Growing Pains

Spring Hollow Or Noir, who goes by Nori at home, is a rising 4 year old Morgan and the youngest horse at Cold Moon Farm. I recently learned that she is the first foal of her sire, Spring Hollow Statesman, and many eyes besides my own are eagerly watching her develop. I adore her, I admire her and I am excited about her future. But at the same time, raising young horses isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, and that is what I want to talk about in this blog.

Nori on her third birthday, June 2020

When it comes to raising and developing a young horse, I think it is important for equestrians to share stories of challenge and setback and to be honest about the ups and downs of the training process. Sure, sharing the victories feels pretty sweet and I appreciate hearing about those moments– but let’s not pretend that getting there didn’t include hitting a few potholes along the way. Otherwise, it is too easy to scroll social media posts and feel as if we are being left behind by our peers, progressing too slowly, or are otherwise doing things wrong.

When it comes to Nori, I feel this like whoa, especially when it comes to the past year.    

 Separating Your Seedlings

In theory, I would have liked to back Nori this past summer, when she was 3, as I did with Izzy; here, “backing” is defined as me sitting on her in a saddle while being led around by a ground handler. Compared to Izzy at the same age, Nori looked much more physically developed yet mentally, she seemed much younger. I decided to hold off.

That choice was a good one, because as it turned out, Nori had her own plans for what she wanted to accomplish in her three-year-old summer.

For the better part of two years, Nori and DRF Isabela, (two years older and better known as Izzy) were the best of friends. They shared hay piles, took naps together and scratched each other’s backs. But as Nori matured, small cracks began to form in their relationship. From day one, the herd ranking had clearly been Marquesa at the top, Izzy in the middle and Nori at the bottom. But by summer 2020, Nori began subtly staking her claim on a higher social rank. The symptoms were so understated at first that I almost missed them—slightly more frequent squeals, small bite marks, an occasional challenge for a prime sleeping spot—but by early summer there was no mistaking that in Nori, we had a ‘social climber on the rise’.

Nori (left) and Izzy (right), before the troubles began.

One day in early July, I came home from a day of hiking to find Nori a bit more banged up than usual; she had a few new cuts, all small, and a front leg was a little puffy. Then I realized that she was intermittently locking her stifle. Ugh. After a video consult with my vet, we deferred further investigation of the injury until the next day. Dr. Monika’s exam revealed that Nori had overextended her left stifle, resulting in some inflammation and a possible teeny tiny avulsion fracture where a piece of ligament had pulled away from bone. Stall rest was out of the question so we opted to do a round of NSAIDs and to try to keep Nori as quiet as possible in her paddock. Thankfully, the swelling resolved and the stifle stabilized after only a few minor setbacks.

One of several photos I texted to Dr. Monika as we tried to determine “Red Alert” injury vs. “can safely wait until morning”.

But the die had been cast. Over the next several weeks, while Nori was supposed to be “resting quietly in her paddock”, the tension between her and Izzy escalated. Sometimes, the two were their usual inseparable selves. But increasingly, I heard scuffles in the paddock, their intensity growing with each skirmish.

The final straw came one morning at 5:00 AM. I awoke to the sound of a significant altercation between one or more horses, accompanied by worried whinnies from the rest of the herd. I ran out in my pajamas to find that Izzy had cornered Nori and was trying to kick her over and over. I grabbed a halter and lead and ran into the paddock, swinging the rope and yelling like a crazy banshee woman (it is perhaps a good thing that my closest neighbor is also an early riser). I’m not sure this was the smartest move–nor do I know what I would have done next had it proved unsuccessful– but it distracted Izzy long enough that Nori could get away. I threw everyone some hay, checked over each horse and headed back into the house.

However, I knew the reprieve would only be temporary.

Looking majestic while on a hand walk fall 2020. Two halters because I sometimes don’t trust the rope one!

Over coffee that morning, I commented, “You know, if I was boarding somewhere, I would be all over the barn manager to get my horse out of that paddock. NOW.”

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single readily available location on the property to put Nori, or anyone else, without significant reconfiguration. While I finished my own breakfast, I worked out a short-term arrangement that would at least get us through the day. I moved our elder statesman, Snowy, to a grass field where he spends most mornings anyway, then moved Nori into Snowy’s “Bachelor Pad”– a dry lot attached to a two-stall shelter. As I slipped her halter off, I exhaled a sigh of relief. For the moment, at least, the situation was stabilized.

Later that day, we subdivided the Bachelor Pad in half with three strands of electric rope, added a new gate and voila– Snowy and Nori became neighbors. Despite neither horse having tons of room, they adjusted well and we worked hard to ensure that each horse had extra “out of paddock” time. Snowy spent four or five hours every day in the grass turnout and went for regular rides, and Nori went for hand walks in addition to daily groundwork training. I was relieved that Nori was indifferent when Snowy left to go do things without her; she seemed to enjoy supervising activity in the riding arena, located just adjacent.

Spring 2020, still with the “girls”.

But with fall rapidly approaching and winter on its heels, these two tiny turnouts could not be a permanent solution. After several rounds of brainstorming, we spent the rest of the summer and early fall building an additional in/out stall with its own fenced dry lot area off the side of the barn. In early October, the new “Nori Habitat” was finally ready and she moved in.

Nori in the Nori Habitat.

