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We Are Flying Solo

January 31, 2012

An Event Horse Isn't A One Trick Pony

It's no secret I'm a firm believer that an event horse MUST NOT be an arena baby.  They need to learn balance on uneven terrain, surefootedness, confidence in new situations, problem solving, and endurance.  They must be able to deal with mud, rocks, sticks, water, brush, dogs, crazed animals running around, golf carts, ATVs, weird buildings, rustling leaves, holes, and any kind of footing you can imagine.  I don't believe in manicured footing everywhere and I don't believe in protecting your horse from distractions; I think this makes a weaker athlete with a weaker mind and I believe it does a disservice to our partners.

It is well established in the world of physiological science that in order to strengthen a system, you must challenge it.  This goes for bone, tissue, respiration and brain.  So I take my horses everywhere and I welcome umbrellas and terriers and strollers and bicycles and rocky mazes and steep, muddy hills because all of these things are tools to to shape the animal that an event horse should be.  And I shouldn't have to make this disclaimer, but I will:  always handle yourself and your horse with SAFETY in mind.  Just...don't be a dumbass.

So I present to you, the "wild, hot, crazed" OTTB who at 6 years old goes on his first "off-road" experience (our trails at home are, shall we say, a bit tamer) and I actually remembered to turn on the helmet cam.  With us are Louie, a big chestnut Irish TB who is an ex-steeplechaser turned Training Level eventer; a gorgeous mover who has just come back from a suspensory injury at 22 (or somewhere around there).  We also have Buck, a 15-ish-year-old bay OTTB who also competes a Training Level (although I heard a rumour he may give Prelim a shot) who can rack like a Saddlebred -- who says TB's aren't versatile?

PS I am not responsible for the helmet habits of my friends.  The rider's names shall not be mentioned for the sake of privacy and avoidance of public shaming.  That includes you, commenters.  

PPS The videos are in HD but I can't get YouTube to default to that.  So after you push play, click the little button on the bottom video bar that looks like a gear and you can increase the resolution/video quality to it's HD awesomeness.  And if you want to hear the inane commentary, you have to turn your volume all the way up.  I'm still messing with mic levels on the helmet cam.

Encore goes all-terrain and Louie reluctantly follows.  Encore actually loves water but he does NOT like super soft squishy mud, which is why he has so much hesitation on the bank.  He is not a fan of his hoofies sinking!

Our canine companions.  Oh yes, the terriers really are named Jack, Russell, and Pumpkin.  I kid you  not.


Louie and Encore jump a massive log.  Louie does a very amusing dance when he gets excited, like when horses pass him.  Or trot in front of him.  Or when it's Wednesday.  But I never did really capture it, dangit.

Just a nice canter in a beautiful field.

January 29, 2012

A Little Promotion For A Really Big Project

You may not know who Steuart Pittman is, but let me introduce you.  He owns and runs his family's farm, Dodon Farm, which dates back to the 18th or 19th century.  But today, not only does it produce eventing Thoroughbreds, it's also stands Steuart's amazing Jockey Club Throughbred stallion, Salute the Truth, who took Steuart to the advanced level and is highly sought after by mare owners across the country for his propensity to pass on incredible bone and athletic talent to his progeny.  His website also has a great series of essays on, well, just about anything.  I dare you to click "Steuart Says!"

But while all that is great in and of itself, that's not what I'm really here to talk about.  You see, Steuart is passionate about the off-the-track Thoroughbred and is a major force working to promote these horses for second careers in sport, as he is more than familiar with their heart, agility, intelligence, and try.  I HIGHLY encourage you to take the time to read a paper he put together for the National Throughbred Racing Association on expanding the ex-racehorse market.  He and his wife (Sorry, Erin, if I got that wrong, but I'm going to go with that) have started an incredible force in motion.  Titled, "The Retired Racehorse Training Project," it creates a place where owners and buyers can search bloodlines of horses competing today for trends (enter YOUR TB in the Bloodline Brag, I put Encore in there!), where people can contact trainers who work with the OTTB, and where, perhaps most fun of all, you can follow the "RRTP Trainer Challenge." 

Much like the Mustang Makeover, this challenge takes four horses, fresh from the track, and pairs them with three trainers:  Eric Dierks, Terry Blackmer and Tiffany Catledge.  They have just chosen their horses from the pool late last week and from the drop down menu on the RRTP page under "Programs," you can follow the blog of each one as they bring these horses along.  Each horse will be for sale at the end of the challenge, which lasts five weeks. 

