With the abscess gone from Xcel's foot I entered the fall of 2004 with great hope that most of his foot troubles were behind him. His soles were still thin though and his feet bruised easily. I didn't get a lot of riding in the rest of 2004. In fact it was spring of 2005 before I did much with him.
At one point when he was sound, I thought I would try lunging him. I had taught him to lunge well before I moved to my new farm, but it had been a long time since then. I decided to lunge him in the grass near the barn where he could see his friends in their pasture.
I had taught Xcel to lunge in a halter with the lunge line attached to a chain over his nose. Would he remember what he had been taught? Well, if you hadn't noticed yet, Xcel is a Drama King of the first order. So the first thing he did was protest the chain over his nose. He shook his head, flipped his nose and even rubbed his nose on his leg. I ignored this and encouraged him to walk on a circle. But we were in the grass. He wanted to graze. I had to flick the lunge whip at him to get him to stop grazing and go forward, to which he responded by leaping in the air. Then he'd flip his head in annoyance of the chain. I encouraged him forward, and in a temper tantrum he turned into a bronc. The most I could get out of him were a couple of trot circles and then he would start the bronc routine or the head flipping. I finally took the chain off and he stopped flipping his head, but now I had less control as he continued bucking. Concerned about what all this leaping about might do to his feet and concerned that soreness in his feet might actually be causing this behavior, I decided to leave the lunging for another day. I tried it a week or so later with similar results. Xcel was speaking in the clearest language he had. He hated lunging!
Fine. Before we moved I had also taught him to ground drive, so I focused on this instead. It was much more to his liking. Not just going around in boring circles but going places--making circles and turns and even doing some lateral movements. He was soon ground driving like a pro. But Xcel's strong opinions had their bearing on this endeavor as well. Because of his tender feet he had a strong dislike for walking on gravel. His normal response was to plant his feet and refuse to step on it. I have several gravel driveways going between the barns, up to the ring, in front of the house and out to the road. The gravel on the driveways closest to the barns was covered with stone dust, which Xcel didn't mind. I was careful to traverse the gravel only a limited amount. Of course I could ground drive him in the grass, but this required someone at his head to keep him from grazing. I didn't always have an assistant. But the ground driving served a valuable purpose for a time. It was something Xcel liked and could do well. It was something I could praise him for which, I could tell, pleased him. This gave him self confidence and made a positive interaction between us. Because he had not been ground driven before I bought him, he had no bad habits or resistances associated with it. It took the place of lunging as it got him listening and better prepared for riding.
Then there were the hiccups. You know, the spasm in the diaphragm sort of hiccups. Sometimes Xcel suffers from these eruptions. I think it has to do with the tension in his body. The problem is that he doesn't like having hiccups. And he especially doesn't like the resulting laughter in the people around him when he is hiccupping. When he suffers from this malady he responds to each spasm in his diaphragm by kicking out with a hind hoof. Which makes it that much funnier.
I had noticed these hiccups a couple of times but he never had them when I was working him until one day he developed them when we were walking and trotting in the ring. Amy, my assistant, was riding Rocket, and we had been riding for a few minutes. Xcel was protesting the whole procedure by occasionally putting on the brakes. And that's when the hiccups started. I giggled. Amy giggled. Xcel became more tense and resistant and began kicking out so violently that it was useless to continue working in the ring.
We decided to go for a hack in the "hill" field. We headed down the hill from the ring and past the barn. Xcel hung back a bit. He was not happy. It probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. I didn't understand the level of Xcel's frustration with the hiccups at that point. He really wasn't settled about being ridden in that field anyway, and coupled with the hiccups he had really reached his limit. So part way up the hill he put on the brakes and refused to budge, then offered a few bucks when I tried to urge him forward. Then he hiccupped, then he kicked out. And we giggled and Xcel hiccupped and kicked out, and the whole thing just became too ridiculous. I told Amy, that nowhere in all the horse training books I had read over many, many years had anyone ever mentioned what to do in a situation such as this!
My parents had me drink sugar water when I had the hiccups as a kid. I don't remember it really helping though. I wished I could do something for Xcel so I got off and tried some TTouch. I did "python lifts" along his ribcage. After a minute or so the spasms seemed to stop. But when I stopped doing the lifts, the hiccups returned. I tried the lifts again, and again they stopped. This time I mounted Xcel, but the hiccups began anew. So stricken was Xcel that he refused to go any further a field so I decided to call it a day and we turned and headed back to the barn. There is a condition that affects horses that is similar to hiccups which is called "thumps." This is an electrolyte imbalance usually related to activity or the stopping of activity where the diaphragm contracts in time with the heart beat. Considering all of Xcel's problems I was happy that he merely had hiccups!
Riding Xcel continued to be a challenge as he had so many bad habits. I was trying to work with him consistently in the spring, but I didn't want things to resemble work mostly because Xcel didn't want to do anything that resembled work. I always rode him with someone else riding one of my other horses. In the ring he usually wanted to be right next to the other horse, which of course he had learned on the track. If he wasn't right next to the other horse he kept trying to get there. Sometimes, though, he would relax and settle into a very nice trot with his head down. But he flatly refused to canter. I could tell he knew what I was asking him, but he just pinned his ears and would either trot very fast or buck. I tried a few times but didn't want to make it an issue. I had a feeling it reminded him too much of racing, and I figured it would come with time. It proved to be a very long time.
Just when I thought Xcel was going to be fine, in late May he started showing consistent lameness in his left front foot. Because all the other radiographs we had taken had never shown anything wrong in his foot, I opted for digital radiographs. In the end it didn't matter what type of x-rays they were because this time the problem was obvious. The x-rays showed that Xcel had a bone infection in his coffin bone exactly where the soft spot in his sole was.