SUBSCRIBE TODAY Smiley face  Get updates via email! 

We Are Flying Solo

December 27, 2012

In Which I Once Again Prove That I Am Daft

I've been working with Amber and Solo, teaching her how to dig out his trot from beneath the turtle shuffle veneer.  In the process, I have her with very little contact, just riding his butt forward.  And we all know that if you ride the hind end forward correctly, the back and withers lift, the neck becomes soft and round, and the horse reaches into the bit, right?  Which is exactly what I watched my horse do today.

Aww, I miss Muscle Solo
Which is exactly what I've been trying to get Encore to do.  I even said it out loud to Amber:  "Well, damn, looks like I can teach it, but I can't ride it..."  I spoke half in jest, but....

When we were finished, I got on Encore.  Thoughtfully.  I've watched David ride him.  I've watched Foy ride him (see Micklem review post below).  What did they have in common?  Both rode from the seat and leg with a longish, very soft rein.

I know it in my head.  I know it in my body.  I got another rider to do it on my own horse while I was on the ground.  I even get it with Encore, but can't keep it consistent.  But it didn't all mesh together and I wasn't riding it.


I was riding Encore into contact, but I began to wonder if it was too heavy.  Was I using too much rein?  I often feel as if I am in his face more than I would like.  I am not heavy-handed and I have become consistent and following with my hand, but I still feel like I am doing to much in the bridle.  David had said, both after riding him and watching him in our lessons, "The key to this horse is going to be a very light hand."

So even though our footing resembled a cranberry bog after yesterday's rain, I gathered up my reins and asked for a trot.  I rode almost entirely off my lower body, my contact barely there, just at the level of okay, I can lightly feel you but I shall remain passive and just give you the space where you should be.

Yes, yes, we know how this ends -- SURPRISE!  It clicked into place, even in the ten minutes of squishing around that we squeezed in.  When you ride correctly and thoughtfully, you get correct results.  It is slower in the beginning than pushing them into the shape that you want, but -- I know, ever more surprise *insert dry sarcasm here* -- you lose the tension in the horse's body.

Oh, we are SO getting that left lead back!
It's hardly epiphany -- if you've ridden for any length of time, you hear "ride back to front, don't worry about the head, ride the hind legs and the front will take care of itself."  Basic equestrian gospel.  Yet so counter-intuitive to let go and trust the process.  To REALLY let go and do it right.  We think we are doing it (or at least, I thought so) but then something causes me to make a tiny shift in my approach and I realize what I WASN'T doing.

It seems too obvious to even write about.  But one of the biggest challenges of being the (financially challenged) adult amateur who cannot do consistent lessons is that your training is a slow process of trial-and-error.  That starts over when you have an entirely different type of horse.  Encore is able to physically give so much more than Solo could, that to get more, I need to do less.   

From the Master of the Obvious, you're welcome.

December 25, 2012

What, Is It A Holiday Again Or Something?

Yeah, I don't really "do" holidays.  I don't know, maybe it's the pressure, the expectations, the completely illogical rules of them; most likely, d, all of the above.

But when I have not one, but two amazing horses in my life, every day is Christmas morning.  Every day, I see their faces and even after seven years, there's a part of me that can't quite believe it's real.

So despite the bottomless, money-eating pit, despite the stress, despair, anxiety, obsession, psychosis, sleep-deprivation, and all the rest, each day is still a gift because of them.

My day today was riding Encore on a sunny, blue, t-shirt kind of day and discovering that he can once again perform a left lead canter without feeling like a washing machine on spin.  I laughed a bit, thinking people who didn't know better might feel some kind of pity, seeing me at a farm, absolutely alone, accompanied only by the singsong of donkeys and geese.  When in reality, that was just about the best gift I could have been given.  A warm, companionable quiet in the place I love most.  And the best part is, I get to open it over and over and over and over....

I hope each of you had a piece of joy in your day and the joy of peace with a wonderful horse.

December 21, 2012

Up Down!!!!


Whoever thought such news would be cause for excitement?  But I could barely contain my glee Wednesday evening as I cautiously put my feet in the (very long) stirrups and asked Encore to trot.

The ortho squad has given their approval for me to proceed, just letting pain be my guide.  Brian, my completely awesome PT, is a bit more conservative but is still very pleased with progress.

