Falling off, gastric ulcers and hormones

Falling off is absolutely part and part of riding horses. I remember when I was younger somebody telling me you have to fall off, I think they said 26 times in your life, before you were a good rider. Don’t ask me where they come up with that number, I have no idea. Anyway, I think I have done that at least five times over. I don’t even think it’s because I’m a particularly bad rider but I have ridden a lot of horses in my life and my taste in horses tends to be fairly at the high end of the crazy spectrum. 😂

As many of my long-term fans will know I had my fair share of troubles in the early days with Chip. I used to come off him at least every fortnight for about the first six months I owned him and then overtime it reduced to say every four weeks, and then every six weeks, and now it’s about three or four times a year. The thing is, when I fall off him now they are mostly quite fluke experiences where I just haven’t been quick enough to respond to his very sharp temperament. You think I’d know better by now than to trust chip.

However, yesterday I didn’t fall off Chip, I fell off my four year old Fern - again. And it really wasn’t a fall so much as being quite literally catapulted. Falling off Chip feels so much more accidental, with Fern it feels so much more intentional. When Fern decides she’d rather not carry you anymore she will bronk and bronk until you’re off. It’s nasty.

This isn’t the first time she’s done it to me either. But I really felt we’d got past it. Last weekend I took her to a pole clinic and she was such a star. Yes there was some bucking and leaping but it was all forwards moving and felt like immaturity rather than trying to ditch me. It didn’t concern me at all, and my confidence with Fern really improved. I was actually so looking forward to riding her yesterday and putting into practice some of the things we had learned at the pole clinic the weekend before.

For those of you that don’t know, Fern is an ex-racehorse and the few rodeo experiences we’ve had before have all been out hacking when we’ve been in big open fields. So there’s definitely an element of her past-life at play here. We don’t have an arena at home so all of my work with the horses is in the field or out hacking. They’re very used to it and being in a wide open space is just something they get used to straight off. We’ve been lunging, long-reining and schooling in the field for the past three weeks without problem. Last week we had a little canter in the field too and she was super, no bucking, tail swishing, head tossing etc. just a really cute little transition and canter up the field. Lovely.

So yesterday after doing some walk and trot work in truly angelic fashion I decided to finish off with another little canter on each rein. The moment I asked for canter it all went pear shaped. I fell off about 200m on from where I’d actually asked for the transition! I’m sure you can all imagine what took place in that 200m stretch. I know that the key to staying on is to not let them get their heads between their knees but with each buck and leap my reins were slipping through my fingers and I could feel myself losing more and more control. On buck number 7 or 8 I actually thought I was saving it and was going to sit it but a few more and then the very last one had me beyond the point of hope. Standing up over air. I mean literally – air. I know you should never look down, but we all know when we are past the point of return and start to quickly plan for the best landing, in that split second looking at my landing strategy my reins were undone at the buckle (how that happened I don’t know) – so I had one in each hand and her head was vertically underneath me – I couldn’t actually see it! I was so far gone, I assumed my saddle must have actually gone up her neck?! How she didn’t fall over I don’t know. My impact landing was quite an extreme one which saw me going along the ground at such velocity I lost my trainers!!! They were a good 10m away from where I finally stopped sliding to! Classically, I managed to hurt my back (exactly where I have fractured a couple of vertebrae in the past) and my head --- arghh I’m still not completely over my concussion from my cycle crash! My vision went funny – again! And I was really dizzy. So I needed a moment before I got up, retrieved my trainers which involved walking along the wet grass (you guys all know how much I hate having wet feet). Fern carried on going around the field at great speed with lots more bucks and leaps.

Luckily my yard owner was there and caught her for me. Back to Fern, she’d managed to undo her breastplate (I assume she got her leg through it and the quick-release clip gave way thankfully) my reins were undone at the buckle and my stirrups were crossed over the neck!! I think that demonstrates how far gone I was for the stirrups to not even be on the saddle! Anyway, back on board, feeling very unstable in my head. We walked and trotted around. She was fine. Nothing at all. But I have to say I wasn’t brave enough to ask for canter again.

I now find myself in a bit of a predicament. I really can’t afford to keep hitting my head. It’s really not worth it. I’m still struggling with headaches from the first round of concussion and today I know my coordination has gone array again too not to mention my very sore back and hips. Also too, that behaviour is not normal. Horses aren’t nasty by nature. They only respond to their past experiences, learned behaviours, fear or pain.

I’m fairly certain that she’s suffering with an ulcer flare up at the moment coinciding with some fairly hormonal behaviour too. The change in season and the return to work have proved stressful for her. Fern is a very sweet mare, quite cuddly on the ground. The kind of horse you could let a toddler walk around and fuss over and you wouldn’t worry at all. She’s that safe. Normally.

