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We Are Flying Solo

October 29, 2009

Funding!

We needed a dressage Obi-Wan to help us channel the force.

We were completeing HT's without getting eliminated. We were staying in the dressage arena, doing the test in order, and not getting any jumping penalties. But we were coming in anywhere from second to last (I WON'T be last, dammit!) to a record high of fourth or fifth. I stomped my little (big) feet and said, "I wanna do better!" But it wasn't going to happen without some serious dressage improvement.

I could do an ACCURATE test all day long and that was enough to get about half the points we needed. But apparently, greedy greedy judges actually want to see roundness, bending, softness, and impulsion. Sheesh, so demanding!

Further lessons were in order. I had already found my Obi-Wan in the form of our dressage trainer, P. She was great -- but for some reason she wanted to get paid for her time, sigh. As luck would have it though, I wrote a little essay and Solo and I were awarded an educational scholarship from the Area II (our geographical region) USEA Adult Riders group, of which we are proud members.

PhotobucketIT WAS ON! I promptly handed over our check to P, who generously agreed to give us a seven lesson package in exchange. So we settled in to get serious about this flexibility business.

Yeah............teaching a horse dressage requires massive amounts of patience, lots of fiddling, the ability to force one's body to both relax and be strong at the same time, and did I mention patience (which I can be notoriously short on)? I began to see that there were a lot of holes to fill in, strength to build for both of us, and tricks to learn.

Our first test of our new learning adventure came quickly -- a little local schooling CT. We ended up in third or fourth BUT much more importantly, my horse was beginning to look a little more like a dressage horse and less like a 2x4 with a giraffe neck and a clenched jaw.

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Both of us were bowing our heads in relief...
PhotobucketAlong with this came more adjustability and roundness over fences as well.


I still looked like a hunter rider perched in a dressage saddle, but one or two steps at a time, Solo was starting to reach for the bit and work over his back, rather than clomp around on his forehand leaning through corners.

The focus of our work sessions changed too. I began to focus on new things:
  • walk/trot transitions with no bit-snatching
  • staying round through both up and downward transitions
  • letting my legs wrap loosely around the horse
  • no pinching at the knee (still failing daily at this one)
  • leg-yields three steps at a time into and out of circles at walk and trot
  • shoulder fore coming out of corners to strengthen my horse.
Most of all, we had a new rule: DO EVERYTHING RIGHT EVERY TIME. In other words, P commanded me to be insistent about my requests. If asking for a downward transition, Solo was required to stay on the bridle and moving forward without snatching or throwing his head up or me falling on his forehand. If he (or I) attempted to do so, I was to immediately push him forward back into the trot and not allow completion of the transition until it was done correctly. If it took 10 tries to get it right, than it took 10 tries. The focus and thought that went into our rides suddenly went up by several orders of magnitude. Solo had to learn that doing it right was the ONLY option he had or else I was going to just annoy the shit out of him until he gave in.

This was going to take a lot of deep breaths.

But it was working.

October 26, 2009

Did You Know Caves Kill Horses?

It's true. So Solo tells me.

The second horse trial we did this summer was down at the legendary Denny Emerson's farm so I knew his courses would be up to par with what we could expect at a recognized event. We'd been working really hard and I felt as prepared as possible.

Hiccup #1: I don't really care who I compete against, but I like to read down the list in my group just for fun. Now who should show up in our division but Teddy O'Connor's little brother. Awesome. Well, we weren't going to be winning that one unless he wigged out and leaped out of the dressage arena.

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A rare horse-shaped moment in the test.
Hiccup #2 (which was not suspected as a hiccup until actual commencement of test): our half of the Beginner Novice division was to do our dressage test in the indoor arena. We had a covered arena at home, so I thought...no biggie. Hah.

We warmed up, things seemed to be going ok. We entered the indoor, things seemed to be going ok. I showed Solo the mirrors in the ring before the test began, things seemed to be going ok. We went down centerline, Solo's brain exploded.