And it didn't hurt.  Second gear is now mine again.  Which means I get third gear back too.  Thrilled does not even begin to describe it.

Encore himself remains a bit of a puzzle.  He seems to be healed up (hoorah!) and is moving well.  The new saddle just needs breaking in but he still seems happy with it.  But mentally, the big youngster remains a little enigmatic to me. 

When I drive up and holler my greeting out the truck window, both horses prick their ears and turn happily in my direction.  No doubt in that never-ending equine hope that every truck dispenses carrots and other palatable goodies.

Yeah, I'm watchin' you, lady.
But when I enter the pasture to fetch said equine, Solo immediately turns towards me and waits with bright eyes, with an expression full of happy and hopeful that the halter is aimed for his stripey nose.  Encore, though, moves behind him, watching for a treat, but keeping his distance from the halter.

I am puzzled -- BO says both come right to the gate and Encore offers no issues being captured for hotwalker duty (which he is not all that fond of) and I know all the staff spoils both boys rotten with treats and pets, so it's just me.  I wonder if he STILL begrudges that one time I caught him by surprise with a shot months ago. 

If I move quietly and softly put the rope around his VERY watchful neck, he is then easily haltered and transforms back into Mr. Amiable Businessman.  So why the stand-offishness?  He enjoys getting out and doing things.  We have lots of variety.  He used to walk right up to me and offer his nose.  Is he secretly a woman in his TB brain, never letting go of my one surprise stab?  I know they remember the strangest details, but he has had shots since in the same place with no issues (once I learned surprises were bad, oops, sorry, Solo prefers no warning).

Has anyone invented that horse telepathy hat yet?   

December 18, 2012

This Is How We Roll: Dressage Saddles, Pt. II

There's a little town in England where cows live in everlasting terror.  It is called Walsall and it is home to, among others, the saddlemakers at Black Country, Kent & Masters (formerly Fairfax), Frank Baines, Albion, Harry Dabbs...need I continue?

In March, after trying 427 models (perhaps I exaggerate a little....but not much!), we decided on a Kent & Masters dressage saddle for Encore, since Solo's Black Country Eden, while heavenly, was all kinds of the wrong shape for a flat OTTB back.  The tree sat on Encore like it was built for him, the balance was perfect and I loved riding in it.  My ever-generous mother made it a wonderful gift and we moved forward with much glee.

As a side note, K&M has moved in sync with a few other brands and offers changeable gullet plates.  I have mixed feelings about these; they are obviously not a panacaea as they only slightly adjust one part of the tree.  Do it wrong and you can throw the whole saddle off balance.  But they have been helpful as my horses change shape with training and muscular development.  I have owned Wintecs and still have a Collegiate Convertible that I like but for one problem:  the gullet plates have very short tree points and created pressure points under the ends because there was not enough metal to distribute the weight down the horse's side.  My saddle fitter and I both mourned this shortcoming and tried to make up for it in several ways.  I finally successfully put a bandaid on it with my Collegiate, called the magical powers of Ecogold pads.  But K&M (and Thorowgood) did me one better:  they built a longer plate.

To the left are two medium gullet plates.  The one on top is a K&M plate, the bottom one is a Wintec/Collegiate plate.  Both have the same angle.  But not only is the K&M significantly longer, but it also does not pinch in about halfway down the way the other does.  Colour me happy. 

Problem:  within the first two weeks, the dye beneath the stirrup leathers began to rub off a tiny bit.  I contacted my fitter, from whom I had purchased the K&M, and she said to photo track it and let her know what happened.  Most of the Walsall companies are known not only for their well-made saddles, but their excellent service, so I had a low(er) level of distress about options.

Fast forward seven months to October and the dye was becoming an endangered substance anywhere my leathers or legs touched the saddle and by December, it looked like this:

Now, if this was a $500 saddle, I might say, well, my leg covers it all, oh well.  But even though the saddle was a gift, the gifter still put down about $1600 and I expect a heck of a lot better wear for that price!  Were there going to be holes right through the flap in two years?

