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We Are Flying Solo

September 30, 2009

There's A First Time For Everything...

Big Horse, Little ArenaIncluding horse trials!

It was summer 2008 & the time had come to GET OUT THERE and do it. 

A local farm does a nice little greenie horse trial smack in the middle of their pecan groves, making it a beautiful shady spot to try your hand at eventing in a welcoming setting with obstacles that are simple & inviting to the horse and rider just starting out.

We left our farm somewhere around the butt-crack of dawn but I was hardly brain was churning all the way there: Do I know my dressage test? Have I forgotten my girth? Will our horrible Race Canter surface? What if Solo limps?

You see, my genius of a red horse had given himself a stone bruise several weeks before.  I had outfitted him with a set of EasyBoots Epics (love 'em!) & pads & he was floating around in comfort, but the worry was still there....

Arriving, I parked under a spreading pecan canopy & walked out the grounds. The XC course was small with one tiny bank & a puddle to splash through.   The only thing "looky" was a set of lighthouses framing one jump, but I thought we could handle it.  Everything else looked quite manageable & I had my game face on.


Big horse in a little arena.  This was only our second time in the 20 x 40 m arena & Solo's easy strides swallowed up the lines faster than I could comprehend. 

We did stay on course though & while not exactly a picture of roundness, we managed to put in a calm, accurate performance for what remains our best score to date, a 41 (I am still convinced the judge was just eminently kind & forgiving!).

Airborne Over Hay WagonCross Country

It was a very short course, but we LOVED it. Solo was thrilled to have at it & was quite forward, leaping in exuberant style over every obstacle.  I am sure people could hear my giggling as we cantered past, occasionally sideways as I had to convince Solo that we REALLY didn't need to gallop a baby baby course!

Turning to approach the lighthouses, he went, "Agghhh!!! WTF is that?" accompanied by a leap sideways, but we corrected & cleared it with room to spare.

Our only shortcoming was the inability to trot, so we ended with 12 speed penalties. Oops (if I pretend to feel guilty does that count?).

Mini Bank

Scary Lighthouses

Stadium Jumping

We finished it off easily in the stadium round.   One boot came off mid-course, I thought I heard it but by the time I was sure, Solo had finished the course with it flapping around his ankle, bless his willing heart.   I leaped off & removed it as soon as I could get him stopped & there was no damage to horse or boot, whew!

All in all, we ended up in fourth place with a clear stadium round.  It was a heady beginning that only further fed the event-hungry beast inside me!

September 25, 2009

Aaaaall By Myseeeeeeeelf.....

Sing it with me!

I'm sure you've figured it out on your own, but there are several layers to this blog title. One is blatantly obvious, being that Solo loves to fly! The other is that Solo and I, up until very recently, are on this journey by ourselves. We are, in essence, thanks to my awesomely miniscule excuse for a salary, flying solo. No trainers, no lessons, just the 20-odd years of my own experience and whoever I can annoy enough to answer questions, along with any books, websites, or articles I can get my hands on.

I took dressage lessons for about 7 or 8 years growing up, then three years of hunter lessons in college. I still read everything that stops moving long enough for me to absorb it and actively seek out as much information about horse training and care as I can possibly find. And then of course, there is practical knowledge I've accumulated from just schooling other people's horses and finding what works and what doesn't.

This odd mish-mash of skills and lack thereof were all I had to bring to the table for Solo and as a result, our progress (yes, let's call it that, it sounds so much better than what ACTUALLY occurred) was halting at best. I was in the process of learning that there is a HUGE difference between schooling a horse and training a horse. The former is pretty easy and simply requires a solid base of riding skills. The latter is akin to a hybrid between art and science and requires the patience of a saint, the ingenuity of an inventor, and the discipline of...something really disciplined.

What I was doing at that time and leading up to it, was mostly schooling. I'd get on, Solo and I would ride some trails, we'd work in the ring. We'd school maybe 10-20 jumps, do some walk/trot/canter. I'd do a few circles, serpentines, change direction. I did pick up the book 101 Arena Exercises and it gave some some great ideas for exercises, but...there was no real direction to what we did.

I knew I wanted to event. I knew what our weak points were, at least generally (bending, roundness, pretty much anything dressage). I knew what our strong points were (jumping and speed). But I didn't have a clear idea or plan of how to get there.

