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We Are Flying Solo

October 28, 2010

Time To Go

Tomorrow morning sees my rig pointed at the Virginia Horse Center.  I would feel a lot better about it if we hadn't had a CRAP ride tonight.  I blame the fact that I have been on Vicadin and muscle relaxers for two days due to neck pain.  But Solo was a BEAST, argghh. I can only hope that means the next ride will be great.

Our ride times:

Dressage: Saturday at 12:56 pm
Show Jumping: Saturday at 2:02 pm
Cross Country: Sunday at 11:50 am

Our team for the Adult Team Challenge is called "Nuts To You." We had to have a little name change after some registration confusion, but hopefully that is worked out now.

Live scoring may be available here. A link to the horse trials webpage is listed on our calendar.

October 24, 2010

Cross Country With Becky OR Why You Should Never Take A Jump For Granted

Cross country day promised to be many things.  Solo & I didn't run till after lunch, so that meant I got to spend all morning watching the Training & Prelim folks go (which means I got to spy on them to see what I'd have to force my aching legs to do).  So I limped up the long sandy path from the stabling which led through the woods & around the field to the steeplechase area.  As the group moved on to the cross country course, I quickly discerned my goal for the day:

WANT TO JUMP THIS! (double stairstep bank that Jammie & Rocky demonstrate effortlessly)

Like, want so bad I can't stand still.  Want so bad that I tell everyone around me how much I want it.  Want so bad I work myself up into a frenzy of want.

Note to you non-eventers out there: this is one of the classic signs of a terminal case of eventing fever. The twitching, the frothing of the mouth, the hopping motions all indicate an incurable eventer who has spied a new obstacle to attempt. Do not try & stop her, it is pointless to intercede. Just stay out of the range of any limbs that may be thrashing with excitement, I wouldn't want you to get hurt.

Moving on...

(It's going to be a long story, but if you stick with it, I promise great entertainment.)

At one o'clock, I head up the path again, only this time on my horse. One member of our group has never really schooled cross country; I caution her that once she gallops through that water at the end, she will no longer be able to think about anything else for the rest of her riding days.

To begin, Becky wants us all to gallop the steeplechase loop sans jumps so she can watch our galloping position & our gallop rhythm. Solo is more than happy to oblige with the galloping through a field bit, but I have to remind him about every 0.2 seconds about the rhythm bit. I choose to ignore the burn of my thighs, what do thigh muscles know about what is important anyway?

After our circuit, Becky offers effusive praise for our rhythm & position & my ego shoots up about 25 points. Which is probably about 30 points higher than it should be.

"Okay," she says, "Now do the circuit again, but include the small steeplechase jump."

This jump is maybe a 2' or 2'3" wooden coop with fake plastic sticky "brush" coming out of the top. No problem, a simple fly jump. Solo's already sniffed the brush anyway.

I gallop off with a smug little smile, thinking, We're so awesome. My horse is awesome. I am awesome. Everyone is going to watch us do this jump so easily & they will wish that they were us!


We roll around the turn & I put my eye on the jump. I half halt, balance my horse, & casually gallop up to it. I'm so busy thinking about how easy it all is, I only barely notice Solo's front feet tap the ground for takeoff & I lean forward for his jump.

Only there is no jump.

The next thing I know, I have cartwheeled over Solo's head as he ducked & spun to the right as he is wailing, "OMG, HORSE SPEARING STICKS OF HORRIBLE DOOM!!!!" I am flat on my back on top of the jump with a hearty whack & I think, Cool, this vest is awesome, I can't feel a thing! Then I slither backwards & land conk! on the nice baked clay on top of my head (that helmet's pretty sweet, too).  Finally, I am sitting on the ground with a bridle in one hand (I always wondered how people did that) & a fly bonnet in the other. Damn, I wish there were pictures.  Oh besides that one on the right.  Yeah, that's what I totally looked like.

I look to the right & I see a shiny chestnut butt & tail hightailing it into the woods back to the stabling. I think I can hear a distinctly equine snicker.

I look to the left & I see Becky walking towards me. "Well," I say, "that was unexpected."