My horses live out 24/7 in the summer and I try to keep them out as long as possible because I like them to keep moving. However, living on clay soil makes it impossible in winter so I have got the stables ready and have started bringing them in for an hour or so at each end of the day to get back into the swing of things. They go in for rug changes, feeds, grooming, tacking up etc. all in preparation for coming in overnight.

The problem I have is that everything has come at once. She’s definitely in season and I can’t say I noticed her having any significant ones last year so this one seems quite bad in comparison. She’s four now and I know with previous mares, the last season of the year is often the worst. So this has coincided with starting to come into the stable more and me bringing her back into work too. Also there’s a big forage change as most of the nutrients are out of the grass now so she’s having ad lib haylage outside whereas before she was on 100% grass. So there’s a lot of things going on for such a young mare.

I could speak to the vet and start her on a course of gastro-guard (omeprazole) but I doubt they would just give me the drugs without scoping. I’m afraid I really don’t like scoping. The notion of starving the horse for 12hrs before and the associated stress must significantly exacerbate the ulcer issue. Also too, with the high prevalence of ulcers found in racehorses, competition horses and leisure horses I don’t doubt that they would find she does have ulcers. Omeprazole actually stops acid-production in the stomach to allow the ulcers to heal. But it’s kind of just putting a plaster on it. It doesn’t stop ulcers returning. There is also some evidence that shows omeprazole can have negative effects on bone density – again something I’m not keen to do with a young growing horse. Anyway, the key with ulcers is dietary management and then finding the cause of the ulcers. In Fern’s case I think a lot of it is to do with stress. She’s quite a pacey mare and suffers hugely with separation anxiety. These are issues I’m sure she will grow out of over time – she is still so very young and has still spent more of her life in race-training than not.

From a management perspective I don’t think I could do a lot differently:

- Low sugar/starch feeds – small meals

- Balanced diet

- Supplement – pectin, lecithin, acid buff, pre & probiotics & aloe vera

- Alfalfa chaff before riding

- Anti-acids before riding

- Lucerne haylage

- Ad lib grass haylage

- Plenty of herd turnout

- Internal stable grill in the stable for socialisation

- Mirror in the stable

For now, I’m going to be a little bit hippy in my approach and not go down the vet route. My sister has had great results with her horse using chia (which makes a thick mucilage layer to help coat the stomach lining from acid) thus allowing the ulcers to heal and also bentonite clay – I know mega hippy! I’m going to start with the chia for now and see if there’s any improvement before trying the bentonite clay. In addition, I have purchased some NAF Oestress today. I’m not a huge believer in herbs to be honest but I don’t want to put her on regumate if I can avoid it. However, I will give it a try. If it eases her hormonal behaviour just to get her through this last season of the year then great.

I’m also going to stop working with her. There’s no point right now, she’s clearly not happy (girthy, moody about doing her rug up, pacing worse than ever etc). I’m going to give her some time to settle into her new winter routine without the added stress of a rider. Obviously I will always do the right thing by my horses and if I think she is not making any progress even with the cessation of work and additional ulcer/hormone measures then I will definitely consult my vet.

For the second predicament – my head. It’s kind of precious to me. I need it for everyday function and also my job and just you know – life. My cycle crash definitely knocked the wind out of my sails way more than I really factored at the time. I’ve had concussion quite a few times growing up (all horse related) and I think the August accident was probably the 5th time. I’m only 24.

I’d like to think I’m a fairly intelligent person but if I keep hitting my head I’m definitely going to lose some brain cells! Yesterday’s fall definitely wouldn’t have normally affected my head the way it did. It’s way more sensitive to knocks, bright lights, loud sounds and seemingly still not completely healed. My prevalence of headaches is now down to about 1-2 per week but that’s still quite a lot. I’ve spoken to my GP and it was suggested I needed to wait 12 weeks before referral for a brain scan. That’s coming up in a fortnight. Today my coordination is all funny, even my typing speed is reduced. I can normally type 80 words a minute with a high accuracy, I think it’s more like 60 today – not convenient for someone with as little patience as myself ahh! Be grateful for the blog peeps!

Anyway plan. Probably not going to ride the babies for a bit. I need to try and let my head settle. Fern can just go back to complete rest and see if we can make progress with her general behaviour on the ground. Spice is bobbling along quite nicely but to be honest could do with more refined voice commands and general in-hand work. Chip’s trained hard this year and won’t melt if I don’t ride him. I’m not saying I’m not going to ride at all – I’ve not gone completely mad – but I think I’m going to be making a groundwork plan for Spice and just ride Chip on low-risk ambient weather days aahah. There’s loads of fun to be had with Spice in hand and lots of nice activities we can go and do from the ground. I’m excited for the challenge of doing more in-hand work actually. I’ve always been so impressed with the Spanish riding school type long reining you see when they get their horses to do all these super fancy moves! I’ll be really impressed if I can get Chip to legyield from the ground. Watch this space :D

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