Seedlings Up Rooted

In a perfect world, a young horse has other young horses to play with. Though Nori seemed quite content in her own space, I worried that she would need additional sources of psychological engagement now that she wasn’t directly next to another horse. But ultimately, I felt the separation was a sacrifice I had to make to reduce the risk of serious injury. I made an effort to spend time with her every day, even as the weather grew colder.

One Saturday afternoon in mid-December, I was sitting at my writing desk and staring out the big window that faces the Nori Habitat. Suddenly, there was a loud “whoosh” and a second later Nori slammed full bore into her heavy duty gate, bending the metal and knocking it off the top hinge. Snow sliding off the metal roof of the barn had startled her, and she did what many startled horses do; she ran. But the paddock is just a few strides long, the footing was slippery from early snow, and she couldn’t stop in time. That night, we had to use the tractor to flatten the gate in order to get it reattached correctly. Fortunately, Nori was uninjured.

Some of the damage from Crash # 1.

A month later, Nori spooked and knocked the gate off its hinges again. The damage was less severe this time, but as we worked to get the pieces reconnected, I felt the first twinges of concern brewing in my subconscious. Is this going to be a “thing”? Will this horse learn to practice self-restraint? Will she desensitize to the noise before she causes herself serious injury?

Then one evening in early February, Nori spooked and ran a third time. Learning from her previous mistakes, she turned to avoid the gate but instead she slid into the wooden fence itself. Her momentum broke a 4×4 post as well as a three board fence lined with strands of aluminum wire. Now loose, Nori ran to the gate of her original paddock, where Izzy and Marquesa stood, whinnying their worry.

It is a true miracle that Nori escaped from this with not even a scratch.

I was incredulous when we caught her that the filly had emerged unscathed. Not even a tiny tear on her Horsewear blanket revealed that she had just demolished a fairly significant fence line.

                By headlamp and tractor light, that evening we managed to reconstruct the fence. The broken post was partially frozen into the ground and we had to pour hot water around the stump, fastening a chain to pull it out of the earth. By 8 PM, Nori was back in her Habitat. But I was a mass of nerves.

Nori loves to hang out in the snow. The Bachelor Pad is in the background.

                This situation is a time bomb, I thought as I tossed and turned that night instead of sleeping. We have been lucky so far. But if she keeps hitting the fence, sooner or later, our luck will run out.

My brain, most of the time.

                I started to worry that, despite my very best efforts, I was failing to meet this horse’s basic needs.

                About two weeks later, on a warmish sunny February afternoon, I went out to throw lunch hay to find Nori soaked in sweat on her chest and flanks. She had been totally fine just a few hours earlier, when I had groomed her, but now she was anxious, pawing and wanting to roll. I immediately assumed she was colicking, but then I heard the roar of snowmobiles and the accompanying cheers of their riders coming from the powerline trails behind the farm. Whenever the machines raced past, Nori’s eyes grew bigger and her anxious behavior increased.

                Still wondering if she was starting to colic, I haltered her and took her out of the paddock. She had a good roll in softer snow and immediately started nibbling hay in between anxious spins. I walked her around and tried to soothe her, but she was inconsolable. I finally put her back in the paddock and watched her helplessly.

                I AM failing this horse. No matter what I do, she isn’t happy.

                There probably isn’t a worse feeling in the world than knowing you have a problem and trying every solution you can think of, only to have the problem get worse.

                Maybe she just needs a little more space?

                I briefly debated putting Nori back out with her original herd, but with winter footing and the memories of earlier issues still clear, I quickly crossed that idea off the list. Then I looked at Snowy, sleeping in the sun in his Bachelor Pad. Without the divider, it was maybe a third larger than the Nori Habitat. The position of the double sided shed provided a buffer from the noises out back. Snowy never reacts when snow comes sliding down off the roof and at 26+ years old, prefers to only amble slowly.

Creeping on Nori while walking solo on the power line trails.

                Within a few minutes, I had traded the two horses—Nori went in the Bachelor Pad (perhaps now a “She Shed”?) and Snowy in the Nori Habitat. He quickly busied himself cleaning up her hay. She spent the rest of the afternoon pirouetting and bucking, pacing and prancing. But she could do so without sliding into the fence, or the gate, and eventually she seemed to burn herself out and settled to eating hay, too.

                And this arrangement is where each horse is currently located. Whether it will work long term—well, at this point, who really knows? It is working for now, and with improving weather and footing, Nori will only be getting more interactions and activities to keep her mind and body busy. All I can do is hope.

                But that day with the snowmobiles was, for me, a personal low. It was a day where I doubted if I have what it takes to work with this talented, athletic, sensitive mare and wondered if she would simply be better off with someone else.

                I want my horses to be content, to feel safe and secure in their environment. What is this mare trying to tell me she needs that I am not giving her?

                This season, it is one of my goals to try to figure that out.

Blogger’s Note: In addition to all of the above, Nori has also intermittently experienced Free Fecal Water (FFW), a messy and unsightly condition in which excess water is passed alongside normally formed balls of manure. My article, “When Passing Manure Becomes a Messy Predicament”, from the March 8 & 15, 2021 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, takes a closer look at what we know (and don’t know) about this syndrome. One advantage of Nori moving into her own space has been being able to customize her diet; with these adjustments, her symptoms have almost wholly resolved. Fingers crossed!

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