As Apple has come back into work, I’ve gotten lots of questions about his supplements, nutrition, and general routine. In fact, so many people have asked, I decided to write about it a little, as his 25thbirthday is SATURDAY! Also because I cannot keep up with the comments and DMs I have gotten, so this might be the most efficient way of talking to everyone.
Erin and I are both remarkably lucky to have senior ponies (see The Patterned Ponies) that have stayed with us from childhood through adulthood. Houdini is kicking Apple’s A$$, tugging Erin around cross-country in style and placing at novice, but Apple’s “career” was always a little more alternative. I’m going to get him a saddle pad that has “Professional Manny” embroidered on it. I would love to say that both ponies had similar physical trajectories, but Erin, in all of her sainthood, has preserved Houdini through some soundness trouble I can’t even begin to comprehend. She deserves all the praise. Apple has always just had some older pony arthritis, stifle trouble, a bad abscess, and later in his life, a serious bone bruise that, by overcompensating, caused some soft tissue damage surrounding the digital flexor in his hind left. In the long run, all relatively minor things.
Just in case you the reader are unfamiliar, here’s a little Apple history:
As a young rider, I was not taught “horse maintenance.” While my childhood trainer tried to instill an aversion to the “ridden hard and put away wet,” I don’t think she was educated enough to follow up her words with actions. There was no connection to diagnose chronic bucking as a possible lameness symptom or that Apple’s lacking strength in his left hind could be addressed with in hand work, not just injections and shoes, or that an older pony who was showing heavy signs of Cushings should be switched to a special grain. So, to say I was lacking education in senior maintenance and nutrition is an understatement. Once it was just my ponies and I, I had to find good vets to lean on and ask questions at every turn. I am forever grateful Apple has forgiven my ignorance.
Apple was not necessarily “formally” retired. For a couple years, he was used as a therapeutic riding pony, which he excelled at, to help pay his board twice a week, and he was ridden lightly by either a young rider or myself maybe two more times a week. However, I flew into a rage when I realized he was not being given his medication (Previcox/Cosequin/MSM) and was being used for WAY more than a lesson here and there, especially since he wasn’t being ridden in HIS tack. He had a sore back and was really struggling with his stifle. The timing is a bit fuzzy, but Apple quickly moved to a barn where he would be unhandled, and he would be pasture boarded with some other older geldings, and when I couldn’t feed him his meds, the barn manager could be counted on to feed him. I was very happy with this move, in mid 2016. However, in October of that year, Apple had an accident where he received a heavy kick and puncture to his Gaskin. I honestly thought the leg was broken. Erin was a huge help as I was leaving for Regionals that day, and an emergency vet visit showed no fracture, only massive bone bruising. After this, in early 2017, his overcompensating for weight damaged the soft tissue in his fetlock and possibly the digital flexor tendon sheath.
I kept him standing bandaged and my heart broke every time I saw him try to lay down/get up, knowing how hard it was in the time he was lacking the strength to do so. He trantered instead of cantered and couldn’t track up with his hind legs very far in the trot, but he was determined to play with Erin’s Houdini when she let me move Apple to her home while Taylor and I house hunted. He was still perky and energetic, even if a bit limited in his range of motion. All of these things, combined with his preexisting arthritis and age, made me happy to have him as a pasture ornament as long as he was comfortable.
Eventually, Apple joined Joy (and Posey cooking away) at Taylor and I’s hill country rental property in September of 2017. The best part about this move, apart from seeing the horses from my bedroom window, was the steep gradients in 7.5 acres. Nothing could have benefited either horse more than the varying footing (some gravel, some rocky limestone, solid dirt, grass, etc.) and the changing altitudes necessary to navigate the farm property. Even to get to the back pasture from the barn, the horses have to negotiate and over 50% slope down to the creek, and to return to the barn have to climb back up. It was a very natural way for Apple’s body to build strength and re-learn how to use himself in an organic way. Late 2017, I took him on some light walk trail rides and lunged him here and there to assess his general soundness. Nothing serious.
Late 2017 to April 2018, Apple pestered Joy, hauled his pony butt up and down all the terrain, and stopped being reactive to flexions in his hind left. Cue Posey’s birth, and Apple had a new playmate. Since P was born, Apple has been chasing Posey around, playing chicken with her, swimming, and overall living like a horse. I will say, Posey seems to have helped build his overall strength back up, and she also got him a little too in touch with his “natural” side. The most feral of all the ponies.
I only give you the history to understand that what I am doing with Apple to lead to this DISCLAIMER AND RECOMMENDATION:
if you are planning on bringing an older horse back into work who was off work for no medical reason, start slow and listen to your horse. However, it’s not a bad idea to just check in with your vet. If you are planning on bringing back an older horse that was laid off due to an injury, ABSOLUTELY consult with your vet BEFORE you begin for an appropriate plan. I cannot stress that enough. Not every horse is the same, especially with preexisting injuries, and just because Apple is feeling like a three-year-old in his program doesn’t mean that the program he is in is right for every horse.
Moving on to what that program is…
Feed and supplements:
Apple eats about 3/4lb of Triple Crown Lite AM/PM with basic vitamins and free choice costal in the evenings. He’s a super easy keeper, and I worry about his sugar intake. He does not get any medication or supplements, just the occasional handful of soaked beets as a treat or a small amount of alfalfa. I have not put him on Previcox or Cosequin again because the work we are doing is nothing more than what he would do on a playday in the pasture. And let’s talk expenses. The benefits do not outweigh the costs right now, especially because he has not shown any signs or soreness, stiffness, or discomfort like he was previously. I’m trying to build him slowly to avoid exacerbating any previous issues. Of course, if any of those symptoms presented themselves, I would add something to help him be more comfortable, but honestly, I would also back off work with him probably before adding supplements.