"Now do you understand why we emphasize staying back before the jump?" she admonishes.

"Yes, ma'am, yes I do!"

Unfortunately, now I must do the Walk of Shame with bridle in hand to fetch my very naughty horse. It's a long way to stabling (remember that sandy path I mentioned), so they are kind enough to give me a Gator ride. A few minutes later, Solo ambles up to me as I exit the Gator with pricked ears. Hey, mom, whatchyou been up to? I just had a great gallop!

I resist the urge to call him a very nasty name. Or at least I resist saying it out loud.

He has a bloody mouth & it appears he has either bitten his tongue or hit his nose on the jump.

I don't feel very sorry for him right now.

The bloodflow has stopped though & he cheerily accepts the bit, so I swing back up & we trot down the path (again) to rejoin our group.

With my ego thoroughly deflated back down to proper levels, we gear up to have at it again.  We must do the little jump & we are given our choice whether or not to do the Big Kids' jump.  This time, I am sitting on the back of my saddle & my legs are well-wrapped in place.

And the shiny bastard refuses it, clearly terrified that the plastic sticks will stretch up & grab his little wussy hooves in mid-air. I am ready this time though & we whip around with a snarl.

Now I am seated approximately on Solo's tail & the spurs are fully engaged. There is no option; he WILL go over or go through, these are his choices. Wisely, he opts for the former with all the grace & beauty of an orange goat.

And damn straight, we are DOING the Big Kids' jump!!  Solo considers & finds this aligns with his best interests.

And after that...things went smooth as warm butter.  I most certainly did NOT get ahead of my horse (funny how I had zero further temptation to lean forwards) & Solo took everything as old hat (it's amazing what proper riding can do).

As we work the bank complex, I hear Becky telling our newly-converted classmate to watch how we go up the bank because "she's riding great now."  Ha.  Ok, that was pretty funny... 

Oh yeah, & that second picture? That's us going up the DOUBLE BANK. WAHOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

The Red Machine gets a well-earned drink after we finish at the water complex.
As always, we ride back to the stable with a big stupid grin on our faces (well, at least mine).  Oh, & our classmate whom I warned about the habit-forming properties of cross country?  Yeah, she can't wipe that shit-eating smile off her face, I'm afraid her cheeks will pop.  We have a new convert!

The Wisdom Of Becky With Respect To The Ego-Maintenance Tool That Is Solo:

-STAY BACK when jumping at speed.  Sit down on his tail & push him forward with your seat & leg, especially at slower gaits. Stay very strong in your core & don't let the horse pull you forward & compromise your position.

-If you keep your position, when that stutter step in front of the fence happens (you know which one I mean), you just wait & let him jump up in front of you.

-When galloping, put your hands down on his withers & keep them quiet until you need to make a correction; don't carry them up.

And I must add a huge thanks to Morgan, for all the pictures!! She worked hard all weekend to get some shots of everyone enjoying this fantastic opportunity & we are so grateful for it. Great job, kiddo, & thanks again!

October 23, 2010

I Love Fall

It really is the best time of year.  Too bad the gun season for deer starts next week and ruins it all.  Today, though, priceless.

Cross country is fantastic, a rush like none other I have known.  But it will still never fill me up the way a day in the autumn woods alone with my horse does.  His quiet hoofbeats through leaves and pine needles complement the swing of his head and tail and the rhythmic notes of our bell.  The cool air of fall is tempered by the warm afternoon sun, spattering through the changing leaves across the trail.  Solo eats up the trail with a long, swinging trot and brightly pricked ears.  The rise and fall of his back muscles echoes the beat of my pulse.  Every stress, every worry, every tension falls away with the passing breeze and my universe narrows to this, one strong horse and one winding trail.

What makes your soul settle and sigh in contentment? 

October 21, 2010

Gymnastic Jumping: In Which I Fail To Successfully Coordinate Body Parts

I don't feel like I rode that well on the clinic's show jumping day. I couldn't get my hand and my body and my legs and my head to all work properly at the same time. It was like I tried to get everything to listen at once and as a result, NOTHING listened.