I kept practicing things, schooling over and over, but it never really resulted in things getting all that much better. We were floating adrift in a sea of mediocrity. Everything was ok, but nothing was great. 2008 was supposed to be our big year to break out onto the eventing scene, but given the disastrous turn of spring and early summer, things weren't looking promising. Don't get me wrong, I was having a blast riding my horse -- but looking back now, I can see that we were doing a whole lot of moving without really going anywhere.

September 23, 2009

How To Make A Nun Cuss

Tell her to fit a saddle to a horse and rider.

It'll work, I promise.

As I mentioned, after the failure of SF#1 to satisfy, I moved on to the saddle shopping phase. And let me tell you how much fun THAT was. I needed to keep it less than $1500. But it had to fit my freaky long thighs, Solo's big rib cage, be flocked with wool, be 18" and well-made. Doesn't seem to hard, does it? WRONG. Might as well have searched for the Holy Grail (We've already got one!).

Everything was too big, too small, too narrow, too expensive, flocked with foam or air (a big NO, I wanted adjustable!), too crappy, too deep-seated, didn't fit my was like being freaking Goldilocks.

Well, I finally found something that met all my criteria after about a month of pulling my hair out and ordered a Collegiate Convertible Diploma. Took it to (highly recommended and locally very well known) SF#2. He poked and prodded my horse, digging his fingers in everywhere, making tracings and pronounced my horse very sore but fixable. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about and everyone used him so he must be good, right? He added point billets and a crupper bar, took out lumpy factory wool and put in some new stuff and sent us off.

Right off the bat, it fit much better and Solo MOVED much better. Aha! I thought, Our problems are over!

Then after a couple weeks, it started listing to the right. Bad. So we went back, SF#2 fixed it up. Only now when we went home, Solo was resisting lifting his back. SF#2 came out to farm and did a group of horses and fixed ours again. This time, Solo got even more resistant and then came the death knell -- he developed dreaded White Spots behind his withers on either side.

To make things even more obviously wrong, two friends' horses developed the same symptom at the same time. Both had been worked on by SF#2 as well.

So I called, left a terse voicemail and never went back. $400 and three visits later, the saddle fit worse than it did off the shelf.

Then I called SF#3. She came up to the farm, flipped my saddle over and showed me obvious unevenness in the panels. She then showed me how the point billets had only been forcing the metal parts of the tree down into Solo's poor back and generally doing more harm than good.


Point billets removed. Wool reflocked. Saddle rebalanced. And OMG, now my horse could lift his back without being punished by the saddle.

Good thing I'm not a nun.

September 21, 2009

One Month Of Bending Does Not A Dressage Horse Make

Let me clarify my ambivalence
Or how about "My Horse Is A Doofus."  Or “The Near Explosion of My Head & Subsequent Murder of My Horse (But I Love Him, I Swear!)”  Yeah, that one’s a bit too long.

[Warning, if the following was on television, there would be a lot of bleeping.]

For some idiotic reason, I decide to enter Solo in a dressage show in mid-April of '09.  Two tests, Beginner Novice A & B.  We'd been doing great at home, lots of work on suppling & transitions, he's going much softer & listening well.  For like a whole 30 days!  No problem, right?

Bloody #$#%@! horse rider.

Arrival & Omens

Our ride time is 8:42 am, so I get on about 8:20 & proceed to warmup.  Little Steward Girl (LSG) informs me that I ride next. My head explodes & I stare at her with the bloody stump that remains. Huh?!  She says "oh, but you don't HAVE to go, we just started early.  Ummm, then I'll warm up first thanks, ok?  LSG says sure.

Speed Warmup & Execution

Things seem to be fine:  Solo's looking around, but moving ok, so we head into the 'on-deck' spot at A. He immediately goes all tense, ignoring all my aids.  I do my best to use circles to get him bending again.  The judge whistles us in.  

Probably a little like this lovely moment in '08...
As we begin our test, all semblance of order vanishes & Solo reverts to gaping-mouthed, iron-necked giraffe.  My hypothesis is that he believed the little tiny white dressage arena fence was some kind of horrifying little jump & he had no idea what to do with it.

Oh, & the photographer at M was also apparently bent on evil.

