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We Are Flying Solo

April 25, 2013

The Becky Diaries: An Afterward

All eyes are turned to my favourite patch of turf right now, a park filled with history in Lexington, KY and an event that continues to change, but still offers the amazing spectacle of horse-human partnerships giving their all in an incredibly difficult test of courage, grace under pressure, and preparation.

Just before lunch today, behind those rolling fencelines, our hero and teacher, Becky, and her workhorse of an OTTB, Can't Fire Me, laid down the gauntlet in the dressage arena and I was lucky enough to watch online as they smoothly cantered into second place, just behind the legendary Andrew Nicholson.  While they are up there, checking and double checking jump gear and legs and footing for the days ahead, I figured it was the perfect time to wrap up my training series with the last few tips from the woman herself.  Turn your sound up!

When watching other jumping lessons, I'd often noticed Becky yelling, "Keep your body between the reins!" at a rider's cantering back.  I'm a very visual person, so the concept seemed obvious enough.  I had no idea that I did not practice it!  Becky demonstrates above in a way that makes it very clear to me why you NEED to separate your eyes from your body.  I have a very hard time with this and I also am mostly unaware of it unless I specifically think about it.  After repeating our jump line while working on this concept, I immediately felt a sharper, more accurate response from Encore too!

I think we've all done it (do it!) -- as we approach a drop, we slow down so the horse has time to read the question and he is not tempted to launch at terminal velocity, leaving an unsuspecting rider on top of the bank wondering if she found a crop or lost her horse.  This often takes some, er, convincing on the rider's part, so the horse's head comes up against the rein as we "discuss" this strategy.  We then arrive at the edge of the drop with an inverted horse who then might put his head down with a snort and skid to q stop to investigate the sudden appearance of a cliff at his feet.

What we should be doing instead is using our body and balance to ask the horse to shift his weight back while we let out the rein several strides early (see above video).  This encourages him to lower his head and neck so he can see the edge and put his body in the right shape to leave the bank rounder and softer and we now have far less of a chance of catching him in the mouth.  Another one that seems obvious, yet takes thought to get done.

Finally, a conundrum I have puzzled for many years.  There is an insistent chant in the horse world that when you first mount, you MUST let your horse walk around, stretch out muscles, and not ask anything of him for X period of time.  But my horse spends 23 (often 24, ha) hours a day walking around, rolling, galloping, stretching in the field he lives in, is the prior statement not better applied to horses who are primarily stalled, standing still?  I've gone back and forth in dressage and schooling warmups and never settled on either side of the fence.  So, after watching her school one of the youngsters, I just asked.

Becky confirmed my suspicions.  PARTICULARLY if a horse lives outside for all of much of his time, he's already moving.  When you get on, it's work time.  You can have a lap to check out distractions if you need it, but after that, we pick up the reins and get to work.  Of course, you still retain your common sense -- your starting work might be in a longer frame or focusing on serpentines or other figures to supple his body, but he is still asked to immediately move forward into the bridle, step under himself, and lift his back.  And asked is the key word.  He is working towards this -- a green horse, an older horse might take longer to get there, but he still has to be trying.

Talented young RJ (Telperion) out for a test flight.
Thus endeth the Becky Diaries of 2013 and one of the richest training experiences of my life.  Becky's graciousness, eye for detail, phenomenal instincts, positive teaching approach, insistence on correctness, and systematic approach to building a horse in both strength and skill all impress me endlessly.  She deserves nothing but success and I hope that this year is her year to shine in the Rolex spotlight.  I will certainly be waiting with bated breath until Teddy clears the last jump in stadium!

I can  honestly say that Becky is probably one of the best, if not the best, instructors I have ever worked with (and that is some stiff competition), both in terms of teaching skill and compatibility with my style of learning and riding.  It was truly a gift and an honour to live and ride with her for those two weeks (although my horse was probably less excited about the Raising of the Bar), thank you, Becky.  Thank you again to everyone I met and watched and learned from, thank you to Amber for coming down and helping, thank you to Encore for showing up for work and trying his hardest every day, and thank you most of all to my mother, who made it possible.

