The last time our vet was out to check on Jackson she said to me "Jackson sure is fortunate to have you for an owner. You are so sensitive to him." Of course, this made me feel great but it also started the wheels spinning in my brain. What exactly did she mean by "sensitive" and how did that happen? I think she meant that my feel for Jackson is sensitive. We were talking about how I work him, when I work him, and when I let him rest. In my mind, I call that "feel."
I haven't always had feel. When I was a kid, I was a strange mix of hyperactive (I think they call that A.D.D. now) and hyper-sensitive. I would sob during movies and when reading books but I never stood still long enough to register the feelings of the real people around me. As I've gotten older, I've learned to tune into people more instead of just mowing them down. And with my ever growing list of aches and pains, I'm slowing down physically as well. But, my preferred speed is still fast. I've only met one person who works harder than I think I do -- and I married him.
Enter Jackson. My partner and my teacher. Jackson loves to go fast as much as I do. If I let him, he would run himself into the ground. When I first bought him, I was guilty of this. I rode him six or seven days a week and I rode him pretty hard. He never complained and he never asked to stop. But his body - feet and hocks specifically - said "Hold on! This hurts!" Jackson does not have strong feet. In fact, he has really crummy feet. His soles are thin so he bruises easily, his hoof walls are thin so they split and have trouble holding the nails for his shoes, and his feet are small with very little heel. I have a fantastic farrier. We tried barefoot first but with his thin soles, he couldn't handle the hard ground or rocky trails. I'm pleased with how he is shod and trimmed and generally supported by Sage.
I had his hocks injected last September and he has remained sound and strong in his hocks since then with just a monthly Adequan shot. I also started giving him a day of rest between days of work and I ice his hocks after particularly difficult work. I mix things up so we focus on something different each time I ride. Sometimes we do cavelletti, or trail, or lateral work, or fitness (interval work, canter, hand galloping).
Right now we can't do any trail work. In March, he came up very lame. After running a million tests - blood work and x-rays - we determined that he had road laminitis. There isn't any dropping or twisting of the coffin bone but there is sensitivity in the sole. This was most likely caused by riding on hard surfaces (trail, dirt arenas at clinics) when his soles were soft from the wet winter we had. So, he is only worked in our arena which is sand. He is improving, going almost three weeks without sore feet if I am sensitive to him when we ride. But I also know it will be six months or more before he is completely sound again.
This is where "feel" comes in. I can't just get on him and go anymore. The soreness is subtle. I can't always see it but I can hear it and I can feel it. When I walk him to the arena I listen for regular foot falls, I notice whether he can pivot and I notice how forward his is walking. Assuming I have all of those things present and accounted for, I jump on. We walk for 10-15 minutes. I feel for uneveness in his stride. I feel for slight stumbles or toe dragging. I feel for happy forward energy. And I work on my position: is my thigh rolled on, is my calf gently in contact at the girth (not swinging and flopping around), is my heel down, is my belly engaged, my shoulders back and my eyes up. Then, I take up the contact at walk. Does he lift his back? Keep the tempo and energy? Does he reach for the bit while pushing from behind? Once I feel confident that we have everything working correctly and comfortably, we move on to trot work. If that goes well, we do a bit of canter. If he feels tired or unsteady, we call it a day.
When I first got back from my trip, I wanted to ride. But, Jackson was slightly off. With the heat and the lack of work, I've only been able to ride him a few times. The first time we did 10 minutes of walk. The second time, I added a bit of trot. Last weekend, we worked for 20 minutes but he wasn't up to doing more than a bit of trot work. This morning... I woke to fog. Cool, grey, damp fog. Foggy mornings are great mornings for fitness work. We breezed through our walk and trot warm up and then I asked for canter. His ears twitched. Canter? Did you say canter? Yay!! We did a few laps around the arena and then came down to trot to change direction. I asked again. I got... hand gallop. I lauged out loud and his ears went happy, happy, happy.
It was a good morning. A very good morning.