The Test In My Mind:

"You bloody @#$#!! horse, slow down and relax, #%&*! Bend, dammit, bend!! I really really hate you right now."

 [I interject at this point to share, by the way, clamping down & mumbling curses at your horse STILL does not cause them to either slow down OR relax. You know, just in case we don't have enough data on that one.]

Can't you just see the devil lying in wait?
The Test In Solo's Mind


Yes, it was, I'm sure, poetry in motion.  *rolling eyes*

It seemed easier in 1990
No Worries, We Get To Do It Again!

Back to warmup.  I put Solo in trot figure 8's hoping to soften him & get him to relax more before test B.  DEAR COD, PLEASE LET THERE BE MERCY!  Did I mention I don't so much enjoy dressage these days?   I was praying for a jump course, praying.

I love the discipline, but dang, why was it so easy when I was 12?  Oh yeah, I rode trained horses...and 12-year-olds haven't learned to overthink breathing.  Who knew it could be so hard to teach a horse to trot & canter in a circle...calmly.  Even with terrifying tiny white fences.

Test B

We enter the ring.  Much more acceptably.  Yet in a Moment of Universal Horror, as we made the turn off centreline, I become that person at shows I always pity but generally never am:   She Who Goes Off-Course.  AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

Well, what I actually said to the judge, with my typical grace & forethought, was, "OH SH!T!  I mean, uh, sorry, uh, can we have a Do-Over?"  There was mercy:  the judge had a sense of humour.  Her laughter was kind while she replied, "Sure!"

It wasn't great, but Solo was mostly listening, though still fussing with his head & insisting on a counterbent method of travel in which his nose is sideways.  Apparently he must keep an eye on that Tiny White Fence.  We complete.  I am happier.  BUT OUR SCORE IS WORSE.   

I'd have preferred THIS Solo to show up!
We Did "Win" Ribbons...In A Manner Of Speaking

We ended up 2nd for test A -- by default the organizer helpfully tells me (ouch!).   I don't know what happened, everyone else must either have not shown up or had their horses leap out of the ring & galloped away.  They were pretty ribbons....the kind judge gave us a 41 & was even nice enough not to laugh or gasp in horror (audibly).

4th for test B with a 49.  Out of four!  *insert 'We Are The Champions' chorus*  Most of the judges' comments were as expected for Stiff Crooked Bad Horse Rider.   One collective mark read "must sit the canter."  Hmmm, I felt certain that by age 30, I might have mastered that one?  Alas...

The Adult Solution

I decided to go eat brownies & sulk.  Perhaps I should take up competitive trail riding -- you don't have to bend OR go in circles for that!

Perfect illustration of dressage by

September 20, 2009

Winter Woebegone

So the Dark Times began.

I was convinced my saddle didn't fit. Solo was fighting me tooth and nail against lifting his back and it's just not in his nature to not do something like that "just because." It looked pinchy, it felt pinchy. I brought out Saddle Fitter #1 (ah yes, the fact that he has a number is indeed an indication of future insanity...). SF #1 bring a couple other saddles to try but says, "Oh no, yours fits fine, really." I try to go with it for a few weeks, but get ticked off and sell it because it's not cutting the mustard. It was a great saddle, the first I'd owned, an old Crosby event saddle that fit almost everything. Except the horse I owned of course.

I think I'll need an entire 'nother post to tell the SF Stories, I'll save that...

Because, oh there were lots of other woes.

It was WAY deeper than it looks
February 2008 -- I'd now resorted to riding bareback while training, but well, it's good for me right? (Maybe less good for my girl parts, but we all gotta cowgirl up, right?) A couple more winter shows were coming up and we were getting ready. And then our lovely farm "trainer" brought strangles back with her from a hunter show. One of our ponies came home with the sniffles. We begged to have pony quarantined because it looked like strangles, but the Powers That Be (PTB) were in staunch denial. Till about six other horses got sick. Then the whole barn was shut down in quarantine for several months. No horses in. Even worse, no horses out. We were in prison.

Solo happily escaped the strangles outbreak with nothing more than 1/2 day of fever, but we still couldn't go anywhere. As the quarantine was finally lifted after months of boredom, Mr. Genius, decided he still didn't want to go anywhere and attempted self-amputation of his foot in the pasture.