I will spare you the excruciating details, but I tapped the customer service pipeline.  I hoped I could at least get some money back -- the saddle still rode wonderfully, I didn't want to get rid of it.  To my surprise, I learned that I was not alone.  The company had suffered a bad dye lot (not uncommon in leather-world) and was speedily responding to reported issues and rectifying them generously.  So maybe, I could get really lucky and get them to send some new flaps!

Oh no, Walsall does not take leather inadequacies likely.  My fitter informed me that they were going to replace the whole thing and my NEW new saddle would arrive in early December!


And it did.  Fitter informed me the company had slightly streamlined the design and tree since March and if I had ANY reservations, to just let her know immediately and K&M would work as long as it took until we were sorted.  I was a bit nervous -- the words "new tree" send a shudder down my spine.  However, I took a deep breath and set it on Encore's back...and fell in love all over again.

Clip job not finished yet.  Ha.
It assumed its rightful position with gorgeous wither clearance and settled onto his back like a homing pigeon (only without claws).  I sat in it and walked around a bit and was happy to find it felt just as correct and comfortable as its predecessor.

All that is left now is to re-break it in and hopefully we are set.  Time will tell, but I feel much more comfortable knowing that if I DO have any further issues (hey, shit happens), I will not be left stranded.  I cannot give higher praise to K&M -- a company which stands so firmly behind its products and recognizes the significant financial output of its customers will gladly receive my recommendation and business any day of the week.

December 17, 2012

Red Reloaded

Imagine my delight when I clicked over to SprinklerBandit this morning and saw my one true love not only pictured, but referred to as the original!  Now, he's hardly the first awesome red gelding, but he was certainly MY first awesome red gelding.

Her description of him (I was so flattered!  Thank you, SB!) got me thinking, as has rediscovering his quirks which had become instinct to me but are all new to his beloved new minion, Amber.  And laughing fondly about what makes him so unique, so amazing, and so maddening.

If you have an Olympic medal, I do not helmet boss you.  Although I think about it.
Like the fact that if you need to change something while you are riding, you are NEVER going to get a damn thing on a straight line.  That horse has never been truly straight in his life and never will be.  You have to use a bend or a transition or a step of leg yield or shoulder fore to unlock his body and ask for the change you seek.  This is why he actually got better scores as he went up the levels and his best test was Training B -- because there is not more than three steps in that test when you are not bending, changing gaits, changing within gaits, or changing direction.

Like the fact that while you will work yourself into a sweat lathered frenzy getting him to trot FORWARD (you better be fit!), if you dig in your heel or spur when asking for the canter, you WILL be doing airs above the ground while Mr. Shiny expresses his disgust with your overzealotry.  Ask Amber about that one.

Like the FOUR YEARS it took me to get this kind, quiet gelding not to rear, bolt, shake, or run at the sight of a longe whip and the slow melting of fear into a trust that I wondered at times if I would ever get.

Like the fact that he HATES it when you hug his head or neck, or you pet his nose, but if I stand still, his expression of affection is to just rest his muzzle against me and I feel the incredible energy flow between us in that touch.

Like the fact that when most horses jig or get antsy on the trail, you just ask them to work (i.e. shoulder-in, get on the bit, etc) and eventually they give in and decide walking is easier.  Solo, on the other hand will NEVER. GIVE. IN.  Ever.  He will trot sideways, bowed up against the bit for two hours in 90 degree heat, his ears very clearly saying, F U, lady, the whole time.  Even if it is so hot blood starts to come out his nose, he's not stopping and you will have to get off or make him walk backwards so he doesn't kill himself before you make it home.  Then, he is such a tough bastard that you hose him off and 15 minutes later, he's brightly eating grass like nothing happened.

Yeah! We jumped the ditch!  Oh....crap.
Like the fact that he hated dressage so much, that after a test halt at a HT one day, the judge said to me, "Wow, he really doesn't like dressage, does he?"  Ever so subtle, my redhead.  Yet the day he discovered extended trot and every time I asked for it thereafter, he engaged his hind end and sprung forward with, dare I say, joy, floating powerfully over the ground with his face lit up like a candle.

Like the fact that you better keep your head in the game.  If you slack off and say, celebrate after leaping the ditch, or get excited and pitch your shoulder at him, you either ain't jumping at all or you jumping by yourself!

