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We Are Flying Solo

November 30, 2010

It's Good To Be Home

Yes, I am back from the family vacation. And of course, the first thing I did when dropped off at my house was to drop the suitcase on the floor, feed the cats, then leap in the truck and hightail it to the farm. Where Solo consequently got hugged to within an inch of his life and stuffed with treats in my effort to reverse my advanced case of Equine Withdrawal Syndrome.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with EWS. It strikes down the horse owner during any extended period of separation from equine company. Symptoms include headache, nausea, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, excessive sighing, rampant daydreaming, and moon blindness. Or at least most of those. The only treatment is deep breaths of horse ambiance.

Last night was my first ride back in the game. Also my first ride post-hock-injections, which Dr. Bob brought out to us on the 17th.

Damn, that horse felt good. I always question whether I am doing the right thing pre-injections, but then, when I feel the change, I KNOW I did the right thing and it becomes worth every penny.

And you know what? He was so excited that I was back playing with him. It was pretty darn cute. As soon as I asked for trot, he pushed off with his back end into a forward, swinging trot, came down onto the bit with his little ears working like mad, and I could just feel glee (no, he did not sing any Top 40 hits). I laughed out loud when I asked for a bigger trot and he popped into a big, rolling canter. I let him grab a nice rhythm and rode it while we both giggled.

I have never before felt him just enjoy a dressage school so much. He was nearly bursting at the seams with try and energy and it was quite simply joyous.

What a lovely homecoming gift from my most beloved friend.

Do you have any Thanksgiving horsey adventure tales to tell?

November 29, 2010

No, Actually I Have No Shame Whatsoever

None, none at all, really.  I want a glowy yard flamingo.  It calls me with its glowiness and sparkle.  So....

Vote for me!

I am entry #3 with the purple unicorn. All you have to do is click the little link below the thumbnail pic.

If you vote for me, you will automatically get a better dressage score at your next horse show. Solo promises. And you will get to see a picture of Solo and a glowing flamingo. Because what could be cooler than that???

November 21, 2010

Longer And Harder

That's what she said.

Ahhahaha, I crack myself up. But moving on...

Tonight, Flying Solo is coming to you live from the beaches of Maui, Hawaii! I only get to go on vacations when other people pay for them (thanks, mum!!!). But even in Maui, my thoughts always wander back to the rhythm of hoofbeats.

Because I was totally talking about eventing in the title. I don't know what you were thinking about, but that's just wrong. ;-P I am talking about the long format, i.e. what events USED to be and what USEA is trying to help us hold on to.  There is even a group (logo at left), formulated in the brackish depths of the Chronicle of the Horse forums, dedicated to just this cause.

I had several folks write in and ask just what do all the phases of a classic (long) format event entail? Well, tonight (ok, it's probably morning back home right now) your life's deep burning questions shall be answered.

I won't go into the detailed and controversial change from long to short format. That would be far too long a post for me tackle mid-jet-lag. But here's what the classic has that the short format doesn't:

Endurance day.

The true test of your horse's conditioning that I wrote about briefly here. So, here's what happens.

You get a ride time for each phase (A through D). Phase A is your first roads and tracks. It's basically a mapped trail ride over rolling terrain, where you follow a marked route. This should be done mostly as a nice, brisk trot, maybe a little canter -- you are warming your horse up for Phase B, the steeplechase. Phase B usually consists of 6-8 brush jumps taken from a gallop that is faster than your cross country pace.

Once you and your horse have both reached the top of your adrenaline peak on Phase B, you move on to Phase C, another roads and tracks. Much like A, it's a trail, but you go slower, cooling your horse out from his gallop on B. You need to bring his pulse and respiration back down because when you cross the finish flags of C, you enter the 10 minute box.

Once in the box, the vets take your horse's TPR (temp, pulse, respiration) and make sure he drops quickly back to normal levels (this is where your conditioning tattles on you). If all goes according to plan, your horse recovers and then hits the start box of Phase D, the cross country course.

