Thursday, February 4, 2016

state of the union

Or, rather, "State of the Topline"

just tryin to do right by this sweet sweet mare
Some readers may recall that my quarterly goals always included making a point to snap monthly confo shots of Ms Thing. And perhaps some readers might also have noticed that the last purposeful confo shot was posted in September.

september 2015 conformation shot (note she's still got some sweat marks from our ride)
Superficially, it kinda makes sense that I would miss October accidentally ('twas a busy month!), then November and December too because of my injury.

But there's more to the story. The truth is that I learned a lot about dressage last summer, including how a horse should use themselves effectively and correctly, and what changes that might produce in their musculature. This was super exciting, and was bolstered along by Isabel's impressive moves under saddle.

Simultaneously tho, all my little alarm bells started going off when my education about those muscle groups coincided with recognizing that Isabel didn't look AT ALL the way she felt while riding. She felt incredible. She looked like a run down beat up hag. And was always sore. Always.

least flattering light evar in mid October
I snapped that pic while preparing for a dressage lesson at TM where Isabel went phenomenally (if you're dying of curiosity, there's video here) and my heart sank. I know the angle of the sunlight makes things look worse than they maybe are... but it's undeniable that her back looks like shit.

Quite frankly, I almost didn't post that picture. But decided to anyway bc that's an accurate representation of what she looked like and I figured it would ultimately hopefully serve as a "before" picture. (And here I am doing a sorta midway post, so yay for self-fulfilling prophecy!).

Another photo that almost didn't get posted, except it was too darn cute to ignore, was this gem:

snapped while hacking Bali in mid October
Her hollow back is just as apparent here, even with the less harsh lighting.

Of course, by this point I had already decided something had to change with our saddling situation and called in a new fitter, who promptly (and quite decisively) ripped the narrow gullet plates out of my two Bates saddles after doing tracings of Isabel's back. She replaced them with a medium wide for the close contact saddle (blue plate) and medium for the dressage saddle (black plate).

My post about that fitting appointment was full of angst and frustration, given that two professional saddle fitters could have such diametrically opposed approaches for Isabel... But so many readers chimed in with encouraging comments - reassuring me that all was not lost for Isabel's topline and that the new wider fit would allow her to start packing on muscle in all the right places (with proper work, of course).

saddle fitting appt in mid October
Around this same time, I got Isabel's teeth done for good measure too. Honestly that had more to do with general maintenance than anything else, but it's included here to give the most holistic picture possible.

early october dentist appt. she looks happy, no?
And then, naturally bc the universe has a sick sense of humor, I broke my damn leg just as the pieces were coming together to seriously improve Isabel's physical condition. Le sigh.

Fortunately (depending on who you ask), I'm still capable of being a total pest even when laid up on the couch at home - and probably drove my BM crazy with emails bemoaning my concerns for Isabel. Specifically: mare was too damn skinny.

And this is where I admit to a secret (seriously hoping our BM doesn't read this, but if she does, I'm sorry and I'll never do it again!): I had been secretly feeding Isabel extra grain in the months before my injury. So Isabel got a double whammy when I suddenly disappeared from the barn - not only did she stop working, she also got a serious feed cut. (And this is why you don't keep secrets from your BM, kids...).

mare at liberty in late November after 2 months vacation + feed increase
So emails were exchanged and a formal decision was made to increase Isabel's feed. We've since increased it a couple more times now, so she's effectively getting 1.5 lbs of Nutrena Fuel and 1 lb ration balancer daily (up from just the ration balancer previously).

Additionally, I decided to treat the mare for ulcers. Confusingly, she didn't respond to the treatment and remains ulcery still... So we're trying other changes - like adjusting her feeding schedule so she eats more frequently, and adding aloe juice to the mix. I'll probably end up doing another full treatment course again too... We'll see.

modeling her new bridle at the end of November
Then after getting back to under saddle work following my recovery, we had another appt with the chiro that showed improvements in how Isabel feels through her back. She is less sore. The wider gullet plates are now definitively considered an improvement, even if the saddle itself is still not a permanent solution.