Oh let me just tell you how long it takes to heal a pastern cut on skin that is constantly stretching and moving, no matter how tight you wrap your standing wraps. Months.

Oh AND our farrier (now EX farrier) had managed to mash his poor feet into some unholy shape of crampedness to where the poor horse couldn't even walk properly, so we pulled his shoes and began foot transformation back to healthiness.


I'm sure there was some other crap going on too, but mostly I was throwing myself about my house moping and pouting because I couldn't go anywhere, I couldn't get the saddle just right, my horse was sucked!

September 18, 2009

Winter Wonderful

Oh crap! No one TOLD me there was dressage involved!!
It was winter of 2007 and time to hit the show circuit! We weren't ready for a full-on Horse Trial yet, so I decided to start small. I only do unrecognized shows because I don't happen to crap money every time I sit down and just refuse to pay $500 to go to a freaking horse show!

A local place does a very nice Combined Training series every year -- this is where you do both dressage and stadium jumping, but no XC. We arrived at some ridiculous hour before the sun even came up because OF course I drew like the third ride time and rode Beginner Novice. It is important to note that this was the first time Solo had EVER been in a dressage arena and the first time he had EVER ridden an entire dressage test (given my awesome skills of little to no actual preparation). We ended up in a phenomenal last place, but since my goals were (a) stay in dressage arena, (b) do test in correct order, (c) clear all the jumps, it was a WIN!
Doesn't he look nice and round? Don't be fooled -- we didn't have a clue how to be round or ANYTHING at that point, but hey, give us credit for showing up!

Our requisite George Morris pose -- with the blue bell boots thrown in just to piss him off!
We also found a fun little winter jumper series and had much better success there, ending up with a 2nd place (we just couldn't outrun that scrappy little pony in the jump off!) in the 2'9" round!



We were on a roll! We were set! We were making strides! Little did we know, that evil little troll called Bad Horse Luck (or The Complete Certainty That Good Luck Will Never Last Around Horses, but that's so much longer...) was snickering whilst planning his attack from just around the corner...

September 17, 2009


Ian had taught me that I was not even scratching the surface of my horse's potential. I wasn't challenging him or myself, which does explain my own restlessness quite a bit.

So we kicked it up a notch. Or two. I asked a little more from our flatwork and I moved up the jump cups, focusing on forward and bold.



I also moved up a division in our little on-farm shows and Solo didn't let me down, ending up as Reserve Champion for the year in Adult/Children's Hunter (2'3"-ish).



Of course, we took time off to play too! One of my goals for Solo is to make him the most well-rounded horse ever and this includes trips hither and yon to explore the great outdoors. This trip was a phenomenal one to a beach at the mouth of the Neuse River.

The view from the saddle

Me and my boy

Is there any greater feeling of triumph than galloping your horse down a beach? 
I have no word better than "sublime."

September 14, 2009

Assimilation Complete Or Course Changing Pt. III

Someone asked in the comments yesterday about my pictures -- all the pictures of my riding are taken by my erstwhile and wonderful SO, who we discovered has a natural eye for timing. Don't forget it was 110 degrees this entire weekend and my Tahoe did not have functioning air conditioning. And central SC is not exactly heavily forested. SO carried our water, took pictures, and generally rose above and beyond the call of duty at every possible moment -- you know who you are, darlin', and we couldn't have done it without you!

During day 2, the heat had hammered me terribly. Midway through our stadium phase, I became quite dizzy and felt as if I was fading away. My (some might say smarter) subconscious said, Hey, this is dangerous, perhaps you should get off. My (dumber but more adventurous) conscious said, No way in hell. So after every turn jumping, I poured a bottle of ice cold water over my head. Literally. It kept me going enough to finish.

So coming into day 3, the much-anticipated cross country day, Solo and I were both already quite hot and tired and neither of us had ANY idea what would happen that day.

The sum total of what I knew about my horse's past experience: (1) track pony (2) a little foxhunting (3) trail riding. So when we rode out onto the course and Ian asked what Solo knew, I promptly answered, "Nothing, as far as I know. He'll jump a log and is not afraid of water."

We started simple, just hopping over a Beginner Novice, then a Novice log. No problems there, sweet, I can totally be an eventer! For the second jump -- OHMYGOD ARE YOU KIDDING ME, THAT IS A GREEN WALL OF DEATH! Oh it may look innocent, but riding at it, all you see is the massive, upright green impenetrable wall waiting to engulf you and your horse.