Steuart designed the program to be a showcase for the OTTB and to educate the public about just how wonderful these horses can be.  They are not bolting, spooking, fire-breathing dragons, fit for only the hardiest pro.  They are often, in fact, kind, willing horses who go on to perform with all their heart as amateur hunters, eventers, dressage horses, and even western and trail horses. 

So I encourage you to go check it out and follow along -- I can't wait to read more from each trainer and see how each horse develops in what, to them, in a whole new world.

January 25, 2012

Up Down Up Down Up Down

I am thinking hard about transitions right now.  They are the key to so many things and can also reveal all of your weaknesses in one step.  Maintaining contact, keeping your horse's energy coming forward and through the transition, bringing his hocks underneath him, all of these things are incredibly difficult to package and deliver at exactly the right moment.

I wanted to share with you some passages I have been reading and re-reading from Dressage in Harmony, by Walter Zettl (an excellent book by the way, and not terribly expensive).  He has great sympathy for the horse and stresses fairness and patience above all else.  He is a Czech trained in Germany under Col. Aust, a master of German classical dressage.  After coaching many successful students in Munich for decades, he became the Canadian eventing coach for the 1984 LA Olympics.  In this book, he makes some vital points to ponder (excerpts in italics).

The stages of any upward transition:
Preparation through improvement of the lower gait, a clearly given signal, and then allowing the horse to move freely into the new gait.

From walk to trot:
First, the walk must be engaged enough so that at any point the rider is condfident that the next step can be a trot step...The transition can only be as good as the walk before it. Every gait should be ridden not for itself, but as preparation for the next transition...The key problem is to give forward with the hand without losing the contact...If the rider gives with the reins too much, the horse can fall onto the forehand or raise up the head and hollow the back.

From trot to walk:
The downward transitions are always more difficult, because the rider...thinks he must pull back to get the downward transition. In fact, in the moment when the rider is closing and holding with the hand for the half halt, he must already be thinking of giving, and riding his horse forward into the walk. After the transition, the rider should keep the horse on the aids in the walk so that he could immediately ride a transition back to trot...As in all of riding, the rider must constantly change between active and passive aids: active when the horse tries to escape the aids and immediately passive to show the horse everything is OK.

Walk to Halt to Walk:
The weight aids for the halt are often misunderstood. Lowering of the heels brings the correct amount of weight into the horse's back in the correct, vertical position. Leaning back drives the seat into the saddle too much and sends the horse forward because of the pain the horse feels in his back...One should not expect that the horse will come to an immediate, perfect halt...Never lose the patience. When the horse comes to a very good halt, the rider should praise the horse so the horse knows he did well. One should praise the horse a lot.
One often sees riders fooling around with the hands, both at the halt, and through the transition. When the rider tries to keep the horse round at the halt with too much hand than a correct transition is not possible--the horse is afraid to go freely forward because he expects to get holding aids in his mouth.

Trot to Canter:
The preparation for the canter depart...holds the secret for success. The quieter and softer the depart, the quieter and softer the horse will stay in the canter. A wrong lead, aids given in the wrong moment, or aids given too strongly are the most common mistakes. 

When asking for the canter from the trot, the rider should collect the trot very slightly--almost unnoticeably. The correct moment for the depart is when the outside shoulder goes forward. The reins should not be thrown away. As soon as the horse lifts himself into the canter, the rider needs to let the stride out with the hand slightly. Through the forward driving aids of the seat and leg, the rider brings the canter strides into a steady flow. Each stride of the canter should be ridden as if it is a new departure stride.

I'm going to keep reading. And re-reading. And reading again. There is so much contained in these passages and the paragraphs around them to think about and to process. I visualize my body doing each thing, sitting calmly centered and creating a shape for my horse to fill. Now we just need to add smidge more patience.....

What do you think? What do you read in these passages? Revalations? Old hat? Blindingly obvious? Complete insanity? Are there pieces you would like to add to your schooling or things you can adapt to the peculiarities of your horse? Share your impressions, I have been reading and absorbing like an obsessed little sponge lately and I've not filled up yet!

January 23, 2012

We Won Stuff!

As my sidebar declares, I am very proud to be a member of the USEA Area II Adult Rider Program.  You should go and join yours today -- not only do you stay abreast of clinics, horses for sale in the "network," and reports of the most recent horse trials, you meet wonderful, generous, knowledgeable people who are just as crazy about this sport as you are!  I can tell you without a doubt, Solo and I would not have had some of the opportunities we did without the support and generosity of this group.