April 21, 2013

W Is For Widiculousness

Encore:  Oooo, look trees!
In the dressage arena that is.

Encore's back was available for warmup and his body felt decent, if a bit stiff from the trailer ride.  His brain...appeared to have blown out somewhere back on Highway 1.

I worked at suppling his body and pushing his inside hind leg underneath him.  I asked for many changes of bend and tried very hard not to hang on my left rein.  Becky swung by on a big, stunning dapple grey going BN who looked ready to do Prelim Test A and she said hi; I tried not spit on myself in mortification because I already knew I was not riding at my best and my horse was spooking at camera shutters and apparently birdwatching, judging by his posture.  I can only hope she was busy riding and did not actually witness my test.  Afterwards, I actually stopped by to ask the secretary, a friend of mine, if she could post my score under a code instead of my name.  Shame.

I was unaware that he was plotting evil.
Trainwreck would be an understatement.  After trotting down centerline, Encore checked out and completely ignored my existence as he studied trees, other horses, dirt, and anything else that seemed remotely interesting.  His rider was not even close to that category.  I had zero response to leg, hand, seat, body, no bend, no push, no.thing.  I hope the judge enjoyed my downward transition to trot where I finally had to yell, "WHOA, DAMMIT!"  She tactfully wrote, "Against hand.  Rider's aids ineffective."  Ya think?  I was not in love with my horse.

I could not let that stand.  I rode back to the field behind our rig and we proceeded to have a lesson in who decides when and how and where things happen.  It took about 30 minutes, but Encore eventually ran out of evasions and realized I was just going to sit there and keep asking, so he gave in and discovered that obedience is easier.  That was when I realized that THAT was the ride I should have given him in warmup.  I'm pretty good at lessons after the fact.

I did my best to let it go, although a set of stripped out stud holes and an ineffective wrench may have led to rage-hurling said wrench across a field.  It wasn't my finest moment, although it did make me feel better for 45 seconds and since I throw like a girl, it didn't go very far; Amber had the grace to not laugh out loud and fetch it later.  Bless her.

A rather more responsive horse warmed up for XC, which was a straightforward course with some good rider balance and steering questions.  The first 3 jumps were also on the steeplechase track, which I have wanted to run on for yearrrrssss.  Oh yes, my racehorse noticed the rail and the marker poles and the oval.

Beautiful track, I finally got to run on you...
I did not put on the helmet cam, my apologies.  Time was short and I wanted to focus on my horse; additionally, post-course walk, I knew there would not be anything new or dramatic to see.  Mea culpa.  Although you might have been entertained when Encore teleported sideways when someone opened their car door (perhaps he just left his brain at home?) and I barely clung on with one calf muscle. 

Oh, and car lady, it's fine to open your door, my horse usually has no issues with that on non-idiot days and you did nothing wrong, but when someone almost gets dumped (on their already trashed leg) as you do, it's common courtesy to apologize and at least ask if they are ok instead of squawking, "OMG!"  Just sayin'.

We made it to about jump 7 or 8 when I could feel my horse was developing some muscle-tiredness behind.  He was jumping very well, boldly and honestly, but between jumps, I had a cinder block at the end of my reins.  Today I feel like I was dragged behind a truck!

It was good mileage for him though.  Encore was excellent over a log two strides from the first big water and really showed off our improved "down" skills off a big drop.  The following jump was the baby sunken road, so the ground dropped sharply behind a log pile fence and he is still leery of leaping when he cannot see the landing.  He did stop in front of it, but I insisted and he climbed over (it wasn't very big) without taking a step backwards (GOOD BOY!) so we were able to finish with no penalties except for two seconds of time.  Which was a result of my having to pulley-rein him in a circle mid-course and make him trot down a very steep hill so we would not roll down it instead.  :\

As we crossed between the finish flags, I knew I had a tired horse and I felt in a couple of lead swaps that he had developed some butt soreness.  It was not a difficult decision to just withdraw, call it a day, and head home.  There was nothing to be gained by staying overnight and jumping a flat, ugly stadium course -- that kind of mileage I can do without, thank you. 