But we tried.

Becky explained that today was more about balance and riding a jump safely than what you would really do in a stadium jumping ring. So we focused on gymnastic exercises, keeping your body strong and defensive and controlling your horse's stride length and rhythm.

Exercise 1 was a simple one stride of cavaletti about six inches off the ground. I forgot to upload the video last night, so maybe you'll get lucky and I will remember to do it tonight. The goal was to get the horse smoothly through in a bouncy, compact stride. I mostly kept forgetting to let go of Solo's face and moved my body forward too much. Fail. Now with video!

Exercise 2 was a small bounce with a placing pole out front. I mostly kept forgetting to let go of Solo's face, again. But we were successful in convincing him that he needed to not dive on his forehand before the jump and hurl himself through the line like a rhino.

OMG, don't jump ahead, you idiot!
Oh ok, that's better.

From there we moved on to two bending lines from the bounce to a two stride oxer line or a two stride panel combination. I ride so much better then the jumps get bigger...

Then there was a really interesting exercise (that I also forgot to upload the video to, dammit.  I have some work to do tonight.) to emphasize keeping your body back and waiting for your horse. You rode downhill to a skinny two-rail vertical at a slightly-faster-then-comfortable pace. The fence was purposely innocuous enough to NOT back your horse off so most of us pulled a rail the first time. Then you turn and go to a line of two barrels where again, you use a faster pace and WAIT for the horse.

At the end of the day, the sum total was me = excruciatingly sore from balancing Solo with my leg and seat, Solo = so annoyed at having to stay balanced for the SECOND DAY IN A ROW, Becky = possibly questioning my abilities to ride a stadium course without pissing off my horse.

BUT, Becky did re-emphasize some important points that we have been working on with David and she also added a couple new exercises to make Solo a more adjustable horse.

The Wisdom Of Becky With Respect To The Enthusiastic But Balance-Challenged Jumper That Is Solo:

-Keep his front end up with your core, do NOT let him pull you down his neck.

-Keep your hands down closer to the withers so your corrections are more subtle and really press them into the neck when jumping.

-Practice compressing the stride, making a slow and bouncy canter coming into the line. Sit down lightly on his back to collect with your seat, letting it do the work instead of the reins.

-Solo has a big "booty bump" over the fences; slip the reins to him and stay back during the jumping effort.

I also really liked this thought:
Remember that there are moments in the ground and moments in the air; the moments in the air belong to your horse.

October 19, 2010

Dressage With Becky

There is so much to tell of late -- the new saddle came in this weekend (YEEHAW!) and is currently in Phase Break-In. We are busy prepping for VA Horse Trials and still trying to finish photo processing from Ecuador. However, I cannot go any longer without talking about the phenomenal experience that was our recent clinic.

About three hours south of us, a guy has been hard at work building an eventing facility for the adult amateur. He already has one farm in Connecticut (why oh why was I not born to these people!! Sorry mom, I still love you!) and decided apparently that warmth was better (of course, I agree!). So he has created Southern Eights Farm just over the border in South Carolina.

This place is exquisite. Designed for and by the adult rider passionate about the true form of our sport, the long format, everything about it is top of the line. Parts are still under construction, but there is a full cross country course with one of the loveliest water complexes I have ever ridden, beautiful guest stabling, a roads and tracks course and steeplechase galloping track and barns that *I* would happily live in. There is no skimping and I have to give a shout out to Brad and his manager, Shelley, who runs Classic Eventing, their training business. I wish I had remembered to take pictures of the place...

The scene is set then and Solo and I march our way up for our dressage lesson (in our jumping saddle no less) with Becky Holder. We are longtime fans of her and her fantastic OTTB partner of eight years, Courageous Comet (left), and have watched them ascend through Rolex to the Olympic Games and two weeks ago, to a beautiful performance at the World Equestrian Games. So I may have been a weeeee bit star-struck as we rode into that arena.