Here, of course, you gallop your heart out, collect the bugs in your grin, and cross the finish line and know that you successfully tackled the true challenge of eventing and are all that much richer for it.

A summary then:

Phase A: Roads and Tracks I, warmup for steeplechase
Phase B: Steeplechase at speed
Phase C: Roads and Tracks II, cool down for XC
10-Minute Box
Phase D: XC

Sum Total: Complete Awesomeness (yes, I make up stupid words when my brain can't figure out what time zone I'm in)

November 18, 2010

OMG, Something Actually Worked!

Red blood cells:  found!
Remember August?  Yeah, well, neither do I.  But that is when I started Solo on his SmartVite in hopes of boosting his hematocrit back to normal levels (for geek-out explanation of hematocrit, click here).

Our much-loved Dr. Bob was out yesterday to do our hock injections for the winter and so I had him pull a blood sample and run a CBC to check our progress.

Result: Success!!! Solo's back up to healthy red blood cell levels and ready to carry on. I have noticed that his respiratory recovery times had improved and Dr. Bob observed that he carried significantly more muscle yesterday, so I think we're looking good!

Thank you, SmartPak!

November 15, 2010

Committing

They say that saying something out loud makes it real.  Well then, let me make real the overarching goal that has been driving me to bring Solo along and making the fire in my belly.

It started a year ago when I drove north to volunteer at Waredaca's Training 3 Day Event (T3DE) in Maryland. The 3DE series is one that is steadily growing with support of USEA. These are full, long-format, "classic" events, the way Rolex used to be before FEI and the Olympic committee had their way with the sport.

This means you not only do your three phases, but cross country day is a TRUE endurance day, starting with Phase A, Roads and Tracks, Phase B, Steeplechase, Phase C, Roads and Tracks II, and Phase D, Cross Country.

I spent my Waredaca weekend running scores, setting up arenas, running the start box on Phase D, and keeping the jog up running smoothly. The cross country course blew my mind, it was so amazing and the grins I saw at the end of endurance day were unmatched at any I have been to.

I was also watching and learning and participating in all the educational stuff that was offered for competitors and volunteers alike. As I drove home that Sunday evening, one thought burned in my mind:

I WANT TO DO THIS. This, this one incredible event, this will be MY Rolex, MY endgame, and my goal for Solo.

So here we are a year later. Solo has made fantastic strides this year, progressing far more than I could have imagined. After our jumping lesson on Saturday, I was talking with a friend and suddenly, it dawned on me:

"I think I have a Training Level horse," I murmured. "Excuse me, I have to go throw up."

The problem with T3DE though, is that you can't just sign up; you have to qualify. This sport has no mercy for poor people like me. If the soundness gods smile upon us, we somehow scrape funding together, and I stay on my horse, my goal is to qualify for Waredaca in 2012. Solo will be 16 and I don't want to push my luck any farther than that.

So, to qualify, here is what we have to complete in the next two years:

Four recognized Training Level events (we take donations of any type, thank you!), with "Nationally Qualifying Rides:"  
  • Dressage score under 50
  • NO jumping penalties on cross country (yes, this means no run outs, no refusals, no falling off)
  • 12 or less stadium penalties (4 rails, no refusals).
What could possibly go wrong???

November 13, 2010

Best Mail Day. Ever.

OMG OMG OMG!  So I get home from the conference today and pull a handful out of the mailbox.  The first envelope I opened had...THIS!  Beautimous giant purple ribbon, apparently our final placing in the Adult Team Challenge was 7th (I like purple better than green anyway!) so hooray for all of us on Team Nuts To You!



Yes, I got it, the special surprise I warned you about earlier. This completely totally awesome awesomeness is brought to you thanks to Heads Up! Helmet Cams, who hooked us UP at VHT so I could finally get video to share with you! So hang on, gang, you are now...

Flying Solo!!!
video

November 9, 2010

Photographic Proof!