In the end, it was not a total loss.  We were pushing our timeline between his back injections and the event, so I am not surprised his muscles tired early.  I hope that a few more weeks of slow, steady work on some hills and the lines will bring him back to solid.

Sure I caaan be round, but...oh look, pony!
There were good lessons:  I need to push harder in warmup, take more time, and bloody well RIDE, no matter what anyone else is doing.  Encore got in a much needed XC run and handily answered all questions, with only one minor hiccup.  So my entry fee was not wasted and hey, even with all that, we still weren't last!

I will employ some Advil and enjoy an unexpected Sunday break crammed between two weeks of work travel and fish rodeos.  Encore can rest and we will resume our work at a slower pace later in the week.

To come:  the promised unveiling of a surprise at the event.  Better pictures need to be procured to do justice to said surprise.  Trust me, you will be filled with want. 

Last but not at all least:  THANK YOU, Amber, for being an expert team crew despite my dressage tantrums (I did not eat or drink enough, bad bad event blood sugar rule breaking!) and stud struggles.  You are truly awesome and I am so so so grateful to have had your help!

April 19, 2013

Just Keep It Clean

That is my goal for this weekend, as Encore and I head out to compete at Longleaf Pines Horse Trials.  It may be our only recognized horse trials this year; medical bills and other things demand my meager resources.  But Longleaf has always been my favourite, for some reason, so I entered it anyway.

Do this plz.
With the generous help of the Amazing Amber and lodging thanks to the Awesome Alison, we will be attempting  to make centerline resemble something straight-ish as I remember to breathe and Encore banishes all thoughts of llamas at 1:09 pm on Saturday.  After our mandatory sandbox prancing pattern, we'll shed our drab accoutrements and gear up for the start box at 3:46 pm.  Stadium jumping will be Sunday in reverse order of placing.

I also have a very cool surprise to show you -- it shall be making its unveiling tomorrow!

Everyone's ride times and an approximate show jumping schedule can be found here.  I know I will be keeping on eye on Becky and RJ (Telperion) in Training!

You can follow us (although if I have a giant brain absentia incident, just pretend you didn't...) on the live scores here.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in...butterfly!

April 16, 2013

Look, It's Hard Being Six People At The Same Time

So many posts that need writing, so little brainpower available to throw at them.  But there are exciting things coming up, I swear, including a contest.  Like, with actual prizes!

Monday, I sat down with Dr. Bob at the clinic to talk about short- and long-term management options and possibilities for dear little Encore.  As many of you know, last spring, with the help of the amazing orthopedic department at NC State University's Vet School, we were able to pinpoint Encore's hind end subtle quirks and pain to arthritic changes in his vertebral processes between T12-L1.  He was injected at the vet school (although a resident told me this process would never have to be repeated, which seemed highly biologically improbable at the time and later, I learned my instincts were right) and over the process of three weeks, returned to comfort and full work.  Of course, he then promptly slipped and pulled his SI ligament at Five Points HT that August.  *headdesk*
Being a star at Holder Event Team's Windhaven Farm.

When we returned from our magical fantasy time with Becky, out of nowhere, his back flared up and it was as if someone had flipped a switch, turning my strong, balanced horse into the stumbling, rushing, anxious kid of a year ago.  I was caught so completely off guard, I admit to full-on panic, frantic weekend emails to NCSU (which were actually answered, bless them) and whirling confusion as to what this all meant.

Dr. Bob was able to reinject his back with no issues after consulting with the Vet School, with the clocking ticking down to Longleaf Pines HT.  I did not want to push a sore horse, so I deeply hoped he would feel better quickly and not make me eat $220 of entry fees.

Long story short, it was bumpy, but he began to make positive progress this past weekend and it looks as if he will ok to head to my favourite horse trial on Saturday.  But I had some things to think about and some questions to ask.