This past Saturday was our Area II Annual Meeting in Virginia.  Sadly, there was no room in my budget to go and I was sorry to miss it, because I drove up with a neighbour last year and learned a great deal.  Also at the meeting is our Annual Awards Luncheon, although I have not been to that because it is also out of my budget range.  BUT, the point is, our Adult Riders group gives out a host of awards every year that are not based on racking up competitive points, but instead on contributions to the group and to the sport.  Started by eventer Yvonne Lucas of Red Moon Farm and honouring our smurf heritage inspired by Captain Mark Phillips distaste for the adult amateur rider, which we adopted with great pride, these awards single out eventers with heart!

Now I never win anything.  I am not that person.  I'm a very good clapper though.  So just imagine my surprise when one of my fellow Adult Riders informed me....

I had won the Indian Smurf award, for "great personal strength against adversity, showing toughness, heart, and perseverance!"  I admit, I remain slightly bemused that I won the award for bad things happening to you, it truly could be no other way!

But that was not enough excitement, because I was also named...

Area II Adult Rider Member of the Year!

I am floored, stunned, honoured, and frankly terrified that I have so much to live up to!

I don't feel like these awards are really for me though.  Because I would be nothing and nowhere without Solo, who, even as we crashed to the bottom of the heap, believed in me and never stopped greeting me at the door with that look that forever connects us.  The word "partner" cannot even encompass what he has been to me and cannot describe the strength of spirit and forgiveness and patience he continues to offer me.

And my world would be darker indeed without the bright hope that Encore brought into my life.  We are certainly a work in progress, but if he will just bear with me, I think we can have a lot of fun together.

So it is really the horses.  It is always the horses.  The reason for trying, the air to keep breathing, the passion to tackle the next course.

To Solo & Encore & to all our partners who do more for us than we can say, as well as to my fellow Adult Riders who nominated and supported me...

Thank you.

January 20, 2012

Don't Forget To Not Ride

I spent this evening in the aisle with Encore.  A mild rain tap-tap-tapped the metal roof as I ran my hands over his neck, back, and hindquarters, seeking out knots and tension to ease away.  Each time my thumbs dug into a hard burl of muscle, Encore's lower lip quivered and his head dropped lower...and lower...and lower.  He licked his lips and sighed in thanks.

Remember that our partners are athletes.  It is hard work, especially as they are building muscle, learning new skills, and adjusting their bodies to sport.  Tendon, muscle, and joint each need time to rest and recover from micro-injury and stress.  It is our responsibility to respect that need and to ensure that we are not asking our horses to work in pain or discomfort.

We finished with some carrot stretches to each side -- I make him stretch his nose at least to his flank (no cheating and moving his feet!) in each direction, which was very difficult for him a few months ago, so we have progress.  Upon recheck, his back muscles are softer, his withers no longer sore and the knots in his neck are smaller.  It's a continuous process, but one I need to be sure not to forget in the race to have a better ride.  Happy body = happy horse.  Happy horse = happy me.  It's that simple. 

January 15, 2012

Encore Furthers His Jumping Education

As projected, Encore and I did indeed meet with David on Saturday; Encore's first stadium jumping lesson and his introduction to David's "death circles" of warmup (they only make the rider want to die, not the horse).  My tired brain will attempt to share it with you.  I offer no guarantees of lucidity.

The wind was icy cold, the high temperature of the day was 42 degrees, and the Canada geese next door splashed in the pond at the end of the arena.  Encore took all this as an invitation to try out his new "I iz STRONG pony" routine on a very tired me.  Thanks, buddy.  Nothing impresses your trainer quite like panting like an asthmatic grandmother on a stairmaster.

Encore's big brother demonstrates bend.
Despite his antics, David seemed to remain thrilled with my little brown boy and reinforced that I had been working in the right direction.  Establishing a steady contact on the outside rein on the warmup circle, we used inside flexion, moving the bit in his mouth to soften his jaw, at which Encore obligingly (at least most of the time) came round at the trot.  If he starts cocking his head, don't forget to use your outside rein to straighten his head on his neck, keeping it all in line, even counterbending a little so that he can't brace against your hand.   

Walk/trot/walk/trot transitions in quick succession, which we have begun to introduce at home recently, making sure he stayed soft through the transition, prepared us for canter.

David made the observation that I really needed to stay off his back at the canter and to focus on working that way for a while, as Encore learns to lift his back at that gait.  He reassured me that it is very normal for the racehorses to remain uneven behind for quite some time, which put my mind at rest a bit on that count.