I did laugh when Becky walked up to us and said, "Hi! I'm Becky!" Just in case we had any doubts that she might be an imposter? But I quickly briefed her on Solo's history and his Quarter Horse tendencies to prefer lazing along on his forehand to actually pushing uphill into the bridle. 

Solo and Rocky meet Becky. Solo is fascinated by arena pole, ambivalent to equestrian superstar.

She watched us warm up and then said, "Ok, stop! Now, trot again, but this time shorten your reins about five inches, double-time it and stop being such a nice little student and get bossy."

Solo did display some nice stretching during warm-up though. No, our reins were not always THIS long.

I say, "Yes, ma'am!" Solo says, "Aw, crap." And then I said, "Trot! Now! For real! From your butt! No more Nice Mom from me, buster!" And holy hell, did he trot.

Becky: "Look at that! That's not Quarter Horse-y; that's a mini-warmblood!"

Me: (out loud) "Wheee!" (in head) Hey, don't call my horse a warmblood, that's an eventer insult! (then head argues with self) But I guess it's ok to have warmblood trot...

Becky: "I can see his face when you ask him to work, I can see the twinkle in his eye as he pulls you down forwards trying to get out of really using himself."

Me: (in head) Ohhhh, you have no idea how good he is at that, you get an A+ for horse telepathy...

So we got to work. And wow, did my horse feel different. His back was up and active; his hind end pushed up into transitions like a piston coming up through the saddle; I could sit down on his trot and lift and shorten it with my seat and leg. We stepped up into canter. Becky caught him immediately in his classic antics of grabbing the bit for the first four steps. "Don't let him snatch those steps as his own," she admonished. "Be strong and insistent and make him be where you want him IMMEDIATELY." I did it over and it WORKED. And Solo was pissed. They always hate it when you take their cheats away.

We did get a few pictures from a co-clinic-er. I am kind of stunned -- not only is my horse pushing up into the bridle, but I am SITTING UP STRAIGHT. No hunter perch!!! Do I have any idea how I did that? Absolutely not. But now I have evidence that it is possible...

A summary of the Wisdom Of Becky In Respect To The Dressage Slacker That Is Solo:

-Be strong in your core and back (I cannot tell you how hard this is!), really use your legs to push the trot up into the bridle. Set yourself up where he needs to be and make him work up into that place.

-Be fair, but demanding about when and where transitions happen; get tough, it doesn't matter if he pitches a fit about it, ride it through. Make him give you the awesome trot right away, don't let him shuffle a few steps into it. Never accept mediocre.

-If he tries to come up and brace, especially in transitions, use bend and leg yield to soften him through it.

-For downward transitions, wrap your legs around him and squeeze him in two so he goes forward into the walk.

-In the walk, sit back on his back legs even if they are sticky off the ground. Don't let your body get ahead of them, wait and let them come through under you.

-When asking for the canter, demand the good canter immediately and really stay solid and strong. Don't let him seize any steps away from you. Lift your hands and really "show off" the horse, lifting his poll.

Is any of this new information? No -- but it was a good series of reminders, in the right place, at the right time, that I need to NOT let him get away with slacker moments. Needless to say, it was a very tired and sore me that trooped back to the barn. But I was excited about what we'd accomplished and very much looking forward to Stadium Jumping Saturday.

October 12, 2010

Can't. Keep. Up.

My time and energy to write is failing to keep up with all the things that are happening! So here is my cop-out with a list and teaser of coming attractions:

We finish our Ecuador trip with the most spectacular day that it is possible to experience inside the wild, amazing Cotopaxi National Park. The expanses of high grass and beautiful silence are simply beyond imagination.

Solo and I choose our new dressage saddle. We do not have it in hand yet, but there are some little English elves hard at work in a factory right now!

We also completed an amazing long format clinic with Becky Holder this weekend, fresh off her beautiful performance with Comet at the WEG's a week ago. Important lessons were learned: (1) Becky Holder has the cutest dog in the world. (2) If one leans forward during steeplechase jumps, carnage ensues (oh, this is a good story, you'll like this one). (3) Solo's booty CAN be engaged to great effect. Thanks to some VERY kind and generous co-clinic-ers, we even have pictures!!