Bringing Apple back into work, I lunged a couple of times with no equipment to evaluate his general fitness and find where the weak spots are. Usually, I try not to lunge him very much for two reasons. The first being that he has a tendency to be over-reactive on the line and will honestly just bolt at times because he’s Ricky Bobby at heart, which is no good for an already weak pony. He essentially will run himself into the ground. The second reason is that repetitive, load bearing circles are terrible for stifle problems, which I’ve managed for most of Apple’s life.
However, I will lunge him once a week. I do not use anything on him to simulate a “frame.” I was mislead for years believing that lunging a horse without side reins is a, and I quote, “waste of time letting them run around with their heads in the air.” Once I dragged myself out from that mindset as a late teen, I began using side reins much less frequently (only with specific types of lunging work or settings) and began using a version of a lunge cavesson. I noticed immediate changes in both Joy and Apple. For years, I’ve struggled to undo the mindset Apple has of dropping his back and hollowing his neck once anything is asked of him instead of reaching into the bridle. Nowadays, he’s much less defensive and willing to stretch throughout his work. Primarily, we focus on transitions with me keeping my eyes peeled on his track up patterns from his hind hooves. I try not to do a lot of canter but do include canter transitions. We work until the goal (supple, stretching, striding up, listening, softness) is achieved. Usually maximum of 25-30 minutes for both sides.
We also do some basic in hand work like turns on the haunches and forehands, shallow leg yields, and a lot of backing, focusing on dropping the quarters and lifting the front while taking deliberate, not rushed, diagonal steps. Apple is a sensitive guy, so all of this comes from gentle touches with the hand, verbal, or body position cues - no need for a whip of any kind. That’s one of the great things about having a horse nearly twenty years, you really learn them in and out and develop a relationship that cannot be matched.
Under saddle work:
I began Apple back under saddle confident of where his weaknesses are from two weeks of light lunging. Knowing how much weight I was adding to his back (me + saddle on a 13.3h pony), I knew I needed to be very aware of what I was asking him, how I was asking him, where my weight was sitting on his back, and limiting the amount of work. I began with a week of hacking, a little walk and trot with lots of transitions in a light connection to encourage him to not flip his neck upside-down. I didn’t even bother with going in the arena, just creating large figures in the fields and focusing on staying forward without getting quick and gently reminding him to work from behind. Not long and low just yet, but to come a touch more correctly that way he could utilize his body in a way that was beneficial. Maybe 20-25 minutes, 3x a week, not consecutively, for about two weeks.
The third-fourth weeks, I was getting more confident with his body and started warming up with walk hill work, added more walk-trot-walk transitions, began asking for a lower, more training level self carriage, and asked for a touch of canter. The canter was surprisingly balanced already, but I didn’t want to get greedy, so I stuck to three real transitions either direction. Due to the stifle, when he falls out of balance in the canter, he swaps leads behind. I was focusing on him being so prepared in the upward and downward transitions that he wouldn’t fall to the forehand and swap. For Apple, this is the most anxiety inducing thing in the world and once he’s swapped, he will run and run and run until he can’t any longer, invert his neck, stop working over the back, and panic. That’s a battle I had been working on for years, but I didn’t want to play with that while doing what I consider a type of rehab work. That completely undoes everything I’ve been working on. So far, no swapping, so that tells me his strength is slowly shifting backwards and he’s able to carry more weight behind. In addition to the little touches of canter, I began add slight inner-gait transitions at the trot to prepare him for trot-halt-trot transitions and backing under saddle. The fifth week, I began light backing under saddle and connected (the key word) trot-three steps of walk-halt-trot. Still 3x a week non-consecutively, for about 30-35 minutes.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been able to feel the differences in his body. He’s naturally a reaching up from behind in the pastures at liberty, he’s developing some lipstick during work, and he’s dropped some weight! When I hopped on bareback the other day, I could feel a stronger topline. Now, I’m focused on basic conditioning, working towards longer and lower carriage to lift that back in warm up/cool down, trot and (controlled) hill work, and beginning to refine the connection a little more for the more “dressage” portion of our ride. I essentially treat him like a young horse, working my way through the training pyramid. These sessions have become a little longer because there is more extensive warm up and cool down and have been running about 35-45 minutes.
The most important thing about returning a previously retired horse is listening to their body to find out how hard you can push or what you should be working on. It’s easy, especially if you’re working with a horse who previously had a job, to let them fall back into their MO. Beware - even though they may offer harder work within a couple rides does not mean they are actually, physically ready to do that work again. Mentally, of course they remember the walk to canters or lateral work or a bigger stride of gallop. You are responsible for keeping them working on the “boring” stuff because you have the foresight to make sure who build them up appropriately, instead of skipping steps and letting the physical weakness divide grow. It’s all about preserving them for the future and a better, more comfortable life.
I’ve been asked a couple times, if Apple stays confident in work, if I would let a little girl show him or let someone take lessons on him. Honestly, I can say no. There are a fair few issues with that (liability insurance, and not wanting kids of my own so no need for extra children in the property) but mostly because if any pony has done their service to the greater good, it’s Apple. Shows were never his favorite thing, with his anxiety and bucking, and he has gone above and beyond those expectations initially set for him. Anything I do from here on is strictly for his own well being and to keep him mentally and physically sound for as long as possible. He also seems to enjoy doing a little something here and there, with his normally perky personality being extra happy these days. His selflessness helped start me on my riding career, now it’s to pay him back with the education I’ve gained. I’m pretty damn grateful for the opportunity to see the world through his tiny, red ears again with each and every stride.