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We Are Flying Solo

December 29, 2009

Pop Quiz, Hotshot

A holiday visit to the parent's house found me sorting through pictures of days past. So now, lucky you get to be regaled by my finds in posts to come!

Can you name these Thoroughbred legends I visited as an awestruck kid? Here are your hints:

Both were living in sweet muddy retirement at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in the late 80's.

One, a brilliant chestnut with three white socks, built like a quarter horse but fast enough to have run his way into the history books. (One more hint: it's not Solo ;-)





The other a grey with a noble eye (whoever can ID this one gets MAJOR kudos).

December 24, 2009

Canter Counts

My horse is awesome this week, I just have to say. I think perhaps he was abducted by aliens. All of a sudden, he is light in the bridle and staying on the bit. He is stretching out and down into the bit of his own free will during warmup, even at the canter *gasp*! And yesterday...we schooled a course that ranged from 3' to 3'3" -- successfully!!!

I've had a couple of changes of strategy in my rides.

(1) Solo knows where he is supposed to be now, on the bit, so I no longer show him where that is. He has two choices: to either (a) cooperate and be there, or (b) not cooperate and stick his nose up in the air and invert his neck. Should he choose option b, which of course, they always have to periodically try, I simply and quietly close my leg and close my hand at the same time, providing rather irritating resistant contact. I don't say anything, it's not a jerk, just a steady, increased pressure. He is, as intended, quite annoyed by this and decides in a few strides to give and go back down softly to the bit. At which point, I soften (NOT drop the contact) and we return to a light feel. It's working. The basic principle: right thing easy, wrong thing hard and annoying.

(2) I now incorporate a LOT more canter. I don't know why I wasn't before, it just didn't really happen. I'd ask for it, be annoyed with it's lack of bendiness, cadence, and just not do it for that long. It was part of every ride, but was never very satisfactory.

Inspired by my BO, whose horse prefers to warm up at the canter, I decided to start every ride with some forward trot with very light contact, letting Solo stretch down of his own accord (which he enjoys), then, on the same super light stretchy contact, ask for canter, get up off his back and let him just canter around on a loopy rein for a little. I don't care if he's perfectly straight, just that he maintains a rhythm.

Revolutionary approach: warm up the canter before you expect anything from it. Duh. But the result is, he is now offering me wayyyy more stretching down at the canter on that light contact, which he didn't used to be strong enough to do. He can reach down, opening his back, and still maintain a quiet rhythm. Go figure -- you can't improve a gait you don't put any thought into working on!

(3) Solo, true to his QH half, is hard to really get moving forward with impulsion at the walk and trot. But, as is true for many horses, right after he canters, we get a really nice swinging trot. I had BO watch us practice the Novice dressage test today and new strategy quickly became obvious. Before beginning a test, we are going to canter almost up to ring entry, then come back to trot and use that nice, forward trot to come down centerline.

Watch out, Novice-levelers, we are coming for you!

December 21, 2009

Foot Fanatical

As you can see, Solo is spending his days like any smart horse in winter -- curled up snug, basking in the sun! Complete with neon blue Lycra club-tail, always an "in" look for the colder seasons.

Me, on the other hand, I am busy being over-the-top-OCD (as usual) about Solo's feet. In short, I'm not satisfied. Ok, he is moving great. BUT. But, over the last couple trims, he has begun to forge so much he tears up the front of his back feet and I have to keep four bell boots on him (he is prone to a little forging, but usually just light and occasional). Plus the back shoes are squooshing his back heels back together again, narrowing the frog and narrowing my eyes.

Momma ain't happy.

My farrier, bless his heart, has been wonderful answering all of my questions and being open to anything and is working with my vet. But he sucks at returning phone calls. I have a call in to him now asking about the forging, if there is anything we can do before the next reset.

I just HATE HAVING STUPID SHOES ON MY HORSE. There. I said it. It's true. They are always a fuss (if you pay attention to them) and it seems no matter what, his foot will never look as good as it does bare. Ignorance was bliss, before I began learning all about feet when Solo was barefoot.