Would managing his back spiral into insanity, leaving both of us in a constant state of anxiety and frustration?

Would Encore even be able to make it in eventing -- all I want is Training Level and he can jump that from a standstill.

Should I consider surgery?

Head spinning, quite exorcist-like, I crashed through the clinic doorway and assaulted our poor, wonderful vet with all of it.  In his trademark practical, calm delivery, he allayed many of my concerns and quieted the howling confusion and uncertainty yet again.

As his imagery shows, Encore's vertebral changes are low-grade, a 1 out of 4.  He does not show bone loss or fusion and still has joint space, even though it is reduced.  By keeping his topline strong, continuing to teach him to use his body in a round outline, and keeping the inflammation at bay with periodic injections, he should not have a problem achieving the goals I have set for us.

So I decided to start breathing again.  That is reasonable management and that I can do.  I am well aware by now that a horse in training and competition WILL need management of some kind.  As soon as you begin to challenge their body, unless you are just insanely lucky (and I sort of hate you), you will have to support that body, just as you would any athlete's, through diet, medical care, physical therapy, and all those other details.  Be it injecting hocks or padding feet or supplying Adequan or calming ulcers or building up stifles or unlocking a weak joint or muscle, once you enter the sporthorse game, those cards will land on your table.

The decision we must make, then, includes defining what is reasonable for both horse and human.  If it's a joint injection and muscle building, well heck, half of that I need to do anyway and the other half is pretty straightforward and low on the "things that help our horses" totem pole, so I'm ok with that.  Solo needed his hocks done every six months when he was in work.  Encore needing the same for his back every 8-10 months (pretty much the same price) is fine.  In fact, it may be less than that -- doing ten days of very intensive training in a row, in my reality, is not something that is going to happen again any time in the foreseeable future, so that level of body stress for a prolonged period of time will be rare (thank goodness for BOTH of us).

For today then, Encore and I will continue to be a matched pair, with a bit of crunch in our backs that, with a little helping hand, doesn't diminish our enthusiasm for the road ahead.  Hopefully, it will stay that way.

April 11, 2013

Please Raise Your Hand...

...if you have ever been able to steadily train your horse, then go to an event, without spending the time preceeding it frantically trying to get horse in proper working order and spending sleepless nights wondering if you'll have to scratch...again.

I'm curious if this ever actually happens to people.

Encore did get his back injected and is easing back into work, but is still having some issues, so Dr. Bob shall be stalked once more in search of Now What, Part 893.

Field season has started at work, so my own sleep and time deprivation begins, rendering me nonexistent from now till, oh, November.

It's not all bad -- since Solo had annointed himself Devourer of Equine Apparel, I had purchased SmartPak's Ballistic Turnout Sheet, complete with 10-year guarantee of structural integrity, about mid-winter.  Then I sat back and watched.

It held up surprisingly well to varied attacks, no doubt leaving the biter quite frustrated at his failure.  However, he did prevail and Encore greeted me one morning with a custom air vent added to his attire.

True to SmartPak awesomeness though, I called them up and sent the victim back, at which point they promptly sent me Sheet 2.  The weather has warmed quickly, so it hasn't seen much action, BUT the fact remains that the agreement was honoured and awesomeness maintained.

Solo, of course, is completely content in his immaculate McAllister 600D sheet I purchased at a ridiculously low price on Tack of the Day (and quite like!).  It's easy when you are not the bitee.

April 4, 2013

I Want To Go For A Walk

I'm  not dead, I swear.

I just need a clone to get all my stuff done.  Should be easy enough, right?

But Dr. Bob took care of Encore and injected his back for me yesterday.  I'll bring him back to the long lines on Sunday and go from there and with any luck, we'll be back to golden for Longleaf.

Speaking of long lines, the videos from Becky's magical training session with Encore are up!  Thank you so much to Amber; this is quite possibly the most valuable tool I took from those two weeks.

It is currently raining ice (WTF, sky, it's April?!) so...I guess I'll just wait 30 minutes to see what season is up next.