Once we began jumping, Encore got much stronger than I am accostomed to!  Whether it was weather or excitement or both, my shoulders got tired in a hurry!  But it was gratifying to see my work at home paying off -- he felt comfortable finding his distances on his own and he skipped through a mini gymnastic without a hiccup. 

Because Encore was getting heavy in the bridle, perhaps because his young muscles were beginning to tire, David had me just lift the inside corner of the bit on the long side for one step to lift his shoulder and then half-halt and then lift his poll and release as we turned to the jump.  Result:  immediate shift in balance, bringing him up in front of my leg, where I could then soften and wait for the jump to come to us. 

Both David and I had a smile at the end; there were some lovely sections of rhythm and nice jumps.  Encore came calmly forward to every fence and jumped well up to about 2'9".  He is not as naturally round a jumper as Solo, but he feels already like he will be much more comfortable with height than Mr. Shiny ever was. 

Now, if anyone has suggestions on how to convince Encore that he no longer needs to transition to canter as if he is leaping from the starting gate, I am ALL ears...

January 12, 2012

Mollusks, Musings, and Magazines

Multi-day meetings about mussel ecology and endangered species planning keep me away from my equine musings.  Well, at least from writing about them.

My truck hurtles back north at night, escaping the museum meeting-room in the city as fast as possible in its farm-quest.  Encore and I are working on contact and connection.

He accepts the contact quite willingly and is steady, but I think he is ready to do more.  I ask for more connection, building on what I learned from the video clinic and in our lesson.  The first day I tried it, it was brilliant -- his hocks were underneath him, everything was incredibly connected and through and THERE. a good bit more difficult.

We walk that fine balance between riding forward into the contact (good) and pulling back into the contact (very bad) and it takes a lot of concentration to stay on the correct side of the line, despite the fact that my brain knows good and well what my body SHOULD be doing.

Piled next to my bed in a haphazard pile of paper and cat hair:

--Training the Three Day Event Horse and Rider by Jimmy Wofford (buy it now, I command thee)
--The Principles of Riding by the German National Equestrian Federation, the same yellow paperback that's been on my shelf since the mid-eighties, cheap glue and all
--Two recent issues of Practical Horseman
--Dressage in Harmony by Walter Zettl
--Henry James' Midnight Song by Carol de Chellis Hill (Hey, even a hardcore eventer needs a brain break)

I pick out passages and read and re-read and visualize and read again.  If I can just do this enough times, it will surely stick.

We have a date with David on Saturday for a jumping lesson and a date with UPS on Tuesday for a dressage saddle to try.  Rest assured, you shall hear about both.

January 8, 2012

A Free Lesson For You -- On Your Couch

That's right, it's YOUR turn to giggle in sadistic glee while someone else has to do two-point sans stirrups.

This week was the annual George Morris Horsemastership Training Session down in Florida.  Sans George Morris due to illness, from which he is now on the mend, fortunately.  I confess, I don't usually watch it because George Morris is so fond of, well, George Morris.  But I tuned in this year because his shoes were filled by renowned jumpers Anne Kursinski, Beezie Madden, Kent Farrington, and Mclain Ward and it was generating a lot of chatter over on COTH.  And if Chronicle folks have their knickers in a twist, I just HAVE to check it out.

Go watch it now, particularly the first day.

Anne Kursinski gave a masterclass on flatwork.  Each and every horse in there went better at the end of the session and each and every rider became more effective and more connected to their horse.  In essence, she told them, don't pose up there like a phony equitation zombie, be inside the horse, not just on top of him, breathe with the horse and improve him. 

She got on a horse who was giving his rider quite a bit of trouble, resisting the contact and rearing. I'm a very visual learner, so watching her work through that and seeing the quiet, patient way she taught him to accept the aids with incredible steadiness and fairness to the horse was like an epiphany for me. None of it was terribly new information but for some reason, it brought everything together for me.

The next morning, I got on Encore, I translated what I had seen into the feel of my body and we crashed through our dressage roadblock like a runaway transfer truck.

I guarantee there is information in there for you too. Anne does two groups (I only watched the first, about 1.5 hours) then Beezie does a demo ride with a new horse of hers (the last hour of the 3 hour session of day 1). Beezie explains that the horse has been showing 1.5 m (4.9') jumpers but is very green to flatwork, which baffled my mind, but ok, I'm not Beezie Madden.

There are still two more days to watch; I've checked out the farrier session, picked up a few handy tips, finessed my gymnastic work with Kent, and introduced a horse to the big water with Mclain.  All for $0, exactly in my price range.  I've included the link to the channel on USEF Network above, but in case you missed it: click here.