His heels are looking a TINY bit better on the front and he is definitely more comfortable up there, that is undeniable, and we are keeping his toes nice and short and the angles are good. And he's not parking out when standing still to take weight off the back heels. So I guess that is a good thing too.

But I still don't like the trend and am just tapping my foot for farrier to call me back! I am wondering if we can pull his back shoes, if there is enough heel yet for that? But I don't want to make him uncomfortable. But now is the time to do it as we have some breathing space away from any big comps coming up.

Ah, universe, why must you torment my foot obsessed mind with so many variables???

December 19, 2009

Because You Can't Ride On Ice

The temperature hovers around a balmy 32 F today. You will have to excuse me if I am less than enthusiastic, but seeing as I moved to the South to ESCAPE winter, I become rather whiny and crabby when it pursues me despite my best efforts.

But Solo has been performing well this week. His canter work gets better every day as I figure out how to stay soft and patient for longer periods. I could go over the indoor, but I just dislike riding in those things. So he can just hang out in the pasture today and enjoy the snowy companionship of Jeff, his TB buddy. I stopped by to wrap up Solo's tail to keep it up out of the mud, just another step to reduce maintenance.

Since the onset of this lovely season, I've been perusing a DVD lent to me in my downtime: Jane Savoie's "Program Your Position." Defintely plenty of giggle-worthy parts; Savoie is a great teacher, but she is always so darn cheerful about the MOST random things, it makes me laugh. It's a series of both five audio CD's and three DVD's which use visual keywords to help you develop a better position. Given that I am a steadfast visual learner, I find several of these to be helpful additions to the mental rolodex. Many are things that P has already incorporated into our dressage lessons, but a few are new to me and will address nasty little habitses of mine.

(1) Imagine holding a full bucket of water nestled down in the pelvic girdle, keeping the bucket perfectly upright so it doesn't spill out water forward (as I have a tendency to tip forward and spill my water right over that front lip!).

(2) Visualize sitting on a bullseye with a level on the hips and lifting legs out laterally to make sure weight in seatbones is even on both sides and weight is centered.

(3) Instead of the common "toes in", think instead "heel out" to straighten foot and drape leg. I've already tried this one and it WORKS.

(4) Rolling both the shoulders and the head and neck during the walk warmup to loosen stiff muscles and encourage the shoulders to open and the head and neck to rest back against the back of your collar.

There is also one whole DVD in the collection just about sitting trot, so that is the next one I'm putting in the player. I'm starting to get a feel for the sitting trot but I figure every viewpoint I can get can't hurt!

December 17, 2009

A Love Story

All girls dream of ponies. For at least a brief time in their lives. Some girls never stop dreaming.

That's me.

When I was growing up, every Christmas morning I would lie still in my bed, eyes scrunched tight shut, holding my breath, firmly believing that if I was just still enough & wished hard enough, the sheer power of my longing would make a horse wearing a big red bow appear in my window when I looked out.

Alas, it appears I was unable to keep my eyes closed long enough, for the horse never appeared.

Photobucket
Yeahhhh, they didn't really have helmets back then.  Oops.
As a result, I begged & borrowed rides where I could. My mother did half-lease me a pony when I was 7 (that's Sassy below, circa mid-80's, half Welsh Mountain Pony & what you see is the grand total sum of tack that we had) & she bought me riding lessons from age 8-15. After that, I cleaned stalls, exercised what I could, schooled a backyard prospect or two.

And every day I dreamed of when I would be able to write my OWN horse's name on a bucket of brushes.

There were many gentle teachers & loving hearts along the way. There was the headstrong paint dressage gelding who ran away with me & knocked me out but taught me triumph when I could finally control him. There was the quiet chestnut who gave me my first real canter & jumped a faithful straight line while my arms were outstretched & eyes closed. There was the leggy thoroughbred who won me my first blue ribbon, when I was in college riding hunter equitation. The black ex-Rolex quarter horse who met my truck at the gate every day & despite his age & (unbeknownst to me then) intestinal cancer, always made me smile with his joie de vivre & finely tuned cues.

