The Mayo Clinic is one of the finest hospitals in the world and uses a creative approach to patient care: each patient has a team of specialists to treat not only the patient’s primary condition but also to use diet, exercise, wellness, alternative therapies and more together to support a patient’s whole health. Each patient has a team, and that team sees a problem through their own unique lens.
When Puck arrived in my life, he twisted his neck a bit in the bend to the right. And over the last year, I’ve made my own Mayo Clinic approach to solving it.
First, my veterinary team. Puck had a prepurchase exam, which showed nothing interesting in his ability to bend his neck, nor any asymmetry of limb. My vet is Dr. Cricket Russillo, who works out of Virginia Equine Imaging here in The Plains, Virginia, and is also the team vet for U.S. Dressage. Cricket has seen Puck several times over the last year to keep checking in.
Over the last year, other than a deep bruise to a front leg from kicking the bejeezus out of my trailer for five hours each way to and from a lesson at Michael’s (ah, youth), Puck has had a pretty banal veterinary history. At his most recent visit, he was a little sore in his back. Since he doesn’t X-ray badly in the back, we concluded the soreness was muscular. More on this in a moment.
Puck also very quickly saw my dentist, Graham Alcock. Graham is one of those guys that horses just love, and he concluded that other than a very redneck cracked front tooth, Puck’s mouth was unremarkable. Since any nonsense Puck has given me about contact has been with a politely closed mouth and no grinding of teeth, I checked his teeth off the list and moved on.
Next up, my farrier. Don Maley has been shoeing my horses for nearly a decade, and with Puck, he’s had his work cut out for him. Puck has broad flat feet and low heels. We played it conservative for a while, because we wanted to see what a change in program—new feed, new turnout, new work schedule—would do to him and then went slowly on the offensive, backing off toes and trying to grow heel. We ended up putting him in an onion shoe, designed to provide heel support, and he’s beginning to look a lot more like a normal horse with normal feet.
Next on the docket is nutrition. My fantastic team at Tribute Equine Nutrition helped me come up with a program that would provide Puck with what he needed to build topline without making him, ahem, unruly. Lots of time in our gorgeous Virginia grass has helped a lot too, and Puck gets what we call the Sprieser Sporthorse Special: Uckele Equine’s GUT (for gastric health), Tri-Lube (for joint support), and Pro-Lyte (a low glycemic electrolyte), with some Cocosoya Oil for good omega 3s and for shine! Puck was healthy when he walked off the plane, just lean and not very muscular. Over the last year that’s improved markedly, and since Puck has finally started to settle in and get a grip, I’ve even added in some extra calories.
But until about two months ago, that settling in thing was tenuous at best. He gave me grief, more in the beginning, and less over time, but still grief, about really accepting the compression that my leg, seat and hand provide. We’re not talking FEI shape here; we’re talking normal, inside-leg-to-outside-rein sorts of stuff. Through it all, I’ve worked hard with my coach, Michael Barisone, to have an outside perspective on making sure everything I’m asking of Puck is fair and in the correct way. And through it all, Michael has encouraged me that I’m making the right choices—lots of transitions both between and within gaits, a healthy balance of straight and bending lines, and regular changes of contact. For the young horse, there’s no one outline he should work in, but rather he should work in a variety of shapes, like too low, too short, too high, too long, more right bend, more left bend, etc. If he can work in any reasonable outline as a young horse, it builds the skills to find the “right” one for that particular horse to show off his best work in a show ring as a finished product.
With Michael making sure my training approach was the right way, and the veterinary and farrier pieces of the puzzle well in hand, I felt reasonably secure in the belief that any grief Puck was giving me about his training life was originating between his ears and not in his body. But the muscle soreness nagged at me. Of course I expect an athlete in training to get sore from time to time. On the days when I noted he was really tired, and on the days when I noticed he wasn’t wild about being groomed (which were few and far between), he did a ton of walking, including rides exclusively at the walk. Upon our return from Florida this year, I started putting in a one day mid-week hill workout, all at the walk, to help Puck build muscle without breaking him down.
Enter the last piece of the puzzle: my longtime friend and saddle fitter, Colleen Meyer.
My rules on tack for young horses are pretty simple: own a saddle that is wide and flat and will fit a huge range of horses and use it until the young horse stays the same shape for six months. At that point he can earn his own equipment, but there’s no point in buying an expensive saddle trying to fit a moving target. The saddle I was riding Puck in is a fabulous model called the Bossa Nova; I bet we have half a dozen horses in my barn in one, and it’s the saddle I use on Danny and Swagger currently, as well as the saddle I rode Johnny, Ella and Dorian in when I owned them. It’s a hugely versatile saddle, and when Puck arrived, Colleen had a look at him in it and gave it the all clear.
But in May, I was looking at Puck’s back one day and said to myself, huh. I think that long list of things I’ve been doing to help support the health of my horse’s topline—the great nutrition, the hill work, the walking days—is working. He’s put on muscle. He’s gotten even bigger.
Colleen was scheduled to come in for fittings, and on a lark I borrowed an even wider and flatter saddle from a client and stuck it on Puck for two days. The transformation was quite impressive: an immediate reduction in the Nonsense Per Ride ratio. And when Colleen came, and she looked at my healthy and robust monster of a baby horse, who’d grown an inch and put on probably 100 pounds of muscle since she last saw him, she handed me a Spencer, her newest design, offering a broad and flat fit for the horse while still providing me with a little depth of seat.
I hopped up, put my right leg on, closed my left rein, and smiled as Puck said, “Good morning, mistress! Of course I can accept these aids and lift my body! May I offer you anything else?”
Now of course it’s not that simple. I had three or four great rides, and then Michael came down for a clinic, and seeing how fabulously Puck was working, encouraged me to raise the bar. Cue the drama and nonsense again. But it was shorter. It was WAY less dramatic. And it went away. I took Puck as a non-compete to a show in early May, in the other saddle, where it took me three days to actually get on and ride him because he was so keyed up; two weeks later, in the new saddle, I took him to another show and could ride all over the place on Day One. He still twists his neck a bit tracking right, but it’s addressable now and gets better every day. I’ve begun playing with the changes. I can easily achieve a few steps of truly collected canter on both leads.
And of course I wish I’d stumbled upon the saddle phenomenon sooner, but with the young horse everything evolves and changes so quickly that its impossible for anything to happen in a vacuum; there’s never just one answer to a puzzle. This is why I take the Mayo approach. My team of trainer, vet, saddle fitter, farrier, dentist, nutrition experts and myself all work together to solve the problems that inevitably arise as any horse goes up the levels. I check in with them regularly, and my horses benefit!