"i missed you!" - isabel
And we've been doing lots and lots and LOTS of stretchy work (or at least trying haha) both in lessons and schooling rides. Plus I'm starting to make a concerted effort to mount and dismount from both sides of the horse. She's always been a little squirrely at the block and I'm gonna give her the benefit of the doubt that she's anticipating pain. We'll see.

there's a stretch in there, and it's becoming more push-button
So there's no real "after" shots yet bc we're really still at the beginning of what promises to be a long process. Especially with not being able to ride more than 2-3x weekly. 

But I'm feeling really good about the changes we've made, and Isabel is already starting to fill out in her hind quarters and is looking much less pointy. I want to say that her back looks less hollow already too - but that could be a combination of wishful thinking and winter fuzz. 

In any case, wish me luck. I know a lot of you have gone through similar experiences (or are maybe still dealing with it?)... was there anything that sticks out to you as a turning point in getting the horse to a better place? Changes in diet or exercise routines? 

63 comments:

  1. For me, saddle fit has always been the biggest turning point: once the saddle fit correctly, the horse was able to work correctly under saddle with much more ease and the muscle just came on. In Lily's case, being a hardkeeper TB cross, upping her protein during competition season also helped. My favorite so far has been adding 2 lbs of Triple Crown 30% protein once daily to her grain. I call it "rocket fuel" for a reason though...she does fabulously on it when training hard but it can make her very, very hot during downtime. So it only gets added when we're averaging 20+ conditioning miles/week. :)

    I keep meaning to comment on this: your under saddle pics with her look amazeballs. She looks SO fancy and gorgeous when in work lately: you've done such a great job with her! I think it won't be long at all before you start seeing a major difference in her topline with the way she is working now!

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    1. aw thanks! that's seriously what i'm hoping too, since we've gone pretty much exactly that route of improving saddle fit and upping protein. our barn actually used to use triple crown products with much success, tho now we're using nutrena feeds (i think it has more options for our more special-needs horses?) and i think adding their 'fuel' to the mix is really helping izzy out. yes she's running a little hotter... but it's honestly totally fine for her

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    2. Nutrena really does offer a lot of options nowadays for special needs horses. I still wish TC had something like their Senior in a pellet form (picky eater mare is picky about texture...*sigh*)

      Hotter makes for prettier dressage though! ;D

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    3. OH!! I just remembered: lysine! Lysine is supposed to be great for helping horses build muscle. Lily didn't like it so I haven't been able to feed it to her, but it has made a difference for easy keepers I've owned, including Gracie (note: Lily is the only horse I've offered it to that cared about it; no one else has noticed it in their grain). Lysine is an essential amino acid (their bodies can't produce it; it has to be supplemented) that horses need for building muscle. Here's a great article on it: http://forageplus.co.uk/the-importance-of-lysine/
      Bonus: it's super cheap! I've used Tri-Amino, which is only $15/month through Smartpak (https://www.smartpakequine.com/ps/triamino-8489) and Vitaflex's Pure Lysine, which is $12/month (https://www.smartpakequine.com/ps/pure-lysine-1711) or $26 for a 4 lb bucket.

      I rescued and rehabbed an easy keeper QH that had no topline and was slightly swaybacked. I started him on lysine once figuring out saddle fit and getting him going fitness-wise with correct work and I swear the swaybacked look disappeared. It was amazing. Adding it to Gracie's diet helped her build quads and the muscular butt of a QH. Also impressive. Hopefully it helps Isabel too if you decide to try it! :)

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    4. hotter DOES make for prettier dressage haha. doesn't necessarily make for happier schooling tho when she can't expel that energy elsewhere... but that's a very temporary problem and will hopefully be resolved with improved weather!

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  2. I'm currently working on a post about this... About all I know is it takes time and correct work. I think the dressage lessons will be your best friend. Good luck! We can be top line building buddies ;)

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    1. i'm definitely not stopping the lessons any time soon haha! tho what i found was that the dressage lessons and correct work were not enough on their own - isabel has been working very well in the training program for a very long time, even as she physically looked worse and worse. i'm hoping that the dietary changes will help her turn that corner