But none of them were mine & each I had to give up as owners changed their minds & life moved inexorably on. There were years when I couldn't even touch a horse; then I would pull my truck into random horse barn parking lots & sit there absorbing that special barn atmosphere with tears in my eyes because I missed it so much. I was 26 years old & I finally couldn't take it anymore; that horse-shaped hole in my heart had sat empty for too long. I didn't have any money -- I worked (and still do) as a state biologist & rented a house in a "transitional neighbourhood." But dammit, sometimes, it's just TIME. I wasn't going to get any younger, no CHANCE of getting richer, & I wasn't going to miss out on it any more.

I flipped the switch. I gave myself permission to horse shop. I gave myself a budget & started looking. I searched, I visited, I tried. A 3 year old black Percheron who was greenbroke (What was I thinking? Helloooo, I wanted to JUMP!). A beautifully built tri-coloured Appy (and I don't even go for Appies usually) who had learned to rear to dethrone his rider. A conformational trainwreck of a TB with uneven heels, mile-long pasterns & a limp but the heart of a saint.

Frustrated.

A few months earlier, I had coincidentally started dating this guy. This guy who in about four days I knew would change my life forever. And it turned out that this guy could make my life's only sure dream of horse ownership come true. He gave me a check & said, "Go find what you need." Hell, if you ever want to make a girl love you, that'll do it!

I revised my search with renewed hope of finding a horse that didn't limp & didn't have a death wish for humans.

Solo's first day - 6 June 2006
I was tired of driving around, but one final ad caught my eye: a chestnut Appendix QH named "Benson," with a little chrome. The pictures weren't great, but he looked to have decent conformation & he was a good age (10). I decided what the heck, I wasn't doing anything else, & I drove two hours to check him out.

I pulled into one of the million Carolina sandhills hobby farms & hopped out to meet the owner in the barn. As I walked in, Benson stood in quietly in the crossties awaiting my inspection. I looked at him. He looked at me. And something settled inside me.

I patted him on the neck & proceeded to look him over. He had the worst shoeing job I had ever seen with uneven gaps between hoof & shoe. Zero muscle tone. As I rubbed his lopsided white blaze his owner commented, "Huh, he trusts you. He doesn't do that for many people." So I asked to see him go & to ride him. A young European girl had been schooling him on the trails, said he didn't know a lot but seemed agreeable. She did a couple of circles at the trot & canter in the middle of the pasture (this is my actual video from that day, below) & then I threw my leg over.

video

He was crooked. He leaned hard on my left leg. He picked up the wrong canter lead. But he didn't fuss. And I felt safe. Which is a big deal to me -- due to aforementioned runaway Paint horse, I don't do bolters. Ever.

I loved him.

I brought a vet out a week later to do a Pre-Purchase Exam. Turned out not only was Benson criminally out of shape, he had bone spurs on his front coffin bones & if you pressed down on the right side of his SI, his back legs would buckle. His stifles popped & his back was lopsided.

I think I can fix that, I thought. "I'll take him," I said.

It was Memorial Day weekend 2006. I found a friend (N) to board him with. She generously drove with me to pick him up in her trailer. All the way there, I was buzzing with excitement, anticipation, & fear. What if the horse didn't like me? What if he turned out to be secretly crazy? What if he had some mysterious ailment/injury/handicap that would kill him six months from now? The horrible possibilities spun choking webs in my brain. I was stark-raving nuts.

He always knew he was sexy!
When we turned up at the seller's farm, I turned over my envelope stuffed with a wild array of cash & money orders that I had pulled together the night before. I signed the bill of sale & collected a Coggins certificate. Naturally, Benson had stepped on his own hind foot that day & ripped open his coronet band on his white hind foot. It was bloody with a chunk missing. I choked inside, I think my eyes rolled back in my head as I thought, "See, I told you he would be hurt!" I just wanted him on the trailer & out of there.


After a brief period of uncertainty, Benson agreed to step on the trailer. The seller proceeded to turn out the mare that was his best friend, who then ran up & down the fence calling for him as he rocked the trailer in a sudden panic. My heart broke for him & N was in tears for his distress as we pulled out. This wasn't starting well.