Or proofs, should I say.  Yes, the evidence is up!  All your favourite ridiculous faces and moments from Mr. Shiny are displayed, thanks to the handiwork of the always-fantastic Brant Gamma. Thirty-one shots, to be precise, of our stadium and cross country performance at the 2010 Virginia Horse Trials. I may just have to order a digital copy of our trakehner jump. Oh, and the definitive evidence that Solo is Jesus (can you spot it?).

I will take it as a good sign for the future that looking at the cross country pictures, all the Novice jumps look so, well, little...

November 7, 2010

Saddle For Sale!

Wintec Dressage Pro.  Excellent condition.  Kept cleaned and covered at all times.  Wool flocked!  NO CAIR. I had my saddle fitter rip out the CAIR and replace with the wool.

18" seat with changeable gullet system.  Wide, Medium Wide, and Medium gullets included (or any one of your choice if you don't want all three).   

60" black stirrup leathers included.  Leather with nylon lining to prevent stretch.  Also in excellent condition, nice heavy duty leather looks new.

Cotton saddle cover included.

This saddle has a nice balance and comfortable seat.  Great for schooling and easy to clean up for shows.  Want to try out dressage?  Want to trail ride in comfort but don't like Western saddles?  Have a young horse or one who changes shape often?  Drop me an email!

I am asking $350 + $25 shipping/handling. I am sorry, I cannot do trials, I am only shipping this saddle once. But Wintecs are extremely easy to resell, especially these rare wool flocked ones, so don't worry about getting stuck with something you can't unload.

November 4, 2010

The Anticlimactic Climax

As Friday evening staggered to a close, two things came along that vastly improved my mood.

(1) Margaritas. What's not to love!

(2) I checked the leaderboard.

While sadly, my four jumping faults did NOT evaporate into thin air, I learned that despite a psychotic rider and a stiff back end, the judge was kind enough to grace Solo with a 34.5, which left us tied for 11th place out of about 30.

Ok, maybe this wasn't the worst horse trial ever.

So when Saturday dawned and I carefully arranged all our gear for our cross country run, I actually had a smile on my face. I had walked the course three times. Normally, I only walk once, but this course was VERY hilly, VERY turny, and I wanted to feel 100% confident about not only where I was going, but how I was going to ride there.

Saturday also came with a fun bonus surprise, but I am not revealing it yet, I am just going to let you suffer and wonder until it is ready to unveil. No, it is not a free prospect for me to train. I wish.

When 11:50 am rolled around, we were locked and ready to run. Our warmup jumps felt fantastic. The grass was dry and the sky was blue and my timer was set. The starter nodded his head and said my favourite sentence.

"5...4...3...2...1...have a great ride."

Solo rolled forward and I whispered our startbox launch code: "Go get 'em, buddy!"

Once the course takes over, you stop thinking and you just DO. The first few jumps were simple, positioned on steeply rolling terrain to test your balance. There was a sharp left turn and a downhill takeoff to a set of whiskey barrels. I focused hard, remembering to STAY OFF THE BRIDLE and use shoulders and body to balance Solo back.

He tore across the next series of single jumps and didn't blink at the offset two-stride coops. After jump 11, I remembered the all important half-halt-almost-totally-halt so you can make the tight rollback turn in a shallow, cramped grassy bowl to a low rail at 12. Drop and bank to open table to a bold water combination came next.

I glanced at my watch and we were good on time, but still a bit close to speed faults for comfort. The course had been set at 400 mpm, which is a good open canter, but not an all-out gallop, so I slowed Solo's pace a bit.

18 was the open trakehner at the base of a slope and I mentally heard David's voice telling me to close my leg, just ride forward, keep your eyes up, and don't touch the reins. Then up the hill to the final big brush jump at 19 and we were home free.

We rolled to a stop, double clear with big gasping grins and that was it. Time to pack up our toys and go home.