For the rest of my test, I was riding a heroin-laced giraffe with rolling eyes and a gaping mouth while desperately calling, "Whoaaaaaa, boy, whoaaaaaaa..." Let's just say it didn't score that well.

I was pretty much used to being in last place after dressage. My only mortification came from the fact that David was there that day and I was horrified that he might look at the leaderboard and see our score. I chose to hide behind the trailer except when we had to go jump.

Fortunately, from the bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. While we performed the stadium course at terminal velocity (I figured better to not give Solo a chance to think about the colours), we left all the rails up.

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Stadium warmup

And Denny's cross country course was, as expected, big and Totally Freaking Awesome.

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Ready in the start box.

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Clearing Jump 1 with enthusiasm.

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As a friend put it, "you know you've had a good day when it ends in a shit-eating grin."

We didn't win. We didn't even place. But we finished double clear in both jumping phases and we had a blast. I really couldn't ask for more.

Keeping Memory Lane Rolling

Whew, got back from Waredaca, my mind is overflowing...will have to sort it all out at some later date.

Back to our previously scheduled programming...

We had finished the dressage show from hell.  We returned home & went back to work (attempt #3,006).

What the what?  Up & butt power??  It CAN be done!
In the meantime, we had also started jumping lessons with David O'Brien.  Who is incredibly awesome, positive, supportive, talented, & did I mention awesome?  He can bring out the best in your horse & you don't even realize how he is doing it.

Instead of simply allowing Solo to bury his forehand at the base of the jump & then hurl himself over, David had me lifting his poll & asking Solo to jump up into my hand. 

So simple, so subtle, yet it changed the whole feel of the ride and suddenly my horse was jumping rounder & smoother & more adjustably than ever before!

We did a couple horse trials.  The first was a spring event & I believe it may have been the debut of the Chestnut Mohawk.  I hate braiding.   I REALLY REALLY REALLY HATE HATE HATE braiding.  Not so much the act of braiding, but the fact that you have get up early & spend all this time fussing with it, it seemed such a fiddly & unnecessary step. 

I learned that through a simple turnout rule that braids are not required-EVER-so I whipped those clippers out & solved that little problem!   So now, we have an instant show-ring ready mane with no maintenance other than occasionally trimming the ends. I love it.

Halt and Salute
The all-important salute.  Which took me a while to adjust to, due to the fact in eventing, you only salute at the END of the test.

Stadium Jumping

Log on a Mound to a Drop
This was a great little log with a sloping drop behind it, very fun to ride.

In Motion
In motion.

Splish Splash
Splashy!

We Made It!
I love my sport because THIS is the expression you always end up with after your run!

October 21, 2009

The Road Show

I am off to Waredaca Training 3-Day Event (link on our calendar at right) to volunteer and hopefully learn a thing or two. Hopefully, someday I will be driving up there with Solo in the trailer to compete (after money falls from the sky, Solo magically learns to stay on the bit, & I figure out how to ride properly)...

October 16, 2009

The Big D

And I STILL don't mean Dallas...

I had decided, amongst all this, that screw poverty, would I really know the difference between poor and really poor? Meh, probably not, so I was going to start taking a lesson or two. I just felt that I was missing something, we just couldn't make the bridge to consistent steady progress and it was bugging the hell out of me.

PhotobucketWe tracked down a friend of a friend who had in the past been quite competitive in both dressage and eventing. I took one or two lessons on Solo and she threw me up on her 17.2 ex-PSG Trakhener, Reitz, whose neck was also 17.2 miles long. Notice how small I look on this horse!


At that point, I figured, hell, we took some dressage lessons, let's go to a proper dressage show! Since I don't think I can write it up better than I did off the bat, I am going to shamelessly plagiarize myself and just repost the account for the entertainment of those who missed out on it the first time around.