But we got him home with no further event, settled into his paddock, & let him inspect the place. "What do you want to feed him," N asked? "Ummmmmmmmm..." I knew nothing about horse feed, aside from the sweet feed we had when I worked at a boarding stable in the mid-90's. N, bless her heart, took over. Feed, amounts, hay, all taken care of. Farrier visit set up to rid us of those terrible shoes.

Photobucket
Grazing on the first day home.
I was helpless to do anything but hang on the fence & stare. He was mine. Mine mine mine. Finally, no one could stop me from riding him whenever I wanted. I already had a shiny new halter & lead rope.

I just needed a new name because "Benson" was horrendous & untenable for this shining hunk of a horse. So he became "Solaris" & in my star-struck eyes, he shone brighter than his namesake. His nickname, "Solo," carried its own hidden meaning: he was & is the culmination of a lifetime of longing, my one true dream, my sole hope & goal come to fruition.

I drove home to write a name on my brush bucket.

December 15, 2009

Tree = 1, Equestrienne = 0.1

We (lifeshighway and I) had a great ride on Saturday. Solo and Pete, lh's great little Arabian endurance partner, run so well together. The horses were primed, the footing was perfect (I love thee, Sandhills, for being my go-to place when the rain turns everything else to hopeless mud), and even human spirits were up. It was a bit cold, but not brutally so and we moved out with joy. Solo jumped beautifully, he's really beginning to consistently jump AROUND the jump, cracking his back and using his head and neck well -- amazing what happens when I stop riding like a drunken ape. We stopped back by the trailers to have a snack and then went back out. It was shaping up to be the best ride in a long time.

Until.

Until we were trotting slowly up a hill. Solo was in his usual position as lead horse, Pete was following. I always keep an ear cocked for Pete's hoofbeats and bells behind me to keep tabs on his location. The horses were a bit tired by this point, so things were pretty mellow. All of a sudden, I heard lh give a squeak (a squeak I've only heard once before when a horse stomped on her foot) and I spun around to see Pete flailing sideways and lh embracing a tree trunk face first, then rolling slowly to the ground.

Oh shit.

You have to understand, we were in Sandhills pine savanna, that looks like this --> not exactly closely packed woods. So what the hell just happened? I was already jumping off Solo (Pete was already calmly munching grass to the side, the little piglet) and hollered at lh not to move. She had a pair of broken glasses and a bloody mouth and I feared the worst after hearing too many fatal tree encounter stories. Her helmet was cracked (thank God for helmets) and I worried about concussion.

After a few minutes of breathing, we ascertained that nothing (miraculously) seemed to be broken aside from glasses. A bitten lip, a sprained wrist, a wrenched back and some bruises appeared to be the sum total. It turns out Pete had just taken a bad step, tweaked his leg, lost his balance, and managed to do so next to the only tree within about 20 feet. Completely random, unpredictable, and begun and ended within seconds.

We led the horses for a little while to let lh work through the inevitable shaking adrenaline surge we all get after we fall off, then remounted to return to the trailers. Only to discover that in the process of dismounting, etc, I had gotten turned around and lost my idea of direction. No problem, we'll just let Solo find the way back, he always finds his trailer! At which point, Solo, with great enthusiasm, led us to a random pasture of horses. Thanks, buddy.

In short, a couple hours later, in the pitch dark, after asking for directions and following the highway (thank you, Solo, for being unflinchingly matter-of-fact about taking us home on the dark road shoulder where I am blinded by headlights and can't even see the ground), we arrived in a tired heap at the trailers. We loaded up everyone in my rig, as we didn't want lh to drive the two hours home after having busted her head.

Turns out, she DID have a concussion, confirmed by a hospital visit later that night. Which means she'd probably be dead right now without that helmet. Which is why I gave her 0.1 points in the post title for not being TOTALLY defeated by that inconveniently located longleaf pine. Which is why I tell people OVER AND OVER AND OVER, it doesn't matter if you are a great rider on a calm horse on good footing on a quiet ride, you can STILL fall off and bust your head open in the blink of an eye! So wear your freaking helmets (unless you are obnoxious, in which case, well, if you remove yourself from the gene pool, I guess we won't all cry too much)!