Second time's the charm. And yes, my entire body IS in a mortal death grip on Solo going I'm gonna die I'm gonna die I'm gonna die...
But we lived!! Next was a bank complex that we climbed up, jumped on, jumped off...Solo never hesitated as Ian hollered, "Now, don't let me down, show us how it's done!" Thence began my love affair with banks (That's another person in our group on the left, showing the bank. The drop on the other side was the same height). Then off to the ditch and suddenly, we were being asked to give the green horses leads over it -- in what parallel universe had we been sucked into where my horse was a pro???


By the time we got to the water complex, I was completely incapable of keeping the big stupid grin off my face. Even the spectators were chuckling at me, saying, "Um, I think we have an eventing convert..." YES, YES YOU DO! I discovered new gears that I didn't even know Solo had, including a very impressive trot:

Yeah, like he'll ever do THAT in an arena!

By the time we were done, my goals had taken on a whole new direction: we were going to be eventers! Not only was it A FREAKING BLAST, but I knew I had found the sport my horse was destined to do -- he had just galloped and jumped that XC course like he was born for it and all I did was hang on and catch bugs in my teeth.

I stopped and asked Ian a few final questions and thanked him profusely. Never before had I encountered such a gifted and patient teacher. He has a true talent for challenging the horse and rider in a way that sets them up to succeed and to grow in confidence with every step. Besides being a beautiful rider, he has a fantastic sense of humour and is imminently approachable and down to earth. He didn't care that me and my backyard horse showed up in a rattly stock trailer -- he "quite liked" Solo and ended up impressed with the courage and heart of my reject trail horse. Ian earned every penny from that clinic out there in 110 degree southern heat all day long for three days, hopping on horses who were stuck, and encouraging many very hot and tired riders through the tough spots. He is the best kind of horseman, the kind that not only do we aspire to be, but we just love to be around.

As we packed up the trailer and got on the long highway home, I knew there was no going back now...


September 12, 2009

Learning To Fly Or Course Changing Pt. II

I don't know how, mom!
I'm spending some time on this clinic because it really DID change everything.

As we moved into Day 2 (Stadium Jumping), I was already starting to think more critically about my riding. When riding on my own at home, I would do the standard W/T/C warmup, some circles, some jumps, but wasn't really that analytical about it. I just...did it. Surely that would prepare me for anything, right? Right??? *snort*

At least I was much more confident coming into stadium day -- I was most comfortable jumping given that was what our most recent lessons involved back in 2001. And I was bound and determined to live down dressage day -- when Ian yells out in mid-buck, "Hey, you should ride this horse with a neck strap!" Sorry, Ian, but he never tries to buck ME off! And I knew my horse was brave and honest.

Reset: ok, so he didn't really get gymnastics at first and five bounces in a row was pretty intimidating. But we figured it out and I thought, Ok, we've got this. We worked on a couple of things, namely, keeping my shoulders back over the jump and not throwing away too much rein in the air.

We started here...
Jumping ahead with a lost leg, laying on Solo's neck with loopy reins. Not gonna fly in eventer land!

Finally made it to here...
Tight leg and seat, MUCH better release and ready for anything!

Time to do some courses. Ian laid it out and said go.

I looked at the first jump. I looked at Ian. "That's ENORMOUS!" I bellowed.  I'd been jumping Solo MAYBE two feet at home, like a big fat wuss that I was.

Ian kindly agreed to help me feel at ease. By taking the back rail off of ONE oxer later on the in the course. Leaving all the rest of the jumps (set around 2'9" to 3') completely and terrifying intact.

As he emphasized during the warm up and gymnastic, you must ride FORWARD FORWARD FORWARD (as I learned, Ian is BIG on forward and a rather aggressive rider in terms of approaching an obstacle). Once you're going FORWARD, go FORWARD some more.

So we racked up a pace, I attempted to beat into silence the wailing in my head that insisted, We're going to dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...... and I muttered, "Please, buddy, show them that I am right for believing in you."


I was so proud, I probably looked like the Cheshire cat. And it was a blast -- leg on, eye up, and we could FLY!

The only hitch was the jump before the final triple combination. I had never seen anything like it before or since. It was a panel jump, but it was a skinny. And the panel was a triangle of board with the top point pointing at the ground.