For those and a hundred other reasons, yes, there is such a thing as Mad Solo Love.  It's been almost seven years and now we just read each other's minds, but that same lightning bolt that hit the first time our eyes met strikes over and over again each time I arrive at the pasture gate.  He taught me things I thought I already knew about heart and patience and trust and courage.  And then, just to make sure, he would teach me again.

To this day, he will STILL test me one way or another every time I get on.  And to this day, it will still make me giggle at his huge personality.  And even though he is out of shape and he will never quite recover from his back injury, I will fall in love with him all over again every time he tries his damndest to give me the best canter he can or jumps a 12" crossrail with two feet to spare.

I wish on everyone a horse (you don't even have to own it) so special that he opens a door in your heart you didn't even know was there and changes you forever.

December 14, 2012

Dancing Beneath The Stars

I stood on top of the hill, waiting for Encore to work his way through his supper.  My head was craned back, 30 degrees feeling like 20 once I stopped moving and the cold air seeped in through my edges.  I racked my mind, trying to remember where Gemini was, my astronomy class and fascinated study of the night sky almost two decades in my past.  I finally concluded that if everyone could see tonight's meteor shower, it must be in the southern sky.

So I waited.

A satellite buzzed overhead, its steady glow seeming to traverse the galaxy like a pelican cruises the tips of the waves, effortless in medium in which we are helpless.

I have loved the stars as long as I can remember; my childhood evenings were filled with my mother pointing out the royal arrangement of Cassopeia and the warrior Orion, with his faithful dog at his feet and a brute of a bull on his shoulder.  I came to love them even more over time, because they were the one thing we couldn't reach, the one thing that was truly perfect because humanity couldn't touch it and therefore couldn't mess it up.

As I watched this night, I was struck again by their impossible magic, even though I know the science -- giant balls of fire and gas; the meteors themselves, tremondous rocks hurtling through space and burning trails of flame and debris through our atmosphere.  Yet to us, each star is but a tiny point of light, watching us, and those roaring meteors merely white streaks of an instant, like a single note struck on a piano key in the near-infinite chord of a universal melody.

I also wondered, how long has it been since someone first looked at the incomprehensible brilliance at play above with a horse at their side.  The horses even have their own constellation!  How many people over centuries have watched a tail of ivory trace an arc against blackness while an equine partner chewed into the silence nearby?  How long have horses and humans danced together on the stage watched over by Antares and Vega and Sirius?

I suppose I know the answer already, but it still opens a door in my mind whose hinges had become rusty with disuse.  It brought into question time and perspective and the quiet truth that it is really we, our species, who are a brief single note echoing into the span of geological epochs.  We are the miniscule flashes of an instant, but oh how much sweeter the note is when it is accompanied by hoofbeats and the swish of a tail, by the soft sighs of contentment into a pile of hay, all while massive gravitational forces play on scales our minds cannot even comprehend and entire solar systems are born and die before their light even reaches us.

Yet all we see are those brief trails, a reminder that the warm, powerful neck beneath our hand, the strong quiet heartbeat that drives the horses who teach us about love and patience and strength and exhilaration, all of these are but brief opportunities and we must, we MUST grasp them before their light burns out, the purity of the moment lost and overwhelmed by the blinding arrival of dawn and noise and traffic and rules.

December 8, 2012

A Skeptic Takes On Micklem

I hope they don't mind if I borrow their illustration.
You know the one -- the brainchild of William Micklem and Rambo, the bridle that thumbed its nose at centuries of status quo & promised that our horses would "love the difference" & would turn your fussy-mouthed, head-rubbing gelding into a soft, steady dressage masterpiece.  Ok, that last bit might be exaggerating a bit, but there certainly was a lot of magic implied.

I've been watching these for three years.  Blog posts, personal conversations, trainer testimonials, I even thoughtfully handled the one hanging in the CANTER MA facility where I found Encore.  But it remained a $200 bridle.  Watched through the eyes of a horsewoman who has three bridles -- that were all found or free.

And it had a flash-type strap.  And I hate flash straps.

The Fall Purchase

A certain unnamed person who surely had evil intent gave me a gift certificate for the new Dover store in Raleigh & I drove down to happily purchase a big jar of horse treats & perhaps a pretty shirt.  Yet I found myself standing front of the bridle display, the Micklem competition version in my hand, running my fingers over its sturdy, yet pleasant leather, putting it down, picking it up, putting it down again, touching it again.