So until next time, me and my weary horse will be sprawled out in the stall recovering from that particular adventure!

December 11, 2009

Frosty The Horse(Wo)Man

DEAR GOD, IT'S COLDER THAN A POLAR BEAR FART! Ok, yes, the zoologist in me realizes that even from a polar bear, the fart would, in fact, still be warm, but you get the idea.

For some insane reason, North Carolina has turned into some sort of arctic hell and it is hovering around 35 degrees today, although there is a cold bite to the wind far below that. Yes, yes, I can hear your Yankee-winter-snob comments already, but look -- 35 is COLD here and it will be 22 tonight and that's cold, I don't care who you are. I moved here because I didn't WANT winter!

Solo is snug as a bug in his blanket (see look at right, he blends in with his pasture!), although he and the other horses turn their collective noses up at the lovely shelters provided for them, preferring to sprawl in equine abandon in the half-frozen mud puddles. We hurl them hay to help them stay warm and I am, as ever, very glad that he gets to stay out and keep those joints moving in this ever-changing weather. Tomorrow, we are off with our riding buddy, lifeshighway, for a wonderful riding trip about an hour and a half south to gallop and jump with glee across a few thousand acres of pine savanna preserved just for equestrian pursuits, the prospect of which leaves me twitching with happy anticipation. I will be wearing approximately 16 layers of clothing, 15 of which I will probably want to rip off after the first minute of trotting.

Stay warm, fellow horse lovers, and don't forget to kiss a warm furry nose tonight, it helps to keep the winter doldrums away.

December 7, 2009

Tarp Of Doom, I DEFY Thee!

I hate winter. It's always dark. And cold. And the footing usually sucks in some way or another. And it's dark and cold. Did I mention I hate the cold? And dark?

It's been raining like crazy here too -- we WERE in a drought, but no longer. Mud abounds and both Solo and I are about to pull out what's left of our hair if we are stuck in the arena working on dressage for one more MINUTE. Although I am undyingly grateful for BO's rainproof, stormproof, iceproof footing and her OCD which causes her to drag it nearly every day.

So when the sun came out on Sunday and the ground showed a modicum of respectability in a few well-drained areas, I told Solo we were going to jump-school, DAMMIT! I set up the video camera in hopes of some useful footage, although it turns out, with the camera just sitting on its tripod, alone and sad without anyone to push the zoom button, it's hard to get good footage of jumping. I did manage to catch a few snapshots from the video, which though grainy, were useful to me in seeing how we are coming along.

In good news, Solo was ON FIRE. He very clearly informed me that being stuck in the dressage arena all week sucks donkey balls and that JUMPING IS FUN FUN FUN! Everytime I asked him to canter, he'd flip himself all over the place with energy just shooting out of him. I couldn't help but laugh -- like the good boy he is, it was just a couple of strides, and I stayed soft and let him have it and then he came right back to focus on the fences. And as you can see at left, WE HAVE CONQUERED THE INFAMOUS BLUE TARP OF DOOM. I have been putting that damned tarp on everything I can think of. Under jumps, over jumps, beside jumps, over Solo's head. So help me god, that horse will now jump a blue tarp without hesitation or complaint!

I am also happy to report that thus far, stepping up our jump schooling in preparation for Novice events has been successful. I have been focusing hard on keeping my "landing gear" beneath me (thank you, P, you are a godsend!) and Solo has been developing a nice rhythm, staying with my leg and jumping around each jump with a lovely scope. I put a tape on all the jumps before I rode out and they ranged in size from 2'7" at the little green and yellow in the background to about 3'2" or so at the blue barrel Swedish oxer and I am happy to report that nary a one resulted in any problems. We even made a little fakey ditch with a shiny black tarp between two rails on the ground and Solo quite obligingly leaped it with gusto.

It's amazing what a difference it makes when things start to click. A few months ago, I looked at 2'9" jumps clearly thinking, OMG, you must be KIDDING me, who do I look like, Rodrigo Pessoa(ette?) Yesterday, I looked at a 3' jump and thought, Gee, that looks like a nice, doable challenge!