The end of the weekend saw us tied for a surprising 8th place. Without my choke-rail in stadium, it would have been a 5th. Not to shabby for a couple of goofballs trying to cobble it together on their own. Our team finished in a tidy 6th. No pretty ribbons to take home, but many lessons learned. And a well-earned rest for Solo as this would be his last horse trial of 2010.

However, there was one unexpected development. I found myself thinking about all the challenges of the weekend and realized that they were merely logistical ones. The courses themselves had ridden well and I felt good about them. All at once, I heard these words on my head:

You know, I don't think there was anything they could have thrown at us at this level that we couldn't have tackled with confidence and solved.

My eyes, more than once, had wandered thoughtfully over the Training level cross country jumps. I had walked the Training level stadium course, thinking, you know, we've been jumping stuff this big at home...

I just might be hatching a plan, a scheme that just might involve taking Solo up to Training level during our next season.

Don't tell Solo.

November 3, 2010

Downs And Ups

By the time I made it back to Solo's stall, my blood pressure had well passed healthy levels.  As I surveyed all the gear that needed to be applied to the horse, my eyes rolled and I turned in deperation to my teammate stabled next-door and shamelessly begged for help.  As any good eventer would, she sprang into action without hesitation.

I now had approximately twenty minutes left in which to tack up my horse, redress myself, warm Solo up, and be ready to parade through the coliseum gates. I arranged pad layers and set my jumping saddle on top and whipped off the fleecy cover.

Fuuuuuuuu..........!!!!

Teammate: "What are you missing??"

"I HAVE NO $#@%! STIRRUPS!" I recalled they were on my dressage saddle, which sat in my trailer at the other end of the complex, well out of range of retrieval in time.

Dear, wonderful teammate: "It's ok, take my dressage stirrups."

Stirrups applied (and leathers rolled like I am six years old since they are long).

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.......!!!!

It was like a curse. I discovered several other things which sat in the trailer that I could not possibly continue without. Teammate calmly handed over everything we needed to get by and stuffed me up on the horse. Eventers rock, y'all.

Lesson 7: Don't put anything away until the end of the day.

We scurried over to the warmup ring Indy 500 track attached to the coliseum and started to trot around. And by trot around, I mean picking our way through horses cantering in both directions about three deep along the rail around the warmup jumps. People would randomly peel off and weave around to a jump with a warning yell. It was utter chaos and no place for the faint of heart, be it human or equine. Amazingly, even though there was more than one set of rider eyeballs bugging out, the horses calmly went about their jobs with not even a squeal of protest at the close quarters.

At this point, I discovered that not only were the stirrups set at jockey length, they were uneven to boot. So I swept out the gate and in desperation, asked a random couple to hold Solo for me while I fixed the leathers (horse people in a panic seem to have no qualms about harnessing the labour of innocent bystanders).

My state of emotional meltdown must have been written all over me like a billboard as the kind gentlemen readily stepped up and took Solo's head. As I fumbled with the buckles with shaking hands, he gently said, "Relaaax. Take it easy. Remember, sometimes when we try to do things faster, they just take us longer." Bless him, whoever he was. It was enough to get me to draw in a shaky breath or two and get things sorted. I jammed my feet home and with profuse thanks, returned to warmup.

With my brain now focused on riding forward to the jumps, keeping legs and core strong and supporting and the hands soft, we took crossrail, vertical, and oxer on. I could hear David and Becky in my head on each approach, reminding me to keep my shoulders back, leg on, and wait wait wait...

Our number was called, I rode through the white swinging gate, and then it was just us; one red horse and one determined me alone with ten jumps and the laser eye of the timers. I felt the ripple of a thrill as I heard our names being announced by the voice of eventing, Brian O'Connor. Then everything else disappeared and all I heard was hoofbeats and my own voice in my head: They're just poles. It's only an arena. Ride each jump and keep your eyes locked on target and LET GO OF THE DAMN REINS.