Ever since we started really asking Encore to work up into the bridle, he has a tendency to develop tension.  He will grind & chomp his teeth, he will cock his head, he will shake his nose from side to side.  Not constantly, but more often when he is out of practice or in a particularly anticipatory mood.  Now that his physical issues were resolved (oh, I just jinxed myself, crap), I wondered...would it really matter?

Shut. Yo. Mouth.
Much of the information provided by the makers touted the distribution of the bridle's "weight" across the horse's poll (it's a 1500 lb horse, how much does a bridle REALLY weigh?), the curved cheekpieces which avoided facial nerves & preventing pressing the insides of the cheek against the teeth (do horses really bite their cheeks if you are not cranking nosebands to Vader death-grip?), and the versatility of the design, allowing the bridle to be used bitless or with hanging clips that took the bit pressure from the horse's bars & transferred it to the nose.

I can't take it anymore.  I want to know and if it is indeed all hype or just not for my horse, I can sell it on eBay.  I handed over my gift card & the cash balance & then sat at the farm with a pile of leather straps, trying to figure out how to make them bridle shaped (HEY, William Micklem, if you ever read this, ha, some directions would be really nice.  REALLY nice.  At least a diagram???  I did appreciate the ONE label to at least let me know which way the crownpiece was supposed to face).

It actually looks rather handsome on him.
The Moment(s) Of Truth

It was a bit of a strange size (I purchased the full/horse size) -- it took a bit of fiddling to get the nosepiece where I wanted it & it would still be nice if the jaw strap was significantly longer (it bareeeely fits on the last hole).

But on the plus side -- SOMEONE FINALLY MADE A BROWBAND THAT FITS MY FAT-HEADED HORSES COMFORTABLY.  No more brain squishing!  I didn't use the rubber reins -- I've always found them too bulky & heavy in my hands, just a personal preference.

Are you still holding your breath?

Because I'll be damned, I think the thing actually works.

I can only ride bareback at a walk right now (damn knee surgery), but I immediately noticed that Encore was softer in the bridle, less ready to lock the left side of his jaw, & appeared to very much like the bit-stabilizing effect of the chin strap (which I kept very loose, he can still open his mouth, chew, chomp).  It was not a lightning bolt, but a definite change in feel & a lower level of tension at the end of my reins, when no other variables have changed.

Worthless Cripple Must See More Evidence

I couldn't wait until our most generous friend, Foy (recent winner!!!! aka badass at the East Coast Adult Team Challenge with her endearing and amazing Irish ex-steeplechaser, Point Clear, or as we know him, Louie, who not too long ago was declared unable to ever event again.  YEAH!  Longest parenthetical statement ever.) came out today, as she has been giving Encore the occasional educated ride while I rebuild myself.

On The Longe

I longed Encore while she was on her way, slipping the vienna reins on so he would be warm & stretched & she could just hop on when she arrived.  I have NEVER seen this horse put his nose on the ground on the longe or in the round pen (although it's Solo's signature move).  He will stretch about to his knees, even in the reins, & move through his body, but he never completely lets go.  Observe:

Under Saddle

I eagerly watched (post-Encore tantrum that the end of longeing did NOT mean the end of work) & questioned what she felt.  She too, felt that he was softer & more willing in the bridle once he got to work.  We did try the bit clips that transfer pressure to the nose:  Encore notes, NO LIKEY.  I don't think he'll be a hackamore horse, ha!

Foy is taking it easy on him (maybe I am a mean mom?) & gives him a lovely, patient ride; she made his butt sweat!!  I don't think I have ever achieved that without the aid of 95 degree heat, I'm dying to know what I am doing wrong.  Oh & my commentary was so ridiculously dorky, sorry about the music.  Trust me, you thank me.  And don't judge the lil guy too harshly -- he lost most of his hind end strength in injury & layup, but we're working on it.   

The Verdict

On the whole though, this skeptic finds herself designating it as the new daily bridle.  This hater of all trends & she who deploys a heavy dose of scrutiny to, ok, pretty much everything, finds herself cautiously changing from skeptic to believer.