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    2. To get weight on Stinker he is being fed ~6 lbs of safe choice senior (I would rather have him on the fuel but he won't eat it), alfalfa pellets (we have a hard time getting good quality hay here), plus regular hay. In addition I have him on a joint, gut, and magnesium supplement. I had him on a weight gain supplement but he stopped eating it so I stopped it. The magnesium is to help balance the alfalfa (I am blanking on the thing that it balances and I'll add it when my brain decides to function). There are a few things that I wish could be done differently, but this has been working for us. My biggest issue is with the hay and it isn't the barn's fault. It's just a product of location and what will grow. Everyone has their preferences and this isn't perfect but it works for us.
      Ps sorry for the novel... :)

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    3. oh man that is so frustrating when a hard keeper is also a picky eater... we've got a couple like that at our farm too and it's so hard to keep weight on them (fortunately that isn't the case with izzy - she technically tends towards being overweight and would probably explode on 6lbs of feed haha. i think we just somehow got completely out of whack over the summer and now have to claw our way back...).

      bummer about the hay situation too, damn vegetation and it's environmental needs! the round bales our horses get in the field aren't bad, but definitely not as good as the small square bales either... it's a trade off, i guess. but like you say - it's just a matter of finding something that works and tweaking as we go along...

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  3. I think you've made some GREAT changes, and that the wider saddle fit will allow her to build more muscle especially now that she's working even more correctly than ever on the flat. I've also had friends who have had a lot of success with adding extra protein to the diet - Buckeye Grow 'N Win comes to mind, or you could add alfalfa - helps with protein AND ulcers!

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    1. that's the hope! we've added more protein via the nutrena fuel (and still have the option of adding more feed should we feel it's insufficient before we have to start supplementing on top of it) and i'm pretty pleased with the results. honestly i think she was probably cannibalizing her own muscles before from not getting enough protein... poor thing! adding alfalfa is not an option (she's essentially on field board) but i think that's ok.

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  4. Only the extremely lucky among us get great help and advice and guidance every step of the way so's to be doing The Best Possible Thing, And Doing It Correctly, Every Time A Thing Needs To Be Done. For normal people, that's an impossibly high bar. Most folks progress with some wandering in the weeds while we incrementally edge towards "better" in a distracted-toddler sort of way. (And that's when we are actively TRYING to do better. The lack of straight-line forward progress is due to a variety of incompetence -- maybe even if we think we understand "better" sometimes we don't, sometimes our implementation of "better" is not as skillful as it might be, sometimes we don't really understand the problem and the "better" we've picked is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic...) The progress that you are making is real and good and to be celebrated.

    You can see musculature that is from more-correct riding and musculature that is from less-correct riding. Congratulations, you are ahead of (easily) 50% of horsepeople on the planet.

    You have noticed your horse's soreness and changed her saddle with the advice of experts to make her more comfortable in work. Again, you are ahead of the zillion (I only wish I were kidding) people out there riding horses with white wither spots or loins that shrink down from the curry.

    The downside of being able to see more than you used to could is that it's easy to get discouraged at how far there is yet to go. I know that feel. Topline, in particular, is not a fast journey.

    I spent this fall and winter working on "correct, rhythmic jog in circles and serpentines during which young horse has solid, regular tempo, good suspension, and steps well under himself with his inner hind leg while being not-inverted". Like, that was the bulk of the last four months of under-saddle work for Bird. So annoying. So beginner. SO SO SO BORING. Feels like taking ten steps backward. But he needs the muscles and he is getting better at it, so...

    We went from this (October) http://imgur.com/4GeRQwZ to this (December) http://imgur.com/kU5fjUR -- it's not a huge transformation, but I think he looks a little thicker through the belly (more abs? do horses have abs?) and his butt is more rounded over that coupling thing up by the hip. Also maybe his hindquarters look a bit beefier -- could also be just fur. Is it from the work? Is it from him growing up? (He'll be 5 this June and is still growing.) I have no idea what's going on. *sigh* I'm gonna hope that it's from our trot circles and serpentines and transitions (walk-trot-walk and now some trot-canter-trot if the footing allows) and keep doing that.

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    1. "incrementally edging towards better" - ha, i like it! that pretty much sums up this entire post lol. one way or another we're figuring it out...

      and Bird looks good!! he has the sweetest face ;) i see improvement in those pics too. it's hard with these little arabs sometimes, i think, just because we're also dealing with conformation. my mare's hind quarters are probably never gonna look like a TB's hind quarters, she might *always* be a little pointier than i'd like. but then again there are arabs like Speedy out there (from Bakersfield Dressage) that give me hope!!