So when I got to the first jump, I completely choked, overrode it, and pulled the top rail.

Lesson 8: Let go of the damn reins.

Then I got mad at myself. And that makes me sit down and ride. I put a supporting leg on to each jump. I carefully remembered and used the tips we'd gotten earlier from an Advanced friend. I waited for the waiting jumps and rode up to the oxers. And the rest of the round was clean and under time, despite a few bobbles along the way.

There were many pats and much praise for Solo and a giant sigh of relief for me. I still had no idea what our score was, only that it had just increased by four. The rest of the day was ours to collapse and recover from this chaos and tomorrow...

Cross country awaited.

November 2, 2010

Dressage Is For Haters

The warmup arena closest to my ring was on a slight slant. I knew as soon as we took our first few trot strides downhill that I should have done the hock injections sooner.

Lesson 5: Always listen to your gut.

Solo wasn't off, but I could feel that he just wasn't as willing to really push from behind and support his weight like he had been doing. Thank you, universe, for making sure that, so far, we never get to compete recognized at 100% capacity.

I worked on suppling and transitions, but perhaps we have been doing the transition thing too much -- Solo anticipated all of the upward transitions and flung his head around in annoyance. I threw my dressage whip in the grass, which improved matters a little. All the while, I boiled with frustration inside. In true adult fashion, I mentally screamed at innocent bystanders: Stop looking at me! I am a psycho.

His dressage work has been beautiful at home. Even 80% of what he has been doing would have been great. But the confines of the stall and the cold snap were too much for Friday morning's Adequan shot to overcome.

A steward trotted down to the ring, loudly looking for 241.

"That's me," I said.

"We have been looking for you!" she called. This girl was about 15 or so.

WTF? Again?? Am I doomed to never actually get a helpful warmup steward who does their job and lines up people on deck???! "I'm sorry," I replied, "but no one is giving us information down here."

"Oh," she says, "there is no steward because this is not an official warmup area."

I look blankly back over my shoulder at where we had been warming up: a harrowed, watered, PREPARED surface with about six or seven horses and riders prepping for their tests. Sure as hell looks like a warmup area to me.

I shake my head and walk up to the ring. I greet the judge and enter after she rings the bell.

We put down our test. It doesn't feel very good. Solo is a bit resistant, especially since the first half of the test tracks left, his weak side. Once we go right, he softens a bit. I try to keep up the energy but he is dead slow in medium walk and breaks to trot several times in anticipation, the bugger. I salute at the end, thank the judge and leave.

I am near tears of frustration and fury, not all of which is completely explainable. There might have been a hormone surge in there somewhere too. But I am so angry that all of our hard work with such positive results seems to disappear as soon as we step in a warm up arena.

As I put Solo back in his stall to rest for a bit before show jumping, I am overwhelmed by hopelessness.

I want to just pack up and go home. I hate this. Why do I do this? This is ridiculous -- I am here by myself, trying to do forty jobs at the same time and I am failing at all of them in this huge place. What is the freaking point?

Lesson 6: Don't skip breakfast. It then means I have low blood sugar, which means that I am crabby, impatient, and moody.

I resolve to go watch a few stadium rounds before I get ready to show jump. I need to calm the heck down. As I settle into the bleachers to watch the first round, I glance at my watch. It is 1:20 pm. I am a five minute walk from my barn and I am supposed to ride my stadium round at 2:02 pm. Like, in 40 minutes.

My head explodes anew and I slam through the auditorium doors in a mad race for stabling.

This is not going well.

November 1, 2010

Virginia Is For (Horse) Lovers

How do I even begin? How do I encapsulate the ride from fury and hopelessness to joy and satisfaction? What can convey such an unexpected experience?