I came around the corner on the approach to that think and my head went That thing is insanely weird and scary!  Solo promptly responded by screaming, "OMG, that thing is insanely weird and scary!!!" and it was a no-go.

Ian says, "Don't look at me, look at the jump!" Oh damn, he noticed my eyes pleading at him to rescue us from this heart-stopping monster of a jump.

*sigh* Ok then...


And that guy standing in the background is NOT short. Holy crap -- I wanted to screech and whoop at the same time. Ian hollered a somewhat surprised shout of congratulations. It was so narrow that my toe actually pulled the standard over behind us, but Solo didn't touch it and he then made a perfect, balanced show jumping turn to the triple.

God, I loved my horse!

I Found It!

That pic I was looking for of our first rig! Oh my, how tiny does that trailer look?!

He Changed The Course Of Things To Come, Pt. I

It was a humiliating ride.

I had just spent an hour watching the group before me with lovely, springy round horses and a sinking feeling in my chest. Looking around me, there wasn't a horse to be seen that wasn't trained to the nines and not a one looked like it would sell for less than $10K. I was the only person there with a rattly stock-side trailer and a backyard horse. Most folks were friendly -- a few gave me The Look, that one wealthy people give their staff. Yeah, you know the one.

A bit of background: I actually grew up riding dressage on school horses, German trainer and all. It turns out dressage is easy when you are a 10 year old with no bad habits. It's a bitch when you are 27 and lopsided. Plus four years of college riding hunter eq...well, that dressage seat was so far gone it was like it never existed.

Looks like a 10 trot to me!
As I entered the ring with the others in my group, I was, as mentioned, slightly petrified. Solo obliged by being stiff, crooked, and notably uncooperative. Note the chestnut in the background on above. That's what we were supposed to look like. Also note Solo turning around going, You've got to be freaking kidding me.

We looked more like, well, the backyard pair that we were, sigh. And our canter, true to form, went something like this:  

Me:  Solo, for the love of god, please oh please canter nicely in front of Mr. Olympics!

Solo's response: buck-buck-buck-bolt-transition-sidestep-ugly-strung-out-canter-at-high-speed.

The man hides his face in agony - let's pretend there was a fly...
Awesome, thanks, buddy.

Then came the charming, lilting Scot words I was hoping for from Ian: "If you don't mind, I'd like to have a sit on him." I couldn't slide off fast enough and hoped he didn't really hear my effusive begging oh-please-please-fix-us!

Now Solo is a very gentle, loving horse. But he is very cautious with his trust -- he will pack around a dead beginner oh-so-sweetly, but if the person on his back knows a thing or two, Solo worries that they might hit him or rough-house him (he is NOT a horse you can force into things).

Ian Stark is an exceptionally strong rider who likes hot, talented horses like the legendary Murphy Himself, the talented Irish-bred grey. So he gets on Solo and wraps those legs around my stiff red horse and says, "Excuse me, but you WILL move forward into contact." It progressed just like this:

I don't think I like you
Who the hell are you?
You shall receive one warning only.
Get off, bossy man!
Get the f@ck off, devil man!

Looking back, I wish I had stepped in a little. Ian gave him a mighty crack with the dressage whip (accompanied by an exclamation of "Bloody horse!"), which, given some past incidents of abuse, Solo did NOT receive well and I can't blame him. Hindsight...

But overall, Ian gave him a fair and consistent ride and they ended up looking like THIS:

I never got that trot!!
And I drooled. And then I had to get back on and feel what a dressage horse is SUPPOSED to feel like. And it was amazing: I could feel Solo's back up and swinging and he was THERE, in my hands. And he was FORWARD. It felt like super-speed, but I was informed, no, that was where we SHOULD be.

Oh and all of a sudden, our canter reappeared. So apparently all we needed was a world-class rider to climb up and find it for us again. Good to know.

We can do the bendy thingz!
I left the ring that day deep in thought -- I needed to ride my horse FORWARD. I needed to bend him, I needed to sit up, I needed to change, well, everything.

I also left that day with my jaw set, DETERMINED to redeem our poor showing in the two days of jumping to follow. I knew this was where our strengths lay and I was going to show the doubters why we did indeed deserve to be part of all this.