Social Distancing=Not Riding

It has been 10 days since I last rode a horse. I started the distancing sort of early, before the surrounding counties and the state (NC) closed down, since I had been compulsively reading about the spreading COVID-19 pandemic. Since I am in three risk groups I decided that it would be better for everyone if I just stayed away from the barns. Oh well.

My last two rides were quite good, and I am very glad that the horses showed progress and I could give them something positive to think over during the shut-down. I am not worried that I will lose this progress (except maybe for Bingo) because I've found that horses have absolutely amazing memories. Since both the horses I ride have 24/7/365 turnout they will be moving around freely instead of just standing still in one place.

With Shannon's permission I switched from the Fager titanium Oscar bar-relief double-jointed snaffle with locking joints and a coppery central lozenge, to the Fager titanium Max bar-relief double-jointed snaffle with freely moving joints and a titanium central lozenge. While Cider obeyed me when I used the Oscar she never seemed totally relaxed about that bit, I did not know if it was because of the copper lozenge, the locking joints, or that it was a double-jointed bit.

Cider gave every indication to me, and to Shannon, that she preferred the Max to the Oscar. Her tongue relaxed, she reached out for the bit readily, and there was less tension in her lower jaw. I got the impression that Cider greatly prefers a more mobile bit in her mouth, at least with the Fager bar-relief double-jointed bits. As she cheerfully walked around the ring, striding out freely, I realized that some horses JUST DO NOT LIKE the stiffer bits in their mouths. The horses do not read the bitting books, they do not read theoretical equitation, and they have their own opinions about what makes a gentler bit in their mouths—thank you very much. She was even less resistant backing up.

Thankfully it was a wonderful ride for her to think about over her unplanned vacation.

That Wednesday I had a lesson on Bingo. He had been wearing his Guardian Horse Mask, that covers his eyes and blocks up to 95% of UV light, for the previous three days so he had a chance to get used to it out in his paddock. Debbie told me he had been moving a bit more in the paddock, and he did not seem as distressed about coming in from the bright sunlight to the darker barn. His tear tracks down his face were smaller too. He gave us no problems while we groomed and tacked up and seemed in a better mood than usual.

I was prepared for some problems from Bingo our first ride in the mask. While he had a few days to get used to it out in the paddock Bingo has trouble realizing that what is working out in his paddock can also work in the riding ring. I was worried about everything looking different to his shaded eyes, and him taking exception to how everything looked different. I was expecting some balking, some minor spooks, and for him not to listen to me.

Bingo did hint at a balk when we first walked, I kept him going a few steps and stopped him for a minute or two so he could look around at his leisure. After that there were no more hints of balking. He was not upset at all that everything looked different once I gave him the chance to look around. As I walked him around the jumps he was quite obedient but he did not want to stride out, so I settled on praising him highly whenever he strode out a TINY bit.

BUT—he did not stiffen up his lower jaw at all. When I asked him to slow down his mouth stayed soft and he readily obeyed me. When I asked him to halt he responded to much lighter hand aids than usual. It was as if the bright sunlight had been frazzling his brain and now he had his “sunglasses” mask on his brain was working properly, for once. But the most amazing thing was how he reacted when I asked him to back up, his mouth remained soft, he did not stiffen his lower jaw or tongue at all, and he gently champed on the bit throughout. Amazing progress!

When I was on the internet on Thursday it became apparent to me that the COVID-19 pandemic was getting serious. Through the decades I had read several books on epidemics and pandemics and I had some idea about how rapidly these nasty germs can spread through a population. The schools closed, there were going to be a lot of kids around the stable, and I decided it would be better for everyone if I just STAYED HOME. So I called Debbie and told her that I would not be out for my lessons or homework rides until the pandemic settled down. On Saturday I learned that the first case had shown up in my county (Stanly County, NC) and I called Shannon and canceled my Sunday rides for the duration. At least Debbie had some good news, Bingo had started walking around his paddock on his own instead of having to wait for his paddock mate to take pity on him and lead him to the hay and water. YEAH!

To keep my riding muscles up I started exercising some at home. I started walking outside every other day, trying to walk a few more minutes each time. The first day I was really tired after 17 minutes, and after walking outside four times I got all the way up to 27 minutes of walking today, with plenty of rest stops. The best thing about walking outside is that if I go a little distance down my dead-end gravel road I can see some horses out in a pasture, and if I turn around and go to the end of the road I can see a herd of cows. When I can see the horses I stop in the road and start talking to them, thanking them for being there so I can see a real live horse, asking them if the spring grass tastes good, and sympathizing with them when I see the flies and gnats irritating them. Those horses have been gracious to me, even though I am a decent distance from them they have been lifting their heads from the grass/hay and looking at me while I tell them how beautiful they are. At least I can see a horse even though I am not riding now.

On my non-walking days I do little sets of exercise, one of going down into the low position of a “rider's push-up” all the way up to a “vertical far” position. Other times I “post” at least ten times. With both these exercises I keep my diaphragm pushed out, shoulders back, and my face vertical so I do not get into bad habits that can wreck my seat in the saddle. I try and do sets two or three times a day, and my thighs seem to be getting stronger, especially the muscle in the front of my thigh that I now use to bring my feet further forward than being too far back on the horse's barrel.

Until there is a vaccination against the COVID-19 virus social distancing combined with frequent thorough hand washing are the ONLY things that will slow down or stop this pandemic. I really miss the horses, and I am now being deprived of the best physical therapy I have found for my MS, the physical therapy that keeps me able to walk on my own two feet. But unless we ALL follow the directions of public health officials (not politicians) we are not going to be able to stop the spread of this virus in our communities, including to the stables where we board horses, take lessons and ride. If the barn managers and workers get the COVID-19 illness they won't be able to give the horses the care that the horses need and deserve.

Stay safe. Stay well. This will end someday, and THEN we can get back to our horses and RIDE!

Jackie Cochran

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