If you've never been to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I can firmly assure you that you have missed out. I spent three of my undergraduate years there and its smoky vistas and brilliantly coloured hillsides still catch me with their effortless beauty. Nestled in the western foothills on the north side of Lexington (yes, there are two Lexingtons) is the Virginia Horse Center, home of the Virginia Horse Trials for at least the past ten years. Solo and I pulled into the gravel drive on Friday afternoon around one o'clock. I settled him into a stall and walked to the top of the hill near the cross country field and turned around.


Spread behind me were the huge colliseum (on left) with the attached covered warmup (front), SIX stabling barns, each the size of a warehouse lined up behind, with the foothills resting in the background.  Perfectly groomed warmup areas (six or seven of them) hid around every corner.  There were four dressage arenas scattered in a half moon behind this vantage point.  Oh, and inside the colliseum was our stadium course (half of it is pictured at left).  At this point, my jaw unhinged.  I am not really used to riding my jump courses in Madison Square Freaking Garden.  I was a very tiny minnow in a very massive ocean full of sharks.  I slunk back to my horse to hide out.  Only it was a really long slink because this place is HUUUUGE.

Oh, and did I mention that there were about 300 other competitors there for this august event?  So this massive facility is buzzing with duallys, bobcats, trailers, leaping horses, wheelbarrows, golfcarts, motorbikes, people, loudspeakers, vendors, and dumptrucks from about 7:00 each morning until about 8:00 each night.  The ocean is bloody enormous.

My intention had been to camp in the back of my truck, since I have a cap on it. I had a ton of blankets and a heating pad. But when an Area II acquaintence offered the pullout bed in her (very warm) fancy trailer, I grabbed my sleeping bag and never looked back. It was 31 degrees on Friday night and my windshield held 1/2 an inch of ice Saturday morning. I love you, Cindy.

Lesson 1: If camping in the truck, don't be too damn lazy to go up in the attic and break out the full fledged space heater.

I was up around 7:00 Saturday morning to feed and handwalk Solo. He was already about a month overdue for his hock injections. Since he lives in a pasture 23 hours a day, normally, this is not a huge issue. Since he'd spent the night in a stall, however, I wanted him OUT and moving as much as possible.

I walked back to the campsite (down three huge barns and across a massive parking area) to get my food and video camera and watch some morning rides.

Lesson 2: If you are unfamiliar with the facility and there is any chance it might be the size of, say, a county, bring a damn bike!

We were slated to ride at 12:56 pm. At approximately 12:02 pm, I discovered that in my drug-clouded packing attempts, I had failed to include a shirt and stock tie for dressage show jumping. Shit-fire. In a panic, I ran to the next barn to find Cindy, one of the few people I knew there, praying that against all odds she would be at her horse's stall.

"OMG OMG OMG, I need help!"

Cindy stares at me like I have two heads. "What's wrong with you?"

"I have a clothing crisis!!"

"What kind of crisis?"

"I have no shirt and no stock tie! I was on drugs and I thought they were on the same hanger as my coat and and and..." I wailed in despair.

In veteran Cindy fashion, she calmly said, "Go in my trailer and look in the closet, you will find what you need."

Lesson 3: Do not consume opiates or other consciousness-altering substances while preparing for an important event. This goes hand in hand with

Lesson 4: Keep your horse show crap together. On the same hanger. Always.

I hope I squeaked a thank you as I dashed to my truck (oh yeah, I'd already given up on the walking unless someone figured out a way to clone me), got to the campsite as fast as I dared, shoved on shirt, assembled the stock tie so it appeared that white linen had been vomited in a pile at my throat, pinned it into a ghastly mess, and bolted back to the barns.

Solo, bless his calm and patient heart, waited for me to stuff the bridle over his ears and climb on before making his way out into the sun and back to a warmup ring. As we crunched down the gravel path to the area designated for our division (Novice Rider), I took deep gulps of Blue Ridge air and tried desperately to calm the lightning storm in my skull. Hooves hit harrowed dirt and it was time to warm up for our test and time to see what I had underneath me that day. The next 30 minutes would probably decide, to a large degree, how we would place, if at all, in this humongous machine of a horse trial.