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  5. she looked reallly good in November. I am glad to hear shes getting fuel now...as well as eating more then 1x a day. That will help with any ulcery reactions I think more then people realize - horses are grazing animals and meant to eat all day throughout the day, these processed meals they get are hard on them when not spread out.

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    1. thanks! i was happy with how she looked in november too - but still a little concerned bc she had exactly zero fitness and i was worried that she'd start looking haggard again once the work load ramped back up. so far so good tho, and i'm really very happy with the changes in her dietary management (so far haha)

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  6. i don't have anything specific to add except I'm kinda in the same place and I'm eagerly looking at the comments and progress updates. <3 i feel the same way about runkle's back and butt and I keep telling myself to be patient.

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    1. ugh they say patience is a virtue but... well whoever 'they' is can go F themselves haha. but yea it's so frustrating and hard when we want to see big changes and they just aren't there yet... hopefully tho you start seeing them in Runkle soon too!!

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  7. She already looks so much better! Great job - it sounds like you are doing all the right things. For me, giving more frequent feeds seemed to really help. I ended up feeding 4 times per day and used Fat n' Fibre. Also, a lot of long and low work mixed with walk/trot/walk/trot transitions to actively engage the hind end and build correct muscles.

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    1. thanks! and feeding four times a day sounds awesome, kinda wish we could do something similar haha. glad to hear that the same long/low and transitions work made a difference for your horses. fingers crossed it'll pay dividends for us too!

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  8. Mikey was very similar to Isabel- ie his topline generally looked like crap. He was always ribby and hippy, even after months of stall rest from surgery. He seemed to puff up when riding though. Both he and Penn eat the same feed and amounts- 3 lb nutrena fuel/1 lb nutrena boost, twice a day. We jokingly call the boost feed "fat food", and it's expensive at $30+ per bag that doesn't even last a month fed in the way we were feeding, but it does seem to help. Also, alfalfa. Mikey used to get pellets all the time, and we eventually switched to the compressed bales from Tractor Supply near show time for energy.

    Riding wise, longer/lower neck work and being super round did Mikey (and Penn) the best to build topline. It was all we did in Mikey's several month rehab time, so by the time we got back to third and got his frame lifted back up, the difference in a year's time was incredible. I wish I could have gotten a body shot a year out to really see how he would have filled out.

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    1. oh man, i would have loved to see those shots too - they'd probably help keep me on track and give me something to aim for lol. but yea i really do think the diet is such a critical piece of this puzzle. it just took me a couple years to figure that out lol... probably bc isabel was straight up obese when i met her! and i think you're right on the money with the stretch work. it's only just now becoming a thing we can actually do under saddle (i never really knew how until recently) but isabel seems to really enjoy it and i'm hoping it's making a difference!

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    2. I haven't read through all the comments yet, but wanted to put another voice in the box for "round" instead of just "low". I am not totally up on Isabell's conformation, but if she's the kind of horse who pretty easily can drag her head on the ground and/or can be heavy on her forehand, just letting her travel around with her head low may not help things. For horses that find it easy to put their heads on the ground and drag themselves around on their front feet, classic "long and low" doesn't really stretch out their back. She instead encouraged people to get their horses to go round (like Jan said), and then move between different shapes (round and up a little higher, round and stretchy) to really stretch out and elasticise the topline. Just a thought! I can't wait to see Iz's progress!

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    3. i'm glad to hear that worked so well for you and Murray too!

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  9. Oddly, I posted confo shots of Taran today too. His feed hasn't changed, just his work, and he looks so very different. Riding him very round and down at the base of his neck has helped a lot, along with a shit ton of transitions and constant reminders to use that inside hind. I also longe once a week in side reins (very short session) OR over ground poles, no side reins. That really seems to help Taran use his body without me getting in his way. Oh, and stretches, before and after EVERY ride! USDF recently published a study that showed even a couple of pasture ornaments improved muscling just with daily stretches, nothing else. I figure it can't hurt, might help! And there are cookies, so nobody complains. :)

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    1. i am the absolute *worst* at remembering to do stretches haha, but that's an excellent point and definitely worth trying (esp since mareface is so food motivated lol). the changes in Taran are definitely impressive - i'm hoping that i'll have something similar to show in the next few months too!