January 6, 2012

Solo's New Relationship With An Old Friend

With three horses to ride (our BFF, lifeshighway, is out for 5 months following rotator cuff surgery, so I am teaching Pete the coarser points of dressage, which he is phenomenally cute at), I am blessedly busy, but with the irritating requirement of actually showing up at work every day, there are just not enough hours to give them all the time they need.

Solo at his last event, last May. 
I have been trying to keep Solo doing SOMEthing at least twice a week. He still has good days and bad days; the good days are magical, the bad days are disheartening. I have his Adequan lined up and ready to inject once I have a clear time window. I can't keep up with his hay belly, though, and his hopeful eyes torment me.

I'd been working on a friend to ride him, but alas, she did not jump at the chance to absorb free Solo karma. Fortune finally saw fit to give me a moment of epiphany, however, and I sent a text message to a young girl who used to ride the BO's enormous Oldenburg mare prior to her sale:

"Would you like to ride Solo?"

Within ten minutes, I got back, "Yes, I would love to!"

I was thrilled -- Charlotte is a high schooler who catch-rides 3' to 3'6" hunters for an area trainer on our local C circuit. Not only is she the most selfless, kind, and well-mannered teenager that I think I have ever met, she is a lovely, quiet, soft rider who can win a hack class like you would not believe. I would not have to worry about Solo for a second and she would be the perfect match, a light ride for his temperamental back.

We met at the farm last night so I could show her Solo's quirks and brief her on the type of ride he needed these days. She has ridden him before, back when he was fit and muscley (sigh) so I tossed her up and proceeded to show her where his buttons were.

Keep in mind, Solo has rider-trust issues. He's been beaten with whips and generally, when anyone except me rides him, he watches me with a white, wide eye of worry. He behaves, but pathetic, concerned face with wrinkly nose and unsure ears betrays him. As a result, I have to be very careful when faced with a choosing a person who will ride him without my supervision. 90% of the time, he will offer no problems, but if he has a strong opinion, he can turn into a lot of horse and he can spin faster than anything I've ever sat on.

So my heart was happy when Charlotte asked him to trot and he stepped out in a lovely, swinging hunter trot with a relaxed neck and a bright and perky expression. I told her that she should feel very special, as she is the only one I have ever seen given the Solo "seal of approval." He was happy.

I could tell from his energetic and easy trot that he was having a good day, so I warned Charlotte that when she asked for canter, she'd better sit up tall and be ready. Sure enough, Solo leaped into the air and gave an enthusiastic buck of joy as he struck off in his favourite gait. As I laughed, I was so grateful for Charlotte and what she could offer to my very special guy.

I hope that she can continue to ride him at least once a week for me. It's a wonderful gift that she is giving and I so hope that this works out for a while. I would like for spring to find him a bit fitter and slimmer than his current state and he certainly needs to keep moving, both for his physical and mental wellbeing. I will continue to ride him lightly as well, but with much less pressure on time now that the responsiblity of keeping Mr Shiny going can be shared with someone else who loves his wonderful red hide too.

January 3, 2012

You Are Not Forgotten

Sometimes it is just very hard to write.  I try not to let my personal life (well, the non-horsey parts) bleed into the blog.  I don't think it's relevant or very useful for you or even very entertaining for the most part.  But when the universe kicks you in the teeth -- and then follows up with some kidney punches -- and then takes a bat to your kneecaps -- and then runs over your prone body for good measure -- it can be difficult to compartmentalize, despite that being my speciality.

I will keep trying, though. I cannot promise overflowing humour for a bit but I will try to avoid strangling noises, that doesn't make for very fun reading.

I am back home and back to my red boys. Solo insists on tormenting me with loving cuteness, following me around the pasture with big eyes, begging me to put a halter on him so we can go play.

Encore is very irritated with my attempts to play saddle fitter and find a dressage shaped something for him. We tried out a Verhan Odyssey, a Passier Nicole, and a Prestige 2000D today -- I only rode in the Verhan, but set the other two on him, along with a Baines endurance saddle, just to eyeball the tree. No winners yet, but I took lots of pictures and made a lot of faces. I still want to try an Albion on him, a County, and perhaps a Stubben, but haven't found a demo yet.

It's cold, with a 30 mph gust of ice-wind cutting through you, so it's hard to focus on your work. Winter has finally wandered in and I'm holding my breath hoping it wanders right back out very soon.