My Ankle Acts Up

Last week I wanted to get out of the house. I walked down the gravel road to see the neighbor's horses in their paddocks, I just wanted to see horses and I wanted to smell them too! I walked with my two canes, slowly and carefully, and I never felt anything wrong.

That afternoon my right ankle swelled up, with not pain, no soreness, no heat and it was not red. Friday we called the doctor since my ankle was bigger but the earliest a doctor could see me was Monday morning. So I treated it myself, I took an extra aspirin and I put my BOT ankle brace on, then I added the Fenwick booties over the brace. I wore this get up most of the weekend and the swelling went down a bit.

The doctor said I must have overstretched an ankle tendon in front of my right outside ankle bone, he approved of the BOT ankle brace and Fenwick booties even though he had no knowledge of far-infrared radiation therapy, told me to elevate my foot and use ice.

So on Wednesday I thought it might be a good idea if I wore my BOT ankle brace while I rode MJ. I had tried BOT stuff on myself while riding before like my back brace and the horses had peacefully refused to establish good contact, but since my ankle is about as far away from my core as I could get I hoped that the BOT ankle brace would not interfere with my ride.

It was hot and it was humid outside. I had put on my ice vest while helping to groom MJ because I got too hot too fast. By the time we walked to the ring I started having a little bit of difficulty walking. I got up on MJ, reminded Debbie that MJ might not like my hands since I was wearing a BOT ankle brace, and we proceeded.

My darn ankle affected my whole ride badly. Debbie gave up on correcting my right foot when it became obvious that my body was actively defending my right ankle from further harm. This put my whole seat out of balance and MJ acted like my riding ability had dropped by a third. He obeyed my aids fine, but when I asked for contact he politely held his head back just a little bit.

You see, for me proper contact with the horse's mouth STARTS when the horse reaches up for the bit with his tongue. This starts a whole slew of positive actions in the horse's body, the throat-latch opens as the horse reaches for the bit, the tongue relaxes, the horse's jaw is free to give flexions, and the horse strides forth confidently and happily. IF the horse does not reach for the bit with his tongue I am left with no real contact, I am a good enough rider to FAKE decent contact, but golly gee, if the horse does not reach with his tongue real effective contact is just not there.

And it showed. When I tried to establish contact MJ was not reaching for the bit, his hindlegs did not push at all since the hind legs were dragging, and all three of us were not happy. I went to my driving aid that I use when my legs are just not enough, I reached back with the crop to tap the top of his croup on the side of his pushing hind leg. To do this comfortably for the horse I have to put all the reins in my other hand, without contact. MJ reached out with his head and lengthened his stride, but as soon as I tried contact his tongue sucked back. MJ told me that on that day my hands were just not good enough to risk contact with his delicate tongue and mouth.

Once I gave up trying to have contact I had a decent ride with sagging reins. I even got a decent flat-footed walk out of him which please Debbie greatly since MJ was striding forth confidently, reaching forward with each leg and increasing both his stride length and his speed. I could feel the push of his hind legs in my sagging reins and he promptly obeyed my well timed hand and leg aids. The moment I tried contact yet again all of this went away and we were back to plodding around the ring in a dis-spirited manner.

Just wearing the BOT ankle brace increased my core body temperature enough that my nervous system just did not work well enough to keep contact with MJ's delicate mouth. Bummer. This was while I wearing all my usually effective stuff to counter the heat, my technical fabric heat dispersing neck gaiter under my helmet, my technical fabric summer shirt, riding tights and socks, my ice vest and my neck fan. Nothing I had on Wednesday worked well enough to lower my core body temperature enough so MJ would lift his tongue to get true contact with the bit.

I could have gotten after MJ. I could have “driven” him with leg, spurs and crop to force him to reach out, but NONE of that would ever entice MJ to reach for the bit with his tongue. I could have beaten him, sworn at him, and have a temper tantrum (the fabled “come to Jesus” reaction of many riders), and nothing would have worked to get MJ's tongue acting properly for true contact between horse and rider through the reins and the bit. I could have faked it, but by faking it I would have ended up abusing him.

MJ could tell that my nervous system was not working well. Debbie could see that my nervous system was not working well by the way MJ was reacting to me. I could tell that MJ was not going to give me what I wanted most, his calm, relaxed reaching for the bit from which all higher level riding on contact originates. That darn BOT ankle brace just messed up my ride royally and there was nothing I could do about it because my body was not working right.

Next week I will NOT be using my ankle brace. Hopefully my ankle will have improved enough so I can put equal weight in the stirrups, something that just did not happen on Wednesday.

It was a pitiful ride, but MJ kept calm and cooperative.

I told Debbie that MJ is worth a million dollars in spite of his advanced age (28) and his navicular disease and other overuse pain in his joints. This horse is SO CALM, one time two of the stable dogs were play fighting and ended up UNDER MJ going around his feet, barking and snarling. MJ did not care. One time a heron sky-rocketed out under his nose, he just flinched a tiny bit with one muscle and shrugged it off. Other horses in the ring? He just keeps an eye on them but does not react to them.

MJ is a GOOD riding horse who will defend his delicate tongue from imperfect hands.

And I can't blame him at all.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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