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  10. Really the best thing imo is exactly what you are doing: lots of long and low work to build those back muscles, and a saddle that allows for the building of muscle without pinching or getting in the way of using the muscles correctly. And I also second Jen's point. Stretches help a lot. I do them with Val every ride and get all kinds of pops.

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    1. we definitely need more stretching in our lives... isabel's actually pretty good at them, maybe *too* good and i risk losing fingers.... but that shouldn't stop me!

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  11. It sounds like you're doing everything right, Isabel is going to look amazing this spring! :)

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  12. You're making me really appreciate my easy keeping OTTB with a magical (knock on wood) saddle that fits. Phew. Now if only we could turn right...

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    1. yea i'm super jealous of your magically fitting saddle! the easy keeping thing is usually not a problem for us - we just somehow got completely behind the 8 ball this summer... le sigh.

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  13. The stretchy work is absolutely your best friend. Cavaletti/poles will help with the bum too! You are definitely on the right road and I'm sure in a couple months you will start to see some major changes!

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    1. thanks that's absolutely the hope! pole work will resume as soon as they're not buried by snow any more (tho at least we still work on it in our weekly lessons!) and in time we just stretch stretch stretch (or at least try haha)

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  14. I love this post. This isn't something that I really contemplated. I need to take a closer look at Tuckers muscles. I'm very interested to hear all the details of your progress.

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    1. hopefully i'll have lots of good details to share! i know very little about the finer points of conformation but i'm trying to learn!!

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  15. I've had a lot of success adding alfalfa pellets to Moe & Gina's diets; Moe especially struggles with keeping on enough weight. (Gina gets kind of fat if she gets TOO much alfalfa.) I also noticed a big difference in Gina's musculature when I had her on Red Cell Competition from Horse Health Products (I'd received a month supply in A Horse Box once). It was expensive, so I didn't keep her on it, but WOW- she packed on the muscle and felt great. She's now on SmartPak's Smart Muscle Recovery Pellets, which have helped maintain her condition and have really helped with stiffness and soreness after work.

    Keep on keepin' on- you'll get Isabel back into good condition! :)

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    1. thanks! we are a-trying!! also, we had a horse that responded super well to red cell too (tho he was super slobbery and it got all over my one horse threads t shirt and stained it - sob!). def worth thinking about tho...

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  16. Agree with a lot of the above- saddle fit and work specifically built around strengthening weak areas.

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    1. yup that seems to be what has worked for most people. go figure lol

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  17. It sounds like you have an excellent plan in place. I love you outing your secret! Haven't we all stolen a little grain every now and again? ;)

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    1. ha thanks, i'm pretty happy with the plan too. and it can hardly be considered stealing - she's a boarder there, after all. it was just an non-disclosed deviation from her assigned feeding regimen ;)

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  18. Not sure about other comments (Haven't read) but my bodywork gal advised me to do a ton of stretching along with coverlet work. Helps the bum! Its incredible what stretching can do! You're actively helping, don't feel bad!

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    1. thanks - it's hard not to feel bad but i'm pretty doing whatever i can... and so it goes. but yea, stretching and cavalettis are absolutely our friends!! i need to implement more carrot stretches tho, i think

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  19. I vote stretching too, but stretching extra round into the bridle (even if it gets BTV). If she just stretches out and down, she might be leaving the hind legs out behind her, which can make that loin area hollow. I find that happens with the shorter backed horses. That plus doing very slow but active w/t transitions with Rico every day made the biggest difference in his muscle.

    If you have unlimited money (hahaha okay it's not that expensive but it's still a chunk of change) you can try something like Core Builder, which is a muscle building supplement. My vet recommends it for 2-3 months when moving up a level to give them a boost.

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    1. our stretching can frequently waffle between overly dramatic swan dives down into the dirt, and the btv roundness - but she's actually getting pretty good about reaching to and holding the contact. slowly but surely! good to know about the core builder too. for now i think we're going to try to get her what she needs through just grain foods, since there's still a lot more leeway for us there (she really has been getting very little feed) but if it doesn't show results we might get more exploratory.

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  20. Make me another vote for stretching, it was the biggest game changer for Sun. Before he went off for the winter he'd started adding big stretchy canter to his big stretchy trot and it was making the world of difference in how he carried himself.