One Month Of Bending Does Not A Dressage Horse Make

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

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

So, yes, for some idiotic reason, I decide to enter Solo in a dressage show today. Two tests, both eventing tests, A and B. We've been doing great at home, lots of work on suppling and transitions, he's going much softer and listening well. No problem, right?

Bloody #$#%@! horse.

We get there, our ride time is supposed to be 8:42 so I get on about 8:20 and proceed to warmup. Little Steward Girl informs me that I ride next. My head explodes and 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." Ok, then I'll warm up first thanks, ok? LSG says sure.

So we do a quick warmup, things seem to be fine, Solo's looking around, but moving ok, so we head into the ready spot at A. He immediately goes all tense and stupid, ignoring basically all my aids. I do my best to get him bending again on circles, judge whistles us in. As we begin our test, all semblance of order vanishes and Solo reverts to gaping-mouthed, iron-necked giraffe. My hypothesis is that he thought the little tiny white dressage arena fence was some kind of horrifying little jump and he had no idea what to do with it. Oh, and 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 and 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: "OMG, TINY WHITE FENCES! OMG, TROLLS IN A BOX ON THE END OF THE RING! OMG, CREEPY LADY WITH A BOX ON A STICK! OMG, TINY WHITE FENCES! Oh, there appears to be some insect on my back telling me to turn rather than run right into OMG, TINY WHITE FENCES! AHHH, I WILL THROW MY BODY TO THE RIGHT AT THE LAST POSSIBLE SECOND!"


 
Yes, it was, I'm sure, poetry in motion. I can't wait until the photographer posts the material from that *rolling eyes*

Back to warmup we went and I put Solo in trot figure 8's hoping to soften him and get him to relax more before test B. DEAR GOD, 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 damn, why was it so easy when I was 12? Oh yeah, I had trained horses... Who knew it could be so hard to teach a horse to trot and canter in a circle...calmly. Despite terrifying tiny white fences.

Test B. We enter the ring. Much more acceptably. Yet in a Moment of Universal Horror, I become that person at shows I always pity but generally never am: She Who Goes Off-Course. AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! Stupid, stupid stupid. In despair, I ask judge for Do-Over and we resume where I screwed up. Rest of test goes ok. It's not great, but Solo is mostly listening, although still fussing with his head and insisting on method of travel in which his body is counterbent and 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. Apparently the universe has no mercy after all.

At the end of this, we did end up with 2nd for test A -- by default the organizer 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 and gallop away. They did have pretty ribbons....sadly, our test was crap, even though the kind judge gave us a 41 and was even nice enough not to laugh or gasp in horror the whole time.

4th for test B. Out of four, so really, not so exciting. That one was a 49, ugh. Most of judges comments on both tests were as expected for Idiot Stiff Crooked Bad Horse. On one collective mark, she did write "must sit the canter." Eh??? I assumed I WAS sitting the canter -- here is where video would be helpful. I have no idea what she is referring to, so can't do much about that one.

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

October 14, 2009

Success And Failure

Yes, you caught me, I am back! Momentarily refreshed by a beautiful trip to the Outer Banks. Got Solo moved to a new farm yesterday, which is heaven...but that's a story for another day.

Now where was I?

Oh yes, we crashed and burned. Solo had lost his confidence and I mine. We went home and undertook tarp training.

It wasn't hard -- a little grain bribery and patience soon had him standing in the center of the blue tarp without much fuss. Then we gradually added it to jumps in scarier and scarier setups and jumped over it.

Sweet, problem solved!

So we went back to the next show in the series.

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It took us two tries to get over the first jump. The second jump was a huge white picket fence oxer. To which Solo responded by bugging out his eyeballs and running sideways out of the (unfenced) arena at warp speed at which point we were whistled off course for ungentlemanly behaviour (Solo doing his best to gallop sidepass and me hanging on begging him to turn).