In Solo-world, at least, things are looking up! (and over!)

December 5, 2009

Poser

Finally! Got a picture last night of Solo being a big fat ham in our new bridle! Can I tell you how hard it is to work the camera with one hand while waving a carrot with the other hand while making sure Solo doesn't actually come GET the carrot and leave me with a giant picture of his nose?

It's hard.

I still have to surgically remove the flash loop and add some oil, but other than that, we are good to go! Anyone interested in an eBay bridle that looks like it came from a garage sale? But hey, it's black and it holds the bit in the horse's mouth!


That's right, you know you love me.

December 4, 2009

Bits And Rigs

My expectations seemed completely realistic...
Turns out the KK Ultra is not the uber-magical-fairy-miracle bit the dressage queens of the world would have you believe.

 It apparently does NOT impart instant dressage prowess upon your horsie.  In fact, it is quite possible your horsie may distinctly dislike it, lock his jaw, & pointedly refuse to acknowledge your half halts.

I'll just let you guess which one was us.

Happily, it's a borrowed bit.  So I removed it from bridle & returned to our Happy Mouth boucher last night & now, both of us are happy once more.   But I had to at least try the KK, given its legend, you know, curiosity & all that.

I also wanted to share our "new to us" rig that I realized I skipped over the story, given that it is a relatively recent acquisition.  Rig saga here.  Well, I still have the same trailer, obviously & I LOVE THAT TRAILER.

My Precious with...Other Precious?  Of course I have a blue trailer!
I loved the Tahoe too, but it soon made apparent to me that for regular hauling, a 1/2 ton just can't cut the mustard.   It could pull, & did it well.  Those old Chevy 5.7L engines were definitely made for power.  The problem is the smaller 1/2 ton transmissions are just not really up to the task & between that & the suspension & the brakes on the windy sides of mountains, it growlingly informed me that if I kept it up, I would be purchasing replacement trannies.  And radiators.  And liability policies.  0.0

Why didn't I think of that???!!
So, I decided that it was no longer worth putting $$$ on a vehicle that was only worth about $2000 on a good day, as I'd run it up to 170,000 miles, the A/C was out of freon, & you couldn't move the driver's seat (luckily my freaky long legs paid of for once).  I put on my savviest face & after much research & consulting & then more research (which I won't go into here for the sake of concise-ness, but I am happy to explain if you so desire), I sauntered into my local Ford dealer.

As luck would have it, they happened to have a trade-in that was EXACTLY what I wanted, in beautiful condition.  So I gave the faithful Tahoe a goodbye pat & rumbled home in my new love, a 2001 7.3L Super Duty turbo diesel F250.  And you will have to pry my cold, dead hands off to take it away from me.  It's good to be back in diesel-land (my first car was a 1985 3/4-ton 6.0L diesel GMC Suburban)!


December 2, 2009

Rain, Rain Go Away

Not a good week so far.

Hand clawed up by flailing cat. Toe broken by leaping sofa (f@$%ing unruly furniture!). Winter riding earmuffs MIA on a cold cold night.

Pluses:

Toe does not affect riding. And motivates extra care to avoid being stepped on as pain would no doubt be redoubled.

Dressage schooling last night was ok. Quality of canter definitely improving. Still not much bendiness in that gait, but must focus on good, not always on bad. Must focus on good... Trot work was nice for the most part, with some good transition work. We are prepping for a combined training on Sunday. We did enter at Beginner Novice, I didn't feel QUITE ready to compete around a 2'11" stadium course as this is at a very fancy farm and I have a feeling they might set their jumps on the big side of 2'11".

Minuses:

It is raining AGAIN. I swear to god if I have to walk through mud one more time, I am going to just start jumping around and screaming incoherently. Just wait. It will happen. 8500 lbs of F250 are slowly sinking into my driveway at the house, despite my frenzied kicking of gravel beneath the tires.

Saturday night temps forecasted to be a whopping 25 degrees. So when we load up the trailers Sunday morning, not only will it be morning (a portion of evil all its own) but it will be colder than a polar bear's tail.

And my toe still hurts.