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    1. glad it works so well for Sunny too!

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  21. She does looked improved! Just more time, more work, more stretching!

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    1. yup, more more more. that's always the way with horses tho, isn't it... ha

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  22. I think the hardest part about changing a horse's body is the time that it takes! Apollo is a super easy keeper and it's hard for me to not see the pounds melt away more quickly when I'm working him more. Keep on keepin' on!

    I did consult a nutritionist last year, she is almost solely responsible for Apollo's soundness because of the diet changes (weird natural ulcer treatment).

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    1. yea that whole 'waiting' thing really is the pits... it's really great tho to see the changes over time with Apollo - and actually it's probably easier for your readers to see than for you since you see him every day, but your work is clearly paying off with him!!

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  23. I know you've commented on Speedy's topline a few different times, but you know, some of it is just genetics. I agree that she is is more "pointy" than I would like, but you might not ever get that super round look that some horses sport - she simply might be more of a greyhound than a beachball. Continue to work on it with more feed and correct work, but don't be too disappointed if she stays a bit angular. My last Arab mare, also a chestnut, could have NEVER been as round as Speedy - she just wasn't built that way. You can see some of her photos on my website. Her name was Montoya. :0)

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    1. ha so if isabel could even come close to looking like Speedy, i would be one VERY happy camper! but you're so right: genetics are what they are, and i'm not gonna bash my head against the wall for nothing. she will probably always be angular - yes. hopefully tho, a little less so than her current state!

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  24. I think the saddle fitting (and non-fitting, lol) could be attributed to her filling out a bit more in her topline. Because I for one see a difference from the beginning of the year to the end. She isn't as hollow in her back (to me, anyways).

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    1. well she hasn't really filled out at all yet - pretty much all of the pictures in this post could be considered more or less 'current.' she remains hollow in her back, not much changed from those pictures in october except for a winter coat and more groceries. however i agree that changing the saddle fit will hopefully have a big impact!

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  25. I had been going through lower back/SI soreness lack of topline issues. Along with getting the SI joints injected, I put my TB on the SmartPak Smart Muscle Mass supplement... OMG it is like muscles blossomed! I didn't change my riding at all, and maybe he has been using himself better since being more comfortable, but I definitely credit the smart muscle mass with making a huge difference.

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    1. that's good to know. i'm still not positive we need to go the supplement route since adding more grainfoods is absolutely an option (she's only getting 2.5lbs a day right now), but it's good to know that it had such a positive impact on Mabou! what a relief that he's so sound and happy now!

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  26. This is an awesome discussion! I'm having some of the same issues - I wonder if the Arab conformation is a disadvantage to building topline? Maggie is definitely pointier than I would like also.

    I've definitely seen a difference between the beginning of fall and now with Maggie - before she was just on the TC 30% protein as a balancer with hay, but then after talking to both jump and dressage trainers about her weight/ condition I added nutrena boost around October and I have seen a difference since then (plus also we've been doing more correct work since then, I think). I'm glad you mentioned the nutrena fuel cause I've been toying with the idea of working that into her ration incase she needs more fat in addition to the TC 30%. I REALLY need to pull out my old Animal Nutrition textbooks from college and actually balance her ration (that takes math though ugh).

    Maggie LOVES her carrot stretches! She always looks for them after we ride and practically falls over she'll stretch so much for them. I'm really good about doing them after but I really suck at remembering to stretch before riding. Food motivated mares are food motivated lol. No idea if it's really helped the topline (can't hurt though!) but it makes me feel like I'm helping haha!

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    1. ha and yet another similarity between our horses.... the dietary thing with these arab ladies does seem tricky bc my mare will pack on a belly SUPER fast, but she really needs a little help in the protein department. if you *do* end up going back through your textbooks, definitely post about it as i'll be super curious to see what you come up with!

      and yea, carrot stretches are officially getting added to the arsenal. except i should probably get some actual big (fat) carrots instead of the candy canes i've been using bc isabel get's a little enthusiastic and i worry about my fingers... haha

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  27. Time. And more Time. And lots of stretchy work and hills if you can do it

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    1. yup, these is all things we do. same old story as always...

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  28. I now want a second opinion on my saddle fit

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    1. ugh saddle fit is the *worst*...

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