Problem NOT solved. Obviously, Solo remembered the Scene of the Crime. And there was no way I was going to get him around that course that day.

I went and talked to the farm owner and asked if they would be leaving the course up that night and if I could return the next day to school these obviously Horse-Destroying Obstacles. She of Infinite Kindness said sure.

The next day, we returned, alone this time (with a friend for ground support) to face our demons.

Solo was nervous and refused the first jump. We got over it the second time with a little kicking, but it didn't feel good. We had the Blue Tarp of Doom set up too. Farm owner showed up, she was schooling her horse XC that day, to see how we were doing. She offered to give us a lead over the Doom Tarp and after a moment, I accepted. Lead given. Solo jumped it like a champ.

It was like a switch flipped. We continued around and all of a sudden, we were back in business. We jumped everything twice and called it a day.

I was happy, but cautious. I knew I needed to keep him set up for success. His newfound confidence was fragile and keeping goals small and achievable would be paramount for recovery.

It was time to go back home and start rebuilding the framework for our future jump by careful jump. We started at 2' courses. We worked on the exercises that the Woff had given me, insisting on a calm NORMAL canter on course before proceeding to the next jump, keeping in mind his instruction to BE FIRM and not accept doing it wrong.

I was thinking. Solo was responding. And things were beginning to change.

October 6, 2009

And We All Fall Down

PhotobucketWe seemed to be going along ok. I tried hard to practice what Jim had shown me, especially one exercise in which you take one jump, then put your horse on a circle until he has a nice canter rhythm and THEN go to the next jump. Do not pass Go until rhythm accomplished. In typical fashion, I think I did it about 8 or 10 times and then went "Ok, fixed!" *snort*

We had a canter, sort of. It still got rushy and unbalanced easily, especially on a jump course. Solo resembled a giraffe while executing leaning, on-the-forehand turns, but there was no bucking or bolting so I considered that problem solved too!

*brushes off hands*  There, my horse is finished! (snorts even louder)

So we entered the first in a local jumper show series. No problem, right? We can jump, Solo always jumps clean, I hang on and point with gritted teeth, we'll be champions!

PhotobucketIt began ok. The plan was to warm up in 2'6" and go to 2'9".


Then we got to jump #5. It was an option: (a) a skinny skinny with blue wavy planks or (b) a vertical over a liverpool. Solo had pretty much never refused anything so I went for the liverpool -- it's just a vertical right? And it had more room for error!

Right??!

It went like this:

Approach, approach, me staring at liverpool like an idiot.
Solo begins to stare at liverpool, informing me that there may indeed be hoof-feeding sharks in there.
I tell myself, Look up, you idiot!, while at that same time staring down at Solo staring in horror at that Blue Tarp of Doom.

End result -- at the last possible second, as I kick, Solo plants his front feet. I'm thrown off balance, but no big deal...oh wait, then he drops a shoulder and spins away. Depositing me neatly on the top rail while he gallops back towards the trailer wailing, "No freaking way!" over his shoulder.

I wish I had a picture!

A kind ring steward caught my horse and returned him to me. Solo's eye rolled at me, going, "OMG, you are supposed to stay on me! WTF are you doing down there??! What just happened??"

I glared at him silently as I climbed back on and in one of my (not) finer moments, growled under my breath, I don't like you very much right now, horse.

Hosting trainer kindly lowered the jump so we could school it. I tried again. Solo planted his feet again and jumped sideways again. I stayed on this time, but caught him in the face as he jumped and his front feet popped up a little in surprise. There nothing like hearing onlookers gasp while you are riding. It pretty much makes you want to slink under your trailer like a dog that just got whacked in the butt with a newspaper.

Judge suggested maybe we just jump something else to end on a positive note. Solo suggested that maybe I go f@ck myself instead. There was nothing left to do but retire gracefully.