I still don't think it will have magical unicorn powers for every horse & I am curious, if it will fit Solo to see if he cares (as a rule, he doesn't; although there was that incident with the crupper experiment...).  But according to my experiences this week, doing my best to isolate the bridle variable, I think I found a keeper...  Further testing TBD.

December 5, 2012

Solo's Infamy Makes Leap Across The Pond!

Check it out!  We are the Equestrian Blog of the Day on Haynet, the UK's social blogging  network for equine and country-like folks!  Woohoo!  Don't forget to enter their Christmas contest to win a great pair of boots so you can tromp around in your mud European style.  There is also a great "Agony Aunt" column where you can write your very own "Dear Abby, my horse is naughty...." letter as well as a forum and a place to network your own blog into the young and rapidly growing web.  Subscribe to the newsfeed, like them on Facebook and generally click like it's 1999 (omg, I just dated myself).  Thank you, Haynet for the shout out!

December 1, 2012

The Artful Equine

Commissioned Portrait by Tony O'Connor
By Tony O'Connor (Ireland)
I am a self-admitted art snob.  I was educated to within an inch of my life & my mother made sure I was cultured whether I wanted it or not, LOL.  This is an excellent thing -- unless you are poor.  It's kind of like drugs:  once you have an educated aesthetic, bad art physically hurts you (and oh my cod is there a lot of it out there), but you can't afford the good stuff.

Note to my mother:  rule still stands, my walls are full, don't get any ideas!!!! 

What the heck?  This is not about horses!  You protest.

But it is.  Because I'm going to give in to my aesthetic lust and give you a self-indulgent artgasm (these sentences are getting dodgier and dodgier...) of incredible equine works that are outside of the well-known pieces such as
Let The Beauty Begin
Horse porn for your walls (oh, I'm going to get so many hits from that sentence):
Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane
Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane (1892, England)
Deux études partielles d'une tête de cheval bridée, sculptural study by Edme Bouchardon
Deux études partielles d'une tête de cheval bridée, sculptural study by Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762, France)
Rough translation of that title:  Two Partial Studies of a Bridled Horse's Head.  There, now I finally feel like that 7 years of French was good for something!

I bet you didn't know Degas (1834-1917, France) has a huge body of equestrian work -- sculpture & paintings of racehorses.  My favourites are his studies:
Three Jockeys
Three Jockeys
A horse study
A horse study
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640, Flemish) was best known for his hyper-saturated, detailed depictions of mythology & battle & has always been one of my favourite classical artists.  He had a great talent for capturing the powerful energy of a horse in motion or standing still.  Some of his lesser known works:

Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Saddled Horse
Saddled Horse (c. 1615-1618)
And before I leave the masters, I have to include this one for the title alone.  By Francisco de Goya (Spain), who is called both the last of the old masters & the first of the modern painters, known for his studio portraits & scenes of the wealthy:

A Woman And A Horse, Let Someone Else Master Them
A Woman And A Horse, Let Someone Else Master Them (how can you pass that up?)
Contemporary Artists
Stallion I by Ricardo Vargas
Stallion I by Ricardo Vargas
Weathered Equine I by Norman Wyatt Jr (VA)
Weathered Equine I by Norman Wyatt Jr (VA)
Baroque Horse Series III: II by Heather Theurer
Baroque Horse Series III: II by Heather Theurer (western US)
Hanging in the Balance by Heather Theurer
Hanging in the Balance by Heather Theurer (western US)
Horses At Leisure by Yunlan He (Beijing)
Horses At Leisure by Yunlan He (Beijing) - K, I confess I bought a print of this, it wooed me.
Desert Kings by Karen Dupre (CA)
Desert Kings by Karen Dupre (CA)
3 Stewarts by Joseph Zbukvic (Australia)
3 Stewarts by Joseph Zbukvic (Australia) - a newly discovered favourite
Morning Work by Joseph Zbukvic
Morning Work by Joseph Zbukvic (Australia)
Definitely check out Zbukvic's other watercolours; he is truly a master of this very difficult medium & his paintings took my breath away.

If I had a bottomless pit of money, I would build an entire wing of my house to be my own personal art museum (perhaps it would extend off of my fantasy library), one wall of which would be a mural painted by Sarah Lynn Richards (I requested one from her years ago at Rolex and she said, "Sure!" but I don't think she works for free) & oh, the treasures it would hold...