able to stand around chatting to you for half an hour. If you want a more thorough evaluation then it's best if you organise for a vet to see your horse when you get home. Occasionally a horse might require emergency treatment on the spot and if you are seriously concerned for your horse's welfare then you should speak to a vet straight away.

After you've vetted out the most important thing is to continue monitoring your horse. What you monitor will depend on why your horse vetted out in the first place. If your horse was showing signs of dehydration then you should encourage your horse to drink and watch for signs of colic. If your horse's heart rate was extremely high then you should keep checking the heart rate and aiding your horse's recovery as best you can. If your horse vetted out due to lameness then you should inspect your horse's legs and hooves, treating any injuries you find. It's also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the signs of colic or metabolic distress. If your horse appears agitated, paws the ground, lies down, rolls repeatedly, or keeps looking at it's belly then you may have a colicking horse on your hands. It's vital that a colicking horse receives prompt veterinary attention, so if you suspect colic don't delay in calling for a vet. Better to play it safe and get a vet than risk your horse's welfare by waiting to see if it miraculously recovers on it's own.

Every vet out is a learning experience. It highlights the areas you need to focus on managing in order to improve your horse's performance. While there's not a lot you can do to prevent your horse pulling a muscle out on track, you can take steps to prevent dehydration, colic and exhaustion. Over time, you will develop a management strategy for your horse and learn how to recognise when your horse is struggling. Some horses can be very hard to read, while others will give you very clear signals. Top endurance riders know their horses inside out and can spot a problem a mile away, which is why they can travel at such fast speeds without damaging their horse. They also know know it's better to finish in 2nd place and vet through than be first across the line and vet out. There's no point running a horse into the ground for the sake of a trophy. In this sport, the horse's welfare matters more than how fast you went, and you won't win any respect (or prizes) for pushing your horse too hard. If you do vet out, the main thing is to learn from your mistakes so you don't repeat them in future.

Me and Opal crossing the river at St Alban's
Photo courtesy of Jo Arblaster 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My new endurance horse :)

There's a new horse in my life and her name is Opal. 

Funnily enough, when I bought Opal I wasn't looking for an endurance horse at all. I was looking for a broodmare. For a few years now I've been entertaining the idea of competing on a horse I'd bred and trained myself. I already knew which stallion I'd use - Jim, obviously! With his excellent performance record, athletic conformation and resting heart rate of 24 beats per minute (not to mention successful endurance bloodlines) there was no question in my mind. The problem was I didn't have a suitable mare to breed him to. So in January 2010 the hunt for Jim's girlfriend began. After looking at a few different mares, I finally decided on a grey 13 year old, 15.1hh purebred arabian mare named Opal. She'd already had four foals, all of which had been sold to endurance homes, and was back in foal to the same stallion. Unfortunately Opal was already entered in a stud auction and her owner didn't want to pull her out at the risk of disappointing other interested buyers. Off to the sales I went with my empty horse float in tow. A few nerve-racking hours later I drove home with my new mare.

Opal had, shall we say, a rather basic education. She knew how to lead and that was it. Things like being caught, picking up her feet, or having a rug put on were all foreign to her. It took me FIVE hours to catch her the first time I tried and while it was nice to know Opal had the stamina of an endurance horse it was hard to appreciate this when she was galloping away from me. I decided to hire a trainer to do some work with her so she'd be easier to handle around foaling time. Before the trainer did any work with her I got the vet out to make sure everything was running smoothly with her pregnancy. Imagine my disappointment when the vet announced that Opal was in fact not pregnant. What to do now? It was too late to put her back in foal and it seemed a shame to leave her sitting out in the paddock. In the end I came up with a crazy plan - to get the trainer to break her in. I wasn't sure how successful this plan would be, but I wanted to give it a shot. Even if it didn't work out at least she'd be easier to handle afterwards. When I told my trainer what I was thinking I expected him to laugh in my face, but he just calmly said he'd do his best and see where it ended up. Well, it ended up with him in the saddle teaching my 13 year old feral broodmare to accept a rider.

Just a few months later I was able to ride Opal myself. She still carried on like a cat on caffeine on the ground, but under saddle she was bold and level-headed. I'd never ridden such a light, responsive horse in my entire life! Most of the time all you had to do was think of what you wanted and she'd do it for you. She'd bend over backwards to please you and I adored her willing attitude. In October 2010 I took her to her very first 20km Social Ride at Harden NSW. She blitzed it - her heart rate was actually lower at the end of the ride than it was at the start. I was having so much fun riding Opal I was reluctant to put her in foal to Jim, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't. Besides, I could always ride her again once she had the foal. When Opal gave birth to a beautiful filly in October 2011 I knew breeding her was the right decision. Her foal, Taliah, has all of the best characteristics from Jim and Opal. I felt like I'd won the lottery when I saw Taliah for the first time. She's everything I've ever dreamed of and more! 

The next six months flew by and soon it was time for Taliah to be weaned. In April I brought Opal back into work and just over a month later I took her to Mudgee NSW to do her first 40km Training Ride. She exceeded my expectations at Mudgee, receiving almost straight A's in vetting and finishing with a heart rate of 34bpm which was the same as at pre-ride. I've tentatively lined up another 40km ride at St Albans in June where Opal will face some pretty tough hills, but I'm sure this magnificent mare can do it!

Me and Opal before the 40km Trainer at Mudgee NSW