PhotobucketWe went and schooled the XC course there instead, I couldn't stand the thought of going home without SOMETHING positive. Of course, as soon as he saw THOSE obstacles, Solo was quite happy to gallop and leap over anything I pointed him at.Photobucket

We loaded up and went home, my head hung in shame. Both of us with shattered confidence. I had never fallen off Solo before and it made his world fall apart.

My plan: stare blankly out the windshield wondering, Now what the hell do I do?

October 5, 2009

And Then There Was The Woff

Unless you live in some kind of cave, Jim Wofford is a household name in the horse world. And in eventing-land, he is synonymous with God. Only funnier and less likely to smite.

For over a decade I had longed to ride with "The Woff," (that's right guys, it's skill, humility, & humour that make thousands of women long for you) but considered it about as likely as being recruited to the Olympic team (read: probability = zero). Until I got a flyer about a Wofford jumping clinic being held about two hours from me.

Oh yeah, baby, I pounced. That check got written so fast that the pen burned a hole through the register. And on a cool fall morning in 2008, we trailered up to the mountains for two days of immersion in The World According To Jim.

Each day started with a sit down lecture for about an hour in a room with a whiteboard where Jim drew diagrams, answered questions, and postulated his great theories on how eventing should be done. Just like his writing, it was steeped in experience, insight, humour, and a passion for the horse. I mostly sat there with a stupid look on my face, staring in awe.

Then we'd go get horses ready and move out to the understated little arena at the hosting farm.

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It was freaking gorgeous.

I started out so excited -- jumping is our strong suit, so I was sure we were just going to blow Jim away with Solo's boundless heart and enthusiasm coupled with his easy going and calm demeanor. We started to warm up as Jim set up his gymnastics. Then I asked for the canter.

Then my horse vanished into thin air and was replaced by a hopping, bucking, bolting, snorting beast of an animal to whom I claimed no ownership. I was mortified. And Solo -- I mean SatanSpawn, bless his heart, was kind enough to keep it up for the entire clinic.

I dealt with it as best I could, namely, 40,000 half halts, swearing under my breath, getting left behind half the time, and perfecting the leaning circle at terminal velocity. And Jim, in his infinite patience and kindness, refrained from laughing.

Each day started with progressive gymnastics, with an emphasis on a soft, quiet rhythmic approach (which we failed, mostly dismally) and letting the horse work out problems for themselves, as they would be REQUIRED to do on a XC course, where, when the rubber hit the road, the ability of the horse to think for itself was critical!

Then we'd string a few fences together in exercises that varied each day. One of my biggest problems when jumping is that my mind tends to go blank as soon as I start a course. I walk it, I analyze it, I get all prepared, then I get on my horse, and as soon as the whistle blows, all my planning coalesces into an internal monologue like this:

Ok, canter, OMG JUMP, ahhhhh, SLOW DOWN, dammit another jump, AHHH TURN TURN TURN, OMG, no we have to jump THAT ONE!

Yeah, the picture of composure. So as we were doing several exercises, I could hear Jim calmly asking, "Where are you going? The jump is over here?" But he was able to give me some great tips on being a THINKING rider, instead of a reacting one.

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Getting tips from the Master

We didn't leave out our dressage either of course -- my lovely mount, SatanSpawn, decided to practice his levade mid-lesson over a terrifying blue jump.

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We worked it out in the end.

We left that weekend with a LOT to think about. Jim really changed my approach to riding and training, building on what I had learned from Ian Stark and reinforcing the fact that as riders, we really need to be thoughtful about what we are teaching our horses. A horse can learn something with as little as ONE repetition. So lessons like "you WILL be on the correct lead every time" and "you WILL have a calm, rhythmic canter before proceeding to the next jump" are ones that we are teaching (or UNteaching) every day by insisting that these things WILL occur and not proceeding until they do.

There was much much more of course, but in the interest of moving forward, I will leave you with that. Next time: Tales Of The Blue Lagoon And Confidence Lost.