Now, all I need is an eensy bit of free time to write all that in. Waiting....waiting....

October 6, 2010

Day 6.1: The Running Of The Bulls

I also learned that Sam loved one thing more than anything else: running. And he loved something else even more than that: running while chasing bovines. So when the bulls were turned loose after a vaccinating session, his ears about popped off with excitement. You can almost hear him gasping Want, waaaaaaaantttt....

October 5, 2010

Day 6: A New Landscape

When we left, I was tucking myself in at the Hacienda San Francisco. In the morning, we had to meet the van again to connect with Sally, who owns the outfitting company, and make our way to our new horses. We bumped around the edge of the valley and through the tinted window, I caught the first glance of what was to be a constant companion and undefinable presence for the next three days: Cotopaxi, which at 5,897 m (19,347 ft) towers as the second highest volcano in Ecuador (Chimborazo is the highest at 20,560 ft and just for reference, the summit of Everest sits at 29,035 ft).

In front of a chapel on a rutted road awaited our partners. I was introduced to Sam, a striking buckskin around 15.3 or so with a keen attitude and a strong will. One part English Thoroughbred, one part freight train, one part friendly companion, and one part enthusiasm.

Mum was paired with a very solid citizen named Jalisco.  (Yeah, it's HARD taking pictures from the back of a horse.  You try documenting nine days while never standing still!)

Anna found herself with a little liver chestnut named Alverito who was the very definition of his breed, a Peruvian Paso.  Although apparently from the back of Sam, he is the size of a Shetland pony.

An English volunteer, Hannah, brought up the rear with Caesar, who would be our chagra for the remainder of the trip. Hannah started out with one of Sally's experiments, a dark bay Hanoverian who Sally had brought down to see if the heavier horses did well at altitude (they don't). She led Anamike, a dappled grey Arab mare, while Caesar, riding the improbably named grey, General Pintag (it's a bus route in town apparently), ponied our familiar other-grey friend, Gitano (Anna rode him on the first half of the trip -- Gitano, not Caesar).

Our goal for the day was to ride south towards Cotopaxi, where we would arrive at the night's lodgings. It soon became apparent that we were in a whole 'nother world from what we experienced north of Quito. There was much more vegetation and livestock had flesh on their bones. It was greener and fresher and felt more...enriched, and yet at the same time, more wild. And Cotopaxi itself peeked out at us, flirting from behind the rolling hills.

Soon, we passed through a gate into a private hacienda. And by hacienda, I mean a massive ranch that sprawled across what was probably square miles. The owner bred (of course) Spanish fighting bulls and grazed them on the high meadows around Cotopaxi. Check out that pasture view.

Then, suddenly, we are on a high, tawny meadow. And I canter on, the snowy cone of Cotopaxi ahead of me, an entire alley of volcanoes, some extinct, some merely sleeping, surrounding me. It is almost pure bliss (if I didn't have to use every dressage muscle in my body to half halt Sam and convince him this was NOT a horse race), tinged only by the realization that I can only truly capture it in memory. Nothing else could hold its grandeur.

General Pintag really likes his job today. Gitano is just happy that no one is riding him!

Mum and I pose for posterity with Sam and Jalisco. One cannot pass by a Kodak vista!!  But I don't know why the volcano looks all weird behind us.  Perhaps the spirits are angry...

Anna and Alverito want some camera time too!

Caesar and the grey boys only make the landscape look even better.

We are getting close to the national park now and the land betrays its own past. Dirt becomes pumice and boulder fields are strewn across the slopes from the last lava flow that Cotopaxi threw into the skies.

The mountain over Anna's shoulder is Cincilagua. Which I have probably spelled wrong. We could never remember its name, so I called it Chinchilla instead. I longed to see a wild chincilla, but apparently they do not live this far north in the Andes. I had to settle for hungry puppies. Not quite as heartwarming.

The road in the last picture is the road down to our lodge, a sort of chalet called Chilcabamba. And what it lacked in facilities, it did manage to make up for in scenery...which you now have to wait for the next post to see.